I am wondering if the culture Robert Cassola discusses in his letter is actually generated by creative scientists themselves, who may be having too much fun to worry about the social formality of what they should be called. For example, a common cross-sectional unit is called a “barn” by physicists, instead of 100 fm2. And Caltech physicists have been known to call their laboratory the lunatic asylum, even in official publications. Scientists were trying hard to create an environment in their laboratories where junior scientists would be encouraged to challenge authority, without the barrier of social hierarchy.

Sixteen years ago I moved to the US from Germany, where a male professor is addressed as Herr Professor Doctor So-and-so. Having in hand my new PhD, I had labeled all my luggage with “Dr. Yin at Harvard University.” When I arrived in Boston, the delivery company called and asked, “Dr. Yin, which specialty of medicine do you practice?” I decided at that time that having people call me “Dr.” could cause me more trouble than it was worth.

I’ve always been inspired and influenced by the success stories coming out of the US, regardless of the informality. Steve Jobs and his friends started Apple computers in a garage in California. Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard to start Microsoft in the New Mexico desert. And where else but in America would a Chinese professor lead a research group that includes a Faroese graduate student and a French postdoc to work on NASA projects?

Who cares what we are called or how formally we are addressed? We are having too much fun and are too awed by the natural wonders we find in our work.

The real problem for me is confusion about when I am supposed to address people formally versus informally. There is a fine distinction, even in the US. I am still learning after 16 years in the country. As the saying goes, I was “raised in a barn” and am perhaps therefore hopeless.