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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Pop-Culture conundrum

John Hiatt has a new-ish album, Master of Disaster. The chorus of the title track goes:

The Master of Disaster
Gets tangled in his Telecaster
He can't play it any faster
When he plays the blues.

The signature riff for this song is played on a saxophone.

(I bought the album after seeing the concert I mentioned earlier, just before leaving town last week. I had originally planned to write a long post about it, but I don't feel like it now. A damning-with-faint-praise summation would be to say that it was a very professional show, though I enjoyed it more than that sounds like. Also, the Dickinson brothers of the North Mississippi All-Stars look like a couple of math grad students...)

Posted at 8:48 AM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Friday, July 01, 2005

The Incredible College Simulator

The past week of radio silence has mostly been due to the fact that I was in New Hampshire at the Atomic Physics Gordon Conference. The Gordon Conferences have a somewhat unusual format, placing a premium on informal interaction, with only a single track of talks, and afternoons left free so participants can discuss research in small groups. Or go hiking, play various sports (basketball, in my case, at least until I sprained my ankle), nap, or whatever. Based on their history, I suspect that they may be modeled on the Solvay Conferences, only, you know, not with quite so many Nobel prizes...

To facilitate this, the conferences are almost all held at small colleges or boarding schools in New England, with all attendees expected to stay on-site, and eat all meals at the conference. This sort of arrangement doesn't work for everyone, but the people who go to the Atomic Physics conference (the only one I've gone to) all know the deal, and are really good about it. The conference skews very young (students and post-docs were probably in the majority), and the prominent people who are invited as speakers generally make an effort to talk to the younger participants.

(Nathan has a good story about Alain Aspect sitting down with a bunch of students at the last meeting, which is actually fairly typical. Some of the JILA people at this meeting told me that they were given specific instructions not to be cliquey, and their boss was clearly making an effort to sit with random groups of people at lunch.)

The other nice thing about the meetings is that the talks are much more accessible than talks at more typical conferences. Invited speakers give fifty-minute seminars (compared to maybe 30 minutes at DAMOP), and the sessions are introduced with a twenty-minute talk by the "discussion leader," who is supposed to put the talks in some sort of context. This is occasionally sort of painful-- an impenetrable fifty-minute theory talk is just excruciating-- but again, the people who organize these meetings make an effort to select people who will give good talks. You really get a much clearer sense of the state of a given field from a Gordon Conference session than a session at a regular meeting. Particularly if you're like me, and working off in the small-college hinterlands, where it's easy to lose touch.

(Kate expressed some doubts that people would really be awake for the 7:30-9:30 evening sessions, but they are. Wolfgang Ketterle's talk didn't wrap up until after 10:00, and it was one of the best-received talks of the meeting. The afternoon break really helps-- evening talks are deadly after a full day of listening to talks, but if you've spent the afternoon doing something else, it's easier to maintain focus. Also, we're all enornmous geeks.)

I spent a lot of the meeting feeling like the dumbest person in the room (see "hinterlands" above), but then, it was an awfully smart room. And there were some moments that tipped the other way-- I got some very positive feedback from people I respect, and a couple of people were very complimentary about the work I did as a post-doc. It was enough to make me really miss being in that world. But a lot of the time, it was sort of like being back in school, and I learned a fair bit.

The "back to school" effect was really enhanced by the fact that sleeping in an uncomfortable twin bed in a shabby dorm room tripped some sort of deep-brain reflex leaving me convinced that I was a college student again. This led to some questionable acts, such as deciding that it would be a good idea to shoot a few baskets (sprained ankle be damned) at 3am after a long night of drinking with people from JILA. The drive home yesterday was... interesting. Also, rural Vermont is entirely too twee-- antique stores and elegant cafes are all nice, but sometimes, you just want a goddamn mini-mart.

I skipped the last session, so you'll have to hope that Nathan will report on whether the missing speaker made it or not. The suspense was killing me, but I decided that it was more important to get back and find out what my students have been up to in my absence than to hear more talks on Fermi gases. Not that I'm well-rested enough to make much of a contribution, but I can at least take stock of the damage, and order whatever parts still need ordering.

Normal blogging will resume at some point, and I may even get crazy, and try to explain what's going on with EDM experiments. Or that may just be my conference hangover talking...

Posted at 8:42 AM | link | follow-ups | 5 comments

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