Last week I visited the Institute for the Early Universe in Seoul, Korea, part of the World Class University project, an initiative of the Korean government to build forefront research institutions. It is situated on the Ewha Womens University campus, the world’s largest female-only University. I felt out-of-place walking around, not because I’m obviously a foreigner, but because I was male in a sea of women. The physics classes at Ewha are filled with women, which is (unfortunately) radically different from the majority of other institutions. In 18 months the IEU has built an impressive program, with a number of outstanding faculty (including George Smoot, Eric Linder, Uros Seljak, Bruce Grossan, and Changrim Ahn) and postdocs (including Reiko Nakajima, Scott Daniel, and Teppei Okumura) in both short and long-term residence, and a great visitor program (Ue-li Pen from CITA/Toronto was also in town last week). I’ve had productive collaborations with both Eric and Uros in the past, and it was great to get time with them. I’ve gotten temporarily excited about trying to test whether our Universe is described by a metric theory, but have been getting little traction thus far. Last Friday I wandered over to Yonsei and had a very interesting chat with Joe Silk, who was in town for a workshop.
My inaugural dinner with the institute folk set the tone. We went out to a local seafood restaurant. Walking in one passed a number of tanks, filled with live fish, eels, octopus, and various other unrecognizable ocean dwellers. The table next to ours consisted of three Korean women enjoying octopus sashimi. We promptly ordered some for ourselves. The octopuses were extracted from their tank, hauled into the kitchen for a few minutes, and then presented neatly cubed. Octopuses have a fairly unusual autonomic nervous system, with many neurons present in the tentacles rather than the brain. This is a long-winded way of saying that a plate of fresh octopus is a writhing, tangled affair. You rapidly learn to coat the agitating bits in sesame oil before consuming, otherwise the suction cups stick to the interior of one’s mouth, somewhat compromising the whole experience. Needless to say, it is a strange sensation. But entirely delicious.
We were clearly amateurs. George managed to inveigle himself a personal lesson from one of the Korean women in how to eat octopus sashimi (only afterwards did she learn she was teaching a Nobel laureate). The lesson consisted of the woman taking an entire live octopus, carefully wrapping the tentacles around a wooden chopstick (metal doesn’t work), and then consuming the entire octopus popsicle in one fell swoop. As she indulged, there were tentacles coming out of her mouth and desperately grabbing her face, clearly displeased with the turn of events. It was starkly reminiscent of Aliens (with some amount of role reversal). It is one of the more unsettling things I’ve seen.