Notes From the Day

The other day (some weeks ago now) I started a sort of “day in the life” post, to give you more of an idea of what a typical day was like at work (and maybe also a bit at play). Somehow I never finished it, and then I looked at it a while later and could not remember the rest of the day, and so just deleted it.

I’ve decided to do something different. There really is no typical day. So I will try to do a series of days instead. Of course, I’m not going to have tine to sit and do a long, detailed entry about these days, and so instead I’ll just do a sort of sketchy notebook, with some time stamps. From time to time during the day I’ll stop in and add to it, and then post the whole thing at the end of the day before going to sleep. I won’t include all details (I’ll spare you bathroom breaks, personal grooming, and things of that nature, you’ll be pleased to know), but will try to give you some impressions of how the day goes. If people are interested (and people did ask for such a “day in the life post” before), I might try to do them more frequently. But for now, I’ll try and do one for each day of this week. Average over them to get the typical day.

So here goes.

Well, this work week really started on Sunday night.

  • 11:15 – 11:48 pm (Sun): Thinking about structure of E&M course. When to set the next midterm (we agreed that the previously announced date was too soon). Also thought about what homeworks to set for the last part of electromagnetic waves in dispersive media, and though wave guides. Sent email to whole class about this.
  • 12:30am (Monday) After reading a random entry or two at the ever-brilliant Girls Are Pretty blog (e.g. here), I fall asleep listening to podcast of the BBC’s wonderful Broadcasting House (radio 4). I still miss the excellent Eddie Mair, but this new guy seems pretty good.
  • 7:15am (Monday) (Later rising today since it is Monday and I don’t have any early appointments and I try to get a good night’s sleep when I can.) Over cup of tea, read email. Delete about 30 spam messages that have arrived overnight. I note the kind letter from Dean X at institution Y acknowledging receipt of the long detailed letter in support of a promotion for candidate Z, and thanking me. Good that he/she did that. Took a good chunk of Friday and Sunday afternoon to write that epic.
  • 7:45am Not in a rush to go in yet, I have a longer breakfast – cooked some oatmeal and made coffee – and looked at the blog for a bit. Smile at fact that Mary Cole went to garden centre to sniff Jasmine. Walk around garden while thinking. Send several emails dealing with various matters such as the colloquium lunch (cancelling it… the speaker won’t come until the afternoon).
  • 9:40am Having made sandwich for lunch and coffee for the road, packed my bag, unfolded and got on the Brompton and bolted to the bus stop (waving at another USC faculty member on a bike at one point, which was amusing). I was late for my 10:00am appointment (to do with E&M course) because insurance guy finally called back to discuss long overdue rewriting of my auto insurance policy. Happily, a quick IM to Tameem Albash (one of my graduate students and also the TA for the course) ensured that things can start without me being there.
  • shot of the bike

  • 10:30am Check with student who is working on class worksheet for E&M. Quick explanation: After last midterm, I realized that the class is over very poor on computational skills, and efficient technique. They of course just decided that I had set a hard midterm. I was depressed about this for a while, and decided that rather than lower my midterm standards -which would of course make everybody happy- I would try to help them help themselves raise their game. So I’m going to give them an “in-class worksheet” every now and again which takes an entire class period (or most of it) and simply unpacks a single long problem in great detail. The idea is that they take a problem, and aided by the narrative I write, to a step by step analysis of it all the way to the end. In class, they work for a while. Then we stop and I see how they are doing, give a few hints, and then they move on to the next part. There’s just not enough problem-solving in class these days, and students are treating the classes more like a movie.

    The hard part is trying to convince them that getting involved in this way with the material in a situation where I can give guidance, there are no distractions, and there is still a time limit (something else that is important to get used to) is good practice, not torture, not another exam, and actually beneficial. We did that last Thursday, but one student was away, and so she’s doing it under the same conditions today on her own. So that’s what I was checking on. Gave some general remarks about Laplace’s equation, how symmetry can help her in the first part -especially if she draws a diagram- and so forth.

  • 11:15am Took phone call about lunch meeting changes. Chatted with my colleague Huber Saleur about things for a bit. Always good to talk to him. Wish he was here more than just one semester out of the two. (Pretty sure he does not read this blog.)
  • 11:30am Read and answered more email. Started this blog entry. Spent some time running through the recent past to scribble time-stamped entries above.
  • 11:41am
    Read email asking question about my recent paper. Ponder for a few minutes. Decide answer. Forward it to one of my co-authors, Ph.D. student Veselin Filev, for his comments. He knows more about that aspect than I anyway, and his anwer.
  • 12:00pm Student returned to my office to start second part of her worksheet work. She had to run off to a class and come back. Chatted to her about her graduate school visits and considerations as we walked to the room upstairs where she will continue. Got her going again, with a few words of encouragement.
  • 12:15pm Now have 45 minutes to think about physics, before lunch appointment at 1:00pm.
  • 12:17pm Phone rings. An old friend and former USC colleague calling. TV filmmaker/producer Bob Melisso. Chatted about his recent doumentary work, prospects for meeting to talk about a physics/science project he’s been chewing over. Talk for while about random aspects of life, from teaching issues, etc.
  • 12:35pm Check on student. Give some encouraging remarks.
  • 12:50pm Run into a senior colleague in corridor and have conversation about current Dean search.
  • 1:05pm Make it to lunch with colleague from Biology who has some physics questions. We talk about interpretations of quantum mechanics, multiple universes, Darwinian evolution, combinations of the two, string theory, supersymmetry, etc., etc. He has lots of questions, which I try to answer.
  • 2:27pm Reply to email from Veselin about previous issue.
  • 2:27pm Phone again. Long 25-minute conversation with another senior colleague about Dean search. He’s acting as department chair during the visit of one of the candidates (our current chair is away) and so needed some background information. I reply as much as I can with useful information and suggestions, keeping back the gory details of the interview process and the search committee’s deliberations, since those must go with us to our graves.
  • 2:55pm Updated this post a bit. Pause now. Sent email a short while ago to have 3:10pm meeting with my colleague Elena Pierpaoli about Cosmology and Astrophysics ideas. Then there’s the colloquium speaker showing up at 3:30pm, so these 15 minutes might be my last chance to think about physics before the end of the day here on campus! Will ignore phone if it rings, I decide. Perhaps check research blog to see if any of the graduate students have replied to some of the things I last spoke to them about.
  • 3:00pm No. However, there is a comment on one thread from Veselin about another issue we talked about involving Euclidean quantum gravity. Will read that again later and see if I have something useful to add to that thread. Ok….. ten minutes of quality physics… please! Will think a bit about Project B…
  • 3:10pm Elena and the speaker, Stefano Profumo show up. Coincidence -she never got my email. We go for coffee and talk until 4:00pm. Chatter about jobs around the world in cosmology and astrophysics (including his current job hunting). A bit of physics sneaks in here and there.
  • stefano profumo

  • 4:15pm Having st up the speaker’s computer and got him water, etc, I introduce him to the audience and the colloquium is very good. Title “What is the ‘Dark Matter’?”. A whole hour of physics, at last – even though it is someone else’s, I don’t mind.
  • 5:30pm argue for a while with a senior colleague from engineering about the role of electrically charged particles in cosmology. We have the same argument every time we have a visitor who talks about astrophysics or cosmology. Always ends with us thanking each other for the chat, and him leaving with a book recommendation.
  • 6:00pm Having seen speaker off, back in office. find myself emailing information about the next speaker in the series to the persons making the poster and booking the parking permit. Half an hour is spent clearing 2900+ emails from inbox to allow me to read current email more speedily. Clearing no longer means sorting it out carefully. I just dump them all into a folder whose name contains the date of the first email in it and of the last email in it. I just use a search program to find old stuff.
  • 6:25pm Email two undergraduate students to come and see me tomorrow at 9:00am about project supervision arrangements.
  • 6:30pm Remember to my horror that I’d promised to send along to my colleagues on a committee my reviews and ranking of candidate who applied for a couple of fellowships. Start printing them out to read on the bus, only to find that the emails containing them in a handy concatenated form seem to be missing from my mail system. Somehow flagged as spam and deleted? Sigh. Waste 20 minutes reconstructing some of them component by component from an online source. The really huge ones I’ll read when I get home.
  • 7:05pm Get on Brompton and ride like the wind to the bus stop, hoping that I have not just missed one.
  • 7:08pm Bus stop. Writing this summary of last few hours into a small notebook.
  • 7:11pm Bus!
  • 7:13pm Now going to read fellowship applications for a while.
  • 7:35pm Unfold Brompton (now off bus) and begin the cycle home, feeling that I’m somewhat more educated now – for example, from some of the geology applicants, I’ve learned about geothermobarometry and also of the Puente Hills blind thrust fault lying under our feet. So there.
  • 7:50pm Home. Cup of tea or gin and tonic? Choices, choices. Sigh. Better read fellowships some more. Have an apple instead.
  • 8:10 – 10:45pm Review of fellowships, etc., over a quick simple dinner (two boiled eggs and 3/4 of a lovely avocado from the farmer’s market). I sneaked a blog post of an impossibly cute bear in there too.
  • 10:45pm Having emailed my reports, I think it is time to crash. Maybe watch some nerve-wracking drama on “24” (which my system recorded earlier) and then fall into bed.
  • 12:15am (Tuesday) Time to sleep. Spent last 10 minutes fiddling and cleaning up this blog post a touch. That’s it. I’m done for the day. Got to get up in six and a half hours. And try harder to get some physics into the day tomorrow.


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23 Responses to Notes From the Day

  1. Bee says:

    oh wow, what a busy day! is it always like that?

    if I meet colleagues and ask them ‘how are you’ answers come in 4 categories. the first one is ‘fine’ or ‘good’ and means nothing in particular. the second answer is ‘busy’, which is the most frequent one I hear and means ‘as usual’. the third answer is ‘tired’ and seems to be as close as Americans can get to not feeling ‘fine’. the forth type of answer is reserved for Russian, Czech or Hungarian guys and comes in shades of ‘difficult’ ‘life sucks’ or ‘well, I’m still alive’ which I believe is the equivalent to ‘busy’ or ‘tired’.

    even the internet is currently tired…

    anyway… nice post 🙂 Hope to read some more about your ‘typical days’

    Cup of tea or gin and tonic

    Ginger tea?

  2. JustAnotherInfidel says:

    “Cup of tea or gin and tonic”

    Is this ever really a choice?

  3. Moshe says:

    Good to read this, to find out that I am not the only one with a fractal schedule…I guess those are the norm, not the exception.

  4. JustAnotherInfidel says:

    “I guess those are the norm, not the exception. ”

    That’s why you get paid the big bucks:)

  5. Amara says:

    I became exhausted just reading about it! Is it like that every day? (I guess we’ll find out.) You must be on a mega-mega vitamin routine or something to sustain that …

  6. Carl Brannen says:

    Well, that explains a lot. Do you suppose you’d have more time to work on physics if you took a job as a patent clerk?

    Along that line, I reached an agreement last night with the boss. I’m giving up half my percentage in an ethanol plant. In return, I go on retirement with full pay starting real soon now.

    This means I’m likely to be putting in a lot more time writing LaTex. I might finish that textbook on the density operator formalism in a couple months.

    Which reminds me. Recall the Koide formula? It was that somewhat unexpected formula that related the square roots of the masses of the leptons:

    [tex]2(\sqrt{m_e} + \sqrt{m_\mu} + \sqrt{m_\tau})^2
    = 3(m_e + m_\mu + m_\tau)[/tex]

    As Michael Ruiz noted, it makes sense if mass should be thought of as the squared length of a vector, [tex](\sqrt{m_e},\sqrt{m_\mu},\sqrt{m_\tau})[/tex]. One is reminded of the equations of Bohmian mechanics (see Wikipedia):

    [tex]E = V + Q + \frac{1}{2m}(\nabla S)^2[/tex]

    where V is potential and Q is “quantum potential”. Eliminating V and Q, as is natural for a fundamental theory, one finds energy as proportional to the square of a vector.

  7. Kea says:

    Thanks, Carl. I’m pretty sure Mike spells his name Rios. I have been thinking about how this might relate to P=NP.

  8. Clifford says:

    Carl, Kea. All good, but please find another place to talk about it. This is not the right thread.



  9. Clifford says:

    Bee, Amara: – Hi. Well, not always exactly like this, but as Moshe notes, it is not as infrequent as one would like. Vitamins? Well, I get all my nourishment from my rich diet of physics, fun, and – of course – the blog commenters!

    Moshe: – Let’s hang in there! Not long until the Summer now…

    Carl: – No, I’m pretty sure I’ll get more done this way than with the other option…. but I could be wrong.

    JustAnotherInfidel: – Yes, it is a genuine choice! I’ve had to choose the tea option two nights in a row now. 🙁 Work to do. G+T makes me sleepy.

    Well, The Tuesday report is due, and it is 11:17pm. I think I’ll get some sleep and finish it in the morning over breakfast, as I am exhausted now.



  10. JustAnotherInfidel says:

    “Yes, it is a genuine choice! I’ve had to choose the tea option two nights in a row now. Work to do. G+T makes me sleepy.”

    I’ve found that a nice cigar and a couple of bourbons really gets the creative juices flowing. At least it tends to make me care less about minus signs!

  11. Bee says:

    Vitamins? Well, I get all my nourishment from my rich diet of physics, fun, and – of course – the blog commenters!

    Vitamin B ?


    Have a great day!

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  13. Samantha says:

    I think I have the same problem with some of my students. They don’t seem to want to think, they just want to be told what they should know. This came to a head for me on the weekend, when I had a premed student in my office (trying to find out what would be on the exam) who told me that she didn’t like my approach to teaching. We spend far too time devising possible models to explain a phenomena and then going over the data that may or may not support the model. She said that she would find it easier just to be given a list of facts.

    I was a little surprised and tried to explain that “problem solving” (in this case understanding the extent to which the data may support the model) is a really useful skill which will be vital in her career as an MD. She looked doubtful. Well, she said, that’s why I want to be a heart surgeon and not a GP. I will just need to know the specific facts for that area.

    I tried not to let my jaw drop and just said, as mildly as I could, that if I got the sense that my heart surgeon was unable to think through a problem I would run, not walk, out of their office. My student remained unconvinced.

  14. Carl Brannen says:

    Clifford, sorry, for writing that. Please don’t worry about hurting my feelings by deleting my posts. I type very quickly, and when I write these comments on your blog it’s for you, not for your readers. Kea and I have our places where we share arcane knowledge of great importance.

  15. Clifford says:

    Hi Carl,

    Thanks. I appreciate you understanding if I sometimes strip off the LaTeX equations etc when the purpose of the post is mainly for the more general, non-technical reader. It might be a bit off-putting to some and stifle discussion. It is sometimes fun and interesting to see though, but all very dependent upon the context.



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  17. hmmm says:

    Cliford said

    “…After last midterm, I realized that the class is over very poor on computational skills, and efficient technique….So I’m going to give them an “in-class worksheet” every now and again which takes an entire class period (or most of it) and simply unpacks a single long problem in great detail. The idea is that they take a problem, and aided by the narrative I write, to a step by step analysis of it all the way to the end. In class, they work for a while. Then we stop and I see how they are doing, give a few hints, and then they move on to the next part. There’s just not enough problem-solving in class these days, and students are treating the classes more like a movie.

    Hmmm, your assumption is only valid if all your students think like you. What if some brilliant student in your class likes to think about problems in ways that seem inefficient to you.

    While I whole heartedly support efficient technique, I also believe that in a field such as ours it is important to promote creativity…..not force students to think “inside the box”. Remember, these are the best, brightest, and most creative minds on the planet.

    Maybe I’m wrong….what do you think?

  18. Arun says:

    Am reading from India on a not entirely reliable connection. As one of those who wanted to see a day in the life of CVJ, I must say, you have an alarming schedule.

  19. Clifford says:


    I am talking precisely about creativity. I just want the students to learn how to approach and solve a problem… by any method that gets the job done. I don’t care whether they think like me or not.

    There is no box.



  20. Clifford says:


    I should be a bit less quick in my answer (have to run out of the door in a short while)… This is pretty basic stuff, so time is an issue here. If a student can’t figure out what integral they need to do to solve the problem in a reasonable amount of time, it suggests that there is a problem of understanding, and/or simply poor technique (setting up coordinates, making simplifying assumptions, etc,). These techniques have to be taught and learned. Through practice. Solving lots of problems. Lots. The creativity that they will develop needs to take root in good technique…. Picasso became Picasso by learning good draughtsmanship technique and building on that.

    If you want to talk about the “box” here is what I think: You have to know where the “box” is before you learn to think out of it….. otherwise all you end up with is mush.



  21. TBB says:

    …and looked at the blog for a bit. Smile at fact that Mary Cole went to garden centre to sniff Jasmine.

    That made me smile, too, when I read that Mary Cole had made a point of experiencing Jasmine for herself, and I like that you mentioned it. It must feel good when you can inspire someone through a blog to go check something out. (Like I did with Children of Men, which, by the way, everyone in my movie-going circle of friends enjoyed.)

  22. Clifford says:

    TBB:- Great to hear that!



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