And so it was that on Saturday around 5:45, Wolfgang came by to chauffeur me and the newly arrived Stuart Sim to dinner at the house of Prof. Brian Schmidt, FAA, NAS, the Skymapper PI, one of the acknowledged co-discoverers of dark energy and also a really nice guy who invites his students and postdocs over for dinner now and then. (Let this be my brief fanboy moment, now I’ve gotten it out of the way, thank you.) We would meet Sharon Rapoport, her boyfriend John, and the visiting Oxford scholar Philipp Podsiadlowski at the farm. Since Brian lives on a farm over the New South Wales border, we had a while to drive and Wolfgang wasn’t entirely confident of the location — until we happened to run into Jenny, Brian’s wife, on the road. No words exchanged, she smiled back at us and we just followed her along the road out to the farm.
At some point the pavement took a vacation and left rocks and hard-packed clay to fill in for it, but they weren’t doing such a hot job so the car’s shocks had to put in overtime. Eventually we bumbled and jostled our way up to the house, which was large enough that it wasn’t immediately clear to me how to enter. Wolfgang led us around the house’s outside and we discovered a pizza oven, which was not lit, so it couldn’t have been the source of the wood-smoke smell which hung in the air nearby. (A welcome sign, given that it couldn’t have been more than 10 C, or about 50 F for the Americans.) Apparently we also missed the horses and the new chickens… maybe next time.
By the time we’d gotten halfway around, Brian came upon us — are you giving them a tour?! — and invited us in forthwith to join the others. Stuart, Richard, for future reference, he added, gesturing in the opposite direction from the one in which we’d come, the front door is that way.
We started out with drinks in the sitting room: to my right the central fireplace, which was still crackling merrily at that time, and to my left a wide window with a panoramic view of the lands below from which we had come. Most of the room drank beer, but Brian and I cracked a bottle of Barossa Valley Shiraz which Stuart had brought; Jenny joined in a few minutes later. Some fresh bread, crisp and crusty on the outside, soft and white on the inside, accompanied by olive oil and balsamic vinegar, at first went unmolested for some time, but eventually the wine drinkers dug into it. The Shiraz was excellently well-balanced, a little spicy, not too dry, mellow and familiar. The bread was followed after some time by a plate of homemade spring rolls and peanut sauce, which we were warned would be “messy”. They were not in fact unmanageable in this respect.
Conversation ranged far and wide: how come the RSAA doesn’t buy laptops for all its incoming graduate students (it’s a reasonable request, but you have to tell me who I’m going to fire to pay for them); in related news, the uncertainty of living on soft money, particularly if you’re the one responsible for getting it; undergraduate dorm life at various universities; favorite driving mishap stories; the economics of pensions, retirement, and real estate, and the global financial crisis (“GFC” as it’s called around here). Jenny was engaging and very knowledgeable on a variety of interesting topics, having worked as a consultant for many years and now advises the Australian government on matters of economic policy. I spent most of the evening talking to her; it was also probably a good opportunity to do so, since even as busy as Brian is I’ll no doubt see quite a bit of him around the office. I got some free advice on whether to buy or rent housing, and the conclusion was that there were actually more complications with buying housing than I had previously suspected, so I’m quite content to keep renting for a while and invest the difference in international stocks. It’s a gamble no matter what you do these days, though.
Dinner for me was yellow tofu curry with coconut milk over rice. The others had a prawn concoction of similar bent. Brian got out the Maipenrai Pinot Noir (his own vintage) from two different years; one was the 2008, the other wasn’t labeled. They were both also excellent, fruity and cheerful; I didn’t notice much of a difference between the two, but I had had a few by that point and wasn’t paying as close attention as I should have been. Dessert was date pudding with caramel sauce, a traditional Australian take on an English favorite, and was also good. Then followed a port-like Moscato, which Brian alleged was more than 10 cents a milliliter when I asked whether I could afford it. You won’t be getting any next time you’re here, he advised me. I took the cue and made sure to enjoy it in the moment.
One point of personal amusement was when Brian went around the table guessing people’s ages. I was the outlier; he got everyone else’s right within a year, but guessed four years low when he got to me. Should’ve paid closer attention to your CV, he chuckled. Others have made similar estimates. Not that I want to join what I think is not entirely a healthy obsession with youth in our culture, but as someone who feels like he spent most of that youth being painfully serious, I’m not in a terrible rush to start falling apart now that I feel like I’ve begun to get the hang of things a bit. Here’s hoping I continue to age so gracefully.
Another thing that stood out in my mind, and has for some time while I’ve been here, was the number of nationalities among those seated at the table, and indeed at Mt. Stromlo in general: by birth, two Americans, two Germans, two Scots, an Israeli and an Australian. It isn’t uncommon at Mt. Stromlo to have people from five different countries all sitting down for tea, lunch, or drinks together. Broadly speaking this isn’t uncommon in astronomy in general, since each prestigious institute is competing for the best minds around the world; but I notice it a lot more now that I’m not living in the country I was born in.
Sometime about six hours after starting, things wrapped up, and we the guests headed sleepily out the door on our way back to Canberra, content in having had a glimpse of, by some accounts, the sweetest fruits of civilization. It’s given me something to shoot for in twenty years’ time. :)