The Loomis Confessions: Mats Selen

The Loomis Confessions

 

 

 

These interview questions are inspired by a Victorian parlor game known as the confession album, famously known as the Proust questionnaire after French writer Marcel Proust’s thoughtful and witty answers were discovered and published in 1924 in the French literary journal Les Cahiers du Mois. We have named our “album” for Wheeler Loomis, Illinois Physics department head from 1929 to 1957. Loomis is revered for having hired the highest caliber early-career scientists and for diligently nurturing them, expanding the department’s research program and elevating it to world-class status, while putting special emphasis on good teaching. The collaborative, open-door “Urbana style of physics” emerged under Wheeler’s supportive and strategic leadership.

The Loomis Confessions: MATS SELEN

 

Illinois Physics Professor Emeritus Mats Selen, local news station WCIA’s original Why’s Guy, founder of the Physics Van, inventer of the i>clicker and iOLab, former associate head for undergraduate programs, and 2016 Carnegie Foundation U.S. Professor of the Year. Photo by L. Brian Stauffer, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
Illinois Physics Professor Emeritus Mats Selen, local news station WCIA’s original Why’s Guy, founder of the Physics Van, inventer of the i>clicker and iOLab, former associate head for undergraduate programs, and 2016 Carnegie Foundation U.S. Professor of the Year. Photo by L. Brian Stauffer, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

 

If you couldn’t be a physicist, what career would you choose?

If I have to pick something that I know I can actually do then I would probably be some sort of engineer, likely aerospace or marine. If I had to pick something totally different and be granted the luck and talent to make a living doing it, then this becomes a much harder question. When I was younger I wanted to be a photographer (still a hobby), and then a pilot (settled for RC planes), and then a farmer (which I was for several years when my family owned a sheep farm). I have worked as a machinist (loved it) and a truck driver (loved it). Like most people, in my youth I had had some jobs that I didn’t exactly love but basically just liked enough to do for a while (bartender, pizza delivery, landscaping, newspaper delivery). To be honest, I think I could be happy doing just about anything so long as I liked the people I worked with.

What is your favorite place?

I love traveling but nothing beats coming home.

 What is the greatest scientific blunder in history?

Hubris. The tendency of scientists to underestimate the intelligence of non-scientists. This is not a single catastrophic event but a continuing mistake, which slowly erodes the trust that society has given us. We need to understand that we aren’t smarter than everyone else, just luckier, and we need to do a better job engaging with the people whose taxes pay our salaries. I am extremely fortunate that communicating science has been encouraged and rewarded by the Department of Physics during my entire career at UIUC.

 Who is/are your favorite artist(s) in any medium—painters, composers, authors, filmmakers?

This is a really hard question. I love all art though I spend more time with books than with visual art and music, so I will focus this answer on literature. I think I could be totally content if I had the works of the following writers to keep me company (in each case I list a great example of their work, though I love almost all of their books): Douglas Adams (Hitchhiker’s Guide series), Frans Bengtsson (Röde Orm), Mikhail Bulgakov (The Master and Margarita), Charles Dickens (David Copperfield), Fyodor Dostoevsky (The Idiot), Umberto Eco (Baudolino), Astrid Lindgren (Emil i Lönneberga), Patrick O’Brian (the Aubrey–Maturin series), Thomas Pynchon (Mason & Dixon), John Steinbeck (Cannery Row), J.R.R. Tolkien (The Hobbit), David Foster Wallace (Infinite Jest), Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes).

Who is/are your favorite hero(es) in life or in fiction?

My father, Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Thomas Sowell, Elon Musk.

Who is/are the villain(s) you love to hate?

Self-serving politicians and ambulance-chasing lawyers.

What is your idea of happiness?

Road-trips with my wife, just winging it day by day, occasional inspirations from Atlas Obscura, with no details planned ahead.

 What is your idea of misery?

Life without the people and things that I love.

What quality do you most admire in others?

Honesty, intelligence, objectivity, integrity, humor, patriotism, work ethic, love of life.

What scientific question do you hope will be answered in your lifetime?

What exactly is consciousness and how does it fit into the framework of science.