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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)

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Nerd Camp Diaries

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

Day 3: Wednesday

We went out on a pub crawl last night in Waterloo. I got in at 2:00 am, so concentrating on quantum mechanics today is going to be a bit tricky. Apparently there was a noise complaint in the dorm two nights ago - too much talking in the lounge. I wasn't there, but someone here has a pickle up their ass. At breakfast, annoying Katie was wearing a t shirt that says "Schrodinger's cat is dead." (That's a lame quantum theory joke.) HA ha.

This morning's lecture from Dr. Boy Wonder was on Randomness & Quantum Mechanics. His lecture was a good example of randomness - he jumped from topic to topic, consulted his notes frequently (again written on a napkin), hemmed & hawed, etc. Our first whiteboard task was to calculate the wavelength of an electron based on a 2-slit interference pattern. Whoa there, buddy - I'm on vacation. I faked it & didn't hold up my whiteboard. No one noticed. Then we had a multiple-choice quiz (done on whiteboards, naturally). There was much discussion about the philosophy & pedagogy of the multiple-choice question - even the Caribbean spy spoke up for the first time and said "Do you really mean never, or just really really unlikely?"(I guess that’s a quantum approach to multiple-choice questions.) Josh the Resident Expert said " 'None of the above' is a biased distractor. I never use that option. I always use deeper and richer questions." Good for you, asshole. Roberto the Brazilian ear-hair guy fell asleep during Dr. Boy Wonder's lecture and snored very loudly. This prompted much suppressed giggling, a startled look on Dr. Wonder's face and a stern look from the facilitators.

After Fair Trade Coffee Break, the keynote speaker was Dr. Sundance Bilson-Thompson (no, I'm not making that up). He's a string theory expert from Australia who looks like a surfer - cargo shorts, flip-flops, long blond hair in a pony-tail, Oakley sunglasses on top of his head. He is much older than the other researchers here - I'm guessing 25. His lecture was on Looped Quantum Gravity and the Standard Model. His PowerPoint presentation was full of complex math involving four-dimensional matrices - one guy put up his hand and asked why time is represented by -1 in one of the matrices. Buddy, if you have to ask that question, you don't understand the math anyway, so shut the hell up. Dr. Sundance represented his model of the universe by a diagram with lots of squiggly lines that meet up at nodes that represent points in 4-D space-time. This prompted all kinds of idiotic questions from the audience, my favourite being "What's the significance of the lines that don't meet up with anything?". Sundance answered deadpan - "That's the edge of the page". His model involves particles called helons & rishons which are basically multi-dimensional strings that are twisted together in “braids”. Whatever. Five minutes before lunch time when everyone's getting a little antsy to see what gourmet treats the kitchen staff has cooked up for us, Josh the Resident Expert asked "Can you explain how the Higgs boson fits into the Standard Model?". Fifteen minutes later ... I'm developing an intense dislike for Josh.

Lunch was excellent as usual: fried chicken with couscous, vegetable soup & caesar salad with shaved parmesan cheese.

There seems to be a cult of Einstein here - everyone talks about him in hushed tones, or tries to work anecdotes about him into their speech. One of the facilitators told us that "researchers think" that Einstein had Asperger's Syndrome (a form of autism). Oh for crying out loud. Also, I've noticed a correlation between age and wrist-watch wearing. No one here under 30 wears a watch - they all pull out their Blackberries to check the time. Some noticeable exceptions - Dr. Boy Wonder wears an expensive-looking watch, probably a gift from his parents when he completed his PhD dissertation. Sundance also wears a watch, but it's digital. He must be rebelling against the physics establishment, or making some kind of retro statement.

After lunch we did some "think-pair-share", which is a favourite technique among educators, especially those who went to Queen's. You think about something, pair up with someone else, talk about it & share it with the "large group". I'm not too thrilled about pairing & sharing right now - can't we just get on with it? Then we played a "quantum cryptography game" where we broke up into groups of four - each person representing Alice, Bob, Eve and a photon. The point is for Alice to send an encrypted message to Bob via quantum-entangled photons & to try to find out if Eve has "eavesdropped" (Eve - eavesdrop - get it?) on the message. Eve got busted in our group - I was the entangled photon. One woman in our group I think is a lesbian - she has really short hair, wears workboots & an old Pink Floyd concert t-shirt and no makeup. I know that's a stereotype, but I'm just saying. She was Bob.

One of our facilitators, Don, who is a high school teacher, gave us some advice about shopping in downtown Waterloo. He said there was a store there that sold fair-trade stuff from benighted third-world countries and that we could get the same fair-trade coffee they serve at the Institute there. Then he told us that there was a Starbucks next door where "you can get unfair-trade coffee". I'm going to Starbucks.

Dinner was at the Black Hole Bistro, where it was "Pub Night" for the brainiacs. They were serving hamburgers & chicken wings & cheap microbrews ($2.50/bottle). The bar was open until 10:00, so five of us closed the place (including Barbara, a former engineer, who can really drink). We got a little rowdy & left all kinds of "hilarious" physics-related graffitti in chalk on the big blackboard that makes up one wall of the bistro - stuff like changing the menu from "hamburgers" to "Heisenbergers". HA ha.

After closing out the bistro, we went downtown & bar-hopped, finally ending up in a tavern where we drank pitchers of beer until 2:00 am. Much hilarity ensued. A few people were starting to look a little green around the gills towards the end of the evening. Josh the Resident Expert was putting the moves on Barbara. Not sure how that ultimately turned out.

So, that's what happens when you give eight hours of lectures on quantum physics & then provide cheap beer.


Joanne BLY said...

The food sounds awesome at the Perimeter.

Do they serve the Physics-ally challenged?

Eric said...

The food there was amazing, and the restaurant itself is beautiful with a great view of Waterloo. I think the public is welcome but I'm not sure - give them a call & find out. It's worth it.