Saturday, March 27, 2010

So what do you do?

When I arrived in Canada for my stay at Perimeter Institute, the border officer marked my customs form and shoved me over to Canada Immigration. “I'm not immigrating!” I tried to say, but had to get in the back office and in another queue. I'm not sure why they suddenly found I look suspicious. I've been crossing the Canadian border dozens of times during the last years, and they usually just ask me what I do for a living and stamp my passport. Maybe they were confused by my expired work permit. In any case, I ended up with a young, blonde officer in an intimidating uniform who made his way through my passport.

“What did you do in the USA?” - “I worked there.”

“What do you do?" - “I'm a theoretical physicist.”

“Ah. What's the purpose of your trip to Canada?” - “Ooohm. Collaboration.”

I was actually about to say “I live here” before I recalled I recently moved to Sweden. After a day's trip at 3am in the morning I'm not exactly in the best shape.

“Who do you work with?” - “Some people at Perimeter Institute. That's in Waterloo.”

“What do you work on?” Excellent question actually. What do I know? “Dark matter.” Or something like this. Maybe.

“Dark. Matter. Humm. What do you do for that?” - “Huh?” - “How do you work?” - “Well. We do calculations and things. Write papers. I mean, journal articles.”

“How do you write a paper?”

Border officer wants to know how to write a paper. Is there a restroom here?

“Oohm. We sit around and talk, and write things on the blackboard, and read other's papers and work through equations and sometimes there's numerical fits to do. And so.”

Guy grins. I wonder why. He probably has a degree in physics and two dozen published papers. I think I'm not doing this very convincingly. “Oh, and we think.” At least we try. Now stop babbling.

“What was the name of the place again?” He types something into the computer. Grins again. Clicks. Turns the monitor around and shows me this website.

“Here you are. You dyed your hair.” I did. What was the first hit? My blog? Then he stamps my passport.

“Welcome to Canada.”


  1. LOL

    Obviously Security has an advantage of a loaded question, and can detain you more as to question you about, and keep you there, until they are satisfied.

    It's true, people are generally interested in what you do.


  2. Bee, given the current paranoia over terrorism, combined with Canada's somewhat porous border into the US, I'm sure saying you worked on something "Dark" and you're a "Collaborator" may have set off a few bells and whistles in the mind of a Canadian who never heard of the "Perimeter" institute, which come to think of it probably set off another bell/whistle. The "perimeter" of what? The US/Canada border?

    Yes well, thanks for your story. It just reminds me why I hate traveling via aircraft so much. Especially airports, and I felt that way before 9/11/01.

    Also, why do you repeat the Transcendental Mediation mantra "oohm" so much? That's my mantra too, and of course we can't tell anyone, lest some Sanskrit curse befall us, I think. ;-)

  3. The "oohm" is a rather late addition to my vocabulary. I used to just stare at people when thinking about what to say but figured it makes them nervous. I would recommend every terrorist make plenty use of "oohm" ;-p Best,


  4. I think "resistance" of France introduced
    the "oohm"
    Could'nt resist....

  5. One month before 9/11/2001 I went to a conference on cosmology in England. When I arrived (from Brazil) the officer asked me about the purpose of my visit to England, and I replied. Then he asked: - "Hmm. And what is cosmology?". I, tired and sleepy, starred at him in surprise, and realized he was really serious. Then I simply replied in a bombastic way, as if lecturing on a negligent student: - "It's the science of the Universe!". For some reason that answer was enough because he simply nodded and let me pass.

  6. Innocent persons cannot survive interrogation. Guilty persons often shoot back. Management earns performance bonuses for filling holding cells with cooperative prisoners. Radiation doses in scanner booths are not measured.

    1) Yawn. Terrorists are not bored. You fall off the profile.
    2) Fake a French accent and say, "I return to Canada following my heart."

  7. Hi Bee,

    It would have been literally hilarious (at least telling it, not living it live!) if he had got with you into the ever-deepest questions about the Universe:"Is Graviton a measurable phenomenon?", or "Do you think superstring theory is the right way to unify genral relativity and quantum theory?"... I can also imagine you could have come across a guy completely fanatic for Motl:"Miss Hossenfelder, I'm sorry but Canada cannot accept someone who so often had disagreements with Lubos Motl, sorry..."

    The best solution here is to speak out loud with a lot of technical words he doesn't understand, so he says:"Okay, okay... Please stop it now. Welcome in Canada"


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  9. Hi Bee,

    Perhaps it was all on account of your expired work permit or perhaps because you changed your appearance with dying your hair Then again I wonder how often the what do you do guestion is answered with theoretical physicist and thought perhaps it was a back handed comment. Another possibility was he was simply a fan, after all he did come up with your PI reference page pretty quickly:-)



  10. Hi Steven,

    ...given the current paranoia over terrorism, combined with Canada's somewhat porous border into the US

    I would totally agree with the first part of your statement, yet say the last part tells me your political leaders and media have done a good job on you with this piece of misinformation to have others to blame rather than having public scrutiny be focused where it more rightfully belongs. I’m sorry to report such false perceptions have a tendency to drive a wedge between peoples and nations that just shouldn’t exist.

    If you want a truer picture,then for example US customs has had pre-screening and clearance at Toronto International Airport for decades before 911. I would also remind it is your border to the south that’s always required barbed wire and constant patrol. Oh yes just as a question where do you suppose the vast majority of illegal hand guns and other firearms used in Canada for criminal purposes originate from? I’m sorry to complain yet I’m certain you have heard the term” whipping boy” as to know to know what it means.



  11. Just thinking about it's own right for sure as Georg mentions but more to the idea I think that it is a German translation of ummmm(sort of like).....and not some mantra distillation "of a note" that resounds through all of experience as if in 1000 voices?

    It might of went quicker if you would have added "eh!" to the last of your sentence, to show you had indeed been Canadianized in your previous visits?:)

  12. I actually didn't write "ohmmm," but "ooohm." More ???, less Zen. Best,



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