Thursday, February 14, 2013

Harvard Stories #1

My personal excuse not to post on the blog.
We are literally submerged in snow, I spent my few spare time in shoveling snow and enjoy the storm.

Good news: 1) I survived Nemo blizzard; 2) i'm more or less settled in Cambridge (moving to the "definitive" apartment in two weeks); 3) I can do nothing but work; 4) eventually i'll have time/willing to post again here. 5) You can fetch good food in Boston. 6) Finally, I live in a bike-friendly city (this is not completely true, but it's way better than Rome, Lisbon and Cagliari).

Bad news: 1) You can fetch good *expensive* food in Boston. 2) My flatemates have an interaction cross section which is a substantial fraction of that of neutrinos. 3) My spouse is still in Italy, still experiencing some problems with the VISA. She was supposed to come here before me, unfortunately she will arrive in March (hopefully). Bad news #2+#3 are main responsible for Good News #3.

Anyway, I wanted to tell another story (nonetheless related to my life here).

There is *always* something going on at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), I got an email account here and receive ~O(10) emails/day that advertise seminars, group meetings, pizza seminars, luncheons etc... The luncheons are interesting. Every Thursday the whole CfA gathers over lunch, delicious sandwiches are provided by the secretaries of the various groups and everybody eats attending a series of 3-4 talks, 10-15 minutes each.

Yesterday (it was a Tuesday) I was asked if I wanted to attend a special luncheon (special in the sense of the unusual schedule). The speaker was William Press, one of the fathers of the Numerical Recipes (hope you know the book, here a link) as well as a pioneer in the study of black-hole perturbation theory (together with Sau Teukolsky, second author of the Numerical Recipes). Since there is always some event going on, one must be very selective, but I couldn't really miss this one. So i've subscribed to the luncheon, assuming that it was the usual story as the one on Thursdays.

However, in this case there was first a standard talk with no lunch [which btw was absolutely brilliant. It was about a work Press has recently done with Freeman Dyson. Besides being very interesting, the plus is that Dyson will turn 90 this year!]. To my surprise, the lunch in this case was after the talk, and not in the seminar room, but in a small room for a very limited number of attendants. Long story short: the idea here is that when they have a famous speaker, postdocs and students can have lunch with him "privately", chatting about their work and greedily asking for suggestions. There were about 7 people, including me and Press, around a table, eating sandwiches and speaking in turn. It was pretty much like the Alcoholics Anonymous for Physics, just having the poor Press as an omniscient guru. He had to listen to research ranging from cosmology to technicalities of accretion flow in black-hole binaries, from some instrument specs which I didn't follow at all to, of course, my stuttering exposure (for those who don't know me, I have *huge* problems to answer the question "What do you do?" at basically any level, meaning from grandparents' level to William Press' one). Ehm... it was a completely disaster and also very embarrassing.

Later I was told that these kinds of lunches are quite common here in American schools and apparently are included in the "duties" of famous speakers. Something I know for sure: next time either I will decline or get prepared...

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