24 – Physics Edition (Day Two)

February 14th 2009: Valentine's Day.

9:00pm – 10:00pm

…Must be here somewhere. Maybe inside the monolith? No. Seems it is not inside the jumbo suitcase, which I have not used since Aspen last year anyway, and I’m pretty sure that I did not use it on that trip. Where can it be? That box over there? No. (But I found that bag of plastic book covers that I’ve been using sparingly since I left Preston for London in 1986. Excellent. The things I don’t throw away…) Well, never mind, would be silly to make myself miss a flight over an inflatable pillow that I have not seen in over a year. If I play my cards right, I won’t need it anyway….

9:10pm Now to put all those things I set aside earlier into my trusty little day trip bag. Change of clothes, electric shaver, toothbrush and so forth. I suppose I will bring the laptop. And some bits of equipment that might be useful as backup for Peter’s plan. Or whatever. You never know. Yes, I throw in my copy of Accordion Crimes. Almost finished it, and if I do, would be good to get another Annie Proulx to continue enjoying her wonderful writing…

9:17pm Will someone tell me how I managed to be perfectly on time, and then fritter away some of it to make sure I’m slightly panicky late again? Sigh. I was more or less ready at 9:00, when I should have left. Despite all the events of the previous 24 hours ((Day One) – Valentine’s Day Diary – Available on DVD) I got everything together on time, and wouldn’t it be rich if I missed the flight?

9:23pm I leave finally, using the batcave, slowing to check that entrance closes, then vanish into the night toward the airport. Saturday night late in LA. Surely everyone is out having awkward dates? The roads will be clear this late on a Saturday night, right? I can make my 10:07 check-in cutoff, I’m sure.

9:33pm. 101 Freeway. Full of traffic. Don’t you people have dates you’re supposed to be on!!?? This is my road! My! Road!

9:44pm 105 Freeway. Sweet. Roads are clear after all…110 was a breeze… Parking lot plus shuttle and I think I’m 20 minutes out. Of course. (You’re only ever “20 minutes out” in 24.)

10:00pm – 11:00pm

Typical. Shuttle couldn’t wait the extra 45 seconds to let me finish parking. Sigh… How long until the other one?

10:08pm Strange the driver did not know that there is some United at terminal 6 too. Oh well. Checked in. Explain my strategy for changing my seat to the checkin attendant who likes the idea. Her friend did not. Don’t book the middle of the middle, book an aisle she says. I say my being in middle will repel people from both aisles. More likely I get it all to myself, no? I choose the middle seat of the empty middle black as planned. (Obsessed with aisles these airline people are. I never know why. Even when I book windows they like to “help” me by rebooking me on aisles if I’m not careful to stop them….)

10:12pm. Ah. Yes. I knew that my choice to wear 8 hole DMs on the trip would meet with fun times at the security line. Lacey dacey.

10:40pm Boarding starts. Boarding guy smilingly hands me a different boarding card in exchange for mine saying I’d strangely been booked in the middle seat and not the aisle, and so he’d rebooked me into the aisle. I smile back…

10:45pm – 10:59pm. Sitting in aisle eyeing nervously my lovely row of three seats that are all mine…. hoping nobody has designs on them…. hearing them discussed a couple of times and wondering what I’d do to politely persuade someone that I’d had plans for these… Babies crying around me. Several. I pat open the trusty travel bag’s little pocket to retrieve one of the sets of earplugs I always travel with (slightly, er, off-colour ones I’ve reused way too many times – how could I have forgotten that nice pack of 30 new pairs I bought the other day? It’ll just join those other two full packs in my travel drawer that I keep forgetting to use. Better throw these ones away after this trip and break out new ones.)


….still eyeing nervously….

11:09pm We set off on time…. Now just got to wait for the ding that says we can move about, be the first to move, hope that nobody makes a move before the ding, and I can get my head down and sprawl all over these three seats and these four pillows and three blankets!

11:20pm It worked! After some rooting around, got some sort of comfort going. Good to be horizontal again, making this the second shift of sleep this night. Pilot announces that we’re going to arrive in Chicago 30 minutes early. Annoying! Is that really necessary? Did any of us complain about the existing schedule? That’s half an hour of my sleep you’re taking way there, Captain Tailwind.

11:25pm. I don’t believe this. An old lady decided to use my aisle as a shortcut to her friends, since somehow she’s made up her mind that my feet not being on the floor amounts to the row being unoccupied. Huh? Of course she drags past me in the process. I sit up, glare a little at her back, make appropriate “WTF?” gesture with my hands for my own private benefit, notice the guy across the way looking on with an incredulous look on his face – we transmit knowing glances at each other. I take the opportunity to get out of my bag in the overhead bin the pack of Airborne I’ve been taking one of every now and again for my bad cold and I settle back down, this time lowering a couple of the seat trays to discourage such transits again. After a bit, the drinks people come by, and I get a cup of hot water and dissolve one of the giant horse pills into the water for a tasty lemony dose of whatever this is supposed to be doing to one’s immune system. No, I’ve no sure idea of whether it helps shorten or avert my colds, but it makes for a strangely tasty beverage, so I don’t lose out here.

I settle down again, lower facemask onto eyes, snug my earplugs, burrow a bit more into the blankets and pillows, hug my handbag to me like a passionate lover, check that the seatbelt I am wearing is visible to the cabin staff, and…




February 15th 2009: Mission Day.

12:00am – 1:00am

1:00am – 2:00am

(Eat your heart out, Jack Bauer.)

2:00am – 3:00am (translating to Central time until further notice, and hence 4:00am to 5:00am)

Landing preparations begin. I sit up. Put pillow under my chin to allow head to rest in chest and continue sleeping. Dimly aware of plane landing…. taxiing. Awake again when ping! goes off and people begin their usual desperate rush to get off the plane as though it is about to explode (never understand that).

4:35am Ah. Always interesting to watch an airport of this sort first thing in the morning. Especially a Sunday morning. The few people around are in rough clusters and bunches that recall their companionship of the flight they just disembarked from, and they are moving slowly and a bit clumsily, looking for coffee.

I look for coffee too. For no good reason I decide to go over to concourse B. Well, of course there is a good reason. Every time I come to Chicago airport I like to visit that same Starbucks at the top of the escalator there and order the same, same thing I have been ordering for the last 12 years of coming through here since I used to do it regularly on my trips out of Lexington – Tall coffee of the day and a cinnamon scone. Same thing every time. Sad thing is that the cinnamon scones have evolved from reasonably tolerable to barely recognizable as food, but tradition is a powerful thing in my mind. I munch it anyway, and drink my coffee, and watch the people go by for a bit. I’ve nothing pressing to do for three and a half hours anyway, except get to the hotel. Wherever that is.

5:00am – 6:00am

5:15am Find myself a bit embarrassed that I’m taking a taxi to the Hyatt Regency, as I realize that it is right in downtown and I could have just taken the train and then walked. For some reason I did not do my research as to where it was, and had it in my mind as not quite so trivially accessible. On the other hand, maybe it is a good thing to do this. I could get a bit more of a snooze in the car. Or, given my state of illness recovery, probably I should not be wandering too far in the sub-freezing cold looking at the empty (at this time) city streets and trying to find my hotel and so forth… all groggy from partial sleep and congestion.

6:00am – 7:00am

Ok. Indeed. Right smack downtown. Chicago looks good as the morning sunlight pours into it and begins to fill it up. But where’s the snow on the ground I was hoping for? My boots are a bit down in the mouth at the no-show. (Picture below was taken a bit later on may way to breakfast, but has some of the feel of the earlier morning.)


Wander a bit to check out the layout and then find a restroom out of the way (with the help of one of the staff) to transform myself from Mr I obviously slept in these clothes into Prof Hey I clean up reasonably ok.

I’m in no hurry at this task, washing up a bit, brushing teeth, and listening to sounds in the distance of staff getting the hotel ready for the day. I take so long that someone obviously decided that I was a person of interest and sent someone in to check that I was not crawling through the pipework to Al Gore’s room (er… I’d be a stupid two days too late terrorist – he was here on Friday) or something. Of course he comes in just at that moment – of all moments – when I’m most awkwardly arrayed, mid removal of undershirt to change into new clothes. Sigh. He does the walk in, half approach, look over and past me, and turn on heel and retreat that in these situations usually translates into something like Oh don’t mind me I’m just looking to see if I forgot my mop in here oh no it is not here goodbye then.

All good. Finally changed. I notice that I forgot my nicer belt. Just got the scuzzy day to day one, which is especially noticeably scuzzy when set off by a nicer pair of pants and shirt. Leather’s all cracked and misshapen and stained. Drat. Nothing I can do about that. There’ll be no shops open early on a Sunday morning, that can help me here, and anyway, not sure where they would be… At least it is not as bad as the Forgotten Underwear incident in Philadelphia all those years ago. What an adventure that was.

Sit at a table in a sort of bridge part of the building that shakes as people walk along it. There must be a gym near here since several inappropriately (for the season) dressed people go by while I’m sitting there, trying to get my computer to talk to the network. I fail at this, and find out from nearby journalist duo that there is no code that they know of for the conference to use, but they are not sure since maybe conference participants have different information.

The shaking and appalling music drive me away from this space minutes later. I decide to register and find out if there is a registration code in my package of materials.

I ask at the check-in desk where registration is and head down the escalator, following her suggestion. Oh. There is a souvenir shop. I wonder…. sometimes among all the junk they have a little stash of supplies for the traveller. Might a belt be among them? Bless me – they’ve a supply of Calvin Klein belts of not too displeasing a form. Must be my lucky day. I purchase one and find another bathroom to change into it.

I head down to the third basement level. Ballroom level. All the meeting’s various paraphernalia are set up. Booths, press lounges, registration counters. Etc. Too early for registration. Lady says they’ll be open at 7:00.

Head back up to ground floor. (Or first floor if you prefer.) Hotel porter guy is looking at me a bit weirdly now since this is the third time I’ve passed him in a short time. I buy a banana from Starbucks as some sort of pre-breakfast that has some good nutrition in if (if not flavour…. these are those dreadful over-commercialized bananas, of course, picked well before they are ready).

I find a table and sit, and look at my slides for the first time in days. I ask the lady at the nearby coffee stand if she’ll give me some hot water for my medication. She obliges – and then again because I notice odd bits floating in the first cup she gave me – and I have another tasty bubbly Airborne.

7:00am – 8:00am.

Wandering again. Heh. Hotel security must be having a field day wondering what I’m up to. Pass porter guy again who is now doubling his efforts to eye me suspiciously. (Or perhaps unusual sleep patterns result in a bit of paranoia?)

I get to registration and it is painless. The lady who registers me is very concerned that I get my bag. Have you seen a bag she asks her workmates. No they say. Hang on, I’m going to get you a bag she tells me and off she goes. I wonder if it is another cheap piece of crap conference bag that I am going to have to keep forever in the basement. She arrives with it. Black tote bag. Small NSF logo one side, AAAS other side. Oh. Not bad. I kind of like black tote bags enough to get over my aversion to flashing people’s logos on my person. Is it me, or have conferences and other events all switched to black tote bags in one correlated move in the last few years? This is a good sign, I suppose as they are relatively simple to make compared to the dreadful plastic satchels that I and all conference goes have piles of….

Major missed opportunity here in my opinion. If you’re running a science conference all about the improvement of our lives with science (AAAS has the motto “Advancing Science, Serving Society”), and you set a green theme (“Our Planet and Its Life: Origins and Futures”) and invite Al Gore to speak (see his excellent talk here) and so on and so forth…. I think it would be a lot more creative to not have printed the big thick glossy booklet that is in every single conference bag, negotiated a deal with the hotel to allow all participants to log on to the network for free so that they can consult the schedule and supporting materials online instead. For those who did not bring computers you could have sprinkled a few stations with dedicated computers with this information on. That would have been a more powerful green symbol, I think.

But who going to listen to the opinion of a groggy physicist….?

Wander some more. I go upstairs to the check in area again and confirm that I can leave my bag with the gentlemen who run the room that stores left luggage. I leave it, taking my computer and a few bits of equipment in case they are needed. I use the new tote bag for them so I have it and my handbag as my only encumbrances. I keep my outdoor wool half coat for warmth against overzealous air circulation.

Finish looking at slides.

8:00am – 9:00am

Meet up with the gang! Finally, I get to meet the people I’ve been working on preparing this symposium with. (I told you about some of the preparation for this earlier.)

The symposium is entitled “Quest for the Perfect Liquid: Connecting Heavy Ions, String Theory, and Cold Atoms”, and the abstract is:

Physicists built the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC), a particle accelerator at Brookhaven National Laboratory, to recreate a form of matter that last existed mere microseconds after the Big Bang. Their aim was to create and probe this predicted gaseous plasma of free quarks and gluons — the most basic constituents of matter — to better understand the forces that hold the universe and everything in it together. What they found was surprising, and much more interesting, attracting the attention of scientists and others outside their field. Instead of behaving like a gas of free quarks and gluons, the matter created at RHIC appears to be more like a liquid. In fact, it’s the most “perfect” liquid ever observed, with virtually no viscosity, or resistance to flow. As it turns out, calculations of the perfect liquid’s viscosity can be derived using methods of string theory, linking RHIC with that theory’s search for extra dimensions of space and time and theoretical black holes. RHIC experiments may even provide ways to test predictions of string theory, which to date has not been possible. In addition, RHIC’s findings of what happens with hot, dense matter help in understanding ultra-cold matter and possibly even high-temperature superconductors and neutron stars. This symposium brings together experts from RHIC, string theory/cosmology, and atomic physics, as well as a science journalist to explore these connections and lead a discussion of the relevance of this research.

We spend time chatting about what to do about our original plan of meeting for breakfast at Bistro 151 inside the hotel. It has a huge line to get into it now (evidently, we’re not the only ones who thought it would be a good place to meet for breakfast), and Peter, upon returning from a reccy to the top of the line reports that the host says it is doubtful we’ll get a table for 8 people any time soon. I make some silly suggestion about getting two tables for four and then trying to swop with another group to get two tables of four together, realize it is the jetlag talking, and decide to shut the hell up for a bit. We decide to go to Houlihan’s. This requires several of us to go off to get our hats, coats, gloves and scarves from rooms and bag checks, as it will involve Going Outside.

Coats and related paraphernelia were a good idea since even though a block away, it was cold indeed. Breakfast was great. Finally we’re all together and it is a fun group of eight (Peter Steinberg, Barbara Jacak, Bill Zajc, Elaine Lowenstein, Glennda Chui, Karen Walsh, John Thomas, (Kendra Snyder joined us later)) from our various institutions (in no particular order: Brookhaven, Stony Brook, Columbia, Duke, SLAC, and of course USC). We chatted about all sorts of things besides just business (and business included the physics, more of the physics, when we’d take questions, what sort of facility the Regency Ballroom C is like, etc) including people we knew in common, whether or not we’d met before, the state of funding for science, problems with NSF and DOE, good things about NSF and DOE, whether the stimulus package will be good for science funding or not, and several other things.

9:00am -10:00am

Breakfast and chats continue.

At some point we walk back over, discovering (and for some, recalling that they’d known but had forgotten) that there’s a tunnel directly from where the breakfast place is to the hotel, and so we needn’t have worried about coats and so forth. We check out the part of the huge hotel complex that has our session in it and stand outside in a lobby area and chat some more about last minute things, fixing some slides here and there. Peter’s computer is the one which will present all the presentations and he’s had our talks on it for days now. He’s pulled everything together into Keynote. I’m happy with this since I use Keynote and so I am not worried that the types of things I do in it will get destroyed by being taken into a program that can’t handle it. With a few tweaks, he was able to reproduce the presentations of the others in Keynote too (it imports Powerpoint files). At this point I produce one of my trusty presentation tools I’d brought just in case and offer it to everyone to use if they like – something that switches slides and emits a laser pointer so that the speaker is not tied to the computer and can look where the audience looks (a major plus when giving talks). Everyone is happy.

Peter and I gently and good-naturedly give Barbara a hard time for using Powerpoint on a MacBook, as we all stand there with our various MacBook Pros and an Air. (Half-jokingly) accepting no excuses, I insist that it’s just somehow wrong, that the universe weeps a little, and she should consider Keynote as soon as possible. She’ll almost certainly ignore us! (And, yes, maybe rightly so if she’s happy with how she’s got things set up…)

Lots of wandering and looking into other talks and so forth to kill time. I’m pleased that my aggressive work combating my cold (which started with a powerful fever and sore throat on Thursday afternoon and went nuclear soon after) seems to have paid off. I feel reasonably good, although I can tell that my patchy sleep schedule combined with the weakening by the cold have shaved the edges off my game quite a bit. But there’s enough game left, I think.

10:00am – 11:00am

We wander into the now mostly vacated ball room and begin to set up, arranging things to suit our setup (extra chair for the podium, etc), and connecting the computer. Everything goes smoothly and we go wandering off again for the ten minutes before we start.

symposium location

symposium in action10:30am Peter Steinberg (Brookhaven) kicks things off by asking the speakers (Barbara, John, Yours Truly) up to the podium and we get seated next to him. He starts things off with welcoming remarks and a five or so minute introduction to what the audience is going to hear about, what the issue is, and why it is exciting. He talks about how the audience is going to hear about how some of the hottest stuff in the universe (the RHIC collider physics) has things in common with some of the coldest stuff in the universe (the cold droplets of Lithium atoms), and how the theoretical framework that seems to describe this physics is string theory. (I’ve explained a lot of this in earlier posts that you can find linked below and in this earlier recent post.)

Barbara Jacak (Stony Brook) gets up and begins her 15 minute presentation, laying out the goals and ideas of the RHIC experiment, the expectations from QCD (and what QCD is) and the surprises that were seen at RHIC. She goes through a few of the key signatures that the substance being created at RHIC is really this new form of matter, this ultra-low viscosity strongly coupled fluid/soup of quarks and gluons. It’s a beautiful talk. Peter takes a few questions before bringing John up to do his 15 minutes.

John Thomas (Duke) tells the audience about his group’s desktop experiments with laser-cooled droplets of Lithium-6 atoms.

11:00am – 12:00noon

Again, naively you’d expect this thing to behave like a gas in the regime of physics they tune it to (using a magnetic field), but no it does not. It again behaves like an ultra-low viscosity strongly coupled fluid, with striking properties similar to those of the RHIC soup. His talk is also beautiful, with very clear explanations of how the physics is done, and how you can manipulate the sample directly and watch it flow like a liquid in series of laser snapshots! There are a few questions taken from the audience and then Peter calls me over to talk for 15 minutes.

My job is to explain how we try to understand all of this physics that we’re seeing. What tools do we have to explain the behaviour of this new phase, and what tools do we need? Why are the old tools not working? I speak of the idea of collective behaviour and emergent phenomena, and why it makes sense to look for new variables to get to grips with describing the problem, as you do in any good physics approach. I suggest that the new variables might be strings, showing a pictorial clue as to why this is a good idea, explain why it actually fails at first, digress a bit on the seemingly irrelevant story of quantum gravity and strings success at describing it (I like to say here: “we don’t know that it is our quantum gravity, but we know that it is a quantum gravity”), focus in on the holographic principle and how it relates all of that back to describing “ordinary” (meaning non-gravitational) quantum systems (turning aspects of the naive failure into success by recognizing that aspects, such as gravity and extra dimensions, were not being looked at in the right way and were in fact crucial elements). These “ordinary” systems include the class of fluids that seem to be showing up in these experiments! I end with the key pragmatic view of all of this by showing how intuitive and simple the computation of the ultra-low viscosity actually is in this picture. For this physics, strings seem to be the right variables. String theory seems to be the right tool for this job. Some closing remarks about how to move forward, and hopes.

There was lots of great discussion to follow. A few questions at the end of my talk led us into the discussion section led by Glennda Chui and Bill Zajc, who also asked questions of us, and also invited questions from the audience. Here’s a pair of shots of several of us in action (left to right: Peter, Bill (behind), Glennda, Barbara (with mic in second shot), John):

symposium in action symposium in action

We had an excellent turnout, which I think surprised us all. The audience (which had a great mix of people in it – including several enthusiastic young people) seemed engaged and excited by the physics, just as we were, and so it was rather wonderful to share the excitement and unpack as many aspects about the connections and serendipity in this whole interdisciplinary endeavour as the people wanted us to.

[Update: Glennda Chui, who works for Symmetry magazine, reported on the event in an article that you can read here.]

12:00pm – 1:00pm

There’s a large group of people at the front asking lots of us lots of questions. It’s fun. This is where I realize my lack of sleep is making its effects most known – my answers are not nearly as concise as I like, and I’m rambling a bit here and there before getting cleanly to the point in some answers. Ugh. Oh well. There are several great questions, and some nice comments (including one of each from a young blog reader whose name I did not catch that I found very encouraging – thank you) and I tried to answer as many as I could, including doing a two minute thing straight to video for somebody from either AAAS or APS about careers in physics for young people. I see several friends and colleagues I had not seen in a while, both scientists and otherwise (such as some science journalists), and I answer their questions and ask some of my own, such as “how are you”?

On the way out I see the next group coming in to set up for their talk. I recognize a lot of them, including T. S Virdee (who almost certainly does not remember that young undergraduate Summer student who he was in charge of out at CERN when he was working on the UA1 upgrade back in 1989) and Joe Lykken, of Fermilab. Joe and I chat for a while to catch up and bond over the History channel disaster from a while back, and then I go to try to catch up with my team.

1:00pm – 2:00pm

It is clear that we should end our little gang with a nice lunch and something bracing (other than the walk outside) and so we wander over the river and down a main road (past the big people with pitchfork sculpture (God Bless America, by J. Steward Johnson)) to get some lunch at a place whose name I can’t recall. I have to move fast since I promised to meet at 1:45 my old University of Kentucky colleague and friend Susan Gardner for coffee to catch up.


1:23pm I get my order of barbequed Salmon in, and reluctantly decide against the wine after all, given my inability to appreciate it properly with cold symptoms. Was tempted to get the wonderful sounding red that John was enthusing about across from me (he was so impressed with it that he wrote the name down on a bit of paper he carefully tucked into his wallet – he says he does this when he finds one he likes- and seemed to consider adopting as his daughter the waitress who suggested it). I’m worrying about the time a bit.

1:35pm I send a text to Susan to apologize and move the meet until 2:00pm and pray that the number I’m using is not years out of date.

1:45pm I send an email version of same as well.

1:50pm Having finished my (surprisingly excellent) meal, I apologize to all for having to leave early, pay my share of the meal, and say my goodbyes to all at both tables (we have two tables of four). We all agreed that this was a fantastic collaboration, and we ought to keep talking about the physics and build even more on this wonderful new relationship we’ve got.

1:55pm Back on the road I dash back over to see if I can find Susan in the lobby…

2:00pm – 3:00pm

2:01pm I get a text as I’m dashing along the way saying she’s now arrived.

2:05pm Meet Susan and find out she’s been just fine, sitting reading, but I hate being rude and keeping people waiting and so try to explain it took us a while to coordinate and get lunch going, and I should have guessed that from the start and met a bit later. Trouble is that I’ve promised to meet two blog reader friends at 2:30pm, and so did not want to compress time too much.

2:10pm We decide to wander to Corner Bakery to get some takeout coffee and return, which should put us back at the lobby in time for my 2:30. We walk and chat for a bit, and run into Athena, one of the readers I was going to meet later who has arrived early, and after introductions we all walk together to get coffee, chatting about how things have been for Susan since I last saw her, what kind of physics she is up to these days, and what projects Athena is up to.

2:32pm Back in the lobby we locate Elliot, the other reader of the blog who’s meeting us. This is great! All these great people brought together by science and blogging. We find some comfortable chairs (in the shaky bridge bit I met early this morning of course) and chat about all sorts of things, from physics to other sciences, music, politics, pets, facebook, blogging and families.

3:00pm – 4:00pm

At some point Elliot points out Sir Martin Rees in the distance, at another table. I make a joke about not going over to say hi this time lest he think I’m stalking him (I’d just seen him at another meeting, in Cambridge, not too many weeks ago, and we’d chatted at length then). So I don’t disturb him, and we continue to talk a bit about the astronomy and cosmology sessions coming up the next day.

Then Athena gets excited and yells “Jennifer?! It’s Jennifer isn’t it?!”, and I think to myself how sweet many she’s running into an old school friend (like Susan did as she told me earlier) – you go to a big enough meeting (and this is supposed to be the world’s biggest scientific conference) it is not unlikely to happen, I suppose. The Jennifer comes over and I realize it is Jennifer Ouelette, science writer and another blogger. I make introductions (although it seems Athena met her years ago at a book reading) and we chat for a brief while (Jennifer explains about SEEX to Susan, for example) and then Jennifer carries on along her way.

We chat more.

Someone happening by agreed to take a snap and so here we are (with permission: Elliot, Susan, Athena, cvj):

chatting at AAAS meeting  in Chicago

Elliot has offered to drop me at the airport since he’s heading that way, and so while he gets his car I say goodbye to Athena and Susan, and then go off to retrieve my bag from the bag check.

4:00pm – 5:00pm

In the car, I explain to Elliot in a bit more detail about the physics I was talking about earlier, and why it is exciting. We chat about various things, including some projects of Elliot’s that sound exciting, and within a short time we’re at the airport. We say goodbye, I thank him for the ride, and check myself into my flight using one of the automatic machines. Within a few minutes of arriving in the car I’m on the other side of security lacing up my boots and wondering what to do with all the time I suddenly have before the flight.

4:45pm I decide to take my chances and go on standby for the 5:31 flight that will board in about 15 minutes. I’m giving up a nice seat to do this, but I hope that I’ll get a good seat if I am lucky, especially after hearing that the flight is not too full.

5:00pm – 6:00pm

5:04pm They call my name first on the list of standbys, bless them. I’ve got 11F. Sweet! I had 27F on the later flight, and so this is really excellent. There are no middle section games to play here (it is a 3+3 configuration, and anyway I absolutely love returning to LA next to a window, and I have no pressing need for sleep anyway).

I doze for a while, and eventually we take off. I’ve no idea when. Drinks come around and I wake up and get a cup of hot water for another fizzy delight that is a dissolved Airborne tablet. Yay. (Hmmm, and, I see now, an appropriate gesture too.)

I decide not to sleep anymore, and remove my footwear, cover myself with the blanket nearby against the chill of some drafty vent nearby, and take out my computer.

6:00pm – 7:00pm

I compute when I will return to LA, and when I will get home and realize that I will likely arrive home precisely 24 hours after having left. This gives me an idea for a blog post. I open a text file and begin typing intermittently.

7:00pm – 8:00pm

More typing. Looking out the window, reflecting on the day, recalling and recording of more detail than anyone will care to read. I write it down anyway.

8:00pm – 9:00pm

And it continues.

At some point I decide to stop and continue later. Time to read.

I revel in the wonderful work and world of Annie Proulx’ Accordion Crimes for the rest of the flight.

9:00pm – 10:00pm

Very near the end of the book now, but won’t finish before the flight. After a while, I decide to stop and savour a nice final chunk for the bus ride to work during the week, perhaps. Or at home. Dose a little as we make the final approach, followed by looking out over the sparkling jewel that is Los Angeles on a clear night as you fly over, doing my usual game of trying to figure out exactly what parts we’re flying over and how we’re going to approach.

10:00pm – 11:00pm (Which is really 8:00 – 9:00pm Pacific Time that I will now switch back to.)

So… final hour:

8:00pm – 9:00pm

8:15pm We land. After disembarking I repack my bag, wash my face, and head for the blue sign to catch the shuttle to the parking lot. As usual, there’s an order of magnitude more shuttles for the two parking lots that aren’t the one I’m using (not exaggerating), and I wait a while for the right one to arrive.

8:56pm I’m on the road, heading home fast. Soon after joining the 105 I politely decline a clear invitation to a race from a feisty silver corvette upstart that roars up behind me, pulls alongside and revs, (my ignoring it translates into: I’m quite happy cruising along here at a comfortable 80, thank you very much, and I’d not want to embarrass you in your shiny car anyway…), and (later) flowing on to the 110, I focus on enjoying that wonderful vista of the downtown skyline that you get returning to Los Angeles from that direction on a clear night with an open road.

Ok. Bonus hour for the two of you still reading. (Think of it as in the DVD extras when you buy the whole season.)

9:00pm – 10:00pm

9:26pm. Pull into batcave, precisely 24 hours and 3 minutes after pulling out of it.

Mission accomplished. (Hurrah!)


Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to 24 – Physics Edition (Day Two)

  1. Athena says:

    Clifford, it was great to have had a chance to chat with you. It was also especially nice to see Elliot (again!) and to meet Susan. Thanks for taking the time out of you 24-hour-and 3-minute adventure to share some conversational tidbits with us.

    Also, I like your photos of the city and enjoyed your comments on the day’s events You certainly have a memory for details!

    Hope that the effects of your cold is dissipating now.

  2. David Harris says:

    Hi Clifford,

    Nice to see you at the meeting. Here is Glennda’s story about your session: http://www.symmetrymagazine.org/breaking/2009/02/16/a-first-string-theory-predicts-an-experimental-result/


  3. P. P. Cook says:

    I have no cold nor much idea what an Airborne is but I want one. I hope they’re paying you sponsorship money.
    Thanks for the entertaining description Clifford, best wishes,

  4. Elliot says:

    I would just like to make a couple of points regarding this post.

    When you initially meet someone in cyberspace, there is some trepidation about actually meeting them in the real world. I have to say that my “cyber-impressions” of Clifford were extraordinarily close to the real thing. He is just as engaging and generous with his time and knowledge in reality as he is on this blog. What you see is really what you get.

    Also Susan shared some of her work on experimental approaches to Dark Matter that I also found fascinating as well.

    It was a wonderful experience and I hope that those of you who are frequent visitors can get a chance to meet Clifford in real life if the opportunity presents itself.

    Finally I would have posted earlier. But I was watching….you guessed it….24.


  5. moshe says:

    I don’t suppose there is a TV show named 12, for people more like myself?

  6. Yoni Kahn says:

    Hello Prof. Johnson,

    I am the young blog reader you mentioned in your post (-: Once again, thank you for your talk and your overall refreshingly pragmatic attitude toward theoretical physics. I must say that although I’ve been leaning towards doing phenomenology (specifically, building the standard model from string theory) in grad school, this idea of using black holes as calculational tools is fascinating and something that I would not mind spending some years on as well. Luckily I don’t have to make a decision about graduate schools until April…

  7. Clifford says:

    Thanks everyone! Elliot – you’re very generous indeed. It was really excellent to meet you. I hope we get to talk at length some more soon.


  8. Kortney says:

    Where to begin, with so many ideas to comment on?
    Thank you for the link to Al Gore’s speech. It was excellent to hear him, as you made the speech so conveniently accessible.
    So much truth packed into 58 minutes. Would that the whole population could listen for one hour.

    Then, there’s your captivating chronicle, 24 hours of time travel, there and back again to the batcave. All such fine, transparent imagery, immensely fun, informative and funny! I wonder, how could anyone not want to read it through to the end?

    I am happy to know you had safe flights into and out of O’Hare. Especially considering the tragedy 2 days previous. O’Hare has always been a difficult hub for me , I try to avoid it unless Chicago is the destination. I have had many serious weather incidents in flight travel through there. Being from the
    U.P. of Michigan, I have flown through O’Hare too many times to mention. So, bless God, all are safe in this journey.

    Finally, I too am an Airborne user. I also prefer it in hot water, the tasty bubbly treat, while being very healthy for the immune system before, during and after travel or a cold or flu, is just totally delightful to drink! You can feel the health benefits immediately, the warmth and comfort it gives to soothe savage beast. Tea and coffee are nice, they have their place in the comfort zone, but Airborne is Fantastic for travel and illness!
    Just be careful when putting it into super hot water, as you know, the hotter the water, the more it bubbles and splashes, spraying its’ delight all over the table or nearby book you may be reading at the time. So for those who may be new Airborne users, either have a napkin to set on top of your cup for a few minutes while it fizzes or, lower the temp of your water just a bit. And, Enjoy!

    Thank you again for grand amusements!
    Also thank David for the link to Glennda’s blog. Very nice summary of the information shared in the day.


  9. Carol&Co says:

    Simply fabulous – thank you! I now need to explain to Zachary how his uncle used his 24 hours last weekend when I kept telling him you were away for 48 hours!! Now I know why I don’t need to see 24!!

  10. Pingback: Uses For Strings? at Asymptotia

  11. Pingback: Tales From The Industry XXIX - Dune at Asymptotia