The iStOMPS Young Independent Research Group is led by Valentina Shumakova, Hongtao Hu, and Sebastian Mai (from left to right) and uses laser-based experiments (upper left) and computer simulations (upper right) to develop a new spectroscopy that measures the specific interactions of light with the magnetic field. This new tool is intended to pave the way to entirely new scientific discoveries. © TU Wien, Markus Oppel, Sebastian Mai

In recent years, a special endowment of the National Foundation has provided the funding for Young Independent Researcher Groups. The aim of this FWF funding programme is to help interdisciplinary teams of postdocs at the beginning of their careers gain experience in independent research. This funding has now expired, which means that the continuation of the programme in 2021 and in following years is uncertain. A look at two recently approved projects demonstrates the added value that can result from interdisciplinarity. 

Young Independent Researcher Groups play a special role within the FWF’s portfolio: Besides promoting postdocs, the focus is on interdisciplinarity. Young researchers work on topics that, through their combination of collaborative research and different approaches from various disciplines, can provide fresh impetus for the future. Whereas most of the groups approved in the first two calls came from the life sciences, this time two Young Independent Researcher Groups were approved from the fields of art/philosophy and physics/chemistry.     

Rediscovering spectroscopy

Light consists of electromagnetic waves. Visible light, however, makes up only a small fraction of the entire electromagnetic spectrum. In addition, different materials react very differently to light. Spectroscopy is based on this interaction between light and matter. It is now one of the main tools used in chemistry and physics for investigating the properties of matter, molecules, and atoms. The interactions of matter with electric components of electromagnetic light waves are hundreds of times stronger than with magnetic ones. “That is why spectroscopy usually measures the influence of the electric field. We now, however, want to study the influence of the magnetic field,” explains Sebastian Mai, coordinator of this Young Independent Researcher Group. New and exciting insights are expected, in particular, from materials in which some quantum transitions do not react at all to the electric field. The big challenge for the team of postdocs from the Photonics Institute of Vienna University of Technology and from the Department of Theoretical Chemistry of the University of Vienna consists in “blocking out” the overpowering electric field. Complicated experimental set-ups and techniques are designed to ensure that interaction only occurs with the magnetic field.   “With our work, we are developing a tool that others can use in future to make new discoveries”, says Sebastian Mai. This research forms the basis for new knowledge, for instance, in the fields of chemical analysis, photochemistry, and materials research and development.

The interplay between improvisation and ethics

How do musicians understand each other when improvising? What social relationships emerge in the process? And what role does ethics play in improvisation—beyond the confines of music too? This innovative Young Independent Researcher Group is developing a holistic conceptual framework that brings together the practical musical technique of improvisation with the latest theoretical work in the humanities and sciences. Art, anthropology, and philosophy thus work together to find an answer to the question: What is the significance of ethics in improvisation—not only in music, but in social life too? The researchers’ work is based on a flexible conception of ethics. “People normally assume that they consciously and rationally abide by ethical norms as more or less hard rules. This project aims to develop an alternative understanding of ethical processes”, explains the coordinator of the Young Independent Research Group, Christopher Williams, from the University of Music and Performing Arts Graz. Improvisation and ethics have a lot in common: Ethical questions can pop up anywhere and at any time in our lives. In the same way, we engage in improvisation every day to deal with our daily challenges. Both happen so naturally that we hardly ever notice them. This Young Independent Researcher Group is studying a practical application in which these two components are featured prominently: experimental, improvised music. The researchers will conduct their experiments and analyse the results of seven encounters with leading improvising musical ensembles. This is intended to provide a new perspective on the ethical significance of improvisation in social life beyond music and the arts.

In an interdisciplinary team with anthropologist Caroline Gatt of the University of Graz and philosopher Joshua Bergamin of the University of Vienna, composer and double bassist Christopher Williams of the University of Music and Performing Arts Graz is investigating the ethical significance of improvisation in social life. The research focuses on a practical application: improvisation in musical ensembles.

© Personal photo

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