The Sciences

The Tea Tastes Awful, So I Must Be In...

Cosmic VarianceBy cjohnsonAug 2, 2005 2:03 PM

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Tuesday - The kettle whistles with an unfamiliar voice, and I crawl back out of bed to return to the kitchen to switch it off. As I walk to the kitchen, I mumble "liar" under my breath, and then get to the kettle, switch it off and make some tea. I turn to return to bed, sipping the tea as I go. I stop dead in my tracks from the taste of liquid chalkdust. Yes, the tea tastes awful, and so I'm in Aspen, Colorado. We're at something like 7908 ft up here, and so water feels the need to boil well before it is at boiling, if you know what I mean. That's why I accused the kettle of lying. As a result of this annoying bit of physics, you can make your cup of tea while not looking, since spilling the water on you from the freshly "boiled" kettle will hardly bother you, and so the tea tastes awful. It is a ski resort, but I am not here for the skiiing. (I've never even physically touched a ski in my life - and it's Summer anyway.) I'm here for the physics. There is a physics center here (the Aspen Center for Physics), and several physicists come here every year and have workshops on various topics in physics. When not doing that we wander around town trying to fit in with the locals. It does not work. In fact, it fails to work spectacularly since the locals actually mostly aren't here. You'll really mostly meet three types of people here: (1) the other people here for "summer camp", which could be other physicists, people on holiday, or people here for the music school and festival; (2) a whole bunch of people from England, New Zealand, or Australia who seem to be the bulk of the wait staff here. They're flown-in for this. The first thing that strikes you about Aspen, in fact, if you've been in Amercia for a decent length of time, is that the people in the service industry are not those people in the third category, which leads me to (3) spanish-speaking people of colour. These folks are mostly hidden away and are doing all the behind the scenes stuff that you don't see. By some roll of the dice (which we'll be generous and say is accidental), these folks seldom ever seem to be up front in the restaurants and other establishments like they are most other places. So where are the "locals"? The people who own the property here, I mean. God knows, but the point is that they are mostly all millionaires (or close enough, from my point of view), and they don't really mix with us mortals much. You might get the impression that they're mostly not here, but my suspicion is that we occupy the same space, but are largely invisible to each other, leading completely different lives. There are probably several good people from that category getting on quietly with their lives, eating in the nicer restaurants regularly -ordinary people probably only go into those very ocassionally- and driving back up to their houses up on the mountainsides. You occasionaly run into these others and notice them for what they are only when they are behaving badly. This usually involves shouting at some member of "the help", behind a counter or at the airport. Being someone who likes to assume the best of everyone first and foremost, I like to think that they are not representative of the typeical wealthy locals; these are just the ones we see. I really don't know for sure. The thing to do is not worry about that stuff, not rush to judgement and live and let live, since I don't know all the details. We can all enjoy the town together. I'm always excited to be here even though I've been here several times. Basically, I usually can get a ton of quality thinking done here. Either sitting in my office, wandering over with my notepad and listening to a rehearsal of the orchestra in the giant music tent nearby, going for several long walks in the immediate surrounds of the center, or going for a hike in several of the easily accessible mountains here. Another reason I'm excited is because this year I brought my bike! It is the most fun thing to ride, and yesterday I spent an awful lot of energy in LA jsut before leaving for my flight, trying to

find the right hard-sided suitcase for transporting it. Suitcase? Yes, in 15 seconds, the bike fits into a suitcase rather nicely, for the same reason you can pick it up and hop on the subway or the bus: it folds -really fast. With the longest dimension being only 24 in when folded up, it's the most compact folding bike on the planet (called a "Brompton": British engineering, of course!) and I really don't know why more people don't use these beauties. Take a look. There it is just out of the box when I got it some time ago, and there it is on the pier at Venice beach.

I was so excited when I got it I unpacked it, and went straight into the city and took it onto the bus (yes, they have buses in LA; I promise more on this later) to Venice to cycle about a bit! Sweet. Anyway, as the bike is the best way to get around here (between town and the physics center, and also when shopping for groceries), and because I arrived a day late here and so won't get one of the good bikes of the physics center bikes that they lend you, on a first-come-first-served basis, for your stay, I thought I'd bring my trusty British racing green steed to ride while here. Physics. The workshop I'm attending is called "Supercosmology". There are some of the more "thinking out of the box" cosmologists here, some of them having more than a passing acquaintance with supersymmetry and string theory. Should be fun. I will try to let you know what we're up to in a bit more detail over the three weeks I'm here. The sun is rising now. Time for another cup of liquid chalkdust. -cvj P.S. Actually, the above phrase ("thinking out of the box") to describe at least one of the kinds of cosmologist that would be at this workshop is funnier than I intended.

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