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MIT student blogger Yan Z. '12

Generally Unrelated to General Relativity by Yan Z. '12

In which I am not a graduate student.

This semester, I’m taking a graduate class in General Relativity that conflicts with lunchtime in pretty much every single reference frame. Let me repeat that for emphasis. Conflicts. With. Lunch, the refuge of covert slackers since time immemorial, an oasis of idle leisure amidst the dessicated hours between 12 and 5 pm. Recall that the most cherished hallmark of the American K-12 education system, besides the fostering of creativity and free-thinking, is the venerated observance of Lunchtime in the plasticky temple of Cafeteria (often accompanied by the brutal rituals of Recess for the worship of spherical projectiles and various incarnations of tag). Never, in a dozen years of pre-college schooling, was the sin of Scheduling-Anything-During-Lunch whispered within the tender earshot of young, impressionable students training diligently to become Pokemon masters. Never was any child denied the pursuit of half-squashed peanut butter jelly sandwiches and phalanx-like carrot sticks at exactly 11:55 AM. Never did I learn the definition of a standard deviation until six weeks ago*, probably because it was taught at 11:54 AM and my watch was running fast that day in 9th grade.

(As a result, whenever a classmate uttered a complaint like, “I was five standard deviations below the mean on the last test,” my response was along the lines of, “Cool, you sound like a fascinating and unique person.”)

*Has anyone else ever noticed that the definition of standard deviation is horrifically incomprehensible in standard English? Inevitably, you end up saying something like, “The square root of the average of the square of the deviation from the average equals the deviation of the average of the square from the square of the average. No, it’s not a riddle.”

On the other hand, General Relativity has been an eye-opening experience on the days when I’ve drank enough coffee that it hasn’t been an eye-closing experience. For instance:

1.The more I learn about General Relativity, the less I’m sure of what a vector is. Right now, my internal definition of a vector is “something that has intrinsic pointiness.” (This also happens to be my internal definition of kitchen knives, needles, pineapples, pine cones, sharp-beaked birds, and points.) In four weeks, I’ll probably tell you that a vector is the Shroud of Turin or something.

2.Graduate students are people just like you and me, except that they like to talk about how magnetization is like a covariant vector. Ex:
Me: “Hey, can I borrow a sheet of paper?”
Grad student: “Magnetization is sort of like a covariant vector. Yippee!”

3.You can turn a coffee mug into a donut if you’re really gentle. (This is literally the extent to which we covered topology.) Also, a small person living on your coffee mug can’t tell that it’s now a donut unless they either figure out the metric or discover that the fundamental particle of his universe is sugar.

4.Lowercase Greek letters all look the same when piled onto a 5-indexed tensor. Specifically, they all look like o’s scribbled by someone who failed penmanship class.

5.Whenever someone talks about tensor contraction, I have trouble resisting the urge to say, “Can’t we all just relax?” (The same applies for mention of stress-energy tensors.)

In retrospect, taking Special Relativity last semester was like eating a large bowl of Lucky Charms at 5 AM after spending a bleary all-nighter solving cardboard-flavored textbook problems in classical mechanics. As the sunrise smears over oiled skies like raw egg yolk, your tired soul is momentarily uplifted by the sight of hearts, stars, rainbows, clovers, gammas, and uppercase-lambdas pouring into your plastic cereal bowl, rinsing away the dullness of frictionless pulleys and massless ropes in a crayon-colored flood of sugary milk. Two hours later, you’re hungry again and feeling awfully inertial.

General relativity, by analogy, is brunch.

Speaking of brunch, I had it, non-metaphorically. On a cold Sunday morning two weeks ago, I pestered Jess ’12 so much that she agreed to spend a miniature fortune with me, portmanteau’ing two meals into one ultra-(price/class/tast)y monster of a gustatory hybrid. In context, I was making $10.75/hour at the time working near X-ray radiation, so I figured that the phrase, “Money is short and so is life,” probably applied to me.

With due disregard for financial management, Jess and I walked over to Craigie on Main, a cozy upscale restaurant just around the corner from MIT, swankily cuddled in a block of the usual college-student haunts (pizza parlor open til 3 AM, ice cream shop with a penchant for creative caffeine, the Canonical Cheap Chinese restaurant, etc.) Flanked by tall mugs of hot strong coffee, we seated ourselves at the counter and watched the cooks inscribe isosceles toast into circular plates.

Jess’ first course was a miniature sugar-crusted donut, pliant and warm as a fresh corpse lying in a puddle of caramel gore. (Despite my attempt to make Jess’ choice of appetizer sound Hitchcockishly unappetizing, it was actually pretty good. Nice job, Jess.)

Endowed with slightly more civilized tastes, I started with a scoop of coriander and cashew granola, pleasantly crunchy with the mildest hint of curry.

Next was a plate of citrus-cured arctic char and sablefish, curled and piled onto toasted bagels smothered in cream cheese.

Also, I had caviar for brunch. This is now on my resume, in case you were wondering.

For her main course, Jess ordered the grass-fed house-brined corned beef hash with slow-poached egg and onion rings and too many hyphens. My conscience forces me to admit that this was unequivocally delicious. The beef revealed itself in tender, melt-in-mouth morsels of rich, velvety saltiness snuggled in blankets of briny, creamy, and crispy.

Dessert was a glass of sour milk pannacotta drizzled with a few sweet spoonfuls of blackberry coulis.

And then I went back to school and ate cereal out of a Ziplock bag during lunch while unlearning about vectors.

38 responses to “Generally Unrelated to General Relativity”

  1. Yan says:

    @ Jess:

    I’ve eaten out exactly three times since Jan. 1st. (Including lunch and faculty dinners.) My living group, pika, runs a meal plan where everyone cooks or cleans once a week so that we have dinner every day and usually plenty of leftovers for lunch.

    Roughly once a week, I run a faculty dinner with Undergraduate Women in Physics where we go out to a restaurant with a professor, eat free food, and talk about textbooks.

    @ Anonymous:

    Can’t help you out there since I skipped Ring Premiere. To be fair, I counted one woman on the ring, so we’re at least one for three. See: http://twentytwelve.mit.edu/ring/forms/2012.png

    Personally, I don’t feel like equal representation of gender on the MIT ring is a point worth arguing. The MIT seal is the MIT seal. (Or as GR would have it, the MIT seal is anything that transforms like the MIT seal.)

  2. Brolin says:

    whaaAT?
    could i be possibly first?
    probably not.
    but great post anyways

  3. Anonymous says:

    First!

    General Relativity is argueably the best thing since sliced bread.

    And the food, well, looks delicious.

  4. Katie '14? says:

    nom nom nom nom That looks amazing. I might have to stop by there, even if I don’t go to MIT. corned beef is my fav, and that looks ridic.

  5. Anonymous says:

    That food looks amazing…

  6. Jess says:

    Hey Yan, this is slightly unrelated but since you mentioned food I figured I could ask, how often do you cook/ cook with other people and how often do you go out to eat or order something? Just curious because I am a wreck at eating in general. Thanks!

  7. navin says:

    Yan your food pics make my mouth watery
    they are simply superb
    great pics as they had always been smile

  8. Anonymous says:

    Ahahaha, I love the last sentence.

    Also the captcha is “how soppy.” I don’t know what soppy is but it sounds like a juicy adjective. Just in case you were wondering what my opinion was on the word soppy.

  9. From carefully study of many texts, I have found an answer.

    A vector is anything that transforms like a vector.

    yaaaaay

  10. From carefully study of many texts, I have found an answer.

    A vector is anything that transforms like a vector.

    yaaaaay

  11. From carefully study of many texts, I have found an answer.

    A vector is anything that transforms like a vector.

    yaaaaay

  12. Piper '12 says:

    Athena is far more badass anyway :D

  13. anonymous says:

    Food is good and all, but I’m still waiting for a proper summary from one of the bloggers of the Brass Rat and its features and why there are still two men on it. :|

  14. Alum says:

    Haha, in my current writing style I would substitute the entire first paragraph with “I freaking need my lunch breaks.”

    And of course, you know that not all grad students act like that, ahem.

  15. Wow! Yan, you write so beautifully. That was a very interesting blog, I was hooked from the beginning, then the food started, that was when I really got hooked.

    All relativity subjects are great, especially, to me, Einstein’s Special Relativity. Relativity is like taking into consideration everyone’s opinion, and actually winding up with something in the end (This has never been the case on a single outing I’ve ever done); I guess that is what makes Relativity such a beautiful topic to study: in the end you know you don’t get this, but maybe someone else does! It kind of makes you feel that you are not alone in the world, and that maybe, in another frame of reference, there is someone taking YOUR perspective into consideration.

  16. navdeep says:

    I’m taking a graduate class in General Relativity that conflicts with lunchtime in pretty much every single reference frame.

    your writing style is great …
    i just love your posts !!

  17. M. Zweig says:

    You are awesome for eschewing traditional poor college food habits and eating at nice places. You have the makings of a pretty good food writer, I hope you keep this up!

    Food habits of fellow college students tend to really depress me, and even when they go out sometimes they seem to not tip, which also makes me sad.

    Probably a lame admission to make but one reason why I didn’t go to MIT was I felt I’d probably not be as well fed as in Chicago and/or NYC (yes food played a major role in my final choice).

    It looks like a place I’ll have to visit if I ever am around the area, which I don’t see happening anytime soon.

    Keep up the good writing… and happy eating to of course.

    /hopes the comment didn’t seem to off the wall/out of place

  18. Paul D. says:

    I’ll have to make sure I try Neptune Oysters when I get the chance.
    Thanks

  19. Wow that just made me very very hungry. Also, cool definition of standard deviation in normal English (I’ve never seen anyone try that before and it is surprisingly complicated!) Although, not to be nitpicky but:

    “The square root of the average of the square of the deviation from the average equals the SQUARE ROOT OF the deviation of the average of the square from the square of the average.”

    (You left out the second “square root” lol)

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  21. M. Zweig says:

    Oh I approve whole heartdly of your choice of Eleven Madison Park, any and all of Daniel Boulud’s establishments are also quite good. The NYT Dining section makes me weep a bit with the constant find of new restraunts that sound good and the sad fact they are (now) on the opposite coast. Getting from Chicago to NYC was/is so much easier than SF/SJ to NYC.

    Mind suggesting some of those Boston Chinatown spots you enjoy? I do want do get around to visiting sometime, even if it’s not likely to happen anytime in the near future, and I certainly don’t know the food scene like I know Chicago/NYC/SF, although my knowledge of those first two is semi slipping.

  22. Yan says:

    @ M. Zweig:

    Thanks. Boston’s restaurant scene doesn’t hold a candle to NYC or Chicago in terms of variety, but as a starving college student, I eat out infrequently enough that I might as well just take the bus to Manhattan whenever I feel like a weekend of gastronomical splurging. (Eleven Madison Park is #1 on the list for my next visit.) Still, it’d be nice to have a decent bagel once in a while minus the 6-hour road trip.

    On a happier note, Boston’s Chinatown has better (1) pho and (2) beef curry buns than any I’ve encountered in NYC. That’s usually enough consolation, as long as you don’t bring up Momofuku.

  23. Paul D. says:

    Hey Yan

    Have you ever eaten at Legal Seafoods? My goodness, I never heard of the place and after I ate there, I felt bad there weren’t any back at home. Also, if you haven’t tried, I strongly suggest eating at The Soup Factory in Salem. Soo good. Get the lobster soup. smile

  24. Yan says:

    @ Paul:

    Yep, I had the clam chowder at Legal Seafoods back when I was a tourist. It was pretty good, but the menu didn’t inspire me to go back. I think I’d rather spend the money on a plate of oysters at Neptune Oysters down by the harbor.

  25. Anonymous says:

    @ Muhammad:

    My bad! Nice catch there. I’ll fix it.

    @ M. Zweig:

    Chinatown:
    -Pho Pasteur for pho.
    -Ho Yuen Bakery for the best Chinese pastries I’ve had anywhere. (NYC included.) Really recommend the Beef Curry bun, although I think I’m the only person who ever orders it. It costs a whopping 90 cents.
    -63 Sandwich Shop for cheap but tasty Banh Mi.

    I’ve been meaning to explore the glitzier side of Boston dining (L’espalier, No. 9 Park, Radius, O Ya, etc.), but I seem to lack the time/initiative/dining partners/all of the above.

  26. Yan says:

    @ Muhammad:

    My bad! Nice catch there. I’ll fix it.

    @ M. Zweig:

    Chinatown:
    -Pho Pasteur for pho.
    -Ho Yuen Bakery for the best Chinese pastries I’ve had anywhere. (NYC included.) Really recommend the Beef Curry bun, although I think I’m the only person who ever orders it. It costs a whopping 90 cents.
    -63 Sandwich Shop for cheap but tasty Banh Mi.

    I’ve been meaning to explore the glitzier side of Boston dining (L’espalier, No. 9 Park, Radius, O Ya, etc.), but I seem to lack the time/initiative/dining partners/all of the above.

  27. M. Zweig says:

    Thanks for the recommendations.

    Really? It sounds good, and besides that it’s only ninety cents, so it’s not as if you’re putting much money on the line even you didn’t enjoy it. I’ve never actually been to a Chinese bakery before, though I’m sort of aware of what (some) of the usual offerings tend towards. Never had Bahn Mi before either, which is very odd noting the heavy presence of Vietnemese resturants around the area/and sandwhich places (none that I’ve yet to go to though).

    Ah yes same here sad to say, well not dining partners so much but it’s easier to find people when you’re willing to treat them. The nicer the resturuant the more awkward it feels to dine in at it alone I find, something I might be more inclinded to do if I’m scouting the place before hand. Being semi away from a major metropolis is kind of boring honestly, been feeling the want to travel around more of late and just a general restlessness that I didn’t feel back in Chicago.

  28. Vaibhav says:

    @ Yan
    You preferred granola and nuts over THAT donut??! *stares in partial astonishment*
    Anyway, what is a five indexed tensor?
    And I still wouldn’t understand what would the person mean if he’d say ‘I was 5 std deviations below the mean…..’ -:(

  29. R says:

    =( such a harsh life. I cant stand the lack of sleep. Try to sleep some more. Try not to drown your self with coffee.

  30. Rakibur says:

    I laughed out loud at the unlearning. General relativity lessons from google videos didnt do that to my vector understanding, but thats probably because i dont get taught by a mit professor.
    That was a good reading. Thanks.

  31. Anonymous says:

    I’m absolutely in love with your writing – could you maybe post your MIT essay?

  32. Jess '12 says:

    Hey, I haven’t seen you in a good while, and especially last night.

  33. Jess '12 says:

    “I’ve been meaning to explore the glitzier side of Boston dining (L’espalier, No. 9 Park, Radius, O Ya, etc.), but I seem to lack the time/initiative/dining partners/all of the above.”

    Lack of dining partners?
    Whaat you say??
    Boston Restaurant Week is March 14-19 & 21-26. Spring break is 20-28. Let’s lose money together betting on good restaurants.

    Also, we need to go to Brookline Lunch sometime, so you can bring them glory on your blog.

  34. Yan says:

    @ Jess:

    Restaurant week is kind of a tourist trap. Are you up for a trip to NYC over Spring Break? I feel like we have to make up for our lost youth. Oh, and Eleven Madison Park.

    Hey, I should visit you at BC right now.

  35. genius ('18) says:

    YUM!!!!!!
    Awesome entry (as always)Yan!

  36. Anonymous says:

    Get the egg tarts at Eldo’s Bakery!

    And L’Espalier is very affordable during Restaurant Week (which is coming up, no?)

  37. Anonymous says:

    @ Anonymous:

    I confess, the only item I’ve ever had at Eldo was a not-too-impressive pork bun. Will keep in mind, although egg tarts are a competitive business in Chinatown.

    Any recommendations on L’Espalier’s menu? I’ve been pessimistic about the quality of menus during restaurant week compared to the rest of the year.

  38. caneda says:

    Well, if it helps someone: A vector is an entity that is independent from the coordinate system. When we transform a coordinate system into another one the components may change, but if they furnish the same magnitude and direction then this entity is a vector. Otherwise it is not. =)