Tuesday, November 25, 2008


When I was in first grade, my class divided into three clubs during recess. The most elite of these clubs was the Cool Club, which, as near as I can tell, was dedicated to swaggering and avoiding anyone not cool enough to be in the Cool Club. Then, there was the Cootie Club, which was dedicated to avoiding anyone with cooties. The least prestigious organization was the Bat Club, which was dedicated to hanging upside down on the jungle gym.

I was in the Bat Club, until I got kicked out when it was discovered that I had cooties.

For the rest of the school year, I would wander around the schoolyard alone, gathering crabapples. That is, I was alone until Sarah joined our class--she, also, evidently, was infected. We sat under a tree and talked about how baleen is made out of keratin.

Last fall, I went to the reception for new Ph.D. candidates, of whom I was one. We were each given a mini-diploma, proving our candidacy. Provost Arthur T. Johnston made us promise to go to a quiet place and think about our accomplishments. We all said, "I promise." Some guy near me asked, "Can my quiet place be a bar?"

As I was packing to travel to the American Physical Society Division of Fluid Dynamics conference, I wasn't sure whether I could take my Silly Putty on the plane. I realized that, since it deforms continually under shear stress, it is a fluid, so I put it in the one quart zip-loc bag with my toothpaste and mouthwash. Then I realized that fluid dynamicists could be quite cruel to TSA workers by attempting to transport aerogels, shear-thickening fluids, viscoelastic polymers, and Jell-o. 

So far, this trip, I have seen two children on monkey leashes.

Only certain fruits can be eaten defiantly. For example, if a banana were to be eaten defiantly, it would result in choking. There are free green apples given out in the lobby of the La Quinta Inn where I'm staying. A man with a beard just grabbed an apple off of the tray in front of me and took a very defiant bite out of it.

As soon as I got to the conference center, I knew that I was in the company of real scientists because of how everyone is dressed. I can't quite explain it, but everyone looks just a little off. It's not as if there is anyone dressed like they're going to a sock hop, or wearing a jacket with leather patches on the elbows. Dad's theory is that most scientists only own one suit, and the old ones are still wearing the suits they got when they were grad students.

I have defined The Szatmary Interval to be the amount of time it takes for me to decide that a given talk is less comprehensible than French absurdism, and resume reading Voltaire.

I'm not sure why we need nametags. The people here aren't friendly enough to have a real conversation with a stranger. Not only that, but it's clear to everyone else in San Antonio that we're participating in a scientific conference, and not only because of how we're dressed.

I've been to Otakon, an anime convention. (I have since repented.) The people there talked about anime less than the people here talk about science.

Included in our swag bags were laser pointers. I immediately pulled mine out and flashed it around; I blinded a security camera. Then, I noticed that I was the only person in the lobby playing with a laser pointer.

Is it okay to email the people who don't show up to give their presentations, and let them know that I was offended that they didn't let anyone know they couldn't make it?

Yesterday, I saw something amazing. During the question time of one guy's talk, he was asked a question that he, evidently, didn't want to answer. He made eye contact with the one asking the question, waited a beat, and then looked away. Another person raised his hand, and asked another question, which the speaker answered. 

This was notable because only I and another person noticed that the speaker had just refused to answer a question. Everyone else was hypnotized.

Who would buy an APS t-shirt? I have only counted two people here wearing t-shirts, besides myself.

In the bathroom this morning, I saw the man at the sink next to me rinse his hands but not use soap. Fluid dynamicists, of all people, ought to know the effects of surfactants on surface tension!

I have started grading the presentations that I watch, docking points for staring at the screen, mumbling, using six colors on a single slide, having complete sentences on slides, and reading them aloud. Also, please, never end a presentation with a slide just saying "Questions?" or "Thank you."

I know that no one is going to go home and do their work any differently after having seen my presentation; I've not seen any presentation on something related enough to my work for it to affect what I do, either. All that we can do is convey a rough sense of the sort of problems we're looking at.

In the hotel, there are three elevators. If there are others waiting for an elevator with me, I ask people to guess which elevator will come first. Whoever picks the right elevator wins!


  1. Dear Alex, I would like to attend a conference with you.
    If ever we find one that combines fluid dynamics with medieval mysticism, let's go! --Ann

  2. You were in San Antonio last week? We sat in traffic there for almost two hours on Wednesday. It turns out that a road trip is not the ideal way to go from Maryland to Texas for Thanksgiving...