Berkeley: Day 1

What does it mean to be a global citizen? A difficult and pertinent question in the present age, given the international collapse of national unities. The term used to exist within an aura of only positive connotations — well-travelled, rounded, connected, open, free — but there is a certain school of modern thought which would rather it be used purely as a pejorative, a derogatory term for one who shirks national responsibility, and who feels greater kindred spirit with strangers in a foreign land than with the strangers from his own soil. But what does it mean? Perhaps it means that one can travel half-way around the world, to an American city one has never seen, can walk around the corner to a supermarket recommended by a German friend from home, and can, whilst contemplating over organic oranges, be greeted unexpectedly by a friend from undergraduate days who you first met at a mathematics summer school ten years previously. Taking that as our definition, I am a global citizen, for it has just been my privilege to experience such glorious serendipity.

I am in Berkeley to work as a Programme Associate on the Analytic Number Theory semester programme at the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute, but also to participate in a couple of pseudorandomness workshops at the Simons Institute in the main Berkeley campus itself. This second calling kicks off straight away, with so-called ‘Pseudorandomness boot-camp’, so it’s going to be until the weekend at least before I can really get a sense of this brave new West-coast world into which I have landed. The journey was exceptionally long, and I realised last night, before submitting to sleep’s warm embrace, that I had only slept for 4 hours out of the previous 40. Heathrow Terminal 3 was quiet; with nothing else to ponder but my own fatigue, philosophical dilemmas crowded my addled brain. The sign before security: “What is a liquid?” (The italics are mine). Gosh. What is a liquid? Newtonian or non-Newtonian? Could you take custard through as long as you constantly stamped on it? What about molten glass? What about borax slime? As for answers the sign offered none, joining the venerable philosophical tradition of those who pose more problems than they solve.

Ten-and-a-half hours later we arrived in San Francisco, having flown over Greenland’s magical mountains, frozen Canadian tundra, and the endless snow-covered Rockies — all the northern hemisphere in winter’s grasp. I didn’t have a window seat, and the other passengers seemed slightly perturbed by my endless gawking at them (past them, out of the window). For the rest of the time I watched Pixar movies, re-read my notes on regularity methods in graph theory, and started The Grapes of Wrath. The only previous time I have visited the US I experienced some issues at immigration, because (one assumes) of the Kazakh visa in my passport — I was part of the UK team at the International Mathematical Olympiad, hosted by Kazakhstan in 2010. No such problems this time, although all of us had to wait in line for around an hour. My British queueing sensibility shone through: in fact, after passing through what turned out to be the final check-point, I nonetheless made a beeline for the only other queue I could see, a random luggage check for which I had not been selected. You know where you are in a queue; the comfort of 1-d living.

On the train from airport to airbnb the dying sun cast slanting shadows over the bay. The air seemed thick with light, and re-fills now, as sunrise seeps through the pines beyond my window. As I write, flapping on the rooftop below is the bluest bird I have ever seen. Where’s a pocket copy of John James Audubon when you need it? The lake lay blue below the hill…
I hope to blog from Berkeley as often as Time allows, but Time, like the moon, is a harsh mistress, so who can say how soon that will be. Right: the day has begun. Time to master the shower.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s