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A physicist’s summer sanctuary

Three students recount the month they spent learning cosmology in the French Alps.

Every year a few dozen fortunate young physicists are selected to attend summer school programs at the École de Physique des Houches. For an entire month, the students reside on the slopes of the French Alps, where they eat, sleep, and breathe physics.

To be slightly more accurate: The students eat four-course gourmet meals at the onsite cafeteria (the cuisine is Savoyard, but vegetarian options are also provided), sleep in private chalets scattered on the mountainside, and breathe mind-cleansing alpine air, but everything else is physics.

A view of the French Alps from the summer school. CREDIT: École de Physique des Houches

A view of the French Alps from the summer school. CREDIT: École de Physique des Houches

The institute is a 30-minute walk from the village of Les Houches and offers all the amenities and comforts conducive to study and relaxation. Participants are free from the distractions and responsibilities of normal life and left to devote themselves to physics full-time. But of course, it’s not just the idyllic setting that attracts students to Les Houches.

The topic of the school changes every year to reflect some of the most exciting advances in physics. The school we attended was focused on both observational and theoretical aspects of cosmology, with particular emphasis on future research directions after the Planck mission, whose results were presented by François Bouchet of the Paris Institute of Astrophysics.

The school is centered on a core set of broad topics that are covered in depth over four lectures given by top researchers in their respective fields. The lectures typically cover the theoretical framework that underlies the fundamental fields pertinent to the school’s topic. Courses we attended included inflationary cosmology by Andrei Linde of Stanford University, cosmic microwave background by Matias Zaldarriaga of the Institute for Advanced Study, and large-scale structure by Francis Bernardeau of the Institute of Theoretical Physics.

There are also shorter lecture sets in which talented lecturers describe the context of their work and expose students to new topics, open issues, or aspects of their field with which the students may not be familiar, such as modified gravity in cosmology or the cosmological constant problem. The shorter lectures give students a sense of the most active areas of research in their field.

Although there are no formal assignments, some lecturers suggest exercises for students to work out between lectures. The exercises lie on the border between research and homework and enhance understanding of the material. The blend and variety of topics at different levels of detail, combined with the fact that lecturers are especially chosen for their pedagogical talent, make the school valuable to students who are starting out in the field as well as to more senior participants.

The summer school's lecture hall. CREDIT: École de Physique des Houches

The summer school's lecture hall. CREDIT: École de Physique des Houches

The lecturers, who come from a wide variety of international institutions, are invited to stay at the institute and share with students all of the school's facilities for as long as their schedules allow. That togetherness, along with the isolated nature of the institute, creates a unique chance to interact and socialize since, very often, further clarification of lectures, mentoring, and general discussion continue outside the classroom. Moreover, given the picture-perfect environment, it is not surprising that many professors choose to make the most out of their stay by hiking, cycling, and relaxing in the facilities with students.

As you might expect, admission to the summer school programs is highly competitive. The organizers are therefore able to select a group whose varied talents and similar interests promote interactions. Long midday breaks from lectures and 24-hour access to all facilities provide ample opportunity for students to collaborate. As a result, at least as much learning happens during impromptu student discussions as during lectures. Because the program is quite long (four weeks) relative to typical summer schools, participants have plenty of time to discuss their own research interests and skills as well as go over and clarify lecture material. For many students, the summer school serves as a first and invaluable networking experience and builds the foundation for future collaborations.

Although it provides an ideal habitat for study, the École de Physique des Houches realizes that even physicists need to step away from the chalkboard eventually. A healthy social life is provided for in the recreational facility of the institute. There, students as well as lecturers and organizers can relax over drinks or play table tennis, piano, fussball, or cards (and indeed, there are also chalkboards). And when the weekends start, the surroundings offer a variety of activities capable of satisfying any need, from the breathtaking hikes around Mont Blanc to a relaxing swim in the pool of Chamonix.

As participants of last year’s summer school at the École de Physique des Houches, we can say that it provides a mixture of science, social life, and sport that can hardly be found elsewhere. It’s an amazing experience that continues to last in our minds.

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