Category Archives: Physics

Our dorkiest day

It’s 1:30 pm on a somewhat rainy Sunday afternoon here in Berlin.

I have spent the last few hours working on a computer program to take lots of imaginary electrons in random places and organize them into little not-random bins with their neighbors, so my other program can understand how to add up the potential energy between all of them due to their electric fields. Yes, it’s Sunday, and no there’s no deadline coming up next week. I just can’t stop thinking about it.

My wife is over on the couch with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, where she has been all morning as if the entire world has come to end except for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I will not allow her to discuss her book with me because, dammit I am about 4,000 pages behind her and don’t want to know everything yet.

Having realized that we are close to setting a new personal worst for dorkiest day ever, I am now going to the gym. Where I will lift heavy things. Where I will make eye contact with no one, being quite sure I will not understand whatever they might say (after living here for one year).

This is my life. It’s fun. No, really!


Maybe not the best time to be looking for a physics job

I have been hearing a lot about the big hurt being put on US particle physics because of the recent budget cuts. This particular blog posting, on an excellent public health blog, caught my interest because of the discussion of people taking postdocs overseas. I don’t know what other options I would have found in the US because my current job (in the overseas postdoc category) came up at the beginning of my search.  I’m left a little concerned about what I will find when I do start applying sometime soon.

Not that I had my heart set on moving into high-energy physics, but I am in a closely allied subfield already and the people who are forced to leave the big atom smashers are going to have to work somewhere. That makes positions harder to get throughout physics. Just in case I run out of things to worry about, right?

The conclusion of the post linked above:

Today NIH spending in real terms is at or below what it was before the celebrated “doubling” of the late 90s. We are losing a generation of scientific leaders as postdocs can’t get new grant and mid-career academics coming up for tenure can’t get their grants renewed. That’s in biology and medicine, the kind of research the public ostensibly does care about.

No wonder physics is in bad shape.

Another week in the books

I had another set of shifts at work last week… this time the afternoon block from 3 pm – 11 pm. Not as strange as the night shift, but still weird. It takes about 45 minutes and two trains to get back from work, but because of construction on the rail lines one night it was four trains and an hour, and Friday night it was three different trains and a bus connection in the rain. I’m looking forward to a little more normal schedule this week. The good part about the shifts was that I got more experience helping to “run the show” and at times it was fun.

There’s a lot of tedious stuff like waiting for different systems to warm up, keeping temperatures in their proper ranges, and waiting for different automated measurements to finish.  But there’s also interesting little problems to solve here and there. At some point the machine was crashing over and over because one of the power supplies was going outside it’s normal current limits. There’s actually these screens full of little green lights and when something goes wrong one of them turns red and you check the name and try to figure out what the hell it is.  We finally decided with some help from the expert-on-call (which means some poor guy got a call from us at his house) that it was getting messed up by lightning strikes near the electrical station which were sending noise down the line. Who knows if that was right, but after the storm passed it stopped happening so we moved on with business. You have to consider a lot of random stuff and be creative sometimes. That balances out the tedious screen-staring that is part of the job, too.

Yep, pretty much.

Graveyard shift at the electron factory

My first “shifts” at work were this week. Being on shift there means being a part of a two-man crew that sits in the control room and runs the show. I was on the night shift this week (11pm – 7am), but because of the holiday today (Ascension Day) I ended up only having two shifts for the whole week. I remember that BDG had night shifts at a real factory job for a whole summer… much props. I can imagine getting used to sleeping in the day, but when your family and friends (and therefore the weekend activities) are on a normal schedule, I don’t know how you get adjusted.

The actual work itself was pretty boring. The system is not ready to do anything cool, and no one is around at night to make changes. We basically did “conditioning” on the electron gun which is just turning the power and the magnets on and off slowly over and over. And there is a computer program that pretty much handles that automatically.

It was interesting, though, to have the backwards schedule for a couple of days. The walk from the subway station to work was very dark and a little scary. I usually take this little shortcut through the woods to save an extra 20 seconds on the walk in, but I couldn’t even see the little trail so I stuck with the sidewalk. All the sidestreets and the woods were very dark. I kept thinking about Hansel and Gretel for some reason and wondering if that was one of those fairy tales where they changed the ending to something nice because the original Brothers Grimm version just scared the shit out of little kids. Not that getting abandoned by your parents in the woods and having to throw some crazy old lady into the fire because she’s trying to cook you is all warm and cuddly, either, but maybe that just goes to show how really dark the story was in the first place. As you can see, I had lots of time to think about important things.

Coming home was weird, too. I came back on the train around 8:30 so it was full of people going to work. I’m sure they would not have guessed that I was actually coming back from working. The bad part was coming back to an empty house (S. was already at work). Going to sleep was pretty easy for me… I was worn out. But waking up to an empty apartment in the middle of the afternoon is very weird. Next time I am on morning shift, and I think I will enjoy that a little more.

You know you are working with scientists when…

…you receive the email I got today.

Today the maintenance of the fire alarm system will be performed. Short acoustical signals might happen.


Does the word quark make you think of

or maybe?

Well, for me it now means this:

OK too many pictures, not enough words. Quark is a word that Murray Gell-Mann, the physicist, borrowed from James Joyce to describe the little particles that make up protons and neutrons and all kinds of other weird things. But since being in Berlin, I have found that quark also means this delicious soft cheese that’s kind of a mix between cream cheese and sour cream. You buy it in little tubs like the one above — I have been eating it every morning with granola cereal and it is great!

The picture shows the container for the “Viennese style” which is supposed to have apple strudel flavor. It’s pretty good. I have also tried the raspberry, the “Canadian style” (walnuts and syrup), and the Bourbon Vanilla. They are all good! The flavors I have tried have all been from the Dr. Oetker brand which seems very popular. Lucy has been eating the unflavored version from a different producer which is probably a lot more healthy.

So, now you have learned something today. Quark is not just a hypothesis to explain deep inelastic proton scattering data, it’s also a desert topping! (I mean cereal topping.)

Yes… now you can go.


That was all I needed to hear last Friday after my dissertation defense. Passed. Quite a relief. I arrived to Vanderbilt in the summer of 2000 and after a year of classes I started doing research. So that’s over five years of working on this project. Five years of standing in the shower thinking, “Now why the hell doesn’t this work? Maybe I’ll try…(insert next idea).” There was a clear goal from the very beginning, and after some twists and turns we never ended up there. I have learned much, and almost none of it was what I expected.

I will spend my last week in Nashville making some corrections to the thesis suggested by my committee and trying to finish getting packed and ready for Germany. I will miss Nashvegas and I know Sary will, too, but we will stay in touch with the friends that we have made here. I am sure we will be back, even if it’s only to visit.


Thank you, Costco muffins… you keep PhD committees happy!