Benvenuto a Torino - A Day in the Life of a Mountain-Dwelling Physicist

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That time I lived in the foothills of the Italian Alps for the summer.

Despite my lack of planning, Italian fluency, sense of direction, or luggage, I have successfully navigated my way to Torino, Italy to spend the next five weeks living on a mountain, doing physics, climbing glaciers, and eating gelato. To explain this strange lifestyle, I invite you to join me on a typical day.

Hermit on a Hill My Kingdom

Everyday I wake up to this view. I live atop a mountain just east of the Po River at the Villa Gualino Hotel and Conference Center. If you’ve never lived in a conference center (I had not), you probably do not appreciate the vast, diverse, and strange reasons that people might hold a conference. While I can’t always read the Italian signs declaring their official titles, conferences thus far seem to have been themed: “Old British Women Watching Movies About Buddhism”, “Elderly Men with Nice Cars, Model Wives, and a Keen Interest in Fireworks”, and, perhaps the most legitimate scientifically, “At the Roots of Complexity: The Emergence of Structures in Matter, Brain, Life, Language” (more on that in a moment).

Each morning I stumble downstairs for Italy’s pride and joy - espresso. Good coffee in the States is notoriously hard to come by but great espresso virtually bubbles out of the sewers in Torino. Hopped up on the world’s favorite stimulant, I head back to my room for some light reading. On days I’m feeling particularly bold, I might snag a workout in the hotel’s dangerously under-maintainenced fitness center. In any case, I crack open a can of the world’s cheapest, heartiest, and most underrated breakfast - garbanzo beans. At .40 euro a pop and sprinkled with some curry powder, that’s a highly concentrated dose of frugality, deliciousness, and energy. (This morning I discovered the hotel actually serves a free breakfast that has been hidden from me for the last week.) Afterwards, I bumble through Italian lessons with my infinitely patient tutor, Rosetta Stone, and eventually, I head to work.

A Child in a Toy Factory
The Institute for Scientific Interchange Foundation houses PhD students, postdocs, and research scientists studying quantum information, complex systems, statistical physics, and a host of other topics physical, mathematical, and biological. Notice the omission of words like “undergraduate” or “classes.” I’m easily the youngest in my research group by at least five years. What does this make me? Somewhat like a child in a toy factory - the toys that come down the conveyor belt are neat and fun to play with but the machines that make them are a bit mysterious. Luckily, all the factory workers are happy to explain how they do what they do and each day, I get a little bit closer to a contributing child laborer. (Note: the comparison of physicists to assembly line workers is only accidental here; I’d argue science is slightly more creative than factory work.)

The name of the game at the ISI Foundation is interdisciplinary collaboration. ISI has no permanent faculty and was founded originally only to host conferences, later expanding to include more long-term project groups as well. This leads to a fantastic atmosphere for seminars and lunch conversations. I’m still amazed that most universities wall off their departments from one another like little independent nations with no foreign relations. It’s quite easy for a physicist or mathematician or computer scientist to go a year or more without serious scientific discussion with someone from another department. That must change. Not only is science more productive when scientists reach out to other disciplines for advice, it’s a heck of a lot more fun. The week I arrived brought together neuroscientists, linguists, and statistical physicists to trade ideas on the complex workings of the brain. Given my interests, they might as well have laid out a red carpet with my name on it. This week brings the ACM Conference on Hypertext and Hypermedia.

My Desk

I’m not one for offices so I spend most of my time stretched out on a couch in the lobby or outside on the veranda. There are, however, certainly reasons I can be convinced to hang out in an office and one of those is private teaching sessions from damn fine physicists. This week, I’ll be drawn back in for a series of seminars by the quantum info group, essentially to catch me up on what they are working on. I have a notion of the project I’ll be working on (and it’s really cool) but I’ll save that for its own post later this week.

Leaving the Nest
The sun doesn’t go down until after 9pm in the summers here. Coupled with the intense focus that most people bring to work at ISI, it’s easy to not leave the Institute until 8 or 9pm. Fortunately, my evening “commute” involves about a dozen stairs because ISI is located directly next to the hotel.

The Beverly Hills of Italy

Now physicists aren’t quite known for their physical prowess, but the quantum info group here is a notable exception. Most evenings, four of us will sadistically jog our way directly up the mountain. When it comes to running, I’m essentially a domesticated animal as I do most of my running indoors on a treadmill back home at USC due to a complete lack of nature trails. Gradually, however, I’m being reintroduced to the wild. The epic views of the “Beverly Hills” of Italy are a nice incentive.

On other days, if I get particularly anxious or tired, I’ll head out in the early evening to walk the city, and Torino is an incredible playground for the curious. Unlike American cities which tend to be dominated by private property, European cities are full of public spaces, gardens, and courtyards for exploring. Torino is also home to a host of beautiful parks, Italy’s finest gelato, and a plethora of excellent restaurants and museums. Such offerings, however, deserve their own post and not the relegation to a mere addendum to a glorified journal entry, and so, I save further discussion of them for another day.