While we may deplore the situation and how we were not able to take fully advantage of the i-CONN program, we ought to be grateful for one of its particularities: built-in secondments, a word that is foreign to my entourage. So, typically, I tend to use the word ‘internship’ and it gets the message across. But if I’m dealing with someone from academia, with some time on their hands, I might refer to them as they are, that is, forced randomly chosen collaborations.

This appeared as an intuition, and was later confirmed to me by a high-profile source that I cannot disclose for evident financial reasons. There is exactly no rationale around how these secondments (1 to 3-months stays in others institutions within i-CONN) have been picked and organized. And surprisingly, at least in my experience, this turned out to be a positive feature.

At times where it is difficult (illegal?) to meet and exchange with other scientists, especially as an early stage researcher, we were able to welcome two other PhD students from radically different backgrounds, namely Harald and much more recently, Mario, for their secondments in Jacobs University.

The first, coming from Masaryk University, did not travel physically to Bremen but we surely dragged him very far from home. Used to the data analysis of power networks and fighting his way out of Guatemalan mafia ambushes for a living, Harald was brought into the strange, abstract and contemptuous world of dynamical systems modeling.

Going against the grain of what is usually undertaken in the literature, we choose not to analyze the procurement data at his disposal and look for signs of corruption in it. Instead, drawing inspiration from it, we made assumptions on how corruption would manifest itself in such data and built a minimal model around them. Ultimately, if we are able to simulate the global dynamics of the procurement market and its self-organization in presence of corruption, we could use this approach retro-actively on real data to detect abnormal suspicious agents – i.e private companies or public institutions – and possibly, help funnel field investigations.

This was an instance where, counter-intuitively, the language barrier between us played in our favor, as neither of us needed to understand in detail what the other was doing, each could focus on his own strengths and periodically present frivolous demands to the other, providing a constant flow of intellectual stimulation to both parties, punctuated by occasional confused blank stares to the camera during our – now countless – google-meets.

Additionally, in my personal life, this project offered me something to say to all the curious people that ask me what is my PhD about and whose thirst for knowledge is neither quenched by me saying ‘complex systems’ nor is it intimidated by me adding ‘on graphs’. “I’m doing a PhD in Physics and I work on corruption networks”. “Wow that’s so special, you are so interesting”. I am paraphrasing.

Now. With the second, Mario, it went the other way. He did physically travel to Bremen, from Vienna. But we, along with my supervisor, were the one traveling into his domain.

Coming with a monumental, yet cruelly under-analyzed, dataset detailing supply-use tables including numerous countries and sectors, ideas pilled up in front of us, way beyond what the scheduled 4-weeks would allow us to explore. The most seductive one of them was already addressed by Mario in his own blogpost untitled “Dangerous metaphors?” https://iconn.network/journal/dangerous-metaphors-energy-metabolism-and-interdisciplinarity/ . The other, the main we have addressed analytically, concerns our economic vulnerability to fossil fuel energy sources, worldwide and through the years, a project that – I project – will bring out, very soon, the glossiest figures i-CONN has ever seen.

But one element stood up from our long discussions in the office at night, which – mind you – in Bremen, then, was starting at 4pm. We have contrasting perspectives. All I sought was to play and understand. But that couldn’t satisfy him. His attention was somewhere else. He wanted to make the world a better place. Strange concept. But that will be a story… for another day.