At the SOFT 2010

September 28, 2010

I am now in Porto, for the 26th Symposium On Fusion Technology, a conference gathering a lot of stakeholders of fusion technology in Europe but also in Asia (China is incredibly well represented). I would have liked to give a live tweet of the talks but due to the bad wifi connection, it will be difficult. One major moment was this morning wis the presentation of the new ITER director Pr Motojima, who insisted on the simplification of the management and of the technology to keep the costs under control. I must that he does not look like very charismatic (at least for my european eyes) but he has sens of humour and seems to know what he wants. But some colleagues of mine thought he didn’t look like to believe in the project. The future will tell.
An important participation of the industry is to notice but it is a real shock of culture between their world and ours, and they are sometimes wondering what is expected from them.

A rocket scientist

September 9, 2010

Found on the new NASA’s photo archive on Flickr. Robert Goddard in November 1925.

A picture better than all possible powerpoint presentations to inspire space engineers.

Space exploration in 2010

September 9, 2010

I saw on NasaWatch the presentation of the Human Exploration Framework Team. Please, have a look at it! no, do not try to understand it or do not expect to be excited by it! It is an example of how space-related projects are achieved nowadays: huge colourful meaningless presentations with a lot of slang like portfolio, framework and a lot of roadmaps, options, costs. It is a huge work, but it has nothing to do with some real work: Joel Spolsky created the concept of architecture astronaut: this type of work is typically written by architecture astronauts. And most top-level engineers are now architecture astronauts. But is this really how we can develop ambitious and exciting missions? No.

A space project requires deep concrete technical knowledge, team building capacities and guts. A project leader has to know which technologies are available, what is required to improve them or to develop new ones; he has to know who the best experts are, where to find them, how to put them together at work with an inspirational motivating leadership. Finally, he needs guts: because trade-offs, risk analyses are sometimes not sufficient to take decision. He has to rely on his experience, on his competency to take decisions and to choose the best solution.

Congratulations to Cedric Villani

September 7, 2010

He won the Fields Medal for a work, (distantly) related to plasma physics. I must say that his resume is impressive. But I was surprised how clearly the description he makes from his work is. I am not a theoretician, rather a hybrid entity between theory and experiment; as a result I am frequently in contact with plasma theoreticians and, I must admit that they often disappoint me because a lot of them (not all, see for instance T.H. Stix) make no effort to provide a usable work for non specialists. I invest a lot of efforts in decrypting their system of notation, developing their equations just to extract the essence of their work. Some explanations would be welcome but when asked for this kind of development, they look at you as if you had insulted them.

That’s why it was a nice surprise to see this expert explaining in clear words the objectives of his research, the problems they met and the methods used to solve them. Rewarding such personalities can only bring more credit to this prestigious Medal.

Management of physics projects

September 1, 2010

This summer, ITER found a solution to its money problems. It also got a new director general: Mr. Osamu Motojima, who was previously responsible for the construction of the Large Helical Device, another fusion-related facility. He announced that his intention was to simplify the management and even to push some changes in the design in order to keep the costs capped. He will give a talk at the SOFT conference in Porto at the end of the month; it will be interesting to see his personality.

It is a very difficult task to manage such huge projects and there is an interesting article in Nature about this topic:

World view: Leaders wanted

The idea illustrated by this article is that:

[…] major projects should be led by top scientists, with little input from engineers or, heaven-forbid, managers from business or industry.
They notice that today’s projects are headed by managers with strong skills in negociation, budgeting, planning, but with a limited scientific background.
The problem is that:
major facilities and laboratories — especially new ones, most especially in a recession — need truly inspirational leaders to enthuse staff, charm civil servants and politicians, and provide a face to the outside world. That’s on top of their routine tasks of setting budgets, choosing senior staff and setting out strategy.
And this is exactly the case with ITER, but also with smaller experiments: the lack of scientific leadership, someone with the ability to make researchers dream and transform these dreams in reality.
But it is interesting to see that the problem is acknowledged and addressed:
A key challenge for such efforts is to train talented scientists in the mundane aspects of project management — such as employment law — without scaring them off or ironing out the personality traits that make great leaders.

Back from holidays

September 1, 2010

Summer holidays are over! I am back at the Institute with a lot of work ahead: plasma experiments are coming very fast, the test bench has to be rebuilt in its new building, I have two articles to write, a poster to prepare,  a conference, the SOFT at the end of the month (I will try to live-blog it) and two weeks of lectures in Padova, next month. So I will be kept busy.

I am still struggling to better organize the work and make it more efficient. I find there is too much inertia in the team. I do not know where the problem comes from: lack of communication, of motivation, weight of habits. I would like to really have a dynamic, inspired group. Of course, I am not the chief, so it is difficult to change things, but I have some influence, and I am trying to use it so that we can produce results, very interesting results, to build new experiments, to follow a logical, scientifical method to get these results. This is my goal for this year. It will be hard.

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