Still Alive and Organized

Things that happened this past term:

– Designed set for a show

– Designed costumes for a show

– Assistant lighting designer for a show

– Fight directed two shows

– Stage managed two shows (overlap with shows already mentioned)

– Participated in the bidding process for four shows (all successful)

– Launched website for the Oxford Research in English graduate journal

– Attended more (free) workshops on website design & coding, courtesy of IT services and the Humanities Division

– Researched & wrote 10,000-word paper for Transfer of Status

– Researched & wrote 1,000-word thesis proposal / outline / chapter breakdown for Transfer of Status

– Revised 5,000-word MA paper

– Presented aforementioned paper at conference in Denmark

– “Vacation”: an extra day and a half to tour museums and attractions in Aarhus after the conference

– Submitted (successfully) two applications for conference funding

– Wrote & submitted two more abstracts

– Part-time job #1 (notetaker)

– Part-time job #2 (research assistant)

For anyone who is worried about my sanity, or my academics, I submit that both my final year of high school and my middle year of undergrad were significantly busier than this, and I did survive both of the above. And however unlikely this may sound, I did also sleep, eat, and socialize in the last ten weeks!

(I did not, alas, have time to write blog posts … sorry. Something did have to go.)

As is perhaps clear, “busy” seems to be my natural state: I really don’t like being bored, and my response to having time on my hands is to promptly find a way to fill it doing as many interesting (read: challenging) things as possible.

I am also, apparently, completely unable to pick just one field on which to focus my time, energy, and attention. The “about me” section of my Facebook page for the past several years has read “Medieval Literature. Theoretical physics. Theatre.” – five words that fairly succinctly sum up the problem I faced in high school, and through undergrad, and through my MA, and of course now while working on the DPhil: finding a single career that combines all of my main interests seems to be utterly impossible.

I had no particularly good career- or degree- related reason, for instance, for showing up at seminars in Toronto on semi-simple Lie algebras. Or for attending the physics department’s research colloquium pretty much every week. (Yes, said talks did provide the material for several articles later published by the student newspaper, for which I was a writer & copyeditor, but that was not preplanned! And to be fair, the math seminars did also feed into the writing of my term paper for the literary theory class for my MA in English. Literary theory is not usually my cup of tea, but in this case I had the slightly wild idea of analyzing Saussure’s and Derrida’s use of mathematical terms and metaphors in relation to the actual math. I have to say that dragging topology and complex analysis into an English essay resulted in a much more entertaining writing process!)

Nor can I particularly justify the purchase of the particle physics textbook that I picked up from Blackwell’s as a Christmas present, nor the amount of time that I spend reading the Journal of Mathematical Physics, nor the time spent (figuratively) banging my head against the computer while trying to make sense of p-adic Hodge theory.

The amount of time I’ve spent working on theatre this term, meanwhile, can only be justified if you consider that while the post-DPhil Plan A might currently be to get a tenure-track job in academia, Plan B does involve a combination of theatre and part-time teaching, and thus taking advantage of the opportunities in Oxford to get more experience in all things tech-theatre-related is indeed relevant. But five shows in eight weeks? Surely this is a little bit excessive …

Well, yes. And no.

The problem, ultimately, is that I have spent years reenacting variations on the following pattern: a) I decide to do X, Y, and/or Z. b) My friends, parents, teachers, mentors, etc. think I’m crazy and/or that it’s impossible. c) I ignore them and do X, Y, and Z successfully anyways.

It took, in fact, my graduation from undergrad with the highest average in any year in my department, for my mother to finally concede that maybe I was in fact capable of balancing academics and theatre successfully. (The previous three years had been a fairly steady stream of “you’re taking on too much; it’ll affect your marks; you’re sacrificing future academic opportunities”, despite all evidence to the contrary.)

So, while it could undoubtedly be criticized as at least somewhat arrogant, my default, and usually accurate, assumption is that what I can get done – or learn – in a given amount of time is almost always far more than anyone else is willing to believe that I can.

This is largely due to a sometimes obsessive tendency towards organization and micro-managing my schedule weeks or months in advance. Combine this with a serious anti-procrastination streak, and this explains why my Grade 12 Biology summative assignment was done by the end of March Break when it was due in June, or why my calendar for the last months of my MA literally had a specific number of hours assigned to each essay, with how many words should be written by what time, or why three shows and three exams in forty-eight hours resulted in the highest semester average of my entire degree – because I’d planned and studied so thoroughly in advance.

It’s also due to the problem noted at the beginning of this post: I’m at my best when challenged, and that leads to pushing my own limits as far as they will reasonably go – which, when the level of hyper-organization and pre-planning I’ll bring to bear just increases and increases with an increased workload – can be quite far.

But from previous experience hitting those limits, I’d like to think that I’ve got a decent sense of just how far I can push before the increased organization can’t compensate anymore. And while this term came pretty close – and getting sick for three weeks in the middle of it certainly didn’t help – I will be doing it again. Because, well, would I get more done if I just focused on one thing? Maybe. Probably. Would I be any happier? Definitely not – in fact, I suspect I’d be pretty miserable. (Besides, I’m already signed up to design lighting for a show this coming term. Possibly the most exciting challenge in quite a while!)

Bottom line: when I say that the semester was “busy” – that’s a good thing. And I’m still not insane, still not swamped, still not altering space-time or otherwise subverting the laws of physics … just doing lots of things that I love, all at the same time.


I Am An Oxford Student


A month after touching down in London’s Heathrow airport, I suppose it’s time for a belated update: I am an officially matriculated doctoral student at the University of Oxford. My assignment from my supervisor for the first term is basically to read everything in sight, and follow up on anything interesting by (guess what!) doing further reading, so I’ve had to spend a great deal of time running around and finding all the libraries and figuring out how they work. It has been a great deal of fun but has not left a great deal of time for writing.

Aside from reading, I’ve joined the Oxford Union (debating society) and the Tolkien society; I’ll be the assistant stage manager for a production of Sondheim’s Assassins coming up later this month; and I’ve become a copyeditor for The Oxford Student and a news writer for Bang! Science – the local student-run science magazine. I’ve also managed to find the sports centre, where the archery club and pistol club both hold practices. I’ve also, of course, spent a great deal of time figuring out the myriad idiosyncrasies of Oxford, some of which are attributable to UK/Canada differences in general, and most of which are just Oxford being Oxford: the unofficial motto, after all, probably goes something along the lines of “Well, we’ve been doing it that way since the 12th century …”!

So without further ado, here’s a quick run down of the awesome and the irritating (there aren’t many) aspects of adjusting to life at Oxford!


On the plus side:

– The libraries are absolutely gorgeous, and ancient, and possibly indescribable to anyone who hasn’t visited them. (I think “sublime” is possibly the right word here, and I use it with a full awareness of its usual application in Romantic writing and criticism.)

– Warmer weather means that I’m able to do a large amount of reading and studying outside (Addison’s Walk, the Botanical Gardens, the Christ Church Meadow, the Exeter College Fellows’ Garden, etc.)

– The ease of ordering, and consulting, rare books

– The Turville-Petre room in the English Faculty is dedicated solely to Old Norse-Icelandic books, and is simply an amazing place

– Blackwell’s (the major bookstore across the street from Exeter and the Bodleian) is as large as any library, stocks everything, has a café on the first floor, two floor-to-ceiling bookcases dedicated exclusively to Tolkien, multiple editions of every classic book you can name, a rare books section, a second-hand books section, the largest room of books I’ve ever seen (the Norrington Room), a fabulously large language section, with novels in French and German (and Russian and Welsh and Spanish and all sorts of others), a superb collection of mathematics, physics, and astronomy textbooks, and comfy chairs to sit and read.

– Oxford has a critical mass of medievalists which is simply a joy. The Old Norse literature and language classes I am auditing draw about twenty-five people a week; the Beowulf class closer to sixty. The Tolkien & Beowulf departmental seminar last week had to move to the main lecture theatre because too many people showed up to fit in the seminar room. We’ve got a core group of medievalists within Exeter College, as well – perhaps surprising giving how small Exeter actually is.

– There are at least two main medieval literature seminars per week, and seminars do not apparently happen at this university without an abundance of free tea, coffee, and biscuits (aka cookies). Wine and/or champagne is also fairly common.

– Not only is there a student-run Old Norse reading group, and an Old English reading group, there is apparently also an Old Frisian reading group. The modus operandi of all of the above is to meet up in a pub, read a text aloud, and translate it on the spot – the default assumption is that one’s language ability is sufficiently good to do this without having done any preparation in advance.

– My new part-time job with the Disability Advisory Service: I’m paid to attend engaging lectures, by world-famous academics, that are teaching relevant skills for my research – and to take notes, which I would have done anyways.

– Lots and lots of great cafés and bakeries

– The Oxford Union: where my love of rhetoric and Cicero can run riot. The weekly debates expect speakers – and students – not only to be good at constructing and defending an argument, but also to be good at delivery, style, and rhetoric. Also, scheduled guests for this term alone include the producers of Game of Thrones, Buzz Aldrin, Ian McKellen, Stephen Fry, Jo Brand, Viviane Reding (EU Commission), Muhammad Yunus (Nobel Peace Prize, 2006), Eric Schmidt & Jonathan Rosenberg (Google), Jack Dorsey (Twitter), Imelda Marcos … and more British MPs than I can possibly count or name. They also run competitive debating workshops, which I have started to attend. (After my first (practice) attempt at opening a debate, I was promptly told I should be either a lawyer or a politician – I am still not sure whether to take this as a compliment!)

– Free dinners & speaker events at Exeter College: this past Sunday, Lord Butler of Brockwell (UK parliamentary committee on intelligence) came to give a talk, and in a couple of weeks, Peter Jackson (yes, the Peter Jackson) will be coming to Exeter for one of their 700th anniversary lectures. Also, Exeter’s catering staff are generally very good at coming up with excellent food. And wine. There is always wine.

– The Language Centre: offers well-taught, fast-paced courses for the fee of £35 per year, unless of course you can prove that studying said language is relevant to your research (in my case: German), in which case there is no fee at all.


On the less positive side:

– Smoking seems to be much more common and more socially acceptable in public places; given that the smell of cigarette smoke gives me a headache almost instantly, this is not a good thing.

– All the tourists! I realize that Oxford is a magnet for tourism, but even during the week – during the school term – there are simply hordes of them. And my normal walking speed is about twice or three times as fast as the average tourist’s, which makes them a decided inconvenience when I’m trying to get from one class to another in five minutes.

– My dear suitemates have not quite mastered the idea of silence after 11pm; fortunately for my continued sanity, Exeter House does have people who enforce the rules.

– Clothing. Sorting out when to wear (“formal” clothing + gown) vs. (sub fusc + gown) vs. (formal clothing + no gown) vs. (sub fusc + no gown) is quite the interesting – albeit also amusing – challenge. (For the uninitiated: sub fusc involves black shoes, black stockings and skirt or black trousers and black socks, white shirt, black suit jacket (men), and either a black tie, a white bow tie, or a black ribbon tie. Yes, the rules are enforced; showing up wearing white socks to an exam is apparently a really bad idea.) Also, the knee-length pencil skirt seems to be an everyday and fairly universal women’s wardrobe item in this town: people bike in them. I’ve definitely made a few improvements to my wardrobe since arriving in Oxford, but as someone who values being able to walk properly, all I can say is I won’t be adopting that trend any time soon.


But frankly, I have nothing to complain about, because somehow – I’m still not sure how, and I do keep needing to pinch myself – I’m in Oxford. And I get to ignore all the “private” signs telling tourists to keep out, because I’m also a student here. And somehow I have the audacity to walk the paths that Tolkien and Lewis and so very many other famous people walked, and sit and study and write and learn there.

I have no idea where I’ll end up, but hopefully it’s an auspicious beginning!

Why Graduate School?


There is an awful lot of material out there on the Internet about graduate school, the basic drift of which is that doing a PhD in the humanities is absolutely pointless because you’ll waste years that you could be working, and you’ll probably end up hating the program and your thesis, and you’ll very likely not have a job afterwards because the academic job market is horrible.

Having read the wisdom/negativity that the Internet has to offer, and having been given frank assessments of graduate school and academic life more generally by a number of professors and fellow students, I am still planning to do my doctorate.


Because the worst-case scenario actually goes like this:

I graduate with my doctorate at twenty-four (or twenty-five, or twenty-six, depending on the length of the program), with no student debt whatsoever. I don’t find a tenure-track job. I end up as an adjunct while pursuing a theatre career on the side, or end up switching back over into editing or journalism or writing or publishing or library science or any of a few dozen other related fields that I enjoy – where my MA might be handy, but where I certainly wouldn’t need a PhD. Or I go back and finish a physics degree and do something else entirely. (I have done crazier things!)

I will also have spent three to five years living in a great city, at a world-class school, with mind-blowingly fabulous library resources, being paid to study and research what I love in the company of professors and fellow students who love it as much as I do. (And who can give me a run for my money in discussions!) I’ll know an awful lot more than I do now about a group of  languages that I have been fascinated with since about age fourteen, and about the English language more generally. I’ll have grown as a writer and as a scholar.

I’ll also have had three to five more years to show up at all the physics and astrophysics and math department colloquia in my spare time. And I will have been paid to spend three to five years living in or next to a city that is at the heart of its country’s respective theatre scene (Toronto / NYC / London), with all the accompanying opportunities for training and auditioning and performing and building my artistic résumé.

… now that doesn’t sound so bad, does it?

Now, I am also optimistic enough to imagine that I do in fact have a shot at an academic job afterwards, but if that Plan A doesn’t happen, I can also produce plans B through Z, in none of which do I see myself regretting the years spent doing the PhD.

(Or, to sum up rather simplistically: I like reading and studying and writing. Someone’s offering to pay me a salary to do just that for the next five years? Seriously? This sounds like an awesome idea! And though I’d love to be a professor, and will work towards that end, I won’t consider myself to have wasted my time if that doesn’t happen.)

So my own thoughts on the “graduate school in the humanities” problem:

– Don’t do it if it’s just something to do while you’re figuring out what you actually want to do.

– Don’t do it if it requires getting into debt. (Aka: it should be funded.)

– If you want an academic job afterwards, the reality of the situation is that you should be going to a top school. I applied to some “safety net” schools for my Masters, but didn’t bother for the PhD – because if the only schools I could get into were the “safety nets,” then I figured I should probably be re-evaluating my choice to pursue the doctorate in the first place. Also, the academic job market is such that you need to be willing to move. I’m not tied down to any one location, but that is obviously not the case for everyone.

– Get as much information as you can, so that you’re making an informed decision. I already know what being a teaching assistant is like, so I know exactly what I’m signing myself up for when a university tells me that part of my funding is dependent on working X number of hours as a TA. I also know what working on an independent research project is like – again, I’ve done it. And I know I enjoy it.

– Be realistic: if you only want an academic job and think the world will end if you don’t get one – you may be setting yourself up for disappointment. Keep your other options open.

But if you have a field of study that you love, where you excel, where even the most minute of details are fascinating, and where “work” and “what you like to do for fun” are essentially synonyms?

Then go forth and prosper.

To Write a Research Proposal (SSHRC)


Or, the elephant in the room: what I’ve really been spending the last three months doing when I’ve been holed up in either my room or the library or UOttawa’s library.


Preparing graduate applications involves pulling together quite a few different pieces, all of which are equally important and necessary … but to borrow shamelessly from George Orwell, some are more equal than others.


For anyone who hasn’t dealt with the grad school admissions process, the list of important pieces looks like this:

1. Transcripts.

2. Letters of recommendation – two or three, depending on the application.

3. CV: teaching experience, research experience, and publications.

4. For schools in the United States: the GRE General test, and the GRE English Literature subject test.

5. A 15-20 page writing sample.

6. The statement of purpose (MA) or research proposal (PhD).


Most of these I don’t have to lose too much sleep over. My transcripts are great, sure, and so are the transcripts of every other applicant. All that’s required here is to remember to order them, and check to make sure they’ve arrived. My recommenders know me and my work well – and I don’t see what they write, so there’s very little point in worrying about it. The only difficulty here is making sure that they get all the information they need: CV, transcripts, the graded copies of the essays I submitted in their classes, forms, and so forth. My CV is, again, respectable, but it’s not likely to make or break my application. Many, many students successfully apply to graduate school without any research or teaching experience whatsoever. My test scores? Well, I wrote the GRE tests halfway through my second year of undergrad, well before starting MA applications, and did sufficiently well that there would be absolutely no point to rewriting them this year. So no headaches on that score!


That leaves arguably the most important entries on the list: the writing sample and the research proposal. For most schools, it would be hard to overemphasize the importance of the writing sample – it’s a graduate program in English, for goodness’s sake, they want to know if you can write. And if you can develop a logical argument and so forth.


But in the case of grant applications, like the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC)’s doctoral fellowships, an applicant doesn’t submit a writing sample at all – the only sample of the applicant’s writing that the committee will ever see is the two-page research proposal.


In other words, of all the entries on the list, this is the time-consuming one. Which might seem baffling, at first glance. After all, two pages? Single-spaced? That’s only a thousand words!


Well, yes, but in those thousand words you must convince the reader of your own thorough knowledge of all the existing work in your field, establish your credentials to carry out research in this field, describe your proposed thesis, identify how your thesis will extend current knowledge in said field and engage with current questions or debates in the field, discuss your methodology or theoretical approach, demonstrate that you have a clear plan for how you will carry out this research, and make a cogent argument for why this research is so interesting and so necessary that the federal government must provide up to $105,000 worth of funding to support it. It must also, practically speaking, be written in such a way that any moderately intelligent non-specialist reader will understand it, because it could very well be read by committee members who specialize in Chinese history or developmental psychology.


Hence the reason that when I was applying for MA programs, I started work on my statement in April, when it wasn’t due until October.


I didn’t get started quite that early for PhD applications, mostly because I was in Vancouver for most of May and June, but on the other hand I was able to build on the work I’d previously done for the MA applications, so I guess it balanced out alright. My main project, for the last half of the summer, was the literature review: it’s very hard to obtain a thorough knowledge of all the existing work in a field without, well, reading said existing scholarship. Mercifully the University of Ottawa did not cut off my access to their online databases over the summer, which meant I was able to consult articles online without any difficulty, and in early August, I made a special trip to Toronto to get my library card and subsequently to borrow about thirty volumes from Robarts Library. (At last count, I now have just over fifty volumes checked out and piled on my desk.)


… and I’m in a pretty obscure field, as fields go! I shudder to think of what writing a research proposal that had anything to do with Shakespeare would entail.


All that being said, it’s a really useful exercise in terms of focusing a research project – it forces you to clarify ideas, to be concise, and to delve quite deeply into one narrow subsection of a field.


Or, at least for me it has been useful, since my problem with graduate statements has never been that I don’t have ideas for a proposal. My problem has, rather, been that I have far too many ideas, and writing a proposal forces me to pick one, and only one, and focus it down to something that I could reasonably finish in three years. 


At the same time, it’s definitely a relief to remember that I’m not setting the next three-to-five years of my life in stone. I am writing an application, and most students will change topics entirely or even change fields over the course of their graduate career. Obviously I’ve picked a project that I’m very much interested in and would like to pursue further; obviously I’ve chosen something that I could reasonably see myself spending three years or so developing into a thesis. But if I decide in six months’ time that I don’t want to write on anything to do with the Old Norse sagas or Anglo-Saxon poetry, and want to switch to American modernism instead, the world will not come to a crashing halt. (Er, that is definitely not going to happen, but the point is still valid!) This is especially true of MA applications, but it’s also true of PhD applications: you’re being evaluated on your ability to research and write an intelligent proposal. No one, apparently, expects you to follow it to the letter afterwards.


It still has to be written. So I am very, very relieved to say that SSHRC, at least for this year, is over.


(Now I just have to rewrite it and tailor it to each individual school and program that I’m applying to …)

“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!