Next stop on the string theory journey - Amsterdam. I've just (almost finished) my week and a half here in the Netherlands, and I'm sitting in Schiphol airport. I had a really nice time, but it's about time to be done with EuroStrings (a.k.a. Strings@Amsterdam). Not because it wasn't fun, but just because it was pretty tiring - sitting through 34 talks in one week will do that, I guess.
My Amsterdam adventure started last Wednesday with my arrival in the evening, excitement at how fun Amsterdam looked from the airport shuttle, and subsequent crushing disappointment that the hotel I had booked (based on conference recommendations) was not immediately in the city centre (note my Eurocentric spelling of center - how authentic!). In the end it turned out to be fine - it was quite close by tram/bus to the centre, and even not that bad by walking. Still, it would have been nice to be closer and not be forced to commute to the fun.
Anyway, Kristen arrived the next morning to meet me for some Amsterfun. I won't describe everything we ended up doing, but I'll list the highlights. The Van Gogh museum was awesome - really an ideal size for someone who burns out relatively quickly at art museums (should that be museei? for some reason that sounds better to me). Plus I love van Gogh. The city itself was just really beautiful - there are canals (gracht) everywhere, and it's just so appealing. Venice of the north, kind-of-thing. Most of the time we spent walking around just soaking up the city. There's also a great improv show called Boom Chicago, which was reasonably priced, and absolutely hilarious. I was rolling on the ground laughing, and I ended up giving myself a headache from the hilarity. One of the unintentional funny moments, though, was that there was a group of dutch people sitting right in front of us, and from the start it was clear that the humor was lost on them. They were dead silent and not laughing while the rest of the audience was cracking up. I don't know whether they were just really prudish, or whether the dutch sense of humor isn't up to standard (although there were a lot of other dutch people in the audience who were loving it), but they were just not enjoying the show. To the point where they just got up and left during the intermission. They left their ticket (which had their names on it) on the table, and I picked that up for a souvenir - a reminder of the dangers of taking yourself too seriously. I'm not sure exactly what danger I'm talking about, but I'm sure it's there.
Probably the most noticeable part of the Amsterdamian landscape (aside from the canals) were the bikes. They were absolutely EVERYWHERE. I thought I'd seen people riding bikes in NYC, or in Cambridge, or anywhere, but these guys REALLY take it seriously. The bike paths along the street were hardcore - there was almost nowhere that didn't have very explicit bike paths, as well as special stop lights specifically for bicyclists. These lights were actually somewhat difficult to get the hang of because they were set up differently than normal stop lights for cars (also because I'm incompetent I think - KB had no trouble understanding them). Apparently, with 750,000 people living in Amsterdam, there are over 1 million bikes - like I said, they take it very seriously. So in order to have a legitimate Amsterdam experience, Kristen and I HAD to rent bikes and tool around the city. And I have to say, it was totally worth it. It's so convenient that I never felt at odds with the vehicular traffic (as opposed to my brief attempts to bike in NYC, which included multiple life-flashing episodes). And we were able to see much more of the surrounding area than we would have otherwise. I heartily approve of the abundance of bicycles here.
After Kristen left on Monday, the strings meeting began. It was quite an enjoyable conference, with lots of interesting speakers, lots of nice people, and some very good talks. I would say my only complaint was that there were perhaps too many talks - with a few exceptions, each talk could only be half an hour, which for those of you who are not scientists, is really not enough time to give a decent amount of background for non-expert members of the audience (by non-expert I mean people who don't work on a specific topic within string theory - of course a certain amount of background must always be assumed, but there's so many topics in the field, and so varied and complicated, that unless you're working directly on some topic, you can't be an expert). So many of the talks that were not in my area of expertise were lost on me. But overall it was all very interesting.
I also managed to meet many nice and interesting people, which is really the point of these conferences, I think. It's all about networking, I think - which I generally hate. But it was made much easier with the addition of a little but of alcohol at the reception and dinner - social lubrication had it's intended effect. Perhaps the coolest moment for me was when I was talking at the final banquet to Vijay Balasubramanian (a leader in my field, who is a professor at U Penn, and ALSO happens to have a full professorship there in neuroscience - smart, busy guy). He was a speaker at the meeting (probably the best one) and of course I knew who he was anyway because he's so famous. But when I introduced myself as Alex Hamilton from University of Cape Town, he made two comments - one, he knows Jeff, so he made small talk about that and said to say hi, and two (which totally blew my mind) he knew who I was from work I'd done with my advisor, Dan Kabat. Wow - I mean, of course he would know Dan, who's relatively well known in the field. And I'm not even shocked that he knew about our work - people read papers that relate to their work, especially if they know the author (i.e., Dan). But I have no idea how he would not only pick up my name from that, let alone REMEMBER who I was and be able to place me from a random introduction. I was both extremely impressed with his memory and very honored that he would remember. It was a big moment in my academic career.
Anyway, that's enough about the conference. But let me just end with a comment on my general experience with Europe. DAMN, but it's expensive here. Of course, everyone knows that England, and especially London, is outrageous. But I found Amsterdam to also be unreasonable - even more expensive to go out in than NYC. All this time I have been under the impression that New York ranked somewhere high up on the list of expensive places. But this is apparently only true in the States. It appears to me that Europe in general is just over the top. Perhaps it is just because the Euro is so strong right now that it makes the dollar and the rand unspendable. But even the Europeans I met there seemed to think that Europe was becoming crazy, so who knows. All I know is that this trip is starting to break my bank. At least I can get the bulk of it reimbursed since it has been business traveling. But it's an important lesson to learn - Americans beware: your money is no longer good here.