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!

First impressions of Copenhagen

After walking 16.5 km around Copenhagen, here are my first impressions, in no particular order:

  • Immigration was a breeze; there were no arrival and customs forms to fill in
  • Copenhagen is beautiful; the buildings are not very tall
  • Some restaurants will give you an English menu once you start talking to them
  • There is no clicker at the traffic intersections
  • Bikes, bikes, more bikes, and bike shops
  • Swans will encourage you to feed them if you approach them
  • A police car has a different siren sound compared to an ambulance
  • Just before the traffic light turns green, both red and yellow lights light up
  • There are a lot of churches
  • Some roads are very quiet because there are only bus and bicycle lanes
  • There are a lot of green copper statues
  • Lifts have doors that swing open, which may be made out of wood
  • I’m not feeling jet lagged (yet); although I am getting tired, perhaps due to the long walk
  • My colleagues are a nice bunch
  • Finding accommodation in/around Copenhagen is very difficult; it might be easier (but not necessarily cheaper, once transport is taken into account) to find a place to stay in Sweden, and then commute to work
  • The buskers are great; If you are in Copenhagen, make sure you find Peter Jones



Hello again

Hello again. Did you miss me? After a very long absence, I have returned to the world of blogging, complete with a new domain name.

The purpose of this blog is to share my experiences as I embark on an adventure which will take me to Copenhagen and beyond. I am very excited about it. I am currently waiting for my work permit to come through, after which I will fly off to Denmark and start my new position with the NanoGeoScience group at the University of Copenhagen.

In the next few posts, I will write about the story so far and the general process of moving to Denmark. Stay tuned.