Friday, August 31, 2012

Small World

Last Sunday I flew into Incheon Airport from Heathrow on an overnight flight. Tired, and a bit disoriented, I got off the plane, walked through customs out into the lobby, and I started trying to figure out how I was going to get a bus to my hotel in Seongbuk. Suddenly, as if from nowhere, someone I know is standing in front of me ``Steve Simon what are you doing here?”

The person in front of me was Randy Giles, a colleague from my Bell Labs days. Randy was one of the star research directors and I remembered (albeit only after he reminded me) that about the same time as I left Bell, he was tapped to head the newly formed Bell Labs Korea branch. Honestly though, if someone had asked me last week “who do you know who lives in Seoul”?, I would not have been able to come up with a single name (save Kwon Park who was organizing the physics conference I was attending this week at the Korean Institute for Advanced Studies). The fact that I ran into Randy in the airport was quite a coincidence. It is indeed a very small world.

As it turned out, Randy had come to the airport to pick up the president of Bell Labs, Jeong Kim, who was visiting Korea for the week. Jeong’s flight landed only a few minutes after mine, and he found us after I had been talking to Randy for only about two minutes. Jeong remembered me too (“Yes, you are the Quantum Guy”). They very kindly they offered to have their extra driver take me to my hotel rather than have me struggle with the bus system. They also invited me to come by the labs, give a talk, look around and meet some of the team.

 On Wednesday afternoon there were no talks in my conference, so I arranged to head over to Bell Labs. I gave an impromptu talk on topological quantum computation. Being that Bell still has a few people working on this subject, I thought it certainly wouldn’t hurt to promte the field in general. The talk went over well I think –-- even though the audience was a mix of computer scientists, network scientists, engineers, and only one physicist. After this I spent some time chatting with one of their engineers on the subject of MIMO communications –-- a flashback to one of my previous research lives (I took the opportunity to point out this paper –-- which is one of my favorite nasty calculations).

I joined the members of the lab for a nice dinner. As it turned out, one of their ranks is leaving this week to take a job at a university and they were having a little farewell party that night. At dinner, I made a special request for a bibimbap. I realize this was like saying “I really need to have a burger” when you are in a three star restaurant --- bibimbap is really considered to be student-food, or even drunk-food. But I like the stuff, and while I could get a good bibimbap in New York on 33rd street, I have not had any since moving to the UK. Being that my time in Seoul was running out, I was not to be denied a good bibimbap --- and the restaurant did not disappoint.
Thursday, August 30, 2012

Low Pants

When you travel a lot you get fairly good at packing.   You know what you have to bring and you rarely forget anything important.   However, on my last trip (to Seoul), I somehow forgot to pack a belt, and for the entire week  --- no matter what I did, my jeans kept falling down.  Among physicists no one really cares, but out in public I looked like an extremely schlumpy professor, or maybe I looked like I’m trying to be a bit too hip-hop.   I fear that this is how it starts… pretty soon, I’ll go entirely one way or the other. 
Wednesday, August 29, 2012

On Physics Culture

This comment was left on my blog by "Anonymous", but i wanted to give it a bit of attention:


Hey Steve, 

I wanted to solicit your thoughts on a topic. Physics has a culture . I thought of this when looking at this post about the conference. Going to the board. Working with other people--thinking on the fly--at the board. The value of scribbling together.  Taking walks. The value of re-presenting someone else work in a new form. The value of articulating a problem. The low value placed on facts--the you could look that up feeling. the way of writing down ideas to make intuition clear--the feynman style. There are so many things. I work in Biology now, and there is a very different culture where these things are absent. Boards dont even exist. Everything is power point. And everyone constantly talks about facts--facts first--always can you be more specific--can you make that concrete. I really feel that these cultural attributes have contributed to the success of physics--and I dont want them to be lost in a world dominated by engineering disciplines and biology. In fact, biology has not really been successful given all the resources it has--and I feel that part of this is the intellectual tradition.


While I do think the interactive physics culture of  bouncing ideas around is extremely productive (and fun), I'm not sure one can conclude that it should be appropriate for all fields.    There must be some amount of Darwinism of cultures in the various branches of sciences --- if this culture worked in other fields, people would adopt it more.   Conversely, the reason other fields have other cultures is probably because their culture is effective for their fields.    

Admittedly there are some pieces of culture that continue for not-so-good reasons (e.g. powerpoint) but still, there must be something to the fact that the different fields operate differently from each other. 

On the side, I'm not sure it is fair to conclude that "biology has not really been successful".   While there are immense unknowns in biology, it is also true that the progress that has been made in biology in the past fifty years is really mind-boggling.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Seoul Korea

The last time I was in Seoul was in April of 1989 --- I was on tour with the Brown University Jazz Band at the time, and our first stop was Seoul.

 (Nick Valentino: I know you are reading this. Did we do a concert in Seoul, or did we just stop by to see the sights and recover from jet lag on our way to Tokyo? I think the latter.).

 In the more than two decades since I was last here, Seoul has apparently changed a lot. Many huge buildings and new neighborhoods have arisen, and the city has become a bustling modern metropolis where it seemed far less modernized twenty years ago --- not quite third world then, but not fully modern either. Now, every street corner seems to have a hip modern coffee shop which would be rated as fashionable and stylish even by the standards of SoHo. Possibly the most notable change is in the fashions you see people wearing. The people of Seoul now dress indistinguishably from, if not even better than, the people in New York. The only thing you might notice different in their outward appearance is that they are all text messaging Korean characters.

One thing that has not changed about Korea is the level of hospitality. Foreigners, although much less unusual than they were in 1989, are still treated as honored guests. My good friend Jinha from grad school called up her friend June, who lives in Seoul, who quickly volunteered to take me out for a proper Korean meal. It was fantastic. (The highlight was probably the mushroom soup --- mushrooms like angel hair). I try to be an adventurous eater, so I ate pretty much everything in sight and even signed up to try the favorite Korean delicacy --- fermented marinated raw crab. Here I am pointing to the evidence that we finished off one of the little beasts.

 One thing that unfortunately could not be controlled is the weather. Coincident with my return to this country, a giant typhoon struck --- the worst in over a decade. Fortunately, Seoul was spared the worst of it, but some parts of the country got completely hammered with some major damage.

Added Comment:   According to Nick Valentino, we did indeed play a concert in Seoul, although I have no recollection of it at all!  I guess 20 years will do that to you!
Sunday, August 26, 2012

You can take the kid out of the Maserati ...

Flying Alitalia is always a bit of a gamble.  I learned long ago that your checked luggage rarely makes it to the same destination as you do -- carry-on is advised.   Many flights are late, and one really has to have an "I'll get there when I get there" attitude.

Last week I scheduled a connection through Rome  Fiumicino  airport.   Since my flight from Triest was delayed (of course) my connection was going to be really tight.  I was already preparing myself mentally for a long stop in Rome waiting for the next flight.     Much to my surprise, when I got off the plane I was met by a young representative from Alitalia holding a sign that said "London".   I excitedly said "Si! London!" and the kid directed me into the back of his airport golf-cart.   Even with a golf-cart I didn't think I would make my flight.  And  being that Fiumicino is extremely crowded I had my doubts that he would be able to move much faster than I could go running.   I was wrong.

This kid drove the airport golf cart like it was a Maserati.   He slammed on the horn, screamed "ATTENZIONE", and put the pedal to the metal.   I hung on for dear life.  People were jumping out of the way left and right like you only see in movies.  I think more than one little-old-lady almost got killed by this guy.  Honestly it was more frightening than skydiving.    When we got to the passport control, he basically drove his little car right through the line (slowing down perhaps to half-speed) until we were right up at the front (a nice trick indeed)... and much to my amazement, I did make it to the gate in time for boarding.  Of course since this was Alitalia, the flight to London was delayed by several hours anyway --- so there was no need at all to hurry.   I'm sure the kid knew this too.   He just wanted an excuse to drive like a maniac. 
Saturday, August 25, 2012


Caution: Do not read any further if you are not a computer nerd. 

My home desktop computer was assembled from parts bought from NewEgg in the winter of 2007.  At that time, it was a top end machine.   1.5 GHz duo-core. 6 Gb ram.   I started out using it as a Hackintosh, but eventually decided that I like Ubuntu better, and I've been using it that way ever since (I think the killer app that got me to switch was NXfree remote desktop -- which is amazing if you have never used it.).   Since I bought it, it has required a new power supply, and a new graphics card, and I inserted two more disk drives for good measure.   On the whole, though, it is still running extremely well.  I didn't expect it to last five years, and although I probably should upgrade to a new motherboard sometime soon, it is running so well, I really don't see the need yet. 

Although I admit to being a computer nerd, I don't want to spend too much time tweaking my system.  So I don't upgrade to the bleeding-edge version of everything.  Instead, I stick with stable versions for a while and only upgrade on occassion.  I've been running Ubuntu Lucid 10.04 Long-Term Support for several years, and although I admit I've been itching to try 12.04, I dutifully followed the instructions "LTS users are recommended to wait until 12.04.1 before upgrading".    Finally this week 12.04.1 was released.  

Last night I got home from Trieste and started the upgrade process.  I went to bed as the computer downloaded files for several hours.  I woke up at 7 am, clicked OK a few times as I ate breakfast and packed for my next trip, and by 10 am, I had a working version of 12.04.1 !

There are probably a few things broken by the upgrade -- but so far remarkably few.  My main complaint so far is the unity interface -- I realize these things require some getting used to.  However, I can't imagine getting used to a transparent dashboard that is completely unreadable.  Does anyone know how to make it opaque?  (I have a hack that does this already, but there must be a better way). 

The International Centre for Theoretical Physics was the brainchild of Nobel Laureate Abdus Salam who felt that a place was needed for international physics meetings.  In particular he wanted a place to allow scientists in otherwise isolated nations to interact with the best of the best.   Salam was a terrific politician and he managed to get funding from Italy, from the UN, and from the International Atomic Energy Agency to build this institute in Trieste Italy.    Perhaps his greatest genius though was putting the Centre right on the beach of the Adriatic.  This picture is the view from one of the guest-house balconies.  Yes, admittedly only half of the rooms face the ocean.  But still,  whichever way your room faces, you only have to walk about 50 meters down the road to get to a beach.  Awesome!

Last week's conference at Trieste (which can only be called "Majorana Fest 2012") was an excellent (if perhaps a bit over-focused) short workshop bringing together some great researchers from all over.   If you are curious you can listen to all the talks online here.  My talk starts about two thirds through this file  and then is finished in this file.

During this conference I tried out a new way of doing physics --- that would be physics while floating.   One day, puzzled by some physics emails from collaborators, I decided to go for a swim. I floated on my back silently for half an hour and pondered these emails -- deciding on a route forward only after having become completely pruney.    Feeling that this was productive, the following day I scheduled a physics meeting out in the water.  Jason Alicea and I had a rather long discussion about topological physics in two and three dimensions  -- -parafermions and fibonacci anyons and all sorts of other interesting things  -- all while paddling around in the Adriatic.   Somehow I really like this way of doing physics.   Perhaps just because it is so different from the usual day at the office, it seems surprisingly productive.  Maybe Abdus Salam had this in mind.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Physicists Hard At Work

Sometimes my non-physics friends are curious about what working as a physicist is like.   At conferences it is often a lot of talking and scribbling (either on paper or on chalkboards or whiteboards).    Here are some pictures from the Stockholm conference.  (All photo credits go to Joost Slingerland.  I have a camera on my mobile phone too, but it only takes blurry pictures that could be the Loch Ness Monster).

Here is a picture of Fiona Burnell explaining to me some subtleties of topological gauge theories in 3+1 dimensions.

You probably can't read the whiteboard.   I don't have a photo of the board after that particular discussion.  To get a better idea of what our whiteboards look like, here is a photo from the room down the hall which many of us used as an office.

     Yes, I admit I am the immature one who drew the elephant from the rear.  And I'm also the immature one who drew the guy peaking out from the left.       The rest of the chalkboard is an amalgam of several different conversations that occurred over the course of the week. 
Conferences like this are certainly not all-work-and-no-play.  Besides jumping out of airplanes, we also tend to go out for a fair number of good meals -- and not always just soup.   One place that is exceptionally good in Stockholm is Herman's Vegetarian Cafe.  If you are a vegetarian, or even if you are just a vegetarian sympathizer, the buffet at this place is wonderful.   

This picture was taken after a huge dinner at Herman's.   From the right it is Jerome Dubail, his wife (I'm sorry I don't remember her first name right now.  My memory for names is really terrible these days!), Gunnar Moller, and yours truly.    Here we are sitting at picnic tables having just eaten everything in sight.  Behind me is a brick wall, and behind the brick wall is a roughly 20 meter drop to a road, but then on the other side of the road is the sea.  As you probably know, Stockholm is an archipelago, so from here you look over the water to see other parts of the city as the sun sets. 
In this picture Shanna Haaker has just suggested that we could measure the drop from the brick wall to the road by jumping over the wall and timing the drop.  I'm not sure if she meant that she should jump over the wall or if she meant that I should jump over the wall.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Stockholm Syndrome

While I am usually a fairly healthy person, I have a bad string of luck for catching coughs and colds whenever I go to Stockholm.   Being that it happened again this year, I really am beginning to think there is a trend -- a Stockholm syndrome perhaps.

Admittedly it seemed that there was just something going around last week.  Several of the physicists were sick for a day or two.  I was doing pretty well until the day I was scheduled to fly home to Oxford when I started to feel like my head was going to explode.  Unfortunately this made me the horrible person on the airplane who was coughing and sneezing and contaminating everyone in sight.   I really tried to keep myself from being the Typhoid Mary, but alas, I suspect there is an outbreak of Stockholm syndrome about to begin in London.   If a virus were much more serious than the common flu (like an H1N1 or similar) you could be seriously worried, in this era of modern travel, about how quickly it could be passed around the globe.

Some people have suggested that my catching cold might have been slightly related to having cold air rammed into my sinuses at 200 kilometers per hour.   Whether or not that was a contributing factor, the good news is that this year's Stockholm syndrome was not too bad -- it seems to be mostly gone a day or two later.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Soup is Good Food!

Back in the 1980s, Campbell's Soup Company had a marketing slogan "Soup is Good Food".  The American FDA (food and drug administration) forced them to stop using this slogan because most of their soups contained too much sodium to qualify as "good food".  Nonetheless, those of us who were children of the 80s (and watched Campbell soup commercials on TV over and over) ended up with a deep-down belief that soup really is good food.

Fast forward a quarter of a century. Right now I am visiting Stockholm for a few weeks.  I suppose there are probably many many places to get "good food" in Stockholm, but in my book, the hands-down best food is the soup ---  specifically, the Sibiriens Soppkok. It is hard to even describe how great this soup is.  Every time I eat there, I feel like today must be the best day I've ever had.  Really, it is that good.   (They are probably putting opium in it or something similar).    I've been eating there every day for lunch, and then I started adding a few dinners as well.

 Yeah, I know. Eating every meal at the same restaurant sounds like it is a bit insane (much less the fact that I have shunned all solid foods in favor of this stuff). But don't make fun of me until you've tried it. Really, it is that good.    (And I don't think it has too much sodium). 

(Photo Credit: Joost Slingerland)
Sunday, August 12, 2012

Taking that Step...

The fact that I am writing this post indicates that I did not go splat when jumping out of the airplane... so I guess that ruins the suspense.

So this morning Eddy (the experienced skydiver) and Hans (another first timer --- whose wife now thinks he has  gone nuts)  and I drove out to the jump site at 10 am this morning, getting there at 11:30. (Here is the facebook page of the jump center).  The weather looked a bit questionable ---  lots of cloud cover.  But when we got there people were jumping --- I guess there were enough holes in the clouds to land easily.

We started by signing our lives away on the usual form that says "Yes, I know this is dangerous and it isn't your fault if I go splat".    Understandably the form was written in Swedish  (did I mention that I am in Stockholm this week?) so I needed translation.   Besides name and address, the first question was "Do you have any psychological problems".     I thought about writing "I'm about to jump out of an airplane, draw your own conclusions.."  That was apparently not the correct answer.

We put on jump suits and waited around for our turn.  While we waited, we watched other people jumping.  Since there is only one plane in earshot, you can easily hear it buzz overhead.  Then just before people start jumping out, they drop the engines so the plane is moving more slowly.   If you have sharp eyes, you can see the bodies free-falling towards earth (they drop very fast).   Even from the ground, you can hear the noise of the chutes opening, and then the people drift down towards the landing field surprisingly quickly.   They also seem to come in with quite a lot of speed for the landing, but this is intentional --- if you come in quickly in the horizontal direction, you can get a lot of lift and not have too much velocity in the down direction.   No one had any trouble hitting the landing field --- in fact it seemed like people could usually land within a few feet of their target area.

When we were called, the novices got a short bit of instruction.  These are tandem jumps so there really isn't much to learn.  You are strapped to an expert and just go along for the ride.  We  put on our harnesses and climbed into the Cessna Caravan.  The plane looked like it was held together with duct tape, but apparently it was just inspected a few weeks ago and found to be in perfect condition (despite its looks).  

There are no seats in the Cessna--- more like two long benches.  The people straddle the benches and basically sit in the lap of the person behind you.  With 15 people and all the gear and parachutes, it was pretty tight.

The plane took off just like any other plane, except it felt a bit strange not to have the usual instructions on how to tighten your seatbelt.  It took about 10 minutes for the plane to climb up to 4000 meters (13000 feet, or 2.5 miles).  I was surprisingly not all that nervous as we climbed.  The plane is not heated or pressurized, so it felt cold and you could feel it a bit in your ears.  On the way up it felt like any other plane ride except that it was very tight and everyone kept looking at their altimeter (many of the people had altimeters on their wrists) and the back of a Cessna is extremely noisy so you can only speak to the person next to you if you yell in their ears.

Besides Hans and I, there were two other people making tandem jumps.  (The woman sitting next to me was looking a bit green.)   Then there were a few people like Eddy making jumps on their own.

On the way up it seemed to me that there were two different cloud layers.  One low down layer was sparse --- at about 1500 meters height  --- just about at the level where we would open our chute.  Then there seemed to be another thicker layer around 3500 meters --- maybe going up to 4000 meters, where we would jump from.

When the plane slowed the engines for the jump, you put on your goggles, they open the side door of the plane, and people start jumping out into the abyss.  This is by far the most unnerving thing to see.   When someone jumps out, they fall away so fast it seems very unreal.     I think at that moment I started to look a bit worried.

The young woman just in front of me looked back, gave me a fist bump, and a few seconds later she disappeared out the door.   ( A well timed fist bump really does wonders for your morale. )

So it was my turn.  I shuffled over to the door with the tandem pilot strapped to me, put my legs out of the door and in an instant we were falling.

I think the reason why it isn't so frightening to jump out is because everything happens so fast.   The amount of time between the door opening and actually jumping out is barely a few seconds.     Maybe it was a bit easier not to be frightened, because in fact we couldn't see the ground from where we jumped --- there was a layer of clouds in-between us and the ground.

When you skydive, you (approximately) reach terminal velocity of about 120 miles per hour within roughly 10 seconds.  But within 3 seconds you are already at 60 miles per hour and the wind is already very strong.   So you really only have a very few seconds of feeling weightless.  Honestly, I didn't even notice the sensation of being weightless. It feels like diving off a diving board.   I rolled over in the air once or twice before we reached a stable position.  And then very quickly you don't feel anything like what you think of as "falling" anymore.  You feel like you are moving at constant speed (which after about 10 seconds ... you are).  Perhaps it is more like swimming.

Regarding the sensation of falling at 120 miles per hour: It is very windy. And it is very loud. And it is very cold.  And you get a lot of wind up your nose.  (Maybe that is only me because I have a large schnoz --- but many of the experienced skydivers had helmets which keep the wind out of their faces more effectively than goggles do, which suggests that they are trying to avoid wind up their nose as well).   During the fall, it is surprisingly hard to move and re-position at all --- the wind is exerting a LOT of force on your body, and any movement moves the force around in unexpected ways.  I suspect this all takes some getting used to.

Only a moment after we jumped, Eddy jumped after us.  He caught up with us and (being in very good control) he managed to move over to us and grab onto my arm --- we fell together for fifteen seconds or so before he separated again.

We were in free-fall for about 50 seconds.  At that point we had reached 1500 meters and the pilot deployed the chute.  The "jerk" was not as strong as I had suspected.  Apparently the chutes are designed not to yank you suddenly.   Once the chute had deployed, we watched Eddy deploy his (tandems have to deploy higher... so Eddy deployed well below us).  I think looking down and watching Eddy was the first moment when I realized I could see the ground below us.  I also noticed that my ears needed to pop a few times.

The pilot let me steer the canopy.  You have a left and right cord and you pull the left one to turn left and the right to turn right.  It is very easy to steer and it is very responsive.   You can turn in extremely tight circles and spin around in a completely nauseating way (which we did a lot of).   Apparently the tandem pilot mentioned later that he thought it was funny that I screamed "Holy Crap" when the parachute was spinning around.  I think from deploying the chute to landing on the ground is about three minutes or so.   You get a very good view of the area from the parachute.  And it is fun to be able to steer around in the clouds.

I was a bit surprised how fast the parachutes descend -- and how fast they move horizontally as this happens. I had this image in my mind of a parachute floating down gently, but that is not at all how it seems to work.  (I suppose it is gentle compared to descending at 120 miles per hour though).  

The tandem pilot took over the steering for the landing, aimed at the landing site and made a very soft (but fast in the horizontal direction) landing.  And so it was over.     No splat.

To Jump or Not to Jump

Before my mother has a heart attack from reading this, I want to talk a bit about statistics --- how dangerous is it really?

The chance of fatality in one skydiving jump is about the same as the chance of fatality in 1000 miles of driving on US highways. This is very similar to the chance of fatality in one scuba dive.  Here is a nice website that compares the risks in various sports.   Surprisingly the risk of going splat in a skydiving jump  is  very close to the chances of dropping dead while going running, cycling, or swimming!    (About 1 in 100,000 outings.   Admittedly, most of the people dropping dead while running are older people, but still... it gives you an order of magnitude.) 

So if skydiving is so safe, why should I be afraid of making a skydiving jump?... well, maybe because I am really afraid of heights?   But being a good scientist, I intend to put my faith in statistics and take that step out of the airplane. 

As I mentioned in an earlier post here  my friend Eddy Ardonne is an avid skydiver.  Every time I visit Stockholm he offers to take me.   Several years ago, I bailed at the last minute.  Then the following year I signed up to jump but a scheduling snafu nixed the trip.   So this year we are trying again 

(Yes, this is a midlife crisis)

I will report back soon...  (see my next blog posting here)
Saturday, August 11, 2012

Jump Starting My Blog Again

It has been over a year since I made my last blog entry. I stopped because... well, blogging is a lot of work, and I just got tired of it eventually. But my dear brother Rob started blogging recently (See, for example, his recent timely comments here on why Paul Ryan, the republican VP candidate is completely insane.) And Rob has been encouraging me to get with the program and start writing as well.

I hereby promise a new and exciting jump start to this blog... tomorrow.