9:30 pm, Mon 20 Sep: My final stop in the States was San Francisco, a site where I still have quite a few personal and professional connections. I’m at SFO Int’l Airport, and I have about 45 minutes before my plane starts boarding, about 90 minutes till it takes off. I’d love to be able to post this in a timely manner, but the free SFO wi-fi seems to be defunct, and not even T-Mobile is letting me so much as attempt to connect to the Internet. (I’m even willing to pay! But no.)
On arrival in town from San Diego last Wednesday, I spent a day walking around the city with a friend who had recently moved here. She got her Ph.D. in biochemistry around the same time as I got mine in physics, and had her share of frustrating experiences in the high-stakes, fast-paced world of biomedical research. In the end she got forced out of the system due to a combination of factors which included a lot of petty politics and probably also some covert and not-so-covert sexism. As trying as my times in my own field have been, I can honestly say I’ve never had it as bad as the situation she describes… At the moment she’s still trying to figure out what to do with herself. It must be so demoralizing: Of course nobody wants to work in a hostile work environment or in a setting where one’s unique talents aren’t valued or even become liabilities. But there’s also the feeling of what might have happened had one done things differently, or if those incredible pieces of bad luck hadn’t all been dealt out in the same hand. At some level it’s not worth worrying about for one’s own sake, since one can only live with the decisions one has made, or deal with the situation on the ground, including many factors out of one’s own control. But for counseling friends, or (perish the thought) students, this is really important stuff to understand and get right.
Thursday saw the beginning of the San Francisco Lindy Exchange (SFLX), a carnival of dancer’s delights. For the uninitiated, a Lindy Exchange is a full weekend’s worth of dancing, afternoon, evening, and late night, where local dancers host out-of-town dancers in their homes. I’ve been attending them since graduate school, and although they tend to wear one down in the sleep department, they’re a great deal of fun and a good way to meet new friends. I’m already signed up for Church City Blues (Adelaide) in October, and the Melbourne Lindy Exchange in November, to get to know people from my new home scene. Thanks to anyone reading who may have attended the Saturday night late night with Big Bones — you totally made my weekend! They had to drag me home, and I didn’t finally collapse into bed until 6:30 AM.
On Friday I paid a visit to my colleagues at Lawrence Berkeley Lab and gave the INPA Journal Club, a lunchtime talk in the Physics Division. This seminar usually has only local guests, e.g. from Stanford, Santa Cruz or even just the UC Berkeley campus, since it has a very limited (read: no) budget — but since I already had the talk (about the work I did in this paper) prepared, it cost me almost nothing to drop by and say hi in this way. It turns out that this week my paper got another citation, this time from a group of theorists at Los Alamos who claim that you really can make a supernova as bright as SN 2007if (the one we observed) by crashing two white dwarfs together. Furthermore, when you do this you also get a fairly red supernova with a density enhancement in the ejecta, as we deduced from our own observations! Although you can never quite claim that your theory is reality when you do simulations like these, it’s always exciting when theory and experiment line up.
Saturday evening, I took Caltrain down to Palo Alto to visit an historian friend of mine, where we scored some exceptionally fine Dunkelweizen and pizza at Gordon Biersch, and talked nerd stuff. While much of what she said was interesting, one tidbit in particular was that the Black Death might have been a hemorrhagic fever, like Ebola, instead of bubonic plague. Some corroboration for this is that there appears to be a small village in England with very low mortality during the Black Death, who have a genetic marker for resistance to retroviruses. Fascinating. Also, the question of whether space aliens have been saved (in the Christian sense) is not a new one, they’ve been thinking about it for hundreds of years. That might merit some further discussion.
Sunday morning, after dancing all night, I got up at 10 AM to meet my good friend Kim for tea at Samovar Tea House, in Yerba Buena Gardens in downtown San Francisco. Kim is a fellow scholar and globetrotter, doing field work in Borneo — studying land-use patterns in the context of rainforest conservation — one of many incredibly smart people using their powers for good. Our epic teatime spanned two and a half hours (“it’s nice to just kind of chill out and drink tea,” we agreed), and we spoke of many things — the usual academic woes, Skymapper and my new job, Australian culture (she’s actually been there where I haven’t yet!), iPhones (I need one!), dance and dancers. It can be hard to pin Kim down, as busy as she is, but it’s always great to see her when she’s available. Consumed at Samovar: the Russian Blend, Scarlet Sable and Hand-Whisked Matcha teas, ginger waffles with strawberries and melon, dumplings and an exquisite matcha fudge brownie — well, it’s supposedly a brownie but it’s really more like a torte.
Finally, I spent Sunday (today) recovering my strength from the craziness of the preceding weekend, and went out to share an excellent Ethiopian meal with some of my old postdoc friends from LBL. (During which time I polished off the plurality of a bottle of honey wine.) The spongy flatbread they call injera is the secret — you eat with your fingers, using the bread to grab onto dollops of spicy stew and pop them in your mouth. The meals are also usually served on top of a big piece of injera which becomes soaked through with the juices. The fine establishment in question, Cafe Colucci, is in our opinion the finest such establishment in Berkeley, and a favorite of our social group. I was then graciously driven to the airport, which is where I still am — and my flight is about to board!