better days

June 4, 2015


It is sunny this morning. The June Gloom broke! Finally!

I thought I would update this space today. Because, among other things, today, the LHC had its first collisions at 13TeV. A new era of high energy particle physics starts today. Or not. I don’t think we really know.

I met one of my former students on the bus up the hill to the lab– he has a summer position with a research group. I’m so excited for him. 

It’s been a long time since I posted anything.  Nearly a year. If you hadn’t noticed from the last sporadic posts on this blog, these years there have been times when I’ve been powerfully unhappy. Graduate school is long and confusing.

In the hallway of the building I catch a snippet of a conversation in French. 

Spending 2012 at CERN was such a huge year– it felt like everything that ever happened to me worth telling happened then– and it sometimes feels like hardly any time has passed since. Although it must have. Now I like quantum mechanics a lot more than I did then, and on top of that I have spent two years teaching the very class that as an undergrad made me think experimental physics could actually be a bit of fun. I also, incidentally, now know that the ol’ “your op-amp could be busted” line is somewhat of a cop-out answer from a GSI.

A guy introduces himself to me, he works down the hall. I shake his hand. It’s wet. 

For a twist of fate: I also now know why Statistisk Termodynamik was so much easier for that PhD student at Lund than it was for me at the time. Turns out, having five more years of physics under your belt and taking subjects more than once really helps out quite a bit. Last year I got my first 100% test exam score in physics on a elementary-level statistical mechanics exam I was forced to take. Take that undergrads!

My code to the lab door is wonderfully geometric. 

But there’s still the unhappy times. I’ve spent the last two years wandering around several research groups, not asking for what I really wanted because part of me always believes I am too stupid to really participate in this whole physics game. I am often afraid. Apparently this feeling is a thing. A not uncommon thing.

Wow, I still can’t believe I saw an entire class of my own students graduate.

I took a near-year-long expedition towards a subject for which I have so much respect (not sarcastic) because it is really, just so hard.

In the end, the end being now (in case you haven’t sensed that this is the end), I find myself somewhere where I never thought I’d end up: Condensed Matter. Like atoms in lattices and stuff. But it’s alright so far. It’s all about symmetry. I like the lasers. There’s a lot of Potential Applications, which is great but it’s not quite as thrilling as the prospect of staring straight at the bare guts of reality. But Physics is different now, and I’m not sure I’d ever make anything out of the guts anyway. The experiments are easy (relatively) but the physics is hard and often approximate.

I bike down the hill to pick up a tube of vacuum grease from the delivery office on campus, planning to meet the bus at the stop on Euclid to skip the steep ride up. As I roll up to the stop, I see the bus has already left, but is stopped at the stoplight. I glance up the hill were the next stop is, the crossing signal reads ten seconds. SPRINT!  

On my ride home from work today, the fog was back and was relentless. The Bay Area: Where it is cloudy every day but it doesn’t even deign to rain. In my mind, yes, I still do escape to SwitzaFrance, to the warm green summer punctuated by raucous, fantastic downpour and pbar shifts.

There’s nothing like beating the bus. Or the tram. 

So Daily Saga readers, of which there are probably none remaining, I think this is it for now. For this space. When everything becomes too familiar, it’s harder to find things to say. Perhaps that was the original challenge for the blog, though I’ve not done a very good job with it as of late. Perhaps I’ll do it again, somewhere else, sometime soon.

It’s been wonderful to have a place to mercilessly dramatize the mundane and otherwise, exercise vanity, babble in Swedish, and mope a bit. It’s been a long journey here. Thanks for reading.

bye, hej då, au revoir, ciao

Mässa kram! Bisous!

Tuolumne June

June 26, 2014

I am not a climber. I am weak and soft and incapable– perhaps I am fatter than usual or else just feel that way. My feet are sore and my arms ache, but we can go higher. I am crouched on an outcrop on the withers of Unicorn peak. One low, hesitant step and my peripheral vision catches the drop off. I’m unsure if I have ever such before caught the scent eminent death at great height, but now I feel the legs quake. It’s what they call exposure. I step up to a wider rock, crab-walk to safety, and firmly planted, dare to look off the other side.

The people I went to school with are, I assume, off having adult lives. But I am here, on top of a mountain named for a mythical creature with which it shares a silhouette– swimming in childlike wonder, counting my years and trying to forget them. The hostile granite expanse stokes an anti-Edenic bliss; I populate the vacuum with my shortness of breath. I am trying to imagine John Muir in hiking boots, confronted with Cathedral Peak, blossoming in plain view. The unseen and unheard marmots are, I suppose, nonplussed. Somehow, we’ll have to make it down.

Along the Tioga road home there are the thousands of scorched trees, Rim Fire casualties. Decades– it will take decades at least, perhaps centuries, for this forest to be back to what it was when I saw it a year ago. A spark, and decades are erased.

I return to whatever it is I am working on, return to treading water. I see a photo of myself on top of that rock and am dashed, my gut reaction of intense self-loathing nearly ruins the experience of memory. All I see are white walls and the dank unhappiness I’ve wrapped my own head in. All is nearly forgotten.

Lost for words, I check my mail and find them: I turn luminous in an immensity of spaces. M’illumino d’immenso. Out of context, whatever that may be, I begin to think, this could be everything– my eyesight could encompass an entire mountain range and a thousand seedling trees if I only find out how to allow it.



pingst och nationaldag

June 7, 2014

Today our basement is emptier than usual; the lights are off in most of the offices, even as I sheepishly tiptoe in at 10:30 AM. There are barely even a few bikes in the racks in the courtyard. Is it secret holiday, that I’d somehow forgotten? Is it Kristihimmelfärdsdag, which without a doubt, never fails to catch me off-guard? No no. That’s right, we don’t do kristihimmelfärdsdag. It’s certainly not the Fourth of July yet.

PINGST! Wait, what is Pingst again? Wikipedia knows. Aha, Pentecost. Well that sounds like it’s most certainly got to be on a Sunday. Could it be… Annandag Pingst?

Nationaldag! That’s right. That’s what it is. It’s the Swedish National Day. Still, that doesn’t explain why there appears to be half the normal number of people in the College of Chemistry this fine morning in the fine City of Berkeley. Ah Well.

I sit down at my desk and I have a word stuck in my head. It’s Pingst.

Pingst pingst pingst pingst pingst pingst pingst pingst pingst…. Pingst. There’s no one in the basement. 50 days from Passover, PINGST! How the days pass.

It’s going to be a great day. Happy Pingst, everyone.


May 29, 2014

Google is often good at reading minds. Likewise, it’s good at reminding you of: 1) how truly stupid your thoughts sound and 2) the sad but reassuring fact that your thoughts are far from unique.

Screen shot 2014-05-28 at 18.03.41 PM


I finished out the year, and despite the momentary elation of having passed the classes, find myself again trapped and dismayed. Everyone in my year, this fresh crop of new PhD researchers, is SO excited about OMG STARTING RESEARCH LOOK AT ME I AM A REAL SCIENTIST NOW!!!!!!!!! Ugh. I, on the other hand, started in a new group but still feel constantly disenchanted and remain tragically prone to sell myself short and talk my way out of opportunities to do things I feel like I could want to do. I’m writing on this now-essentially-defunct piece of the internet now because I need to convince myself that I have the right to find and do work that makes me happy.  And probably no one reads it.

I can’t believe it, but I miss CERN because at least people ate lunch together and my office had windows.

So here we go, trying to stay afloat: PROJECTS FOR THE SUMMER, outside of what my current group has assigned me:

1. Read papers in condensed matter physics, or whatever seems interesting.

2. Basic competence in Python.

3. Talk (in person, and not at the last minute) to professors.

4. Find the confidence to tell my supervisors if I continue to feel like I’m isolated and suffering.

5. Go outside and ride Mountain bikes.

6. Start writing again. Learn how to use modern web-publishing platforms and social media because that’s what you have to do these days.

7. Start practicing languages again.

8. Take responsibility for myself, stop believing I am stupid and unqualified, and hopefully find something I am motivated to work on!


äntligen regn

February 9, 2014

I dream about places with water. When I biked around San Pablo reservoir a few weeks ago, I found it terrifyingly less than it was before. I hadn’t seen it ages; the water sat low and still. The former shores were rimmed in white, like the salt that perspiration leaves on clothing. I wanted to take a picture of San Pablo reservoir and force every Californian to look at it. We are so used to having everything–from the redness of the year-round tomatoes to the intuitive ease of turning on the faucet and watching clean water run out of it. We are blind to disaster because we don’t know what it is.

We are also blind to familiarity. Or at least, I am. I explain LC circuits to students, over and over. It’s kind-of fun. I wake up early and get excited by how smart my professor sounds when he talks so quickly and so intelligently and so Britishly (quantum dynamics explores all possible trajectories!) but later, I struggle with my motivation and my homework. I read the title of a paper, but beyond the first few sentences I lose interest. I’m sure I’m missing things that I should be seeing, but everything just passes by. I’m trying to find something to do; I have at least ten tabs open on my browser, most of the time.

Social media permits you the illusion that you are not losing touch with the people you loved. This winter, I went very far away, to places with water, to see people in person. I went from somewhat-familiar company in a very familiar place to very familiar company in an only somewhat-familiar place. I laughed with my friends. I remembered I have friends! I used the small toilets. I ate the cheese and the bread. I rode a tire swing like a eight-year-old. I tasted that strange and frustrating high I feel when surrounded by a language I do not understand. I saw wonderful things, like famous art, like mountains, like teeth I recognize. I saw gruesome things, like famous history, like dog shit on the sidewalk, like the preserved bones of saints. Being photographed by a hundred iphones.

Today, in Northern California, it rained. For a while it was the even real rain, the kind in my dreams. I had felt like writing for a while, but doing something not-physics would pang me with guilt. Doing physics is a bizarre privilege. I have no material problems– the problems I spend time thinking about are all on scale tinier than I can really even imagine. It is dangerous to trick oneself into thinking that while death and drought can distract, it all comes down to the movement of charge. To be better at physics, I have to do not-physics, too. I have to remember how I used to think.  

The meteorologists say it’s not enough. They are right. Nonetheless, the world looks new in the rain.

non domandarci

December 10, 2013

I remember where I was a year ago, almost precisely. This is rare.

I was sitting in the foyer above the entrance to the restaurant at CERN, near the upper doors of the auditorium. There was (and for all I know, is) a collection on modular red couches, and the lights don’t turn off. It was some dark morning hour and outside the world was a snowglobe. Laptop drawn close, I was typing tentatively–punching out a sentence, deleting it, re-writing it; Every word had to be a convincing case for myself (bleh) to some faceless professor on an admissions committee. I looked up and realized I was surrounded by larger-than-life portraits of all the past director generals of CERN. I hadn’t slept, so thought I could feel their eyes on me. So many wizened brows, each of them white and male. I stood, found Carlo Rubbia, stared him down, and convinced myself it was only a photo. This is why I am here, I thought. Empowered, I sat again, and typed faster.

Later, I wandered back and forth across the whitening CERN campus, to our control room, to the offices, back to the control room… until about 5 AM, when I fell asleep on a camping pad in the office where the thermostat was broken  and the heater ran non-stop.

I sat today (…and yesterday, and the day before…) solving the final for first semester Quantum Mechanics at Berkeley. It was hard. I barely left my house for two entire days.

Had you asked me when I woke up on the floor of that office (much to the surprise/chagrin of the owner of the office), where I’d find myself a year later, I wouldn’t have guessed here. Especially, since, mere hours after waking up on the floor of that office, I realized the one of the essays I’d submitted had mis-named an atomic transition.

I cannot believe a year has passed, maybe because even though everything is new, it’s still so familiar. What have I learnt? Mostly, that “JD Jackson knows more Bessel function identities than you (I) do.” Well, somethings will always be true.

EM, QM, and Frustration

October 23, 2013


Graduate school so far is strange sort of growing vacuum. When you’re expanding things in terms of Legendre polynomials one hour before midnight on a Monday, you really do forget that most people in the world don’t think about math constantly– especially when you honestly are in so deep that  can’t imagine your life without it.

I command my brain to work. Most of the time it doesn’t listen unless it wants to; I often feel utterly unengaged. I am longing to read, and I “waste time” reading news.  I try to will myself into being interested in homework instead, but the government was down for a while–so, can I blame the Tea Party?

What’s fortunate is that when you’re busy enough with something, it is easier to forget to think about what you could be doing otherwise, right? I could be writing, organizing, programming, running, drawing, working, saying hello, sleeping, worrying, etc. It’s a privileged position, to be paid for doing a PhD while thinking of what one could be doing otherwise.

So, this is it: We are learning what people smarter than us have come up with so far in terms of the Fundamental Ideas that order the world. I hope this time I’ll actually learn them. We are running through the canon (QM, EM) one final time– I doubt it’ll stick, but I’ll try.

It’s painful to think that this blog is dying, but I have to honest: It’s dying. I’m going to make one last promise to attempt to revive it. I furthermore promise that I’m not going to write about how much coffee I drink (a common, and rather boring and whiny theme among the grad-school social media crowd) or many hours I spend on problem sets (hint: a lot of hours, duh).

See you soon.

À tôt, Bisous!


lingua franca

September 11, 2013

One thing I am missing now that I’m in Berkeley is the daily opportunity to bumble though the French language, so much so that I find myself wishing I could offer extra credit for the correct pronunciation of ‘Fourier’ in the lab class I’m facilitating. Questionably ethical, non?


Fleeing the physics building, I am met and taken aback by a familiar rush of staccato. Sure enough, out past the breezeway stands a figure, the source of the ruckus. The cellphone hand is glued to one ear while the other hand gesticulates wildly at the invisible listener. Sure enough, he is speaking Italian. I smirk and approach. But as I pass by, I’m thrown even farther off guard. He is very, very blonde, and very, very light-skinned. He doesn’t even have facial hair. Mind. Blown.

The last two months…

September 2, 2013

You may be worried that this blog has died. Or, you may be, you know, not worried.

Anyway, here we are again. Ramadan came and went. I (predictably) have not gained any ground in Arabic. I did give a presentation about that thing I worked on this summer, and also experienced an acute feeling of stomachlessness upon discovering that that thing did in fact not work in the way I thought it did, a mere fifteen minutes before said presentation.

After that, I ate about a half-kilogram of hand-imported Fontina (not all at once), made it in and out of Yosemite before it caught on fire, watched a Miyzaki film, said goodbye to three great friends and acquired fifty more I have yet to really know, moved to a new house, cried in public (twice), tried over the course of three weeks to remember everything I ever learned in undergrad (and failed), turned in three written exams and one blank one (statistisk termodynamik, du slår mig varje gång), spoke French in public (twice, bad idea), decided to quit grad school, decided that I couldn’t quit something I hadn’t started, started grad school, taught in an undergraduate lab, rode my bike, and ate a burrito.

Focus, for me, seems at the moment impossible. Unfortunately, focus is precisely what I need now, at the start of this new whirlwind. It is still surreal to me to be in the position were someone (probably the American taxpayer) is paying me to learn. It is an astounding, once-in-a-lifetime chance; a position of immense privilege. Hopefully I’ll find some way of living and working here which I can be more than satisfied with. At least I have to try.

Here’s to the next 5 years!

Back to regular writing on Le Blog now, I promise.


Full light on the face of Half Dome, pre-sunset from the Yosemite Falls trail.

When in Ramadan

July 19, 2013

Across the street from my house is an Islamic community center. These days, after dark, I see people moving, seated at a long table, through the wide illuminated window on the second floor. Presumably breaking fast, I can only imagine how good the food must taste, and how animated and joyous their speech must be, being nourished and in familiar company.

In Lund, in 2010, I remember buying a falafel from a shop just after the sun had set at around ten in the evening. Northern summer days are long, the sun hardly setting at all. Upon leaving, falafel in hand, I catch sight of two Middle-Eastern looking men sitting around a table outside the shop. They sit leaning back in their chairs with hands resting above heads in the glowing twilight;  falafel wrappers lay empty before them. Their two visages could have been the same face, their looks of supreme satisfaction matched perfectly. Aha, I thought. Ramadan.


My friend offered me her old set of Arabic books when she moved away. Curious, I accepted them with, as it turns out, naive glee. So far, I’ve opened one of them and discovered that not only does the book read from right to left, but that Arabic appears to be by no means an easy  or even moderately-difficult language. There is an entire book dedicated to solely the sounds of the letters.  It’s not necessarily high on the list of “languages I’m supposed to be learning,” but I sense an adventure between those covers. Indeed, it’s high time to de-Euro-centrize linguistic interests!


Unrelated to Ramadan, but on the topic of satisfied facial expressions:

Is it OK if I love Christophe Roblin, if only for the Alpe D’Huez win and this look of pure and utter Praise-be, Holy-shit, exhaustion, disbelief-joy?