Friday, June 15, 2012

Sophie doesn't want to go to bed

Disclaimer: I should not be writing this, because it’s four oclock in the morning in France and I’ve been awake for almost 24 hours.  However, I may not get around to writing it at normal hours of the day.  Disclaimer over.

Hello all.  Sorry for the late entry…I did not realize just how late I was until I looked to see how many people had already posted.  Meu has picked up a ton of traffic since last summer.

As I think most of you know, I’m in Paris France for the summer, interning at the Kastler Brossel laboratory (a cold atoms group) at L’Ecole Normale Supérieure.  I got here this Monday, so it’s been a full work week.  Now, since I’m in France, you might be expecting a romanticized post with lots of beautiful pictures.  AIN’T YOU WRONG BABY.  First, I’ve taken five pictures thus far, most of which have come out horribly, and I forgot my usb cable to upload pictures.  Second, as cool as my stay has been these past days, it would be hard to describe it in a romanticized manner.  Mostly, it’s involved 1. Being hopelessly lost, 2. Soccer 3. Bars.

Like I said, got here Monday afternoon.  The CDG airport was somewhat terrifying.  For some reason, they had a system going where EVERY single person coming from a flight outside of France had to stand in one of three lines to show their passport and get their baggage.  While I was standing in line for 1.5 hours, I semi-befriended a 70-something year old woman from Thailand who prevented a couple from pushing past me in line and taking my place.  When we finally got to the baggage carousels, she said we should exchange contact info so that if I ever came to Thailand I could stay with her, and vise-versa.  I was stressed out/grateful/tired enough that I gave her my number before realizing that that was probably not the safest or smartest thing I’ve ever done.  I finally left the airport and took the RER to a station about a 15 minute walk from where I’m staying.  I managed to wonder back and forth for three hours before finding it.  Enter a week-long series of getting lost events, governed by a more or less poisson distribution (most notable poisson characteristic being that the occurrence of one getting lost event doesn’t seem to decrease or increase the chance I’ll get lost at any other point in time).  Now, I think Erin has already shown pictures of her apartment.  It’s really pretty.  Even if I get a usb cable, I’m probably not gonna show pictures of mine…it ain’t so pretty.  I also wasn’t given sheets, so I got my first experience at a French store trying to find the proper size sheets for the bed.

I started work on Tuesday.  I haven’t done any work in the lab yet; I’ve just been reading papers some of which I understand, some of which I do not.  It’s pretty cool stuff.  There’s also free espresso in the lab, which everyone drinks about 4-7 times a day; you have no idea how happy this espresso set-up  makes me.  The lab that I am working for predominantly studies bose-einstein condensate (a state of matter in which almost all bose particles are in the lowest possible energy state, at which point crazy shit goes down, and quantum effects become observable).  In order to achieve the condensate, you have to cool atoms down to ridiculously low temperatures on the order of micro-kelvin (incidentally, Martin Zwierlein and Wolfgang Ketterle do very similar work, and they are both very well known in my lab and in the cold-atom community in France at large).  In order to do this, you have to slow the atoms WAAAAAAAAAAAAYYYYY DOOOOOOOWWWWN, and trap them in some potential such that they can’t get away.  There are two very common methods currently used to do this:

1.      Doppler-cooling.  A single atom can be in one of many possible “quantum states” (or for that matter, a superposition of these states) many of which differ by some given amount energy; think orbitals that you learned about in high school chemistry.  If the atom is in the presence of light with a frequency corresponding to the difference in energy between two quantum levels (i.e if the frequency of the light is nu, the energy difference between the two levels is planck’s constant times nu), it can absorb a single photon of this light and subsequently transition from the lower quantum state to the higher one.  Thus, you can actually slow down an atom by getting it to absorb photons from a laser of the proper frequency, if the photons hit the atom in the direction opposite to its motion.  Sub-doppler cooling is a little more complicated set-up (due to the  Doppler shift in frequency for a moving atom, your lasers actually need to be tuned above or below the transition frequency of the atom, hence the name), where you have a bunch of counter-propagating lasers that hit the atom with photons in all directions, slowing it and pushing it to the center of your laser configuration.

2.      Magnetic trapping.  Normally, atoms have a lot of different quantum states that actually have the same energy.  By applying a magnetic field, you can get so-called “degenerate” levels to shift such that they now have different energies.  Now, different laser frequencies are needed for transitions between various levels.  By using a spatially varying magnetic field and taking advantage of the Doppler shift for your lasers, you can get a set-up where, if your atom moves to the left of your “trap”, the splitting in its levels is such that most of the photons it absorbs come from the left, thus pushing it back to the center of your laser/magnet configuration, and vise-versa if it goes to the right (mediocre explanation, I know…if you’re actually interested, shoot me a message and I’ll try to give a more thorough explanation.

Anyway, these two things combined together make a MOT (magneto-optical trap).  I’m not exactly sure what I will be doing, but it involves testing and characterizing one very specific part of the trap, and apparently it requires a lot of manual precision.  I’m a little (read: VERY) terrified that I’ll completely screw something up, considering that my hands shake such that I can barely hold a cup without dropping it, and I get the feeling that, since I’m from MIT, the land of gods so far as atomic physics is concerned, people will expect me to come right in being competent (HA).  At the same time I’m super excited to actually start working.

Two final things.  Last night, I finally met up with Erin, which was super fun.  We had dinner at a creperie, then she showed me her apartment (translation: gorgeous palace) and introduced me to two other very nice MIT students working at her school, ESPCI.  The four of us then went to a pub where an MIT alum group was hosting a “pub night”.  I think there were at least as many current students as alums.  Anyway, I will hopefully join Erin and her flat-mates to go salsa dancing this weekend, which should be a lot of fun. J

Final story (sorry, this post is already ridiculously long, but this story is just going to prolong it I’m afraid).  Other than my supervisor, the people in my lab are all male and 25-26 years old, except for one female.  They are very sweet and have made an effort to include me their out-of-work socialization.  This afternoon, they invited me to join them after work at a nearby bar and watch a soccer match between France and Ukraine (European championship is going on right now).  Here’s how the evening went.

6 pm.  We arrive at the bar, just in time for the start of the game.  Game is delayed until seven due to downpour of rain in Ukraine.  We all order beers in the meantime.  One of the grad students, Remi, talks to me in French about regional French accents, European school system, and drinking.

7 pm.  The game starts.  To my surprise, I actually really like watching soccer.  Unlike most American sports, there is more playing time than time-outs.  Every except me orders more beers.

7:30 pm.  The one German in the group, Tillman, arrives.  The conversation switches to English.  France scores two goals within a matter of minutes.  Everyone except me orders more beers.

7:45 pm.  Halftime.  Remi and I talk about chain smoking.  People go to the bathroom.

8 pm.  Game resumes.  Tillman is surprised that the French soccer players slap each other on the butt.  He says that in Germany, “we only greet women like that”, and points out that the other guys in the lab don’t greet each other that way.  Another member, Vincent, tells Tillman that if he came into lab earlier in the morning, he might see a different picture.  Another member, Igor, shouts “poutain” a lot.  Everyone except me orders more beers.

8:30.  No more scoring.  A few people order more beers.

8:45.  Game’s over, France wins 2-0.  Remi invites everyone over to his apartment for dinner and “drinking” trivial pursuit.

9:15 We arrive in the 15th arrondisement, and stop at the supermarket, where every possible form of alcohol is purchased, as well as baguettes, caviar, delicious French cheeses, paprika potato chips, blini and frozen pizzas.  We then head to the apartment

9:30-11.  We eat delicious French cheeses, etc. and drink wine/beers while watching a second game, Sweden vs. England. The guys check their current places in a betting pool they participate in.  Around 10:30, I stop drinking wine.  Igor starts making mojitos for the rest.

11-1.  We play trivial pursuit.  I don’t remember if any of you have played this game with me, but suffice to say I’m bad enough at it when I haven’t had anything to drink, and I’m playing in English.  So tonight, I was only able to answer two questions for my team: one about the tv show Friends, and one about Bill Clinton.

1:15 Another game of Trivial pursuit commences.  I decide to head back.  One guy, David, walks part of the way back with me and directs me to the nearest metro station.  Just before we part ways he says “by the way, I think the last subway leaves at 1, so you might have to walk back.  Paris isn’t that big of a city though, so you should be fine”

11:30  David is right.  Commence another getting-lost event, trying to find railway tracks that I can follow back.  Event involves a 30 minute detour walking along the side of a highway before realizing that this probably isn’t right.

3:15  Get back to where I’m staying.  Decide to be more vigilant about checking when public transportation stops running.

Ok, that’s about it.  Sun’s starting to rise now, and birds are chirping (HA, guess I stuck in a bit of romanticism after all).  I should go to bed.  Miss you guys. 



  1. Oh my goodness...SWEETIE! PLEASE BE SAFE! this post terrified me a little bit.

    anyway, physics is awesome and soccer is called football and football is AWESOME and you are awesome and I DEMAND PICTURES!



  2. I'm sure we can manage to finagle some Sophie pictures into existence... also, seems like my lab is the only one that isn't a swimming pool of coffee. I guess I don't really have a major problem with that as I don't drink that much coffee anyway, but I wouldn't mind having it available more than once a week :/

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  4. Anna: the post wasn't meant to scare you, it was meant to be somewhat overdramatic. :) I don't think French people actually drink the entire weekend or expect you to do so, and the probability of getting lost events (at least, long getting lost events) is almost certainly decreasing somewhat.