Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Chichester, Dorking and Complex Variables

Yesterday, I went to Fishbourne, a village on the south coast most famous for its Roman Palace.  I was a guest of the Chichester Science Group as a guest lecturer for the their 2013 programme.  I'd been there a few years ago, and they were kind enough to invite me back.  Thanks to their clever policy of sending invitations well over a year in advance, I agreed last April that I'd be available to speak in October 2013.  As often happens, the time gets closer and I think "why on earth did I think it'd be a good idea to take a few hours out of my day at this time of year?"  but actually, it was an enjoyable few hours that broke up the pattern of the first week of semester, on a beautiful day to go to the south coast.

Normally I would have taken the train, but with my partner a week overdue with a baby (obviously I didn't know about this a year and a half ago), I drove, that I might get back quickly if necessary.  The talk took place in the middle of the working day, the group consisting of retired folk.  I found my way to the Fishbourne Centre, where the talk was taking place quite easily, and wished I had a little more time to go down to the sea and enjoy what might well be the last warm day of the year.  

I gave my talk on applications of nuclear physics, which I usually call the somewhat US-English title of "Field guide to the isotopes" but I called "What has nuclear physics done for us?" based on the fact that this is what the file on my computer had on its first slide following the last time I gave it being to kids, and me wanting to avoid unknown words in the title..." I kicked off with a pun about the fact that the word "What" made all the difference to the title, and went through the usual bunch of applications to medicine, geology, extreme biology and climate change, as well as the more obvious nuclear applications.  It was a bit hard to know how to pitch the talk - and some of the questions afterwards indicated that the members of the audience had quite strong science backgrounds, and some less so.  Most fascinating for me was the guy who discussed his experiences in navy as someone taking part in the Christmas Island bomb tests. 

Anyway,  I was impressed to receive an email today from one of the audience who said she had been thinking about what I said about protons behaving like little magnets, and us making use of that in MRI scans to look inside the body.  She wondered if maybe birds might be able to use that fact to help in navigation.  Of course she is (approximately) right - and I was both impressed by that leap, and gratified that enough of what I said made sense for people to think about it further.

Today, instead of heading south, I headed east, to Dorking.  Following my pattern for the last several years, I've taken an OU course for an MSc in maths, for the fun of studying new things, with the discipline that having deadlines gives me.  I must confess that I went into this one more poorly prepared than I have for previous ones, but well enough to make a decent go of it.  I enjoyed the course, in Applied Complex Variables and it included enough stuff that I never formally studied before to be useful, illuminating and challenging at the same time.  Only one module remains now, and that's the dissertation.  The OU MSc maths course has just moved from a Jan-Oct delivery to a more standard academic year, so this time, there is no gap between finishing one module and starting the next.  Exam done, so time to start studying the next module!