Having a ball in science

VIENNA—Here in Austria’s capital, networking is like a waltz: It should look easy even when it’s hard.

“Alles Walzer!” shout the debutantes, and the elegant crowd pairs off and starts twirling around the dance floor to Johann Strauss’s “Blue Danube Waltz”—ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three. Who knew so many scientists could dance?

A ball, with its strict dress code and rituals—the opening waltz, the midnight quadrille—might appear too frivolous a pursuit for modern scientists. But balls are serious business here. So on 31 January, Vienna’s scientific community flocked to the city’s first-ever ball especially for scientists, the Ball der Wissenschaften, or Science Ball. They danced, drank, and networked in Viennese fashion, making connections that hopefully will further their scientific careers. “The Viennese don’t like to talk business as the Germans do—or possibly the Americans—but rather like to do this in a not-as-obvious way,” says Oliver Lehmann, the Science Ball’s organizer. A ball, he says, is the perfect way to do business in the guise of pleasure.

One of the 2500 attendees at the Science Ball was bioengineer Peter Ertl of the Austrian Institute of Technology in Vienna. When he returned to his native Austria after 10 years in the United States, he found it hard to make connections. “In North America, you are more aggressive, more direct, but not as personal,” he says. In Austria, “you sit down and drink a coffee and talk about family before you come to the point.” During his first year back in Austria, Ertl says, he drank a lot of coffee.

[T]he fabric of social networking in Vienna very much still relies on traditional formats like the coffeehouse and ball.

He also went to balls, especially university balls. Although balls can seem elitist, Lehmann explains, they actually are places where Austria’s rigid hierarchies flatten, so they’re rare opportunities to mingle with people you couldn’t just introduce yourself to. Apparently he’s right: At the Science Ball, I bumped into quantum physicist Anton Zeilinger, one of Austria’s biggest science celebrities, and his wife, Elizabeth, by chance. We chatted. The presence of significant others makes the connections more personal, Ertl observes. Ertl says he and his wife have schmoozed with university leaders and scientific policy makers—important contacts for a midcareer scientist looking to move forward.

Facebook and LinkedIn have penetrated into Austrian life, as they have elsewhere, but “the fabric of social networking in Vienna very much still relies on traditional formats like the coffeehouse and ball,” says Lehmann, who is also head of media relations at the Institute of Science and Technology Austria in Klosterneuburg and the chair of Austria’s science journalists’ club. Tarik Berrada, a French-Moroccan postdoctoral researcher in Jörg Schmiedmayer’s quantum physics group at the Vienna Center for Quantum Science and Technology, had never attended a ball when he arrived in Vienna. In France, he says, balls were “upper-class, really posh opportunities where people from a certain social background would gather.” But in Vienna, he soon started going to several each year. At the Science Ball, he coordinated the Quantum Lounge, where people could rest their tired feet while making new connections. He got to show off his group’s research, in the form of a video game. Among those who came to play was the city’s councilor for cultural affairs and science, Andreas Mailath-Pokorny. “I’m really happy because it was the first time I met this person, and I think he’s likely to remember some of the things we are doing because it was in a very original setting,” Berrada says.

A ball should be little work and mostly play. Between turns on the dance floor, Ertl hopes for just a couple minutes with key contacts. “I don’t think it’s appreciated in Austria to be aggressive” about approaching people, he says. Ideally, “you bump into them.” The balls in the top venues—like the City Hall, which hosted the Science Ball, and the Hofburg Palace, which hosted the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA’s) Staff Association Ball—are set up for chance encounters. They boast a labyrinth of rooms with different moods, from classical to jazz to 1980s disco, and a variety of events scheduled from 8 p.m. until 4 a.m. Many attendees end the night with breakfast at a sausage stand or café. “You just mix with your peers at a seemingly social event but, of course, in a very effortless and casual way, you discuss business,” Lehmann says.

Lehmann advises opening conversations with small talk. “You can always talk about the gowns of the ladies or the medals of the gentlemen”—like Zeilinger’s imposing cross and Austrian Academy of Sciences presidential chain. After that, you may, “in a sort of casual, smart kind of way, mention a point of importance to you,” Lehmann says. Finally, ask, “May I call you up next week, and can we talk about this?” Lehmann suggests. Ertl, too, endorses this approach. “That always works because everyone has time for coffee.”

It is rare to sit for long at a ball, but it’s de rigueur to reserve a well-placed table. At the Science Ball, I shared a table with Ertl and others in my extended social circle, in the main room. Ertl quickly recognized colleagues, friends, and even his sister at nearby tables. At the IAEA’s ball, tables in the main room near the director general—and with a good view of the main stage—are in such demand that a couple dozen people spend all night at the agency’s headquarters, waiting in line for tickets that go on sale the next day. “Queueing for 12 hours is certainly an opportunity to get to know your colleagues better, discuss problem sets informally, and meet other co-workers from around Vienna,” says IAEA statistician Elisa Bonner.

A Viennese ball’s traditions—both overt and subtle—can leave newcomers feeling puzzled, like “a visitor from another planet,” Marc Abrahams, founder of the Ig Nobel Prize and one of the Science Ball’s star guests, says. Fortunately, drinking is encouraged, to a point. You’ll know when you’ve overdone it because you can no longer waltz, Lehmann says. It’s “a kind of safety valve.”

Why did it take so long for Vienna’s scientists to get a ball, even though, as Lehmann says, Vienna is now the largest research hub in Central Europe? An impetus came 3 years ago when a right-wing, anti-immigration party named their annual ball the Akademikerball, or Academics’ Ball. “To the inside world, it was always obvious that this Akademikerball did not represent Austrian science,” Lehmann says. “But now, to the outside, we have made this point: There cannot be any kind of mix-up between that Akademikerball and Viennese science.”

This public point also gets to the heart of what a ball is for and why every profession, cause, and organization in Vienna wants one. It’s not just a fun party or even a good networking opportunity. “A ball is a possibility to show something like group pride and group identity,” Lehmann says. Vienna’s academic community often comes off as fragmented and contentious, but by highlighting the core values of “tolerance, excellence, and creativity,” the Science Ball made everyone feel, for at least one night, like they were dancing to the same beat.

Ball Season: Vienna is home to some 450 balls. Though balls are held year-round, the official season runs from 11 November to Faschingsdienstag (Shrove Tuesday) in February. January and February are high season. Some balls of special interest to scientists: (The Ball of the University of Natural Resources and Applied Life Sciences Vienna) (Doctors’ Ball) Prices: Tickets range from €45 to €250 (student discounts are sometimes available). You can pay for seats at tables or reserve a whole table. Drinks and food (usually sausages and some sweets) are extra. Dress codes: These can be strictly enforced. Usually women must wear a floor-length gown, and men must wear a black tie, white tie, or dress uniform. Only debutantes may wear all white.

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