Monday, December 07, 2009

Hello from Utrecht

I'm giving another seminar, this time in Utrecht. I haven't been to the Netherlands since I was a teenager, when I spent several summers in and around the IJsselmeer. Nice to see things haven't changed much. Here's what my arrival in the hotel looked like. Room #24. It's on the uppermost floor. - ? - No, sorry, no elevator.


Yesterday afternoon I took a walk around town. The preferred mode of transportation is biking. That's because the Dutch still have problems driving a car: I got almost run over by a car going backwards through a one-way street. Another thing that hasn't changed is the large living-room windows facing the walkways, so that one can look directly into other people's houses. Quick survey of the Dutch Sunday-evening program: watching TV, dinner, watching TV, feeding the fish, surfing the web, playing with the kids, watching TV, doing calculations writing a love letter, mysteriously closed blinds, staring back at the stranger gazing into the living room.



And if one doesn't go by bike, one goes by boat. That's the Netherlands in a nutshell I suppose. I feel scarily close to groundwater everywhere.


My seminar went well, and now I have to hurry to dinner.

32 comments:

Robert L. Oldershaw said...

Is being a theoretical physicist sort of like being a motivational speaker these days?

How many seminars do you give/attend a year?

After seminars, grant writing, committee meetings, recomendation letters, etc., does this leave adequate time to think about nature?

Not intending to be too impertinent, but...,
RLO

stefan said...

does this leave adequate time to think about nature?

I guess it could be more, but I can confirm, to zeroth order, it does ;-)

Arjen Dijksman said...

You came just after Sinterklaas Eve, the most popular dutch holiday, also known in some parts of Germany I suppose. Utrecht was my dutch hometown before I moved to France.
Did you meet Gerard 't Hooft?

Jasper (PhD at Utrecht) said...

That's a pretty negative review of the Netherlands or at least Utrecht.. :( We use bikes in Utrecht because it is forbidden to drive a car in the city centre to combat air pollution. Also it's healthy ;). By the way, I've never used a boat to get anywhere. Sorry that I couldn't come to your talk. I had sort out the problems for the class of which I'm the TA.

Zephir said...

/*..does this leave adequate time to think about nature?..*/
"adequate" for what?

Bee said...

Hi Jasper,

I'm really sorry if you perceived as negative what I wrote. I find Utrecht very charming and I think it's great one can bike around (and people indeed do it!). Apparently this didn't quite come across. Is what happens if you squeeze in a blogpost after talk and before dinner. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Arjen,

Germany's "Nikolaus" (and "Knecht Ruprecht") on Dec 6th are quite similar I think. Yes, I met t'Hooft. Best,

B.

Steven Colyer said...

Hi Bee, glad to see love letters have priority over calculations. Arguable which is sexier though. I call a tie ... well, it depends which calculation, I suppose, but you can never go wrong with Dirac! What a love machine! Hermann and Erwin ain't got nothing on Dirac! Wait a minute ... he used both. :-)

Did you see Renate Loll, one of the 3 founders of Buckyspace aka Causal Dynamical Triangulations, or has she moved on to Perimeter already?

In any event, enjoy your stay, and never forget the Dutch mantra: "Just be normal." Right. :-)

Pope Maledict XVI said...

RLO asked, and I will answer from my own extremely atypical perspective:

"Is being a theoretical physicist sort of like being a motivational speaker these days?"

Sadly, the answer is yes.

"How many seminars do you give/attend a year?"

None. I don't go to seminars because they are unbearably boring, and it would be hypocritical to give seminars when I never attend anyone else's.

"After seminars, grant writing, committee meetings, recomendation letters, etc., does this leave adequate time to think about nature?"

Precisely because of these reasons, I don't do seminars, apply for grants, and try to avoid supervising students as much as possible. This is indeed the only way to get enough time for research, but ironically it has cost me dearly career-wise.

Robert L. Oldershaw said...

Maximize free time; tough it out with a grunt job - that was Einstein's strategy.

Of course there are very few purists like him and yourself around these days.

In my opinion, nothing trumps the freedom to follow your own intuition. Savor it!

;)
RLO
Pseudo-predictions lead to pseudoscience

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

Looking at all those stairs you have to climb to reach your hotel room is reminiscent of my reading of living in Paris apartments in the (pre-elevator) nineteenth century, where the lower the floor the more expensive the apartment. So to use similar logic I hope they gave you a discount or did you pick your room intentionally in the interest of higher learning:-) One thing for sure with all the stairs to climb and the method of transportation the Dutch must be some of the healthiest people on the planet.

Best,

Phil

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Arjen,

So you are originally from the Netherlands, well that certainly clears up a mystery for me, since Dijksman didn’t seem to be a French moniker. So it seems like me you have an interest in the work of Gerard t’Hooft. I wish I could say to have spoken to him as Bee is able, yet I can boast to have been about thirty feet away from him when he gave a public lecture ate PI. I found him to be a good speaker and came across as a most genuine person, who truly lends one the impression he wished more people in general looked upon the world from a more scientific perspective.

Best,

Phil

Anonymous said...

That "hotel" stairwell looked pretty crappy. No elevator? How backward! Apparently Utrecht doesn't have much a tourist industry

Bee said...

Hi Phil,

Indeed, I was reminded of Paris as well :-) I didn't pick the hotel or the room, this was organized by the university. The hotel is quite nice otherwise. The average hotel room in North America would be roughly three times as large as this one though. (As you can see however, the wireless works very well). Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Robert, Pope,

I understand it as part of my job to communicate my research, inside the community as well as to the public. If I sit around and spend my whole life thinking about Nature nobody but me had anything from it. This would be quite egoistic and not a good investment of public money. I usually give a handful seminars per year. Presently I am giving much more seminars than usually due to my recent move back to Europe.

How many seminars I attend? I'm not one of those you'll find in every seminar since I often find it interrupts my work flow. But I'll catch the ones I find most interesting.

As far as writing of proposals is concerned, this takes up an inappropriate amount of time and literally everybody I know wishes funding agencies would realize that. Some do. My recent application to the Swedish Research Council was very straightforward (if you neglect the problems caused by the immigrant not speaking the local language).

For what administration is concerned, it's a necessary evil. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Steven,

Yes, I did see Renate Loll. Regarding the love letter, well, there was a guy sitting on a desk, writing something, looking as if he was thinking very hard. It made me wonder what it might have been he was thinking about. At second thought it seemed very unlikely he was calculating some loop diagrams though. Best,

B.

Phil Warnell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

With the hotel rooms being as small as you describe it would provide additional incentive for wanting to get out and have a look around. I do however find their tradition of having their large living room windows facing the street quite strange. Yet perhaps it’s as much as to have them able to see the world passing by, with little thought given regarding their own need for privacy. I would then wonder, as they saw this petite yet seemingly curious lady walking by what they might have imagined her to be and how many would have guessed a theoretical physicist in town to deliver a lecture.

Oh yes regarding that fellow with paper and pen in hand looking so lost in thought, perhaps an another explanation is he was preparing his Christmas gift list. So maybe if you pass by again you could knock on the door, give him your name and let him know what you’d like this year:-)

Best,

Phil

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

I`m somewhat confused for I don`t find your name on the list you linked to. Besides that there is a lecture shown here to be given by someone they only refer to as Grimm, with no first name geing offerred. I was wondering if the Grimm Reaper moonlights as a physicist and hope that when doing so he leaves his sickle at home:-)

Best,

Phil

Steven Colyer said...

No-o-o! Loops over Love? Well if he is doing loop calcs, here's hoping he makes an even number of sign change mistakes (and zero is always an option)! :-P

I just became turned on to a new arXIv blog, btw. Click here to see it.

stefan said...

Hi Phil,

I don`t find your name on the list you linked to.

it seems Sabine has given a "Grafiti" seminar.

Cheers, Stefan

Arjen Dijksman said...

Hi Bee,
It's nice to read all this stuff and comments about Holland close to groundwater, Utrecht, steep stairs, large living room windows, all things very familiar to me;-) The center of all Dutch historical towns close to or below sea level have the same urban pattern (except The Hague): canal + river surrounding a dense grid of ditches and bridges, narrow streets and houses, with one or two large squares where you will find the church and public buildings (except for The Hague which has grown as a residential town). Cars, which can indeed be dangerous in the narrow streets, are banned as much as possible from it. Typical houses down town have steep narrow stairs, otherwise people wouldn't have any place left for their living rooms. There are of course international style hotels, but then you're next to the railway station or to the motorway and you miss the Dutch way of life. Historically, market goods came by boat and it's still possible to have a feeling of it at Alkmaar's touristic cheese market, or in Utrecht, at one of the restaurants installed at the wharfs of the Oude Gracht. Occasionally the canals are frozen and that are the best times, because you can step on the ice right next to your door and skate to nearby towns or villages.

Hi Phil,
I appreciate Gerard 't Hooft for his common sense. His "how to become a good theoretical physicist" is a classic roadmap for wannabe physicists (very positive and open-minded). I didn't have the chance to meet him. I studied in Delft which is more specialized in Engineering, while Utrecht (like Leiden) is the place for theoretical physicists. In my student time, Delft academics didn't mingle a lot with Utrecht academics.

Cheers,
Arjen

Bee said...

Hi Phil,

Sorry, the site I linked to seems to be the upcoming seminars. My talk listed there when I looked the last time. Best,

B.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Arjen,

Thanks for that link to Gerard t’Hooft’s list of required study for it certainly emphasises what I was saying of him being a genuine person, who believes the world would be a better place if more looked at things from a scientific perspective. Too bad I hadn’t had such a list and resource at my disposal more the thirty years ago for by now I might have been half way there:-)

More seriously not surprisingly this is a ponderous list, which at the end includes even string theory, that some would argue not being fundamentally essential although being fair t’Hooft has a general caveat stating that being some of the subject matter is focused around his own interests. Looking at this list also had me to become mindful of John Moffat, who was the first theorectical physicist to go straight from exchanging a few letters with Einstein to attending graduate school at Cambridge without first having an undergraduate degree.

This then has one to wonder that with the aid of readily available resources such as t’Hooft has outlined here, coupled with the communicative advantages of the internet, if there would ever come a day when someone might be awarded a Nobel prize in Physics who never actually attended a university? From my own perspective if this ever came to pass would indeed be a marvellous day, for it would mark as being day one of truly a brave new and hopeful world.

Best,

Phil

Georg said...

It's nice to read all this stuff and comments about Holland close to groundwater, Utrecht, steep stairs, large living room windows, all things very familiar to me;-)
Hello Arjen,
You did not mention one thing which is
very characteristic for the Netherlands,
those "skylights" (or what ever
the English name may be) on top of the
doors and windows.
The second picture in Bees post
shows them clearly.
They extend to the concrete ceiling
above, thus saving an additional
beam on top of the door.
The beams function is integrated in the
reinforcement of the ceiling,
altogether this saves some money and
gives more light in the houses.
This is one example of the calvinistic way of thinking the dutch
are known for.
Regards
Georg

Arjen Dijksman said...

Hi Phil,

't Hooft's list is indeed laborious. In fact, I didn't mean to say that a wannabe physicist needs to get through the totality of the stuff, before he may call himself a physicist (I would be nowhere in that case). I quote from a paper from Fran├žois Ollivier, Jacobi's bound - Transmission and oblivion of a mathematical notion (by the way it is Jacobi's birthday today): "It is said that Jacobi once told to a student who wanted to read all the mathematical literature before starting his research: 'Where would you be if your father before marrying your mother had wanted to see all the girls of the world?'" The interesting thing of 't Hooft's list is its practical value. Of course there are now easier ways for outsiders to get in the real physics, for example through the MIT, Berkeley, Stanford, etc... video lectures online.

If ever one would be awarded a Nobel Physics Prize without attending direct university classes, that would be a tremendous stir. I guess that one would emerge with some artistic background enabling him to visualize physics in a way unseen by conventional academics. But at one point or another, he would need to communicate and learn conventional physics language.

Best,

Arjen

Arjen Dijksman said...

Hello Georg,

I looked those "skylights" up in wikipedia. I didn't know they were called bovenlicht in Dutch. The British name seems to be fanlight or transom.

Dutch people love indeed large windows for the light that sheds through them. Closing curtains in the evening is often seen with suspicion, another remnant of the calvinistic past.

Best,

Arjen

Arjen Dijksman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Phil Warnell said...

Hi Arjen,

It’s nice that you would attempt to let me of the hook as to what’s required to become a good theorist, however its not necessary since I’ve never had any such delusions in every have being one. As to the dream that I do hold dear that being one day there may be a noble prize awarded to someone never attending a university or a resident of a physical ivory tower, I’m more then aware this doesn’t preclude the necessity for such a person to have acquired the skill set, tools and communication that would be certainly needed.

Rather its more to wonder as to hope if we are nearing the time where knowledge with its attainment and its subsequent consequence of discovery may no longer be restricted to the traditional concepts of infrastructure, yet more to the ones now forming. My feeling has always been that although the ivory tower serves in many ways to nurture and protect these important endeavours of humanity, they unfortunately also serve to have them to remain hidden and obscure in importance for those that they inevitably can serve best, not simply in the common material sense, yet more importantly in what I would call in creating for all a more universal and sustainable enlightenment,

Best,

Phil

Arjen Dijksman said...

Hello Phil,

I agree on the fact that the institutionalisation of science, although it protects and feeds the development of research, has the undesired side effect of hindering comprehension of its benefits by outsiders. Blogs such as Bee's and forums such as FQXi's are good means to bridge the gap.

Upon discussing 't Hooft's list, I became aware that there is one important topic that's missing. Unfortunately it's frequently undervalued in the standard university physics curricula. I'm thinking of the historical and philosophical aspects of physics and mathematics. I think it's important to know about the people that made physics, about their motives, about the context in which their ideas and theories emerged. I feel knowing about it gives a broader view on the field.

Best,
Arjen

Phil Warnell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Phil Warnell said...

Hi Arjen,

” I'm thinking of the historical and philosophical aspects of physics and mathematics”

Well you do have a talent for having a fellow feel better, for if there be any areas I’m confident in having a broader understanding of it would be these two. I find both the history and philosophy regarding scientific discovery as to being as important elements to theory as the more rigorous aspects of proof. That being from knowing from whence something came in terms of inspiration and motivation can oft times offer a hint as to where it may be going and sometimes even as to why. However to be intirely truthful as to my own motives and intent is that I find such study and discovery to simply being fun.

This reminds me of a time some years back when my eldest daughter was tutoring my youngest daughter in math, as to pass an upcoming exam in the subject she most struggled with. As I recall she was explaining how to deal with derivatives with after going through and explaining the first problem example remarking to her sister "wasn't that fun, so let's do another", with my youngest's response being "you must be sick"-) So as they say it takes many types to make a world.

Best,

Phil