One class down, many to go…

Walking to the physics building for the first day of class was a lot like this, only crawling with students

Well, I finished my first day of classes, which consisted of exactly one class. I realized, by the way, that this is the 17th year in a row that I’ve gone woken up one morning and had a  “first day of class.”  That’s a lot of “first days”– you would think the nervous excitement would have worn off a little. But it hasn’t!

When I was in college I always used to go out to breakfast with some friends before the first day of class–side note: how weird is it that I can now use the construction “When I was in college”?–but with no real close friends out here just yet and the only breakfast place I know of a shabby-looking Dunkin’ Donuts, I decided just to get up early and make myself a nice big breakfast in honor of the occasion. I knew I was going to do this ahead of time, so I had my freezer stocked with hash browns and sausage links, and I made myself french toast with boysenberry syrup. It was all pretty great, if I do say so myself. But I guess it’s hard to screw up french toast.

After breakfast I put on a blue polo and jeans, and headed off to class. I set my iPod to shuffle my mix of “psych-up”  music, and by a strange coincidence, it settled on “Orange Crush,”  by R.E.M. The song, combined with the bright, sunny morning and the nervous energy I could feel in the air emanating from all the freshmen, suddenly made me flash back to my own freshman year, and I realized that, not only had I listened to “Orange Crush”  on my way to my very first class, but I’d been wearing the same blue polo. I promise it was just a coincidence, but it was a kind of nice, comforting one. It made everything seem familiar and surmountable, while also invoking the same sense of adventure and excitement I had on my first day at CU.

I got to the physics building about ten minutes before class was due to start, and looked for a door that said “112.”  Well, I found one, but when I pushed it open, I pushed it right into Dr. Van Nieuwenhuizen, who was standing at the front of the room preparing the blackboard for class. Stupid inward-opening doors. It was clearly the worse way I’ve ever met a Dirac medalist, but I guess technically speaking it was also the best.

I was surprised to see that the classroom was already nearly full, so I had to take a seat near the back of the room. Even then, during the first few minutes of the lecture, about a half-dozen students continued to filter in, eventually just standing in the back of the room. Dr. Van Nieuwenhuizen is something of a local celebrity here on campus, and I’d been warned that he often got visitors to his class, but I wasn’t expecting that many! I will have to show up a little earlier next time, and hope that interest wanes a bit during the course of the semester.

Dr. Van Nieuwenhuizen has a fantastic accent (he’s Dutch, I think) that makes him sound like a character in children’s movie that involves magical swans or something. You know, like maybe the grandfather who acts sensible around the parents but keeps winking at the kids as if to suggest “when I was young, I once found a magic swan too…” But I’m getting distracted. Lecture today was about the history of mechanics, which for a very long time was the driving force behind theoretical physics (Dr. Van Nieuwenhuizen said ” I know you all don’t care about the history of physics, but I am an old person so I am entitled to want to make you care.”) It was very interesting, so much so that I tried to record some of it on my iphone, which you can listen to here. The quality isn’t too good and he’s a bit hard to hear, but I warned you, I was forced to sit all the way at the back. Next time, I’ll try to get there a little earlier. (UPDATE: For some reason I can’t get the recording to transfer from my phone to my mac– I’ll let you know if I can get it to work).

Incidentally, later in the afternoon I sat in on Dr. Van Nieuwenhuizen’s lecture to the freshman physics class (he promised that he would cover more of the historical details there if we were in to that kind of thing). I still enjoyed the lecture, and may write up a post about some of the interesting things he taught me about the techniques the ancient greeks used to measure things like the distance between the sun and the Earth. But curiously, I found myself thinking that he was a much less compelling lecturer in this setting. Since the lecture material was essentially the same, just with fewer equations, I could only conclude that there must be something about the energy, behavior, or just overall atmosphere of a graduate class that helped him come out of his shell. In both lectures he was fairly softspoken, but somehow in our class in the morning his sort of quiet, understated excitement for the material really shone through and made it compelling in a way that it didn’t with the undergraduates. Maybe it was a fluke, or he had some bad tuna for lunch in between, but it certainly struck me as interesting.

Two classes tomorrow, a lab and quantum mechanics course. Both should be pretty interesting, and I’ll let you all know how they go. By the way, I’ve finished filling the grid on a second crossword puzzle, so now I just have to work on the clues. Keep your eyes peeled.

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About Colin West
Colin West is a graduate student in quantum information theory, working at the Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics at Stony Brook University. Originally from Colorado (where he attended college), his interests outside of physics include politics, paper-folding, puzzles, playing-cards, and apparently, plosives.

2 Responses to One class down, many to go…

  1. Paul West says:

    Well this is just great. I prepared myself to try to screen through yesterday’s 75 e-mails as fast as I could this morning and you have to get in the way with something interesting for me to read! Seriously, I very much enjoyed reading about your first day of classes. You really tell good stories and it was different reading them in a different “voice” than you would use if you were just addressing Mom and me. How does one pronounce “Nieuwenhuizen”? It’s pretty amazing to think of a lecturer so well thought of that the classroom overfills with visitors! This was a particularly fun entry for me to read having gone through a kind of first day of classes routine myself last Monday.

  2. Stephen says:

    I don’t know how the unix userspace tools are on osx, or whether itunes locks the filesystems away from the usb drivers, but this might work:

    Plug iphone in via usb

    (open apple)+space -> terminal -> “fdisk -l | egrep -v hda|sda|usb”

    find out which is your iphone

    ‘mount /dev/[device here] /mnt/[some arbitrary folder]’

    ‘grep -r /mnt/[arbitrary folder again]/*.[extension?(mp3/4/ogg/etc)’

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