15 July 2013

CNRS positions: tips for foreign candidates

[Post first published on 14/01/2013; updated with a few comments on the 2013 campaign]

The CNRS, or Centre national de la recherche scientifique, is the largest French research organization, employing more than 10000 permanent researchers. It opens about 300 tenured junior positions (CR - short for chargé de recherche) every year, with no nationality restrictions. Knowledge of French is not required and the entire recruitment process can take place in English. As a result, foreigners represent an increasing fraction of the number of applicants and of successful candidates. There is a lot of information about the competition (mostly on the CNRS web site), but navigating it can be challenging. More critically, there is some unwritten "common knowledge", which is however less common outside the French research system. I will blend both of them, with no claim to completeness.

I did my PhD in France and have been employed by the CNRS since 2005. All statements below are entirely my own and do not represent the official position of the CNRS. I am mostly familiar with the physics community, and some of the following advice might be less relevant in very different domains (e.g. social sciences), but I believe all candidates will find some useful information.

14 July 2013

Mimologiques - IV

Outline of Gérard Genette's Mimologics. This is part IV (and final) in a series;
see part I, part II or part III.

Chapter 13 – The Age of Names
  • The chapter title refers to the working title for "Swann's way" and announces Proust's Name/Word distinction (proper/common nouns), based not only on the different degree of generality, but also on the quality of the evoked images:
    • neutral, transparent and inactive for words, it is
    • muddled (confuse) and intricate for names, via the association with the extra-linguistic representation of the person or place.
  • This "active relation" between names and things is quite complex; it applies equally to real and invented names.
  •  Interesting conclusion:
[…] like Socrates, Marcel successively takes over both roles: the Cratylist hero becomes (and this evolution is one of the lessons of this Bildungsroman) the Hermogenist narrator, which will necessarily have the last word, as the one who "holds the pen". Critique of language, triumph of writing.

10 July 2013

Straw dog arguments

My interest was piqued by a review of John Gray's recent book The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths [see also a shorter and less charitable review, by Thomas Nagel], so I started with his Straw Dogs (published in 2002). The main interest of the exercise was making sense of the reasoning (at times, a challenging task).

Gray states his position openly in the foreword: "Outside of science, progress is simply a myth", where progress means that "by using the new powers given us by growing scientific knowledge, humans can free themselves from the limits that frame the lives of other animals." Beyond this succinct definition, however, he seems to have in mind a very specific type of process, organized and deliberate, leading to a profound transformation of the human being.

When reading the book, one must keep in mind that it is this (very strong) concept the author attempts to refute, and not the reality of scientific and technical progress. Gray's arguments attack his version of progress from various directions, e.g.:
  1. Humans are not fundamentally different from animals
  2. Free will is an illusion
  3. The human species does not act coherently
  4. Scientific progress has enabled the most hideous crimes in history
  5. The defenders of rationality are as mystical as any religious believers
He mainly illustrates these points with quotations from philosophical and literary works or from various celebrities, all set at the same level. Gray does not do nuances: either he approves of the position he cites or he dismisses it summarily. His own conclusions are stated with the same assurance, e.g.: "Happily; humans will never live in a world of their own making.", "A human population of approaching 8 billion can be maintained only by desolating the Earth.", or even "The Internet is as natural as a spider's web." We also learn that Neolithic hunter-gatherers lived better than poor people in the modern world (even in developed countries).

Some of Gray's points are legitimate, but his discussion has all the intellectual sophistication of a Malcolm Gladwell book (and none of the storytelling talent). Straw Dogs can be skipped without regret.

9 July 2013

Silver and gold nanoparticles in smectic mesophases

Our paper on the structure and optical properties of small noble metal nanoparticles was published in Chemical Communications!

 Wiktor Lewandowski et al., Chem. Commun. 2013