Blog » Caltech News 2: Of physicists and flower gardens

5 Sep 2003

Caltech News 2: Of physicists and flower gardens

Filed under: Caltech News (emails) — paulcook @ 7:54 pm

Hi all,

Apologies to those who may have heard some of the following news, in personalised replies before now. You’ve had a sneak preview. But hey, people spend lots of money to see movie premieres, so don’t complain! Thanks again to those that sent emails to me — it’s fantastic getting gossip from back home!

Been a few people asking about the dates I be back in SA during December. So here are they! Arriving 17 December in the morning, jetlagged and trying desperately to make sure I haven’t any trace of strange accents (on pain of death from a number of people). I’ll be leaving again on 5 January. I’ll definitely be in Johannesburg for some of the time, but may also go to Cape Town, depending on who else will be there.

Other administrative matters: I do have another email address, …, from which this email will probably come. Don’t worry, however, about changing over – email from all my addresses lands up in the same place in the end (where, might ask? Why, buried in spam, of course!). So send to whereever you feel like. Secondly, a physical address, if for some reason it’s required:
362 S Catalina Avenue, Apartment 102
Pasadena, CA 91106

The last week has been rather slow-moving. It’s taking a while to get used to how things work here, and all the emotional drain of getting used to an entirely different life has left me rather tired most of the time. And with none of you people around, there’s no-one to drag me out at night! The campus itself is really quiet at the moment, with most students only arriving in 2 or 3 weeks time, so there aren’t many people to meet at the moment. As a result, the three Fulbright people who met at the orientation session are hanging around a lot, eating meals together, etc. Of course, the amount of money I’ve now spent on restaurants is insane, but what the hell! The first of my parmanet apartment mates arrives on Monday, from the UK, so hopefully he’ll be nice. And hopefully some nice girls will also be arriving, as the present lot are a sorry bunch! :)

On Thursday afternoon we took a walk to the Huntington gardens, just a few blocks from Caltech. It was originally the personal residence of a rich industrialist, but he left it to a trust to administer for the public. It’s set in massive grounds, with different areas for different parts of the world. One side is the most beautiful Japanese garden, with bridges, streams with massive Koi fish, all sorts of Japanese plants with names I couldn’t hope to repeat, and a Japanese house, complete with moveable paper walls. Elsewhere is a large bonsai collection, a tropical garden, large rose garden, Greek statue collection, and even a collection of thousands of desert cactii (some quite threatening and alien, with spiky arms going in all directions), including a large collection of South African cactii. The estate buildings now house collections of British and American art, and one the country’s largest collections of English and American literature, all in the original documents. The display had on show one of the original Guttenburg Bibles, the first major printed work, as well as transcripts of the Continental Congress, the organisation which planned the US War of Independence. And the best part – free entry, as the first Thurday of every month is free! (Yes, we had planned it that way).

On Friday I finally summoned up the courage to go and introduce myself to some of the physics professors. Basically went to the building which houses the theoretical physics group, and walked around the corridors, looking for names I recognised! Spoke briefly to two guys who are respectively world leaders in the fields of string theory and quantum computing, both of which interest me. They were quite friendly, but unfortunately there aren’t any seminars or other activities till the start of term. Also met a second year graduate student who’s offered to introduce me to some more people.

What I should be working on over the next few weeks is studying for the qualification exams (“quals”). These are exams on all of undergraduate and honours physics, which all PhD students are required to pass within the first year of study, at one of three possible attempt dates. The first is in mid-October, so I’m hoping to get at least one of the two exams out the way, both to impress potential supervisors, as well as to be able to move onto the graduate course-work as soon as possible. I picked up some past papers, though, and they were quite a lot more challenging than I had hoped, so I’m a little discouraged at the moment. Still, my only option is to start working, I suppose, and see how it goes!

The next structured activity is the international students orientation, which starts on 15 September. The following week is the general orientation, including another set of “diagnostic” exams, designed to highlight strengths and weaknesses in your undergraduate preparation. Then classes start on about 29 September.

Well, I suppose I’d better get back to work. I’m trying to read recent articles published by faculty here, so I can talk meaningfully about their work. Doesn’t help that I can’t understand a word of what they’re saying! Well, at least I’ve got 5fm streaming over the Internet to keep me company!

Hope that you are all well, and that the weather is warming up — it’s still unbelievably hot here, so if anyone is cold, feel free to borrow some warmth from here!

All my love,

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