A desire to understand how things work

He creates laser pulses that are stronger than the sun and thinks researchers should have more stability in their work. The Department of Physics’ new professor Mattias Marklund thrives when he works with intelligent colleagues.

Mattias Marklund is a Professor of Physics, mainly working with plasma physics, particle acceleration, lasers and extremely strong light pulses. Having grown up in Skellefteå, he studied in Umeå and worked as a researcher in South Africa, Stockholm and Germany before coming to Gothenburg.

Why did you become a physicist?
“Good question. I suppose I could have been a researcher in another subject; I have a fundamental urge to understand how things work. The fact that I ended up in this field… I wouldn’t call it chance, more serendipity or fate. You happen to study a few stimulating courses, meet interesting people, and find that you really enjoy what you’re studying. I’m sure I could have felt the same way if I’d studied the history of ideas or physiology. But something happens along the way that makes you choose a subject.”

So what happened along the way?
“I studied mathematics until doctoral student level. At that point, my future supervisor gave a course in theoretical physics which I signed up for and really enjoyed. I found the mathematical part interesting, too – a good half of my doctoral courses were in maths. But I liked the methodological link to physics. Being a physicist suits me better. I find more inspiration in this field.”

Your research focuses on light pulses and plasma. How do the two fit together?
“We use extremely strong lasers to create a plasma. Plasma is an electrically conducting gas. That might not sound particularly interesting, but these gases have all manner of fascinating properties – especially under the extreme conditions we work with. We create a light pulse that’s as strong as taking all the sunlight falling on the earth and focusing it on a point as small as a hair tip. We can then accelerate particles over extremely short distances, for example, or create X-ray or gamma radiation. We’re involved in the ELI project, where three major centres in Hungary, Romania and the Czech Republic will be able to generate extreme laser pulses. Researchers from all around Europe will be able to come there and carry out experiments.”

Mattias recently transferred from Chalmers to the University of Gothenburg. He may not have moved far in terms of distance, as the two departments of physics share many premises and labs, but there has been a clear shift in terms of the research team he heads up.
“I like working at a large university with many types of faculties. When I was a student, I used to attend the philosophy society’s lectures. I think it’s a good thing having so many different types of students in close proximity.”

What barriers do you need to overcome now?
“I want my research team to have a longterm structure so it can grow to a reasonable size in the foreseeable future. We don’t need to grow quickly, it’s more that I don’t want to end up suddenly dropping to zero in five years’ time. When you work with large-scale experimental infrastructure for research in Europe, they often have a ten- to twenty-year time horizon. If my team and I only have a four-year horizon, it’ll be hard to cooperate internationally. If Sweden is to have an influence in these areas globally, a long-term approach is needed – not only in terms of investing, but also when it comes to staffing.”

Is there anything else you would like to change in academia as a whole?
“I find research policy discussions fascinating. After all, they are the very foundation if we’re to be able to carry out research. It’s important to talk about how we finance services, how we maintain quality, what independent research involves, and so on.”

How do you think research positions should be funded?
“Speculating freely without taking economics into account, I think permanent positions in academia should have some form of basic financing to avoid feeling like you have to bring in external grants. There’s a common misconception that the hungry wolf hunts best – it’s seen as a condition for carrying out research on a firm footing. But I don’t think it’s true. Research is incredibly creative, and I think you can carry out better, more in-depth research under stable conditions.”

What drives you, Mattias Marklund?

When is your work most rewarding?
“When I do something together with my research team or other research colleagues around the world. We don’t need to come up with anything groundbreaking, but it’s great getting new insights via the intellectual capabilities of others. I like interacting with knowledgeable, reliable colleagues.”

Are there ever situations where you want to give up?
“Absolutely not! Of course, it’s tough when you’ve applied for a large grant and not received any funding, but I’ve never felt that I want to stop my research. I just become more stubborn if things start to slow down. I grit my teeth and push on!”

Did you always want to be a researcher?
“I never actually considered doing anything else. I worked for the Swedish Defence Research Agency for a while. That was fascinating! But after a few years there, I got a position at Chalmers University of Technology and changed my research field, bringing me back on track.”

Mattias Marklund

Age: 48
Family: Wife Pernilla, two children aged 11 and 13.
Position: Professor of Theoretical Physics
Leisure interests: Photography, Brazilian jujitsu, strength training, running. “I’m not a nice person to be around if I can’t exercise.”