Thursday, October 8, 2009

Noughth Week

Last week ended my summer of constant travel and I returned to Oxford for “noughth week”. To understand this nomenclature one needs two pieces of information:

First, the weeks of the term are numbered 1-8 (Yes, the terms are only 8 weeks long, making them officially insanely short). No one at Oxford ever uses real calendar dates – instead they will just say “our next meeting is Monday of 5th week” or something of that sort. If you make the mistake of asking “what are you doing on November 3rd?” a person will likely ask “which week is that?” This system does actually make some sense because you can have meetings that occur perpetually on, say, Friday of 1st week (as the Physics Theory Sub-Department meeting does) independent of the term or the year, which is then somehow immune from the fickle fluctuations of the Gregorian calendar.

The second piece of crucial information is that “noughth” means “zeroth” (as in “all for nought”).

With those key facts it should be clear that “noughth week” is the week before classes actually start at Oxford. During this week in Michaelmas term (fall term) the new first year undergraduate students (“Freshers” over here rather than “Freshmen” or “Frosh”) arrive, and the 2nd-4th year students return, hopefully more rested than I am, from their summer breaks.

Over the course of noughth week, things accelerate extremely quickly. Since the terms are so insanely short, once you are in-term, everything is a sprint. The students move in by about Wednesday of noughth week, and by Friday all organizational meetings are done so that by Monday of 1st week, the term is going full speed.

Perhaps the most important event of the week is meeting the new Freshers, which mostly happens at an event known as Fresher’s Dinner. This is a formal dinner in the Great Hall where, very unusually, the Faculty sits at the tables with the students (usually the faculty sits at High Table). As one of my colleagues warned me “Depending your students, this dinner can either be really fun and interesting, or a socially difficult Marathon of trying to think up small talk”. Fortunately, my incoming students this year were a lot of fun to chat with.

Oh, and the Somerville chef decided to serve Kangaroo meat (there was also a vegetarian option). And of course there is a lot of wine at dinner. The drinking age is 18 in this country – so this is to be expected for a formal dinner.

This year’s crop of new Physics students at Somerville consists of four boys and two girls, plus one Physics-Philosophy hybrid, also a girl, making the gender mix pretty close to 50/50. While there are a few girls in the upper classes, it still is a bit unusual to have such a high fraction of girls in the Physics group. (My second year students, for example, are six boys and no girls). Perhaps this is just gender balance finally coming to physics, or perhaps it is an anomaly (or more likely a bit of both).

At any rate, now that the term is starting, my life is about to become completely insane for the next eight weeks. Forgive me if I am a bit sparse on the blog postings.

Oh, and with history repeating itself, at the beginning of noughth week, I had the flu.

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