Archive for September, 2011|Monthly archive page

It’s science!

Sunday, September 18th, 2011

Had the pleasure of attending some of the Stephen Hawking Center events at Perimeter Institute today. The new building is very Escheresque–up and down stairs and multiple hallways and little courtyards where you least expect them. Good thing they put in lifts; otherwise, Mr Hawking himself would have a hard time getting there.

We attended a public lecture by George Dyson, who, when faced with the spectre of his father, Freeman (awesome little  man), and his sister, Esther, buggered off to Vancouver at the age of 16 to build canoes. Of course, he came back into the fold as a science historian, especially of digital science.

Dyson presented a very accessible history of digital science at his lecture, enhanced with wonderfully human artifacts from his research, including logs from ENIAC  (computer error, not human!!; I give up!) and memos about people stealing sugar for their tea. He revealed the direct links between what was designed in the early days of computers and what we have today–we haven’t changed the blueprints, so to speak, we’ve just made things smaller and faster. And my geek-type friends appreciated that he focused on operations and the “how” we did it, not just the “thinking” about it.

Right after that, we did the tour, the Escher stairs, and so on. Lots of minimalism, and I think we agreed the only thing we didn’t like were some odd, scratchy-looking rug tiles in the common areas. The community outreach was very well done. Random Hawking videos in meeting rooms, facts  & figures on chalkboards, and “ask a physicist” opportunities in the sitting areas. You could even talk to the architects (and maybe ask them about the ugly rugs…)

We also got in for the Julie Payette presentation. She has a good sense of humour, and the videos & images she brought with her were pretty impressive. Some “day in the life” of living on the space station, and lots about what Earth looks like from space. The ones that stayed with me are spacewalkers stuck by the feet on the end of the Canadarm (you have to lock them in so they don’t wander off into the dark). And the “little blue planet” ones–which Julie used to deliver her main message: “Borders are imaginary and you can’t see them from space.”

When asked whether she worried about the risks of being an astronaut, she said she saw the lunar landing when she was young, and despite the fact that she was a girl, in Montreal, who couldn’t speak English, she knew she wanted to do that, and her parent didn’t laugh. They told her to start working on it.

I sat back and pondered once again what the dignitaries and visiting speakers must think when they come to Waterloo. What kind of freakish place is this? That thousands of people flock to a center for theoretical physics…