Monday, September 28, 2009


For the first time in life I regretted not knowing how to dance at all. Pretty girls in prettier costumes were almost inviting us to join them, and thousands of people dancing, and we somehow resisted the temptation. It was great fun nevertheless.

I always thought Oktoberfest is only about beer drinking. I was so wrong. Drinking beer is much more of a serious business, specially when served in the units of one liter. And then it triggers the largest organized mayhem in the world, a surreal experience which is impossible to describe in words. You have huge tent like structures, each holding thousands, perhaps more. Once you get in there, and start drinking, time stops. There is music, and people dancing everywhere, between the benches, on the benches and on the tables. The difference between friends and strangers become blurry, and it feels like a dream. That is of course helped in no small measure by the presence of girls in attractive dirndls (which is probably the single best invention since the wheel, same can not be said for the male lederhosen though), plenty of them, wherever you look. They are not shy, rarely choosy, simply out to have a good time. Alcohol is a great leveler. And surprisingly, in spite of so many of people completely drunk and totally tipsy, the whole ambiance is unbelievably clean, or so it felt.

Then there are things you can do apart from dancing the evening away. There are scary rides, with you being thrown around violently in random directions and suspended upside down. I am not sure what made me try one of those, the alcohol or the curiosity, but simply thinking about the experience making my stomach churn now.

The scale of the whole thing is mind boggling. Someone told me that the population of Munich is usually a million, but it becomes at least five or six times that over the duration of the festival. There were Australians, British and people from literally all corners of the world, young and young at heart, all coming down here to have perhaps the time of their lives. It is commercial of course, things costing more than usual, and very touristy too, but none of them overshadows the celebration part.

Take a bow Disneyland. This is the happiest place on earth. By far.

Some moments captured here.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Lively Lisbon

I thought Lisbon would be like most other European cities. pretty but predictable. Pretty it was, but not in the usual made-for-tourists way. It had shades of San Francisco (hilly and and a bridge strikingly similar to that what-is-the-big-hype-about-Golden-Gate-bridge), Rome (charming old structures) and possibly Calcutta (dripping with everyday life). Between the attractions, there were run down buildings, narrow alleys going and up and down dramatically, clothes hanging outside, smells of fishes being cooked, locals hanging out at street corners. Somehow all the imperfections actually makes it all the more charming.

I set out with no clear plan in mind. The overwhelming landmark is the castle (Castelo de São Jorge) at the top of a steep little hill, but rather than climbing all the way up there, I boarded the cute tram #28. It meanders through the densely populated mini hills and the valleys that make up the city, navigating the dramatic slopes precariously, barely wiggling through the narrowest of alleys, passing by the river Tagues, often presenting striking views.

In addition, there was music. Fado is the traditional Portuguese music, soulful songs of love and heartbreak, probably originated in the bygone era of lonely sailors. There were musicians performing live on the tram (link to a recording), as a part of summer festival, with locals spontaneously joining in, vastly outnumbering the tourists.

Hopping out of the tram I walked randomly across the almost maze like Bairro Alto, zigzagging through the cobblestone roads and inclines. And when my feet started complaining from all the climbing, there were these lovely elevators, one going up along a metallic cage (Elevador da Santa Justa), another more like an antique streetcar (Elevador da Glória).

The suburb of Belem was next. The much advertised monastery (Mosteiro dos Jerónimos) was indeed grand, and contained the tomb of Vasco da Gama, who would always have a special place in Indian history.

Standing across the road was the monument to all those brave explorers and discoveries, and a big world map showing the glorious days of the Portuguese domination, from coasts of America to Asia.

The adjacent tower of Belem has a forlorn aura about it, overlooking the river with boats passing by, headed to the sea.

It is interesting how British and Portuguese (and the Spanish, of course), so different in every other respect, ended up conquering so many distant shores. I may be totally wrong, but my feeling is, while the British were more of resource hunters and their reminiscence is one of pride, Portuguese legacy is more of the adventurous spirit, and exploration.

The Berardo Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art was rather small, but worth a quick visit. I also dropped by the Museu da Electricidade to have a look at the world press photo exhibition going on there.

I had no idea what awaited me when I headed to Sintra next morning, an UNESCO heritage town half an hour away from the city, The bus climbed up the hill up from the station and stopped at the ruins of Moorish castle (Castelo dos Mouros).

I always wanted to a visit a real, once functional European castle, and this was it!

This is probably one of he most underrated attractions I have visited for a long while. While I must admit that not too much has survived the time, the remnants are definitely worth the short hike. I walked along the ramparts, climbed up to the towers, overlooking the vast expanse and the stunning Pena Palace at a distance.

The Pena Palace itself was royally gorgeous and more colorful than Disney, and offering nice views of the rather dull National Palace and the lovely Monserrate Palace down there.

Lisbon was lively no doubt and, but Sintra captured by imagination, a living testament to the tales of yore.

Finally to this tiny coastal town calld Foz de Arhelo, for the actual physics workshop. This is Atlantic from the "other" side. And it feels so much more virgin than from overtly commercialized Florida. My hotel room is on a cliff, overlooking the mouth of a lagoon meeting the ocean, and I can hear waves roaring all night. Pure, unspoiled sand and water, a fantastic landscape.

Any trip is not complete without sampling local food and drink. I was asked by a friendly waiter if I want the "beef" of pork or cow -I ended up going with the pork, crisply fried succulent pieces. However, this is a seafood lovers paradise, fresh fish, octopus, squids abound, all fresh and rather affordable. All these years I thought of Sardines as somethings which originate in those tiny cans, and it was a revelation to devour big shiny and tasty Sardines. How would I go back to those cans again? Pastel de Belém is the famous local creamy and ultra sweet pastry, and yummy. Sangria is plentiful and cheap. This is a country where Port wine came from, and while I am no wine connoisseur, the ones I sampled were aromatic and full.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

The disconcerting eeriness of being thirty

There are things in life you expect to happen. And then there are things you should expect, but never really do. Like turning thirty. Birthdays are generally meant to be happy occasions. One day to celebrate and remind people of your existence. Not for me though. Not anymore, certainly. Growing old is such a scary idea, and thirty seems like somewhat of psychological barrier beyond that I can not just ignore age as just a number. In all these years, I could think of myself as the naive young one, all the carefree mistakes, casual omissions, the general attitude of being irresponsible had that grand excuse. At thirty, I am not sure if one can still claim that(but I am going to try nevertheless). Human lifetime is incredibly short and insignificant when one looks at the grand scheme of things, the and by that benchmark, thirty possibly means I have used up a significant fraction of that. I am mortally terrified of being old, and there are so many things I have not done or experienced. However, rather than start getting upset about those now, let me try to get some transient satisfaction by listing some of things I am proud to have done. This is of course, an incredibly random, and entirely biased list, with no logical order and I am sure I am forgetting more equally memorable events, after all, as some study said, memory starts to decline from around this age.

I have lived in three different countries in three different continents.

I visited so many places. Although I am tempted to, I would not name them all here. But very briefly, major city/cities in 7 different European countries (Switzerland, Italy, France, Germany, England, Belgium, Czech Republic, with Portugal coming up), and major attractions in 34 mainland American states (plus Washington DC). I have driven along along the pacific coast highway in California, seven mile bridge over the seas connecting Miami to Keys in Florida, and from Florida to Chicago crossing the country. I have taken the incredibly scenic golden pass express across Switzerland, saw the pope in Vatican, got my portrait sketched at Montmartre, stood across the prime meridian in Greenwich, saw Mont Blanc right in front me standing at an altitude of 3842m, stayed inside the fort in Jaisalmeer, gambled and won (albeit a small amount) in Las Vegas, just to name a few of the incredible travel experiences.

I have a Ph.D in Physics. Some random estimates suggest that only about 1% of world's population holds a Ph.D. So that indeed puts me into an elite fraction of the population. (And while on that, I consider myself privileged to have Rick Field as my thesis advisor. I could not have had a better supervisor.)

I have been associated with the world's current (Tevatron in Fermilab) and future (LHC in CERN) highest energy particle collider experiments. To non physicists, it may not appear that big a deal, but the LHC turn on is truly an once in a generation opportunity.

I participated and gave talk which was reasonably appreciated in one of the premiere conferences in our field, Moriond at La Thuile.

I was awarded as the best graduate student while in Florida for distinction in teaching and research.

I have experienced the perhaps most incredible and significant political event of modern US history, the election of Barack Obama as the president, up, close and personal. I have also voted in India, so that makes me a participant in two of the world's largest democracies.

I have accumulated enough frequent flier mile to move in to "silver elite" status in delta skymiles, and also had a free India roundtrip ticket.

I have heard Joan Baez sing live. Twice.

I participated in the inaugural "University Challenge India" quiz show on BBC, hosted by the amazing Siddhartha Basu.

I have tried rock climbing and skiing. It is another matter that I faired miserably in either.

By last count, I have collected close to two hundred refrigerator magnets from all the places I visited.

I have seen the space shuttle discovery blasting into space, once at daytime, once at night.

I have eaten alligator, horse, frog, rabbit, ostrich meat (with kangaroo coming up, hopefully soon) among the more unusual ones.

While at Florida, I have lived through two basketball and two football national championship runs. The basketball team was perhaps the best college basketball team, ever. Again to all not acquainted with American college sports, this is unprecedented. (and I was once on the same flight with Al Horford.)

I have won an award for my photography, and one of photos was featured on CNN ireport. While by itself, neither is that big a deal, it is not everyday I get appreciated for being creative.

And, despite being a bitter loner most of the times, I had been amazingly lucky to know and come close to some wonderful people. And wonder of all wonders, someone agreed to marry me too. I have to compliment Saswati for her incredibly courageous decision!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Physics and more in Moriond

Physics conferences tend to follow a certain pattern, lots of talks throughout the day, some social interactions in the evening and may be a weekend excursion to a tourist attraction nearby. But what happens if the whole conference is an excursion by itself? That is what Moriond conferences are - tucked away in this a French/Italian Alps ski resort named La Thuile, the afternoons are left free for skiing and enjoying the breathtaking scenic beauty, and we are spoiled with awesome and exotic lunch and dinner.

And by the way did I mention that this is a gathering of some of the best workers in the field, and as they jokingly say, you can even talk physics while skiing!

Skiing I did try, that too for two days. But to put it in a very respectable way, I am not in the best physical shape, the only part of the body I exercise regularly are my fingers, and that shows. On first day, I learned it is deceptively difficult, certainly not as smooth as seen on TV. It is hard to move with skis on when not on a slope, and its even harder to stop when you are on one. There are techniques though, but then again, we did not learn walking or cycling in a day either. Next day was super exciting, if I may say so. Accidentally I took the wrong ski-lift, so rather than landing on the top of a gentle practice slope, I ended up on the top of the mountain, with only steep "expert" slopes to go down. The ski lifts are apparently used for one way traffic, they do not allow you to get down - so I had to be rescued and brought down to the nearest cable car station by a snowmobile - those things do move fast going downhill! Quite an experience indeed. This place is a skiers paradise.

However, the view going up the mountain on that open ski-lift, which is effectively a hanging bench, and where you can not get on without your skis on, was out of the world, and possibly worth all the trouble. Too bad I could not take any pictures.

Other highlight of my stay so far was having horse-steak for dinner. It was different, a bit dry, reasonably delicious and I never knew people ate horse before. This was also my first talk in front of a hundred plus audience consisting mostly of experts, and I think it went rather well, from the the questions and the general reaction.

Munich Moments

As they say, high energy physicists are travelers. I realized that very well after joining Dresden - in the first five or so weeks, I have been spending three of those away from my new home. The first one was at CERN, mostly for meeting collaborators and taking care of paperwork needed to officially join ATLAS. Since I have been in Geneva before, I did not really try to explore the city much.

Next trip was Munich. Physics-wise, I have no idea why I was there, since it was the German Physical Society meeting, where most speakers felt it is their sacred duty to give the talks in German. But that was a convenient excuse for me to skip the sessions entirely and be a "tourist" again! Munich is like other German cities I have seen - with an semi-old part of the city with majestic buildings, skyline dominated by churches and lots of modern developments.

However, I have known Munich from my childhood days for 1972 Olympic games, partly for the then unprecedented gold medal haul by Mark Spitz, and mostly for the terrorist attacks and subsequent death of the Israeli athletes, which perhaps changed the character of sports forever. Unfortunately, when I landed up in the Olympic park, the whole area was closed due to some renovation going on.

I still however passed by the very simple memorial plaque and that was the end of my brush with history. Or so I thought. Next night, I was invited by a Max-Planck Institute physicist at his place, and it turned out they live in the erstwhile Olympic village, and more significantly at Connollystrasse 31, which was the exact same building where the gruesome events took place. Max Planck Institute apparently bought that building and made it a housing for physicists. It was an eerie feeling visiting that building at dark, and this would remain my overwhelming memory of this Munich trip.

I did the other usual touristy things too. I stood there in the heavy falling snow to watch the Glockenspiel, where little figures come out of the church tower and perform their little mechanical "dance" routine.

I climbed up to the top of "Alte Peter" church and savored the nice view of the city.

I spent half a day exploring the Deutsches Museum, apparently world's largest science and technology museum. I had the succulent Weißwurst sausage, and crunchy but delicious pork knuckle, all washed down with plenty of Bavarian beer.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Funny or Sad?

While catching up with Indian news at NDTV, I came across this:

It apparently links to some website called Voice of Bengal, which wants to sell digital cameras and wants Bangladeshi immigrants to leave.

Very interesting.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Ten Random Facts about Dresden

1. Its just not lip service, people are really environmentally conscious. Trash needs to be separated out in glass, paper, plastic, biodegradable waste etc, you rarely see plastic use and throw cutlery and use of paper towels is almost non existent. Grocery stores do not give plastic carry bags - you have to pay extra to get them. And you even get cash back by returning bottles.

2. May be because this was East Germany before, but everything is utterly methodical. For example I was given this form, where it literally says, go and meet this Professor, say hi to him and get the form signed by him. But that also means...

3. Everything involves too much paperwork. And in a fixed progression - you cant cant get a mobile phone unless you have a bank account, which you cant get unless you registered your address with the authorities, which of course can not be done until you have your apartment lease contract in hand, and for that you need to find an apartment!

4. That brings me to the business of finding an apartments. Yes, there are plenty of them, and yes they are reasonably cheap. But one crucial problem - they generally do not come with anything. And by anything, I mean that. Nothing in the kitchen , just some water pipes and wires sticking out. One has to buy and install the "kitchen". meaning the burner, fridge and all that is needed. Most apartment buildings are tall, dull structures, with hundreds of units inside, another Esat German legacy. I was even shown a refurbished apartment complex built from an old army barrcak, with long corridors and depressing ambiance.

5. However, one good thing is public transit, specially coming from a place here it was very limited, to put it mildly. Buses run on time, in fact you can almost set your watches by them. They have dedicated lanes and turning signals.

6. The food is not so fantastic though. Its mostly some form of sausage or potato, or often both. Like a sausage immersed in a thick potato soup. Which is not so bad the first time, but gets boring after a while. But then again, so does Wendy's double cheeseburger!

7. This is a tremendously non-multicultural society unlike I was used to. People of color are rare to find, and people actually stare at you if you are brown (or black, I would assume), not always in a bad way, but still!

8. There is quite a number of Neo-Nazi sympathizers here. Or so I hear.

9. Dresden is apparently called the balcony of Europe. I'll soon find out why. It is also the sister city of Columbus, OH. I do not want to find more about it. *Sigh*

10. Its completely different to be a tourist in a place where virtually no one is expected to understand your language, and to actually live there. Just saying.

My first view of snowy Dresden from my 17th floor hostel room:


Blogging took a backseat, while other matters had to be taken care of. I finished my Ph.D, and dedicated it "All those who kept asking when I would be done". Really I did. Before that I needed to find a postdoctoral position, and after a frantic, often frustrating few months, I got an offer from Dresden to join their ATLAS group, which I gladly accepted. Then came perhaps the hardest part - convincing myself that I actually want to get married. I am not actually sure that I succeded, but like a true physicist, I figured a real experiment is the best way to figure out. So that happened too, although in a very non traditional way, in the presence of a few close friends. Then I had a month to make a trip back home, after two years. Finally came back to Gainesville to bid goodbye to my second home, and it was not easy. Calcutta is my original home no doubt, but Gainesville is where everything was mine. It was my apartment, my department and my office space, I bought my car - the sense of familiarity, attachment and belonging to that little big campus town had been too great. It was hard to let it all go, but as they say - life is all about moving on.