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"Each individual should allow reason to guide his conduct, or like an animal, he will need to be led by a leash."
Diogenes of Sinope


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Thousand Flowers tapestry (15th Century) - Beaune, France (detail)

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Nerd Camp Diaries

Stephen Hawking was welcomed on Sunday to the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Ontario where he is about to commence a year-long research position. This is a major coup for the institute, which now positions itself as one of the great physics research institutions in the world.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to attend a week-long series of seminars at the Perimeter Institute called Einstein Plus. It was designed to introduce educators from around the world to cutting-edge research in modern physics. For a week I lived at the Perimeter Institute and met some of the most brilliant scientists in the world. All my friends laughed at me when I told them what I was going to do on my summer vacation - they called it "Nerd Camp" - but it was a truly amazing experience. I still look back on it with awe years later. While I was there I kept a diary, so in honour of Dr. Hawking's arrival in Canada, I present - "the Nerd Camp Diaries". I was there for six days, so I'll publish this in several installments. Names have been changed to spare anyone involved undue embarrassment.

Day 1: Monday

OK - this is officially the coolest professional thing I have ever done. You wouldn't believe this place (the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo) - it's like physics nerd nirvana. The building is ultra-cool - all glass, slate & stainless steel, with glass offices where guys with giant brains are doing calculus on blackboards. Even the lounges and hallways have big blackboards in them covered with incomprehensible (to me) math equations. I'm in the library now, which looks like some kind of cross between a gentleman's club and an ultra-hip restaurant. Just the titles of the books on the shelves make my head hurt.

The whole program is being run by the "outreach director" of the institute, who has a PhD in theoretical physics. He looks like he's 18 years old - I would card him in a bar. I call him "Dr. Boy Wonder". He's from Australia & periodically uses weird pronunciations like "quaacks" (quarks).

I would like to run the laptop computer concession here - it's laptop-palooza. I think I'm the only one without one - the biggest crisis of the morning was arranging wireless access for everyone.

The food here is amazing. We had a buffet breakfast this morning at the residence (we are staying in one of Laurier University's student residences) which was OK, but lunch at the institute was outstanding. There is a gourmet restaurant on the top floor that looks like it wouldn't be out of place in Manhattan. Lunch consisted of poached salmon with risotto, cream of leek soup & mixed greens, all washed down with excellent (fair-trade, of course) coffee. There are muffins everywhere. Copies of major newspapers are scattered all over the lounges, including the National Post. Dinner tonight was a three-course meal served on fine china with wine. The menu: "salad of frisee and organic seedlings with avocado and citrus segments, roasted strip-loin of beef with truffle mashed potatoes, grilled asparagus and roasted baby portobello mushrooms, and hazelnut panna cotta with frangelico zabaglione and fresh berries". Excellent coffee, again. The nerds at my table tried to create a wave interference pattern in the panna cotta with two knives.

In spite of their colossal super-human brains, many of the PhDs who are talking to us can't figure out how to use the simplest technology, and much fuss is spent at the beginning of every lecture figuring out how to hook up the laptops to the LCD projectors. One guy didn't have his handouts because he couldn't figure out how to use the photocopier. We have our lectures in two high tech lecture theatres called the Alice Room and the Bob Room (that's an inside physics joke - Alice & Bob are always used to designate points A and B, as in "Alice fired a paper airplane at 3.5 m/s at Bob who was 15 m away...) The restaurant is called the Black Hole Bistro - it is ultra-chic, with frosted glass & teak everywhere, a grand piano & a bar that looks like a place where Cameron Diaz would be swilling martinis. The money that is being spent to keep these geniuses happy must be phenomenal - but if you want to lure them here from Princeton, I guess that's what it takes.

Today's activities consisted of a hands-on lab where we calculated Planck's Constant using 9 volt batteries and LEDs, followed by various activities on wave/particle duality and a discussion of Einstein's Theory of Special Relativity. Thank goodness I brought a calculator. We also calculated the deBroglie wavelength of a human body (infinitesimally small) and the odds that a human body could use its wave properties to pass through a wall (about a 1 in 1050 chance). By the way, I bet you didn't know that the world size record for a particle exhibiting wave-like properties is fluorinated fullerene ( C60F48 ), and that scientists in Vienna are trying to observe wave behaviour by viruses. Who knew?

Many of the people in the group seem a little bewildered. We had an ice-breaker last night where we had to choose physics-themed team names - I suggested "the Leptons" (a lepton is a type of sub-atomic particle). The woman with the chart paper wrote "kleptons" (groan), so for the rest of the evening our team was known as The Kleptons, which made absolutely no sense & just made people look at us funny. She had also never heard of Carl Sagan (his name was the answer to a quiz question - "who wrote the novel Contact?") - I had to spell his name for her. Carl Sagan - probably the most recognizable name in popular cosmology! Sigh.

There are also numerous annoying personalities among the group. One guy in particular (Josh) I have developed an intense dislike for. He's from the Maritimes, and is constantly prolonging the lectures by asking stupid questions designed to showcase his own brilliance, and is always favouring us with anecdotes that start with phrases like "Research out of Russia, I think it is....", "Several studies like McDermot at U. of Washington have shown that ...", "What about the research from Randall White?", "This has always been my criticism of computer simulations" and my favourite - "I did a mini-thesis on this exact topic ..." Also, there's a guy here from Brazil (Roberto) who has the most amazing ear hair - it sticks out from his ears a full 2 inches. He looks like a capuchin monkey.

Tomorrow we're diving into quantum mechanics, which is not exactly my area of expertise, so I'm a little nervous. I'm going to do a little light reading tonight to bone up on the subject.

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