Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Dark Energy and Dark Matter

The nice (aka hot and humid) weather does not preclude the fact that it was a fairly ordinary working day for me today, reading some more on ROOT and getting my mind wrapped around the showers after showers of cosmic ray particles. My first excursion into Emacs was somewhat bumpy, but I'm still hoping for some day when I can dash around Emacs with lightening speed -- with the keyboard, no mouse.

In the afternoon there was a seminar talk on dark matter and dark energy by a guy whose name, unfortunately, I did not get because I was a little late to the seminar. I had to say I was very fascinated. Some people I talked to after the seminar seem not very much attracted to the amount of equations and theories in the talk (which, after all, is all we can deal with dark energy and dark matter at this point, since experimental approaches so far provide just observations and conjectures, not explanations, as I understand), but I personally like the equations very much, especially all the mathematical terminologies that seem to sneak in from time to time (compact spaces, hmm...). It was the first time I heard about dark energy and dark matter from someone who really seem to know the topic (even though, of course, Prof. Adam Riess at Hopkins is famous for his work on this topic), and I admit I'm lost most of the time - but that really did not prevent me from liking it!

Monday, May 26, 2008

The Streets of Karlsruhe

A few days ago I said:

At the first glance, Karlsruhe is hardly impressive: it’s neither old enough (built in the 18th century) to have the picturesque castles, etc. from the older times, and nor it is new enough to have modern and sleek looking architecture.

But I stand corrected. The city of Karlsruhe can be such a wonderfully picturesque place - when I walk beyond the part where I live (Südstadt) and beyond the confines of "traditional" tourist places. During my walk to the south-west part of the city, I was constantly delighted by the variety of buildings on all kinds of streets, large or small. It is such a nice change of scene from the American style, newer clusters of houses, where the same pattern is repeated from house to house, from neighborhood to neighborhood.

Karlstraße, a major street

A small street off Südenstraße


another small street

Kriegsstraße, a major street

The streets of Karlsruhe in general are quite different than their Baltimore counterparts. While bikes in Baltimore (and perhaps American cities in general) are seldom a major ingredient of street culture, here in Karlsruhe (and seems to be the same throughout Germany as I heard) bikes are a fixed part of the cityscape, including dedicated bike lanes (see picture), bike rakes everywhere often with many bikes parked, and signs for bike riders everywhere, and the biking population comes from people from old to young, men and women, children and babies with their mothers. Biking is fairly convenient and useful, especially considering the colossal price for gasoline, but the public transportation here also is very convenient.

The major vehicle for public transportation at Karlsruhe is the Tram, which runs on tracks and are somewhat like subways except not underground. The Tram track runs between two directions on major roads, or just in the middle of the road at Kaiserstraße, where no cars are allowed since it's a major shopping street; the Tram could be somewhat dangerous if one is not aware of them (I almost ran into one once!). I really wish that the Tram could be underground, as I'd prefer less noise and less cables (which the Tram runs from) between me and the sky...

The traffic here seems well organized, although the cars seem to be less yielding toward pedestrians - or maybe it is just the impression of someone like me who is very much pampered by the absolute priorty of pedestrians over cars in the US. The pedestrians here do mostly follow the traffic signs, which interestingly exists on both directions on the same road and are not always synchronized. The buttons for pedestrians are there for almost all crosswalk (and they do work!), unlike those in the US which are found only from time to time and most of times seem to be non-functional.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Internet, finally!

1At last I think I'm fully qualified as a creature of the 21th century: having internet alone is enough to make me light-heartedly happy (sigh...). But otherwise Sunday morning is for listening to the incessant church bells, cooking a decent lunch, and chasing flies out of my room -- the shops, of course, are all closed.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

A sunny day...

Today is at last a sunny and warm (above 20 °C warm, I mean...) day, but the sunniness did not last long - by the late afternoon it even started drizzling. I revisited Kaiserstraße with all the shops open; then my mood goes like the weather, down:

There is a piano shop on Kaiserstraße, and after I tried the pianos--Bechstein and Steinway and other brands unknown to me (and all expensive)--then left the shop, I was feeling quite downcast. It is true that I'm already settled down and felt quite comfortable with everyday routines such as buying groceries, walking around in the city, going to work, etc., and the feeling of waking up in the middle of a dream, puzzled by the unfamiliar surrounding, and not knowing where I am comes less and less often, but the piano brings me back to a week ago while I'm in the US (I can't believe that it is not yet one week since I arrived in Germany!). It is so strange that I'm in a foreign land (for the second time in my life) with a language that I hardly speak, with a culture that I'll still trying meticulously not to offend, and with a lifestyle so unlike what I had before (no more homeworks, problem sets, nothing, nichts, nada, only going to work on weekdays...). And needless to say, I miss my piano...

Friday, May 23, 2008

The Karlsruhe Schloss

Yesterday and today are holidays, so instead of going to work, I stayed home in the mornings (mostly either sleeping or in the state between asleep and awake), then went out and inspected Karlsruhe, like a good citizen.

At the first glance, Karlsruhe is hardly impressive: it’s neither old enough (built in the 18th century) to have the picturesque castles, etc. from the older times, and nor it is new enough to have modern and sleek looking architecture. Yesterday it was cloudy and chilly, and since it’s an official holiday, all shops are closed except some eating places and very few people were on the streets – all of these certainly don’t make Karlsruhe any prettier than it can be!

But when I came near the Schloss, the Karlsruhe castle, the scene changed quite dramatically. Karlsruhe’s claim to fame as a tourist city (which it is not, compared to the other more famous cities in Germany) is the Schloss, which is located in the center of the city where some 32 streets meet and extend racially like the sun’s rays (see a map here!), and the Schloss is literally the namesake of the city: Karlsruhe = the rest place of Karl (Karl Wilhelm, Margrav von Baden).

There are some constructions going on, which seems to be the common landscape for many tourist sites, but the Schloss is extraordinary nevertheless – it is certainly beyond my imagination how any family could live in such a magnificent palace. There were quite sizable number of people there, and the museum in the Schloss is open, despite the fact that yesterday was a holiday.

The street in front of the Schloss,Kaiserstraße, is a major shopping location with variety of shops and the rather annoying Tram (the subway of Karlsruhe, but not underground) in the middle of the street, but both times I was there, the shops were closed – yesterday because of the holiday, today because it was after 8pm. One of the most inconvenient things I found in Karlsruhe is that most shops close at 8pm, with a few exceptions, which are open only for 2 more hours; since it is only starting to get dark at 9pm at this time of the year, the closing time seems quite unreasonable to someone like me who is more energetic during the night than during the day, and I certainly had never been to an American mall where the shops closes at 8pm!

Tonight I stayed out late because I wanted to see the Schloss and the city in the night (…and in the lights). There are still people near the Schloss and the Marktplatz, but as I walked south to where I live, the number of people on the streets was getting fewer and fewer, and the Baltimorean in me started to feel uneasy, even though I have been told that walking on the streets at night alone is not a big no-no as it is in Baltimore and the streets are fairly well-lit. But of course I arrived at my lodging place unscathed.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Random notes...

So, the German supermarkets. Except for the obvious signs (the prices in Euro, etc.), I really can’t see a lots of differences from their American counterparts. The main noticeable difference is the package size, and everything here at Germany seems to come at a smaller portion: eggs come in at most 10 per pack, instead of the typical 2 or 2 ½ dozens in the US; milk comes in at most 1-liter packs, instead of the ubiquitous 3 (or 4?) liter plastic jugs; and I can’t believe that rice (which of course it’s my main source of energy) come in mostly in 0.5 kg packs! There are also huge amount of choices when one buys bread, cheese, rice, and spaghetti/noodle-ish things, and for me the choices are somewhat overwhelming: I never saw so many types of rice, for example, even though I’m a rice eater, and the difference types of cheese almost fill up the about 3 meter long counter!

My second day at work was slightly less busy than the first day, not because of any reduction in workload (which in fact I have none as of now, since I’m still on the reading and getting familiar stage), but because I didn’t need to walk from place to place to meet people. I got Firefox 2 now on my computer (yay!) and an email account from the Forschungszentrum Karlsruhe (and discovered how cool pine is), and I spent some time learning the ROOT package for data analysis.

In the afternoon I visited the detectors for high energy cosmic rays, which are located outside in the fields and spread around the campus of Forschungszentrum Karlsruhe; basically those detectors (there are a few different kinds of them) record data such as when and how much energy was hitting them when the cosmic ray “showers” come at the rate of about 4 per seconds. Since the “showers” are but a bunch of daughter particles after the reaction and disintegration of the initial high energy particle that comes from somewhere unknown in the universe, those data collected at ground level can provide some insight into how much energy the initial particle has and which way it was coming, and from those information hopefully some insight into where those cosmic rays are coming from. Anyway, sounds exciting! I could had took some pictures of those detectors (which, by the way, aren’t not very pretty looking nor exciting), but as always, the batteries are empty whenever one needs them (and vice versa).

And as a side note, I feel really, really, really weird not having internet in my place (I think I’ll have to wait a few more days for the internet), and those nights without internet are so long…

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Where I live and where I work...

It is very strange that even though this is only my second (or exactly, one and half day) here in Germany, it seems to me that I was already here for a long time, and even the flight seems to be weeks ago, not yesterday. I guess this is a good thing since I feel at home so soon, but I think I might be just forgetful…

I meet my boss here yesterday at the train station; she is Romanian, and is really nice and helpful, but she seems to know only a little bit more German than I do – well, we speak English among ourselves.

We went straight from the train station to my lodging place, a small but rather cozy attic room on the third floor, and to my surprise, the room is very furbished, including bed linens and even cups and plates! Apparently my landlady is very nice and provided me with those small items when my boss (who found the room for me) told her that I’m coming from afar and only stay for a short time. I met my landlady, who only speaks German, to sign the lease today, and she was indeed friendly, but I had major difficulties understanding her, and I hope that won’t lead to problems later on!

My room

Even though I went to work today nevertheless, I’m feeling predominantly tired because of the luggage-carrying, lots of walking, and jetlag. The workplace, the Forschungszentrum Karlsruhe, is located in the middle of the forest in the back of the Karlsruhe castle, and we had to take the shuttle there from the southern part of the city where I live. The building where I work hosts a few research groups, composing of (as I gather) mainly PhD students and their advisors; I’m the only RISE student at this moment, but there are one or two more coming to at least the research groups in the same building.

Everyone seems to be very nice, but as always I still felt a bit awkward with strangers. At least half of all people I met today were Germans, but there are quite a few foreigners, including my boss, so I heard lots of English intermingled with German, and of course whenever I talked, I was talking in English. The building is entirely Linux based, which is a bit of shock to me even though I’m fairly comfortable in Linux and I also felt quite lost when the computer first refuses to log me in (it turns out to be a network problem) and then KDE refuses to start (I ended up having the .kde configuration folder from root, otherwise KDE won’t start up for me). I was also stuck with Firefox 1 because I haven’t figure out (i.e. I don’t have the password for root) how to install Firefox 2. For everyday needs including the all-important food, I already went to the supermarket here twice, but I’ll left that for later since it’s time for sleep now since I’ll be up early tomorrow…

Monday, May 19, 2008

The Way to Karlsruhe

Although I'd have hoped for an exciting journey, it was pretty uneventful (that is, the rest of this can be skipped safely without disrupting the plot, if there is any). The flight with British Airway to London was a pleasant one, which is a welcoming change from the drive to DC and all the security checking with long, long lines in the airport. For some reason the flight was much shorter than I thought it would be, and my impression is that dinner, sleep and breakfast were compressed into less than 6 hours as if I almost gained time. I did not sleep and entertained myself with movie, doing nothing, and rebooting my laptop. [For those who know me, the movie (Godfather II) was probably the first movie I watched in the past year or so.]

The London Heathrow airport was quite a nice looking place, but I busied myself mainly with falling asleep while I was there… And a few hours later I was at Frankfurt, after falling asleep and consuming coffee on the flight from London.

Compared to Heathrow, the Frankfurt International Airport was not impressive at all, and the passport checking part was strangely reminiscent of the Chinese border, which I’ve been though two years ago; maybe it’s because of the uniforms of the German officers/police. Carrying two suitcases plus one heavy backpack is not fun at all, especially as I need to take a local train then the ICE train and carrying everything with me all the time.

Growing up in a city where no birds can survive the people’s appetite, I found the American birds, especially pigeons, unashamedly brazen, since they get so close to people and it takes so much to get them scared and fly away, but the American pigeons are nothing compared to the ones at the Frankfurt Haupfbahnhof. Those little brats walk leisurely in a indoor place, among people running and rushing to the departing trains, and they walks as if they are the legitimate customers of the train station; how dare them!

I was perennially wary of communication from airports, and it is no exception this time. I also reconfirmed my distrust for telephone in general: an operator told me that it costs about $21 for 3 minutes talk time back to the US, and the telephone booth ate up a few Euros before I gave up calling a local German number, while in contrast, 1 Euro worth of internet time (10 minutes) is enough for me to send a few necessary emails and even to browse around a bit.

While I was using the internet booth (at the Frankfurt Haupfbahnhof), a women came up to me and started talking German. Of course my panic mode immediately kicked in, and only after a few “Langsamer” and “Ich weiß nicht” did I grasp the keywords “Kleingeld” and “essen”. As my panic mode is still on, I quickly dismissed the women with the smallest cash I had with me, a 2 Euro coin. Immediately after the women left, I started regretting that I even responded to the women, let alone giving her money; one would think that since I lived in Baltimore, I would have known better about giving out money! Well, I guess I learned something, but sadly this was my first German conversation in Germany….

--at Haupfbahnhof Frankfurt.