As it happens, APS traditionally holds two meetings a year, one in March and one in April. The March meeting has grown to about 10,000 people over the last few decades, while the April meeting has gradually shrunk to about 1300. Much hand wringing and questioning followed, but given the various issues brought up during the session, I'm surprised it hasn't vanished entirely! As an example, APS April meeting usually covers high energy physics, but there's a bigger conference called DPF in Europe, and most high energy physicists work in Europe, because they have the LHC, so most of the fancy results get announced at DPF. Other traditional mainstays of the April meeting include nuclear physics, which outside of North Korea has been on a long decline ever since all the elements were discovered. Additionally, the April meeting was once held traditionally in Washington DC, to afford better access to congressional members, but is now seen as too costly. Instead, the meeting, which is still not cheap, jumps around each year and is now seen as a good venue for professors to give their students practise giving talks. There were many suggestions, but most were remarkable only for their inability to actually address the key issues.
Speaking of talks, there was, as usual, a wide spectrum of talk quality. Something I've become more aware of over the years, I took some notes of particularly egregious elements and compiled them into a recent blog post entitled "The worst conference talk ever". http://caseyexaustralia.blogspot.com/2014/04/the-worst-conference-talk-ever.html
The rest of the day unfolded in its usual way, including the regular poster session. Poster sessions are a mixed bag, varying between the odd undergrad who hasn't got enough material for a talk or doesn't know how to integrate something, right up to 'independent researchers', or the usual cosmic crackpot background. Especially for someone who works in gravity research, crackpots are a part of life. Yet talking with them is often just as frustrating as talking with an antivaxer or young earth creationist, and not usually as fun. Humans just find it really hard to practise questioning everything, starting with themselves.
The next day, Tuesday, was the final day of the conference. With no big closing ceremony or formal dinner, most members had already left and it was rather quiet. All dues-paying members can present a talk if they so choose, and so most of the crackpot talks got bundled into a couple of sessions on Tuesday suggestively entitled "New Directions in Astrophysics" and "Frontiers in Gravitation". In one of those sessions, the chair hadn't even bothered to show up, which was perhaps a mercy. No two crackpots are quite the same, but a good number often mention similar ideas, which gave me an idea for playing bingo. Any mention of the phrases "Einstein was wrong", "Stephen Hawking says", "Steady-state model", "God", etc earns you a point, while any mention of a relevant physicist or a correctly used equation loses a point. S, J (different J) and I hightailed it from a talk about "Creator God Rules The Universe Because Hawking Built The Big Bang On A Foundation Of Quicksand" to the airport, where our timely arrival was rewarded with significant flight delays. I eventually made it to NYC after only a few loops around the Jersey shore, while J, S, and B were all stuck in JFK airport overnight.
Down the high line, then across town to Stuyvesant Town. Walking past I had always found the aspect rather intimidating, but this time ventured inside to find a lot of playgrounds. I continued to the south to check out the alleged locations of Rent. Even though Jonathan Larson and his friends all lived in Greenwich. Still, Tomkin's Square Park is there, and the yuppie infested coffee shop where Life Cafe was, and the lot next to the building on 11th and B, now the Toyota Early Learning Park. Soon enough it was time to head home to relax a little before heading back to the Flatiron school in Very Lower Manhattan for a lockpicking workshop. It was good to have an expert (Schuyler Towne) on hand to explain some of the subtleties I've never appreciated.
On the way back to collect my things I stopped by Kee's Chocolate Shop on Thomas and Spring. Now a mere satellite for the main business, they make chocolates so good I once ate a few despite the allergy induced discomfort I was to endure for a week or so. This time, however, I managed to restrain myself and delivered the package complete with a pasta repayment (with interest) to my generous hosts. I packed the last of my things while slightly bewildered by the sound of one of K's housemates laying down rap tracks, and headed for Penn Station with only a short detour to return the house key. Walking through the financial district wearing my Occupy Mars shirt drew a few odd looks. Opportunities for travel and renewing old friendships are somewhat intermittent, and as I rattled under the Hudson another whirlwind trip drew to a close.
Google had suggested that trains to Philadelphia could be had for between $100 and $200, depending on speed and comfort. Remembering another route which was about the same speed and somewhat cheaper, I bought a NJT ticket to Trenton. For the first time, the scale of abandoned industrial might in Newark really dawned on me and I wondered where it all went. Part of the Rust Belt, the shift away from northern heavy industry is something I still don't fully understand. I suspect a rapid period of city and infrastructure building was spurred by high levels of immigration across the north east, but lacked the generational renewal necessary to keep the forges hot. Transition to a zero growth economy is still regarded as one of the more difficult economic problems.
At Trenton I bought another ticket to Philadelphia center city, for a total ticket price of $24. Of course, the bus is much cheaper, but trains are trains! I freakin' love trains. In Philadelphia I found my way to my cousin J's place. J (different different different J) lived in a central part of the city and worked in sustainability, which is pretty awesome. I found my way into his building and up to his flat as he came down to meet me, which had the somewhat odd result of me sitting at his kitchen bench as he came in the door. We hit the streets and headed north to chinatown for a well deserved bowl of ramen with assorted sides. Yum!
The following day I got up during the mid morning and walked to the nearby Macy's store. Extraordinarily thorough readers of this blog will already comprehend the significance of the central Philadelphia Macy's store, but for the casual reader who has somehow got this far, I will give a quick summary. Originally the Wanamaker department store, the building is home to a few oddities, including a 2500lb bronze eagle and the world's largest playable pipe organ. Occupying a series of chambers around the central six story atrium, the organ boasts around 30,000 pipes, including an insanely amazing string division. The console is helpfully located in the women's underwear section. At noon each day a 45 minute recital is given, following which I set out for Rittenhouse square feeling downright strange.
Eventually it dawned on me that I hadn't eaten breakfast or lunch, so I found a shop and bought a meat sandwich of the sort that Philadelphia is famous. Apparently it's called a "hoagie", though without cheese, of course. I continued my trek through the city, eventually stumbling upon the Franklin institute, one of two science museums one block apart. It seemed to contain 4 different theatres including a planetarium, an Imax, a 3D, and something else. A moving exhibit on Pompeii was excellent, as it contained all the cool little stuff that wasn't there anymore when I visited in 2006. Jewelery, surgeon's tools, and other shiny objects, complete with the requisite dramatic music and CGI eruptions. The rest of the exhibits were rather dated, including one section on space exploration where the styling was nearly as retro as the ethnographic museum I once saw in Hovd, Outer Mongolia. Part of me suspects that I'm no longer at the optimum age for these museums. Part of me is in denial. They also had a pretty cool Tesla coil suspended from the ceiling.
Walking back from the museum I dodged skateboarders in Love Park, guerrilla gardeners in various empty lots, and found my way to the Navy Yard shuttle.
So it turns out that Philadelphia has the oldest navy yard in the country – even older than the country. It has been built on a few times since then, including a bunch of dry docks and a few gutted air craft carriers. But, for the most part, its industrial machinery is cold and its buildings empty. Trying to promote urban renewal, the city has granted tax breaks for innovative companies with a sustainability focus, including the one J works for. Urban Outfitters has also retrofitted a bunch of buildings down by the river with an ultra modern factory, complete with indoor gardens, art installations, skylights, and all the other stuff that finally seems to be gaining a foothold in some places it's desperately been needed for a long time.
We walked to the nearby stadium and, courtesy of a friend of J's, watched a baseball game between Philadelphia and Atlanta. From where we were sitting, we had a great view of the play but basically no idea of the score, which was just perfect. We understood the rules just well enough to have a vague idea of what was going on. A massive selection of food suppliers behind us kept us stocked with food and drink, and we enjoyed several hours to catch up on perhaps half a decade of news between us.
Just before it started to rain we strategically retreated and found our way back to the apartment where J and I studied our Australian accents with the help of renowned comedian Jim Jefferies.
Next morning I woke early but relatively refreshed. Eventually we set out for a food truck for a bacon and egg sandwich (health food!), and then walked to the Mutter museum. I had been once before, but they've moved some things around, and given a bunch of the placards a fairy tale theme, with all the awful horrific stuff left in. Which is appropriate, given the subject matter. Of course, the Mutter museum is the College of Surgeons' Museum of Abnormal Anatomy. Lots of skeletons, body parts in formaldehyde, and plenty of peculiarities and curiosities. J, who is not normally queasy, found the plasticized veins and arteries quite difficult to look at. Of course, I had all this stuff instead of Sesame Street as a kid, so I'll probably only have nightmares for a few weeks.
On the way back we stopped at the market, where I located an excellent olive and thyme loaf of bread to consume during our walk to the Liberty Bell and other assorted historical stuff of which I was vaguely aware. At some point we noticed that Benjamin Franklin's name was basically everywhere, and in honour of the great man, we read his letter of advice concerning older women. I was then entertained to discover that he had met Casanova when representing the new republic in France and they had discussed the issue of steering balloons. At the time, of course, the laws of fluid mechanics were not well understood and it was thought (despite evidence of ships at sea) that balloons were fixed in the wind. Barring external power or rapid rotation, this is basically true.
We headed back to the apartment for a quick nap, then went for a final afternoon walk to the Delaware river and a local antiques market, before I found my way to the station amid a sea of extraordinarily good looking young women enjoying the extraordinarily good weather, and headed out to the airport. The usual TSA theatre and hassle and I boarded the flight back home. Otherwise uneventful, we had some fun turbulence over the Rockies and lightning flashed out my window for nearly the entire flight. My customary welcome back to LA was complete when my pre-booked airport shuttle was 40 minutes late!