A Trip to Stockholm: One Old Ship and Lots of New Research

Vasa ship in Stockholm, Sweden
View from the top level platform overlooking the Vasa.

I spent a few days in Stockholm (my first visit there) and will cut straight to the highlight: The Vasa.

The Vasa, seen at right in its home at the Vasa Museum, was built by Sweden in the early 1600’s as the largest warship in the world. The Vasa sank during its maiden voyage in 1628 (full history), was lost to history until being rediscovered in the 1950’s, pulled out of the water in the 1960’s, and then housed in a museum. This is a 400-year old ship built for a crew of 450 people that once (briefly) carried people through the Stockholm bay. It’s an amazing sight to behold. You cannot enter the ship or walk on the top deck, but the museum is setup with multiple levels of walkways that allow you to see everything from the bottom to the very top.

The fascinating part of the Vasa is that it is simultaneously familiar and foreign. It’s a large ship that was operated by people who had lives somewhat similar to ours today; they participated in government and had employment and education (some of them). With 400 years having passed, however, there is so much that is unknown about them and this tragic failure. None of the dead have been identified, and what we know of their lives is limited by what we can learn from their remaining bones and teeth.

The Reason for Being There

The purpose of my visit to Stockholm was to participate in a review panel for the Swedish Research Council (SRC). The SRC is a research funding body for the Swedish government. Sweden has a strong national identity related to open and available government, and this persists in their funding process. The membership of review panel NT-3: Subatomic Physics, Space Physics and AstronomyΒ is publicly announced, though our discussions and reviews remain confidential (beyond the report that applicants receive). This is very different from the U.S. DOE process for proposal reviews, where the reviewers remain anonymous. I should note, however, that most of the DOE reviews involve individuals assessing single, lengthy proposals, while the SRC experience involves the panel reviewing multiple proposals that are limited to 10-pages of research material.

A very impressive aspect of the SRC process is that they provide training for reviewers. This begins with a video introduction from the Secretary General of the Scientific Council for Natural and Engineering SciencesΒ and a detailed handbook covering the entire review process. On top of this, they provide two videos about unconscious bias and both of them are informative, i.e., worth watching for anyone who evaluates the work of others. One is from the Royal Society and the other is from the European Research Council.Β 

Finally, a neat tidbit is that our review meeting was held across the street from where the Nobel Prize award ceremony is held. As both a plasma physicist and a not-particularly-gifted physicist, this is the closest I will ever come to the Nobel Prize.

where Nobel Prizes are handed out
Where Nobel Prizes are handed out, except for the Peace Prize.

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