Harvard and Boston: first impressions

So here I am at last, taking a sabbatical from WIT to spend a year as a visiting fellow at Harvard University.  I’m not at the physics department (surprise) but at the Science, Technology and Society Program of the Kennedy School of Government, studying issues of science policy. Quite a move sideways and it’s early days so more on that later…

Harvard University is as lovely as you’d expect, beautiful redbrick buildings and quads. The main campus is almost entirely undergraduate teaching and accommodation with the famous postgraduate schools ringed around it a few blocks away. They don’t have the system of separate colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, so the campus looks more like dear old Trinity College Dublin than Oxbridge.

Harvard Gate

As far the city of Boston, I’ve got familiar with it quite quickly. I had to because the ‘campus accommodation’ I booked in adavnce turned out to be totally inappropriate in almost every way (in a different part of the city for a start). So I got to see plenty of Boston as I spent the first two weeks trudging around looking for alternate accommodation. I arrived in the middle of a heatwave and that didn’t help either. About half the city seemed to be in the same boat; the streets have been full of overheated students dragging their beds and sofas from one place to another (Americans don’t seem to believe in furnished apartments, is it something to do with the pioneer mentality?)

All of this didn’t stop me noticing that Boston is a beautiful, vibrant city, very European in many ways. Fascinating culture, diverse neighbourhoods, endless parks along the river and then of course there’s leafy Cambridge. Recently, I’ve been staying in Brookline village, a beautiful throwback to smalltown 1950s America. It’s quite a commute to work though, so this evening I’m packing my bags one last time and moving to a posh penthouse in a typical New England house in Cambridge, midway between Harvard Square and MIT (available for an unspeakable amount of money, but that’s the norm here).

Brookline village

A typical New England house in leafy Cambridge

Another big surprise is the public transport ; you can reach almost any part of the city with the superbly networked tram, subway and bus system, all integrated with one travel card – far better than the equivalent in any Irish city. It reminds me more of Germany than of Ireland. In fact, as a general first impression, Boston reminds me more of Berlin than Dublin (this is a reference to the famous ‘Boston or Berlin’ discussions so beloved of Irish politicans). It’s not just the transport, but people’s attitude and organisation. There’s something very Germanic about the way everybody is incredibily polite but firm and firmly organised. Whether you’re applying for a ID card, a phoneline or a lease, the rules are the rules; almost everything is automated, computed and done according to the book with no exceptions. Another similarity to Germany is the attitude to all things Irish – I’ve never known such a positive reaction to an Irish accent!

That said, there are some obvious differences to Europe. One is that smoking is dead here. You just can’t, even outside most cafes and pubs. Astonishing how a whole population can change their mind on an issue like this. (If finally convinced, will Americans one day take the same attitude to CO2 emissions?). Less pleasant is the issue of health insurance; my health insurance here (compulsory) is over ten times what I pay for european cover. So I can see why Obama is trying to change things. (But why an Irish health minister wants to imitate the current American health system is anyone’s guess).

Similarily, undergraduate college fees are crazily expensive. A different order of magnitude from the european system.  I know at least one CEO who works a second job at weekends in order to send his child to a good college. It’s hard to see how this doesn’t lead to a two-tier system…

All in all, my first impressions of Boston are very positive and I’m looking forward to spending time here. Best of all, the heatwave is over and ‘fall’ is approaching …to be followed by a snowy winter, can’t wait


Filed under Science and society

10 responses to “Harvard and Boston: first impressions

  1. Some major US corporations will pay for an employee’s kids’ college fees provided the employee is at the level of VP or above. I think Motorola used to do it. The funny thing about the wealth split in the educational system is that Gladwell’s analysis in “Outliers” demonstrates that Nobel prizewinners don’t necessarily graduate from the “top” schools but often end up there later in their careers. It’s not like the students in “2nd tier” schools are learning nothing.

  2. cormac

    No, I’m sure not Shane- but it’s a strange system all the same. I suspect the fact that many high-level employees get both health insurance and college fees paid by their employer severly distorts the market – and results in extremely high costs for all. I hope we don’t go for that system in Ireland..hope all is well at WIT Cormac

    • All is good in WIT. I was just talking to Michael McCarthy a few days ago about how we could really do with organising a few public science and engineering lectures here. We don’t do enough of that. Indeed, I don’t think I’ve been to any since yours on cosmology and Michael McGettrick which I seem to remember was on the music of the primes, although I could be mistaken. Anyway, hope you’re having fun.

  3. Sarah

    Welcome to the States! Lovely post. This is a sideways slide for you, professionaly, eh. Looking forward to your updates.

  4. cormac

    Thanks Sarah! Yes, it’s quite a change, but that’s what sabbaticals are for..

  5. Miriam

    Glad to see that you are keeping up the blog. Out of curiosity – did you bring your fiddle along with you or are you keeping to the “I do not play, between October and May” rule?

  6. Hey Miriam, I did bring the cat, but so far I’ve just been playing a little Bach in the evenings..we’ll see..

  7. Miriam

    Hi Cormac – where’s the best place for sea swimming around Dungarvan? (Glenwalk heading there this w/e.) I’m make humble apologies for blatant misuse of this blog… but that would preclude me from future misuse…

  8. Frank Walsh

    Glad to see you are settled in in Boston, a beautiful European-style city (I lived in Andover MA for 7 years in the 1980’s). Have you tried indoor tennis yet – its far better than outdoor tennis in Dunmore East in Ireland!
    Happy new year!


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