“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!



The Books I Can’t Live Without?


I move to Toronto tomorrow morning. So instead of doing something practical, like rushing around like the proverbial headless chicken wondering what I have forgotten to pack, I’m writing a blog post about books.

There are all sorts of things that I’m terribly excited for when I get to Toronto. The program, the classes I’m taking, the professors, the library resources, living next door to “Fort Book,” the theatre scene (and the three auditions I have lined up for my first week!), the discounted student tickets to the National Ballet, stage combat classes, the fact that the athletic centre is right across the street …

But when I accepted my offer of residence at Grad House, there was one thing I was definitely not looking forward to: sorting through my books. If you’ve ever been to my house, you know that the basement is home to a 4,000-tome family library, and that’s not including any of my father’s books (roughly another 4,000 volumes, split between his study at home and his study at work). Upstairs, I have six full bookcases of my own, including a large one that takes up most of the closest – when forced to choose between removing two-thirds of my clothes and letting the myriad unshelved books take over the floor in ungainly heaps, I opted for ditching the clothes.

And honestly, that is pretty standard for me. I am a fairly uncomplicated nerd in many ways. When I go on vacation, I always come back with a stack of new books, because I always run out of things to read – even if it’s only a three-day trip. I have never been known to splurge on handbags or heels, but when armed with a debit card, it is a dangerous thing to send me into a bookstore unaccompanied or without a budget – especially a really good used bookstore, like the one I discovered in Vancouver this summer. And when, a couple months ago, a friend asked me what I would do with a million dollars, my answer was straightforward: order a hard copy of the Oxford English Dictionary (20 volumes, $1,000), go to Oxford for my doctorate ($150,000), buy some more books, and put the rest of the money in the bank.


At Grad House there will be only one small bookcase in my room, and bringing additional furniture, aka more bookcases, is strictly forbidden.

Drastic measures have been required. Ruthless sessions of sorting have been followed by adding just one more back onto the pile … and one more … and one more … followed by more ruthless sessions of sorting.

But the six bookcases taking up all available wall space in my room have been whittled down to just over fifty volumes, which fit in two small crates, and generally fall into one or both of the following categories:

– The first, and largest, category is for books that are directly related to my studies (Old English textbooks, E.V. Gordon’s Introduction to Old Norse, various editions of Beowulf, the complete Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records, the Prose Edda, the Poetic Edda, and quite a few others).

– The second category is for books I have decided I do not wish to live without. The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records fit into this category quite nicely as well – there are really quite a few books from category one that also belong in category two – but this is really the category for stuff like the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, the Complete Sherlock Holmes, Watership Down, and The Silmarillion. 

What’s most interesting about the second category is not only what I’ve included – which might be a totally different set of books if I was posed the same question ten years from now – but what has been left on the shelves. There are, for instance, virtually no fantasy books other than Tolkien’s in the pile for Toronto. When push came to shove, only Tolkien and Eddings made the cut. And three-quarters of my (many) Tolkien-related books are still on the shelves, including most volumes of the History of Middle-Earth – except The Book of Lost Tales, Part 2, and Lays of Beleriand, which did make it into the crates for Toronto.

Most of the Great Books of the Western World series will be left behind – as much as I’d like to have Newton’s Principia Mathematica handy, I won’t use it regularly, and somehow I’m pretty sure Robarts Library has a copy if I really want one. (Actually, I know they do, because I just looked it up … not only do they have translations in abundance, they have original copies in the Rare Book library. I may be geeking out about that one.)

Most of my dictionaries have been left behind. Only Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged is coming; all the books on Latin and Greek word roots are not. Neither is the Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, nor Bioscientific Terminology, nor the Rhyming Dictionary, nor the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, nor the Finnish, Spanish, French, or Latin dictionaries that usually sit right beside my bed – again, either I can access an equivalent online, or I’ll just have to walk the two hundred metres from residence to the library.

Which is the most amusing part of the whole problem, for me. Not only am I going to be living right beside the main library of the University of Toronto, which has one of the largest library systems in North America, two of the largest branches of the Toronto Public Library are within walking distance.

Whatever books I am taking, therefore, are the books that I want to have within arm’s reach.


Quite probably, but still – here’s the list:

Category 1:

1. Beowulf (bilingual edition, trans. Seamus Heaney)

2. Beowulf (bilingual edition, trans. Howell D. Chickering)

3. A Choice of Anglo-Saxon Verse

4. Old English Shorter Poems

5. The History of the Kings of Britain (Geoffrey Monmouth)

6. Morte Darthur (Thomas Malory)

7. Arthurian Romances (Chretien de Troyes)

8. The Sagas of Icelanders

9. The Saga of the Volsungs

10. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

11. The Monsters and the Critics and other essays (J.R.R. Tolkien and in category two, but it definitely belongs here as well)

12. The Prose Edda

13. The Poetic Edda

14. An Introduction to Old Norse (E.V. Gordon)

15. An Old High German Primer (Joseph Wright)

16. A Primer of the Gothic Language (Joseph Wright)

17. The Canterbury Tales (Geoffrey Chaucer)

18. Word-hoard: an Introduction to Old English Vocabulary (Stephen A. Barney)

19. A Guide to Old English (Mitchell and Robinson)

20. Medieval Latin (ed. K.P. Harrington)

21. Wheelock’s Latin

22. The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records (6 volumes)

23. The Norton Anthology of English Literature (6 volumes)

24. Paradise Lost (John Milton)

Category 2:

25. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Arden edition)

26. The Complete Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

27. The Silmarillion (J.R.R. Tolkien)

28. The Hobbit (J.R.R. Tolkien)

29. The Lord of the Rings (3 volumes) (J.R.R. Tolkien)

30. The Book of Lost Tales, Part 2 (J.R.R. Tolkien)

31. Lays of Beleriand (J.R.R. Tolkien)

32. Polgara the Sorceress (David Eddings)

33. Watership Down (Richard Adams)

34. The Three Musketeers (Alexandre Dumas)

35. Mara, Daughter of the Nile (Eloise Jarvis McGraw)

36. A Conneticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (Mark Twain)

37. Linear Algebra (Nicholson)

38. Quantum Mechanics (Scherrer)

39. Modern Physics (Serway, Moses, and Moyer)

40. The Singer’s Musical Theatre Anthology (soprano, 3 volumes)

41. The Bibliophile’s Dictionary (Miles Westley)