Friday, June 19, 2009

UCLA Day 2009

Saturday, May 9 was the annual UCLA Day 2009 on the Westwood campus. It was a delightful warm, sunny, spring day with thousands of returning alumni making a pilgrimage back to their alma mater for a day of memories and views of the future with family and friends. I looked forward to the event because I was invited to both the Mathematics and Physics/Astronomy department receptions. It was a perfect venue to seek out curious characters. I also arranged to meet up with an old college buddy and his high school age daughter (who happens to be my God-daughter) who is contemplating her college admission choices. We enjoyed a nice outdoor lunch and later in the day a barbeque dinner was served. We all had a very nice time in a stimulating academic setting. In an era of grade inflation where the average GPA of incoming UCLA freshman is 4.36, and Advanced Placement courses in high school, my friend and I quipped that it would be doubtful we’d gain admission in this competitive climate.

I went to the math department reception first. The reception was hosted at the Institute of Pure and Applied Mathematics (IPAM) building. I was immediately welcomed by the department’s Chair Dr. Christoph Thiele. Christoph is a wonderful chap, a young and dynamic ambassador of a mathematics department that is firmly on the map of top-tier schools. He introduced me to Professor Mark Green, recent chairman of IPAM.

The two receptions overlapped in time, so I went off to the next reception in the adjacent Physics & Astronomy building (PAB). When I arrived there was a rousing reception happening on the rooftop patio. I met Dr. Alice Shapley, associate professor of astronomy who specializes in Lyman Break Galaxies, Dr. Edward Wright who is the principal investigator of the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission, and department chair Dr. Ferdinand Cononiti who gave me an excellent rundown on the state of the department (the prospects for the department are excellent!). I was hoping to run into Dr. Andrea Ghez, the professor of astronomy who first discovered the massive black hole in the center of the Milky Way, but I learned that she was off working in Hawaii using the Keck telescopes.

Towards the end of the reception, I walked over to a group of people discussing good physics books. One curious character was sort of leading the discussion and he looked familiar. It turns out it was my old physics professor from 1975, Dr. Charles Whitten. As I stuck in my two-cents, I told him I took his class from 1975. He replied, a bit sheepishly because his recognition immediately aged us both quite a bit, “Yes, so you did!” I then continued, “But at the time I hated physics … but now I love physics. I don’t know if there’s a correlation.” Maybe a latent correlation, just 34 years late!

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