The Sheep’s Obituary to the Shepherd

Make no mistake, the Shepherd was a great man. He is no longer with us. But his spirit lives on within us. Our sheep herd grew to such lovely large proportions under the Shepherd’s watch that our wooly chests swell with pride. The meadow we graze on is the envy of grazers all over the world. We stand shoulder to shoulder and no calf is trampled by a thousand sheep feet like in some other meadow the Shepherd told us about.

Right now we have some small piece of mind since the son of the Shepherd tends to all our needs. And even so, if something is very bad, the Shepherd had assured us: “And even from my sick bed, and even when you lower me into the grave, if I feel that something is going wrong, I will get up.”

The few herd members who disappear once in a blue moon or maybe in a silver moon, half or full, don’t matter that much when we gaze at the herd as one, unified to serve all but at least the shepherd. No, you cant’ say Meeeehhhh around here, but who would want to say Meeeehhhh anyway, we all say Meeeeh and if you say Meeeeh like you should then you will have no problems here. The good sheep have no problems here and the Shepherd knows who is good. And there is a small corner anyway where you can say Meeeehhhh.

Our brains, shrunk from thousands of generations of domestication don’t register these injustices, rather we need all our mental gifts to concentrate on the grass in front of us; and that grass is green. At least our evolutionary dilemma relieves us from all responsibility and guilt, because we can’t know any better. It’s not so bad like that. It would be much worse if we still could see the wrongness, but through weak values (money!) are incapable of protesting what must be protested by anyone with decency: the criminalization of protest.

Long live the spirit of George Orwell!!!

Photographing Dauin

Ok, so now I have been living and diving in Dauin since November, and what have I learned about underwater photography here? What would I tell a visiting photographer to look out for? Quite a few things! Firstly, the place is rightfully famous as a spot to find unusual, fascinating and rare small critters! On top of that the dark volcanic sand, makes for a very good photographic background, since its less likely to blow out images than white coral sand. You might actually have to increase your ISO value to achieve the same exposure as in a more typical white-sand area. The visibility in Dauin varies between a moderate 10 meters and lovely 30 meters, and the aforementioned sand settles fairly quickly; it is still, however, a very good idea to hover and not to lay on the sand, and to use a careful frog kick in order to not stir up the ground so much. As usual! The whole setting, with the superb macro and the dark volcanic sand is really quite similar to another famous macro site, the Liberty wreck In Tulamben, Bali. We don’t have a WWII wreck here, but the marine life is quite comparable.

So, where is Dauin? On the Philippine island of Negros:

What’s there to shoot? Charge your strobe batteries before you get started, because there is lots! I always think that knowing what to look for is a key ingredient in taking good photographs, and in picking the right lens for the job. Often there is a little trick for photographing each species, and these tricks I want to share now.

A family of fishes I particularly like are the ghost pipefish, the Solenostomidae. These are superbly fascinating apexes (api?) of vertebrate evolution! Seahorse-relatives which look like crinoids or algae, animals which have departed unusually far from the general fish body shape. Trippy fish! There are several species of these in Dauin, the harlequin ghost pipefish, the robust and the Halimeda one. These are rare in other places, but here we see so many of them that a dive without them is almost the exception. Last week I spotted five harlequin ghost pipefish together in a group around one crinoid. These are surprisingly hard to photograph with a macro lens, since they always turn and twist, so that there is always one part of the ghost pipefish out of focus. One option is to take a detail shot of the head or the beautiful tail only. For shots like that I had good success with my Canon 100 mm f2.8 macro lens (on a Canon 5DII camera). This lens generally is a great water buffalo (the Filipino equivalent to a workhorse) for macro photography in Dauin.

When trying to get shots of the whole ghost pipefish, or maybe even a couple of them together, I am using my Canon 50 mm compact macro lens. This lens allows me to capture a larger scene, and because it captures more light than the 100 mm lens I can use a larger f-stop. Hence I achieve a deeper depth of field, and one whole ghost pipefish, or even Mr. and Ms. ghost pipefish (the female is the larger animal) are in focus.

To go into the other direction, to even greater magnification, I am quite happy with my 1.25x extension ring. This ring adds 25% magnification to my 100 mm macro lens, at the price of not being able to focus at infinity anymore. But of course no one needs to focus on infinity when shooting macro! Such a super-macro setup is useful for shooting tiny wildlife like this pigmy pipehorse, Acentronura sp.:

Besides ghost pipefish and pygmy pipehorses there are also “regular” seahorses abound, mostly Hippocampus histrix. These usually hide among the sponges in sandy regions, and on sunken pieces of wood. And, yes, we also have frogfish, although none as mighty as Battlecat. Still, Antennarius commersoni and A. pictus live in Dauin, and a few rarer species more. Right now a big burst of tiny A. pictus is living in the sand is seen.

The aforementioned crinoids are generally a good place to stop at and start scaning with your eyes. Between the tentacles and on the mouth disc lives a whole fauna of minute animals, shrimps, squat lobsters and clingfish. There are a few crinoid species which are typically well occupied, and others which barely ever have any residents. Once you dive with me, ask me to point out the shrimp positive crinoids.

You certainly didn’t think that I am forgetting about the bestest fishes ever, the gobies, in my photo guide to Dauin, didn’t you? There are fantastic gobies in Daui, tiny jewels of the ocean. A brilliantly colored small goby is Lubricogobius exiguus, which lives preferentially in disposed pieces of cloth or bottles at depths of more than 25 meters. These are exceptionally skittish fish, and only the slowest, calmest approach will get you within photo distance!

Dauin also has really nice shrimp gobies, at least ten species of them. I love watching the symbiosis between the watchman goby, and the digging shrimp constantly maintaining teh burrow used by both parnters. These are also rather nervous citizens of the ocean, and only a very careful approach will allow you to take a quality photograph of the pair. Shrimp gobies & shrimps might be good candidates for macro videography, with a camera placed in the sand in front of the shared burrow.

This leads us to the topic of shrimps …. for which Dauin is a top spot. A real shrimp watcher’s heaven. Sometimes you need to descend to go to heaven! Right now the sand in some dive sites is buzzing with skeleton shrimp, those tiny crustaceans looking like hectic match stick men.

There are also cleaner shrimp abound in Dauin, and most anemones have a few resident tiny translucent shrimps, often more than one species. Night dives are an excellent opportunity to shoot more shrimp and crab species, like the marble shrimp, decorator crabs, and several species of spider crabs.

Nudibranchs of course also crawl along their way too in Dauin. The dive sites with artificial reef structures are  a good place to look for them. Once in a while you’ll see a shrimp hitching a ride on the body of a larger nudibranch. The fauna in  that regard is pretty typical for the Philippines, with Chromodoris magnifica and Phyllidia pustulosa being the most common nudis.

At the end of the dive,on your way up from the dive to safety stop range at about 6 meters you’ll be able to observe and shoot sand divers – elongated fish which are named for their tendency to dive under the sand when they feel threatened. Sometimes the sand divers hover together in groups of tens just a few centimeters above the sand and feed on plankton; then the larger males spread their dorsal fins to show that they are the boss. At other times the sand divers rest on the sandy slopes, with their whole bodies exposed. A clumsy approach will make them disappear  quickly into the sand, with sometimes the head still sticking out. All of these different modes of sand diver behavior are worth photographing! Look at the proportionally large eyes on this small fish, these are definitely visual animals.

I think wide-angle macro would be something working very well in Dauin. I don’t quite have the lenses and the gear for that kind of photography, but it would be a good approach to show some of the smaller marine animals in the context of their environment, for instance last week’s group of ghost pipe fish plus their home crinoid. Or, shooting a group of sand divers hovering together would also be a nice wide-angle macro shot.

All I have written about so far you can see within a 20 minute boat ride along the Dauin coast, under the towering volcanoes of Negros island. But there are also some really cool dive sites a bit further away, within day-trip distance from Dauin. These are Apo Island, Siquijur and Oslob, and these are all wide-angle kinda places.

Apo Island is one of the success stories of marine protection in the Philippines, with parts of it protected since the 70s. And it shows underwater, with a fantastic coral cover composed of many different species. Of course where there are corals there are coral fishes, and it’s especially the damselfishes which are present in large numbers and many species in Apo.

Apo also has many sea snakes, at least 3 species, which are fun to photograph. They are not exactly shy, but don’t hold still for a shot either. And to many marine turtles Apo is home as well. They seem like supremely chilled out animals, and sometimes take naps laying on the soft corals. The turtles of Apo are somewhat used to divers, and if you approach them from the side (not from above), not too quickly and not within less than a meter you will be rewarded with as much turtle watching time  as you wish.

Siquijur, the island of black magic, about an hour by boat from Dauin offers fantastic walls and marine protected areas with a good population of larger fish such as gropers and parrot fish. The corals of Siquijiur are also quite impressive. I have only been to Siquijur twice, once for an advanced open water course, and once when the vis was quite bad, but this island has a lot of photographic potential.

Oslob, of course is the place with the whale sharks. These are big big fish. The biggest in existence on planet Earth right now, in fact. The whale sharks are fed to lure them to Oslob bay every morning, and this gives us underwater photographers the chance to come really close to these amazing fish. They are mostly near the water surface, and at that depth there is ample of sunlight in the Philippine summer for good ambient light shots even at 8 am. For the sake of the whale sharks which get photographed hundreds of times per day it’s not allowed to use flash photography in Oslob. On a flat day you can get the play of light from the ripples of the water surface onto the body of the whale shark in your shots, or you can capture a reflection of the animal on the ocean surface.

For photographing Rhincodon typus I mostly used my Tokina 10-17 mm fish eye zoom lens. This lens is originally meant for cropped sensor cameras, and to avoid the metal ring showing up on my shots I can only use it at the 17 mm end – that’s still a wide wide lens, though. I have also used the Canon 17-40 mm lens for the whale sharks, mostly at the 17 mm end as well. The visibility in Oslob can be mediocre, but when getting close enough with a really wide lens, then the viewers of your shots will not notice!

Spring Reading

Spring is nearing and the extra energy from the extra sunlight will probably give you extra drive to read. Of course if you live in the Philippines, like I do, it’s always sunny and that’s one of the reasons why it’s more fun in the Philippines, but I am such a considerate person that I write my blog also with the cold climate crowd in mind, too. So what could you read?

Somewhat of an oldie at this point, but a goodie, is my book on popular science marine biology, fish sex, looking at corals when high, and the history of the Pacific Ocean. Yep, that covers a lot of submarine ground. And there are pictures in it, too.

Published last year and basically the psychedelic novel of the 21st century – yet to be discovered! – is my story about Australia in the 26th century. It’s political, too, and funny.

What am I reading at the moment? The scientific literature about the effects of shark feeding for tourism purposes. Interesting stuff! I am planning to write a review on this important topic in the next months.

Diving on Ganymede!

So, NASA tells us that Jupiter’s moon Ganymede has massive oceans full of liquid water beneath its ice crust. This moon is the largest moon in the solar system, with a diameter about half of earth’s. This sounds like a gnarley dive site for the advanced diver to me. Let’s look at the “practicalities”:

How to get there: Prospective divers will have to bear space flight for many months. No, there is no such spaceship in existence yet which can transport living humans that far, but it’s something at least remotely feasible (in contrast to interstellar travel). The distance can be bridged in significantly less that a human life-time, and we have both sent spaceships (sans humans) to Jupiter, and we have kept humans alive in space for many months. I don’t expect such spaceships to exist in the next few years, but if all industrialized countries collaborated to build one, it could be done within decades.

Equipment to bring: The gravity on Ganymede is about 1/8th of Earth’s. We hence can do dives 8 times as deep with the same deco requirements as on earth. But the ice moon’s oceans are so deep – 100 kilometers, about 10 times the deepest depth reached on Earth – that the pressures will still be enormous if we want to reach the ocean floor. I have not seen detailed measurements of the Ganymede ocean topologies, so maybe there are also shallower parts? In any case, the ice plateau on top of the oceans might be interesting to watch as well. We’ll dive there, for starters. Bring a dry suit.

So, that brings us to the ice crust issue. You will have to drill through that first, ideally with some kind of nuclear powered heat-drill. Nothing else will contain enough energy in a reasonable sized piece of gear. Since the crust might freeze over very fast again – there is not so much heat from the sun around Jupiter anymore – you might want to come with a drill in which you can sit in – on top of the nuclear melting device. Some led will do for radiation insulation. Safety at least 3rd!

by Pacificklaus

Bacterial mats fed by geothermal energy in Jupiter’s moon Ganymede? Nope, corals from the Philippines subjected to some psychedelic color distortions in GIMP.

What you will see: Creeeeeeezy shit, certainly. Interesting submarine geological activity for sure. Life forms? Maybe! Trippy multicolored bacterial mats would be the most likely thing to expect – although no such thing has been proven to exist, it is not completely unlikely either. The energy for these life forms could come from the geological activity. The thrill of searching for these alien organism, however simple, would be a big part of the thrill. Could higher, multi-cellular organisms exist on Ganymede, too? It’s very hard to say how likely they would be on planets with at least bacteria; we simply have so far only observed one example of planetary scale evolution. Do bacteria on a planet always give rise to more complex grazers? IF we find bacteria on Ganymede, can we also expect some slugs grazing on them? There is only one way to find out, and that’s to do the dive.

Ganymede Fun Divers offer the PADI ice moon diver specialty course, with equipment rental for only 436 million Australian Dollars.

MILF sues Google

Zamboanga City/San Francisco – the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) filed a lawsuit against Google of Palo Alto, claiming that Google’s search results for the group’s acronym (warning: NSFW!) distorted the public view of the southern Philippines’ Islamist rebel group.

“Getting all these lewd images is not in the interest of our corporate identity” MILF spokesman Abu Lobot said in a statement sent to the international media this Monday. “We are a serious secessionist group and have nothing to do with promiscuous women in their 30s and 40s.” Lobot further elaborated on some of the technicalities of the lawsuit and stated that “we are not the kind of MILF to fuck with!”.

The preliminary hearing for the lawsuit is expected to go underway in April in the 17th US circuit court in San Francisco, where Google is registered. It is unclear if the MILF will send a representative to the hearing, and whom, since in the current political climate anyone even remotely associated with an Islamist extremist group would have serious difficulties obtaining a US visa.

Pacificklaus media could not find a staff member capable of the sustained sobriety necessary to connect with serious Islamists for a planned interview. For this we apologize, so all reporting in this story depended on our network of Filipino informants and local expats claiming to be “very familiar with all kinds of MILF”. We are, however, slightly troubled by their own admission that they had never been to south-western Mindanao (the only location in the country where the MILF and related Islamist groups are active), but had always stayed in the completely safe remainder of the Philippines.

I really don’t have a good image of a MILF -either – so here is a nice sunset.


I am usually more of a still photographer – I hope that you as an occasional reader of my blog and appreciator of my Flickr photostream know that. But I also got myself a “Intova action cam” last year in Ozland, a camera similar to the popular small-but-powerful “GoPros” cameras. The Intova Sport HD is a bit behind the GoPro Hero3 in the tech specs, but not much. It also comes with a screen, which is quite handy for proper framing, and its battery life is very good.

Sometimes I take it along instead of my still camera and shot some footage underwater. I can’t compete with the folks with pro level equipment in terms of image quality and low light performance, and without video lights the colors fade.

Hence my creative spirits have to make up for the technological lag:

How many of you have seen footage of bubbles being exhaled into the water, from the mouth cavity outwards? See.

Then was I lucky enough to film a really unusual fish, the devil walker, a type of stone fish.

Also, underwater videos usually either have lame “water music” or uninspiring island tunes from wherever they were shot. Not mine. I put some edgy electronica with the footage. Thanks to Pepin Lachance for putting his work online as creative commons.

Enough jiving. Enjoy the video:

Sand Divers

The sanddivers are among the most interesting fishes to watch in Dauin/Philippines, where I am based now. These are small elongate fishes which thrive on sandy habitats. They are intriguing since they behave in a few different modes. Sometimes, they hover over the sand in groups of 10s or 100s, and the larger males spread their fins to impress.

Then, sometimes they also sit on the sand and rest. They support themselves with their pectoral fins like a sand perch or a goby.

But when they get disturbed, they dive under the sand and only stick out their eyes. They can disappear under the sand veeery quickly!

Today I got a few shots of sanddivers hiding between the sand grains to avoid detection by big fish and divers:

The Coolest Thing Eva!

If I had infinite technological resources, time and semi-superpowers, what would be the coolest thing I would want to build?

I would build an autonomous squid simulating remote operated vehicle (ASS-ROV).

Squid are interesting animals for several reasons. As cephalopods (with cutlefish and octopus), they belong to pretty much the only group of invertebrates (animals without backbone) with powerful, large brains. They show an amazing complexity of behaviors, like elaborate mating dances, diverse hunting strategies, and even behavioral mimicking ofdangerous marine animals. They are also social animals, sometimes traveling in groups.A lot of that is written about in this fine book:

My ASS-ROV would be a fast, nimble and noise free minute submarine. It would not be steered by someone on the surface with a remote control; hence no need for a long clumsy cable attached to it. My ASS-ROV would be navigated by an artificial intelligence (ai) program. Not that’s the hard part. That’s where technology would have to advance significantly over the current status.

So, the ASS-ROV with the yet to be invented ai would swim amongst the squid. There, it could record their behavior: film them, record their motions, diving depth, swimming speed, ect. But it would not only swim amongst them inconspicuously. It would interact. The surface of the ASS-ROV would be an lcd screen which replicates the cephalopod skin color changes. A few arms would have to be there for the sake of posturing. The ASS-ROV would try to be one of the squid, and to learn about the squid by communicating with them and by gaining their trust. The ai for this type of activity is far far far in the future! But, there exists no obstacle in principle which makes such a device impossible. It would be like the robotic Jane Goodall of the squid. I mean, seriously, what could be cooler than such an ASS-ROV?

Three Million

I got three million views on my Flickr Photostream as of today! Yeah!  Flickr is a good community, I have received some useful photo advice and some identifications of rare animals I photographed, via Flickr.

It’s also fun to play with Flickr Hive Mind, which lets you crawl through the tag clouds. Most of my pictures on Flickr are underwater shots, with some land-based nature photography as well, some landscapes and some pretty ladies. Check it out!


Why I Left Academia

A few months ago three good mates and I were walking through the halls of the South Australia Museum in Adelaide. It’s a very well done museum, and we enjoyed the exhibition on the Permian reptiles and the mass extinction which annihilated them; this period set the stage for all of later land vertebrate evolution. We also saw an exhibit on the Ediacaran fauna, fossils of some of the earliest multicellular animals, enigmatic creatures found only in a few settings. And for the first time I saw the bones of the extinct Australian megafauna, the cow-sized wombats and huge kangaroos which roamed the land tens of thousands of years ago. The walk through the halls of the museum was truly enthralling. My heart started beating faster from intellectual excitement.

When we stepped back into the hot South Australian summer sun, one of my mates turned to me and reflected. What he said was:

For an hour, I felt like the idealistic 18 year old again who decided to study science. Now it’s back to the bullshit”.

I wholeheartedly agreed. We had come to Adelaide for a conference and we were all university employees. We were mostly not happy campers. What had frustrated us to a degree that such a cynical statement would resonate?

At the core of many problems in modern academia, and indicative of its unhealthy competitive nature, is the competition for grant money. In the old days it used to be that research grants would fund only special and unusually costly projects. Then, holding a grant became such a token of academic prestige that it became a prerequisite for getting a good job, then for getting any job. Especially the growing ranks of the university bureaucrats, increasingly drawn from the corporate world and not from fellow intellectuals, were enthralled by the flow of grant money: it’s a way of relating science to cash and hence prestige. And it allows people who have little clue about science to assign a simple numerical value to a complicated research project. So grant writing became one of the main jobs of any university researcher in the early 21st century in most parts of the academic world.

Besides grant writing, my university employers kept me busy with complex rules regulating my conference travel, committees, updating lists on my committee memberships and errands like filling out an elaborate online system monitoring my progress and goals at work. I could never figure out if the people who run such an online system really thought that a 40 year old intellectual is not self-motivated enough to need such micromanagement or if they simply liked online forms; I could also never figure out if they appreciated the humor when I stated in the “future goals” box of their form that I planned to “not waste time with online forms” next year.

In the greater scientific community, I needed to spend considerable time arguing with the editors and reviewers of the academic journals in which I intended to publish my scientific work. Sometimes actual scientific issues were sorted out during this peer-review process, but often it was an exercise in petty-power by the anonymous reviewers assigned to judge my manuscripts. This does not come as a surprise, since publications provide the fundamentals for winning those cherished, and limited, research grants. Reviewers often had an obvious vested interest in making publishing difficult for me. So, at the end of many academic work weeks I found myself taking a displeased deep breath in my office on Friday around noon, surprised how little actual intellectual progress I had made on my research projects after taking care of all of these non-scientific or tangentially scientific demands.

Such weeks full of distractions then turn to years, and years turn into careers filled mostly with activities other than proper scientific research. As one of my European collaborators put it at the end of a too brief skype conversation about mathematics which he aborted to run to a bureaucratic meeting: “Me, the administrator!”. Many of my former colleagues are chasing a mythical state where they have taken care of all of these distractions and then can do science. Once they realize that they will never catch up with this magic dragon, they either retreat into cynicism, or quit.

Those aforementioned all-important grant applications were not merely a few pages of ideas what research I planned to do. They are thick documents where the scientific section is only a minor part; most of it is the professional record of everyone involved, the budget, and a hyperbolic description of the supposedly superb research environment in which the science will be conducted in. And in a successful grant application the brief scientific part must never be in any way daring or controversial! In a complete misunderstanding how science works some research funding agencies even require detailed statements about the expected outcomes of the planned research. Naturally and sadly, all these issues change the way science is done. Researchers become increasingly risk-adverse in their research, for fear of not having easily publishable results, subsequently not getting the next grant, and eventually missing out on the next job or promotion. Science becomes very incremental and much less exciting than it could be.

I have met many really smart and creative people who have allowed these thumbscrews to restrict their research. One colleague called a computer chip she was working on a “paper generator” – of limited intellectual or technological value, but guaranteed to form the basis of multiple publications in a currently fashionable sub-field. I’ve also had offers for collaboration declined because the proposed project would be mildly unusual and not fit squarely into the interests of one scientific sub-community. During the last 15 years I have done work in experimental and theoretical neurobiology, neural excitability and dendrites, and lately a bit in evolutionary biology. I tremendously enjoyed this interdisciplinary work, but it has actually been quantitatively shown to be a career detriment. In contrast, many of my former colleagues have stuck with one single field throughout their careers, hence maximizing their number of publications. Many academic CVs contain paper after paper with only a few words changed in-between titles, and I honestly doubt the intellectual weight of these redundant contributions.

But besides limiting promising scientists in what they feel that they can do, the current system of academia also attracts un-inspired folks who could equally well thrive as middle-managers in used car dealerships. I was often surprised how little some of my former colleagues were interested in actual science, and how much in grants, positions, and academic gossip. One of those former colleagues introduced himself to international visitors not by mentioning his field of research or country of origin, but by pointing out the administrative committee he was chairing! These are people who don’t “play the game” because they believe they have to in order to have a chance to do research, but they actually enjoy the “grant mill”, petty politics and administration unloaded onto contemporary academics. So besides hindering the work of people who are fascinated by science, modern academia also draws people who don’t have the curious mindset I believe a scientist should have, but instead have a lot of career ambition – and usually that group advances much faster up the university ranks.

As a further consequence of the ruthless battle for resources and a place close to the heart of the powerful university bureaucrats, I observed an embarrassing degree of conformism in academia. In a room full of academics I was often one of only two or three people who voiced their concerns when a bureaucrat came up with a new plan disruptive to actual research. Weren’t all of these colleagues sitting next to me supposed to be critical thinkers and paradigm-destroyers? They surely did not act like that!

I was also increasingly disgusted by the lack of inhibition of taking military funding. This eagerness to work on weapons systems or their possible components was not motivated by a misunderstood but honest patriotism, and a believe that a nation must defend itself well in a dangerous world. That’s a belief I don’t share, but respect. No, my “colleague’s” motivation was simply the greed for grant money paired with a lack of any morals. Jokes in poor taste about killing people, followed by uncomfortable laughter, at lab meetings made it quite clear that they understood what they were doing, but prioritized grant money higher than morally sound decisions.

At this point I have to take a step back in my rant and state: Not all was bad, of course! I learned a lot in my years in academic research, I got to travel to cool places, and I met very interesting people. I hope to stay in touch with many of them, and want to thank them for all the intellectually stimulating discussions if any of them are reading this! Many of these real scientists I met in academia (as opposed to the academic careerists faking to be scientists) tend to mostly agree with my lament here.

And of course I still feverishly love science. Every single day I am absolutely fascinated by the insights modern science has brought humanity. I don’t want to be misunderstood as arguing that academic science is simply a crooked business producing pseudo-insights only serving the career interests of its practitioners. Creepy anti-science campaigners like the proponents of creationism or anthropogenic-climate-change-denial seem to be convinced of some kind of conspiracy like that. This is absolutely not what I think is the case – rather, I believe that the results of modern science are for the very largest part correct, and often very, very interesting. However, science could be advancing faster, and with much less frustration and better working conditions for scientists world-wide, and it should advance in a more fundamental, less incremental way.

I am in fact rather surprised by the amount of good science which is still being done. I partially attribute this to the stubborn persistence of a number of top researchers. They are doing quality science despite the current system in which research is organized. I also do think that a few top institutions are still functioning in the interest of scientists and science. There are, to be sure, significant differences between different institutions. I personally had a great start at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt and the Salk Institute in San Diego. These are great places full of top intellectuals, and the Salk is even in an astonishingly beautiful location on the top of cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. I cherish the time I spent at Max Planck and Salk.

I then got a faculty position at newly founded research university in Japan. But while the place billed itself as international, few of my Japanese “colleagues” spoke reasonable English or were even interested in intellectual exchange with a foreigner. The amount of micromanagement was truly Kafkaesque – I will never forget the faculty meeting where we discussed the proper type of door for the women’s toilets. The xenophobia in rural Japan made it hard to recruit people, and frankly made it less than enjoyable to live there. So I did something unfathomable to most academics: I left a tenure track position over such minor issues like scientific climate and intellectual stimulation!

I next joined a University in Australia. While the place was not at the level of Max Planck or Salk, I met a number of very interesting colleagues. The new position I took was fixed-term, but with a chance for promotion to a continuing position. I had this written out in my contract, and I was assured in no uncertain terms that such a promotion should be no problem if I published well. However, two years, some respectable publications and a grant later I was told by the Deputy Vice Chancellor (only one of many absurd titles of the university royalty) of our university that he did not believe in converting positions like mine and that he has no intention of honoring the assurances the university had given me. According to him there was not enough funding to secure my position in the future, an interesting statement to hear from him, a member of the massively over-paid university upper-class. It turned out that my contract was written in a way which allowed the university to act like that. Quite simply, modern universities are run by bureaucrats, for bureaucrats.

I also had no success in subsequent months with my applications for other academic positions, and I seriously started to doubt if I even wanted another such position. As the idealistic 18 year old conjured by my mate, I expected to trade lesser income and job security in academia for intellectual freedom and the leisure to intellectually explore. Academia had delivered quite well on the lesser income and the lacking job security – but failed to deliver properly on the intellectual freedom. The freedom to show up in the office late and a certain amount of social recognition and was pretty much all that was left for anyone hoping to remain employed in academia. To that I say: My ego can very well do without someone remarking at a party how smart I must be since I am working in a neuroscience lab.

For me, it was time to do something else. Fortunately I have other qualifications and passions: I am a scuba instructor, hold a number of additional advanced diving qualifications, plus I have had some success in underwater photography. I also have no mortgage to pay off, so I could switch careers without drastic consequences, and I did. But for a lot of other academics, this is a serious situation, both financially and in terms of their self-worth, which has been closely tied to their academic success since their graduate student days in their 20s. To me, these financial and psychological dependencies explain why such confident and bright young people are willing to put up with so much systemic harassment from university superiors and funding agencies.

Can it be beneficial for society if smart and motivated scientists are driven out of research institutions by the difficulties I described? Does it make sense that our intellectuals are becoming mid-level administrators, and our universities are mainly geared towards the careers of their top-tier administrators? Some of my former young colleagues from Max Planck and Salk ended up becoming language tutors, stay-at-home dads, entrepreneurs or business consultants. Few of those are careers where they are using their specialized knowledge in brain research. Many of them are personally quite happy, but they are not putting their lengthy education and brilliant brains to use for the improvement of human knowledge in their field.

It can be reasonably argued that ancient Chinese science and technology were suffocated by overt bureaucracy. The ancient Chinese invented a number of things centuries before Europe, most notably gunpowder and the printing press. But their science failed to take off the way it did in Europe in early modernity – the question why that is the case is known as the Needham question, after Joseph Needham, an American biochemist with great interest in Chinese culture and history. One reasonable answer to the Needham question is that a massively overburdening centralized bureaucracy was to blame for the technological and intellectual staling of the Chinese civilization. We might be well on our way to follow their example.

To be clear, I am quitting academia, not science. There is no need to be on the payroll of a university to think. In recent years, I have increasingly found myself doing actual scientific work on weekends, after a work week full of the aforementioned distractions. The days off and evenings will still be available for scientific work once I am working in my new career. A number of notable greats in the history of science, such as Alfred Russell Wallace (not that I mean to compare myself to him!), have never held a university appointment, while rightfully forgotten men sat on professorial chairs during their times. Hawaiian surfer and theoretical physicists Garrett Lisi is a modern example of a productive intellectual outside of academia. Theoretical work like the type I am doing does not need expensive gear and equipment. I will certainly keep trying what I wanted to do since my 20s – not to publish in a prestigious journal, not to get a grant, not to win an academic award and not to chair a university committee – but to find out how things in nature function.