Chicago – Sunday, 07/26/2009

July 28, 2009

We had a tough time getting up Sunday morning, being exhausted from walking many, many miles on concrete and asphalt the day before. I think by 8:00am we managed to be out of bed. The first order of business was breakfast, but this time I chose the Blueberry Hill Cafe (in historic LaGrange, IL), having been discovered by my keenly observant mother a few weeks earlier. You see, Mom, my sister Sarah, and my nephew Alec were visiting me in early July. Sarah and I wanted breakfast at IHOP. On the way, Mom spotted the Blueberry Hill Cafe with a decidedly subordinate comment like “Oh, that looks like a nice place to eat” as we drove past it. After we failed to locate a local IHOP, Mom asserted the Blueberry Hill Cafe again, knowing from her long experience that it’s better to eat at a local (vs. large chain) restaurant when traveling. I couldn’t agree with her more.

Sharing in Mom’s wisdom, I took Dad to the Blueberry Hill Cafe.  He loved the restaurant on the way in, but got an omelette he didn’t like, spoiling his impression.  We made it to the train station and headed for the Museum of Science & Industry.  On the basis of the transit map alone, we decided the shortest way to the museum was to take the green line towards Cottage Grove all the way to the end.

Exiting the train station and finding ourselves in the projects, I realized there’s a lot more to getting around a city than train stops and street names. You’d think I would have remembered this lesson from when I lived in the D.C. suburbs, but apparently not. We made a hair-raising 2 mile walk through this war zone, replete with gold-toothed thugs wearing wife-beaters and pants sagging down to their knees. We got more than a few hostile stares from street goons, but managed to avoid any tolls or beatings. Both of us were sweating bullets. Dilapidated and crumbling structures with barred doors and broken windows boxed us in at every turn, while chain link fences with barbed wire rounded out the scenery.

Emerging suddenly from the projects was the University of Chicago, which was at once both a visual and psychological safe-haven, but the damage was done to any desires I might have about a postdoc there.  It’s too close to the projects (literally, one street away).  Although the campus was lush and green and seemed safe, one needs only to stray down a wrong street or two to find oneself in trouble. Finding ourselves out of the danger area, our heart and perspiration rates returned to normal. My brain emerged from fight-or-flight mode, and its cognitive abilities were freed up enough for me to generate a good idea: Mark regions of high crime rate on maps, especially tourist maps. Somebody should do this. Maybe they already have.

A quick walk past UChicago and Hyde Park, we arrived at the Museum of Science and Industry, the largest science museum in the western hemisphere. Flashing our CityPass booklets again, we skipped lines and made it into the exhibit halls. Confronting us head-on was a Foucalt pendulum, and I couldn’t help but think of the Coriolis effect and noninertial reference frames.

Focault Pendulum

Focault Pendulum

I surprised Dad by telling him I could calculate the length of the pendulum by just measuring the period of its swing (the period is the time for the pendulum to make one full swing back and forth). Indeed, the period of a simple pendulum is given by T=2\pi\sqrt{\frac{L}{g}} where L is the length of the pendulum and g is the magnitude of the gravitational acceleration at the pendulum’s location. Solving this equation for L we get L=\frac{gT^2}{4\pi^2}. I measured the period T of the pendulum over several swings and averaged my result, getting T=8.9\pm 0.1\textrm{~s}. Taking g=9.81\textrm{~m/s}^2 we get L=19.7\pm 0.2\textrm{~m}. Thus the length of the pendulum shown in the picture is 64 feet 7 inches, with an uncertainty of about 7 inches. Thus just by measuring the period alone, I am able to calculate how long the wire is that connects the pendulum to the ceiling, several stories above. Even though this is freshman physics, I still think it’s pretty cool.

Our first major exhibit was the Henry Crown Space Center, where was saw the original Apollo 8 space capsule and the Apollo 11 training mock-up. Next were the giant LEGO models of Adam Reed Tucker and the Navy, Auto, and Ships exhibits. Passing by a whispering gallery, I mentioned the reflection property of an ellipse. But the real gem of our trip was the U-505 submarine. This is the german U-boat captured by the United States on June 4, 1944. We only toured a few compartments of the U-boat, but it was enough to give you a palpable feel for life in those conditions. The tour was timed and had visual and audio cues, which I thought might be hokey at first but were pretty effective. Das Boot was on my mind during the tour. If you haven’t seen it, you should rent it. English subtitles will get you through this compelling movie.

Exiting the U-boat, I saw some of the original German Enigma machines and told Dad a little about Alan Turing and the contributions made by mathematicians that helped end World War II, since this was largely neglected from the exhibit. I guess math isn’t sexy enough for museums, even a science one. After briefly seeing a few more exhibits, like the Genetics Lab, Chick Hatchery, and Earth Revealed, we focused our attention on the Transportation Gallery, which has a replica of the 1903 Wright Flyer. But the gallery has even more more important originals, such as one of the only two remaining German Stukas in existence, a Spitfire, the Piccard Gondala, and a Boeing 727, whereupon Dad couldn’t help but reciprocate by lecturing me about jet engines and telling me all about the instrument panels in the flight deck.

Transportation Gallery

Transportation Gallery

After finishing our visit to the museum, we opted to take the #10 bus for the trip back to the loop, avoiding our harrowing experience earlier, which no doubt would be worse as dusk was coming on fast. Despite having to stand on the bus on account of crowdedness, it was well worth it in terms of personal safety.

Having had such a good experience the night before at Elephant & Castle, we decided not to risk anything new and repeated ourselves. We weren’t disappointed. Dinner conversation centered on organized religion again, and whether or not faith is a virtue (no need to say which way I argued that point). We left downtown around 6:30pm. Making it back to my car, I drove Dad through Westmont, IL and then on to Argonne National Laboratory, my reason for being in Chicago this summer. At 9:00pm we were back near the hotel, and Dad, with his characteristic generosity, insisted on filling my car up with gas despite having paid for almost everything so far the entire trip. Against my protestations to the contrary, he still filled it up. As the Borg say, resistance is futile.

Finally, I had the impulse to drive down the famous Lake Shore Drive at night, a scenic drive splitting Lake Michigan and the Chicago skyline. So we did.  The city was gorgeous at night time.  The trip up Lake Shore Drive was so nice, I surprised Dad by doing it twice. We made it home by around midnight again, and stayed up an hour or so talking, before fading to sleep.

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Chicago – Saturday, 7/25/2009

July 28, 2009

Fueling up the stomach for a long day ahead, we started with breakfast at Papa Vini’s in Brookfield, IL. After being greeted by an older gentleman who appeared to be the owner, we mentioned something about being in a hurry. Without so much as taking a breath, he gestured to his staff aggressively and uttered a phrase in Italian. A split second later we were seated, presented with menus, and facing an eager waitress telling us which menu items are prepared the fastest. Talk about service!

After inhaling our food, our next stop was the Park ‘N Ride at the end of the blue line in Forest Park, IL. My poor car tires took a savage beating from the (all too common) potholes, ruts, and railroad crossings all the way there, but they soldiered on without popping in defeat. With the $5 parking fee paid and our CTA transit cards purchased, we hopped on the train for the 30 minute ride into downtown.

Our first stop is Chicago’s famous Field Museum. Much to the chagrin and grumbling of folks who were sweating from standing in a snaking ticket line for an hour, we flashed our CityPass booklets and legitimately skipped to the front, entering without delay. Doing so gave us the smug feeling of being VIPs, whatever the modest truth may have been.

Rounding past the ticket booth, we came face-to-face with a menacing Tyrannosaurus Rex named Sue.

Sue the T-Rex

Sue the T-Rex

She’s the largest and most complete T. Rex ever found, and I dare say the scariest too. Being 42 feet long and standing 13 feet tall at her hips, one can’t help but admit that, despite our ego, we’d have been her dinner if we had coexisted with this carnivore (as Kent Hovind would have you believe). Her large teeth leave no room for speculation about her diet. She wouldn’t have given us any quarter.

After gawking at Sue for a few minutes and snapping the obligatory photos, we started with the Ancient Americas exhibit, a cultural anthropology exhibit if ever there was one. The reader being smart enough to ascertain which peoples the exhibit chronicles, I won’t bother to mention them. The silent will of my hand to grasp an ancient tool, crafted and used by a simple homo sapien 10,000 years ago, was interrupted by just an inch of glass. Despite all our sophisticated technology and skyscrapers, we have a very humble past indeed. For reasons better left to psychologists, this was almost a cathartic experience for me, and it only inflated my sense of pride I alluded to in the previous post. Following this was the Ancient Egypt exhibit, complete with mummies and Egyptian artifacts featuring hieroglyphics, undoubtedly the two most popular images of ancient Egypt. Unfortunately their meaning was lost on me, not being learned in the Rosetta Stone. Next up was the Real Pirates exhibit, chronicling the journey of the doomed pirate/slave ship Whydah Gally, captained by the infamous Sam Bellamy. The highlight of the exhibit was the impressive booty, the only pirate treasure ever discovered. After spending a few hours getting through just these three exhibits, I was reminded again of the futility of trying to read every placard and see every artifact in a museum, especially one as behemoth as the Field Museum. The exhibits were as detailed as the museum is large. To give just that one museum its proper due would take a few months, at least.

After outstaying our welcome at the Field Museum, security showed us the way out. We walked north up the shoreline of Lake Michigan, past throngs of people. Some were cooking, some were tanning, and others were sitting lazily with a fishing line cast in the waters. So relaxed was the atmosphere, I don’t think the would-be fishermen cared whether or not their slack fishing lines ever hooked anything. A whiff of chicken barbeque had our stomachs growling in envy, bestowing an olfactory delight to accompany the stunning visual of the Chicago skyline to our left and Lake Michigan to our right.

We didn’t walk far before the distant sound of the spraying water from Buckingham Fountain crescendoed into a roar. To say that it is HUGE, even with capitalization, doesn’t do it justice.  Even as we were 100 feet away from the fountain, Chicago defended her reputation as the “Windy City” by spraying us with water from the top of the fountain.

Buckingham Fountain

Dad @ Buckingham Fountain

Walking further north, we saw a large crowd of 20 somethings, all cheering a loud but unseen announcer. Curious, and with nothing better to do, we decided to see what was happening. Fortune was with us, and we arrived just in time to witness Ronnie Renner break the world record (twice in a row) for the highest vertical dirtbike jump.

Continuing our northern trek on foot and transitioning into Millennium Park, we happened upon an opera performance by the Grant Park Orchestra at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion. After watching for a few minutes, we ambled over to the Cloud Gate

Cloud Gate

Cloud Gate

and then into Wrigley Square where we discovered the Millenium Monument. It seems if you just keep walking in Chicago, you’re bound to encounter things you weren’t expecting. We even saw a few disciples of the Free Hugs campaign, but I was too germ conscious to participate.

Heading towards the Magnificent Mile stretch of Michigan Avenue, we paused over the Chicago river and watched party boats pass underneath, returning a few waves to happy boaters. After crossing the river, we strolled up the Magnificent Mile, where Dad bought an umbrella at Eddie Bauer on account of storm clouds rolling in.  We made it as far as the John Hancock Observatory before serious hunger began to set in.  Unfortunately, the Cheesecake factory at the base of the Observatory had a 70-90 minute wait, so we skipped it.  On the walk back, we admired the Fourth Presbyterian Church from the outside (it was locked). Its gothic architecture, stained glass windows, and ivy covered walls evoked an ephemeral flashback of my earlier travels to the great cathedrals of Europe.

After walking through a quiet court nestled behind the church, we continued our search for food on the walk back to the Chicago Loop. The sun was now falling below the horizon and the storm clouds had fortunately passed overhead. We saw several street performers (i.e. talented beggars), including a leopard clad contortionist, hip hop dance groups, and a guy playing soprano saxophone. Mixed in were garden variety beggars, merely sitting with a downtrodden look and an outstretched styrofoam cup.  Considering their more talented competition, I’m surprised if they get any charity at all.

After surviving the whole day without without being approached by a panhandler, we finally got one as we arrived back in the loop area.  Outpacing him, we ran into a CTA employee who suggested a street with a few restaurant choices.  We chose Elephant & Castle on Adams Street.  No wait, nice British atmosphere, great food, and reasonably priced to boot!

Dinner conversation was heated but respectful. With me firing epistemological artillery against organized religion, Dad took up the religion’s shield and defended valiantly, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise that no consensus was reached. We left around 10:30pm and hopped back on the train for the long journey home. Exhausted, we drifted off to sleep well after midnight.


Chicago – Friday night, 7/24/2009

July 28, 2009

After Dad arrived at my hotel in Westmont, IL, we left straight away for 233 S. Wacker Drive, a.k.a. the Willis Tower (formerly know as the Sears Tower). Just a few weeks earlier, the SkyDeck, a tourist trap if ever there was one, was moved from the 99th floor to the 103rd floor, and its new location didn’t disappoint! After purchasing our Chicago CityPass booklets, we saw a brief film about the history of the tower and then rode the super fast (and smooth!) elevators dedicated to whisking tourists from the ground to the 103rd floor at over 20 feet per second. After stepping off the elevator, the view was stunning, needless to say. Having seen it twice before, I was still impressed. Since it was around dusk, I suggested we stay long enough to see the city transition from day into night, getting two very different experiences for the price of one ticket. Fortunately there’s no time limit on the Skydeck.

Looking all around the city, surrounded by a sea of steel and conrete structures, watching planes fly overhead and cars drive below and boats bob in the lake, I felt an incredible sense of pride in the achievement of mankind, and in particular the mathematicians, physicists, engineers, scientists, and businessmen who’ve been the vanguard of civilization for so long.

Next, being the adrenaline junkie I am, I insisted on stepping out onto the new glass observation decks which cantilever out from the tower. It’s a weird sensation to look down and see only a piece of glass that stops you from plummeting to the concrete sidewalk 1,000 feet below.

Sitting on air - Willis Tower

Me - Sitting on air - Willis Tower

After leaving the glass ledge, I saw what appeared to be Buddhist monks, with their shaved heads, orange robes, and far eastern appearance touring the Skydeck. I felt a twinge of cognitive dissonance, having learned that such monks live a simple life and generally eschew material wealth and worldly achievements. But yet here they were, at the height of a compelling symbol of worldliness and wealth. I’m sure there’s a perfectly good explanation, if only I spent more time studying eastern religions.

After exiting the Skydeck, we walked across the street to eat at the famous Giordano’s pizza.

Giordanos pizza

Giordano's pizza - Yummy!

Over an absolutely delicious pizza, I made my case for the absurdity of Fox News to my Dad, who partly agreed while citing the liberal bias of other news channels. He then regaled me with some stores from his long career as an airline captain, including some harrowing tales of flight emergencies (engine fires, bird strikes, engine failures, hydraulic failures) which he skillfully and professionally handled with not so much as a single soul harmed. An unsung hero if ever there was one. Then it was back to the hotel for some much needed sleep.