Blog » Caltech News 6: Of islands and exams

20 Jul 2004

Caltech News 6: Of islands and exams

Filed under: Caltech News (emails) — paulcook @ 8:00 pm

Hi all,

It has been a long time since I’ve sent an email to this list of people, so I’m sorry to those that haven’t heard from me for a while. There are also a few getting this for the first time, let me know if you’d rather not get future editions!

I’ve wrapped up my first academic year at Caltech in the last few days. Lectures ended about a month ago now, but since then I’ve been starting the first hints of some real research, as well as studying for and writing one of my qualifying exams. The courses have been very useful, and I can now claim I have at least some idea of what it really means to say that I’m studying string theory. I’m going to have to spend at least one more year in pretty fulltime coursework and reading before I can really say that I know what is happening, but the work is interesting (if sometimes rather challenging — especially some of the problem sets). The courses don’t have tests or exams, so marks are based on problem set (tutorials). It’s nice in that one doesn’t have the pressure of an exam, but does mean that one has to make sure that one is actually learning stuff during the course — so I’m going to have to spend some of this summer break actually learning the work we did!

The qualifying exam is a 3 hour exam, on advanced undergraduate material, but the questions are typically a lot more complicated and require one to really know the material. I find them rather outdated in parts, particularly because of the strong emphasis on needing to learn various arcane formulae that could be looked up from a textbook in about 5 minutes. I spent close on a month studying for this one, mostly doing sample questions from textbooks full of past papers from various US universities. The exam covered classical mechanics and electromagnetism. After all of that though, I’d only give myself about a 50% chance of having passed — though better than some people who are sure they’ve failed. Failing means having to rewrite again next year, with the month of studying again, so I’ll be waiting with some anxiety over the next few weeks!

As for my “research”, a group of three of us have started doing a little work for Prof. Ooguri, the professor who would be the best fit for what I’d like to be doing. He’s a top figure in the field, but a little difficult to read as a person, and to really talk to. The three of us have been reading some papers and are trying to work out the details of a small inconsistency between formulas from two different papers. For those that know something of the field, the problem is in the area of background independance of topologically twisted string theory. Before the studying for the qual exam started, we were spending entire days (till midnight sometimes) in the library, trying to work out what on earth was going on. Some progress has been made, but we missed a rather obvious point, which I don’t think made Ooguri particularly impressed! It’s an interesting group, as the other two are a girl from China and a guy from Taiwan, so communication has sometimes to include me explaining what certain English terms mean!

It has been encouraging over the course of the year to see just how well prepared I was, compared particularly to the US students. My four years of BSc and honours, plus a little more while waiting to start at Caltech, seems to have put me on a rough par with students from places like MIT, while most run-of-the-mill US universities seem to cover, in their four year programme, up to about half way through the Wits honours course. Of course, string theory is a particuarly mathematically-intense area, so lots more reading is still required!

The other fun of the moment is that my prospective roommates (Greg and Mike), and me drew a very poor number in the Caltech housing lottery, so haven’t got campus housing for next year. So between the exam studying we’ve been looking for an apartment. We have finally put a deposit down on a place yesterday, so are quite relieved! It’s in a very nice place, about a kilometre or two from campus (important as my means of transport is a bicycle — a new one, as my old one was stolen last Thursday). Unfortunately the rent is a fair amount more than the Caltech housing was, but Caltech is in relatively expensive part of town. But now I can certainly offer a sleeper couch to anyone who cares to pay LA a visit! We’re now shopping for furniture, mostly with the help of craigslist, a website run as a hobby by a guy called (surprise surprise) Craig, which somehow managed to become the place of choice for people wishing to list second hand stuff for sale.

I’ve been on two trips in the last month or so. Firstly, Greg (my roommate), Brenda (from London) and me went to Coachella, a massive music festival in the desert to the east of LA. Appartently 100 000 people visited over the course of the weekend, all at vast ticket prices. The music was amazing, and we had names like Radiohead, the Pixies, Paul van Dyk, and many others on the five stages. It was, however, extremely hot, and since we were camping we didn’t get to sleep late and spent much of the day fighting the heat — and buying $2 bottles of water. The other trip was to Nantucket island, off the coast of Massachusetts, north east USA. Valerie’s (a friend of mine) grandparents live there, and she had a airline voucher for a previously cancelled trip that had to be spent, so she invited me along to use the voucher! We went for about a week. The grandparents are great people, and have some kayaks and a small sailing boat, so we got out into the (chilly) outdoors quite a lot. Unfortunately I had to spend some time studying for the exams, but it was a good change of scenery at least!

As regards travel plans, I leave LA on 30 July, and will spend a few days in NY, before arriving in Joburg on 5 August. I’m there till 23 September, though wouldn’t mind going on a trip or two with some friends… (hint hint!).


As regards the US, there’s tons of things that I could write about, but thought I’d mention three current obsessions:

1) The November presidential elections. It’s been at fever pitch for months already (about a third of any newspaper dedicated to talking about the campaigns). Yet despite it all, there seems somehow to be about 10% of voters in swing states who HAVEN’T MADE THEIR MINDS UP YET. Bizarre. But the good news (in my and most of the people here’s opinion) is that Kerry is about even with Bush in the polls, and even above him in some. Of course, the recent movies Fahrenheit 9/11 (by the director of Bowling for Columbine, it focuses on all the dodgy goings on in the White House and around the Iraq war), and Outfoxed (about the blatent pro-Bush bias in the largest US news network, Fox News) are further inflaming things. There has even just been a submission by MoveOn, a big grassroots internet movement, to prevent Fox from using the Fox slogan “Fair and Balanced”, on the grounds of false advertising!

2) The Atkins diet. This is the low carbohydrate diet, that requires you eat lots of protein, essentially. It’s massive. All fast food places now have Atkins friendly offerings, such as burgers without the buns, just the patty, and maybe cheese. Apparently it’s producing noticeable changes in the overall buying habits of US consumers.

3) Gay marriage. For many voters, this is the issue that will decide who they vote for. Not, say, little issues like the war in Iraq or the huge tax cuts and associated US budget deficit. Bush has just failed to get a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage passed. Yes, a constitutional amendment — the first in US history that would have actually restricted rights. The political maneuvering around the issue is amazing to see.


Anyway, back to packing up my room, to prepare for the move!

As a reminder, previous editions of these update emails, and a few photos, can be found at http://www.thornhill.co.za/~paulcook

My regards to all, and see many of you soon,

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  1. Hi, I’m a pasadena resident and a student at UCLA and I was wondering if you knew of any places at Caltech where I can study at during the later hours of the evening?

    Comment by Daniel — 22 Jul 2005 @ 12:31 am

  2. Daniel, rather surprisingly, the libraries here close at 1am. Surprisingly early in my opinion. Also, after 5pm only persons affiliated with Caltech can get in. Pretty much all of the buildings on campus are locked after 6pm, and I can’t think of any well-lit, outdoor settings that are suitable for studying.

    Personally, I think that Caltech could do a bit more to interact with and contribute to the surrounding community.

    However, if by “later hours of the evening” you mean pre-11pm, then I might suggest studying at the Borders book store. There are quite a few people that study there (med students?). They have tables indoors at the cafe and out on a patio. The tables inside are sometimes hard to get, but there are plenty of places to sit located around the store.

    Other than that, the only good, public places to study would be a library somewhere. I think that the main branch of the Pasadena library is open until 9 on weekdays. Or you might perhaps try to find a place at Pasadena City College.

    Comment by Adam — 22 Jul 2005 @ 2:08 am

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