Belated Holiday Symmetree

By JoAnne Hewett | January 21, 2007 2:09 am

I’m featured in the latest issue of Symmetry magazine which hit the bookstands a couple weeks ago. Alas, not for my groundbreaking work on signatures for extra dimensions in high energy accelerators. But for something more on the human side — my collection of Christmas ornaments. No, I am not joking! Symmetry excels in not only covering the exciting science that we do, but also in illustrating that us scientists are people too.

When the editor asked if they could do the feature, my first thought was how did they even know about my Christmas ornaments? You gotta admit — that’s fairly obscure. Then I was reminded of a common friend who had Christmas dinner at my house almost a decade ago….that’s a phenomenal memory on her part!

Everyone at SLAC has had fun with the article. Numerous people have stopped by my office and related their own Christmas ornament story (who knew people even had Christmas ornament stories?). Helen Quinn got the wrong box from relatives by mistake once and ended up with a perfectly dreadful set of plastic ice skaters. Burt Richter‘s wife is an avid ornament collector and seems to have an overly large accumulation for their new smaller residence.

So exactly what is the deal with my Christmas ornaments? Turns out I buy one every time I visit a new place – and I mean every time I visit a new place. Something that reminds me of the place and the time I spent there. I started this as a grad student, so it’s clear that this is a hobby that doesn’t cost much. Sometimes I make do with a kitschy keychain and cut the chain off (my favorite of this ilk is a tiny Corcovado from Rio). As CV readers know, us scientists are frequent travelers, and this is my way of keeping track of where all I’ve been. For example, last week I was at the Aspen winter conference — and bought a nice hand-painted egg-shaped ornament with a winter Aspen scene. Last summer I was in Cologne, and bought a small beer mug thing. You get the picture. I have enough at this point to cover at least two Christmas trees, but that doesn’t stop me, the collector!

Back to the Symmetry article… I brought some of my favorite ornaments in and we had a photo shoot (no, I am still not kidding). Here’s the winning shot and the nicely penned piece by Jennier Yauck (billed as Ornaments Highlight Physics Conferences):

O Christmas Tree!
Like many particle physicists, JoAnne Hewett can trace the course of her career through her scientific publications. But for a more colorful retrospective of her work, the SLAC theorist simply decorates her Christmas tree.

About 20 years ago, Hewett, a graduate student at the time, bought a totem-pole keychain while visiting a collaborator in Vancouver. Shortly after, a sort of eureka moment struck: “I thought, hey, I could use this as a Christmas ornament,” she says.

Since then, Hewett has made a habit of collecting tree trinkets whenever she travels to conferences, workshops, committee meetings, and the like. “I look for something that says to me, ahh, this is that place,” she says.

Indeed, Hewett can tell you with enviable recall the place—as well as the year and event—each ornament represents. The hand-painted egg? Budapest, 1991, Beyond the Standard Model workshop. The cactus? Tucson, 2003, supersymmetry conference. The glass Santa in a gondola? Trieste, 2006, presentation of LHC lectures.

And then there’s the poorly crafted half-sphere diorama that’s stuffed with figures vaguely resembling people and cacti. “This is what you end up with when you’ve had too many margaritas,” Hewett laughs. San Diego, 1989, 4th generation physics meeting.

Most every ornament comes with a story, too, but clearly, the story that takes the holiday fruitcake belongs to the ornament shaped like the Stanley Hotel, where Hewett attended a linear collider meeting in 1995. Located in Estes Park, Colorado, the hotel is famous as the set for the thriller movie, The Shining. But what Hewett remembers most about the hotel is its run-down condition at the time. “We had no hot water or curtains, and the meeting was in a shack in the back yard with only two bathrooms for all of us. It was absolutely awful,” she says. “When I saw the hotel ornament, I knew I had to have it.”

And of course, there’s one other ornament Hewett always knew she had to have in her collection, too: a miniature cowbell. “Every physicist who’s ever been to CERN has seen one,” she says with a smile.

  • Amara

    What a nice souvenir holiday tree! It brings the whole world into your living room.
    I have the same kind of “souvenir” hobby, but with refrigerator magnets…. (and postcard-sized pictures which I vary on my refrigerator every few months depending on my mood)

  • Quasar9

    I started collecting elephants a long long time ago … oh can’t remember exactly when, seems my memory is not as long as an elephant’s.
    Yep ornaments of every size, from snall silver, jade or even ivory ones, to brass, and larger african wood, or pottery and clay ones.
    Alas, the herd never seems to grow, every year I add some more, yet it seems there’s a blackhole or some sort of wormhole thru which they go. I have noticed this wormhole must lead to my parents home, since my mother’s herd seems to grow and grow – and many do look familiar.
    Perhaps just as well, I’d probably need a small continent like Africa to put all the elephants I ever bought and collected (temporarily) on display.

  • mollishka

    Hmm, I should start that… it’s such a good idea! I already sort of have, because when grad students in my department go to “exotic” places, they often bring back little trinkets for the other graduate students, and the cheapest ones are always ones that can hang on the bulletin boards we have next to our desks—much like an ornament would hang on a tree.

    So what do you do when you visit a place lots and lots of times? Is it just the first time that counts?

  • Urbano

    my favorite of this ilk is a tiny Corvacado from Rio

    Hi Joanne, I think you mean Corcovado, don’t you? :-)

  • Jack

    I collect door knobs along with any accompanying plates. Our bedroom is a wooden 20′ dia tank and I put them there everywhere on the inside. Convenient things to hang your hat onto. Over 100 door knobs on a wall is impressive. Why door knobs? Maybe I’m looking for the way in; maybe the way out. Anyone have any olde door knobs? I’ll pay the postage.

  • Arun

    You meant See-my-tree, didn’t you?

  • JoAnne

    Urbano, thanks! I’ve corrected it in the text. I could only guess on how to spell Corcovado, so I googled on “Corvacado Rio” and got hits, so I figured that was correct…

    Fridgie magnets and elephants I can understand, but door knobs do seem a tad bit unusual!

    Mollishka: I do my best to get something on the first visit. After that I am not pressed to buy another ornament, but if I see something I like it usually comes home with me. Hence the new painted egg from Aspen.

  • Plato

    Doornobs may not seem so odd if you considered the collection of plates, spoons, coin. But what may indeed seem odd is “hanging” from a tree :)

    Imagine “lighted candles” on Christmas trees, as some cultures do? Fire hazard, I would say? :)

  • Amara

    I think collecting door knockers would be especially cool.

  • Pingback: More Physics Christmas Ornaments | Cosmic Variance()

  • Valerie

    Sadly, I don’t have a phenomenal memory but your tree did have a lasting impact on me when I saw it all those years ago. I was so taken by the way it chronicles your travels around the world, how every ornament tells a story, and by the sheer number of them. It’s always great to remind people that particle physics is a very human endeavour.

  • JoAnne

    Val: HI! Hope all is going well with you and we get a chance to see each other soon! And you are so right – science is very much a human endeavor.

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