So, why Helsinki? I was here to be the “Opponent” for a Ph.D. examination for a student at the University of Helsinki. I felt like the host of a talk show: after short presentations by the candidate and me, we sat at the front of an auditorium, and I quizzed him on topics near to our hearts (or our brains, at least): the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), and analyzing data from the soon-to-be-launched Planck Satellite using the specific algorithms that he had developed, implemented and tested. Some questions were hard, some were easy, and I'm sure that plenty were just asked in a confused way. But I'm happy to say that he comported himself very well, and he'll be all Doctored-up within a few weeks (in Finland, that seems to involve buying a special hat).
The whole process was very formal, very Northern European (in principle we were meant to be wearing tophat and tails, but we settled for dark suits). Most of my colleagues sniff at these things, but I'm all for a bit of ritual and symbolism -- getting your doctorate should be a big deal. That it was, indeed, a big deal was made even more plain by the next part of the ritual: the VäitösKaronkka, the party, hosted by the newly-minted Doctor in honor of the Opponent and other “respected guests”. We had several kinds of wine, foie gras, grouse (complete with buckshot; not for the squeamish) -- no reindeer, sadly. This one was held in the Hotel Kämp, a recently-restored 19th-century building where, apparently, Finnish luminaries like Sibelius had held court, drank, avoided their families, and planned Finnish independence.
Right now, I'm sitting in the Helsinki airport: right back to the UK for about 12 hours, and then off to the even more remote locale of Tokyo for a week. Next installment: General Relativity from the far East!