Miller Professorship at Berkeley, Jan - Mar 2018

9 April 2018

The Campanile and Mt. Tamalpais from Memorial Stadium at sunset
The Campanile and Mt. Tamalpais from Memorial Stadium at sunset

After three months in San Francisco, I've barely had a chance to ponder on my time away, but here goes. For the most part, I was surprised by what I found. I've visited UC Berkeley several times over the years but somehow failed to notice what a divine campus it is, complete with the campanile tower (see photograph) and carillon music. I was also surprised to find that the prestigious Miller Institute on Berkeley campus was mostly filled with US academics, with only a few overseas types like me.

The Miller Institute engages postdocs and professors across many fields. The Tuesday lunches held at the Berkeley faculty club were a highlight and remind me of high-table meals at Oxford. Unlike Oxford, there is always a speaker and I witnessed some of the best lectures I've ever heard. One speaker showed results on stomach flora arguing that the lack of "real" fibre in food today is a much bigger problem than the overprescription of drugs. You need a certain kind of fibre that allows more complex microbiota to develop. Another speaker presented a future vision for algorithms in all aspects of our lives - I was profoundly struck by this talk. I spoke at one of these lunches which gave me the unusual experience of being grilled by the brightest young sparks. Afterwards, with the battle drawn, some bounced up to me to say "That was fun." Meeting up for a Yali's coffee with some of these outstanding individuals were my most memorable moments - anything seemed possible. Needless to say, they were all juggling with multiple job offers from the world's leading institutions.

I did manage to carry out research but not quite as planned. The Astronomy Department is large, dynamic and world renowned. In my first week, a rising star of the PhD firmament was presenting his results from the largest cosmological simulations of their kind. I had been anticipating this kind of work and simply asked "Where are the most ancient stars in your model galaxies?" This led to a conversation, a collaboration, and a submission (available on arXiv) with the same question for its title. This all happened so quickly that I was able to get back to the main task of writing a paper with legendary theorist, Emeritus Professor Chris McKee. One of the benefits of this visit has been to attract a PhD student starting in July, a brilliant undergraduate for honours work in 2019, and future Hunstead visitors to Sydney.

To close, I was also surprised by the city, which, like Ancient Gaul, is divided into three parts. The peninsula has most of its parkland to the west up against the Pacific Ocean - this is the most attractive aspect of San Francisco along with the spectacular bay. The city at the tip of the peninsula and to the east is less attractive but home to a vibrant professional population. Finally, East Bay across the Bay Bridge is home to the celebrated UC Berkeley, a beautiful campus by any standards. My time was divided across all three locations: Marina to the west, the city itself and finally at Berkeley. The satellite towns are attractive (Pleasanton, Sonoma, Walnut Creek, Davis) with excellent walking to be found closer to home at Muir Woods and Mt Tamalpais (see photograph). While San Francisco has many fine features, overall I would say I prefer cities to have their parks, campuses and waterways to be intermingled. A Union Square hotel is not conducive to road running unless you want to be flattened by a tram. Optimising over all free parameters, I would argue that a location near the Ferry Building would have been best for the duration. This gives easy access to the City, to the Embarcadero along the foreshore (perfect for cycling), and to the BART train to Berkeley; maybe next time. But the bay certainly rivals Sydney Harbour for sheer beauty and accessibility, and is arguably less developed than our harbour foreshores.

Contact: Prof Joss Bland-Hawthorn

Phone: 02 9351 2621

Email: 242d22363223313d74230f251e105e07291f2d1d253c0135420c510f300176235132572d1b