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St Andrew’s day and winter blues

November 30 2013 , Written by Wing-Fai Thi

Google has a cunning way to teach trivia to the world via his doodles. Today’s doodle celebrates St Andrew’s day, the national day of Scotland. The Scots have devised a genius scheme to beat the autumn-winter blues. Winter blues is particularly acute among foreign post-docs from low latitude countries. Not everyone likes those short, rainy days. 

The Scottish winter festival starts today on November 30th and will culminate with the Burns Night on January 25th with a high-point during the Hogmanay’s celebration week between Christmas and the New year.

After living for sometime in a place, I start to develop new habits that I miss when I leave. One of them is to sit in a comfortable armchair at one of the many cafés in Edinburgh on a rainy windy Sunday afternoon and read books with a nice cup of Cappuccino. Those cafés are full of families enjoying a Sunday brunch and students preparing their exams. A few of them even claim that J. K. Rowlings wrote her Harry Potter books while drinking coffee there. The story is that J. K. Rowlings was too poor to put the heating on in her flat and worked in cafés. In an interview she mentioned that she is still writing at cafés but that now she can afford not drinking them. In fact she can just buy the coffee place itself! The wealthiest woman in town is a writer, great isn’t?

The only equivalent I found in Grenoble is the Bookworm Café (92 rue Saint-Laurent). The place has the cozy feel of a British café with a comfortable couch and armchairs, a selection of teas and homemade scorns. The place is run by native-speakers and has a collection of books that you can read while having your tea or coffee. You can also join the book club. The sad news is that it is closing down soon. The owners are looking for a new location. There will be any English-friendly café before Spring 2014 in Grenoble! How such a student-town like Grenoble has only one (and soon no) place like that! Since there is no native-speaker anymore at my Institute, it is a place for me to practice my English.

Strange enough, Grenoble has been designated the best student town in France by the magazine “L’Etudiant” (http://www.letudiant.fr/etudes/rendezvous--etudier-en-region/les-villes-ou-il-fait-bon-etudier.html). I looked at the criteria. I agree that Grenoble is one of the best towns for outdoor activities, has a pretty good public transport system, has bike paths, … Maybe on average Grenoble is the best town but certainly not on the aspect I discussed. My suspicion is that the journalists applied blindly the statistics at hand without taking the human appreciation factor into account.

St Andrew’s day and winter blues
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ALMA et encore ALMA

November 29 2013 , Written by Wing-Fai Thi

Two ALMA proposals. My original plan was zero. Usually zero is bad. Getting a zero mark at an exam is bad.  Having zero euro on his bank account is bad. But for me this zero would have mean freedom, freedom to enjoy my week-end. How am I ending up writing two? If accepted the projects will start at best at the end of 2014. Great! The only thing that I know for sure that will happen in 2014 is that my current contract will finish. For the rest, 2014 is as blurred as the world without my glasses.

Off-course my mind is more inclined in finishing a paper or writing this blog than to start the proposals. A scientific writer’s block. Maybe I should write quirky proposals. At least I would have more fun writing them.

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Coldplay - The Scientist

November 28 2013 , Written by Wing-Fai Thi

The interpretation of song lyrics depends on your state of mind and on your own experience. I should not listen to this song. Maybe because it reminds me some of my past mistakes. But this is a beautiful song. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rLm_aSP369M

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ALMA, the trigger of emotions and stress

November 27 2013 , Written by Wing-Fai Thi

Writing observing proposals is stressful but I do not understand why people feel obliged to do it. Perhaps they want to make revenge on selection committees by inundating them with proposals to read and judge. Astronomy is not a dictatorial system. We are free. You are free to stress yourselves, fine. But please do not stress me as well (as a co-investigator). Someone misread a sentence in an email and just went mad at me. Why so much emotion? First nobody should extrapolate someone else’s thoughts from one single sentence hastily writen. Second, astronomy is about science, cold emotionless science. I am emotionally attached to people but not to my papers, proposals, or ideas.  I was certainly in the past. This proved to bring me only worries and problems.

I was planning to write about my encounter with a copyist who is specialised in Vermeer and especially in the Astronomer and the Geographer but it seems that I need to write a few ALMA-related emails. The emails will be dry. I will just expose my view objectively without emotion or emphasis.

What’s a pity that ALMA is not just a cute Dominican-American woman with a big “a..e”. If I had to become mad about ALMA, I would prefer her to be an attractive woman rather than a telescope.

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The new doctors (the real ones, not the incarnations of Doctor Who!)

November 27 2013 , Written by Wing-Fai Thi

2014 will be their year, whatever they choose to do. Many will live in a new country, meet new people, face new difficulties, but also encounter new opportunities.

But we are still in 2013, a few more weeks to go. And a few of PhD students have to defend their thesis. Not everything went as smoothed as planned but soon this will be over.

Someone at my institute is experiencing at the same time three of the most stressful situations in life, moving to a new country, preparing her PhD defence in Germany, where it is actually a real exam, and starting a new job.  And being out of her comfort zone away from your friends and family just exacerbates the strain.

Déjà vu. I am trying to cheer her up as much as those who cheered me up when I was finishing my thesis. And I know her only for two weeks!

One of my (many) wishes for 2014 is to see all the new doctors with a big smile next year! Especially Frau Dokter …!

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ALMA and the most enviable way to become a professor at MIT

November 25 2013 , Written by Wing-Fai Thi Published on #book reviews

What means “ALMA” for you? If you are an astronomer, you immediately think of the Atacama Large Millimeter Array in Chile. But if you are not, it may be the tunnel in Paris where Lady Diana had her fatal accident. If you are an historian, you may recognize the location of a battle during the Crimean war. For me, the three would come into my mind but since I read the book “This is how to loose her” (in French “Guide du loser amoureux”) by Junot Diaz, ALMA is a Dominican-American girl with a big “a..e”.

The first thing that attracted me at the bookstore was the jacket and the title. Something of a paradox.  From the title I thought about a cheesy romantic novel. But then the author received a Pulitzer price in 2007.

When I read a random chapter (actually the one about ALMA), it was a punch on my face. The style is simply exhilarating, with no compromise, no political correctness, just the raw thoughts of an urban cultivated Dominican-American.  What is the book about? The book is a collection of stories about an infidel man living in Boston. Not simply an infidel man but a University professor called Yunior.

Some journalists praised the prose and the style but criticized the depiction of the female characters. Should the author of a fiction stay politically correct while the personality of his characters requires a more controversial style? The author just wanted to stay true. At the end not all women behave like in the book and most men would not cheat on their girlfriend 50 times in six years! I just enjoyed the book.

But for me the most mind-blowing fact is that the author is professor of creative writing at MIT. He is “allowed” and paid to write such a book with such a style so far from our boring articles, reports, and proposals. He has an enviable position but well he has such a talent!

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Painting and astronomy part I, The Astronomer

November 24 2013 , Written by Wing-Fai Thi

I lived a few years in the Netherlands, where my appreciation of the Dutch painters from the old masters to the members of the Stijl grew. But the most famous painting that concerns directly astronomy can be admired in Paris.  

Johannes Vermeer has produced a painting called the Astronomer (oil on canvas, 1668) on displayed at the Louvre museum, which together with the Geographer at the Städelsches Kunstinstitut in Frankfurt, form a pair. Both paintings are signed by the artist, a rare occurrence, and show a scientist working in his cabinet. Representations of working cabinets were a frequent theme in Dutch paintings in the seventeenth century. The name of the subject, an actual astronomer of that time or just a model, is unknown. But the scientific instruments and books depicted in the painting have been indentified. A celestial globe crafted by Jodocus Hondius (1600) and a book in Astronomy and Geography book written by Adriaensz Metius (Institutiones Astronomicae Geographicae, 1621). Three copies of the globe are preserved in collections in the US, Italy, and the Netherlands and a couple of copies of the book are kept in a few US University libraries. Interestingly, little is known about the technical chart seen above the globe. The painting illustrates the mastery of Vermeer in scene composition as our eyes are drawn toward the vanishing point, which is exactly at the geometrical center of the piece. If you are an astronomer with a keen interest in esoteric meanings in pieces of art, you can also try to decipher the allegory behind The Astronomer. I may have a few ideas for a thriller. 

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Today is the day of the Doctor

November 23 2013 , Written by Wing-Fai Thi

Doctor Who was created 50 year ago. There are many reasons why I like the show but I would rather talk about the first time I was introduced to it.

I appreciate that in the TV show The Big Bang the scriptwriters have to push to the extreme the personality traits (see a previous blog). A reason why I rarely laugh is that there are situations that parallel my own experience but which happened the opposite way that is portrait in the show.

In the 14th episode of season 5 “The Beta Test Initiation”, Leonard and Penny have started dating again. They both sit in the apartment watching a Doctor Who episode before Penny remarks that she is expecting a more “traditional” outing for a date. I think that it would have been much funnier if it were Penny, the down-to-earth beauty, who introduces Leonard, the geek, to the Doctor Who show instead. And I will tell you why.

Here is a script that is based on a real story but that I have fictionalized to a large extent to keep private things private.

In this story there are two characters: Daniel, a non-British scientist who has recently started his job; and Adele, a beautiful Scottish woman who works outside academia. The place: a train station in Edinburgh. Time: autumn 6.30 pm on a Saturday. Event: second date.

Daniel has booked a table at a new restaurant in town. The two meet.

- Great. We have some time before the dinner. We can enjoy a drink at this new bar on George street.

- Maybe later. You told me that you live nearby.

- Yes.

- Let’s go to your place right now!

Astonished, he led her to the apartment. By the time he turned the door open, she has removed her boots and as soon as she entered the apartment, dropped her coat and asked:

- Where’s the remote control?

He pointed at the black plastic device on the couch.

- Come with me.

She grabbed him by his arm and jumped onto the coach, switched on the TV to BBC 1.

- We are just on time to watch Doctor Who.

- Who?

- Don’t you know Doctor Who? You are supposed to be an astronomer, aren't you?

He looked at the screen and saw something like an old British phone booth but blue (This turns out later to be a Police station) swirling into some kind of warmhole.

- David Tennant. He is so gorgeous!

- The only Tennant I know is the lager.

- He is a Scottish actor and plays the Doctor.

After a moment, she finally explained herself.

- Sorry Daniel, I forgot about the show when you were asking for the date.

They watched the show together and went on to the more “traditional” part of the date where Daniel and Adele kept talking about the show.

On that day, Daniel became a fan of Doctor Who and still is.

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A little story

November 22 2013 , Written by Wing-Fai Thi

I had once a little mirror, a magical one. When I starred at it I could see dark spots. There were my fears. There were my worries. There were my bad feelings. I just needed to wipe the mirror and all were gone. Life was so easy.  But one day I dropped it. Shattered. Now I have to face my demons by myself. No more magical help. It was the wish of the magical mirror.

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On writing this blog

November 21 2013 , Written by Wing-Fai Thi

Science news articles and blogs are about recent discoveries.  The materials are available, being the press releases and the original articles. On the other hand, writing a blog about daily life makes that I have to be even more aware than usual of my surroundings, the people with whom I interact, and of my own behaviour. This is the raw material for my blog.

I am starting to make notes on what I have seen, did, said, or heard. In hindsight, this is starting to trouble me. I am becoming more and more conscious of people’s flaws, tics, and idiosyncrasies but also of my own. I can recall the statements I made biased by my own cognitive biases (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_bias). Cognitive biases are dangerous because they affect our way of thinking without us noticing it.

The scary thing is that as a scientist I am supposed to be trained to think correctly (or not?). At a public conference, cognitive sociologist Gérald Bronner made it clear: “Even as a cognitive scientist, I make a lot of mistakes due to my biases. The only difference I have with respect to the others is that I am aware of it”.


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