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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)

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Nerd Camp Diaries

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

Day 6: Saturday

Today is the last day of Nerd Camp at the Perimeter Institute - only a half day, then we take the souvenir coffee mug & the T shirt & say our fond farewells. Although it was an amazing experience, I think I've had enough of these people - I want to be alone for awhile and be back home sleeping in my familiar bed. This morning one guy in our group, Brent, was wearing a black T shirt with a Periodic Table of the Elements on it - he told us it was his "dark matter T shirt". HA ha. Annoying Katie explained to everyone that she was drinking her Fair Trade coffee out of a juice glass because she didn't want to use disposable cups. As a result, I now use a fresh disposable cup at every break and ostentatiously throw it out. I also use paper towels in the washroom instead of the air dryer.

First a summary of yesterday's activities. In the morning, Dr. Boy Wonder told us to "break into groups and teach each other a lesson on Dark Matter". Groan. I hate this stuff - can't we just learn about things without having to constantly interact with everyone? Dr. Wonder, during his introduction about Dark Matter & Dark Energy, said "there is Dark Energy in this room". No kidding - it's sitting over there with a nametag that says "Hi my name is ERIC". Dr. Wonder looked a little rough - he has massive bed-head & he hasn't shaved. Also, he wasn't wearing his watch - he must have left it on someone's nightstand. Since the facilitators always wear these distinctive red golf shirts, it's hard to tell if he has changed clothes since yesterday. Dr. Wonder's executive assistant Diane came in to talk to us about submitting expense claim forms - she is a super-sexy woman who favours high heels and tailored skirts. She must set the cooling fins glowing cherry-red on all the giant brains in this building every time she walks down the hall.

We got into a discussion about teaching the concept of Dark Matter to high-school students. Facilitator Doug told us that we have to be "agents for physics", and that "physics isn't about finding the answers, it's about asking the questions". Oh shut up. Facilitator Don also looked a little rough this morning - he was probably at some S&M club last night hanging from a bungee cord naked while watching the Zapruder film. During the discussion, Josh the Resident Expert said "I'm not aware of any pedagogical research that supports this. As educators, we're engaged in action research that always aims at best practices". One more day ... try to keep it together for one more day. Dr. Wonder pulled out his Blackberry while Josh was babbling and checked his messages while muttering "Yeah, OK, uh huh" occasionally to feign interest.


The keynote speaker was Dr. Cliff Burgess, an expert on Dark Matter from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. Astonishingly, he is relatively old - in his mid-forties. He was also wearing a watch (analog). The topic of his presentation was "What is the universe made of - the case for Dark Matter & Dark Energy". Two thumbs up - best lecture of the week. He had a very sarcastic delivery that was right up my alley. Some quotations: "The guy who figures this out is the guy they'll be celebrating 100 yrs from now for showing that Einstein was full of shit", and "This model is so easy to explain, every graduate student comes up with it independently every Monday", and "No other model passes the ego test - if you ask the person who came up with it 'are you responsible for this theory?' they say 'yes' ", and "I have a theory about Dark Energy & so do 15 others, but they're all full of shit".

Friday’s lunch at the Black Hole Bistro was outstanding as usual: tomato & roasted red pepper soup; crepes with mushroom duxelles, ricotta cheese & cream sauce; Cobb salad; grilled halibut with roasted vegetable & pine-nut pesto; zucchini risotto. I'm going to have to take a little nap this afternoon I think.

In the afternoon, we had a session called "Answering the toughest student questions about modern physics". We had submitted written questions earlier & two grad students sifted through them & tried to explain the answers to us. The first session was by Jackie, one of Dr. Wonder's grad students. She was pretty good - gave a nice concise explanation of quantum superposition (although I can't imagine a high-school student asking a question like that). She was followed by Jason. When Jason walked into the room, there were audible sighs from the middle-aged women in the group (and a few of the men). He's 25, looks like Colin Farrell, dresses in black and his eyes are actual limpid pools. He doesn't wear a watch, but does wear one of those hemp and shell necklaces nestled in his chest hair. He talked about time travel - "Oh, like light is travelling slower than c, like, in water, or whatever", and "you have, like, an electron here, and, like, a muon over here, or whatever". Barbara the middle-aged former-engineer got all giggly and flirty, and spent the Fair Trade Coffee Break, along with about half a dozen other women old enough to be his mother, hanging around watching him write equations on the blackboard, pecs & delts rippling under his torso-hugging shirt. I half-expected to hear one of them sigh "Oh, the way you handle that chalk - you must be exhausted".

I learned a new term that everyone here uses : "hand-wavey explanation", as in "I know that's just a sort of hand-wavey explanation of a very complex topic". I gather that that means you mumble and wave your hands around to conceal the fact that you don't know the answer to a question.

We had to do a quick survey on something or other and Facilitator Don asked us to answer by holding up our whiteboards. I thought to myself, "Self, why can't we just raise our actual hands?". When I did answer by just raising my hand, Facilitator Don said to me curtly "I told you to raise your whiteboard". Fuck you, Facilitator Don.

We cut the session short so that we could attend a wine & cheese party in the Bistro & mingle with the Institute's brainiacs. The room was spread with bottles of fine wine & trays of exotic cheeses from all over the world - wow. Sundance Bilson-Thompson arrived & immediately was surrounded by a crowd of middle-aged women. Who says nerds can’t get chicks? (Of course it helps that he looks a bit like Matthew McConaughey.) I was sitting at a table with Barbara & a few others when Jason the hot grad student came over and said "Do you mind if I, like, sit here?" Barbara just about fainted. She asked him why he went into physics - he said "It's like, I wanted to, like, find out how the universe worked, or whatever?" Barbara sighed, batted her eyelashes and said "Isn't he just like the student you always wanted to teach?" Jesus, Barbara - go take a cold shower.

The wine & cheese morphed into a barbecue on the stunning roof-top patio of the Institute. I figured it would be sausages on a bun or something, but no: Cornish game hens, grilled summer vegetables, corn on the cob & lemon mousse with chocolate truffles for desert. Once again, super-cheap microbrews were featured at the bar. The bartender said to me "Wow, you guys in this session sure drink a lot. Last week's group didn't drink at all - total nerds". I'm thinking "how can you NOT drink here - 8 hours of intense quantum physics & we're dismissed to a cool bar with cheap beer?" After the barbecue, we wandered into downtown Waterloo where we found a brew pub with an excellent patio called the Lion Brewery. We drank pitchers of beer until 1:00 am. Barbara got a little loaded and confessed "I think Facilitator Don is an asshole. " I bought Barbara a drink after that - it's like we now have a special bond or something.

Saturday morning, Dr. Boy Wonder gave a lecture on Black Holes. He's tidied himself up and has his watch back. He made us calculate the Schwartzchild radius of an electron and then answer the question "why don't all electrons immediately collapse and become tiny black holes?" Good question. The answer is, no one knows the answer. That's just a hand-wavey explanation, though.

Facilitator Doug wrapped up the session. He is SUPER KEEN!!!!! He LOVES HIS JOB!!!!! Everything is "KINDA COOL!!!!!", especially General Relativity, which gives him HEART PALPITATIONS!!!!! He says his students EAT IT UP!!!!! He wants to SHARE IT WITH EVERYBODY!!!!! It's FREAKY!!!!! Good God, get me out of here.

So, here it is Saturday afternoon. We got our mugs & shirts and a certificate for the fridge that says we graduated from Nerd Camp. One last lunch & I'm on the road (just sandwiches this time - I guess they're trying to slowly re-introduce us to the food of the outside world). It was KINDA COOL, I must say. Certainly the most interesting educational activity I've ever been involved in.

I'm especially going to miss the food.

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