Inflation @ Stanford

23 - 04 - 2012

By Sander Mooij

Now that I am in my fourth year as a PhD student, I thought it would be interesting to work in another institute for some time. And see: after collecting some money at Nikhef and sending a couple of emails back and forth (and surviving a lengthy conversation with US customs), here I am at the Stanford Institute for Theoretical Physics!

First I have to write something about the Stanford campus. Being used to Science Park dimensions, I am extremely impressed. I did expect many institutes, libraries and student housings, but not such an entire organism. Why can’t there be a Nikhef Football Stadium? Or a Science Park golf course? Or a nursery and an elementary school? Well, probably because we lack some millionaires donating to Nikhef to have their name on a building (“see you at William Gates”). Besides I guess it’s also the Stanford brand (there is a dedicated clothing store here) that generates substantial income. And, oh yes, we don’t ask 26000 dollars per semester from our students. Anyway: this is enormous. The eternal blue sky above all of this doesn’t hurt either. (By the way: I should mention that my colleague-PhD students are most proud of the fact that the Stanford campus needs TWO zip codes.)

In the institute I mainly work with Russian Andrei Linde, who – just before my birth – was one of the founders of the paradigm of cosmological inflation, which is exactly what my PhD is about. About three times a week we have lengthy discussions in which one is mainly talking and the other is mainly taking notes. Needless to say that I profit a lot. Most often Andrei’s wife, supergravity expert Renata Kallosh, joins the conversation as well. All offices have blackboards reaching up to the ceiling. Being two meters tall this gives me a whole private space to write.

I share a visitor’s office with Taiwanese professor Kim W. Ng. The Stanford PhDs work either in some large mixed space, or in a small office with three or four, or – for those who are finishing – in an extremely small private space. No, that could never beat my good old H321b at Nikhef! Especially because the hierarchy here is such that only postdocs and staff (and visitors) have windows in their offices.

The atmosphere in the institute is quite OK. People are pretty accessible – also the big shots. I know that this sounds like a brochure but it is exactly what I would call “an inspiring and interacting work atmosphere”. Many talks and seminars are organized (last week we had Gerard ‘t Hooft). Lenny Susskind, the head of the group, sits in front and explains, when discussions take too long, in one phrase what the confusion is all about, and that the speaker should continue.

And then at 7 I take my beautiful race bike (169 dollars at the Walmart supermarket) and leave the “Stanford Bubble”. I live about seven kilometres away, with an Indian guy and another Dutch physicist, Joris van Heijningen, who has just finished a one-year internship at our R&D group. It is a small world!