Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A German Graduation

Writing this post from a "world" I have never experienced before. Lufthansa lounge at the top floor of A concourse, Frankfurt airport, with abundant luxuries. Free food and drinks of all varieties, internet, a piece of paradise tucked away from the all the chaos.

In a world which is trying to become more and more uniform every day, unique local traditions and customs feel like breath of fresh air. Yesterday I was fortunate to see one of our group members get her Ph.D, and while that it by itself is a fantastic occasion, what followed next caught me by complete surprise. After the presentation, the mandatory faux-suspense wait while the committee deliberated inside (an aside: turns out in Germany, there are also grades associated with a Ph.D degree, and that probably took most of the time)once she stepped out of the room, she was put in a dolly, designed as a funny take on her time here. Turns out on an April fool,s day years back, she jokingly asked her advisor for a cot in her office, and there it was, the dolly was designed as a bed, replete with a pillow! To reflect her incredible work ethic, a model computer screen was put on, along with a alarm clock showing 2 am. She was working on detection of this particle called the Higgs boson, decaying into some other particles called Tau leptons.
So, of course cutout of Greek tau and H was all over it, and her graduation hat was designed like a Mexican hat, which is a popular representation of how Higgs bosons interact, and there was little white ball depicting the Higgs inside her hat too. She sat in the dolly, a beer in her hand, and was pushed around the campus by enthusiastic members of the group, her advisor included. This was completely new for me, and so much fun!

Here is a picture from the evening:

Anyone seen any other funny graduation customs?

Friday, November 12, 2010

Looking back at the choice I made

Disclaimer: this was written as a response to a question from a very good friend, if this reads too trivial and personal. may be it is. Also, no disrespect meant to any one making any career choice, the opinions expressed reflect my personal bias.

Why are you doing what are you doing? I guess this is one of the most frequently asked question to those of us who are considered not doing a "real job". While I discussed about why I love doing what I am doing years back here, the other question would be, how did I end up doing it. My usual answer is that I ended up doing physics because I was not good at anything else, which strangely does not satisfy people at all.

One tends to think that career choice is a huge decision. May be it is, but as a teenager, it is hard to have that broad global perspective. Our decisions are mostly shaped by what we see happening all around us, in a very local scale. Although in high school essays one writes one wants to be a doctor when one grows up because they hate to see poor people suffering, I have a sneaky feeling that they want to be doctors either because the white coat looks cool in movies, or after reading Robin Cook novels.

I grew up in a very liberal (my parents spent considerable time abroad) yet conservative (in the sense that choosing a non-traditional career was not an option) household in the outskirts of a small town. We were not strikingly affluent, but all the basic luxuries were all there, and fortunately money was never something which influenced my career path. Like all the nerdy kids, I liked mathematics and sciences, but I also found history entertaining and geography enchanting. It is remarkably satisfying when you actually get to set foot on the places you read years back in those books, but I digress. I have to admit that while I liked reading books, of all colors and flavors, I could never find much logic in studying literature, which essentially involved critically dissecting the nice pieces and taking the fun out of them, or memorizing rules of grammar, which is merely a human convention.

My dad is a Ph.D physicist, and so were a few other uncles. My mom studied history. So that possibly helped to shape my initial interest. However, as I approached that inevitable point where I had to decide my "future", there were few other considerations too. Bright (and not so bright) kids left and right were desperately studying engineering in the hope of landing an "easy" software job, and at that impressionable age, that sounded tempting enough. In fact the accepted convention in those days was that the best minds study engineering and medicine, leaving the mediocre kids who could not get through to either study science and humanities subjects. I was fortunate to have been acquainted with computers from an early age, so with my limited (but certainly better than others who wanted to study computer engineering without having the faintest idea of what it is) exposure, I thought that may be a fun subject. But then I was told that you get to use computers in a lot of other disciplines too, and I was happy. Plus studying computers at a good place involved going through some pretty competitive, demanding but dull entrance examinations, and I was not sure if it was worth the hassle. (For the record, yes, I did take those exams, and yes did not get through to where I would have wanted, but at that point I already had my mind made up.)

It is hard to pin down a moment when and how I made up my mind to study physics, but I will try. Many people think, somewhat mistakenly, that I ended up choosing physics because of my family influence. While it is certainly true that there are/were some highly talented and acclaimed physicists I got to talk to, and my dad is an amazing teacher, something so easily accessible and "everyday" does not influence you so much. May be it did subconsciously, I do not know. However, a couple of things happened the summer before I had to decide. I ended up in a summer camp kind of thing (organized by the excellent people at JBNSTS), where toppers from different schools in North Bengal and North-East India gathered and we had short courses on advanced topics. The professor who taught physics, more specifically very beginning quantum mechanics to these bunch of starry-eyed kids was superbly motivational, and we were mesmerized. The class would start in the lecture hall in the afternoon, and at some point, when the lecture hall needed to be locked up, we would just shift to the adjacent cafeteria, and he would continue. Most of us fell in love with physics. Practical considerations meant not all of us taking up physics, but even now when I talk with someone from that group, they fondly talk reminiscence about those lectures. Around the same time, I happened to stumble on this book by James Gleick based on life of Feynman and I just could not put it down. I read though it, all five hundred plus ages in one go, and that was it. As an adolescent you need someone to idolize (Bill Gates for my computer science friends perhaps?), and no matter how cliched it sounds, he was that man. Of course other mundane things helped, that I actually did not get through to those engineering colleges where a lot of people around me expected me to go, but I had good enough grades to get through to perhaps one of the best undergraduate program in physics at that time, and incidentally the aforementioned quantum mechanics
teacher was a faculty there.

As a very young kid, I had a fascination for trains, like all kids do. Once a train driver waived back at me, and that made my day. I thought I wanted a to be train driver. Alas, that never worked out, but as a high energy physicist, I am going places afterall!

Saturday, November 06, 2010

The unknown perspective

We all read about that incident in our morning newspaper. Uttered a few sighs, commented about the what could have been. Then we moved on. I was haunted by the nightmare for a while, and I still vividly remember the scene.

It was a lazy weekday afternoon in Kolkata. Mexico was playing US in a world cup soccer game. As a passionate sports lover, there was no way I could miss that game - but also needed to go my university which was at the opposite end of the town. Fortunately, Kolkata metro came to my rescue, as they were showing the games live at the stations. So I watched the first half in Belgachia, took a train to Rabindra Sadan just as the halftime ended, and stood there, watching the game. People walked by, sometimes asking the score, sometimes obliviously. Trains kept passing by. Nothing distracted me.

Then it happened. I still do not know what made me turn around, and first time in my life, to witness death firsthand. The upper body of a man, stuck between the train and platform, was being dragged by the train screeching to a halt. For a moment the world stopped, the sounds seem to come from a parallel universe. I could not bear looking on. The story did come out the next day, and no, he was not attempting suicide at the metro tracks like countless other morons do, he just slipped and fell at the most inopportune moment. Sometimes there is no way to come back.

But sometimes there is, and that is perhaps the most glorious thing about life. We all had our share of misfortunes, and mistakes. We love to say they altered our lives, but that is the probably one of the worst vague generalizations one can make. We never knew to begin with how life would be if certain things did or did not happen. I am sure that I would not be doing what I am doing sitting on a dull Saturday morning at Dresden, if I did not join Florida in fall 2003, that much is clear. What is completely unclear though what would have happened if I got a chance and joined another university in US, or a research institute in India. I would not have met the same people or traveled the same road, but would that have been more or less rewarding? We do not know the answer. We have no way to find out.

We know we want to read this book, or watch that movie. Perhaps visit that place. I want Florida to win all football games every year. We probably also know how the results of our work would look like, although research by definition is probing the unknown. But beyond that, we do not know. And like the kid holding the raffle ticket in his hand, and imagining the endless possibilities, we prefer it that way.

No adventurer knew what lay ahead. That would have defeated the purpose.