Friday, July 30, 2010

Argentina take II

First of all, greetings to those physicists I've met over the last few days who, unbeknownst to me, have been following my travel adventures (hi to Joe and Jorge in particular) - it's nice to know that my random walk across the globe has brought some light relief from the task of enlightening our views of space and time!

Today is the last day of the conference in Buenos Aires, which has seen three days of really fantastic speakers, and me, giving talks on all aspects of quantum gravity. My talk (strings on bubbling geometries) was yesterday and in half an hour I managed to get through the material but felt that the last ten minutes or so was really rushed - given that the last part of the talk leaves the most impression, I left feeling a little underwhelmed by my performance but I've had some good conversations since with people who were interested in the work. A few new possibilities have also emerged and I'll be looking into these when I get a spare moment.

After 9 days of around 5 or 6 hours of seminars daily I'm feeling a little saturated. I'm also feeling itchy to sit down in one place for a few days at a time and do some work (I think that the next time I have more than two weeks in one place will be in Beijing in October!). Currently I can only snatch a few minutes here and there to read papers and go through calculations which my collaborators are tearing ahead with - a couple of night sessions has insured that I don't fall too far behind but over the last week or so I've not been able to do my share of the work.

I have this weekend to look around Buenos Aires, which I haven't done at all yet (apart from day one of the trip) and then I'll be flying to Bariloche, in Patagonia, on Monday evening where I'll give a couple of talks over a four day period. It's going to be a fine balance between taking advantage of the time available to sit down and work, and seeing what is supposed to be some of the most stunning countryside in South America. A bus ride into Chile a week from now should be a good opportunity to see the Andes up close but I fear that a full exploration of any area is not going to possible with such a short time here.

Anyway, lectures are restarting now but I'll try and upload some pictures from the conference in the next few days.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Argentina take 1

A really quick post from a cafe in La Plata, Argentina, a little South of Buenos Aires, and although I have enough material to be typing here for several hours, I do have a lot of work to get on with so I'm going to try and spend a few hours tonight calculating. Four projects on the go are currently interfering, perhaps destructively, though I hope to get a couple of them ahead of the rest for some interesting results in the not too distant future. Preoccupations with the biggest talk of my career next week are also playing on my mind though I'm looking forward to it as well.

Anyway, I landed in Buenos Aires after a fine flight through a stinkingly hot Madrid, from London and was greeted by the coldest temperatures in BA for several years - minus 2 on the runway on touchdown. We (Sam and Debs, a couple of friends from back home) made our way to Palermo ready to crash at our hotel, but after a shower and being greeted by an amazingly friendly hotel manager who did everything to make us feel at home we were refreshed enough to head out into the city and go exploring. We walked up North, passing a wonderful cafe on the way were we breakfasted and warmed up a little before going round the botanic gardens, passed the zoo and through the Japanese garden
leaf reflection

to an art museum where we saw a great photography exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe's works. On the way back we passed the famous Floris Generica
open flower
In the evening we headed to a parilla to try my first Argentinian steak and I was not disappointed. A very fine fillet for a small sum was succulent and juicy to perfection and the buzz in the restaurant showed that we had chosen a pretty good spot to try the first local delicacy. Other steaks have followed and, baring one, have been fantastic.

Anyway, time is getting on....we had planned to fly up to Iguazu, but our flight was cancelled and so we decided to drive the 1300 km up North. (Sunrise over the rio de plata after finding out our flights were canceled:
sunrise over the silver river
After running around the city failing to find a car, we tracked one down, and two days and 16 hours of driving later found ourselves on the Frontier with Brazil and Paraguay. We headed straight for the falls just in time as we had only three hours before the park closed. I really can't put into words how spectacular they are. Pictures do not do them justice, they are just overwhelmingly powerful! For now, pictures will have to do and these are the first few that I've processed so far.
La Garganta del diabolo
Iguazu falls 1
Iguazu falls 4
Iguazu falls 5
Iguazu falls 2
Anyway, I hope to talk more about the journey up soon but now I have to work. One thing I need to state however is that, time after time, we have been bowled over by not just people's friendliness, which I've met in many countries, but their incredible kindness and willingness to go out of their way to help you. Over and over again we have been greeted with the most incredible hospitality I've ever come across. In England if you turned up in a restaurant at 10 at night in an overbooked tourist town in the middle of nowhere and asked if they knew of any hotels, they might point you in the direction of a hotel to try, or simply shake their heads. When this happened on the drive up to Iguazu, the restaurant owner phoned around a dozen hotels pleading for a place for us until he found one, booked us a room and then told us to sit down and have a meal before we went on to the hotel where they were waiting for us. This has continued to happen every day without prompting or pleading. This country has impressed me a lot on many fronts so far and I'm really looking forward to the next few weeks of travel and work here....and now back to it....

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Some runner beans and a fine dose of phytohaemagglutinin - a warning!

I tend to eat healthily at home, cooking a good meal every night and including a lot of fresh vegetables and plenty of wholefoods.

I recently got to know the people who work in the greengrocers around the corner from my flat which turns out to be a family business, selling vegetables from their own garden. I've been buying my food from there for a while but after reading The Omnivore's Dilemma recently I wanted to know more, and so spent an enjoyable evening finding out about where all the produce came from, about the seasonality, and the disbelief of most locals that you can't get potatoes in the summer and the fact that perhaps it's better to have a few bugs in your lettuce than a layer of pesticides - this was a surprise given that Galicia is a province whose people are historically tied closely to the land. It turns out that I was the first person who had ever asked about where anything comes from in their store - a rather depressing state of affairs.

So, I left with a great big bag of locally grown produce to create dinner with and set about making a lush salad with a sesame and honey dressing (the honey also being produced locally).

I knew that eating raw kidney beans was bad for you, but having no kidney beans I thought nothing of the runner beans, that had come directly from the garden to the shop that morning. So I chopped up the bright, crunchy beans and threw them in the salad for a bit of texture and the flavours that you only get from produce this fresh.

A Chinese friend was passing by and on seeing the preparation warned me that eating raw beans was bad for you - I took it as a bit of Chinese folk-lore, having eaten plenty of raw legumes before and dismissed the warning.

Well, lesson now learned - after turning distinctly pale, shaky and nauseous for the last two days and having a few other symptoms, which I shan't go into here, non-stop yesterday, A) I shan't be making this mistake again and B) I wanted to post a little warning to everyone else!

The omnivore's dilemma is ever present, and the dangers and pleasures marking the fine line which is dictated by science, culture and folk-lore make for exciting possibilities - in all directions! Be warned!

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Fading memories from Croatia

Where to start? It's only been two weeks but the littlest things that caught my attention and I wanted to write about have slowly faded and I'm left without the words that came to me at the time to explain as vividly as I'd like quite what went on.

Talking of vivid however, I was hoping, as I walked into work a couple of days back that the cirrus clouds and the quickly rising sun would do their dance and end up giving us something special towards midday. As we went to lunch at around 1.30, the white crests below the sun which had risen above 58 degrees started glowing with vibrant reds, yellows and blues as I got my first ever display of a circumhorizon arc. These, most colourful of halos, are only visible in the summer when the sun rises high enough in the sky, and therefore there is a latitude above and below which they can never be seen. The Northern Europeans may get the best winter halos but we get the best summer ones! No pictures of the CHA itself, but I got a few shots later in the day as the clouds maneuvered themselves into and out of the local optical geodesics. I have to do a little more reading up at the moment on this subject as I'll be giving three or four lectures on atmospheric optics in Argentina and Chile over the coming month.

Anyway, step back a couple of weeks and the last post saw a rather sleepy me sitting in a North London front room waiting for my taxi to Stansted. I've since discovered that the taxi costs almost as much as getting a discount room in the Hilton right next to the airport, which is what I did on the way back. The slightly later time to get up, along with the gym, sauna and swimming pool made this a much more pleasant way to not get much sleep!

So, I flew from London to Dubrovnik where the sun was fierce and the drive along the coast from the airport gave a hint of the stunning blue, green waters which would be the site of a few wonderful afternoon swims over the coming days.

I checked into my hostel which had been pre-heated to boiling point and wandered into town where I got my first taste of tourist prices thanks to a few slices of smoked salmon and some notably tasty horseradish hollandaise. Over the next couple of days I met a bunch of interesting people in the hostel from around the world and spent time reading papers and books in the old town. Two good friends from Santiago also turned up and we spent a couple of perfect afternoons reverting to teenage years by jumping off cliffs and reveling in the ease of swimming in salty water.

(The walk from the hostel to the old town:)

house and purple plantsb
and the view from the cafe Alex and I were working in in the centre of the old town:)
stormy day in Dubrovnik
Time to relax ran out fast as we headed up the coast to Trpanj (emphasis on the Tr with a slightly rolled r and the nj sounds a little like a Spanish ñ) where the school on black holes was being held (we had somehow held court the previous day when we met an American woman who discovered she'd lucked out with a bunch of scientists and we gave an impromptu lesson on the practice and philosophy of modern theoretical physics - this happened on a number of occasions when I mentioned what we were doing in Croatia). Trpanj is a town on a T-junction which would be a lot worse were the vertical not to lie in the valley of two mountains and the cross-bar not to meet the Adriatic sea. The main road plays host to a bunch of almost identical restaurants which serve a fairly small range of pretty tasty meals.
island in the sea
The same view at night with a 30 second exposure - the colours are not altered in this shot:
night shot colour (no alteration in saturation)
In terms of food we realised pretty quickly that although similar to the Croatian fare, the most famous Bosnian restaurant in Dubrovnik, the curiously named Taj Mahal, seemed to offer a much better selection of dishes than any local restaurant we could find - the cheeses and steaks were really superb.

Anyway, the school itself was fantastic, with the most relaxed atmosphere of any school I've been to. Although there was a rough time-table drawn up, the lectures started and finished when the dynamic in the room dictated and so all of the talks (which were given on the black board) had a good pace where the lecturers could really expound to their heart's content. For me the highlight of the school was a series of talks by Gaston Giribet on 3-dimensional gravity. I'm hoping to be able to learn some more on this subject in South America over the next few weeks where much of the early work on this subject was pioneered.

The final talk of the school was a discussion session led by Holger Nielson (Of backwards causality from Higgs production at the LHC fame). While I may not subscribe to all his thoughts on black holes, he's an extremely knowledgeable guy and the session turned out to be thoroughly thought provoking, leading to a good deal of chat about black hole information as we walked away from the blackboard towards another meat-heavy meal.

After the school I headed back to Dubrovnik, hitchhiking from Trpanj with Alex and on arrival we were propositioned by an elderly lady asking if we'd like to stay at her house. Strange as this may sound it actually turns out to be by far the best way to stay in Dubrovnik, and from what I understand, this holds true for much of Eastern Europe. We had a whole apartment to ourselves and paid less than we paid for a bunk in a smelly, hot room in a hostel.

We spent the last couple of days seeing a few more sights and kayaking around one of the local islands, before saying our goodbyes and heading in separate directions. Having spent a good deal of the last half a year with Alex and his family, discussing physics till early in the morning, cooking outrageously tasty meals and getting into plenty of adventures it was a rather sad goodbye, having already had to say my farewells to Eliina and Sahtah (wife and daughter) a short while earlier.

So, I find myself now back in Santiago with a couple of new projects on the go (we're up to four at the moment) and several talks to write for South America. Come Thursday I'll be heading back to England for the stag do of one of my good friends before leaving on the 15th for Buenos Aires where a great mix of adventures and physics awaits me during a month of intensive travels - Tickets are booked for the various legs of the journey and I can't wait to get there and indulge my physics/travel passions in one fell swoop.