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MIT student blogger Anna H. '14

Why I stayed up until 6am on Thursday by Anna H. '14

More nerdy cake-baking.

Spoilers: there’s a picture of an awesome cake at the end of this post.

Disclaimer: I gave myself exactly one hour to write this post, because I’m super hosed…so lots of fast typing and zero editing/proofreading/grammar-checking/comprehensibility-checking will happen. Sorry.

Wednesday October 3.

7pm. I finished eating French House dinner – at this point, I don’t remember what the food actually was, except that there were latkes and they were SOOOO good. I made a mental list of all the things that had to be accomplished between 7pm and bedtime:

1. Baking a cake for my friend Sam’s birthday
2. Starting and finishing a pre-lab for my first graded Junior Lab project: radio astrophysics, a measurement of the 21cm hydrogen line*.
3. Starting my quantum pset
4. Watching the Obama/Romney debate
*In order to “see” atomic hydrogen out in space, astronomers look for its signature: radiation at 21cm wavelengths. “Why the heck do hydrogen atoms emit at 21cm wavelengths?!” you ask. A fine question. In fact – one might say that it’s a HYPERfine question, for reasons that will become clear as you read on. Essentially, neutral hydrogen atoms have two particles, one proton and one electron, that can be described as having spin “up” or spin “down”. This idea of “spin” only makes sense if you’re familiar with quantum mechanics; the particles aren’t actually whirling around the same way that you do when you sit in a wheelie chair without any self-control. That said, the spins do matter to the hydrogen atom. If the particles are spinning in the same direction, then the atom is at a higher energy level than if one is spinning up and the other is spinning down. The electron can spontaneously “flip” direction – and if it flips, then tiny packets of energy are released, with a magnitude corresponding to 21cm radiation. Ta-da! This is called “hyperfine splitting”, for the reason (as best as I can tell) that it sounds fancy.
I figured I had plenty of time. It was only 7. And yet, somehow – in a few hours, I would be running around the kitchen in a frenzy, wondering if I would get to sleep at all.
What happened?
1. A spontaneous badminton game
I’m the French House sports chair, which currently means that I faciliate our participation in the intramural badminton league. That Wednesday, we had an 8pm game against Kappa Sig, one of the frats. I wasn’t signed up to play, but at 7:30 one of our players told me that she had a paper to finish and would rather not play, so I volunteered to step in for her.
8pm. I stood on the badminton court, racket in hand, standing diagonally opposite a dishearteningly fit-looking Kappa Sig captain. By the time our first round ended (22-24 to him) I remembered the latkes less fondly. The subsequent scores were 17-21 and 21-18. It was intense.
9pm. I returned to French House, very sweaty.
2. A spontaneous tutoring session
The debate started at 9, so I turned on the TV once I got back to French House. It lasted an hour.
10pm. My dorm-mate Elizabeth came in to the TV lounge and said “oh! Anna, there you are! Some freshman from Desmond** was looking for you…”.
Me: um…who?
Elizabeth: dunno. none of us have ever seen him before.
Me: …any idea why he was looking for me?
Elizabeth: I think he wanted help with 8.022* or something.
Me: He came to ask ME for help with 8.022***???
Elizabeth: He said something about a blog post that you wrote.
*Another living group in New House
**A rigorous, theoretical version of intro E&M.
***I was not very good at 8.022.
My curiosity was piqued. I sent an e-mail to Desmond, saying that I was now in the TV lounge, in case this person still wanted to find me. A few minutes later, he came over. Turns out that a) he was struggling with 8.022, b) there was an exam in 8.022 the next day, and c) he had a friend who had read the admissions blogs – more specifically, this admissions blog – and advised him to ask me for help.
I was happy to help, but felt a little flustered since I didn’t feel particularly qualified to help anyone with 8.022. Wishing I had taken 8.022 more recently, I led the freshman over to a whiteboard, and stood on a couch while he sat in a chair. We worked through one of the practice tests. I drew field lines and tetrahedrals (I draw a mean tetrahedral, let me tell you) and point charges. I ran around the room demonstrating what a line integral is. I was shocked at how much I could remember.
11:30pm. The freshman left. I started running around French House whining about how I needed to bake a cake. Turns out my friend Kelly ’15 had finished her work for the night – she offered to bake the cake for me.
Thanking her profusely, I showered and pulled out my J-Lab notebook. I made it through most of the pre-lab before Kelly came in to tell me that the batter was done.
12:30am. I put the cakes* in the oven, and sat down to finish the pre-lab.
*A rule in French House: if you bake using house ingredients, you must leave food for the residents. So, I made one cake for Sam and one cake for French House.
1am. I took the cakes out, and left them to cool.
2am. Um…turned out the pre-lab was not straightforward at all. HOW THE HECK DO YOU CALCULATE THE MAXIMUM DOPPLER SHIFT POSSIBLE TO OBSERVE? Also, it had now gotten to That Hour Of The Night where my brain was functioning at approximately 1/10 its normal speed.
2:30am. Got my act together and finished the pre-lab. Responded to an e-mail from my friend Daniel ’12, who is now at grad school in California. I guess I sounded a little overwhelmed, because he responded with physics-related videos of kittens (turns out he searched “kitten physics” in the Youtube search bar) to cheer me up. I watched two videos.
2:40am. Went into the kitchen and started cleaning up all the pots and pans from the cake-baking session.
3am. Started making the icing.
3:15am. Threw out the first icing attempt, for reasons that I would rather not admit to.
3:30am. Put a more successful icing attempt in the fridge to cool.
4am. Finally could begin icing the cake – assembled all of French House’s food coloring and sprinkles on the kitchen table. Kelly ’15 and Fred ’15 were also in the kitchen, wrapped in blankets (individually) and talking. It was nice to have company.
5am. Finished decorating the cake. It involved picking up individual sprinkles and placing them carefully on the layer of icing, while talking to Kelly about boys. Fortunately my fine motor control skills weren’t deteriorating as rapidly as my brainpower.
5:30am. Finished cleaning up, with help from Kelly and Fred (thanks guys!)
6am. Fell asleep.
8am. Woke up to go to J-Lab. Was NOT pleased.
9am-noon. J-Lab. At least, I think I went to J-Lab. It’s all a bit of a blur.
Noon: Walked into the Physics Common Room (PCR), where Sam sat working with his J-Lab partner, Lucas ’14. Sam was wearing a suit.
Me: Happy birthday!
Sam: Thanks.
Me: Now that you’re twenty, are you going to dress this fancy all the time?
Sam: This is my birthday suit.
Har, har. Good one, Sam.
Me: Um…are you going to be in here for a while? Like…for the next hour?
Sam: Yeah…I think so.
12:05pm: Sprinted back to French House to get the cake.
12:30pm: Returned to the PCR, bearing the cake, hidden underneath some tin foil that read NE ME MANGEZ PAS in Sharpie. I surreptitiously hid the cake on a chair, and began making my announcement.
Me: So, Sam.
Sam looked up.
Me: Lucas was the inspiration for your birthday cake.
Lucas looked bewildered.
Me: He asked me last week whether I could recite all the particles in the Standard Model. I realized that I probably couldn’t, so of course I looked it up. And when I looked it up, and saw how pretty and colorful the diagram is, I thought: HEY! This would make an awesome cake!
Sam laughed, a little nervously. The nervousness was hopefully more to do with his concern for my sleep-deprived state and less to do with the concept of me baking.
I pulled out the cake. The presence of food drew a few other physics majors to the table. We celebrated. Sam ate the photon and made some joke about how it was light. I considered the possibility that staying up until 6am was a bad idea, and went through every item of the night. Did I regret playing badminton? Nope. Did I regret helping the freshman? Absolutely not. Did I regret baking Sam’s cake? Don’t be silly. I suppose that I could have baked Sam’s cake further in advance. But I couldn’t have predicted that badminton and 8.022 tutoring would happen. That’s life, and I felt secure in my priorities.
Most importantly: my cake won me major nerd cred.