Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Outside In

With Monday threatening temperatures above 100 I'm enjoying the pleasant 90 or so we're having before it's too late.

This is what I was looking forward to and am now enjoying so much:

Interaction with a group of people who are keen to discuss, learn and explain is, as I mentioned in my last post, to me one of the highlights of life as a scientist.
This snap, taken in my office, is not of us coming up with an exciting new theory but just some of the more experienced of us explaining the basics of string theory to those who are new to the subject.


All of a sudden the tables have turned once more and I'm a local, with insider knowledge and an insight into what it's all about in Beijing. Strange indeed!

Saturday morning I picked up my friend, Andrew, along with two of the professors with family in tow to take them to their hotel before the string summer school, of which day two has just finished. Jet-lagged and presumably a little dazed, the others were taken to the Great Wall at some frightful hour the next morning while I caught up with some reading, and Andrew slept in the campus guest house.

Given my travel-weary friend's state we headed for a gentle stroll around one of the temples and Houhai lake surrounded by the smell of stinky toffee and the constant ankle threats from the rickshaw drivers. My Chinese has been improving recently and heading to the local beer garden where I'm less inhibited to make mistakes seems to be the key. I had a decent conversation with one of the rickshaw drivers while resting on a bridge over the lake and when asked the meaning of a swear word which one of the passers by had said I offered him my phrase book with its list of useful slang. Him and his friends had clearly never seen anything like this and were roaring with laughter and showing it to as many others as they could find. It's nice to feel I'm adding something to the local culture.

Often during an evening in a British pub the beer may be accompanied by such sumptuous feasts as pork-crackling and the like, in Beijing we sit around with our fine glasses of draught munching on chicken's feet, pig's trotters and spicy duck's neck. These have become reasonably regular snacks and are all a lot more pleasant than crackling ever was.

So, the school has started and, as I predicted in my previous post it's a wonderfully refreshing change for me to be listening to physics and chatting physics. In fact, what's even more refreshing is to feel that i can really answer other people's questions with some confidence. The make up of the course is almost entirely Chinese with perhaps five percent from India and Pakistan, two Brits and a Columbian. Most are in the middle of their PhDs though there are a couple of keen undergrads and myself, possibly the only postdoc in the room.

Mild looks of anxiety echoed around the room as the first announcement was made that there would be an exam at the end of the course, the top three scorers being sent to the Trieste Spring school on string theory next year. I appear to be exempt from this offer as I come from a developed country and the idea is to be able to fund a student from a developing nation who otherwise wouldn't be able to go. Seems like a pretty good cause for an exam so I quite understand the situation.

Apart from two or three good but cursory lectures on string theory in my first year in Southampton, I've never really had a full course on it from the ground up. Though I've been studying a simple limit of string theory for the last couple of years and have read a reasonable fraction of the various books on the subject, these lectures are so far a great refresher for me. Professor Randjbar-Daemi is giving some great lectures on 11-dimensional supergravity and has a lecture style which suits me extremely well. His comfort with the topic makes the whole thing sound like a story and I've been enlightened on many points already. Professor Li from the ITP is giving a series of lectures on the basics of the bosonic string, the first topic in string theory which is vital before getting into the full and gory machinary of the subject. It's a tough job to try and teach the whole thing, 2d conformal field theory, modular spaces and all in just five hours. The pace is just right for me though as it's refreshing my memory in things that I have known and long forgotten, though I'm going to have to spend a little while over the next few days rederiving the results, something that I've done on too many occasions now to remember.

Outside of lectures I'm also beginning to chat through some problems with Andrew which he's working on at the moment and it looks like there could be some really interesting results to come out of this particular question.

As I mentioned before, I'm now seen as an approachable local by those from outside Beijing. The lecturers also seem keen to pick my brains about where the good watering holes are. They're a friendly bunch and this is a great opportunity for me to chat more in a relaxed environment with some of the important people in my field. Even for some of the Chinese from outside Beijing I've got important information about where the good restaurants are so it looks like being a gastronomically exciting couple of weeks too.

Anyway, after three (this post was suspended overnight) 13 hour days of work/chatting physics I'm going to get some shut-eye before tomorrow's lectures on compactification begin. Should be fun!


Benjamin said...

Sounds great, Jon. May you enjoy compactification, indeed, and have a fine week in Beijing x

Unknown said...

Hi Ben,

It's all a lot of fun, learning bits and pieces and meeting new people. I will attempt to write a proper e-mail when and if things calm down for a few minutes here.

All the best,


Anonymous said...

Sounds incredible Jon, But should you really have been eating pork scratchings in England...?

Glad you are feeling like one of the locals, there's nothing like having a new kid arrive to make you feel superior.

Lots of love,

Clare (and Alastair)

Unknown said...

Hey Clare and Alastair,

A very enjoyable week indeed though you're perhaps correct on the pork stratchings front. My faith has never managed to impinge a great deal on my eating habits other than when the opportunity of gastronomic addition presented itself.

Hope to chat soon,

Lots of love,


Anonymous said...

How dare you belittle the mighty pork scratching? It's the food of kings. Barely seven months away from Blighty and you've become a chicken-foot-eating fancyman. You should be ashamed of yourself Biscuit.

Unknown said...

Big J,

You know full well that I have always been a chicken-foot-eating fancy man. It's only now that my full gastronomically-confined past can roam free. The mighty pork scratching is indeed in a class all of its own and should really not be compared with any other sensory experience.