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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)

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Nerd Camp Diaries

Part two of the diary of my week at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario. (See the rest here.)

Day 2: Tuesday

It's the end of day 2 of Nerd Camp at the Perimeter Institute. They took us out for dinner at East Side Mario's in Waterloo tonight & then we went out for beers afterwards - consequently I'm a little loaded.

Breakfast was at the residence as usual, followed by a ten minute walk to the Institute. I was forced to walk with this other guy from Toronto who informed me that he plans to raise alpacas when he retires, but he's starting to think that's not such a good idea, since no one will need to wear alpaca-wool sweaters in a few years because of global warming. WTF. How do I get stuck with these idiots?

Over fair-trade coffee at the Institute, I was forced to listen to Katie, who said "I, like, can't believe that they're, like, using disposable cups? Like, with the disposable plates & cutlery at breakfast, you know, like the impact on the environment is, like, you know, humungous? I think I'll, like, buy a re-useable mug?" Katie, by the way, flew in from Vancouver for this workshop, presumably on a jet that burned fossil fuels. She was also complaining yesterday that the air conditioning in her room wasn't working.

There is a woman here from the Caribbean who doesn't talk to anyone and who always wears a raincoat (even indoors) with the hood up. I think she's a spy.

This morning we had a lecture on Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle by Dr. Boy Wonder. I think Dr. Wonder was out drinking last night, because his lecture notes were written on the back of a napkin and his presentation was very disjointed. He needs a PowerPoint presentation, big time. We sat through all kinds of boring stuff about angular momentum & non-locality, and then at the end he spent five minutes discussing quantum theory & the nature of free will & then dismissed us for lunch. Wait a minute! This is the good stuff - you can't stop there!!! Free will vs determinism in 5 minutes???

We spend a lot of time here breaking into groups, which I hate. Just tell us the stuff & spare us the brainstorming. We use these 10"x 14" white boards with dry erase markers, and every time we break into groups we have to write stuff on the white boards and hold them up to the rest of the group. The "facilitators" say stuff like "let's whiteboard this". Today we got a little lecture about proper use of whiteboards - "We want you to learn good whiteboard habits". This apparently means using lots of colours and not too many words. I'm in a group with a cranky guy from Buffalo about my age who said today "I hate this whiteboard shit". I love you, man.

Later in the morning we had a keynote speaker (age 16, looks like) who is the world expert on quantum cryptography. He looks like Fred Savage from that old TV show The Wonder Years. He got his PhD at CalTech and did post-doctoral work at Los Alamos. I barely understood what he was talking about - here's a sample: "In quantum teleportation, Alice and Bob first create an EPR pair, & each takes one of the two qubits. Then Alice asks if the qubit she wishes to teleport is the same or different from her half of the EPR pair for both X and Z (ie she does the X and Z parity measurements)". (I wrote this down from his PowerPoint presentation.) This didn't stop Josh the Resident Expert from asking idiotic questions, like "Has anyone thought about building a quantum computer from anti-matter?" Shut the hell up, asshole. I wanted to ask Dr. Quantum Cryptography - "Did you get beat up a lot in high school?" but thought better of it.

I've met a couple of really smart women in the group today, both of them former engineers (female engineers being somewhat of a rarity). Speaking of engineers, there was a big discussion about iron rings over coffee this morning. Engineers in Canada wear an iron ring after they graduate that is supposedly made of steel from a catastrophic bridge collapse in Quebec City in 1907. I've heard this story so often, I want to throw up when I hear about the sacred engineering trust. One guy, Jeremy, said "I should be wearing an iron ring (he's an engineer) but I don't wear jewellery". I wanted to ask him why - so people wouldn't think he was gay? Jeez, buddy - relax. Nobody's going to mistake you for gay - you're wearing track pants.

There's another annoying guy from Toronto who is like a Liberal poster boy. Today when someone was describing the 2-point source interference pattern as being like the shadows cast by a light shining through prison bars, he said "Americans would understand that analogy". (There are five Americans in our group - welcome to Canada.) When Dr. Quantum Cryptography said "A quantum computer is 20-30 years away - I say this because by then you'll have forgotten I made this prediction", buddy said "Kind of like the Conservative government's election promises". Sigh.

However, lunch was again excellent: carrot & ginger soup, pepper-crusted pork tenderloin, foccaccia pizza, green beans with almonds. At lunch, dipstick Katie said "So, I think, like, Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle is, like, totally mind-blowing? Like, when I was in Catholic school? I totally trusted the universe, you know? Now, like, you know, you can't believe like your own senses?" Lunch was so good that I was successful in stifling the urge to beat her with a baguette.

After lunch, we were bused to the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo. We met the top brainiacs in this field who have come to Waterloo from all over the world. I expected to see these giant throbbing brains walking around on spindly bodies, but they're just like regular humans. We had a great lecture by a guy from Germany who is one of the top experts in this area, but he still couldn't figure out how to pull down the projector screen. He gave what he called a "mono-media presentation" - a 30 minute summary of quantum mechanics & the "Einstein-Podolski-Rosen Paradox" in a cool German accent. Imagine Arnold Schwarzenegger lecturing on quantum theory - it was very weird. Then we were taken to see Waterloo's quantum computer - the world's most powerful at 12 bits of information. It looks like a water heater. The French guy who built it told us "there are 37 liters of liquid helium at 5 degrees Kelvin in there. If it fails, it will all suddenly become a gas and explode outwards, trapping you in this room. You will talk like Mickey Mouse for a few seconds, then die an agonizing death having sacrificed your lives for science. Fortunately this only happens every three or four years somewhere in the world." This got a pregnant woman in our group a little agitated.

After working up an appetite with some more hard-core quantum cryptography, it was off to dinner. Tonight some of us are going on a pub crawl in downtown Waterloo - I think I may be a little old for this kind of punishment, but I'll give it my best shot.


Joanne BLY said...

Ha-ha! I'm enjoying your stories.

Always wondered what it was like at The Perimeter Institute. Thanks for the first hand account.

Bert said...

Like, fer sure, they ought to use, you know, stainless steel cutlery.

I've been to a number of Perimeter public lectures including one by the Quantum Cryptography guy. Did he talk about getting kidnapped by a shadowy government group ?

Greg said...

Engineers - sheesh. The rings are just stainless steel, probably from the same batches they make cutlery from. If they were iron from a bridge my finger would have rust stains.