Boating, biking and banging on about my dog: My spare time in London.

You may think studying physics at university will finally give you a valid excuse to avoid social interaction and public spaces. Unfortunately however, being at a busy inner London university with a dedicated students’ union makes this difficult for even the most reluctant of hermits. Within the university, there are over 200 societies, sports clubs, student bars, cafes and an extensive sports and fitness centre. If that’s not enough, you’re in London and anything else – from cat cafes to adult bouncy castles – is on your doorstep.

Many people come to London for its vibrant nightlife. There’s a huge variety of clubs, pubs and bars to choose from and when I first moved here I would go to them all, and even worked as a club photographer in high end Mayfair venues as well as somewhat less desirable bars in South London. It’s definitely worth experiencing nights out here and they will be some of the best nights you have, I did however soon realise that every night (and next morning) ends up the same if you’re prone to drinking too much and I now rarely drink at all, with my spare time mostly taken up elsewhere:

 

My fixed wheel built by my boyfriend, on London's South Bank
My fixed wheel built by my boyfriend, on London’s South Bank

I’m a keen cyclist and I’ll use this to illustrate what London and the university can offer in terms of having a hobby, but replace bicycles with your own interests and you’ll find it works the same. I bought a bike in my first year as it seemed to be the best way to get around the city’s packed streets cheaply and quickly. London’s roads appeared daunting and while a free bike proficiency lesson from TfL was a great help (would recommend!), I wanted to find like-minded people who could join me for rides and help me get comfortable. A quick search on the Students’ Union webpage brought me to Queen Mary Cycling Society, and within a few days I had other cyclists to meet and group rides to join. We went to Critical Mass; a huge group ride that reclaims the roads in big cities nationwide every month, consisting of friendly people, music and maybe a little alcohol. The friends I made through the society actually got me a job in a bike shop, and going to Critical Mass allowed me to meet my bike mechanic (very useful) boyfriend. I now ride hundreds of miles a month, visiting the London Olympic VeloPark every week (two miles away from QM) and taking advantage of the countryside surrounding London. London traffic no longer phases me, in fact I love the buzz – I’m a champion weaver and hold top spots on Strava (a social cycling app) segments, and there’s only been one minor accident so far! (London does seem to have a high concentration of terrible driving, but if you do need some reassurance, I’m your girl).

We went on a cycling holiday over Christmas. This isn't London
We went on a cycling holiday over Christmas. This isn’t London

Despite studying something so strictly academic, the university has also allowed me to follow more creative pursuits. I work as a photographer for the university, capturing everything from outreach events with kids to conferences and prospectus photos. This is enjoyable work I can easily balance with my studies, and lets me play with the kit I thought would end up gathering dust. As with cycling, I got involved with the photography society here, which introduced me to other like-minded individuals and had me attending exhibitions, socials and even getting additional work. One really great thing I have found with London is that if you are short on cash, there are plenty of opportunities to earn here and there if you look.

The rest of my time outside of studying is spent on the upkeep of my home; 50ft narrowboat Laika (named after the first dog in space). Living on a boat is a job in itself and moving aboard was not a decision I took lightly; aside from the constant (slightly, but unfortunately not completely, irrational) fear of sinking, maintenance and cruising consumes any leisure time I get. I do not have a permanent mooring; instead my license requires me to move to a new spot every two weeks and I must cover a certain distance annually. It’s sometimes hard to keep on top of, but it’s a really beautiful alternative to renting that shows me the prettier side to London, and also means I don’t have a landlord banning me from having a dog!

Boat interior, now with a desk and a fair bit messier
Boat interior when I first bought her
My dog, Picasso, on top of my boyfriend's boat
My dog, Picasso, on top of my boyfriend’s boat

How I came to start a Euromaster’s MSc in Theoretical Physics

A few years ago, as an art student, I happened to see an exhibition by Conrad Shawcross, Loop System Quintet, that dealt with the (very) basic concepts of string theory. This moment was the catalyst that would ultimately see me pursuing physics academically. I began reading all the popular science books and magazines that I could get my hands on, watching hours of documentaries and learned that string theory, in part, hopes to reconcile the two great theories of 20th Century physics: quantum mechanics and general relativity. So to understand these theories, with a view to one day being a part of the effort to resolve their incompatibility, has always been the primary motivation behind my studies.

IMG_1394 copyI have since completed my BSc in Theoretical Physics – also at Queen Mary – and am currently a first year EuroMasters student. I decided to apply for the masters course whilst working on my dissertation on the thermodynamics of black holes, during which I had a very brief introduction to stuff like quantum field theory and AdS/CFT correspondence. This taster of working with some of the deeper concepts within contemporary physics left me with no doubts that I wanted to continue my studies. The fulfilment I gained from working on the project also informed my decision to choose the EuroMasters, with its greater emphasis on research, over the MSc.

Having been an undergrad at Queen Mary, I chose to stay here, primarily because the School’s research interests correlate strongly with my own. I also like that it is a fairly small department which means that there is a lot of access to support; if you’re stuck on something you can usually speak with an academic or PhD student who will help clarify any tricky concepts. University isn’t solely about academia, however, and Queen Mary’s location means access to the plethora of experiences that London has to offer; I have been fortunate to attend many exhibitions, plays and concerts that I would not have had the chance to elsewhere in the country – some here on campus.

Cosmonauts Exhibition!!

I’ve always been interested in space. When I was five, most of the few videos I’d watch were the old Star Wars films so you can see why I’d be interested about going to an exhibit about the Soviet space program at the Science Museum. Having lived in London all my life, I’m quite often at the museums in Kensington (Science, Natural History and V&A) because there’s usually something to do there and if there’s not, it’s always fun to look at the dinosaurs! This time though I saw the Science museum had an exhibit on the Soviet space program called “Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age” so I got some friends to come along and ended up having a sort of school trip.IMG_1323

I’m not sure what I was expecting from this, usually you can gage what’s on the inside of an exhibit just from having a vague interest in the subject matter but this was different. This whole venture happened during the golden age of secrecy and misinformation so I didn’t know much about the Soviet side of the space race. Turns out, they got a lot done!

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The exhibit is littered with oddly endearing bits of trivia and unheard tales of badassery by the Soviet cosmonauts like the first woman in space (yes, the Soviets did that 20 years before the US) just happening to notice that she was off course to the point where if left unaltered she would have escaped Earth’s gravity, letting ground control know and then deciding to fix the problem on her own anyway. The Soviets also sent dogs into space to test the rockets and actually brought most of them back! Unfortunately, the first dog, Laika, was incinerated on re-entry into the atmosphere, so that’s a bummer but they all got to go to the park before going to space so there’s that!IMG_1295

The sad thing is that all these pioneers are overshadowed by NASA’s achievement of landing on the moon first. It’s even more upsetting when you realise that the
US only funded NASA when it became politically relevant during the Cold War as an attempt to bankrupt the Soviet Union (who were on such a tight budget they were melting cutlery to build their rockets.) In the end this tactic worked with Reagan’s “Star Wars” initiative but it all started with Kennedy’s gauntlet of reaching the Moon before the end of the 60’s.IMG_1310

This exhibit honours those courageous people who strapped themselves to knives and forks and flew about faster than sound! I’d really recommend going before it closes in March (March 13th is the last day), even if you’re not particularly interested in space, just to see some of the crazy things that went on in the Soviet Union.