Gravity is not a force.

My mind has almost imploded twice since the AstroMundus programme commenced. On the first occasion, I was in a Physics lecture, trying to get my head around the orbits of electrons depending on their orbital angular momentum. When the electron is in the ground state (of a Hydrogen atom), it is possible for there to be no angular momentum. But how can there be an orbiting electron without any orbital angular momentum? This can happen because the electron is not orbiting around the nucleus in a nice circle, but instead is going in straight lines back and forth, changing its orientation ever so slightly as it maps out a sphere. But wait? Surely, this would mean that the electron has to travel through the nucleus (i.e. proton)? I interrupted the lecturer again, for the fourth time in a row, and told him my concern. He said that I was right, the electron does go through the nucleus. Mind blown.

The second instance was in a Maths lecture a couple of days ago, just as we had started delving into the terrifying world of tensors. Our lecturer said with the most casual tone of voice I had ever heard, “gravity isn’t a force, it’s a consequence of curved spacetime”. Gravity. not. a. force. My entire life has been a lie!!!

I’ve had a fantastic time here in Innsbruck since I arrived two and a half weeks ago. It’s been around 20-25 degrees almost every day. The locals constantly remind us that this is extremely unusual, and that winter is coming! The buses are scarily efficient, running on time to the second. You never have to wait longer than 5-10 minutes during the day for a bus, and every hour throughout the early hours of the morning. I joined the University choir, the conductor makes lots of jokes (in German) so everyone is laughing all the time, apart from me who has no idea what is going on! We already had our first performance in the magnificent Jesuitenkirche. Some friends came along and much to everyones surprise it was actually a Sunday mass; men dressed in garishly colourful green robes carrying swords. Nobody had any idea what was going on, including me, but it was an experience none the less.

Our course is intense. We are basically going through the entirety of maths and physics that we have ever done at 4 years of university, and more, in only 8 weeks. I’m keeping up, just about, and it’s not yet as severe as Canada as I still have the time to sleep, a blessing in itself! The astronomy department is on the 8th floor of an *interesting* looking purple building with a small white dome that protrudes out of the roof. I have not yet had the chance to go to said roof but I hope I do! At the end of lectures instead of clapping, everyone knocks on the table which surprises me every time. Everyone is super friendly. In the lift, strangers will actually say hello, and wish us a good day!

The only negative thing thus far is our accommodation. The fridges and storage cupboards are all individually locked in a separate room to the kitchen. We are also not allowed to leave anything in the kitchen, even a kettle. If you’ve forgotten something there you may be lucky enough to find it the next day in the skip outside. In addition, we can not have a bin (only a small one for bio waste) so any packing left behind over night will somehow find its way inside our fridge the next morning. Initially all of these rules were baffling and frustrating, but I guess we are now used to it, as so happens in life.

The views everywhere are astonishing. I wake up and look out of the window. Mountains. I walk to lectures. Mountains. I take the bus to town. Mountains. On the 8th floor of the Technik building? Mountains. The airport is also right next to us so we occasionally hear aeroplanes taking off and landing, or a Euro Fighter jet that has to crash land making a seriously loud bang due to supersonic flight.

Hiking. I went on one of the most incredible hikes of my life, which took us up through a valley, along the Wolfsklamm river laced with endless waterfalls. The path consists of an entirely built up wooden track along the cliff edge and across countless sturdy bridges. It was like being in Rivendell. The rivers glow in an iridescent teal-turquoise-like colour and the water tastes crystal clear. As we reached the end of the narrow winding trail, a monastery appears out of nowhere, high up above, precariously perched upon a crag. Continuing our journey upwards we amble across one of the oldest bridges in this part of Austria, soaking in the view. A part of the monastery has been turned into a restaurant, so after our picnic we enjoyed an incredibly tasting and soothing beer, by the name of Edelwiess. Meanwhile we overlooked the entire valley surrounded by a ledge of blooming flowers and millions of brightly coloured butterflies. Is this heaven?

Hitchhiking in the Sun (and the Rain)

I am not quite sure where the rest of my Summer went, as is the case every year of course, and now I find myself sitting in my room in Innsbruck having attended my first lecture this morning.

Just over a month ago I travelled through Switzerland. It was brief, but notable. I spent one night in Zurich, going on a short tour of the city with my couchsurfing host. The next morning I went to Lausanne and explored for the day. Switzerland is so expensive that I felt like I couldn’t even afford to go to the toilet! Usually I just go in McDonalds or Starbucks, but they have coded locks on the doors; such sacrilege! So I bought iced coffees, in exchange for toilet codes, staying for hours afterwards to use up as much of their internet bandwidth as possible. Food-wise, I got by on a loaf of bread, one tomato, and a mozzarella ball for the day. Buying anything in a cafe would probably have resulted in bankruptcy. It was therefore an utter pleasure to stay with a friend whom I had met in the Sahara Desert at the beginning of the year. I was in Vevey, the home of Nestle, which explains why there is a giant fork in the lake, and that I wasn’t actually hallucinating. I was treated to a free yoga session, having completely forgotten just how good yoga can be, and then indulged with traditional Swiss absinthe (I had no idea it originally hails from here). And it was infinitely more delicious than the vile toothpaste stuff I tried in Slovakia. There may or may not have been some Swiss red wine and chocolate, I can’t quite remember…

At this point my Interrail pass expired, so I needed to start paying for travel again. This was a horrific experience for me, since a 45 minute train journey to Geneva put me back by £18.50. My next stop was Annemasse, to stay with a friend I had met whilst volunteering at Chisholme earlier in the summer. I stayed two nights there, as opposed to the usual one, which was much appreciated. We hiked in the Alps together, ate picnics, sunbathed by the lake, and had small dinner parties. They made a proper French cheese fondue especially for me, even though this is something they would only ever do during the winter.

My last stop before heading back to Scotland would be Arles. I had found a car-share from Geneva to Marseille and got dropped off in Salon-de-Provence to stay with a final couchsurfer. He was rather stressed upon our meeting, as he had given me his wrong phone number nor did he have mine so we had no way of finding each other. This was no dumb couchsurfer however, he looked up the last couchsurfer I had stayed with, contacted them and had my number within a matter of minutes. We walked around, saw Nostradamus’ house, and a fountain covered so entirely with moss that it looks like a tree. There was live music in the streets and people sitting outside drinking beer. It was a beautiful atmosphere. In the morning we visited the most amazing caves which have been uninhabited for centuries, but were originally built entirely by man. We had fun imagining what all the different rooms would have been for, who would have lived in them, and whether the holes in the windows served their usual purpose as windows or were used for passing pizzas.

A cheap bus journey later and I had made it to Arles! Exhausted I slept all afternoon and woke up in the evening, ate food, and fell asleep again watching the new Tron. I was staying with a friend from Uni and her girlfriend, and we spent our days exploring unknown territories. We walked along rivers, ended up under busy bypasses, ate sushi, strolled through a necropolis, and often gazed upon the amphitheatre. Arles feels like you’re in the middle of a Roman empire crossed with narrow and cobbled Oxford streets with endless colour and vibrancy akin to Spain, or perhaps the Mediterranean. It is a wonderful place to visit and explore, yet even after a few days of walking the same streets I still have no idea how it all fits together and how anyone gets from A to B. We also went on a little day trip, visiting a castle on top of a mountain surrounded by expensive shops and cafes. We didn’t actually go into the area with the castle, because one had to pay (alas, no trebuchet for us). Instead we climbed onto roofs, picking almonds and figs from the branches above our heads and watched as the tourists went by below. We found some other small cliffs to climb in the area, and as a reward were granted by the most astounding views. Having just missed a bus, we decided to try and hitchhike back. Whilst walking on the gloriously sunny day we came across a prickly pear. Remembering having eaten them before with my mum I decided to try and get some with my Swiss army knife. Never again! We were inevitably prickled by tons of prickles. But thanks to the tweezers on the army knife, we were to live another day. And it didn’t even taste that great! In fact it tasted awful. On my last night we had a little party, where an esteemed chef loved my baba ghanoush and I chucked a bucket of water over my friends head (ice bucket challenge thing). We danced until late, singing along to lots of classic 80s and 90s tunes.

And then I left. I took a train to Toulouse, from where I caught the Megabus to Carlisle via Paris and London. In my three hour layover in Paris I set out to find the Eiffel Tower which was devoid of tourists at half seven in the morning. I then found a cafe to have some petit dejeuner, and it was terrible. The croissant was burnt black on one half and raw on the other, and the rest of it was just as disappointing. For the first time I travelled through the Eurotunnel which involved getting on and off the bus several times to have passports checked and luggage scanned. I was surprised that the Channel is crossed via a train and you simply sit inside your vehicle without much room for leaving and walking around. A day and a half later since leaving the south of France, I took the bus from Carlisle to Longtown at 5am. From there I did not have the stamina to wait for the next bus, another 4 hours away. Instead I started walking thinking that I would be able to hitch a ride. It took a while, but as soon as it started to rain I was picked up. So I definitely recommend hitchhiking in the rain – people feel sorry for you.

Here, there and everywhere.

The past month has been so intense and exhausting that I passed out for 12 hours straight last night. Such bliss. At this current point in time I have no idea where I’m sleeping each night, so I’m just figuring things out as I go along. I write on a gloriously sunny day on a train that is passing through the Alps, rivers of crystal clarity far below, surrounding evergreen forests, and snow-tipped mountains looming overhead. It is truly staggering. It is much greener and more luscious than I remember the Canadian Rockies being. Although that is likely because it was only grey and raining then.

Last I wrote I was on my way to Oradea, where I was unable to leave for a day because a train I had planned on catching, didn’t actually exist. It turns out that this has actually happened to two other friends of mine, also when they were in Romania, so take care with train travel in this country as it seems that many of their trains are invisible. It turned out that I shared many coincidences with the couchsurfer in Oradea, it so happened that he had been a part of ScRoLL many years ago (by which I happened to be there teaching English). He also has connections with the Jewish society and the synagogue, and arranged a tour for me there, which was utterly fascinating. It was in dire need of repair, but there is always something beautiful about a historic building that is falling apart. Surprisingly, I don’t ever remember visiting a proper synagogue before, so perhaps it was a first for me.

I eventually made it to Budapest, and was reunited with my friend from Astronomy camp at last. We spent most of our time walking endlessly lugging around a stupid amount of luggage, occasionally managing to do some sightseeing in between. We explored a little island in the middle of the Danube, we climbed up a mountain with epic statues upon it, ate ice cream, drank lemonade, and checked out an amazing pub filled with many delectable local brews (including elderflower beer!)

Next was Bratislava, also my second visit there this year, and I fell in love with the place even more. Going for strolls, eating amazingly cheap food (I even dared to eat bread with goose fat – pretty yucky), visiting the castle by night, and finding random movie screenings in the park. My friend’s cousin was also in town, taking part in a dancing workshop all week, so we went along to their resulting performance, which was rather experimental and very interesting. We then decided to splash out and treat ourselves by travelling to Vienna via boat. The weather was perfect, and we found ourselves some seats up on deck for the whole journey, enjoying the breeze and getting a light sunburn.

For the next three weeks I was at Astronomy Camp in Weyer, in the middle of Austria. Typically, the weather was perfect on the first and last day of the camp and in between it was either foggy, misty, or rainy. At least we happened to have around 2 clear nights in between. This was my fourth year at the IAYC, and the first as a leader. It was quite a different experience, being on the “dark side”, but just as good as any other. I was a lot more tired, from organising and running things 24/7, but it was a great pleasure to have my own working group and learn with them as they explored the history of astronomy. They automatically decided they would be hippies, sharing cookies, singing, holding hands and making epic psychedelic pictures (without me influencing them whatsoever!) We also had the pleasure of spending lots of time with the cutest kitten, nicknamed Klausi after my leader of last year, and I spent one night sleeping under the stars curled up with her inside my sleeping bag; the perfect hot water bottle. I also got to enjoy an awesome free day with the other leaders, drinking wine atop of a tower (previously a prison) in a glass cuboid, and enjoying schnitzel in a local brewery. For National Performance evening we tried to organise a ceilidh which ended up being an utter disaster and will hopefully be forgotten and never mentioned again!

Straight after the camp I headed to Heidelberg for the International Conference for Physics Students. There was no time for rest, or for feeling too emotionally hungover, so I dived straight into catching up with those I had met the year before, and meeting new people. The week was overflowing with activities, from lectures to lab tours, to excursions, to workshops, to parties, to live bands… Unfortunately I was cursed with a 9am lecture again, to which I could probably count the number of attendees on one hand, but nevermind. The highlight of the week was getting to visit the Max Planck Institute of Astronomy. The weather sadly sucked but that didn’t lessen the excitement of the lab tours, planetarium show, and tasty sandwiches on offer. I listened intently to their PhD programmes and the research that they do, and who knows, maybe I’ll apply one day. We also had a couple of great guest lectures, including some mind-blowing cosmological simulations, the Higgs boson, and a talk from an ESA astronaut!

I have less than an hour to decide whether I should stay in Zurich tonight or try and make it to Annemasse. Decisions decisions…

Citizen of Rome

Although I have no idea what Rome is like, nor what it’s citizens are like, I do in fact know what Romania is like, for which the meaning “citizen of Rome” is derived. Laden with even more weight than usual, I arrived in Timisoara on a sunny Saturday afternoon with the girl that I would be teaching English with for the following two weeks. A lot of the weight could be attributed to lots of paper and print outs, pens, sellotape and other potentially useful items for teaching young Romanians a foreign language. The aforementioned girl’s name is Natasha, and she is not Russian, much to the surprise of all Romanians.

We were picked up by Dana and her son Robert, who whisked us away on a 4 hour drive which passed by like a blur. Having hardly slept I dozed in and out of slumber as my head bobbed this way and that on the meandering road, windier than the A7, which I previously thought impossible. Robert was apparently trying to jostle me with his mad driving skills, whistle, and blare music to see if I would stir, but I slept on unphased. It is also considered socially unacceptable to wear a seatbelt when sitting in the back of the car, whereas it is socially acceptable for the driver to chat away on the phone.

Dana is the most wonderful host, she reminds us of an older Marilyn Monroe, but without any of the trauma, nor drama. She glows with an oozing heart that spreads warmth everywhere, which can even get border officials smiling and laughing. She’ll never let us help with anything, no matter how hard we try, and she always ensures that we have everything we need. We eat until we are full, and then some, but she’ll still ask if we’ve had our fill with astonishment concerning all the leftover food on the table. Some of the food has been delicious, in particular a simple dish with egg, tomato and onion, served with polenta on the side, and a strong sheep cheese. Most of the food is all homemade or local, eggs from the neighbours hens, honey from the beehives, plum, apricot or strawberry jam, vegetables from the garden, lemons from the lemon tree, warm milk freshly squeezed from the cows udder, cheese from the Czechs who pass through every week or two. All the water is taken up by a well, and I desperately asked if I could have a go! They even have their own vineyard, but we are far too early to taste any wine.

There is not much to do in Berzasca, a remote fishing village on the Danube. My room contained a balcony, from which I could see swallows swooping, a giant rusty satellite dish, an abandoned van, and the gleaming river reflecting spectacular sunsets, or perhaps lighting and heavy downpours, which tended to happen every couple days or so. The river is very wide here, much wider than Wien, Bratislava and Budapest, increasing in breadth as it approaches the delta. Fishermen are dotted along the riverside, and when you can’t see the Danube you will see endless crops of corn. There are also fields of yellow, not rapeseed, but beautiful sunflowers, of which there must be millions. Men can also be seen, using scythes on the long grass which will later be piled into haystacks to make hay (this was an embarrassing revelation for me). Others sit outside their homes, under the shade of trees, watching the world drive by. A man wonders down the railway track, and I ponder where he’s going. On the other side of the river lies Serbia, an array of hills covered in lush green forests and the occasional sheer cliff edge and a castle.

In the mornings we teach, 9 – 12.30, and in the afternoons and evenings (at the risk of being eaten alive by mosquitoes) we go for walks if it’s not too hot, read, or sunbathe and swim in the river. We have had Cristiana to keep us company, Robert’s cousin, and it’s been lovely getting to know her and see what life is like for an 18 year old living in Romania. In a way I’ve been lucky that there’s not much to do; I’ve been able to prepare for my working group projects for Astronomy Camp, and continue research for my Final Year Project, and I’ve learnt to count to 10, say thank you, good good, a couple of swear words, and cheers/bless you. I’ve waded thigh deep across a stream and back to pay a visit to the bees. I’ve checked out the green grapes at the vineyard. I’ve looked up at the stars and gazed upon some of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen.

One night I decided to hike up one of the mountains, as always it was steeper and higher than expected, but I pushed on, desperate to reach the summit before sunset. I’m not sure if I ever reached the summit or not, for there were trees everywhere and it looked like the sunset was almost over, from what I could see through little gaps between branches. Dismayed, I found myself a walking stick and made the decent, looking up in the hope of seeing some noctilucent clouds along the way, of which I saw none. The TV would occasionally be on for the football, but it was an old cathode ray television, and could take up to two hours for the screen to work, and when it did finally work the screen would be pink. One night a whole match was missed, and then the screen came on just in time for the second match. One minute later there was a power cut, and we all burst into laughter.

Teaching on hot summer days in a remote village is as lax as one can suspect. The kids always arrived before us, and I was provided with coffee and sugar to drink in the classroom, and basically everything else I was left to figure out on my own. It was tough. Really tough. The younger children, aged 6-13 knew very little so it was hard to explain what I wanted them to do. But the most difficult thing was actually controlling them. The boys in the class basically wanted to run riot all the time, it was difficult to keep them interested. After one week we switched over and I taught the older children, ages 12-16. This was much easier in comparison, as they knew a bit more English and had more patience. I tried teaching them some Astronomy, whenever I had the chance, and was able to play more complex games. On the last day we had a party, where we managed to organise one session of musical chairs and then the kids ran riot. We tried to teach them ceilidh dancing, but they were having none of it, so we basically gave up because none of them would agree to do anything… The youngest girl, who was also the cutest, was my saviour, always smiling and trying to talk in Romanian with me. Since I never knew what she was saying we would always resort to pulling faces at each other. She’d come up to me and take my hand, and dance with me, or she’d draw me pictures covered with love hearts and Rapunzel. From my teaching experience this year, in Scotland and Romania, I have come to the conclusion that I am not cut out for teaching at all. I’m incapable of controlling children, unless they have a thirst for knowledge, I feel helpless. After discussions with others it seems that maybe technology is to blame, no one remembers a time when the children were so distracted and uninterested to learn. Most of the kids had smartphones or tablets, and played with them constantly; why bother with learning when you have the whole world at your fingertips?

There are stray dogs everywhere, blind, hungry, and flea ridden. One day there appeared three puppies, living in a doorway next to the school, causing excitement in the village. The next morning when we went to see how they were doing, we found them lying dead in a pile, the flies already beginning to gather. People were saying that some guy killed them for no apparent reason… At the weekend we drove back to Timisoara, this time via Serbia to get cheap supplies which meant narrower roads, Cyrillic, and a new stamp in our passports. Every time we drove past a church, or walked past one, the members of our host family would cross themselves. After asking about it, it’s not a devout religious thing, but more of a habit for people do it even when they’re hardly religious, and never go to church. There was not much to see in Timisoara, because most of it is under renovation. We saw the square, ate delectable ice cream (salted caramel and pistachio) and wondered about. In the evening we headed out to the student campus for a few beers and danced until the early hours of the morning. Afterwards we went out to hunt down some schwarma, which is unusually with chicken in Romania. Natasha, being vegetarian, only wanted french fries, which seemed to be an entirely alien concept to them because they gave her a burger with deep fried cheese, coleslaw and 4 chips in it. She then took out one of the chips and pointed at it emphatically. With a confused look, they tried again, and gave her a new burger exactly the same as the last, whilst I was laughing myself to death.

There are two things that Romanians hate. Manale music and gypsies. The former is a sort of Balkan music with horrendous lyrics. Although they know that not all gypsies are bad, they do have valid reasons for despising the ones that are. They steal and they refuse to work. Some of them buy huge mansions in the city as a status symbol, but then board up all the windows so that people can’t see that most of the rooms are empty. If the gypsies stopped stealing, and were happy to work, the Romanians would have no problem with them. On the tram today I saw an older woman giving a young, heavily pregnant (I’m guessing gypsy couple – depicted by their darker tans) the two fingers. It was so bizarre, but nobody else seemed to care.

After the two weeks of teaching were over, we drove back to Timisoara for the last time, put Natasha on the plane at 6 in the morning, and I took a minibus to Arad where I was picked up by a couchsurfer. I spent the next day with the couchsurfer and his Polish medic student girlfriend, so we discussed everything from the stars to genetics. We walked along the river, stopped for a beer, and then continued walking around the city, which is filled with grand churches that have been under construction for decades. This annoys a lot of people because hospitals and schools are being closed down from lack of money, yet they are funding these churches of which there are already many. I also joined them for lunch with his parents, and was fed palinka and wine, the alternative being death should I wish to refuse. We played Settlers of Catan, and I was so close to winning, only a point away! The greatest amusement came from the fact that they struggled to pronounce the difference between ship and sheep, of which are both required a lot in the game. I then stayed with another couchsurfer in Arad who has lived in places all over Europe and had many more interesting stories to tell. We went for further walks, and stopped for another beer, you know the routine. As always, couchsurfers are the most helpful of people; picking me up, dropping me off, figuring out which tickets I need to purchase, feeding me, as well as providing accommodation. What a treat it is! I can never be grateful enough.

I’m currently sitting on a train which is going to Oradea, but I’m not 100% convinced…

Congraduations

Another long night travelling, using almost all forms of transport and writing a blog at half three in the morning whilst sitting on the floor of Luton Airport marks the beginning of another summer adventure. It’s surprisingly busy actually, lots of people arriving, sitting around and chatting, and the lucky few sleeping slouched in comfy chairs and sofas at the courtesy of Starbucks.

My last week in St Andrews definitely ended at the highest of highs. Last weekend marked the CAPS conference, where Physics and Astronomy students from all across the UK come together to give talks and take part in all sorts of (frivolous but entirely worthwhile) activities. The students couldn’t believe the hot and sunny weather we were having, and sometimes I even heard a complaint or two! I first attended CAPS two years ago in Sheffield and was pleasantly surprised by how much fun Physics students can be. I remember understanding not very much when it came to the lectures, and I also remember giving a talk about the Northern Lights, feeling terrified of what questions people might ask. Indeed, someone fulfilled my fear by asking a scary physics question of which I didn’t even hear so I panicked whilst trying not to run away.

How different this year was; I understood much more of what people were talking about and I ended up winning an incredible prize for the best undergraduate talk! I hope Feynman’s lectures won’t be left to sit around and collect dust… It seemed necessary to find another way to rattle my bones however, so I ended up singing a couple of songs at the Burns’ Supper. I don’t remember my heart ever racing so fast or feeling so faint before a performance, so I have attributed it to the sheer exhaustion of hardly sleeping and running around making sure that everyone is content (at the bare minimum). ‘My luve is like a red, red rose’ went somewhat well, I managed to remember the tune vaguely. However, singing ‘Ae fond kiss’ without any recollection of the tune and just making it up would likely be called idiocy by some. The ceilidh afterwards was one of the best ever, and I have some beautiful bruises to prove it! Since then, I’ve heard that some people were genuinely terrified of being my partner, as I tend to resemble a hurtling tornado.

Before I knew it, CAPS was over and it was time to graduate. It was extra special because Dad managed to come up, and it was probably the first time that the family has been together for at least seven years. Some of my closest friends were there too, people who have known me since I was a baby in the hospital, or vice versa. Most of them had never been to this part of Scotland before, so most of the time was spent perambulating many of the picturesque walks that St Andrews has to offer. The actual graduating bit itself went so quickly that all I remember feeling is the sudden dread of standing on my gown and hoping desperately that somehow the gown would displace itself from underneath my heel and I would not fall over. Other than that I was terribly excited that Higgs was in the vicinity and I wondered whether or not he would be around later and how I would go about getting a photograph. Indeed he was around later; I waited for the opportune moment, sat down next to him and the only words I could utter was simply saying how excited I was. I ended up telling him I was an Astronomy student and I’d be living in Europe for the next two years at which I heard all about how he learnt French as a child and knows a decent amount of German too.

The evening ended with drinks in Aikmans and a boogie in the Lizard. Many people flinch when they hear the name Lizard, the only club in St Andrews, but in fact it is a great club, even when sober. The DJ played endless 90s classics from Eminem to Wheatus to Nelly and we loved it. Then one last chips and cheese from Empire and we were off home.

When I think of the Physics department, all I can feel is deep gratitude. They have always gone above and beyond what was needed to make me feel welcome, and given me endless opportunities for growth and nourishment. The staff care so much that they even went to the lengths of cropping me into the graduation photo. I will miss being a part of the family, and I hope that many others will have as wonderful time there as I have done, for many more years to come.

The success of failure.

It was only a few days ago that I was sitting in one of the many grand halls in St Andrews, realising that I should be focusing on the quantum mechanics problem in front of me instead of bouncing about in my chair. I was surprised that I could remember how to derive the first-order energy correction of perturbation theory, having answered the question only a few hours before for revision. But the main reason for being so excited during an exam? I was trying to postpone the feeling of euphoria seeping out from my soul, brewed by the fact that this was the last exam of my undergraduate degree and I would be getting “soaked” in less than two hours time.

Being soaked is another typical St Andrews tradition, whereby your friends (although they could easily be enemies seeking revenge) come and throw water over you after the last exam of your undergraduate degree. I remember growing up in Oxford and observing flamboyant students covering each other in flour, eggs, party poppers (and probably champagne). My young teenage self could not wait to be one of them, and somehow that time has come and already gone. Although my soaking was not as extravagant as the Oxbridge counterpart, it was still overwhelmingly wonderful, friends postponing their travel plans to go home, others attending instead of revising for their last exams, in order to celebrate the momentous occasion with me. Afterwards a couple of friends joined me for a cocktail at one of the plushest locations in town and it was utterly exquisite, for the aptly named ‘serious zombie’ concoction that glided down my throat, but even more so for the puddle of water that I left beneath my chair.

I still don’t know for certain that I’ve passed my exams, and if I have whether I’ll be getting a 2:2 or a 2:1, it could be a very close call. What I do know is that I’ve done all I can, and I gave it my best shot at undertaking a degree in Astrophysics. You see, Physics was the only subject in High School that I ever got a B in, and it is probably the only subject that has put me in tears before an exam many more times than once. Others struggle to understand why I would want to tackle a subject which frustrates, agonises and has a tendency to make me hysterical. I’m not even sure that I can answer this question, no matter how much I ponder over it. Maybe I like a challenge, or the opportunities that Astrophysics brings are irresistible (i.e. travel), or I’m just stupidly passionate about Astronomy. It’s probably a combination of everything, which has likely lingered as I find myself in receipt of a scholarship for the AstroMundus masters programme commencing this October.

Sometimes I have found myself talking to people who say they only succeed at everything they do. This shocked me, so I probed further. It turns out that this was because they only ever try anything that they know they are good at, knowing that they will be successful, terrified of failure or being imperfect. This seems like a huge shame and a tremendous waste, missing out on all of the surprising twists and turns that life can take us, opting to turn down opportunities due to this aura of insecurity. I am immensely proud of my failures, and I don’t think that I could have achieved a fraction of what I have accomplished if it wasn’t for all of the things that went “wrong”. How can we expect to learn and grow if we make sure that we only succeed 100% of the time? Our achievements are surely that much more impressive if we consider what it has taken to get there.

I’ll never forget the first year maths module that I failed, how I thought it sounded really interesting to learn some pure math and proofs and suchlike. It turned out to be a complete nightmare, and I desperately tried to get out of retaking the exam giving the excuse that I couldn’t afford to pay the extortionate resit fee. The University wouldn’t let me get away with this, and happily covered the costs as I was left looking over my dastard notes, finding it hard to muster the will to revise once more. I did pass the second time around, and vowed to never take a pure maths module again. Ok, possibly not the best example of trying something, failing and loving it anyway, I guess not everything is for everyone.

More prominently, at the end of second year I didn’t get the grades I needed to do the Masters course in St Andrews, and was put on the Bachelors programme instead. And although I got the Canadian Bobby Jones scholarship, I was told that I shouldn’t go because I didn’t have the grades. I was stubborn, and pleaded my case, determined to go no matter what. I had already bought the flight and paid a deposit on a place, further reinforcing my obstinacy. I definitely suffered the consequences of a year abroad, scraping by in most of my modules, and I failed another course, this time on the Interstellar Medium. If it wasn’t for the most amazing professor there (who took me out for lunch once, and bought me shopping when I was ill), I wouldn’t have appealed, and I wouldn’t have passed by the skin of my teeth. Yes, I have a high chance of graduating with a 2:2 because of my time abroad, despite never having worked so hard in my entire life, but I’d still do it again because experience outdoes any degree classification by far. I could take a tangent here and rant about how people are too obsessed with studying for the sake of getting a job, instead of the other way around, but I’ll refrain. For now.

Who knows where the future leads, but I’m sure that I’ll keep on crying over Physics, scraping by exams and fighting for the right to continue studying for reasons that I cannot explain. As long as I can keep on trying new things, regardless of success or failure, I’m happy.

The 40th day

It is said that the soul departs on the 40th day. Today is this day. I have tried to take Peter’s death as positively as possible. For me, it was hardest spending each day knowing that he was missing, expecting the worst, dreading the next ignorant message from a friend saying he’s probably fine and chilling somewhere, because I feared that if he was alive, he was alone and suffering beyond a place that anyone could empathise with. Many people never knew that Peter struggled with mental health, and the strength with which he battled it every single day was more than tremendous and admirable. He had an endless capacity to keep trying new things, determined to change and take on each day afresh, to find what it was that he both wanted and needed. His ability to move and juggle with trick sticks was astonishing; people assumed that magnets must be involved else he had to be breaking the laws of physics. Now that we know that Peter simply slipped off a wall, falling onto his back and crushing his head, makes me want to seize life with all of the vigour that I can muster. Anything could happen, at any time, so I am going to keep doing the things that terrify me and then do them more often.

I know that there is no use lingering over bad memories, or the things that I should have done or should have said, lest going insane. Now that Peter has the peace that he had often longed for, this comforts me in a way. I will remember the good times, his love of all things Miffy and his rambunctiousness. I saw some Miffy sticker books in the airport the other day and almost bought them. The strangest thing is looking through the photos, the memories, and knowing that I will never see that smile again in person. That we will no longer be able to tease each other and joke about how hopeless our present relationships are. I am certain that he will be looking out for me, and probably hanging out with my half-Brother smoking rollies and laughing hysterically with Rakiba.

I am also grateful to all of the loving messages from everyone around me, whether they knew him or not. Everyone has been perfect in giving me the space that I need but also checking in every now and then to drink tea and eat cake. I can’t thank you all enough, especially for being comfortable in the silence of the situation. It is wonderful to hear from so many others how fond they were of Peter, sharing stories of the crazy things that they got up to over the years, and that he will be remembered.

What has made these past few weeks even more confusing was dealing with both fantastic and tragic news simultaneously. A few days before the police contacted me to tell me that Peter was missing, I learnt that I didn’t get the scholarship that I had had my heart set on for the past year. I was shocked and devastated, because I had convinced myself that this was my destiny and I was going to get it, without question. That showed me. It didn’t make it any easier to hear that I was 6th on the list, of a 5 person shortlist. I know now how it feels to come fourth in the Olympics. So I moped about for a couple of days, feeling sorry for myself, freaking out because I didn’t have a plan for the future, and terrified of doors closing out opportunities all around me. Then hearing about Peter radically put everything into perspective, and everything else seemed meaningless and insignificant.

I was shocked into happiness some days later when I read an email saying that I had been accepted in AstroMundus and as a “highly ranked student” I have good chances of getting a scholarship. How unexpected! We were told we wouldn’t hear from them until May. AstroMundus is a 2 year Masters programme in Astrophysics, which takes place at a different University in a different country each semester. It starts in Innsbruck, followed by a choice of either Padua or Rome, and then Gottingen or Belgrade for the final semesters. I have heard that students either hate or love the course, it is either disorganised chaos, or exciting and stimulating. Despite any short comings that I may have, and having survived Canadian education for a year, I will make the most of the opportunity and throw myself into the deep end, adapting and morphing into the diverse cultures that Europe has to offer. This time last year I would flinch at the idea of ever doing a Masters, continuing to study physics seemed like the most appalling idea possible. So at least if I remain to struggle with the physics, as I always do, I’ll be enthralled by living in an entirely new environment every few months, meeting a never-ending avalanche of epic people.

A week later, when I was feeling down, I got a phone call from a couple of friends from Astronomy Camp. I presumed they were wondering how I was doing, and that I wasn’t drinking myself into a stupour in a gutter somewhere. But then they asked me what I would be doing in a months time and if I could come to Vienna. It clicked, surely the only explanation was that they were asking me if I could be a leader. I couldn’t have heard any better news! This put me in such a good mood, that I did one of those things that terrify me, where I have to stop myself from thinking too much and just do. I had been making eye contact with this really smoky guy, the third time that our eyes glanced simultaneously, he smiled and I knew that some sort of action must occur. I wrote “Coffee?” and my phone number on a missed delivery slip that I found at the bottom of my bag, and awkwardly tried to hand it to him as he was leaving. But then it fell on the floor so I ran for the door and hid in an alleyway.

I had to battle with my inner stubborn self to actually become a leader, since the meeting would clash with my choir concert in which we will be singing Paul Melor’s Crucifixus and Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, as well as 600 minutes of Swing dancing, but unfortunately I cannot do everything all at once, there will be other occasions for singing and dancing.

Farewell my dearest.