bookmark_borderSleeping Well in Times of Wakefulness

Since finishing high school (back then, a time of rather high workload), I have been intrigued with sleeping multiples periods a day, so-called polyphasic sleep, which promises a serious increase in the amount of time being awake, i.e. that can be used productively.

The idea is based on the observation that toddlers and some animals sleep multiple times a day, and even people locked inside a bunker beneath ground zero tend to adopt a biphasic sleep cycle: waking up around midnight, staying awake for a few hours, and then continuing to sleep.

Now, the argument goes like this: If you are taking into account that a lot of sleep is spent on light sleep and that REM-sleep has the greatest effect on physical recovery, it should be possible to cut sleep down to the essential amount needed by spreading sleep periods across the day, covering only REM-sleep.

Various systems have been proposed for polyphasic sleep, the most extreme versions being the Uberman system (20-minute naps every 4 hours = 6 x 20 minutes = 2 hours of sleep per day) and the Dymaxion system (30-minute naps every 6 hours = 4 x 30 minutes = 2 hours) and more moderate systems such as the Everyman one, including 3 hours of core sleep after midnight and three 20 minute naps spread across the day.

Despite the promise of “more time,” these systems might seem at first glance strange and impractical, as most of us are used to monophasic sleep during nighttime. This also corresponds to the recommendation of the National Sleep Foundation. And as Matthew Walker points out in his book “ Why we sleep,“ sleep is one of our most important basic needs, and sleep deprivation makes us less conscious, hampers our ability to learn new things, or even makes us more susceptible to heart diseases.

That’s also why he advocates keeping regular sleep hours of 7–9 hours a day, alongside some general recommendations such as controlling room temperature ( 2–3 degrees lower as compared to during the day), avoiding blue light before sleeping, and staying away from alcohol and marihuana (a nice summary of his ideas can be found in this blog article by Bill Gates or by this Youtube video).

But despite all the recommendations for 7–9 hours of core sleep a day, insomnia is one of the most widespread problems of modern society, which means sleeping regular hours every night does not reflect the reality for most of us either. Especially during these troubled times of the Corona crisis, people might find it difficult to detach themselves from day-to-day matters and sustain regular sleep hours.

So most likely, you currently got different issues than theorizing about sleep systems. But when you think of it, now might actually be a good time to do such sleep experiments in practice! Despite not all, but at least some of us (including Ph.D. students in theoretical physics!) have gained far more flexibility during these times, working from home and thus being able to schedule working hours and leisure time to one’s liking.

There is also no need to go straight after the Uberman system and be disappointed if it doesn’t work out of the box. Only very few people sustain such a sleep pattern over an extended time period, including PureDoxyK, who coined the term Uberman in 2000 and has written a book about it, and the American self-help author and motivational speaker Steve Pavlina. These systems are, as intended, pretty rigid, and you need to allow for some adjustment time, just as you would, when traveling between different times zones — it’s basically like traveling between social time zones.

But experimenting with biphasic sleep or a moderate Everyman sleep system might help to fall asleep more easily, feel more refreshed during the day and thus sleep more “efficiently.” This said, polyphasic sleep is mostly promoted by bloggers rather than bullet-proof, randomized clinical studies. So most importantly, you need to figure out what works for you: What is your demand for sleep? How to make multiple sleep periods compatible with daily life? And what would you do with the time you could gain from sleeping better and less?

There is no single scheme that fits all. But doing some self-experiments probably won’t hurt.

The Planet has a Courier

A weekly newsletter, published every Sunday at 8 PM CET, keeping you updated on the latest stuff on The Planet and beyond. Feel free to subscribe!

bookmark_borderThe Long Tail Upside Down

On the one hand, long-tail distributions (a fancy name for something like 1/x) are well studied in science when it comes to outliers. They demonstrate that although outliers are very unlikely because their distributions fall off relatively quickly, these distributions are also extremely long. Thus, the probability of extreme outliers is still quite finite, and they occur more often than intuitively expected.

Rare words occur more frequently in texts than we are used to [1], stock market crashes are more likely than financial analysts like to think [2], and floods, for example, can sometimes be so severe that they are even given their own name: Flood of the Century.

So it seems that long-tail distributions are capturing the effect of outliers, occurring rarely, but producing a large impact. On the other hand, long-tail distributions were introduced to the general public when Chris Anderson published his article of the same name in the magazine “Wired” [3] and applied the concept to the realm of business (worth reading!).

He argued that the success of goods sold digitally, let it be immaterial things like music, films, code, or even real-world stuff like books, follows a long tail behavior: usually, the winner takes all. While standard economics usually focuses on the head of the distribution, i.e. things that sell outstandingly well to the average customer, Anderson puts attention to the fact that there is also a lot of business to make from the long tail.

Like Amazon did when it started out selling books online: Adding another book to the online catalog involved only marginal costs, but it enabled Amazon to serve a huge and diverse range of customers, even those with a very peculiar taste for odd books.

So in this picture, the business comes from the long tail of books that only sell fewer and fewer times to more specific customers. Still, as there are also more and more of these odd books, the economic impact, i.e. the overall revenue from selling all of these books, can be substantial.

How do we fit these two views together? Well, it depends from which perspective you are looking at a long-tail distribution. The perspective of Anderson (“Business Perspective”) introduces long-tail distributions as “impact over occurrences,” in other words, “revenue made over the number of items sold.” In contrast, the perspective of natural disaster research (“Science View”) takes a look at the rare number of times events with a tremendous impact occur.

TL;DR If you turn a long tail distribution upside down, it still remains a long tail distribution!

[1] David M. W. Powers. “Applications and explanations of Zipf’s law.” In: Association for Computational Linguistics (1998), S. 151–160.

[2] Nassim Nicholas Taleb. The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. Penguin 2008.

[3] Chris Anderson. The Long Tail. Wired 2004

Chris Anderson. The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More. Hachette Books 2008.

The Planet has a Courier

A weekly newsletter, published every Sunday at 8 PM CET, keeping you updated on the latest stuff on The Planet and beyond. Feel free to subscribe!


An often-heard mantra by privacy advocates, especially related to Facebook, is that if you’re not paying for the product, you ARE the product. That said and since it might not be the best idea to simply go with the email offered by your hosting provider it might be a good idea to look for a proper email provider and there are plenty to choose from.

I was facing this question in summer 2019 and finally decided in favor of ProtonMail, a service founded by former CERN physicist Andy Yen and others in 2013. After a glorious Indiegogo campaign, the venture evolved into a full-scale business, serving nowadays more than 10 million users and setting industry standards about email security.

Image for post

Among others these three points excited me most about ProtonMail:

a) The Branding

Think of it, how cool would it be to have a PROTON email address? Especially since I am a physicist myself?!

On top of that they offer the short*, so how awesome is that?

(*PM = private message, frequently used in social networks)

b) Secure Email

All the email sent between ProtonMail users is encrypted by default. No need to handle public keys and additional plugins for encryption, ProtonMail takes care of that. In addition, you can create self-destructing messages and send password-protected emails even to non-Proton users.

You probably won’t get the kind of protection that keeps spies and whistle-blowers alive, but you will receive decent protection from prying eyes at quite a low cost and effort.

c) The Unsubscribe Button

Yes, for every email originating from a mailing list, there is an unsubscribe button! No more hassle searching for that tiny unsubscribe link in faint grey at the bottom of a newsletter and clicking through feedback forms. I really appreciate how they paid attention to such many small but super-useful details.

Image for post

Also, you can see that loading remote content is disabled by default, another feature that adds security to your inbox: Any code contained in an email is only executed after your approval.


All this comes with a caveat: Till mid-2016 Google blocked ProtonMail to rank in their search results for “secure email” and you might still face some issues when signing up on some websites. For example, refused my proton email. But apart from this, I haven’t experienced any serious limitations, ProtonMail itself works like a charm!

The Proton Mission

It is also amazing to see how the proton venture goes on with its mission to build secure internet tools that value privacy. In 2017 they were introducing Proton VPN, becoming a fully open-source and transparent VPN service. And in December 2019 they announced another project I am pretty excited about: the Proton Calendar, which is currently in beta. If you are a Proton Mail or Proton VPN user you can test the beta version via

Image for post

That’s it!

What email provider do you use? Feel free to post a comment or drop me line at

(which I handle by now also using ProtonMail).

Disclaimer: I am a paying customer of ProtonMail, despite having no further business relation with Proton Technologies AG

More extensive reviews

The Planet has a Courier

A weekly newsletter, published every Sunday at 8 PM CET, keeping you updated on the latest stuff on The Planet and beyond. Feel free to subscribe!

bookmark_borderA Game-Changer for Future Education

Early study sometimes sounds too good to be true. So there are pupils who want to learn something of their own accord, who attend lectures at a university in their free time, and who voluntarily even take written examinations. Where can you find pupils like that?! The picture that most teachers in Germany have of their school class on Monday mornings definitely looks different.

Who would have thought that pupils, besides all the workload for school, would be able to coordinate the attendance of a lecture on their own? Who would have thought that they could manage to follow a lecture when they still lack so many basics from the lessons of the upper grades? And who would have thought that some pupils do university exams even better than normal students?

Hardly anyone would have imagined before early study became reality. And yet, early students always surprise us in the way they use early study to pursue their interests and get further than we ever thought possible. Early study shows how much potential pupils bear, which often does not show up at school, but which can be developed in early study if the right support is provided.

In the context of this book, the question was raised as to what it would be like if more pupils were participating in early study and benefit from its advantages such as promotion of interests, study orientation, or even personal development. But this question can be turned around just as well: How would it be if we made education at school a little more like early study? A little more free, a little more individual, a little more diverse. What would it be like if more pupils had similar learning conditions as those currently reserved for early students?

A large part of the enthusiasm for early study comes precisely from the fact that early students are free to choose their lectures. To finally learn what they had always wanted to learn. To learn something on your own and not because you have to write an exam. So how would it be if there were more freedom at school to decide for yourself what you want to learn, what interests and inspires you?

Many teachers feel (rightly so!) overburdened with the task of supporting pupils individually; a Herculean task, given the current educational structures, which are based on fixed schedules, segregated classes, and rigid curricula. How can lessons be designed individually for classes with more than 20 pupils? How about instead creating offers, for example, lectures, seminars, and courses, or even self-study offers such as at the university library, with books, online courses, or in learning groups, and then letting pupils choose from these offers themselves?

Early students sometimes pass exams better than normal students, not only because they attend lectures out of their own interest, but also because they decide to take the exam themselves and voluntarily, and because they know that they can retake the exam at any time when they study later. This eliminates a lot of pressure and exam anxiety, and they can concentrate more on the actual learning material and what is interesting about it. So how useful is the concept of the “final failure of an examination” at German universities? Are we talking about lifelong learning and about helping people advance in their education? Or are we concerned with saving the time and money needed to correct an additional exam?

How meaningful is it, in fact, that exams assign a grade to a topic, unchangeably, fixed forever and ever, with no room for improvement or additional learning? How do we want to motivate people that way to deal with a topic again and improve their own performance if there is only one chance?

Last but not least, early students profit immensely from contact with older fellow students, to ask them questions, learn about their environment and thus develop personally. They come into contact with very different life stories: Some of their fellow students started their studies right after school and are only a few years older. Others have already completed an apprenticeship, work alongside their studies or have already started a family. And from all of them, they can learn different things and take experiences with them. So how sensible is it to have a strict age division in school classes that primarily include people of the same age? Is it not possible to learn something from and with people of different ages? Can’t younger people develop further through contact with older people than by always comparing themselves with their age group? And can’t older people also learn something from younger people, for example about trends that have not yet arrived in their “old” age group? Why not form learning groups according to interest, regardless of age and school class?

Early study creates different structures and freedoms than we are used to at school or even at university. You are free to choose the lectures you want to attend, you can take exams as often as you like and you come into contact with students of different age, all of whom have a certain basic interest in their course of study. Of course, early students first have to learn to deal with these freedoms. But then early study also has an enormously positive influence, not only helping to orientate pupils towards their studies, but also motivating them to learn new things on their own, encouraging them to give their best and helping them to develop themselves.

At present, early study — like many measures to promote gifted students — reaches the country’s educational elite, to put it boldly, privileged children from academic families. How would it be if even more pupils could benefit from the advantages of early study, not only by participating but above all by transforming educational structures in such a way that more pupils can develop their potential and learn what they have always wanted to learn?

So far, we have concentrated primarily on labeling committed students as gifted (giftedness recognition) and providing targeted support for these chosen students (giftedness promotion). Bravo! What about creating an environment in which pupils can develop their talents as the next step? We should not wait until highly gifted students just pop up, but rather create a framework for gifted students to develop.

Early study is a first step towards a more liberal education system that values lifelong learning as a continuous process that never comes to stop by exams and degrees, but on the contrary, is encouraged by constant genuine feedback. It shows how much potential there is in pupils, and suggests that there is much more potential hidden in countless other pupils who cannot participate in early study. How about giving this potential a chance? What if school were a little more like early study?

The Planet has a Courier

A weekly newsletter, published every Sunday at 8 PM CET, keeping you updated on the latest stuff on The Planet and beyond. Feel free to subscribe!

bookmark_borderFrom Classroom into Lecture Hall

20 Years of Early Study in Germany

In 1999, one of the most exciting experiments in the modern promotion of gifted children launched in Germany: Pupils in the upper grades of high school were given the opportunity to attend beginner’s lectures in mathematics even before they had covered the basics in school lessons.

They would attend lectures during school hours together with regular students who would be at least three to five years older. They would be enrolled as early students and thus would have the chance to take part in real university exams. And they would be able to have these credited for later studies if they passed. The idea of early study was born: higher education studies before high school graduation.

A Success Story

What began as an experiment at some universities established itself soon after as a permanent program in the course catalog and its success inspired universities all over Germany to offer early study on their own. Nowadays, around 2,000 pupils take part in early study every semester — from grades 7–13 at over 60 different universities throughout Germany. The range of subjects on offer has also expanded significantly from STEM subjects to linguistics and humanities, as more and more departments began to open up their lectures to early students.

This way, early students get to know everyday life at university from an early stage. They can get insights into different courses of study, pursue their interests, exchange ideas with other students, gain experience and prepare for later studies. In addition, they can voluntarily take part in the examinations at the end of the semester and — if they pass — have them credited for later studies.

Early study also offers a whole range of advantages for schools and universities: Early students can contribute their acquired knowledge during lessons and help their fellow pupils with questions — teachers are thus relieved when it comes to promoting gifted students. Early study can also introduce students to university at an early stage, motivate them to study later on and, as a form of study orientation, reduce the dropout rate.

Studying Physics at Age 15

I had always listened in awe when other pupils told me about these legendary early students, who apparently managed to attend lectures at university in addition to all of their work for school. It was quite impressive and therefore I got really excited, when teachers approached me, at the end of the 9th grade, whether I would be interested in taking part in early study myself. Back then I had just turned 15 years old.

In the following, I had the privilege of participating in early study at TU Dresden in the field of physics for three years, from the beginning of the 10th grade in 2012 until the Abitur (German A-Levels) in 2015. It all began with attending the lecture ‘Experimental Physics I’ in the first semester, where I had also the good fortune to meet the lecturer, Professor Lukas Eng, who became my mentor on part of the university.

After I had passed the exam for his lecture ‘Experimental Physics I’, I continued with early study in the following semesters and was exempted from school each semester for taking exactly one course. However, I soon noticed that the other students were attending many more interesting lectures, so I started to follow up also on other lectures, learned the material myself, asked my fellow students to share their notes, solved the exercise sheets on my own, and finally took the exams — without ever having attended the corresponding lectures, seminars or tutorials.

This way I passed my Abitur in spring 2015, wrote my Bachelor thesis at the Institute of Applied Physics during summer, defended it in autumn 2015, and started with my Master’s studies in physics.

I definitely did not begin early study with the goal of completing my Bachelor’s degree in physics alongside school. Rather, it had turned out that way over time — through my interest in physics and through the great support of my high school, the TU Dresden, my classmates and fellow students, and last but not least my friends and family.

Above all, early study is a great program to get to know life at university and to get insights into different fields of study. Of course, it also offers the possibility to speed up your later studies, but first and foremost, it is a chance to get a glimpse into the world of knowledge beyond the school curriculum – already as a pupil.

This is why I would like to see more pupils being able to take advantage of this opportunity and more teachers and schools supporting them in their early study — without the pressure of having to take an exam; without the fear of ruining their high school degree; simply out of interest and curiosity. That is exactly why I wrote a book about early study, the program in general, and my personal experiences.

Sitting on a Magenta Sofa

During my research for this book project, I contacted the Deutsche Telekom Stiftung (German Telekom Foundation) in September 2017. The foundation had supported early study in Germany for ten years until 2014, commissioned a major study dedicated to it in 2007, and conducted a survey in 2012. So if anyone should have an overview of early study it was the Deutsche Telekom Stiftung.

My inquiry was met with positive resonance, and two months later I’m sitting on a magenta-colored sofa in the main building of the Deutsche Telekom Stiftung in Bonn, talking about the book project. In fact, the Deutsche Telekom Stiftung had largely withdrawn from the project in 2014 after the end of its financial commitment. However, it would be interesting to know how the program has developed since then.

In January 2018, I finally received green light: The Deutsche Telekom Stiftung had decided to conduct a third large-scale survey on early study and therewith also support my book project. That was simply amazing! While the Deutsche Telekom Stiftung did their survey in the summer of 2018, at the time I was interviewing more than 20 early students about their experiences. What came out is not only the first book on early study but also an up-to-date overview of early study in Germany. Therefore I would like to kindly thank the Deutsche Telekom Stiftung for their support.

Perspectives for Early Study

The survey shows that circumstances never were better for studying early. But while the number of universities participating in the program kept increasing even the last couple of years, the overall number of early students stagnated at around 2.000 per semester throughout Germany and the average number per university declined slightly. Even today, when I talk to people, many are not aware of this opportunity. Especially teachers, classmates, and parents are the most important multipliers when it comes to promoting early study, and of course, pupils themselves should know about this opportunity, to consider giving it a try.

Early study is a lean way involving low organizational effort to support pupils individually in their education. No additional courses need to be organized. It significantly reduces the dropout rate within first-degree studies. And it promotes pupil’s interest and personal development. By now, early study celebrates its 20th anniversary in Germany and by telling others about this program, we can continue this success story and help pupils make the most out of their education during the early stages.

Overview by the Deutsche Telekom Stiftung (German and English)

The first book about early study (German only)

The Planet has a Courier

A weekly newsletter, published every Sunday at 8 PM CET, keeping you updated on the latest stuff on The Planet and beyond. Feel free to subscribe!