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 WeiƟwurst 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.