Week 1: It doesn't get weirder than this

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Monday, June 3, 2013


Darren McKinnon

My new roommate Ro summed up our first day in DC with the simple and honest truth: “It doesn’t get weirder than this.” You see, we were at a restaurant at 11:30 at night thousands of miles away from our hometowns with people we had met less than six hours previous… And we were having fun. It was a mundane flight from Utah to DC, with only my worries of failing miserably upon arrival to keep me company. It happened that Ro’s flight would get in soon after mine, so I waited for him before catching a bus to our room. The next few days were unpacking, exploring, meeting people, and anxiously awaiting to see what our internship would really be like.

Finally our first day arrived.

Not unlike a huddle of penguins, we made our way through the metro system and to the American Center of Physics (ACP). As orientation began, we met many of the people who make the ACP world turn. The support and kindness was overflowing from the many people excited for us to succeed and have fun. We were then presented the incredible opportunity to break bread (and some delicious pasta) with John Mather, a Nobel Laureate. This was a joy. He was genuinely interested in us, what we found interesting, and what we wanted to do. After lunch and a brief meeting with HR, it was finally time for Alec and I to split off from the rest of the group and head to Goddard.

The place is massive… and gorgeous. It’s beautifully secluded among the Maryland foliage. With the assistance of the Goddard staff, I was introduced to my mentor, Ted Gull. He promptly presented me with three published scientific papers, one unpublished paper, a book to learn the language of IDL, part of a dissertation, and a book about the Hubble Space Telescope. With a hearty chuckle he said “You’re going to be lost for the first few weeks.” Judging by my first few days, he’s right. The science is fascinating. The group I work with consists of five Ph.D.’s, and lunchtime consists of us sitting together and discussing the new exciting science surrounding Eta Carinae (the star system we’re studying). The majority of it is far above my head, but day by day I’m recognizing more words and phrases. It’ll still be a mental marathon before I begin understanding it, but with Ted’s encouragement to “just have fun,” I can enjoy working my way there.

“Home-life” has been extremely entertaining. I can step out the front doors and take a quick jog to the White House, the Washington Monument, or the Lincoln Memorial. Those of us that live in town have been getting together and wandering around downtown at night. The history and culture is terribly exciting. As I wrap up my first week in DC, the anticipation of what’s to come seems to grow each moment. Over the next few weeks, who knows? Maybe it will get weirder than this. All I do know is that as physicists, we’ll create some models, test to see if it does get weirder, and hopefully publish a paper detailing the entire thing.

Also… I met an astronaut. It was fantastic.

Darren McKinnon