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November 2010

The San Francisco Bay has the strangest weather. Today it felt like a Sydney summer, and yet it was freezing and rainy all through last week. You can buy books on the shelves here on the local weather, and it apparently comes down to the unusual coincidence of elevated land right up against the ocean and then the huge bay right behind, with only a small gap, and most of Northern California's rainfall draining out through the Golden Gate.

There's definitely a trend, however, towards getting chilly. The wind bites particularly harshly in San Francisco anywhere you're in the shade, and at night on Market Street you'll want a jacket.

The natural beauty of California is really one of its best features: in the last few weeks I've visited Yosemite, Monterey, Half Moon Bay, Santa Cruz and Sausalito and they all have something marvelous to offer. Yosemite in particular has to be the single most awe-inspiring piece of nature I've ever seen - when you look down from the Mist Trail at the double rainbow in the waterfall there are shades of purple I'd never even seen before.

While I've been on exchange I've been trying to hit as many of the best sites in California as I can, and there've been a fair few. I thought I might upload some pictures from highlights from the last little while. Also in there, a photo of LA taken from Mount Wilson Observatory during the night, where I was down at the Infrared Stellar Interferometer. I can't resist mentioning the best experience I had down there: getting to look through one of the ISI's 65" telescopes (for non-astronomers, 65" is enormously larger than the very largest telescopes you'll normally see in private hands, but tiny compared to some of the biggest professional telescopes in use today - more on that later). Observing Jupiter and the Great Nebula of Orion with an eyepiece up to the focal plane was breathtaking - you could see three of Jupiter's moons and one's shadow on Jupiter, and the colours of the bands. Even better, not only did the Great Nebula show the H-alpha (cherry-red) colour it's so famous for, and very clearly too, but also a vivid bluish colour. These are attributed to (respectively) hydrogen and oxygen plasmas and are two of the brightest of many spectral lines that tell us in great detail about the gas dynamics and, in the infrared, star formation processes.

The academic life in Berkeley has a much more intense pace than in Sydney: every week I'd normally get a substantial assignment for Classical Mechanics and Stellar Physics, three smaller ones for Partial Differential Equations, and about 10 hours work for the ISI group. This takes up most of my week, so I've been trying to get out on weekends a lot. Classical Mechanics is especially fun, I think; it must have been quite a feeling to be Newton or Laplace and see the elegant simplicity of motion, and doing this class is like a tour through scientific history as much as anything else, where you learn how to solve all those classic problems - orbits, pendula, precessions, normal modes - that most textbooks just quote.

This weekend is the Big Game - the football game vs Stanford! I visited their campus a little while ago for a lecture on time perception by Phil Zimbardo - of Stanford Prison Experiment fame - and they seem to have exactly the same enthusiasm for the game that we have here in Berkeley, with "Beat Cal" t-shirts all over the place. There's a bonfire on Friday night before the game on Saturday, and I'm very excited.

The Bay Area is also great for music - I've been to Jack Johnson and KT Tunstall concerts so far, and they've been fantastic. But not just that, you see people with guitars just everywhere, busking or just having fun - and they're really good too!

So in all I'm having a great time in California. If you get the chance to go on exchange, you really ought to do it. Whether or not it's to Cal or anywhere else, it's one of the best opportunities you'll get at university to really develop in your own direction.

Read on for a description of the ISI work...

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This last weekend I was lucky enough to get the chance to see some of Sweden. I had a few days off from class by coincidence, and with a couple of friends hit the road on an epic and unforgettable adventure.

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Classes have picked up a lot since my last blog in October leaving me very little time to post! Having just finished week 6 of class, my first wave of midterms have come and gone, and I'm now left waiting, keeping my fingers crossed and hoping for the best. As these are the last courses I have to take to complete my degree, I'm a little apprehensive. Aside from classes, I'm slowly having the realisation of how little time I have left here in beautiful California and have been keen to use my weekends to do as much exploring as possible before winter hits.

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