The state of science in Denmark

Last Thursday, we had a visit from the leader of the Head of Department of Chemistry. It was the usual deal with everyone introducing themselves and then he gave a brief spiel on what he wanted us to do or concentrate on.

One of the things he mentioned actually surprised me a bit. He said that we (as in the Department of Chemistry) needed to increase our number of students. In the past year, the first year intake for Chemistry has been about 50 students, whereas Physics intake is about 150 students. He said that the reason for high school students not to take Chemistry was that it is viewed as a hard science where you will be stuck with research, i.e. it didn’t lead to a “real” job.

Contrast this with, say, Australia, where Chemistry is undoubtedly more popular than Physics, precisely because it leads to more job opportunities. I also had a chat with a Swedish friend who confirmed that Chemistry is generally more popular there as well. I wonder if the Danes take up more Physics than Chemistry because of the legacy of Hans Christian Ørsted and Niels Bohr, who have undeniably changed (and improved) our understanding of electromagnetism and atomic physics.

Also last week, there was an interesting article in the Department Newsletter. The article states that job security for hard science graduates (is) untouched by financial crisis. This also surprises me. Coming from Australia where these hard sciences constantly face budget cuts, which is compounded by plans to further cut A$2 billion from the whole university sector. Although, now that Julia Gillard is no longer prime minister, who knows if this plan will still go ahead or not.

The day I became a lab rat

Last Friday, I became a lab rat. The wife of one of my officemates was looking for subjects for her experiment in motor control, so I decided that I would volunteer. Later on, I read that on their website that “all tests are non-invasive and usually not painful” (emphasis mine). That’s when I wondered what I had agreed to!

As it turned out, there was no need for a concern. The experiment took one hour, plus set-up time. I had to walk on a treadmill with motion capture system tracking my posture and gait. There was an image projected on a screen which shows squares for each foot that I had to step on. If you have trouble imagining this, just think of a very simple version of Dance Dance Revolution with only two buttons.

It was a bit unnatural for me to walk and try to hit the targets while looking forward. Nonetheless, it was quite fun. For this particular experiment, there was no electrodes that I was connected to – it was pure motion capture.

I didn’t ask too many questions about the test, as I thought that would introduce some bias and may influence the objectivity of the test. But as far as I could deduce, the first part of the experiment was designed to test how quickly I could adjust to the pattern in the positioning of the squares, either consciously or unconsciously. I did very badly in the one that had a random pattern, which is exactly what should have happened.

The next part of the experiment was a bit more interesting. This time, there was an asymmetry in the speed of the squares. This is to simulate a split-belt treadmill (each belt corresponds to one foot and can be controlled independently). The resulting motion that I ended up making kinda reminds me of a limping gait. So I guess she wanted to repeat the first experiment for people with a (controlled) limp.

All in all, I spent about an hour walking on the treadmill. There were times during the test that I thought I was walking like Paul Atreides of Dune, having to break my natural walking rhythm. But unlike him to avoid attracting sandworms, I did it to hit the squares.

More impressions of Copenhagen

After a few weeks in Copenhagen, here are some more impressions:

  • When I first arrived, I could not find an equivalent of Target or Myer. Every supermarket has the same layout and the same bunch of stuff. I spent ages trying (and failing!) to find scouer and air freshener. But recently, I found one candidate that is kinda like Target: Føtex.
  • CPR is paramount. Getting it the first time around requires you to have at least a month contract on accommodation. Without it, you cannot do anything else. However, once you get it, it was easy (and possible) to do a lot of things, including lodging your change-of-address in advance.
  • Accommodation is definitely very difficult. I had a chat with several people, and they all got their first accommodation via friends of friends. I also found that even if you move 20 minutes away by train, they are still extremely expensive!
  • Water doesn’t taste good at all due to the incredibly high mineral content.
  • Contract is dependent on your past experience, so will take some time to process. More about this in my future post.
  • Science is well supported in Denmark. There are plenty of incentives for foreigners to come and do science here. For example, there is a ridiculously good tax scheme for researchers where instead of the usual 40-55% rate, you are taxed at 26% (plus 8% “labour market contribution). The caveat is, there is no possibility of a tax deduction.
  • There is also a new scheme where if you are only in Denmark for a short period of time, you can ask for your pension (superannuation) to be paid as part of your salary. If you are on the researcher tax scheme, this means the salary top-up will also be taxed at 26(+8)%. The alternative is to get the pension back when you leave the country, which will incur the full 40-55% tax.


Hard water

One of the things that I miss from Australia is how good the water tastes. Over here in Copenhagen, water is incredibly hard, as it has a very high minerals content. As a result, there is a serious problem with limescale deposits. At work, there is an electric kettle that is so covered with limescale that my tea tastes (and looks) horrible. I couldn’t have more than one sip! So today I went in to Uni with one purpose: to decalcify the kettle while no-one’s around.

This is what it looks like before I began. Look at how horrible the kettle looks.

The inside of the kettle before I decalcified it.
The inside of the kettle before I decalcified it.

I boiled some water and then poured some vinegar (da:eddike) in. For science geeks, vinegar will react with limescale to produce calcium acetate, water, and carbon dioxide. The last component is the reason why it bubbles up.

Adding vinegar to boiling water.
Adding vinegar to boiling water.

After mixing vinegar to boiling water several times, the kettle is now perfectly clean!

Clean kettle!
Clean kettle!

However, as a testament to the extremely high mineral content of Copenhagen water, check out the new limescale deposit after only two boils! I think my quest to get nice tasting tea will be doomed. On the other hand, if the group wants to get some chalk sample, we can just scrape off the bottom of the kettle.

New deposit after two boils!
New deposit after two boils!

Danish bureaucracy

I guess every country has its own idiosyncrasies. Denmark is no exception. Every long-term resident in Denmark needs to have a CPR number, without which nothing else can progress. You will need a CPR number if you want to get a bank account, mobile plan, utilities, housing, etc. In my case, I had to wait almost a week in order to get my CPR, as the people at the International Citizen Service could not register my CPR until I had a proper (i.e. non-hotel) address. I am fortunate that I have been arranged an accommodation before I arrived in Denmark. I have no idea what I would have to do had I not have anywhere to stay.

Speaking of the International Citizen Service, it is actually a very nice service where you can register your CPR, get a residence and health cards, and also meet a tax person. It’s a one-stop solution that every country should adopt, in my opinion.

Back to the CPR, it is basically a number that consists of your date of birth, plus four random digits at the end. A health card therefore can act as an ID, as it has your address and date of birth embedded in it. You will need this card to go and see a doctor, which I think is free (Danes, correct me if I’m wrong). The caveat is, you are assigned a doctor based on where you live. So you can’t just go to any doctor. You have to go to a specific one, unless if it’s an emergency, I guess.

If you are a new foreigner into Denmark like me, then the next step after getting your CPR is to get a bank account. I chose Danske Bank because they seem to have lots of branches. As it turned out, not all of those branches handle cash! I was surprised when I went to one and found a very corporate-looking office with no customers. The receptionist assured me that I was at the right place, though. I was assigned a financial consultant (I guess) who helped me set up my account. I was actually very impressed by his patience and thoroughness in going through everything and basically help me understand the deep interlink between all the centralised systems.

Now, this is where things get interesting. Remember that everything depends on your CPR? There is also a single log-in system linked to the CPR that the Danes have adopted: NemID. This system allows you access to your online banking, register a new address, and access other government services. The NemID system consists of a username (your CPR), a password, and a one-time password distributed via a printed card. So it is supposed to be very secure.

Front and back of NemID.
Front and back of NemID.

Another component that works in conjunction with CPR, NemID, and bank account is NemKonto. Basically, it is an account that you nominate to become your NemKonto. Think of it as an alias. So instead of typing the full account name and number, a company can just type in your NemKonto, which is linked to your bank account and CPR (of course!).

There is another component that is somewhat not too critical, but is also very useful. We are assigned a digital mailbox where official letters from government institutions and other institutions and companies (e.g. University, utilities companies) will be delivered to.

I do like the Danish system. Everything is centralised and linked. I know that some people don’t like that the government is collecting all these information about its people, but it does make life a bit easier. For example, if I want to move places, all I have to do is log in to the government website (e.g. the City of Copenhagen’s website) via my NemID, and the change will be propagated to all services that use my CPR. They will even send the new health card to my new address.

Accidental fare evader

So, it looks like I have become an accidental fare evader. There is a ticketing system called clip card (klippekort) over here where you get 10 trips for a price 1/3 less than that of the equivalent single tickets. There is a machine that you need to enter your clip card in, which will then clip and stamp your card.

Observe the figure. See how the top right of the card had been clipped? Well, that’s the wrong end. The machine accepted the first two clips, but subsequent clips didn’t work. Of course hindsight is a wonderful thing. Now that I think about it, it’s kinda obvious. I mistakenly assumed that the trips will be recorded when the machine takes the whole card in. So when it only clipped the top end, I wondered if we had to record the details ourselves.

2-zone clip card (klippekort)

At the bottom is the proper clip, which counts down from 10 to 1. I think it would have been more obvious if the count was the other way around (number 1 at the bottom). But that’s just me.

Anyway, I guess I am lucky that I wasn’t caught by a ticket inspector. That would have been a DKK 750 fine!