Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Two-Body Problem

Last Monday's post in Lance Fortnow's excellent blog addressed the two-body problem. This is the problem that academic couples have to solve in finding (academic) jobs in the same city. It is not an uncommon problem at all in Computer Science, and sometimes departments/universities showing a willingness to help solve instances of this problem greatly improve the quality of their academic staff in the process. For instance, Kári Ragnarsson (a member of my extended family and a blossoming algebraic topologist who has a two-body problem himself) tells me that the Department of Mathematical Sciences at the University of Aberdeen has benefited by solving two instances of the two-body problem. Lance Fortnow himself hints at the solution of two-body problems as being one of the factors in the rise of the theory group at Georgia Tech.

One of the readers of Lance's blog points out that:

In Germany the two body problem is so bad that many academic couples have resigned themselves to living apart and commuting back and forth on the weekends.

The situation described in the last comment is not limited to Germany. My understanding is that the same applies in Italy too. The two-body problem becomes even more difficult in Italy when one of the academics involved is not Italian. I know personally of at least two instances of the two-body problem involving one Italian and one non-Italian that could be solved abroad (twice and in two different countries in both cases), but apparently not in Italy. No doubt there are many more examples.

As with all problems of this type, there are no silver bullets to a solution. One has to try and work things out in the best possible way, without sacrificing one's family life too much---assuming that having a family life is a priority for the people involved, of course. (And this is even harder when there are children involved.) However, I find it surprising that institutions/universities that do not have such a high standing are not willing to take the plunge and help scientists solve two-body problems that would improve their quality. My message to the heads of department of those institutions would be that being creative in this and other situations might make it possible for them to attract excellent academic staff members that would normally not even consider applying for a job at their institutions.

Post Scriptum: Above I wrote that two body-problems are not uncommom. I already mentioned Kári and his girlfriend (algebraic topology marries combinatorics). Two of my very best collaborators (Wan Fokkink and Bas Luttik) also live with computer science researchers (Judi Romijn and Simona Orzan, respectively). Of course, I should not forget couples like Dale Miller and Catuscia Palamidessi, or Orna and Raz Kupferman. This is only the tip of the iceberg, I believe, and somewhere inside that iceberg one can also find Anna and me.

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