What did I do?

July 12, 2013

I’m rounding a turn on a road in a residential neighborhood in the Oakland hills, alone on my bike, when suddenly, I spy a Mini-Cooper pulling out in front of me. I’m not going too fast, so it’s easy to stop right before the Mini. The Mini stops moving… and a few awkward seconds pass in which I don’t know what to do… I guess she’s going to wait for me? Well, she isn’t going to finish backing out at any rate. So, I ride around her.

Her male accompaniment (whom I in fact couldn’t see from behind the Mini) is apparently sitting by his van in their (multi-million dollar home) driveway.

“It’s not like ya didn’t see her there, ya red-headed FREAK!” he hollers at me as I ride by.

“Hey, it was OK, I stopped!” I yell back over my shoulder, but he probably didn’t hear me.

Now, as a woman who spends a good deal of time in spandex on a bike in very public places (roads), occasional harassment is nothing new (A cheerful greeting from a bro in the passenger seat of a sedan just outside of Danville a few weeks ago: “F*** you, you slut!!!” ). Nor am I unfamiliar with being publicly harassed by complete strangers for being a ginger (A cheerful greeting from a bro in the passenger seat of a suburban in Berkeley: “Hey red, you’re a fox!”). But there’s something particularly upsetting about this one. First of all, I really try to be a good cyclist. It’s mostly because I don’t want to die, but I actually stop at stop signs and stop lights and try to play nicely with cars. I really try, you guys. And second: Red-headed freak? That insult felt far more personal than any number of meaningless obscenities that could’ve been flung in that moment. It landed me back in sixth-ish grade, at the time in all of our lives when the other girls are the most vicious about how fat and how ugly and how much of a FREAK they think you are. God I hate that time in all of our lives.

Uncharacteristically, I can’t stop pouting about it for the rest of the ride. Hmph. Dis never ‘appened to moi en SwitzaFrance or Sveeeeden. Jamais.

Every day I feel…

July 10, 2013

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“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.

Two Days

July 8, 2013

July 4th

For the past three years, I’ve been only peripherally of aware of the fourth of July passing; marking the date but not really feeling a sense of lacking. It is similar to the way that now I always think of midsommar and buy strawberries around the 25th week of the year. Last year I started the fourth on nightshift and subsequently dozed off in the Higgs announcement talks.  But that’s not what it should be…right? The Fourth should be about decorating your bike or jumping in the ocean or river or lighting off Roman candles or racing old mares through alfalfa fields. I had nearly forgotten!

Today is July 4th, and in fact I had forgotten that in the US, this is actually kind of a big deal. On College Avenue people are wandering idly about looking for open coffee shops, appearing at the entrance of Safeway with beer and watermelons in tow, and pulling small children about in wagons. On Frat row, girls are running around in sequined American-flag bikinis as shirtless, blindingly white frat boys belch complements from overlooking balconies. Later, at the Marina, what seems like the entire population of Berkeley is migrating by foot en masse over a temporarily closed-to-cars overpass to view fireworks on the Bay. While the fireworks themselves pale in comparison to the simply unbelievable spectacle put on by the city of Geneva each August (I think most normal fireworks will simply always seem boring to me now), the people-watching at the Berkeley show is non pareil.

July 5th

One of the coolest people I know (and one of this blog’s long-time biggest fans) is getting married today.

As I sit in the audience, I realize that this is effectively the first wedding I’ve been to at which I will not have to sit at the “Kids’ Table.” Possibly this is yet another indicator of the startling fact that I’m technically an adult now, but really, I’ve only ever been to a wedding as either a child myself–oblivious–or as a semi-hired babysitter. Back then it hardly mattered: When you’re young, you don’t really understand what a wedding is for. All you know is that you are wearing a dress and will have to sit still for a long, long time before the cake.

I’m still not sure I understand what a wedding is for, but as I’m no longer at the kid’s table I fear I have no excuse. When the officient (ordained by no fewer than six internet churches!)  announces my friend’s name, she appears behind the quietly awaiting guests. She walks confidently, briskly down the aisle–a picture of calm–so beautiful and so joyful I can’t help but break into a smile and choke up at once. Aha, I think. This is what a wedding is for.

And for the record, the cake was phenomenal.

Congratulations yet again, if you’re reading!

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!

Oh, SoCal: Ferrari, Ferrari

May 6, 2013

Update: My finger has returned to normal size after a few days of on and off icing and antihistamine. I believe it is time for me to accept the fact that I may be slightly allergic to bees. ANYWAY… a tale from the Southland, as the weathercasters say. 

……………….

I’m in the bike lane at a stoplight on Pacific Coast Highway (not the part that is on fire) when in what seems like a freak accident of probability, two Ferrari convertibles, identical models but different colors (one white, one off-white…I know, diversity) pull up to the same stoplight. You’d think they’d just rolled out of the same dealership, but  they don’t appear to caravaning, if such a word can be used to describe Ferraris. While this is nonetheless a coincidence, it is no probabilistic anomaly: I’m riding by an affluent neighborhood and Kobe Bryant’s address would prove it. One stoplight, two Ferraris. It’s not Monaco, but it is Newport Coast.

In the white car is a likewise white-haired gentleman and his visored and sunglassed little wife. Behind the wheel of the off-white car, a few lanes over, I can just make out a polo shirt, big, expensive shades, and a luminous spray tan. Every other driver must be staring at them (I sure am) as they acknowledge each other with sauve, rich guy nods. Spray Tan breaks the silence with an inevitable rev of his engine/manhood.

“Can you take off?” Spray Tan hollers devilishly across several lanes of poor blokes in regular cars between engine revs.

“What?” yells White Hair, either because he is hard of hearing or because Spray Tan cannot restrain his fervent revving.

“CAN YOU TAKE OFF?” He yells again, this time like he means it. White Hair, I’m sure, gets the message, but he’s smarter than that and as such, he plays dumb.

“Oh, take off? I’m not sure…” he waves one hand in the air to demonstrate his uncertainty. “I’m not sure what that means, take off,” says the man behind the wheel of a sports car that costs more than the average house. Riiiiiight.

But it’s too late: the light changes and White Hair accelerates evenly forward like a regular car. Spray Tan, not to be outdone by safety and good sense, is hot on the gas. His Ferrari roars forward with a great acceleration (Aha! “take off!”), weaving between regular cars to the front of the pack until nothing but the blue sky and open road lie before him.

Until of course, the next stoplight, half a mile down the road.

Avoid the apiary

April 29, 2013

As you probably could’ve predicted, I’ve fallen behind on my weekly post pledge. For shame. I realized this evening I was behind, and meant to write something. But I just can’t. Don’t worry, I have a pretty amusing excuse. I was stung by a bee this morning on the index finger of my left hand, and as such said finger is now approximately 1.5 times it’s original size. I’ll have you know that this is the second time I’ve been stung in the last week; ’tis the season, else I’m just quite unlucky or smell floral or am unusually inclined to invade bee habitats. First it was the back of my leg, now the cursed  finger.  Essentially, this is not fun for me nor for the bees. I swell up and they apparently die afterwards. I mean no harm to you, bees. Now please, stop targeting me; that finger can’t take much more abuse.

Long story short: I am dutifully relaying all of this sorry information to you with out the use of my swollen, itching (except in the tip, yay damaged nerve endings!), cursed left index finger. It’s about as far as I feel like going for now.

So for now, a cheerful, bee-less photo of spring blossoms. A tôt!

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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.

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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?

nos vamos

April 8, 2013

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Gratuitous California Photo, North of Bodega Bay. 

Possibly the worst and yet most common way to begin a blog post to to apologize profusely for not blogging frequently or recently. As you notice, I’ve done neither. If at all possible, it could be because as of late I’ve been too lazy and self absorbed to write here (strange, because blogging is typically the perfect outlet for me in a lazy and self absorbed state.) In the last month I’ve been to Madison and Vancouver, trying to decide where I want to live and work for the next six years or more. My visits to these schools seem to transport me into some alternate, bizarre, reality in which professors and graduate students try to win me over with promises of exciting research, excellent resources, a few fancy dinners, and the glamorous allure of student half price season ski tickets to Whistler.

And tomorrow I’m headed back up to Berkeley to receive the same kind of treatment from the department which over the last five years has not only given me access to every opportunity in Physics I’ve had so far, but also made me cry and bleed (no joke) on several occasions. I’m not quite sure what to expect, but admittedly I am a little nervous to re-encounter professors and graduate students to whom I’ve groveled, cried* and begged for homework help, practice problems, and basic explanations of highly abstract ideas in the very recent past. Am I ready to become, myself, one of them?

I was planning to continue by saying that I wouldn’t offer you a verbose apology and explanation for not blogging, but now I realize I already have. Whoops. Anyway.

As everyone knows, of course, there is a cycling metaphor for every shade of human emotion and enterprise: A great way to get back into cycling after somewhat of a hiatus is to go out and find the highest mountain in your vicinity, one that you’ve ridden before, and spin up it in your lowest gear. You’ll feel heavy, slow, and out of breath. You may or may not be taunted by rosy hued memories of shifting up, getting out of the saddle, and racing gleefully up similar peaks. You may or may not feel like crying as you realize you don’t have the energy to stand up and you begin to regret not having mountain bike gearing even if your road bike, somewhat embarrassingly, still has a triple.

I am going to re-approach writing, and writing here in this way. At least one post here a week, at least 250 (unpublished) words a day. My blog here is undoubtedly a bit old fashioned (original WordPress theme, not linked to any other form of social media, sometimes I use the word ‘whilst,’ etc.). I don’t really plan to change it that much, apart from possibly being a little less cryptic since apparently colleagues, mentors, and friends read this blog already. Actually using it again seems to be a good place to start.

Allonsy!

………………………….

* Yes, on one occasion I did cry in front of a graduate student instructor at Berkeley. I’m not particularly proud, but it is what it is.

 

Sorry for being political: Gun Violence

March 14, 2013

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NonViolence, by Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd. In Malmö. Photo from here.

It really is somewhat impossible to go a day without hearing news of at least one fatal shooting in the US. It seems this is something I notice more, now after having been mostly outside of the US for the past three years. Or maybe it’s just that here in California, a lot of these shootings seem to happen not too far outside my front door. I read the news with morbid fascination and a bit of fear in my throat as the number of faceless dead seems to climb higher and higher. A couple killed in Irvine, CA, a man shot in Las Vegas, NV, in Lakewood, CO, in Fort Pierce, FL… in Everywhere, Your City, Your State, USA. As I watch or read or click on the news I wonder what the number is, how it stacks against other numbers, the ones they actually report on tv, the ones we remember.

So, I found some numbers:

Death toll of People in Sweden killed by gun violence in just 2010: 138 (gunpolicy.org)

Death toll of People in the UK killed by gun violence in just 2010: 155 (gunpolicy.org)

Death toll of People in Canada killed by gun violence in just 2009: 173 (gunpolicy.org)

Death toll of American troops in Afghanistan, in the year 2012: 301 (USA today)

Death toll from 9/11 attacks on the World trade Center (including airplane passengers and hijackers): 2,996 (wikipedia)

Death toll of American troops in Iraq, since March 19, 2003*: 4,488 (antiwar.com)

Death toll of People in Mexico killed by gun violence in just 2010: 11,309 (gunpolicy.org)

Death toll of People in the US killed by gun violence in just 2010: 31,076 (Law Center to Prenvent Gun Violence)

Death toll of People in Brazil killed by gun violence in just 2008: 34,678 (gunpolicy.org)

Death toll, including non-Americans and Civilians for Iraq War: 109,032 (wikipedia/ wikileaks war logs)

World War II total death toll: Over 60 million (wikipedia)

Finally: Number of people killed by guns in the US since the Newton Massacre on December 14, 2012:

2,659

As of this publication. Daily updates on the death toll can be found here:

http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/crime/2012/12/gun_death_tally_every_american_gun_death_since_newtown_sandy_hook_shooting.html

 So, while the ‘gun debate’ has been happening since the Newtown Massacre, nearly as many people have died as did in the 9/11/2001 attacks. In his 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama urged congress to “Give [stricker gun laws] a vote.” Such violence continues, and this is the strongest statement you can make? In more than one way, centrism perhaps has squeezed the morals out of your gut. Maybe have we simply become so numb to our reality, in which shootings are so commonplace that it takes the horrendous murder of multiple school children in the northeast to even get our attention.

……………………………………………………………..

All things considered: Gun deaths obviously don’t scale linearly with population, or even number of civilian owned firearms. So how can we normalize?

If you look up information on a few of the countries I mentioned above, you find:

Population: UK (68 million people), Sweden (9 million people), US (315.5 million people), Brazil (198.04 million), Canada (33,476,688)

Civiling owned Guns in: US (270,000,000), UK (4,060,000), Sweden (2,800,000), Bazil (Between 14,800,000 and 17,600,000), Canada (9,950,000)

I’m no expert, but this interests me.  How can we possibly compare? More on this later, with graphs.

…………………………………………………….

*My God, has been ten years?