Category Archives: Travel

Stuck at the airport: that in-between time again

I’m still hoping to get back to Ireland for Christmas Day, but it’s now midday on Christmas Eve and I haven’t made it any further than Boston airport. The problem is, as everybody knows, many European airports like Dublin and Heathrow are experiencing large snowfalls and feezing conditions this week, and simply can’t keep the runways clear; planes can’t get in or out which causing travel chaos.

‘What? Snow in winter?’, you cry sarcastically. Yes, but heavy snow in December is relatively uncommon in countries like Ireland and the UK. Worse, it comes at a time of huge passenger volumes. Many airports simply can’t cope with the double whammy, with knockon effects for all air travel. Delays at Heathrow, in particular, have caused chaos at airports around Europe and elsewhere.

Dublin airport in the snow

As for me, I’m happy enough. I like these in-between times, where one is neither working nor on holiday. A good time to think. Also, Logan airport is very nice, sensibly divided into small terminals (unlike Dublin airport). Of course, travel delays are relatively easy if you don’t have tired kids, financial worries, or have to sleep on the airport floor. Here in Boston, Aer Lingus passengers are being put up in the nearby Hilton while we wait for the next available flight; pretty decent, considering the airline can hardly be held responsible for the weather.

I’m using the time to read through Piers Bizony’s ATOM, the only interesting book I could find in the tiny airport bookstore. The book is based on the excellent BBC TV series of the same name and it’s a very entertaining read, if a little surprising. From the title, I had expected a brief history of particle physics for the layman; from the discovery of the nucleus to the quark etc. Instead, the book concentrates mainly on the story of the evolution of quantum physics. Which is no harm. But it does remind me that there are remarkably few books out there that tell the story of the discovery of the atom and subatomic particles as a simple phenomenological tale . Hmm…

Something to think about. Right now, it’d be nice to get home sometime soon.


We’re finally about to get on a plane to Dublin (arriving 3 am Christmas Day!) and I still haven’t finished Bizony’s book.  I’ve enjoyed my airport sojourn but others are less sanguine. Some passengers are utterly fed up and are less than polite to the airline staff.  It’s amazing how some need someone to blame in situations like this, even when it’s perfectly obvious that it’s weather, not the airline, that is the problem. Human nature I guess…


Filed under Particle physics, Travel, Uncategorized

Escape from Cambridge

I like to get out of Cambridge at the weekends if I can. The place is amazing during the week, with a non-stop round of interesting seminars at Harvard Kennedy School and physics department, not to mention the seminars at the MIT physics and engineering departments one T-stop away – but it’s nice to cross the river to see Boston city proper at the weekends.

On Saturday nights, I play in a trad session in the Littlest Bar on Broad St in the heart of the financial district. It’s  a great session with good music and friendly players but it’s strange to get off the T from flat Cambridge and be surrounded by tall skyscrapers, gives me vertigo every time. Fun to visit at weekends but I couldn’t live downtown.

The financial district in downtown Boston

Rockin’ session at the Littlest Bar: photo Sara Piazza

On Sunday, I often take a trip to the Beacon Hill area of Boston, exploring the coffee shops along historic Charles St and walking along the beautiful park by the Charles river. Today, I ventured a bit further for a Christmas do with some relatives in the Backbay area of Boston. It’s a beautiful part of the city with lovely old houses, parks and not too far from Boston Common. Although the T makes it easy to reach anywhere within Boston city, I try to make a point of walking around the city and today I decided to see if I could walk home from Backbay. Right around the corner was historic Boston Symphomy Hall and from there it was a short walk along Mass Avenue, across Harvard bridge and back to MIT and finally back to Cambridge centre – all within 40 minutes.

Boston Symphony Hall, home of BSO

It’s extraordinary how small and eclectic this city is.


Filed under Travel

A typical day at Harvard

What’s a typical day at Harvard like? A good few people have asked me this. Truth is, I have no idea; but my own working day here is pretty busy.

I usually start the day online in my apartment; Boston  is five hours behind Ireland (actually four this week because European clocks went back last weekend), so it makes sense to deal with email/college issues at home immediately after breakfast. This little job has an annoying habit of taking up a lot more time than it should (what is it with email nowadays?) and this morning was no exception.

Turns out a book review I recently sent off to Physics World Magazine missed the agreed deadline because of problems with my email server. Marvellous. That took a while to sort out, as did the usual list of college administrative tasks. In particular I’m currently trying to organise a physics class I will give to WIT students from Harvard by videolink – an interesting technological challenge but of course I forgot about the hour change when booking a conference room!

Then it’s a 10 minute walk along beautiful leafy Harvard St to the Kennedy School, for the weekly seminar of our Science and Technology Studies circle. These talks are an important part of the STS activity at Harvard and there is always plenty of serious discussion afterwards. Today, Allison MacFarlane of George Mason University gave a talk on nuclear power; ‘A Free for All? Impacts of Emerging Nuclear Countries’ was a talk on the thorny issue of the acquisition of nuclear energy by countries not currently in the nuclear club. The talk focused on the reasons why such countries desire nuclear power (energy economics, energy security, prestige etc) and the issues perceived by current members of the club (reactor safety, waste disposal, weapons proliferation). One big surprise was the number of countries declaring an interest; the speaker concentrated on the case of Jordan, Indonesia, Turkey, Iran and the UAE  but there were many many more….I had no idea.

After the talk,  it was straight into our weekly Science, Power, and Politics reading group for STS fellows. This continued our review of science, citizenship and democracy.  For this discussion we had studied papers such as ‘A Question of Europe‘ by S. Jasanoff (in Designs on Nature:  Science and Democracy in Europe and the United States ) and ‘Science and the Political Imagination in Contemporary Democracies‘ by Y. Ezrahi, (in States of Knowledge, Jasanoff, ed.); the  two-hour discussion focused on science and democracy, in particular science policy and citizenship in the context of the  European Union. If you think physics is difficult, you should try this stuff..

A run across the quad

After this session, I had to run – literally – from the Kennedy School up to the Harvard Physics Department on the main campus for a talk on astrophysics.  How did the first stars and black holes form? was an excellent talk by Avi Loeb on the formation of the earliest stars and galaxies. The lecturer presented a masterly overview of current theoretical work in computer modelling of  galaxy and black hole formation,  the fit between theory and experiment for the case of the spectrum of cosmic hydrogen, and the importance of data from the next generation of large telescopes.  If you want to more on this subject, go and buy his book.

I particularly admired the way the speaker carefully described the assumptions underlining the simulations i.e. the basic assumptions of the Lambda CDM model used ( see here for the basics of this model). Theoreticians often have to make assumptions for their models, which is perfectly ok as as long as one doesn’t lose sight of the assumptions being made!  One oddity: in his opening remarks, Loeb made a few cracks about the speculative nature of string theory; I was quite surprised, given Harvard’s strong reputation in this area. Indeed, noted string theorist Lisa Randall was in the audience, among others, but no-one seemed to take offence – perhaps they are all concerned that too many young theorists are heading in this direction.

It is 6 pm by the time I get back to the office and the day’s work just starting. Tomorrow morning, we have our Science and Technology Studies fellow’s meeting, where STS fellows take turns to present their work to each other for discussion in closed session.  In the afternoon, there is  a talk on dark matter in MIT by Paul Schechter I’m really looking forward to. How does anybody get any work done in this place?

P.S. On second thoughts I’m too tired for serious work. I”ll go and fool around on the web in Lamont – my favourite library whose restaurant is open 24 hours !


Filed under Science and society, Travel

It´s hot in Barcelona

This week I´m spending a few days with friends in Sitges, a summer resort just outside Barcelona. Its a lovely resort, but one thing the trip has confirmed for me is that I´m just not made for sun holidays.

I spend much of the time avoiding the Spanish sun, as it is just too severe for Irish skin from the hours of 12 -4. Even out of the sun, the temperature is bothersome – the shortest walk saps huge amounts of energy. That said, the swimming is superb and I´m getting plenty of it. The rest of the time I´m wandering around the town swaddled up in sunhat, shades, silly clothes and shoes – much like a toddler on a skitrip!

The resort of Sitges

We took the train in to Barcelona yesterday. What a fantastic city. Absolutely beautiful – quite a bit like Paris in its buildings and splendour, but more relaxed somehow. Again, a lot of walking around in the heat – it nearly killed me, but defnitely worth it. Next time, we´ll take the open-top bus tour, like normal people.

Then back to Sitges in the evening. Another aspect of sun culture I don´t get is having huge meals late at night that go on for hours. I just feel tired and unfit. I need something to do – gimme a surf holiday anytime.

Ah well, back to Dublin on Wednesday. I hear it´s raining there . Oh heaven.


Less sun today, thank God, so we´re just lazing around the resort in between swims. According its wikipedia entry, Sitges is the Spansih equivalent to St Tropez. Hmm. It is beautiful, but very laid back. Not that big a buzz around last night that I could see  – no doubt the weekends are crazy.

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Filed under Travel