Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Retirement of Dame Fiona: The Spell is Broken

Over the last few weeks, there have been many goodbyes for Dame Fiona Caldicott who has been Principal of Somerville College for fourteen years and is retiring this summer. There have been numerous formal dinners, lunches, and so forth to see her off and to celebrate the years of her good leadership (At one I such event I even wore my first real bow tie – the kind you actually have to tie instead of clipping on – which only took me about an hour to figure out).

Now, Fiona is not one for giving long speeches, or listening to long speeches for that matter, but these things are hard to avoid when coming to the end of an era. Of these speeches given at these formal events, probably the best one was given by the JCR president (Junior Common Room – meaning undergraduate student body). It was in some ways long and rambling and it even had some cringe-worthy moments. However, it was also very heartfelt – and he was brave enough to say what everyone around the college had been thinking for the last few weeks: The spell is broken.

If you have been reading my blog over the last year, you will already know that the most important icon of Somerville College has for years been Pogo the cat. While Pogo nominally belongs to Dame Fiona, mysteriously no one would ever see the two of them together at the same time. This led to a common belief that Pogo is actually Fiona’s alter-ego --- and the reason that Fiona seemed so well informed about what was going on in every corner of the college was because she wandered the grounds, undetected, in the form of her cat.

But over the last few weeks, on numerous occasions people actually saw Pogo and Fiona together. I even saw it myself. Hushed whispers spread quickly around the college: The spell is broken.

You see, as Fiona bids farewell to the college, her need for such strong magic is no longer, so she and Pogo can now go into retirement at their regular home as a regular person and a regular cat.
Tuesday, June 29, 2010

My Stinkin’ Jeans: More Travel Troubles.

After returning from hiking in Benasque I tried to clean off my muddy and soaked boots, jeans , socks, and shirt, and I hung them to dry overnight. Unfortunately, overnight was not nearly long enough for them to dry, so when I packed up to leave Benasque the next morning I wrapped the whole mess inside of my jeans, and stuffed the damp package in my suitcase. Hopefully the wet and somewhat stinky mess would not be able to infect the rest of my luggage too much during the 12 hour trip. I’d certainly have to wash everything again when I got to Ireland, but hopefully it wouldn’t be too nasty.

I then put my luggage on the bus from Benasque to Barbastro. The bus to Barbastro is a local bus, stopping at every other street corner for the two hour trip down the mountain. Each time the bus stopped, it opened its luggage hold, people got on and off the bus and put luggage on and off. When I got to Barbastro, unfortunately, my luggage was missing --- lost or stolen. I tried to communicate the situation to the bus staff, but being that my vocabulary in Spanish consists of only “hamburgesa” and “cerveza” I was not very successful. The bus to Barcelona left only a few minutes later and I knew that if I waited for the next one, I would miss my flight. So I jumped on the bus and started making a mental inventory of what was lost and what I still had with me.

What I still had with me:

Red t-shirt with an hbar on the front of it
Teva sandles
One fleece

Laptop case
Laptop and Charger
Wallet (including several credit cards, and some euros)
Prescription Sunglasses
One Pen
One novel, unopened.

What was lost:
One new suitcase (Delsey was recently replaced)
One pair of wet and muddy Vasque hiking boots
Some jeans (one pair now wet and muddy)
Two nice shirts and a sweater from banana republic
A bunch of cruddy shirts
One snoopy tee-shirt (“borrowed” from my ex girlfriend)
One flying-spaghetti-monster tee-shirt
A bunch of mostly cruddy tee-shirts (one muddy)
Shorts (old)
One tweed jacket (old)
One pair of “Grinch who stole Christmas” boxers
Nine other pairs of nondescript boxers
One travel iron
One travel alarm
Razors, toothbrush, etc.

Looking at the list, the most valuable thing lost was probably the hiking boots and the suitcase itself (and the emotional value of snoopy, FSM, and the Grinch). If the luggage was actually stolen, I think the thief would be a sorely disappointed with his haul.

Late that evening I arrived in Ireland, and the next morning I stopped at the cut-rate department store and got myself some replacement shirts, boxers, toothbrush, etc. 2 euro for a t-shirt. Maybe I’ll buy a few more of them!

I tried to write to the Bus company in Spain, but I did not hear back from them (again, my limited knowledge of Spanish was probably a bit of a detriment, but with Google translate, I’m pretty sure I can make myself understood). I also wrote to the staff of the physics center in Benasque to see if they could help me. No progress yet.

I don’t know if my luggage will be recovered or not. Each hour it is gone, however, I imagine my wet and muddy hiking gear is fermenting just a bit more. Perhaps after a few more days of nasty growth, the damp jean and boots will be able to walk home by themselves. Or maybe they will be classified as a biological weapon and will be put on the no-fly list.

Update Monday Night: I just got an email from the Benasque staff saying that the bus company thinks they found my luggage! Yay!

Update Tuesday Morning: They discovered that the luggage is not actually mine. Boo!

Further updates will be posted as the story progresses.

Update Tuesday Afternoon: Reversal of fortune #2 : They think they have my luggage again. Yay!
Monday, June 28, 2010

A Busy Day at the Refugio

High up in the Pyrenees, a six hour (sometimes terrifying) bus ride from Barcelona, there is a little ski-resort town called Benasque. Some genius named Pedro Pasquale had a brilliant idea of putting a physics center in this little town. In the language of physics, this center is in the same “universality class” as the Aspen center for physics where I will be again later this summer.

The Pyrenees are quite beautiful, and at least for the week I was there, the weather was mostly beautiful too. The Spanish locals are very friendly and have an enlightened view of life --- which includes a lot of partying and only mild work. The only negative thing I can say about the place is that the vegetarians amongst us seemed to be having a hard time finding much to eat (although the goat cheese was delicious). I, on the other hand, broke my recent vow to eat less red meat and enthusiastically gobbled down chorizo.

After giving a bunch of lectures at the INSTANS (Interdisciplinary Statistical and Field Theory Approaches to Nanophysics and Low Dimensional Systems) summer school early in the week, I relaxed for the latter half of the week, watched a lot of the world cup with the locals (and other enthusiastic Europeans), made much of my very limited Spanish vocabulary (which includes only the words “hamburgesa” and “cerveza”) and took the opportunity to go hiking a few times.

On Saturday, with no classes scheduled, a large group of students and postdocs (plus me) decided to take a long hike. (Some of these students were apparently out dancing at a disco bar until 5am the previous night, and still woke up at 9am to go hiking! Needless to say, dancing til 5am was out of the question for me). The intent was a 10+ hour hike starting in town and going up to almost a local high point (about 1500 meters of elevation gain, I think).

The mountains near Benasque do not look like the Rockies, or the Alps, rather they look like New Zealand. I’ve never been to New Zealand, but I’ve watched Lord of the Rings a bunch of times – and except for Sauron’s watchful eye and the absence of hobbits – the Pyranees look like middle earth.

On the way out of town we had to walk through a herd of rather loud, but not unfriendly, cows. These cows were not mooing, or even lowing, but they were positively bellowing. I’m not exactly sure what they were saying, but perhaps they meant to say “you idiots, can’t you see it is going to rain”. At the time the weather looked great, but…

After about three hours of hiking (and not *too* much elevation gain) we came to the “Refugio” - a tiny shelter by a clear mountain lake at a fork in the trail - where we stopped to eat our lunch. There were a fair number of hikers on the trail, and many of them had stopped in the same place. After a bit of planning, we divided into groups who intended slightly different hikes from there and set off for the hard part of the day. I ended up in the middle-speed group (which was fine with me, being too many years older than the next oldest hiker that day). After only another half-hour of hiking we made it to another mountain lake, and looking ahead, we saw the advanced party of faster hikers on the other side of the lake just starting the hard slog up the steep part of the mountain. Unfortunately, we also saw some ugly looking clouds coming in over the mountain. There was a bit of debate, but rather quickly we made the decision to turn back and try to get back down to the Refugio before getting completely pummeled by the storm.

Within only a few minutes the rain started. Then the rain turned to hail. Then the hail was accompanied by thunder and lightning. Then it just turned back into drenching rain. The trip down was probably almost as slow as the trip up because the rock had gotten slippery in places. By the time we made it back to the Refugio, we were all pretty much soaked to the bone. But alas, the Refugio (which was really tiny – maybe 8 feet on a side) was completely packed with other people who had gotten there first – 16 people in fact. So, a few of us were left out in the rain (I was given an umbrella to help me wait out the storm).

The rain continued far longer than I expected. After about another 20 minutes or so, the advance-group made it down to the Refugio and just decided to keep walking down. Being completely soaked already, and hoping to be able to walk on less slippery surface, I stayed up at the Refugio with the others waiting for it to let up.

An hour later, the sky finally cleared. Fortunately, it was not too cold out, so, although I was very very wet, I was not too uncomfortable (except for numb-ish hands). So we started the long wet slog home. On the hike down, we saw the cows again – who just looked at us and mooed happily “we told you so”.

PS: I saw a Great Pyrenees in the Pyrenees. It made my day.
Saturday, June 12, 2010

Porcelain Heaven

(This is not a joke about a toilet.)

The town of Meissen, outside of Dresden, has been the porcelain capital of Europe since 1710 when porcelain technology was discovered for the first time outside of China.

The historic town itself (founded in 1150) still has palaces, cathedrals, fortresses, and so forth. It was somehow completely spared during the second world war, but it was almost destroyed by neglect during the DDR era (“The government that creates ruins without weapons”). It is worth the visit if you happen to be in the area.

Despite the long history of the town, its greatest fame is its porcelain. About half the physicists attending QHSYST-2010 in Dresden last week made an excursion to tour the town and the famous porcelain factory. I think the tour guides were a bit taken aback that we physicists were there taking detailed notes (or at least I was taking notes) about the details of the porcelain process (being that most physicists don’t really care so much about dinner settings and the like).

So here is the rough process: Feldspar, Quartz, Kaolin, makes the base clay-like material. Underglaze dyes are mainly Cobalt Blue and Chrome Oxide. There are three bakings, 950 degrees C, 1100-1150 degrees C, 950 degrees C. The overglaze painting is after the middle bake. One obtains a 16% reduction in size after the hot baking. While the tour guide was very nice (a third generation porcelain-ite) very quickly we reached questions that the she could not answer and probably had never been asked before. I hope we (I) did not annoy her too much.

The porcelain products are all hand decorated – and hand crafted (if you allow molds within the definition of “hand crafted”). This makes them rather expensive. For example, this 200 piece dinner service (without the glassware or silver) will set you back 30,000 euro (36,000$) more or less.

A hand painted porcelain chandelier was 80,000 euro. Fortunately, the chandelier is hideously ugly and no one in their right mind should want one even if it were free. In fact, this is more or less my opinion of most of their products. Impressive art work, perhaps, but truly awful.

Now, you might think that my distaste for porcelain is just because I am an uncultured nerd... but in fact, I’m not the only one who thinks this. The famous german author Goethe, visited Meissen in 1813 and thought more or less the same. The following quote was translated for me by a nice tour guide:

“It is funny and almost incredible that there is nothing that you would want to have in your household. This is the oddest exhibition of everything that does not please and can never please again”

I fear the tour guide gave me this quote (without a hint of irony) thinking that it only showed how wrong Goethe was. There is a reason that Goethe is viewed as one of the true geniuses of his age.
Thursday, June 10, 2010

Embarrassing moments include

Last week my former graduate student Ilya Berdnikov stopped by Oxford for a visit. Although the weather was a bit inclement, I wanted to show him the sights of the city of dreaming spires. (My tour of Oxford is getting pretty polished --- you can see some of the highlights from previous tours here and here). Undeterred by the weather, we dressed in foul weather gear – rain jacket, umbrella, boots – and started on our way.

One key part of the tour is to go to the top of the tower of the Church of the Virgin St. Mary. On the way into the church tower, you walk through the church itself. As luck would have it, a choir was practicing there, so we stopped to listen. Recognizing the conductor and some of the singers, I realized it was the Somerville college choir. (They did sound very nice in that space!) Bells should have gone off in my head at that point, but alas, they did not. I should have wondered why the Somerville choir was practicing in that church on that particular day.

We climbed up to the top of the tower and looked at the scenery for quite a while. The weather was perhaps starting to clear. It was cold and a bit drizzling but not uncomfortable up at the top. I mulled over “is that building Lincoln college, or is it that building?”, and pondered other geographical mysteries for quite some time. Then we started the long descent down.

As we neared the bottom we could hear the organ playing in the church. (I very much like organ music). The organ sounded a bit like a funeral precession. Loud bells should have been ringing in my head at this point, but alas… they still did not.

I opened the door to exit from the tower into the church and immediately stepped into a precession of my colleagues –- the Fellows of Somerville college –- coming into the church for a memorial service which I was supposed to be attending. The service was for the college’s former principal (and well known british spy) Baroness Daphne Park (you can read a very interesting obit here). All of the other Fellows of the college were wearing academic robes and black tie. I was dressed in my blue raincoat and hiking boots. I immediately turned bright red, turned around and jumped back into the church tower and closed the door behind me to hide in shame. I had completely forgotten that the memorial service was being held on that particular day. You might think that the choir and the organ music would have jogged my brain, but alas…

Anyway, we hid in the church tower for a moment trying to decide what to do next. It turns out that there is a back exit from the church tower into the café next door. Unfortunately, the exit door was locked, but I bashed on the door and pleaded with the café workers until they got a key and let me out through the escape hatch. But (alas), on the way out, I was caught by another fellow of the college who had been late for the precession (but was at least appropriately dressed) and who appeared to be trying to sneak into the church in exactly the same way I was sneaking out.

I’m not sure how many of the college fellows actually saw my faux-pas. I’m certain a few did. Fortunately, I think can get away with a few blunders like this one just for being an American.
Sunday, June 6, 2010

Congratulations to Rahul Roy

First of all, don’t try googling his name --- there is a famous Bollywood film actor named Rahul Roy. That is not the guy I’m talking about.

Last week Rahul Roy, a postdoc at Oxford (in my group, although mainly he works independently), won the prestigious McMillan award. This is a big deal. The award is presented to one young condensed matter physicist each year. (This year it was split for the first time ever, with Liang Fu, now at Harvard, winning the other half).

The work that was cited in this award was the theoretical prediction of Topological Insulators --- something I have blogged about several times before. See, for example, here.