The Return of WLOG Blog (with free bonus preview of my semester)

Welcome back.

That’s addressed to me, not to you. For all I know you have been here all January. I wouldn’t know; I wasn’t here. I was at home in Colorado, hanging out with my family, who still have a dial up connection that only aspires to 56 kBps. In the past I’ve been very frustrated by this, but, perhaps in part because I’ve been realizing lately how rare it is to truly get some distance from the world, this time I found it kind of liberating. So I took a break from blogging, and for the most part also from Facebook, even though I know that so many people’s afternoons revolve around wondering what minuscule piece of science I might be about to trick them into thinking about. To all the people in that category, I apologize deeply, and encourage you to sit tight and wait for tomorrow afternoon’s post; It’ll be just what you’re looking for, I promise.

If by some chance, you also fall into the category of people who are curious about my day-to-day life, or at least about the life of a physics graduate student, the rest of this post is for you, because now that I’m settled back in at the Brook for some reason I feel like sharing a bit.

Monday and Wednesday I have just one class, quantum computing with Vladmir Korepin, who’s not quite as disgruntled-looking in person as in the picture at the right. I’m particularly excited about this one because there’s a good chance that quantum computing (or the related discipline of quantum information theory) will wind up being what I want to focus on for my PhD, and if that happens, there’s a good chance Dr. Korepin is who I’d like to work for. I’m pleased to report that, while his accent is a little thicker than is convenient in a professor, he has a great sense of humor and a real enthusiasm for the material that promises to make it a lot of fun. Plus it’s a small class– just six or seven or us, in all likelihood– so I should have lots of opportunities to ask dorky questions and make physics puns under my breath but “accidentally” loud enough for the professor to hear. I’ll keep you updated about how it goes, and, hopefully, I’ll be able to put together a little post about just what “quantum computing” is anyway.

Tuesdays and Thursdays are my busy days: up and in class by 9:50 (no, really, I swear that’s kind of early!) I first get some more advanced quantum mechanics (same Russian fellow, featured in this post, from last semester) and then it’s time for some statistical mechanics, a discipline which includes the more familiar concept of thermodynamics and a host of related concepts. It’s never been my favorite aspect of physics, but it’s an increasingly important one, and we have some real experts in it at Stony Brook so I suppose I should just start trying to act interested and see if I can fool myself into thinking it’s fun. It probably will be, after all :-). The professor, Robert Shrock, is a tiny man in a tweed jacket with large glasses, whose overall appearence left me with no doubt that he did his PhD at Princeton in the 70s (I was right),  and whose voice reminds me a bit of Rizzo the Rat from the Muppets. Not that he sounds like Rizzo, mind you, but he certainly sounds like he could be the guy who does Rizzo’s voice behind the scenes, who you wouldn’t quite pick out just from hearing him talk on the street but who still wouldn’t surprise you if you found out he was the one after all. Anyway, he seems quite jovial and excited about teaching us, which is all that counts, so I’ll bet it will turn out to be an engaging class.

After stat mech, at the moment, I’m scheduled to have a short lunch break and then teach a section of physics lab for bioscience majors, a continuation of the course I TA’ed for last semester where we tackle electricity and magnetism instead of just blocks and pulleys (so look for a few more posts like this in the coming months!) I’ll certainly be teaching that lab at some point in the week, but at the moment I’m contemplating trying to move things around so that I can also take the course on galaxies (uncreatively called “Galaxies”) that’s being offered by the astronomy  branch of our department. I’ve always been interested in astronomical phenomena but am just to chicken (and too spoiled!) to want to gamble on a career as an astronomer, who always seem to have trouble finding work and/or funding. The homework load promises to be fairly light, and I have always wanted to know how things work on a galactic scale… but on the other hand I did promise myself last summer that I wouldn’t let myself get overcomitted to things at Stony Brook the way I did at CU. Ho Hum… a coin flip may be in order. I’ll let you know.

Later on on Tuesdays we have our departmental colloquium (where a guest lecturer from elsewhere appears and gives a talk to all the professors and grad students), which makes for a long day but is almost always interesting. Plus, I get to  sleep in the next morning, so it’s all okay. Wednesdays are just like Mondays at the moment, but eventually I will also have an evening course through the journalism school (and their new “Center for Communicating Science“) on how to explain scientific principles in nontechnical settings. It doesn’t start for a few weeks, so don’t expect me to suddenly become a much better writer. But if you keep your fingers crossed, perhaps it will happen eventually!

Thursdays are similar to tuesdays, but Fridays I have no scheduled classes this semester–not by design, just by luck! Typically of course I will need to spend some time preparing lab materials for my classes the following week, and there’s usually also a Friday afternoon seminar where the professors who are looking for grad students give talks and buy us pizza in hopes that one of us will be willing to write computer programs for them or somesuch. Still, when the situation warrants (say, if I want to go to a Friday matinee in the city…) I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to move those things around take a three day weekend. It’s alright if you’re jealous. I’m already jealous of future-me just because I haven’t had a chance to do it yet!

So that’s the story of my month-long absence, and also the months ahead for me in this spring semester. Keep an eye out for a handful of new posts in the coming days– after all just because I wasn’t on the internet doesn’t mean I wasn’t generating lots of ideas to write about. As I’m sure you know by now, I love to ramble at people through printed characters almost as much as I like to foist my thoughts upon the m through public speaking, so I suppose I thank-you is in order for indulging my habit in the past few months. I hope you enjoyed your small break from it over the holidays, but now I think it’s time to get back to our usual arrangement where I write down things about seemingly every stray thought that enters my head and you comment on them just often enough to make me feel like it serves a purpose other than my own intellectual catharsis. Deal? I figured so. See you tomorrow.

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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.

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