Les Houches report: "Physics flies high aux Houches!"


In the first two weeks of September, nine of our Casimir pre-PhD-students participated in the Les Houches International Doctoral Training Session called 'Frontiers of Condensed Matter: Nanosciences and Energy'. Here's how one of the students, Oleksiy Onishchenko, experienced the school.

"Physics flies high aux Houches!

You wake up early, walk in chilly mountain air, and observe the sunlight finding its way thought the clouds and scattering off of the morning mist above the valley. You see the amazing people that you’ve met, you greet them with a smile and together enjoy some baguette and coffee or chocolate at breakfast. And while waiting for the first lecture, you start discussing some physics.

You enjoy a nice espresso during the break between the first and the second lectures. The sun is now high in the sky, above the peaks and the valley, and the early morning mist has cleared. It’s a time to share what we learned and think of what we expect next.

This is how days start in Les Houches, and they continue with more of the little discoveries that each person makes for herself or himself during the lectures. They also continue with friendly and warm interaction with the excellent professors and wonderful students participating in the school. It is a gathering where ideas are discussed, where research is enthusiastically described and debated. That is especially valuable.

You see the beauty of nature in two ways in Les Houches. There’s its very real, objective beauty, which gets written on the blackboard, appears on presentation slides, comes up in countless discussions with the remarkable people that you meet. It is the structure of the world we live in, and it is contained in equations and measurements. This beauty is physics and math, the language of nature, in Richard Feynman’s words. During the intense two weeks in Les Houches, you get to touch the limits of how much we have already discovered and where we stand in our understanding. Personally, those limits really make me tick, because I want to look at what’s further, what wealth of unexplored beauty nature has. In this sense, the summer school is a great opportunity to quickly have a glimpse into current frontiers from multiple facets. That provides the basis from which one can learn further, build connections, and generate new ideas.

Then there’s the other kind of nature’s beauty fully present in Les Houches. In very few instances does nature show its intangible aesthetic greatness as much as it does in the Alps. There are the clouds that approach you from the front on a hiking trail, and there’s the damp forest with a narrow path on a steep slope, which leads to a peak, where the white mountaintops come in full view. So, that is what math, the language of nature, says, right? You walk up there with some wonderful people, often talking about the ways in which nature expresses itself and how we understand it, and you catch the sights of what it has already said. It simply confirms the fact: nature is beautiful.

In Les Houches, you have two very clear views: of the equations and of the snow-capped peaks. They fully complement each other. They each make the other one more inspiring and more enjoyable. Nature makes us tick, whether it appears on the blackboard or on the hiking trail. In Les Houches, it appears on both!

Physics soars in Les Houches"