The Russian Grandmother Learns about Particle Physics In Geneva

(actually it’s not very cold in Geneva, so I haven’t even been all that bundled up. but it’s a fun thing to title the post and I’m going with it.)

Carl and I find Science!

We got up and had the free breakfast provided by the hostel, and took off for CERN. We ended up getting there pretty early because the public transportation in Geneva is so good! There are trams really regularly in most places you want to go, and buses, and they have fairly good signage. And since we get to travel on it freely, it’s been really liberating for Carl and I. We just hop on and give it a try, rather than stressing to make sure we’re on the right one at the right time and trying to limit our trips and all that. The Genevan public transit gets a good review from me!

The trams are almost always PACKED with people, so I took the opportunity at the end of the line to document it.

At CERN we were an hour early for our tour, but that gave us time to go through the pretty good museum they have on site. Then we had a tour in English from one of the PhD students working on one of the four major experiments that go on there. The tour was really good. Between the museum and the tour and talking to Carl, I feel like a have a pretty good sense of what they are doing, how they are doing it, and why, which is pretty cool. And it was cool that only yesterday the higher-ups at CERN had made their every-6-months big announcement about their progress, and they’d narrowed down the range of masses in which they could find the Higgs boson particle, and had a few tentative signs of what might turn out to be the Higgs boson. So that was exciting. One bummer was that we couldn’t go down and see the tunnel itself, since they’re still running it right now, but I guess we’ll just have to come back in a year or two… If you’re interested, I might write more about that stuff (the how and what and why of the Large Hadron Collider), but it’s probably better explained in person, and probably not even that interesting to anyone else if you’re not actually at CERN.

When you're at CERN, in Geneva, in Switzerland, even your wall clocks are sponsored by Rolex. what a world...

But what I was struck by is the cooperation necessary for that kind of venture. There are at least 3,000 scientists at CERN on location, not to mention thousands of them around the world working on the data, and all of them have such, SUCH specific jobs. Like, there is probably someone whose whole job is tuning one functionality of one kind of detector (of which there are several) that might not ever get hit by The Right Particle. Everyone has to put in years on their little piece, but together they are about to confirm or scrap a really important theory for explaining the interactions in the universe. It kind of blew my mind to think about that kind of teamwork.

And of course Carl was fascinated and on cloud nine to be at “the Mecca of Physics”. (or at least particle physics) It was fun.

Then we went back to the hostel and had our lunch of bread and cheese and meat, and of course FANTASTIC chocolate, from the grocery store. The question at the grocery store is Which kind of chocolate should we try today? not Should we get some chocolate? and that is how it should be in Geneva, Switzerland.

Ramen-type noodles, an orange, and chocolate: the dinner of Champions (or student travelers who have their priorities straight)

Then we went to a suburb, looking for a Christmas market, which turned out not to be there or something. BUT we salvaged the afternoon with a lovely walk around the Old Town in Geneva. We stopped in an antique scientific instrument shop, and messed around with some old cannons, and walked up and down the cobbled streets and talked about philosophy and life plans and all that.

My best Napoleon pose... Yes, it doesn't have much to do with Geneva, but he spoke French, and that's close enough to justify me being ridiculous.

Then we somehow found ourselves in the SUPER ritzy shopping district so we window shopped, talking about which diamond-studded, HUGE, gold watch we would buy if we gained ridiculous amounts of money and lost our senses of decency and taste. It was so fun.

Dinner from the grocery store, and that was the day. We may watch Wall-E tonight, and off to more adventures tomorrow.

Solid day in Geneve.


The Russian Grandmother With Red Boots Goes to an Abbey

Well, kids, after a great, relaxed couple of days in Inverness, Mariah and I split up, and I headed about an hour and a half bus ride away to Elgin, Scotland, and then hopped on a bus with a bunch of school kids to get to Pluscarden Abbey, where I spent the next 5 days.

(While you read the rest of this post, you can listen to this music. It’s approximately what every service sounded like. This first one is fairly typical of how the monks sung the Psalms, which was one “tune” sung over for each line. The second one is more varied and was more typical of the hymns they would sing.)

First, the outward practicalities of life: I stayed at the St. Scolastica’s guesthouse just down the road from Pluscarden Abbey. The little (10 room) guest house had been built just 10 years ago or so, so it’s nothing too remarkable, except that it had the kind of decor in the shared spaces that I’ve decided is very specifically Catholic and “of a certain generation”: lots of floral prints, lots of pictures of saints, constant availability of coasters for your drink.

This is the St. Scolastica guesthouse. If the light spilling out onto the snow is not a welcoming sight on a cold night walking back from the Abbey, I don't know what is.

There were four other women there at the time. 3 of them were over 60 and lovely, stereotypical Scottish Catholic ladies, warm and chatty and devoted to cleanliness. (the other was a nonreligious 20something Canadien studying at Oxford. But she was mostly on walks, and less chatty, so we didn’t talk much.)

We shared food (bread and milk and tea were provided), and I mooched off people’s food.

We were set in a decently remote valley with fields and pastures of sheep and forests and old stone walls.

I walked up a path just beyond that meadow, and it was a perfect day for just 2 hours, and I had amazing views across the valley, and it was beautiful beyond speaking of it. I didn't take my camera, and I'm not sorry. Sometimes you just have to go on a walk with God and nothing else.

Just a five minute walk away was the Abbey. The building has been around in some form since 1230 A.D. That is crazy to me. 15 years after the Magna Carta, monks started living at Pluscarden. But it was sacked once and was roofless and progressively more tumbled down from 1500ish to 1800ish, then it got fixed up a bit, and then refinished progressively more since the 1950s by the predecessors of this group of 26ish monks. On the inside of the chapel the stonework is roughened by being outside for years, and only some of the stained glass windows are replaced. Some are just white Plexiglas. I really like that. It wasn’t a museum piece. It was a rehab project en process, however slowly. I felt at home, although no rehab project I’ve been involved in had a history back 800 years!

These two facing seating areas are the public part of the chapel. The monks walk through from that door on the left to their benches out of view on the right. Every one of them bows to the cross hanging above the altar every single time he passes it.

I typically went to two of the 8 services a day. They sing (in Gregorian chant in Latin) all of the Psalms every week and have full Mass once a day. There were guides provided for each of the services that had the Latin translated into English. It was a cool experience to be with them, but it was hard to worship. It didn’t feel like it was a worship service for us anyways; the public were off to the side, and couldn’t sing with them (not that we could). It’s just something that is a different way of participating, I guess.

I didn’t have much interaction with the monks, but they seemed friendly.

My typical day consisted in sleeping until I woke up (I averaged 10-11 hours of sleep a night. It was GLORIOUS.), reading the Bible, eating breakfast, going to Mass, then going on a walk, hanging out with the other women, writing letters, etc. Then going to bed by 9.30. What a life!


Tutorial Today

So, last night was rough. I was exhausted from 8 pm on, and by “on” I mean until I went to sleep. At 5:15 am. Until 7 am. During that time got distracted, frustrated with that distraction, more tired, over-caffeinated but still tired, cranky, despairing about my whole year in England, falsely optimistic for about 3 minutes, then back to super depressed, angry at all philosophy, upset about my writing abilities…

…so your typical night of writing a paper. But it really was worse last night than most nights. I think it was a combination of discouragement from my…ahem…chilly response at my last tutorial and just general adjustment-shock still going on, but it was a really tough night. Twice I went to bed, but couldn’t go to sleep because my brain was spinning about how I was so upset about how poorly things seemed to be going, and got up and tried to work some more.

I’m so thankful for Rachel and Megan who spoke truth to me over skype conversations throughout the night and tried to keep me with at least some semblance of perspective on the whole thing. But I was a mess.

So I got up at 7 am and biked to college and rewrote and edited the essay straight through until noon. Unfortunately I couldn’t remember if my tutorial was at 1 or 1.30 and my tutor hadn’t emailed me back to answer that question. So at one o’clock, with essay in hand, having had an hour and a half of sleep and being in a pretty unhopeful mood, I walk into his office.

…and he cheerfully says, “did you get my email? you know tutorial was supposed to be at 12:30, right?” BAH. That’s the number one thing they tell you: Don’t miss or be late for tutorial. No matter what. He didn’t seem upset at all and just said, “well, you’ll know for next time,” but this didn’t help my expectations for how this was going to go down.

So I hand him a copy of my essay and begin to read it out loud. Even though I read it through out loud when I was editing it, I found typos as I was reading, and generally had the feeling that this wasn’t going to go well. So I finished the essay [which, by the way, it’s an intense experience to read straight through a 7 page (double spaced) essay out loud to your tutor. Makes you real accountable for every word you write. and also makes you want to write in shorter sentences.]

and there was this awful moment of sitting there as he finished writing whatever note he was making before he said anything. And all the misery from the last 18 hours was just kind of sitting there…


…and in the first 15 seconds, my tutor said more affirming things than the other tutor had in the whole hour. He started off, a bit absent-mindedly, “Good, good! ….yes, good.”  I cannot tell  you how much of a relief that was to hear. I kind of felt like crying. The other tutor said no such thing at any point in the other tutorial

And from that start, we had such a good tutorial. I showed how much I had learned, I was able to ask questions and learn more in the tutorial, he asked me some questions that checked how well I knew things, but other questions that just helped me think in new ways, and I got tea. Oh man. I had kind of been worried that my academic abilities were broken, but, no, I do love to learn and talk about ideas. And now that I am reminded of that, I feel encouraged to go back into my other tutorial with renewed vigor and confidence.

I am so glad it went well. I can’t even tell you. Even though I just tried.


A story from yesterday, with a moral:

I am bad at computers, as previously mentioned, I believe. Last night my computer was acting super slow and dumb. So I just opened the Ctrl-Alt-Delete Box (yes, which is what I actually call it, Computer People. I know you’re laughing at me. I’ve accepted it.). And, well, I was desperate, so….I just started deleting processes that seemed unnecessary.

I know, poor choice. Which I realized when my desktop and start bar disappeared and wouldn’t reappear. At that point I realized I shouldn’t just delete things, and used skype to talk to Diana and make her fix my computer. And she did! She is magic! It’s still slower than it needs to be, but it’s better and I have my start bar and desktop.

The moral of the story is, Don’t go around deleting random functions of your computer just because it’s running slow.

The other moral of the story is Diana is magic.