Alice and Bob in Wonderland

Child-like questions are both innocent and beautiful. Almost every one of us has asked: why is it dark at night?

Well, it is not just because the sun is on the ‘wrong’ side (the universe has billions and billions of stars, as good as the sun when it comes to brightness, so shouldn’t the entire cosmos be lit up everywhere by now?). The innocent question actually leads us to a beautiful thought about the origins of the universe.

And if the earth and moon attract each other by gravity, why doesn’t the moon simply fall down?

The Alice and Bob collection of videos from Perimeter Institute is a timely outreach effort. It answers these questions while retaining the spirit of humour and child-like curiosity. These speak to the kid in each one of us!

Play the clip below for the answer to the falling moon question.

You can watch the rest of the videos here.

Perimeter Scholars International, a Student’s Experience

This post is meant to be a reflection on my 5-month experience in the Perimeter Scholars International program. I hope it is also useful to those who are exploring the possibility of applying to PI.

Perimeter Scholars International (PSI for short) is a 10-month, intense Masters program in physics during which you complete almost twice as much coursework as you would do in a usual Masters course. There are at least 2 lectures every day of the week, followed by tutorials, making it a long-working day followed by homework.

Course Content: So far, we have covered 10 ‘core courses’. In addition, this semester had 3 review courses (Cosmology, Standard Model, Quantum Foundations), out of which one could choose 2.

Too much, you might say! Do you actually learn anything?

The short answer is an emphatic yes. True, the schedule is hectic and 3-week duration for a course can only mean so much. But PSI is designed in such a way that if nothing else, it ensures that you learn at least as much physics as you possibly could. For instance, the program provides you with furnished apartments (so no time-wastage on arranging housing, paying electricity bills etc), delicious Bistro meals (so you don’t need to cook or wash dishes). PSI throws at you a remarkably intelligent and extremely friendly peer group, supplemented by 4 cooperative tutors. I can only talk from personal experience. During these 6 months, I know that I learned more than I thought I could, especially since I came from a non-academic background, but more on that later…

Below is a snapshot of our core courses:

1. Research Skills 1                   2.Research Skills 2
3. Quantum Theory                 4. Relativity
5. Quantum Field Theory I    6. Statistical Mechanics
7. Quantum Field Theory II  8. Scientific Computation
9. Mathematical Physics       10. Non-Equilibrium Systems

Professors: PSI brings in big names (Malcolm Perry, Michael Peskin, Neil Turok, Leo Kadanoff, Carl Bender…). These people have already made a significant impact in theoretical physics, and it is a privilege to listen to them. However, I have at times felt that teaching effectiveness is a very subjective thing. It depends upon where the student is (in terms of background), the method of the instructor (visual, or formal) and the communication skills. Personally, I found some courses much more interesting than others, but that could likely be due to my own background (or the lack thereof). What I can certainly say is that each of the PSI instructors is extremely competent in their area, and that there will be times, when you will learn more from your friends and tutors than in the class!

My personal favorites among the PSI lectures: Carl Bender on Mathematical Physics, Malcolm Perry on Quantum Mechanics,  David Tong on Quantum Field Theory and François David on QFT II. All lecture videos are available online on PIRSA.

Place, People and PI: Again, personal experience talking. I have loved the people at PSI. They are not only smart physics students, but good pool players, nice cooks and fantastic friends. PI provides you with a nicely furnished apartment (you do not even need to bring in towels!). Each flat has 3 bedrooms, a living room and a kitchen. The living room has a huge blackboard on which we usually discuss our doubts with flatmates, or make cartoons. We celebrate birthdays together (my flatmate Bruno makes awesome cookies), do Bhangra, have potlucks and go out to watch movies. Yes, we do find the time 🙂

As for Waterloo, I miss New York more. But then, NYC is not a fair reference! I do not think any other city in the world could compete with NYC (except Amritsar, my hometown), but Waterloo comes close in its own ways. The people are warm and friendly. Community here is mostly students and people working for RIM, the makers of Blackberry. Unlike some other places, Waterloo as a community is extremely interested in science, and almost all public lectures hosted by PI draw more than a full-house. PI provides PSI students discounted tickets for the cinemas around, and excursions to nearby towns, so that adds to the fun 🙂

Bottomline: If you are looking for a great academic bridge from an undergraduate experience to the research problems in theoretical physics, PSI is good. If you are willing to immerse yourself in a hectic but rewarding experience, then this should suit you well. However, if you want to take it easy and chill out, you might have better options elsewhere.

Aside: Many people are drawn to physics, and some come to physics after a detour through other facets of life and academics. I did materials engineering, and then worked in a credit card consulting company before coming here. So yes, if you haven’t solved a differential equation for about a year, it is going to take longer nights to catch up! But you can… and also have fun!

Disclaimer: These views are strictly personal, and are placed here for those who are considering pursuing physics, or those who have been emailing me to find out more about PI. These views are not intended to be representative of the Perimeter Institute’s policy or opinion.

Morning Thoughts on Bright People

Bill Gates: ability to look years ahead, and visualize it in the present. He started writing software for fun, and then developed a philosophy to be paid for the work, and to do more… And the works of Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are praise-worthy. They are doing good to the global society in a very organized, scientific and effective way.

Andrew Grove (Founder of Intel) : Immigrated to the US from Hungary, failed a physics course and then got an ‘A’- grade in the same, PhD from UC-Berkeley, did not join Bell Labs and instead joined the then small company Fairchild semiconductors, co-founded Intel, evolved as the main business of Intel changed, managed two huge corporate crisis…

Warren Buffet: His ethical, long-term vision in the stock market – a perceived sphere of speculation and manipulation – has helped him create an immense enterprise of trust and huge returns, together! He started small, and rose to the highest… wow!

Steve Jobs: A fighter with a strong heart! rejects education that he cannot afford, works hard with passion and creativity, “co-inventor” of the personal computer with the vision of its large-scale personalized utility, thrown out of the company he founded (Apple computers), creates designs, animations, more companies, an alliance with Disney, invited back to Apple and spurs a renaissance, the launch of Ipod, Iphone… what a great blend of creativity, hunger and innovation! His speech at Stanford is very inspiring, and one of my favorites.

Dhirubhai Ambani: Not a creative genius like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, but a great visionary with infinite confidence and ambition… His self-belief to be the master of his own fate, and not an employee who seeks small gains, helped him rise from low middle-class poverty to the highest corporate peak, in spite of adverse market policies in the then India…

Richard Feynman: He knew the difference between reality and labels. He knew how the same thing could be expressed in different ways, by different-looking formulae… He was not afraid to question, and never scared to speculate, imagine, discuss and play… A very lively character, and an excellent teacher. His interview with the BBC (Horizon) is a wonderful summary of his vision. And the Nobel Physics lecture that he gave is great inspiration for a scientifically curious mind!

Albert Einstein: Not considered good enough for graduate science… so works as a clerk, and makes the most important scientific discoveries. The unified theory of gravitation, relativity, brownian motion, material properties, quantum statistics… there is hardly an area of modern science which does not derive some or the other important thing from Einstein! The fact that the greatest scientist did it in spite of such obstacles, and not through a pristine university scholarship inspires a lot of people, even mediocre ones like myself. His reluctance to accept quantum mechanics is famous, and current scientific attempts to address his doubts should spur even better understanding of reality.