“The Pleasure of Finding Things Out”


Toronto International Film Festival. Chess Club. Memorizing paradigms. Carmen. Rapier Wit. Auditions. Physics Colloquium. Robarts. Gerstein. Teaching Fundamentals Certification. HH Chamber Strings. Copyediting. Translation assignments. Archery Club. The Mythgard Institute. Astronomy and Space Exploration Society. SSHRC and PhD applications. Quizbowl.

Free time???

I’m borrowing the title of this post from a Richard Feynman book because it really is a good phrase to describe my first two weeks in Toronto! I’ll get back to books, language, and science shortly, but since I haven’t written anything about Toronto yet and I’ve been doing a lot of exploring, I’m going to hit a few of the highlights:

Free Food

What can I say? Every student organization at this university has concluded that it is impossible to hold an orientation or a welcome without giving out free food. Grad House had a barbeque the night I arrived, the Graduate Student Union hosted a barbeque the next night, and the Graduate English Association has hosted more receptions than I can count. The Graduate English Association also seems to operate on the principle that no meeting is complete without visiting a pub afterwards and distributing free beer. (I say “free” … I am sure it’s included in my student fees somehow.) Grad House also hosts weekly coffee nights, and though 9 pm is much too late for coffee as far as I’m concerned, the cupcakes are delicious.

Grad House

The graduate student residence is lovely – I seem to have won a room on the Floor of Sepulchral Silence. This has a number of distinct advantages, the foremost being that I can study quite contentedly in my room if I don’t feel like walking to one of the libraries or to my individual study carrel in the English building. My suitemates are possibly quieter than me, if such a thing is possible! For violin, piano, vocal, and monologue practices, there is a music room in the basement, which has a well-tuned piano, sound-proof walls, and has been free every time I’ve stopped by. The subway is a very short walk; the bank is across the street; the library is next door; and there’s a grocery store within a block. Also, a ten-minute walk will put me in Chinatown, where there are a couple of fabulous inexpensive bakeries.

And for someone who’s used to getting up at 6:30 am to commute to 8:30 am classes, the five-minute walk to the Jackman Humanities Building is definitely a luxury!

On Stage: Carmen and Rapier Wit

About a month and a half ago, an audition notice went out for dancers and extra performers in a production of Carmen that just finished playing in Ottawa at the National Arts Centre (Opera Lyra). I had to talk myself out of auditioning, and I’m sorry to have missed it, because quite a few of my friends ended up performing! Last Friday, however, I did make it out to the ‘Buddies in Bad Times’ theatre here in Toronto, to see their production of Carmen. There were some stellar performances from the leads, and the most interesting thing about the production, for me, was the director’s choice to set the production in post-WWI New York City, explaining Don José’s erratic and violent behaviour as a consequence of post-traumatic stress disorder.

My own theatrical endeavours have also begun – I’m doing my next level of stage combat certification with Fight Directors Canada, so Tuesday nights I do two hours of unarmed martial arts followed by two hours of broadsword, and Wednesday nights are two hours of smallsword followed by two hours of rapier and dagger. Rapier and dagger is one of my personal favourites (two blades equals twice as much mental gymnastics equals twice as much fun), but I’m also a big fan of smallsword, because it requires so much precision. Smallsword is also the one weapon where I can keep switching hands – I’ve made a point of learning to be ambidextrous when it comes to stage combat, but whether you’re right- or left-handed doesn’t really matter for broadsword or rapier and dagger, since you automatically use both hands anyways.

About a third of Tuesday’s class was dedicated to obstacle rolls, which was a great refresher – it’s a lovely technique to be able to pull out of your back pocket on set, or on stage, mostly because sporadically dive-rolling over a hospital bed dodging bullets, or picking up a rapier mid-roll, or rolling over a table with a quarterstaff in hand … well, just simply looks awesome. It’s also a technique that I’ve had to spend quite a bit of time practicing over the last few years, because when I was first introduced to unarmed stage combat techniques in Montreal back in 2010, I’d never done an aikido roll in my life – I didn’t even know what one was.

I’ve also had a few auditions , and though I won’t hear anything definite for a few days yet, it was good to dust off some of my monologues from the spring and play with them again.

The Physics Colloquium

The University of Toronto’s physics department has a weekly colloquium on Thursday afternoons, where invited speakers from all over North America give a one-hour talk on some aspect of their current research, followed by a time for questions and discussion. Last week’s presentation was by Jim Sethna, of Cornell University, and concerned the mathematical methods that scientists use to model reactions in systems biology. It was a cool presentation for a number of reasons – one, his research draws on fields that normally don’t talk to each other much (using differential geometry and geodesics and hyper-ribbons to work out problems in cell biology); and two, the mathematical results are beautiful.

He and his team have been looking at a long sequence of protein reactions (it’s not just a single sequence – there are two secondary pathways and a feedback loop thrown in as well, but for simplicity’s sake, it’s a series of reactions that results in the production of a certain amount of a new protein). Theoretically, in order to create a model that would accurately describe the results, they would have to account for forty-eight different independent parametres; when you actually look at the equations, this works out to a system of twenty-nine (non-linear, of course, everything interesting has to be modelled by a non-linear equation!) differential equations. It’s impossible to find these individual parametres with any degree of accuracy – the most accurate ones vary by a factor of fifty, and the least accurate can vary by factors of almost a million.

However, it turns out that certain combinations of parametres affect possible predictions more than other combinations of parametres. One of Professor Sethna’s recent students, Mark Transtrum, worked out a way (which makes perfect mathematical sense, but does require a decent knowledge of differential geometry to understand, so I won’t go into depth here – for details, the department posts recordings of all of their colloquia online*) to figure out which combinations of parametres were “stiff”, and which ones were “sloppy” – in other words, which parametres could be effectively discarded while maintaining a model that fit the experimental data as well as the original model. A conceptually parallel approach, known as renormalization, has been actually used in quantum field theory since the 1940s.

Bottom line is that instead of a system of twenty-nine non-linear differential equations with forty-eight parametres, it becomes a system of six differential equations with twelve parametres (AKA it is, in fact, possible to solve!) and the new model still makes highly accurate predictions about the amounts of the different proteins that are produced.

This week’s colloquium – and yes, it’s definitely in my calendar – is entitled “The Lunar Surface: A Dusty Plasma Laboratory”, and will include an update on the status of the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer mission, which was just launched on September 9th.

The Varsity

I used to copyedit and (very occasionally) write for the University of Ottawa’s student newspaper, The Fulcrum, so over the summer I did a little research on U of T’s journalism scene, and sent off an email to the senior copyeditor of The Varsity, which has been published since 1880 and therefore is apparently the second-oldest student newspaper in Canada. Saturday and Sunday afternoons, therefore, have been spent with pen and highlighter in hand – correcting spelling errors, changing awkward wording, and adding the missing Oxford commas.

I’ll also be writing for the science section in a few upcoming papers – I had already purchased tickets to the inaugural Toronto Science Festival, coming up at the end of the month and featuring a keynote talk by astronaut Julie Payette, so I’ll be covering that, and apparently I’ve also been volun(told) to write a couple of other articles.


I play academic trivia because it’s a great deal of fun, it’s a good way to meet awesome people, and it’s a guaranteed way to learn quirky, interesting, or simply bizarre random facts – not because I’ve ever been exceptionally good at it. However, I thoroughly approve of question packs that allow me to power questions on Tolkien’s obscure works and minor characters in Carmen, and then have bonus questions on both a) founder of structural linguistics Ferdinand de Saussure and b) black holes, event horizons, and the work of Jacob Bekenstein and Stephen Hawking on the “no hair” theorem. (Packs that include both Tolkien and black holes are pretty rare!)

Oh, Yes, Classes …

Lest everyone now think that Jen is spending all her time in Toronto taking in the sights and running around to various extracurriculars without doing any work, I should probably mention that everything I’ve talked about thus far is what I’ve been doing in my, er, free time, and that the majority of the hours of any given day have actually been spent buried in books, translations, and linguistic paradigms.

I have three classes this semester, and the highlight of the entire week was a guest lecture in my Old English course, given by Professor Andy Orchard. Prof. Orchard has taught at the University of Toronto for years, but is leaving to take up the Bosworth and Rawlinson Professorship of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford – the post that Tolkien once held, and arguably the single most prestigious position in the field. He’s an excellent lecturer, and it was really quite exciting to meet him in person after having read far more of his books than I should probably admit to.

My other classes are Old Norse (we’re currently translating selections from the Prose Edda), and Critical Topographies, which is common to all English MA students at the University of Toronto and charts developments in literary theory. It’s quite similar to the critical theory course I took as an undergrad, but with about twice as much reading. I have already read about half of the reading on the course syllabus, thanks to previous work, so for those who have accused me of starting to write final essays on the day the assignment is given out … in the case of Critical Topographies, I must confess the accusation to be justified. And in the case of Old English, I have no final essay, but over the last couple of days I’ve finished the weekly translation assignments through until almost the end of October; I can claim no such diligence in Old Norse, though, mostly because I don’t know it nearly as well!

The other major project I have underway is my research proposal for PhD applications – but that’s going to have to be a separate post, because it’s almost midnight.

… and because I’m both a Tolkien nerd and an Old English nerd, I have to close, at least once, with the following:

Wes þú hál!



One comment on ““The Pleasure of Finding Things Out”

  1. Hi! So I ended up on this page after looking around for info on the Master’s in English at UofT, and clearly you sailed through it in your day. I would really love to talk to you/pick your brain full of experiences about making the most of my year there in order to get to the PhD level. If possible, could you please respond here or email me at briangilles5@gmail.com with your email, so I could ask a few questions? I would greatly appreciate it.

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