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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)

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Nerd Camp Diaries

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

Day 4: Thursday

People were a little hung over this morning (I was in remarkably good shape considering my age and general decrepitude, but I'm very tired because of the 4.5 hours of sleep I got last night). That didn't stop a heated discussion about Higgs bosons from breaking out over breakfast - for God's sake, don't you guys ever turn it off? YOU people are bosons.

We had homework last night - we were supposed to read an article about dark matter. I forgot, of course, so I had to read it quickly over coffee. While we were waiting for Dr. Boy Wonder, Facilitator Don showed a video of the Zapruder film of JFK's assassination on the lecture theatre's smart board & explained how he used the frames of Kennedy's exploding head to illustrate the Law of Conservation of Momentum. Jesus. Is it any wonder that a lot of these guys aren't married? Dr. Boy Wonder arrived and reminded us not to take pictures of the researchers in the building - they hate being treated like zoo animals.

The morning started with a talk from Facilitator Doug, whom I'm starting to find a little irritating (big surprise). He's a super-keen evangelist-type who is on a mission for physics. He says that everything is "neat". He always talks animatedly while gesturing with his hands like a charismatic preacher, and ends every sentence with this shy little Princess Diana smile that seems to say "gosh, gee, I just can't help getting so excited about physics. I would do this job for free." Facilitator Doug led us through an activity about centripetal force (of course we actually had to do the activity instead of just having it explained to us) but it was kind of "neat" because it led to a tie-in about the discovery of dark matter in the Triangulum galaxy. OK - that part was cool. Facilitator Doug said "All the luminous matter in the universe is literally just the tip of the iceberg". Well, not literally, Doug: there isn't a literal giant iceberg in the middle of the universe.

After the Fair Trade Coffee Break, Facilitator Don showed us another video on the smart board about some idiots in Florida who bungee-jumped off the Tampa Bay Bridge, five adults on one cord, swinging off the bridge like a pendulum. Of course the chief idiot had calculated that the cord was strong enough to hold their weight, but hadn't considered the centripetal force created by the swinging action, so the cord naturally snapped and they plunged head-first into the bay. Two of them were horribly injured, and it was all videotaped. I think Facilitator Don has some issues with violence. However, I suppose it was a good lesson on the dangers of letting unlicenced lay people use physics unsupervised.

Next, Dr. Boy Wonder showed us an advance copy of a video for high school students that the Institute is working on about dark matter. We were a test audience & were supposed to give feedback. It's a good video, but there are parts in it that are just painfully uncool, which is the inevitable result when brainiacs at the Institute for Theoretical Physics try to make a video "cool". The opening scene features this sexy Asian woman on a motorcycle roaring up to a telescope observatory. She dismounts and takes off her helmet, shakes out her long black hair, unzips her leather jacket, strides into the observatory and ... turns on her computer. That's all she does - turn on her computer. I suppose that is some quantum physicist sex fantasy, but I think your average teenager is going to wonder why Dr. Hottie McAstrophysicist isn't getting it on with her studly grad student right there under the big phallic telescope. The film is narrated by Dr. Boy Wonder himself - he has a thick Australian accent and in the film looks like a young Preston Manning. He pops up at various points like Rod Serling in the Twilight Zone & explains some abstruse concept (fairly clearly, actually). At one point he is talking about measuring the distance to far-away stars by their brightness, and then he self-consciously puts on sunglasses. Groan. We had to fill out a questionnaire after the film & comment about the narrator - I wrote that he needed a better shirt.

We then had a lecture about dark matter. One theory postulates that the invisible matter in the universe is made up of a new kind of particle called a Weakly-Interacting Massive Particle, or ... wait for it ... WIMP. This of course leads to all kinds of unintentional hilarity. I read sentences with the word WIMP in them & automatically think of the stereotype of the theoretical physicist - sentences like "occasionally a WIMP will collide with the nucleus of an atom, causing a slight vibration" or "experiments looking for WIMPs are taking place all over the world". HA ha.

We broke early this afternoon & took a bus up to St. Jacob's, a supposedly quaint Mennonite community with "shoppes". Sorry to offend anyone who loves St. Jacob's, but I didn't think much of it - it was mostly mass-produced "crafts" and ice-cream parlours. I bought a book about the Battle of Teutoberger Wald (AD 9) & read it under a tree while everyone else bought souvenirs for the wife.

Dinner tonight was at the Laurier University cafeteria - jeez, how can they do this to us after three days of gourmet cooking? I'm going to get the shakes if I don't get me some pistachio-crusted sea bass with passionfruit coulis right freakin' now. Lasagna? You're feeding us freakin' LASAGNA??? With ICEBERG LETTUCE?????

No boozing tonight - have to rest up for the wine & cheese party at the Institute tomorrow where all the brainiacs are going to mingle with the humans. That should be interesting.

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