This month’s alumna in the spotlight is none other than Camilla Serck-Hanssen, professor of philosophy at the University of Oslo (UiO) and the new scientific director of CAS. 

Serck-Hanssen served as project leader at CAS during the 2015/16 academic year. Her project, Disclosing the Fabric of Reality - The Possibility of Metaphysics in the Age of Science, explored whether scholars can use philosophical methods to study metaphysical phenomena such as free will, parallel universes, and the social construction of reality.

The stay at CAS served as the launching pad to a new period in Serck-Hanssen’s career. In January 2016, she and two other colleagues at UiO were awarded a five-year FRIPRO Toppforsk grant by the Research Council of Norway for their project Conceptual Engineering.

Serck-Hanssen looked back on her stay at CAS and her priorities for the Centre in an interview last month.

This interview was first published in the CAS newsletter. Sign up here to get the latest news from the Centre delivered directly to your inbox every month.

Why did you apply to CAS?

I wanted to get the opportunity to immerse myself in my research without interruptions together with my colleagues. As a researcher, you never know when your breakthrough might happen. You may experience it at five in the afternoon.

The breakthrough I had was on a problem I had grappled with for… I think it had to be 10 years. I remember just sitting here, and then suddenly -- eureka! The solution that everyone thought was over there wasn’t there. It was over here.

When you work on a problem long enough, your subconscious keeps wrestling with it even when you’re not focused on it. At some point, the solution will come to you. But you almost never have the time for that in a regular university setting, because you’re teaching, you’re grading, you’re in meetings, you’re doing all kinds of other tasks.

What do you remember best from your year at CAS?

It was amazing to come here. It was fantastic how everything was taken care of.

We were up in the attic. I’d come up the stairs, and then there was one of my American colleagues who used to come in at around the same time. We generally never made it farther than the coffee machine before we started talking. And then we would drink coffee. After a while we would get warm, so we would just throw our coats on the floor. We’d put our bookbags down. And then we would walk maybe another two steps. By lunchtime we might have made it as far as to the door to my office.

I hope and expect that this is what our fellows are looking for, that you almost can’t get through the door before you start talking.

What advice would you give to future CAS project leaders?

Make sure you don’t have too many things going at the same time. Spend a lot of time with your group. On the one hand, you should be open to the possibility of exploring new research avenues, themes, and methods that you never imagined you would work with. On the other hand, you also need to pull on the reins every now and then to ensure that you spend your time wisely. A careful balance between open-endedness and structure -- I think that is important.

I started off with having a fixed time for group to meet for two hours a week, but we quickly discovered that it was actually a bit of a waste of time. What was useful was that we had smaller reading groups within the project. Not every scholar participated in all of them, because our project covered such a broad topic that it was not necessary that the whole group read the same articles.

Obviously the groups this year are very different. Some will come in with a very clear plan in mind that may not pan out. You should also be flexible enough to make some of it up as you go. Research can be unpredictable.