For Research. For Berlin.

Einstein Questionnaire



What do you do first thing in the morning when you arrive at your workplace, and why?

Very prosaic: espresso machine on, computer on. The first is essential; the second is often a distraction from proper work, but is an unavoidable part of academic life. I'm old enough to remember the world before email and the internet; we probably got a lot more done - but it lacked the possibility of extensive engagement with researchers from across the world.

What would your research project look like if it was a piece of art?
Like Max Beckmann's painting „Die Hölle“. Like Thucydides' work, and especially his account of civil war in the city of Corcyra, it's a powerful, terrifying and thought-provoking attempt at depicting social fragmentation and violence. Both men were traumatised by war and its aftermath, and they responded with calm observation, analysis and art in order to make sense of the world.

Actually I have a mad plan to make art out of my research - to create short video clips around Thucydides' text, with appropriate music and images - and Beckmann's work is central to the conception.

To your opinion, what are the three most meaningful inventions of mankind?
The first is easy: critical thought, refusing to accept the appearance of things and instead seeking to understand them. Everything else follows from that - history, science, philosophy. For the other two, I think coffee (to aid the thinking) and beer (for when the thinking gets too much).

What characteristics distinguish reseachers from other people?
A combination of curiosity and scepticism: the drive to understand - to take things apart to see how they fit together, which is the Aristotelian approach, and/or to contemplate the whole as Plato does - and the refusal to accept easy answers or comfortable certainties. A student once bought me a coffee mug with the slogan “The simple answer is...we just don't know“. A phrase which I suspect I use a lot - which epitomises for me the attitude of the researcher.


Which district in Berlin do you like the most, and why?
Friedenau. I have stayed in the area several times, and feel entirely at home. I have my favourite places - Zig Zag Jazz Cafe, Nicolaische Buchhandlung, the S-Bahn Cafe - but it's a joy simply to wander through the quiet tree-lined streets.

(March 2016)