Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Wandering physicist



Life has been moving kind of fast lately, so I haven't been able to keep up my rapid posting pace. But since my usual table at the Claremont public library is currently occupied by a baby alligator and a kinkajou, I thought I'd write about what I've been up to.

I got all my physics ducks in a row and took them down to Morelia, Mexico for the Loops '07 conference in quantum gravity. For the first twelve hours I attended talks and drifted in and out of various physics conversations. This was enjoyable, and it was good to be able to associate humans with the names I had read at the top of papers, but nobody knew who the heck I was and I definitely felt like an outsider. Then I gave my twenty minute talk, and everything changed. Many people came down to the stage afterwards to talk with me, and this unusual level of attention continued through the week. The quantum gravity community is really great -- what a wonderful group of people! Since there is no known true quantum gravity theory, researchers have split into many different branches of the search tree. The overall atmosphere is very convivial, with positive interchange even between researchers with conflicting theories. Since what I'm trying to do is bring in the missing piece that connects gravity with all other matter in a unified theory, many people recognized my work as very interesting and useful -- as I had hoped. The best surprise was how much fun I had hanging out with the grad students and postdocs from the Perimeter Institute. They're a very dynamic and amusing bunch of geeks, and I'm looking forward to seeing them again when I fly out there (near Toronto) in October.

For the two weeks before the next conference, C and I stayed with my grandfather in Newport Beach. I can't say enough how wonderful C was during these weeks, as she did all the shopping and cooking while I played furiously with equations. Then I flew to Iceland.

I didn't fly direct from San Diego, but stopped over in Minneapolis. I didn't want to miss a chance to have lunch at the Mall of America -- it truly is the mother of all things mall. (And it was cheaper to hop a quick train there than to eat lunch in the airport.) After that, it was off to Reykjavik. The inaugural FQXi conference was a hell of a lot of fun. There was a great mix of big names and up-and-comers, all interested in foundational physics. And we didn't just sit in conference rooms all day. They took us out to some huge thermal pools, and we spent a whole day touring geysers, waterfalls, and even went for a snowmobile trip on a glacier. (I've put some pictures up here) It was wildly extravagant. And the fish... holy crap was the salmon good -- I had it for breakfast and lunch every day. And I was very happy not to be paying for it. At one point I ordered ice cream for dessert at a non-fancy restaurant -- with the exchange rate, it was US$18. (The purchase was necessary in order to exactly match my meal allowance.) I had so many interesting conversations during this conference that my head is still swimming with them.

Now that I've been back for a couple weeks, I've settled into an accelerated pace of working on physics. After these conferences, I'm not such an unknown. It feels slightly different now to have social pressure on me to work -- and I'm going to have to make an effort to spend quality time with C, and my surfboard. My inbox also looks different. I got an email from a grad student asking if he might be able to work with me. "Uh, dude, I'm currently staying with my parents..." I was featured on a popular physics blog, and this week I'm being interviewed for an article by Nude Scientist. Hmm, or maybe I have that wrong and I should wear clothes.

Anyway, life is good. And busy. But I don't think it has gone to my head too much. C and I are still traveling around, staying with friends and family. And I'm still writing while sitting on the floor, having been displaced by a small nocturnal mammal. I don't blame the library though -- kinkajous are really cute.

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gar@lisi.com