Archive for the ‘physics’ Category


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!


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!


Every day I feel…

July 10, 2013


“I see you have a nice new addition to your office,” a visiting researcher says to my boss, as I continue installing software on a newly acquired computer. I know he’s not talking about the computer. However because I do not like being *practically* referred to in the third person when I am present, I cannot help but I ask, in a veiled-as-humor protest:

“Oh, do you mean the new computer?”

“No!” Laughter. “It’s you!”

They don’t get it, ah well. C’est la frickin’ vie. You’ve got to pick your battles. This is not one of them.


And so, every day I feel less and less like Berkeley and Physics is where I want to be for the next N years of my life. Just grad school nerves? Perhaps. But truth be told I have been feeling this way for quite some time. This is not something I am good at. This is the running theme of this blog. This is something that for the most part, I honestly barely enjoy at this point. I could’ve been lots of things, but for some reason I’ve chosen fluorescent-lit rooms and no-effect-on-the-real-world (whatever that means). Maybe I have yet to find my place?  Let’s hope so, because I’ve already signed the papers.


Or maybe I am just beginning to feel tied down. And feel somewhat emotionally spread across a couple countries. And have very bad Sweden-envy. I want sommar. Now.

kind of normal

June 17, 2013

“Whoa, you are really comfortable with this kind of environment,” says my new boss as we rummage through a thicket of various cables on top of the cyclotron.

“You mean a huge mess in an accelerator hall? It’s kind of normal, right?” I reply with intentional nonchalance.

“Most fresh grad students are not used to this,” he clarifies. I guess spending several integrated days of your life digging through boxes of cables does have some perks, after all.


Despite what it may seem, I am still alive. And, yes, I’m in Berkeley having the summer of learning ROOT/C++ I  had always longed for/ escaped at CERN. I’m working for the time being in a group using the good ol’ (and I mean, actually old) Berkeley Cyclotron at LBNL. So far my job involves less coffee, less linguistic hilarity, more safety regulations, and significantly fewer copper gaskets than the previous one. Berkeley to me is new and still the same; I can sense the impending challenge but I feel so much at home. Just to walk down the street and recognize faces, to be able to call up a friend and spend time together, or to simply speak the same language as everyone around me is still somewhat surreal.

I haven’t kept up with my one-post-a-week pledge, largely due to the fact that I contracted (developed? acquired?) Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. Seriously: It’s horrible. Fortunately, when my hands felt the worst I was in a position in which I could take two weeks off from typing and doing other repetitive tasks with my hands. Now, I’m back in action… but am constantly wary.

This will be my first summer in California since a while; I forgot how dry everything is. People (supposedly my future classmates) are already googling my name and “Berkeley physics 2013” and landing on this blog. Oh how the internet makes things so awkward sometimes. Hi, guys. Let the fun begin!

From Rilke: Enough

April 19, 2013

I read Sonnets to Orpheus in the way one listens to ambient music. It is largely passive. I listen to sounds without trying to pick out tones, entreat images without trying to string them together or decode some meaning. I read it absentmindedly,  occasionally imagining the interior environment of the small Swiss hut Rilke wrote Sonnets in over the course of a few days in a dreary white February some time ago.

Until he grabbed me: In three lines, removed from context by pure distraction, the poet Rilke in his casual way, accidentally explained to me the nature of human endeavor in science.

Even the starry union is deceptive.

But let us now be glad a while

to believe the figure. That’s enough.

From Sonnets to Orpheus, Part 1, Sonnet 11.

Here is the outer limit of what we can see, the edge of our universe: the Cosmic Microwave Background. What it expresses are temperature variations among the photons that are streaming at our satellite eyes from the Beginning of Time, i.e. the Big Bang. It looks almost like noise, but really, this data speaks to how fast the universe is expanding, the universe’s age, and dark matter and dark energy. Planck is instrument that took the data that made this map, which was released last month. It is the third generation of data collecting satellites that has set out to make this map, each improving on the one before, giving us better accuracy, finer resolution, and more reason to believe our own guesses about the origin of everything in the so far observed universe. In my opinion, this is one of the most beautiful images in science.

As cosmology pieces together knowledge, maybe some solace can be wrung from “believing the figure,” for now. But don’t forget that observation “is deceptive”: If you can’t convince yourself and your peers to believe the figure, you can’t move forward, you’re stuck. And even if at some point it is comforting or interesting or thrilling to accept a perceived truth–the decontextualized Rilke warns us–we can’t and shouldn’t ignore the itching feeling that this new truth may only be a truth for “a while.” Our knowledge is in constant evolution.

Of course, dear Rilke, on longer timescales, it is never “enough.”


Is my reading of Rilke as such, incorrect? Probably. Yes. Who cares? I’m not a literature student.

On a somewhat unrelated note, Re: Previous post, the daily saga will be reporting in the very near future from the University of California, Berkeley, once again. Let the fun times begin.

Drama, Drama: Grad School Whining

April 13, 2013

Content warning: Usage of the first person to relate a tale of First World Problems, self absorbed rambling. You don’t have to read it.


Photo Courtesy of the first week of my freshman year

I just finished up with my final and arguably most important graduate school visit.

On Tuesday I dove up to Berkeley, stayed at a friend’s place, and biked to Leconte in the morning. Just as I did for nearly four years as an undergraduate, I locked my bike in the racks between Leconte and Birge Halls and walked up the stairs instead of taking the elevator. It all felt extremely familiar.

As an undergradute I had in general a fantastic but also somewhat difficult time in the Physics department at Berkeley. Largely this was my fault: I didn’t know what I wanted, and at Berkeley, in order to get what you want, you have to ask for it. Fight for it even. I didn’t officially join the Physics department until my third year (think: post the birth of this blog), around the same time I realized how much I enjoyed working in a lab. At that point, a randomly assigned faculty adviser sat me down in his office and told me point blank that I could not go to grad school with the experience I had. He was probably right. It was in that moment I that I knew finally what I wanted, and that I had to work doubly hard to get it. I wanted to be an experimental physicist, or at least give it a try.

Flash forward a few years, to this Wednesday, when I found myself  in the same building where I once sat down with that adviser. Except this time, I was in the company of 50 or so admitted prospective graduate students, I myself among them. As much as the setting was familiar, the context was surreal.

I am fully aware that I have been offered the opportunity of a lifetime to return to Berkeley for graduate school. I am in a position where I get to study and do physics for at least the next five to six years at one of the best institutions in the world. I am ecstatic, grateful, and humbled all at once.


I have been fortunate enough to receive offers* from other schools (see: Real America) and I’ve put a lot of thought into each of them, even visited most of them. At the moment there are two places left for me in this process of choosing: Berkeley of course, and University of British Columbia.

As a budding theorist in the Berkeley hallway asked me somewhat condescendingly the other day: What the heck is at British Columbia? Well, for one thing, the Canadian national laboratory for particle physics. Add to that students and professors who I got along with surprisingly well, who were friendly and welcoming instead of intimidating or pedantic, a diverse, strong research program, and at least one experiment and adviser I am very much interested in. On top of that add the awesome city of Vancouver and all the mountains and islands and bald eagles and totem poles that Beautiful British Columbia has to offer, and UBC becomes quite an enticing ticket. Just typing those last two sentences makes my indecisive brain do backflips.

Why am I hung up on Berkeley, then? Is it just because Berkeley was always what I had hoped for? Because I want a sort of ‘second chance’ in Berkeley Physics? Because I know that “Berkeley” is practically a brand name on my future resumé? Because it is a place I love and know? Or, is it because I know I would have a rigorous and quality education, the opportunities at Berkeley are practically limitless, there are projects I am interested in within the department, and I know it would be the challenge of a lifetime? I am not sure which of these reasons are valid.

I’ve gotten a lot of advice from a lot of people. I’ve spoken to professors, current students, former students, students in different departments, friends, family, the dogs, and to myself, aloud, in the car. Advice helps, but what I do know that this is a choice only I can make.

I’m certainly being meticulous about it: Choosing the school you do your PhD at is essentially selecting not only your pool of potential advisers and where you will spend a decent chunk of your life, but also the word you will have next to your name for the rest of your career. Maybe that is why this so daunting and difficult for me. I’ve come to the melodramatic yet inescapable maxim that this choice effects the trajectory of my life in ways that I cannot know or understand.

So, even though I know there is no wrong decision at this point, I can’t simulate the outcome of either option. I can’t make an educated guess. My situation now (on the brink of Physics grad school) is so vastly different from where I was at the end of high school (intended English Major) and as such I don’t entirely trust my own intuitions about my future. My interests and goals evolve constantly. In this sense, does my decision even matter? I know this is not supposed to be philosophical, but in typical fashion, it seems to be getting there. I think I would be happy in either place. I can’t make a wrong decision. Or can I?

What I know is this: Berkeley, as an academic and social community, is probably the place I have felt most at home. It is a thriving international research environment, and a politically active campus where I find myself constantly in impressive company. What I also know is that it by living different in places, mostly outside of the US for the last three years, I have gone through so much personal and academic growth which I would not have experienced in the same way had I stayed in Berkeley. I know that sounds a lot like feelgood hippie bullshit, but it’s the true kind of feelgood hippie bullshit. At least I believe it. Vancouver would be yet a new experience, yet a new world to found, explore, and never quite conquer.

I have two more days to decide. I feel filled with a strange kind of energy. It is time for this to be settled. Oj, what do I do?


*For the record, I also had a lot of rejections. But, who cares?

nästa station: Real America

January 24, 2013

In the hallowed and surely God-sent words of an email in my inbox:  I ” have been selected for admission to the Physics Ph.D. program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.” Getting my first acceptance so early in the game nearly made me choke a bit in disbelief, and the fact that is from such a good school (especially for Physics) nearly gave me a heart attack. Once the initial shock faded I found myself doing three things at once: Sighing in relief, finding a second wind, and regretting I didn’t try for more difficult schools.

Wisconsin. Sounds lovely, but, sheepishly: I still can’t quite stomach the idea of living in Real America. Real America, to me, is what visits my city every year for a few weeks in the form of the county fair. My conception of Real America is certainly borderline cartoonish and probably even offensive.

Madison, Wisconsin, as I have heard, is Real America Lite for Fake Americans, like myself, the “Berkeley of the Midwest.” Good for me.

“But you are a real American!” the astute observer may protest. Am I? I hardly feel like a Fake American anymore. But then I reconsider, and subsequently refuse to believe there is such a thing as a Real or a Fake America. Or if there is, they are not two separate things but a confluence of a million swirling, indiscernible things. But, I have a blue passport. So I suppose, like so many others, I am.


I promised posts on the final months, or ‘the Dark Ages of the Blog’ in Switzerland, and I will. I managed to squeeze three last adventures:  First, I went to Paris to visit my flatmate from the summer, who turned out to be not only a gracious host but an excellent tour guide. Second, I went to Milan for exactly 16 hours (plus eight hours of transit) to watch an opera in the birthplace of opera with dirt cheap tickets of somewhat miraculous origin. Finally, on my last day in Switzerland, I made a solo trek through the Swiss German snowdrifts to Zürich to see a rather exciting lab in a basement. I’ll write posts between writing job applications, which is, quite grudgingly, my current occupation.


December 16, 2012

How the last months have stormed by in a rage; the rush to the end of beam was exhausting… messy and a mess… nearly sleepless. But there is an experiment on the floor now. Does it work? Well not entirely, but as the long shutdown begins tomorrow, there is time to think about that after Christmas.

today we all sat in the control room and took the last few shots of beam to the tune of Carlsbergs cooled in a box full of snow (read: successful cryogen). And then we turned everything off.

there is a lot, a lot to say about the last few months, but as I’m leaving Switzerland on Wednesday, there is time to think about that in a few days. See you then? In Caaaa li foor or nia.

Oh, will you take me as I am?

that goddamn particle

July 6, 2012

Whisperings of the announcement floated in my direction two weeks prior.  And I mean literally, it was a whisper in my ear: “We found it.” Now that the world knows that we know, I’m writing just so I can say, and I can hardly believe this…”I was there”


I spent the night before battling poor particle lifetimes on nightshift with Club Italia; At seven we surrendered the beam and wandered down towards the auditorium. The foyer was already crawling with people and even if the queue was orderly (it’s CERN after all) it stretched out the back door of the restaurant. We did what we could. Oh, how we played all the good Italian tricks. First, we tried going in the back door. When we were turned away, we flirted with the security people. When we were turned away again, we looked for friends already in line.  None of this worked, predictably.

“Brrreakfast?” said the Italian on my right, rolling the ‘r’, of course.

“Brrreakfast?” said the Italian on my left.

“Brrrrrrrrreakfast.” I replied, as we all nodded in agreement.

At brrreakfast we learned from other unfortunate souls that even at four AM, there were already over a hundred people sleeping on the floor outside the auditorium. People foresaw that this seminar would be historic and CERN foresaw such overflow. Fortunately projections of the transmission of the seminar would play in several conference rooms and auditoriums around the site.

A nice breakfast, and then an ATLAS conference room it would be. The challenge: stay awake.*


“We conclude,” he begins, the CMS spokesperson (tall, American) with some ceremony. But he’s only reading what is on the slide, and surely, everyone in the room (and all the rooms) has already read what is written. At least I have; I’m fixated at the number at the end of the sentence. It is what we’ve been waiting for: the proof that all of this isn’t just a fluke, the number we all needed to convince ourselves that this is, this is for real. He goes on: “We have discovered a new boson with a mass of 125.3 GeV plus/minus 0.6 GeV at a certainty of 4.9 sigma.” 4.9 sigma. Something like electric shock runs through my body; the room erupts in applause.

ATLAS speaks next. The spokesperson is, of course, the deceptively slight Fabiola, who aside from having a fantastic name and a wonderfully frizzy mane, is somewhat of a force of nature. She speaks for a hour, culminating discreetly with 126.5 GeV, at 5 sigma. 5 sigma! Again, the shock, again, the thunderous applause. Oh, but Fabiola, she is perhaps the purest and most pragmatic among us; so much so that she doesn’t even give a damn that her presentation is in Comic Sans. “Why are you clapping?” she admonishes the crowd and the entire Physics community. “I’m not finished, there is still more to come.”

Oh, so, so much more. A new era of Physics: it begins today.


I’m all abuzz, wishing I knew more about particle physics (I don’t work on LHC), vowing to learn more about particle physics. I keep repeating to myself everything I could parse: H to gamma gamma, excess, four lepton, five sigma…surely the signals each experiment is observing, if  they are the Higgs or not, are coming from the same thing. Or are they? Are the results really compatible? 1 GeV, is, well, quite a lot.

But me, abuzz? Oh, how small I truly am in this worldwide community of hundreds of thousands, who were all (to think!) that morning tuned into the same channel. Many of these people have been working to complete this theory, to detect this boson, to bring the LHC up to the unfathomable energy it can now achieve, since well before I was even alive. Peter Higgs himself didn’t believe it would happen in his lifetime, I heard him say.


My landlady, doing her honest best to comprehend what all the fuss is about, emerges from her room after watching twenty minutes of the German news.

“So, help me understand,” She says, with a look in her eye betraying that this time, just maybe, she thinks she’s got it.  “You have discovered an X chromosome,” she begins cautiously, “which can help you find the weight of the Universe?”

I smile.



*Full disclosure: I fell asleep breifly during the CMS talk. Nightshift, ja.