There and back again: Seattle


Eagerly, I woke up at 6.30. Mistake number one.

After heading to the site for about 9am, I proceeded to kill an hour, until Jenne started rounding people up to go. Hang was late in and needed a coffee (it was the morning after all) before we left. Ready to go, 5 of us headed out to the 7-seater “Monstrosity” as it was called that day. It was actually a Ford Explorer. Jeff told us that it had been dubbed the Ford Exploder, as the previous year’s model had been recalled after some had exploded. Eek.

So, in the Monstrosity was Jenne (who was talking later at the University of Washington, and driving the way there), Jeff (who had been to Seattle a fair amount, but had never lived there), Cao (a grad student from Adelaide, and excited to be going to Seattle), Hang (who had needed convincing to come, but Jenne had said “the higher ups decided it would be good for the grad students to come” – and with that, he came along), and myself, who did not need any convincing beyond “It counts as work”.


Jeff, being in the front seat, had control of the musical accompaniment. He had brought with him a stack of CDs to be metered out through the day. In the middle, I sat next to Hang, and Cao was happy sitting in the two seats way in the back.

And with that, we were off site and heading seawards. Immediately after turning right on the main road, instead of left towards Richland, I said “This is the furthest east I’ve ever been” – to which Jeff responded “It’s a good thing we’re going wast.” Facepalm.

Here’s the map, if you need orientation:

“Hey Jeff, what are we listening to?”

“Lake Street Dive’s newest album” – listen to this as you read.

As we pass to the south of the Hanford reserve, Jeff points out the cocoons visible from the road. Hanford was the primary plutonium production in the USA during the cold war. Back then, there was a big rush to get lots of plutonium out, and the long lasting radioactivity was not the main concern. As such, in the 1990s, after the soviet union broke apart, it was decided that the  radioactivity at Hanford was not a problem to be tackled now. The radioactivity was so high that the ‘solution’ was to drape the old reactors in inches – if not feet (I’m not sure) – thick concrete, and let it sit for 75 years until a decontamination plan can be made.

Currently, the favoured way to deal with radioactive material a method – called vitrification – is to submerge it in molten glass, allow it to set, coat that in concrete, submerge that mess in water within a barrel and bury it in ‘low impact’ areas – away from flowing water, civilization and wildlife. Cocoons, as visible from the road, are structures, usually reactors, draped in concrete. The whole operation is a $1bn/year cost of the US taxpayer. It’s quite sad.

Cao pipes up from behind “We’re going to see this band in 2 weeks down in Portland”. Cool, I like this music.

As we pass out of the desert and over the Columbia River, the land becomes much greener. Suddenly, we’re in the fruit growing region. I knew that the area was known for its wine, but now it seems that the place is flush with cherry trees. Come June, I’m told, you will see fresh cherries everywhere. But not just cherries and wine, oh no. I found out the following day that the area grows a large number of apples for the USA, as well as hops. North-eastern breweries love their IPA.

Lining all sides of the fruit groves are these tall, wiry, closely planted trees, which are apparently wind breaks. The other striking thin about the area is the number of small villages, almost just standalone apartment blocks. “Welcome to the bustling metropolis of Desert Aire” said Jenne as we passed one. These areas are solely housing for the large numbers of migrant workers, often cheap Mexican labour, stay during the busy harvest season. It really is a vastly different environment than the desert around the Tri-cities.


The CD ends, and the next one goes in. “I’m playing you all of Lake Street Dive in reverse chronological order”. Fine by me! Here’s a sample from that album.


Soon, after maybe 90 minutes on the road, we come off of the highway. Jeff was looking on Yelp for a good pit stop for fuel and food. Ellensburg is a small city, but just about the only place to stop on the way. So we did. The trip is made fairly often, a few times a year, and so there’s an ongoing search for the best lunch spot. Well, this time, it was a pretty good lunch! The Lunch Box Cafe does a good lunch. Soup and sandwich kind of affair, but tasty and friendly. They make all of their food in house, including all of their gorgeous baked goods.


But after about 40 minutes of fine dining, we were back on the road, fuelling up and making a toilet break before leaving. Again, CD change, and this time, to mix it up a little, we listenned to Clairy Browne and the Bangin’ Rackettes’ “Baby Caught the Bus”


Back on the highway, and it’s not long before the farmland gives way to dramatic landscapes, which in turn, give way to pine forests. It really was stunning. The majority of the journey from here on was just admiring the views.


Of course, the area in Eastern Washington is so dry because of the rain shadow cast be the Cascades. Seattle is on the other side of them. We were going through the mountains – yes, those up ahead. Jenne had looked at the traffic cameras in the mountain pass and the roads were clear. Sometimes the pass is closed due to the weather, but today it was open.

The pass we went through, Snoqualmie Pass is known for its looks and the hikes nearby. There are some pretty impressive mountain in the Cascades, including Mt. Rainier and Mt. St. Helens, but the range in huge, from southern BC in Canada until the north of California. Passing through this way is just like a sneak peak (tee-hee), but still a pretty solid teaser


Jeff mentioned that, that evening, if we were all up for it, a jazz club might be on the docket. Of course, there is business to attend to first, and a long drive back. It was a nice idea, but not today. I would like to go at some point though. I know that there are a couple in Glasgow, but I don’t have anybody to go with. “Who needs friends” said Jeff. I might just go alone if nobody else wants to, once I get back.

As we pull out of the mountain range and approach Seattle, the scenery changes again. First green, but beaten back by a suburban sprawl, then, water. Seattle is on a geographical feature called the Pugit Sound – It’s basically a strait, I’m not really sure, but to get to Seattle from the mountains, you have to cross Lake Washington. Which was pretty, unnsurprisingly.

But alas, we were running late. The scenic route in through the city would have to wait – for now we had 45 minutes to get to the university, and it was 30 minutes away, plus traffic. So on the way in, I snapped the pics that I could.


We made a bee-line for the university, found a place to park up, and headed in. It was tiime for Jenne to give her talk. The University of Washington (or as its known to its students, U-Dub) was her undergraduate university, so she knew her way around, and a few faces in the audience were familiar to her. Her talk was a good summary of what LIGO does, how it works, some information about the detection, and the event that it detected, and the next generation of detectors. After all, there’s only so much that can fit into an hour!

Following her talk, Jenne departed to visit old professors and faculty members. The rest of us went on a walk through the campus. We were guided from the physics building through the campus. It smelled of fresh air and greenery, and I had sorely missed that. Our guides were the local gravity group, who have some affiliation to LIGO, but also run their own experiments. After walking across the campus, we got to their lab, and were given a tour of their various experiments.

They had tests of local gravity, down to tens-of-microns distance. Also, they test the inverse-square component in a different experiment. The two bit experiments which stuck with me were the test of the equivalence principle, and their tilt sensor. These experiments all are based around sensing rotation of a suspended mass, down to the nano-radians scale. As such, much like LIGO, they all do well being isolated from the outside world.


Like this one, which looks like it’s in a snow globe.

After a thorough tour, and a few questions, Jenne returned, and dinner plans were made. Tacos. There’s a Mexican place neaarby (see the map) called Agua Verde, which, I’m told, do a good taco. 8 of us went out for food, 5 from LHO, and 3 from U-Dub. All bar one piled into the Monstrosity to get down there.

On arrival, we were seated. By this point, I hadn’t had much to drink all day barring a coffee, and the headache was settling in. Couple that with new people, a strange environment, a menu where all the dishes are named in Spanish, I got a little disoriented. But I powered through, tried to engage, gulped water, and ate a delicious fish taco. It really was good.

At dinner, the conversation turned away from gravitational research and onto some other projects. One of the faculty members who had joined us had been working on a side project, a new DNA sequencing method, and all of the differences working in the biotechnology field. For one, it seems that there, researches deal much more with patents and business agreements than we do!

Eventually, after the eating was done, it was time to pay up and ship out. The five of us hopped back into the Monstrosity, this time with Jeff driving. The music was Nathaniel Radcliff and the Night Sweats.


In the front of the of the car, Jeff and Jenne discuss the plan of attack. It already past 7, its a 4 hour drive back, but we are in Seattle. “Let’s go to the space needle for the kids”. Somehow, in this experience, the three of us grad students have become kids to the postdocs’ parents. We didn’t mind. Anyway, we made a quick pitstop into downtown Seattle. It was all of ten minutes to walk to the space needle, do a lap and come back. But it was cool nonetheless.



But soon it was time to make the trek home. There was just one problem. Seattle is something of a maze, and with some roads closed, and those open were heavy with traffic. It took fifteen minutes to get bearings, and then a further ten before we were on the highway out of the city. From there it was only five more minutes before we missed the turning and had to do the whole thing again! I guess I wasn’t the only tired one.

In the back seat, Cao got his laptop out and started processing the pictures he’d taken. Jeff and Jenne were chatting up front about this and that, and Hang and I st quietly in the middle. That evening, leaving Seattle, the moon hung low in the sky, and was a bug yellow disk againsty the mountains. It was beautiful, but elusive to a camera.


The car was quiet the whole way. We didn’t stop anywhere on the way, and bathed in moonlight, the area took on a whole new quiet persona. Raphael Saadiq played us through the mountains and out past Ellensburg.

As we would our way through the flats, between hills and wind farms and along the river, conversation meandered from TV shows like The Colbert Report and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, to where we all were before Washington. Bit then the CD changed one final time. Back to Lake Street Dive, their debut EP, primarily covers of pop hits. This one really stuck with me, and its a shame to have at the end. If you play no other music in this post, I pray that you play this next one.

Jeff explained the CD as we went through its tracks. I was in love with this sound. The upbeat jazzy R&B reworking of pop songs, the bluesy take on a classic. It’s a four person band out of Boston, all excellent on their own instrument, all good musicians in their own right. They were a band for ten years before they found their sound, and it was a hit online. Now they’re signed to a label. But this next video is the one that started them. They reworked the Jackson 5’s ‘I want you back’ into a sultry plea seamingly effortlessly, and it sounds like a whole new song in its own right.


And with that, we were back in the desert. In the dark, the flats, stretching out in all directions looked like a sea, with the peaks as islands. One by one, we were dropped off at our homes, with Hang and I the last to leave Jenne’s company, as she took the Monstrosity back to hers for the night.

We were home, it had been quite a day, and all that remained was to hit the hay, ready for work tomorrow.


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