This past week I returned from a 10-day trip to Hong Kong, China, and Japan. And I learned again that science, culture, and communication are not totally different issues. We cannot have science without communication across cultures. But hopefully science will allow us to bridge the cultural gaps and find a common ground for communication.
We spent the first few days of this trip in Hong Kong, a truly remarkable city. It is buzzing with life and activity, and amazing mixture of cultures. Truly asian but wonderfully metropolitan in many ways. In Hong Kong we attended a meeting at the Chinese University of Hong Kong to discuss the possibility of performing a neutrino oscillation experiment at the nearby Daya Bay Nuclear Power Plant in China. Daya Bay is only some 50km outside Hong Kong but it is located in mainland China. It is part of the Guangdon province, one of the most Southern provinces of China full with trading and manufacturing business due to its proximity to Hong Kong and the major ports. One of the days we took a day trip across the border into Shenzhen to visit the Daya Bay nuclear power plant. The border crossing reminds me of the zone between West and East Germany before the unification. Although both Hong Kong and Guangdong belong to China they are almost two worlds apart.
The meeting with our colleagues from the Institute of High Energy Physics in Beijing and other collaborators from universities in Hong Kong was an exercise in cultural understanding and misunderstanding. In principle, we all want the same thing: Do the next exciting neutrino oscillation experiment to measure theta13. However, the planning of the experiment, the process of finding consensus, and making technical decisions turned out to be a rather difficult process. Is science really so different in other regions of the world?
Science - we like to believe – is a truly rational process, driven by numbers and logic. However, the way we interpret these numbers and reach consensus on how do we estimate a systematic error for example are issues beyond mathematical formulae and prescription. They require a mutual understanding, respect, and trust. Trust in each other’s judgement of physical process and in the careful interpretation of the numbers we calculate.
International science, the collaboration of different countries requires even more trust and respect. The trust that one can share responsibilities of the project and and independently execute sound decisions that might affect the entire experiment. If this understanding or trust amongst collaborators is not there, science can become very difficult.
It is in this situation that we learn about the importance of communicating, not just in form of exchanging numbers but understanding what the other person has to say or offer. Sometimes a relaxed, social setting can be much more effective in reaching consensus and making a scientific decision than the video conference room.
In many ways I find myself in a multi-cultural zone. As a German, educated in England, working in the US, and performing experiments in Japan and perhaps China, I get to see many different styles of doing science. They all make sense in their own cultural setting but can appear very strange to the foreigner.
To cut a long story short, don’t forget to drink sake with your colleagues in Japan, wine in France, and sample a good beer in Germany. It may become very important to be able to read the nuances of your colleagues when finishing this next PRL that you are so desperately hoping to publish ...