Interview with Dr. Björn de Rijk

May 1, 2018

Department of Mathematics - University of Stuttgart

I once heard that, unlike other scientists, mathematicians only need pen and paper. So why did you move to Stuttgart?

Many believe that mathematical proofs come to existence by locking oneself away from the world, contemplating a very long time, until one has a moment of brilliant insight. However, I doubt whether this approach is the most effective. Mathematics is like a building that is under continuous construction: each new proven fact is a new brick, which can, in turn, support other bricks to come. Thus, new mathematics arises by carefully extending and combining ideas that were before developed by other mathematicians. From this perspective, it makes sense for a young mathematician to acquire an extensive toolbox of mathematical techniques, allowing oneself to find suitable bricks to support your new bricks. Although I partially achieve this by reading work of others or attending conferences, I find it most effective to cooperate with a variety of well-equipped mathematicians and immerse myself in their research groups. Note that this is a process of cross-fertilization: not only do I benefit from a change in environment by learning new techniques, I also bring knowledge and ideas that I have acquired over the years.

Is research then the sole reason you moved to Stuttgart?

It is the main reason I moved to Stuttgart. I wanted to broaden my understanding of amplitude and modulation equations and diffusive (mixing) processes in nonlinear partial differential equations: areas the research group of Prof. Schneider is well-known for. However, I would not have moved to Stuttgart if I did not like the challenge of starting from scratch in another country. During my PhD I had the opportunity to spend one semester abroad in Providence, RI (USA) at Brown University. The experience of arriving at an unknown place and working in a new research group, was very stimulating and I learned a lot. That's why I liked the idea of moving abroad for a longer period.

So the main reason for your move to Stuttgart is to develop yourself mathematically. Isn’t it a burden that your position also involves teaching?

No not at all, actually my educational task brings a nice and necessary variety into my daily routine. Drafting exercises and their explanations and witnessing how they come across in class is very interesting and makes me rethink how to convey a message in research papers. I am now involved in one of the big calculus courses for first-year engineers, whereas I was used to teaching small classes for graduate students in mathematics. I learned in Stuttgart that there are many aspects to take into account when creating exercises and exams for such big groups. On the other hand, I could use my experience of teaching in smaller classes and dealing with insecure students to advise the tutors on how to teach their exercise classes. In that sense, the cross-fertilization that I described above in the context of research, is in my eyes also applicable to the area of education.

What was your impression about Stuttgart before you moved?

When I asked German friends whether I should consider moving to Stuttgart, the response was not very positive: ''Feinstaub, Kehrwoche und geizige Schwaben’’. Having lived for over a year in Stuttgart now, I can put these things into broader perspective. Indeed, air quality can be poor in Stuttgart and I think more rigorous measurements should be taken to reduce air pollution, but it is easy to escape the city and its smog. The nature around Stuttgart is beautiful and diverse: wine fields, black forest, old castles and ruins, the Swabian alps... Regarding the Kehrwoche: my (Swabian!) landlord finds this nonsense, and concerning being cheap: I maybe should not comment on this, as I am Dutch.

You have worked for about 18 months at a German University. Have you become a little bit more German?

Yes, I certainly have. For instance, in the beginning I was very hesitant to use the formal form when addressing students (In Dutch you also have a formal form, but it is used in a different way). This feels much more natural to me now, although I still find the formalities between colleagues that know each other for years rather peculiar. Coming from a university that is seen as traditional in the Netherlands, it was interesting to change to a relatively young university. Traditions at Stuttgart University are still developing and shaped by its own employees: a perfect example is the witty doctoral hat crafted by coworkers to reflect the graduate's character and research; a tradition that I really learned to appreciate.

Thank you very much for answering the questions,


Dr. Björn de Rijk
Institut für Analysis, Dynamik und Modellierung (IADM)

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