My Home on Earth

Originally Published: Jan. 21, 2017

I spent the weekend home in Ann Arbor, with my family. I made that decision after receiving a message from the people running my apartment-house in DC telling me to stay away from windows and off balconies during the Inauguration related events.

In fact, I was glad to spend time in Ann Arbor and I even had time to visit some friends and former colleagues at the University of Michigan and do an interview for Gary Krenz’s Bicentennial activities. The interview made me think because of a question he asked that was very hard to answer. It was a question about “my home” and how I feel about it.


See, as an immigrant, the concept of “home” is a lot tougher to define than for others. Consider my brother, who sent me the picture attached to this post. He grew up in the same house he now lives with his beautiful family. Looking at this picture from this weekend – who would not agree that he has a beautiful and amazing home. You ask him where his home is, it takes him 2 seconds to give you the answer.

For me, it is a lot longer answer. I grew up there as well, and I have a lot of positive feelings about the town of Heiligenschwendi. But, I love Bern as well, where I lived over 10 years. I got my education there, tons of great memories, and lots of friends – I grew up there. I even lived the better part of one year in Bern with my US family. If I organize a trip to Switzerland, I first think about where to stay in Bern, my former home.

And then, I moved to Ann Arbor, the place I built my career, made friends, and – most importantly – the place where I met my wife, where my two children were born. I also found the most supportive environment any young researcher could hope for, an environment that enabled what I do now. I lived in four places in Ann Arbor and was an owner of two houses at different moments in time.

Right now, we are getting ready to sell our house where my family lived in for 13+ years, and we are thinking about which town we want to make our home in the future.

I will always think of Ann Arbor as my home, as a place close to my heart for which I feel a sense of belonging. I feel the very same way about Bern and Heiligenschwendi, and – if I am lucky – I will find another place or two that I associate with my life, my love, my family and friends and also with opportunity to have impact. But, the point is that I have more than one home and – because of that – I think about this more than the 70%+ of people who live within 5 miles to where they grew up.

So, what is my home? I am lucky to have had more than one during my lifetime! But, my home is where my family and my friends are!

Living and Working in the District of Columbia

Originally Published: Jan. 14, 2017

Living in D.C., I get a unique front-window view on US politics and learn about the country in a new and unprecedented way.

Right now, the entire city is buzzing about the inauguration and the peaceful change of power that is typical of presidential transitions since the beginning of the US. Last week, the entire county listened to current president and his associates reflect on his last 8 years of presidential politics. We watched the vice-president’s tearful reaction when he was surprised by his friend, the president, awarding him the medal of freedom, with distinction. Yes, this change is filling the news worldwide. But there are things you only see in DC.


Here are two visual impressions of this transition. The right hand picture shows the inside of the White House’s Eisenhower Executive Office Building on Friday, Jan. 13. It felt like the last day of summer camp: empty boxes everywhere, and full boxes stacked in hallways, friends hugging and taking pictures. There were lines of political employees looking for “single point checkout”, where they can turn in their batches and government furnished cell-phones. And the White House gift store had a long line, as so many dedicated and loyal members of the U.S. government looked back to the past years and thought about what is next. I talked to some of them – they really, really care about the jobs they are leaving.

The picture on the left hand side shows the view out of the door of my apartment building. I live on Pennsylvania, about 10 blocks from the White House and right by the parade that will happen next week. The porta potties are in preparation of the hundreds of thousands of participants of the Inaugural Parade, and also the big march the day thereafter. There are bleachers, TV antennas, camera towers, and elevated platforms everywhere. In fact, a whole bunch of people have been working on these for weeks. As inauguration approaches, more and more security personnel show up. My apartment building sent a letter last week that told us to stay off the balconies and away from windows during Inauguration Day. This is real life in D.C., enabled by a cadre of civil servants, security personnel and police officers that enable one of these very things that make our country what it is.

Thanks to everybody who was part of the previous government in whatever role and thanks for those who are setting their personal goals aside for service as part of the next administration. It’s these selfless and unsung heroes that make the government work!

Selecting New Science Missions

Originally Published: Jan. 7, 2017

Sensing the environment of black holes and the origin of high-energy cosmic rays, exploring the early building blocks of the outer solar system, and a journey to the metal-world of a planetary core – these are the science investigations NASA announced this week, my first three selections as an Associate Administrator.


Imagine sitting in a room for many hours and listening the the sales pitches of mission finalists. Each pitch is exactly an hour and highly regulated with respect to its contents and participants of the pitch. The team is nervous and worried, trying to interpret every move you make, where you look and second-guess what each question means that you ask. This is what I did during December – eight times over.

Selecting a mission is hard. It is all about the future, about the new science that will be learned. But it also about professional aspirations of some of the hardest working members of the entire science community, the investigators and their teams. Finally, it is about the intellectual and economic capacity of the US as a space-faring nation.


I made selections resulting in three teams having the weeks of their lives, and others having bitter disappointments. I delivered all phone calls personally – to the winners and to the ones I had to give bad news. In all cases there were two things about which I was absolutely certain: First, the selections were done with the highest level of integrity and to benefit science and the US. Second, each call was made with my best attempt to directly relate to the principal investigator. As opposed to many others in my job previously, I too received many calls with bad news, and I too got a few good ones. Both, the good and the bad calls I received changed my life. The only reason I get to make these calls now is, ironically, due to the fact that I received three such negative calls approximately a dozen years ago. For me, sometimes the answers that were hardest to receive, had the most positive impact in my professional life!


As for the selections announced this week – I only wish I had been able to select even more missions. Most importantly, can’t wait to see these missions become reality – this will be so exciting!

NASA press releases:

NASA Selects Mission to Study Black Holes, Cosmic X-ray Mysteries

NASA Selects Two Missions to Explore the Early Solar System