Saturday, December 17, 2011

End of year 1 in Munich

We are still not 100% certain of the mass of the Higgs, the life-sustaining properties of Kepler-22 are still unknown and the role played by quantum mechanics in biology is still thoroughly perplexing, but the one mystery I am, without a shadow of a doubt sure of, is that time is speeding up (or my brain is slowing down). A year in Germany has flown by, and in theory I have just one more year here (more on this in the coming year...).

It took a while to settle into Munich life, though thankfully having made these moves enough times before, and with great contacts from Couchsurfing and a friend I know from Spain, I was able to meet a lot of great people very quickly. I set up a Chinese speakers' group within the first month and there are now around 30 of us in the group. We haven't had a chance to meet so regularly recently, but it's been lovely to bring together a lot of people who now consider themselves good friends.

So, I thought I'd break this year down a little and see what next year holds. I arrived to a snow covered Munich on January 2nd this year and spent the first few days exploring the museums and gardens, and working in an empty department as the rest of the staff slowly filtered back after the 5th. The first month was a pretty ghastly combination of the usual beurocracy of getting official papers arranged and finding an apartment, an apartment which took a month to get, but was well worth the wait in the end.

In my not terribly large apartment on Elisabethstrasse I've now hosted around 25 people this year through couchsurfing (from the US, Taiwan, China, Finland, Spain, Scotland, Russia, Sweden, Denmark and beyond) and fed a cumulative total of over 200 - this has been a huge amount of fun, and the wealth of ingredients that I wasn't able to find in Spain has been more than made up for now. I've also had two long term couchsurfers who have been spectacularly fun to live with. Next year I have a number of couchsurfers already booked in, including a couple from Papua New Guinea and Mongolia - that feast I am thoroughly looking forward to!

And of travel adventures there have been a fair number but somehow having spent the last two months in Munich without leaving the city, it all feels like a long time ago. The highlights have been a few days in Poland for a conference in Warsaw and a talk in Krakow, a two week holiday in California, truly relaxing, and a two week trip to China where I gave talks both on my research and to school kids, up to 200 at a time, on the history of the universe and of our cutting edge understanding of particle physics. Trips back to Santiago, to Portugal, Paris and a couple of trips back to the UK have all, also been lovely and it was great to collaborate again with my old boss after six years away.

As a result of the China trip I've now been made an official scientific consultant (unpaid) of one of the top schools in Beijing, which means that they contact me for advice on scientific topics, examples for complicated ideas they're trying to wrap their heads around and thoughts on future careers. The most surreal part of this particular visit was having an entire orchestra play for me, alone, as I stood there grinning from the shear lunacy of the situation. Talking to 200 kids about the big bang and particle physics was a huge amount of fun and I hope to do similar talks next year.

On work, things have been progressing, and I've written three papers this year that I'm very happy with. I also have one coming out in the next week or so which is very much off topic for my normal work, and I will probably have a couple more like this next year - I'll link to this work when it's accepted, though this is going to be a somewhat longer-term submission than the usual Arxiv uploads.

Next year I have January completely full with work trips to Italy and Spain and a few days skiing in Switzerland after the New Year. Trips are also in the stages of planning to Cape Town, Korea and the Netherlands, though these will all solidify over the coming months.

Anyway, though I haven't really talked about it much here, I am now thoroughly enjoying life in Munich. I pondered for some time about the fact that Munich is a town which, in many ways, is a bit too perfect - everything works rather too well and both the buildings and the people are just slightly too attractive for their own good. It took a while to find the undercurrents which had more personality than the perfect exteriors in which they are housed, and now I feel that I'm beginning to feel the pulse of this city. We'll see what happens over the coming year, but living in Munich is currently suiting me pretty well.

On the language front, the German is coming on very slowly. I have a million excuses but the main two are that I just haven't been here consistently enough this year to settle into lessons, and the fact that everyone speaks English so damned well! I've got a good teacher now and will continue with lessons after the New Year. I would really be sad to leave this place without having at least basic conversational German, but we'll see what happens in the coming months.

Anyway, for now there is plenty to finish before I head off on Tuesday for England so I shall probably update things in a week or so....