A joint Fermilab/SLAC publication

Packing it in


Globe-traveling physicists put some of their best thinking into strategies for their bags–all carry-ons, of course.

Packing it in
Globe-traveling physicists put some of their best thinking into strategies for their bags–all carry-ons, of course.

by Ben Berger


Packing it in

Photo: Sandbox Studio


Physicists are regularly dashing all over the world for collaboration meetings, conferences, lectures, and summer schools. Trying to contact them to ask about their travels invariably yields the same response: "I can't talk right now. I'm traveling." Once they're finally pinned down, their travel tales extend to the most exotic realms.

"When I was younger, like nine or 10, I used to read National Geographic a lot," says Barry Barish, now the Director of the Global Design Effort for the International Linear Collider. "I remember reading about Antarctica and Lake Baikal in Russia. Then, as a physicist, I got a chance to visit those places. I went to Antarctica because I am on the board of the National Science Foundation, which supports several Antarctic research projects, including the neutrino experiments, AMANDA and Ice Cube. The scenery was amazing–makes the Grand Canyon look like, well, I don't know, but not as special as we think of it. Lake Baikal was amazing, too. The Lake Baikal Neutrino Telescope experiment places detectors at the bottom of the lake. In winter, they cut holes in the ice in order to lower the detectors."

Albrecht Karle of the University of Wisconsin-Madison says, "Whenever I go to Antarctica for Ice Cube, I always pack my own coffee, coffee maker, and some chocolates. They don't have chocolate down there, and they make awful coffee."

Three principles seem true for all peripatetic physicists. One: Avoid checking a bag if humanly possible; if you must check a bag, it should never contain work-related items. Two: The most important item you have with you is your laptop; it should never leave your side. Three: Try to appreciate the uniqueness of every destination, but in the end, the best airport to reach is the one at home.

Packing it in

Photo: Sandbox Studio

Bag it

"On my first trip to Japan I was to attend a conference at KEK. I landed in Tokyo and knew I had to take a bus to Tsukuba. Unfortunately, no one spoke English and I don't speak any Japanese. I tried to find the bus, but couldn't figure out what bus I needed and no one could help me. I was completely lost and felt very panicked. It was only by chance that I happened to see a physicist in the airport who could help me. I could tell because he had a bag from a physics conference."
–Olga Mena, Fermilab

Gender specific

"I don't think I pack too lightly, but my wife does hate me. Wife: 'Four days and just a shoulder bag?!' Ted: 'Why do I need more shoes than the ones I'm wearing? And if I don't spill anything on these pants then I'm fine.'"
–Ted Baltz, Stanford Linear Accelerator Center

Keeping orderly

"Computer. Charger. Cell phone. Cell phone charger. I can buy anything else I need. Being able to charge through USB was brilliant. Whoever figured that out deserves a medal. It's a religion thing–never check a bag. When you go through security, you learn to put the things through in the order that enables you to most efficiently put them on again on the other side, so your shoes go on first and so on."
–Gordon Watts, University of Washington

1-2-3 by Kaiser

1. Ritualize your traveling as much as you can. Buy the same bottled water (San Pellegrino), the same chocolate (Rolo, perhaps Toblerone), the same magazine (Wired, or perhaps a film magazine, otherwise Vanity Fair. Avoid The Economist.)
2. If you are traveling with a colleague, you should still take an aisle seat, not a middle seat. Convince your colleague to take the seat across the aisle. Taking the middle seat because you are traveling with a colleague (or your group leader, or your student) leads only to resentment.
3. You also need the gold or platinum frequent flyer card to pre-board together with the business passengers, so that you can get all of your carry-on luggage stored in the overhead bin right at your seat.
–Ralf Kaiser, University of Glasgow, United Kingdom

Battery life

"I avoid airplane chargers, extra laptop batteries and all that stuff. It's just gotten to be ridiculous. I used to try and bring everything, but it's become too much. I can't take it anymore. I'll do my 3 hours of work, or however long the battery lasts and that's it."
–Albrecht Karle, University of Wisconsin

The 'Cosmo' Physicist

"I have to work on flights. During the school year, I'm constantly traveling between New York and Chicago, and I need my flights to prepare my class lectures. I have a really good trick for getting rid of really chatty guys, but it only works for women. I always carry a Cosmopolitan magazine with me. I just pull it out and they leave me alone. It really works. I just carry one with me for that purpose; there's nothing in there really worth reading."
–Janet Conrad, Columbia University

No surplus socks...

"I pack the absolute minimum possible. I avoid checking anything into the hold if at all possible. Every sock is counted. By the end of a trip there is no surplus item. I can live out of two carry-on bags–a roll-on suitcase and a small backpack–for two weeks. But I'm stuffed now. With the new regulations I will have to check a bag, but I will maintain how I pack."
–Phil Burrows, John Adams Institute at Oxford University, United Kingdom

...and no skyscrapers

"Recently I was leaving SLAC, and a friend had given me, as a joke, a small metal model of the Hancock Building in Chicago. I was going through security and my bag got intense interest. They put it through the X-ray machine three times. They came over to me and asked what item in my bag had aroused suspicion. I responded, honestly, that I didn't know. They asked me to open my bag, and they took out the model. It was run through the X-ray machine by itself and they were satisfied. I guess the Hancock building looks like an offensive weapon if it's small enough."
–Phil Burrows

What the Dickens. . .?

"I always bring a nice thick book for the long flights. I’ve read all of Dickens. It’s the ‘accidental tourist’ syndrome. I just want to avoid talking to the nitwit next to me."
– Jeffrey Wilkes, University of Washington in Seattle


Tales for the open sky

Dopp deposit

"I have a Dopp kit-type bag and I put as much as possible into it. I have a sewing kit, various medications, tea bags and a small water heater, but of course I have to check that."
– Jeffrey Wilkes, University of Washington in Seattle

Perhaps a Saturn

"I study cosmic rays, and I used to have a University of Washington credit card that said ‘Cosmic Ray’ on it. So, when I would go up to the rent-a-car counter they would say things like, ‘What kind of car would you like Mr. Cosmic?’ "
– Jeffrey Wilkes, University of Washington in Seattle

Terminal humor

"One time, I had to go give a colloquium at Rutgers. So, I was flying from O’Hare [Chicago] to Newark. They board the plane on time and pull away from the gate. But there was bad weather on the east coast. So we sat on the runway for hours. To keep the passengers entertained and to keep them from getting really angry, they showed a movie. The movie they showed was about a guy trapped at a terminal for a year! [The Terminal, with Tom Hanks] You had to love the irony. Someone on that plane had a sense of humor."
– Boris Kayser, Fermilab

Presidential pardon

"I was supposed to receive the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, so I was going to meet Bill Clinton. Because they have to coordinate with the White House, they couldn’t schedule the ceremony until about three weeks before. So, I didn’t find out when it would be until I had already gone to South Africa for the Weak Interactions and Neutrino Conference, which I was attending before giving a series of lectures and several universities in Germany.

"I had to figure out how to schedule Germany so I could make it to Washington, DC. I was going to leave from southern Germany, near Freiburg, and it was a year of tremendous snow storms. I knew before I left for the airport that the snow might be trouble so I called my sister to overnight appropriate clothes to Washington for me.

"I had to catch a flight to Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris, which left from the Basel/Mulhouse airport in southern France where there were a number of avalanches that year because of all the snow. I took a bus from Germany, through Switzerland to the airport. It was this little plane at a little airport. It went putt-putt-putt down the runway in the middle of the snow and took off. When we landed at de Gaulle I could see my American Airlines flight pulling away from the terminal. I was running through the airport hoping they could stop the plane, but no luck. I speak no French so no one was able to help me.

"Then I saw the British Airways counter and ran up and said, ‘I need a ticket to the US.’ They asked, ‘Where in the US?’ I responded, ‘It doesn’t matter. Just get me to the US and I can get where I need to from there.’ They ended up getting me on a flight to NY through Heathrow. I landed in New York, took the Delta shuttle and got to DC in time.

"After all that traveling--from South Africa, then all around Germany through Switzerland to Southern France, to Paris, to London, to New York--I looked awful. Thankfully, my clothes from my sister were there in DC. I showered and got my dress clothes on. I made it to the White House on time, but it was the middle of the Monica Lewinski scandal, and when I arrived it turned out President Clinton had to go do a press conference, and after all that I never got to meet him. A few days later I had to go back to Germany to give a talk at DESY."
– Janet Conrad

Jet set types

"We're the lower classes of the jet set; that's what I usually call it. We travel lots, and we know how traveling works. But unlike the corporate traveler, we end up in economy rather than business class, with the small, practical rental car and the practically-located hotel close to the lab which, unfortunately, doesn't have a pool. Mostly this is because we don't really care much about these things, although Ethernet or WLAN in the hotel room would be nice. Maybe it's because we try to conform to our own stereotype so much that we simply haven't tried doing it differently."
– Ralf Kaiser

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