Patrik Čermák: I'm into research and I like to pass on knowledge

Patrik Čermák accomplished much during his student life. His journey began as early as in secondary school, when he entered the AMAVET Competition. He participated in several national and international competitions and won many awards. He is a student of the University of Pardubice. He studies chemistry and philosophy, which he has always been drawn to. The essence of the matter is, in fact, what interests him. He says that it’s no secret that almost every scientist that made a revolutionary discovery was at the same time also a philosopher. But, according to Patrik, there is only a handful of true philosophers in the world. Will he become one of them one day? We’ll see.
 
 
What can you tell us about your participating in the AMAVET Competition in 2010?
I first took part in the AMAVET Competition in 2009. My project was called The preparation and properties of materials based on A2VB3VI compounds for thermoelectric applications. I won the Regional Round and went on to take second place in the National Round and by so doing I qualified for Intel ISEF. A year later, I embarked on a similar journey with an extended and modified project and this time I won the competition - to my great astonishment. I expected the panel to give preference to first time projects and authors, as this was also what I had been told by the more experienced participants would be the case. I rather entered the competition with the aim to broaden my knowledge and experience through discussions with experts and similarly oriented peers. All in all, it was a good experience.
 
So you won the national round and then went on to represent our country at the Intel ISEF in the USA. What was it like? (How do you perceive this experience?)
When I was told that I could represent our country at an international level, I had no idea about Intel ISEF. Intel ISEF stands for The Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. In the USA, just participating in this Fair can open the door to a prestigious university for you. It was indeed an unforgettable experience. In negative terms, I also got to have a taste of American consumerism and I got to stay in the famous Silicon Valley, California. Being a person intent on a natural way of life it did not come across to me as a very natural place (after all, this unnaturalness just sticks out of its name – its initial nickname was the “Valley of Heart’s Delight”). Nonetheless, the fact that you can spend time with Nobel prize laureates or stand on stage in front of thousands of people does make a certain impression on you. The fact that I won the third main prize in the engineering category: Materials and Bioengineering was like the icing on the cake.
 
As part of the competition you were also invited to study at the Berkeley University of California. Why did you decline the offer?
I was in the middle of several personal and family issues at the time. I decided that studying in Pardubice would be a good idea, for several reasons. The possibility to continue my research work in a good team was one of them.
Don’t you regret it now?
It may sound self-centred, but I regret nothing. It’s not that I regard myself as being flawless or outstanding or even the best at that. No way! I sometimes put a foot wrong and it seems I might even do so in the future. But life experience tells me to come to terms with what happened and with what was the best possible. Things may have been different only in a parallel universe. (Laughter). Experience needs to be analysed and a lesson needs to be drawn from it. What I’m saying is that there is always a solution, whatever the situation. Anyway, if I were given the same opportunity again, I would probably accept it, even if it came in the form of a study programme.
 
Who gave you the idea of one day becoming a scientist and dedicating yourself to science?
It happened when I was a second year student at high school. We got an excellent science teacher. He suggested we do something more interesting than just the normal curriculum. We took him up on his offer. We even went as far as creating a Science Club. We still get together. Sometimes in summer at his cottage.
 
Did he inspire you to collaborate with the University of Pardubice? Who did you contact at the University?
The first time, he literally drove me to the University in his very own car. We first went to see Tomáš Plecháček from the Joint Laboratory of Solid Sate Chemistry. It was an obvious choice because I was studying electrical engineering and the laboratory concentrated on the features of thermoelectric materials. Later on, I went on my own to the Physics Department, which was a floor lower. I went to see Prof. Čestmír Drašar. I remember his reply to my long email, in which I described all the things that I don’t know but in which I also explained how much I would like to collaborate on some kind of research. His reply was curt: "Alright, come and see me.” So I went to see him.
 
Do you still collaborate?
Yes, very well. I don’t know who else would be able and willing to tolerate me. (Laughter.)
 
What would you advise secondary school students to do if they’re interested in a more intense science-based collaboration while still at secondary school? 
"Don’t be afraid. Don’t steal." As once noted by the father of Czechoslovak independence, Mr. Masaryk, in reaction to what was going on in society. The maxim applies even today. We don’t need to be afraid if we don’t know something or don’t understand something, as long as we have a desire to learn about it. And if you do things properly, you will soon reap the rewards. What can be more satisfying than when others can follow on from your work?
 
What do you consider to be your biggest success so far?
I have participated in several events. All my awards and certificates fill up an entire drawer in my living room. And two binders, to add to that. I have been in the newspaper and on TV and the radio several times. The last time it was about a month ago. The funny thing is that all those awards and certificates don’t really mean all that much to me. During my high school years, I could compensate a certain inferiority complex or satisfy my narcissism with these certificates and awards. But I think that the best thing that I’ve achieved is to help several people up into the light. Very much in the same way as Plato's Socrates describes in the Allegory of the Cave. Most of them then turned their backs on me. Why, I don't know. So I guess it was most probably not real Light. Even so, love, friendship and brotherhood remain fundamental to me. They come before scientific theories – those emerge only based on real life and life experience.
 
Apart from studying at the Faculty of Chemical Technology, you have also become a philosophy student at the Faculty of Philosophy. What made you take up such a combination of subjects?
I would be happy if the two subjects could be a combination of both. But I am, in fact, having to study at two colleges at the same time, which is in some ways tiresome. (Laughter.) Especially when it comes to organising my studies. What brought me to philosophy? All you need to realise is that almost every scientist that made a revolutionary discovery was at the same time also a philosopher. So I don't like invective at philosophy and its uselessness, etc. This usually comes from people that have never read any real philosophical book or, should they have read one, they didn't understand it. All that pub talk about life and the universe has definitely nothing to do with philosophizing and in the same way not everyone is a philosopher who is labelled as such, in TV for example. There is only a handful of true philosophers in the world. To me, philosophy stands for thinking in terms of wholeness or unity, a basic view of life, and based on this I then understand all the particulars. As indicated by the etymology of the Latin word universitas after all. In this form, philosophical thinking bears an individual value to perhaps everyone. Leastwise, I started attending History of Philosophy classes as soon as I started my university studies. And that’s where I met Filip Grygar, the lecturer; he literally put me up to it. (Laughter.) It was on his initiative that I translated into Czech the first part of Niels Bohr’s crucial paper dated 1913 on quantum theory.
 
What are you currently working on?
I am currently focusing on the physical properties of semiconductors when it comes to the Faculty of Chemical Technology. Over the past two years I have been researching the transport and magnetic properties of Bi2Te3 doped with transition metals. To understand this, imagine that we place the foreign atoms of another element into some sort of basic crystal lattice of a material and we study, for example, what happens to the concentration of electrons, resistance and magnetic properties. You see the thing is that foreign magnetic atoms can communicate with each other through free electrons, for example. And by so doing they can create various magnetic configurations. The aim of our research is to ascertain which magnetic configurations are created at what concentrations and to decide where exactly do those foreign atoms integrate themselves in the basic crystal lattice. Our materials could then be used, for example, in spintronics, which is a form of electronics which in addition to the fundamental electronic charge is also associated with another property of the electron, that being its spin. When it comes to the Faculty of Philosophy, I am studying scientific knowledge as such.  In other words, using philosophical jargon, I am attempting to address the relation between myth and logos. I am interested in founding out whether there really is such a thing as objective reality, that is to say whether there, in fact, is any sense in talking about it and if so, then what are its limits. It’s becoming apparent that scientific knowledge is not at all as objective or sound as it may seem at first glance. Similarly like when a society goes through revolutions, because new findings can no longer be integrated into the designed framework or paradigm which then falls apart and is then replaced by a new paradigm. But I keep pondering over the question whether this new framework is really something deeper or whether we are in fact dealing with the same framework only using different means, at the same intellectual level as the previous one?
 
You have been organising discussion evenings at Café Universitas for the past five years and you plan to organise the Knowledge to the Young Conference for the fourth time this year. And to add to all that you are still studying. How do you manage to do all these things?
I feel like a free person, which, however, slips into time singularity here and there. In other words, I brim over with outright terrible time management. Like when I promise to get things done over the course of several months and then, when under pressure, I can finish everything within just a few days. But there isn’t much freedom in that. (Laughter.) Well, I’m trying to do something about it. Surprisingly enough, my girlfriend and I have organised over forty discussion evenings at Café Universitas, three conferences for secondary school students from all over the Czech Republic, two Niels Bohr Conferences and two lectures on the philosophical prerequisites for natural sciences. And to add to that we have also published a collection and we have constructed websites.  We try to balance out natural science topics on the one hand and humanitarian and social scientific topics on the other hand. Several hundreds of people have visited our events. Given the references, we certainly can be proud of what we do. So we’re probably doing it right.
 
Do you have any more plans up your sleeve?
I have plans plus. The problem is that there is only a small handful of people that can partake in these projects. It seems to me that it’s all up to me lately. I don’t want to change the world. But I also don’t want the world to change me. The Ancient Greeks called this sophrosyne (moderation) – if we behave with soundness of mind and philosophical reflection, only then can we behave with moderation and prudence. Some eastern wisdoms think likewise. Practically, I would like to support the origin of the combination of subjects I spoke about earlier on. Specifically philosophy and chemistry, or in other words the philosophy of science. If I were to succeed in establishing a real university subject, like a general introduction into scientific studies, I think it would suffice. You see that is something that we fundamentally don’t have here. I would like to spend more time in nature during my leisure time than I do today.
 
Where do you see yourself in ten or twenty years? What further objectives have you set yourself?
On the beach of my own island with a bottle of champagne. (Laughter.) That will probably not happen given a potential professorial salary and it will definitely not happen any time soon. I'm into research and I like to pass on knowledge. But the thing is people require stability and strength of me, but when I myself want to lean on them they bend like reeds in the wind. So I sometimes have a strong urge to drop everything and go somewhere far away. Maybe I’ll end up in some monastery on the fringe of society and I’ll meet up with everyone when judgement day comes. Who knows?
 
Ing. Patrik Čermák is an internal Ph.D. student at the Faculty of Chemical Technology. He is enrolled in the chemistry and technology of inorganic substances programme. He works in the Institute of Applied Physics and Mathematics and is a member of Prof. Čestmír Drašar’s team. He is currently researching the transport and magnetic properties of semiconductors.. And he is a third year student at the Faculty of Philosophy. He has been a member of the Union of Czech Mathematicians and Physicists since 2008. He is interested in the life of Niels Bohr and in 2013 he co-organised a conference commemorating the 100th anniversary of his model of the atom. You can meet him every month at the popular Café Universitas, which he is a founder of. And Patrik has planned the 4th Knowledge to the Young Conference for November 2016. It caters mainly for the needs of secondary school students.