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Blog » Caltech News 4: Studying starts, big time

12 Nov 2003

Caltech News 4: Studying starts, big time

Filed under: Caltech News (emails) — paulcook @ 7:59 pm

Hi all,

As you may have noticed, this is the first email in quite a while. Writing the qualifying exam a few weeks ago put me substantially behind on all my problem sets, and I’m only now approaching catching up. I have 3-4 new problem sets (tutorials) due every week, so there’s not much time to try to catch up! Hence the delay in sending this news, as well as replying to other emails. My sincere apologies, and I’ll try as much as possible to keep up! Thanks to all those that have emailed me!

So after the partying of orientation week, things have got a lot more serious. The courses are mostly quite interesting - I’m doing 4 courses, one of which is on material I’m already pretty familiar with (and isn’t taught that well anyway), but the others are new material and interesting, if somewhat difficult! For those of you that are interested, I’m taking Relativistic Quantum Mechanics (the easier course), Quantum Computing, General Relativity and String Theory. The last is the most difficult course - it’s a big subject, and builds on material which I’m not all that familiar with to begin with. But it’s being taught by an expert in the field, who’s doing a good job. So as long as I can keep up, it should be good!

We’ve settled into a routine around the apartment - I’m getting on well with the roommates. We don’t share things like cooking as much as would be possible, but since we all have very different schedules (as well as preferred waking hours) that’s not too unexpected. Weekends have a little time for parties and going out, though we’ve yet to really explore LA nightlife. One great part of living in campus-owned housing is that every two weeks someone comes and cleans the entire public area of the apartment - kitchen, living room, bathrooms, the lot. Even does the dishes and takes out the trash! All included in our rent! With all the time I spend working in my room, I’ve forked out for a decent desk and swivel chair, as well as a 6 speaker+subwoofer 120watt computer sound system, and matching sound card to drive it. Even comes with a remote control!

Some of you may have heard about the massive fires here a week or two ago. They really were massive - they had about 1000 fire engines fighting them, maybe a hundred helicopters and planes, tens of thousands of firefighters - and until the weather changed they were still unable to do anything to stop them. Many thousands of homes burnt down, and general chaos all around. What you may not have heard is that for about the last 4 weeks we’ve had a complete strike of the LA public transport system (buses, subways, trains, everything), as well a strike of the 3 largest supermarket chains. So buying groceries has been a little tricky, but it seems to be nearing a resolution. Add in our new governor, and things sometimes seem a little surreal…

Caltech is a very different kind of place to most universities. For those that I haven’t told, it only has about 2000 students, more than half of them post-graduate. The entire focus of the place is on research, so everything is geared towards that. And lots of research gets produced - apparently Caltech has the highest citation rate per faculty member of any US university. It also draws some big names - over the last weeks I’ve been to talks by Stephen Hawking, David Baltimore (won the Nobel prize for discovering how RNA retroviruses work - a class of virus which includes the HIV/AIDS virus, and who happens to be president of Caltech as well), the guy who invented the Beowulf clustering technique (now responsible for almost half of the worlds top 50 fastest computing systems), and a bunch of others. Of course, it also means that I can’t afford to be lazy and still hope to keep up :)

The other interesting thing about Caltech is the honour system. Instead of a disciplinary code, all members of the community pledge not to take unfair advantage of anyone else. It’s policed entirely by elected bodies of students, not by the administration. And since everyone is so dedicated to good research, it seems to work really well. There’s basically no petty theft on campus (though bicycles often go missing from outside buildings, due to other people coming on campus). But most strange is the exam system: if you have, say, a three hour closed-book exam, you’ll typically go and collect it from outside an office somewhere, and do it sometime over the next few days, wherever you feel like writing it. You are expected not to cheat, and to time yourself. No exams are invigilated. Sounds bizarre, but it seems to work!

And in parting: the “laugh at ignorant foreigners section”: We went to a pool club a few weeks ago. A friend and me ran into someone there who asked where I am from. To my reply of “South Africa”, she said, “What are you doing there? I mean, you aren’t African!”. Ah, yes, good times!

Well, best get back to work!
Hope you are all well!
Paul



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