Saturday, November 04, 2006

Philadelphia Impressions

View from the Art Museum, aka Rocky's steps:

Every time I takeoff, I still find it hard to believe that airplanes do actually fly. I feel the acceleration, I feel the speed, and then slowly the plane leaves the ground and rises in the air. It feels impossible, despite the fact that I know Bernoulli’s equations and that the shape of the airplane wings is such that air moves faster on the bottom side, thereby applying more pressure that the top side and thus lifting the plane up.


The conference was much different than any previous one. I guess that the most important item was Chan Joshi’s award of the Maxwell Prize. This is a huge award, equivalent to the Nobel Prize for plasma physics. He is the same guy that wrote that Scientific American article on plasma accelerators a few months ago. Although John Dawson, the theoretical father of the field proposed in the 1970s the techniques that are now performed every day to accelerate particles using plasmas, Joshi was the first guy to experimentally discover them. In fact, the first few attempts to perform plasma acceleration had failed, and many people had moved out of the field. Joshi insisted that the techniques could indeed work, and eventually he succeeded in the late 1980s. Since then many many group came back to work those aspects, and I am one of the PhD students working on them too. Katsouleas (my advisor) worked with Joshi while at UCLA until the early 1990s, and he admitted me in 2003. I guess that I wouldn’t be here now on this flight if it weren’t for Joshi (that thought only scares the hell out of me).

There was a reception on Wednesday for him, unofficial, just for the “close” friends. Many people wanted to speak out and talk about Joshi and his character, including my advisor Tom who came just for this day only to talk about Joshi and his “Hollywood” moments. His wife and family were there also, and his wife in particular made for him a nice painting where she included 3 leaves that she had picked years ago when they went with Joshi in England and he pointed out at some place that “this is Newton’s appletree”. Then the conference banquet followed where they awarded him the prize in front of the whole plasma physics community. For us, young scientists of the field, these are the most inspiring moments you can get, imagining yourself being recognized from your own community. I have here a few minute video with some of the moments of that day.

Then there was Francis Chen. The guy is a legend in the plasma community, as he has written the best entry-level textbook on plasma physics and also he was the first student to get 1GeV energy particles, back at Brookhaven Lab. We told us a story on how one evening he was late at the accelerator lab and as he was high up gazing the machines, he saw a poor man moving lead bricks around to shield the machine (lead blocks the harmful x-rays produced all the time). He talks to him: "May I help you with the bricks, professor Fermi?"

Picture with the legend:

The poster sessions were most interesting. I helped and was helped from other people, mainly on the plasma side of my work, and I learned a lot of new plasma stuff. I still can’t help feeling stupid when I watch what all these other guys are working on for which I have no idea about.

It is impossible to still realize that 90% of the talks are presented in a very crappy way. People just don’t know how to do a proper presentation. In the last talk in the last day of my session, the guy’s first slide (after the names) was a maze of equations, pictures, explanations, graphs, approximations. Useless! How can you expect people to follow that? I just left the room immediately. On the other hand, the most interesting talk seemed to be the one on Antihydrogen, which I mentioned earlier. Joshi gave a great review of plasma accelerators too. If a presentation is properly structured, you don’t need to know the field in order to understand the material.

Now let’s move on to the city.

Philadelphia is the 5th largest city in the US, but it is by far my least favorite. I was unpleasantly surprised. Although the downtown area (which the locals call “center city” for whatever reason) is kind of nice, with European style streets and buildings, I could never get rid of the feeling that I was not safe. I never felt relaxed like walking in a promenade or busy street, even around the university area (which we visited on Halloween night to watch Saw III). Maybe it has to do with the 50% of black people that live there; maybe with the fact that most of the non-downtown areas are severely under-funded (as one of the local that we chatted with promptly explained to us when I asked her why is the population constantly declining in the past 20 years).

As an east coast city it has many old buildings and “historic” (for American standards) places. The first US government was formed here and also the declaration of Independence from the British Empire was signed here. The most popular item is the “liberty bell”, a bell that is correlated with the declaration since it rang when the declaration was first read to the public on July 8th of the independence year (it also has a very famous crack). However for a non-American all these places are not THAT interesting after all.

Here are some insider tips: Walnut and Chestnut streets have very nice shops and restaurants. We ate at Moriartys (an Irish restaurant pub/bar) located at Walnut and 11th, very close to the theaters there. On 12th and Arch streets (just two blocks below Chestnut), right below the convention center there is a great lunch place, Farmer’s Market style, that serves all kinds of food (and it’s pretty good too). I had one of the best crepes there this morning before we left. The other interesting thing was the Art Museum.

Philadelphia is home of Rocky and the Rocky movies. He is supposed to be from South Philadelphia. Remember the famous scene where he wakes up at dawn, eats 5 raw eggs in a glass and then goes out to run in the streets, up until some stairs from where all Philadelphia can be viewed? These stairs are the Art Museum stairs, and many people go there and climb them as a reminder of his movies. There’s also a statue of his nearby (the one that was used in Rocky III I believe).

The Museum itself is the 3rd largest art museum in the country, I am guessing after New York's Metropolitan (check) and Chicago's (check). Although they do have some decent impressionist paintings (which has now become my second favorite item in a museum), the modern section is not that great (which is my favorite section in every museum!). What is great are the whole rooms that they have transformed into places from other ages.

For example, there is an impossibly perfect 1600s Japanese Tea house (brought directly from Japan). The whole thing is built inside a museum room. When I walked in, I was awed since I felt I was teleported to Japan for a few minutes. Everything looked original and real (because it was real!). They did the similar transformation by building 100% an Indian temple and a French 1100s middle age monastery. Also, along these lines, in many places instead of modern doors they had installed original archways from that age. The whole impression was simply astonishing.

Overall, Philadelphia is not a family oriented city (like Boston), it isn’t nearly as vibrant as New York or Chicago, it doesn’t have LA’s carelessness, it doesn’t have Miami’s vide and party atmosphere. We had a great time with our group, we bonded better, we learned a lot, and most importantly we got inspired by Joshi’s paradigm for the future.

Finally I show here a video of two things. First, right after the nominations at the conference banquet it was 9:20pm (on a Wednesday night) , so me and Erdem ran at out nearby hotel in order to catch Lost! In addition, I have my running along the Rocky steps (along with original footage from the movie). Enjoy!