at a conference

Right now I’m at the International Symposium on Theoretical and Computational Chemistry – 2010: High Performance Computing Simulations.

Yeah, I don’t know what any of that means either.

The conference is in Harbin, which is in the northern part of China, in the province adjacent to Russia. And yeah, it’s pretty damn cold here. In fact, one of my friends told me that the name “Harbin” comes from the fact that when you walk outside it’s so cold you immediately go “Hhhaaaarrr” and your breath turns to ice, which in Chinese is “bin“.

Makes sense to me.

We took the overnight train to get here. This seems like a good idea in theory because it’s an 11-hour trip, so if you take the train at night it’s like you’re getting free lodging for the price of your transportation. Unfortunately it doesn’t actually work that way because some silly asshole had their phone going off like every 10 minutes the entire freaking night, and another guy was snoring. So it was more like free sleepless misery for the price of transportation, but it was cheaper than flying and I didn’t pay for it anyway.

We arrived in Harbin early Saturday morning. A total of eight of us from our research group came to the conference–another postdoc like me, plus six students. I was the last to exit the train, but when I looked around I couldn’t find my colleagues anywhere. All I managed to spot was a huddled group of figures with no skin showing whatsoever and fogged-over glasses where their eyes should’ve been.

Yes, it’s that cold here.

Regardless, we made it to the hotel, got checked in and situated, and since the first day was just orientation and registration for the conference, we decided despite the cold to go play outside.

Our hotel is not far from the river, which is naturally frozen over at this time of year, so we went and slid around on the ice for a while. I tried to start a snowball fight since I figured I was the only one who had ever played baseball and thus would have a tactical advantage, but then the sole girl in our group picked up a largish chunk of ice and threatened to bludgeon me with it if I threw any more snow at her, so that was pretty much the end of that.

After we got tired of walking around on the ice, we decided to go visit the Siberian Tiger Park. Apparently there’s only like 500 Siberian Tigers left in the wild, but there are around 100 at this park. And despite the fact that it was basically like going to a zoo, it was still pretty cool to see them. You can actually buy live animals to throw to the tigers and watch them devour. I thought about asking if I could feed one of the students to the tigers, but unfortunately I actually really like the students in my group, and in the end I wouldn’t really want to see any of them get eaten by a tiger. I thought I heard them ask if they could feed the laowai to the tigers, but I don’t know what that means. Must be some kind of exotic bird, or something.

Today was the first day of the actual conference. And I hate to say it, but I was actually surprised by how interesting I found the talks to be. I hate to say this because I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that the main reason I wanted to come here in the first place was for a chance to see the Siberian Tigers and the “Snow City” we’re going to on Thursday. But I guess despite my plans to throw away what’s actually becoming a pretty promising future in the field of computational chemistry, I still am a scientist at heart. Because I really do find things like quantum computing, using GPUs instead of CPUs (graphics cards instead of traditional central processors) to run simulations, and the latest advances in computational methods interesting.

I can’t help feeling like a bit of a fraud. Some of the people at this conference are literally pioneers in the new and exciting field of computational chemistry. Seriously, the Chinese researchers are pretty excited by the fact that the Tianhe-1a is now the fastest computer cluster in the world, and the research they’re doing on it is pretty cutting-edge. Even the American researchers here are pretty enthused, I think, to be attending a conference in China and getting a chance to share their thoughts and ideas with their Chinese colleagues. Because despite how some people might feel, researchers everywhere in the world, regardless of nationality, are united by the same common and tremendous purpose–to get funding for their research.

And to do good science. Not just for the prestige and recognition, but to add something to the collective knowledge of the human race. To expand the understanding and information base that we as a species have of the world around us.

With that it mind, it’s pretty hard for me to admit that I plan to move to Australia in six months to write a novel based primarily on stupid humor.

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About Critical Awesomeness
I'm a 32-year-old American with a PhD in chemistry and a green hat. Only one of these two things is really important.

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