Tuesday, 21 May 2013

The dreaded oral

After this morning, I have one fewer PhD student than I had at the start of the day.  Fortunately, that's because Chris Pardi passed his viva voce exam (the oral exam in which one defends ones PhD thesis) and is now Dr Pardi.  Well, technically, I think he is not really Dr Pardi until he submits the hard copy to the University with the approval of the internal examiner who will check for the minor changes asked for, but still, the hurdle of the exam has been overcome.  On the other hand, I don't think there's anything to stop anyone calling themselves "Doctor".  Certainly no-one has ever asked me for proof.

The oral exam is a strange experience for a supervisor.  At my university, PhD supervisors are allowed to be present in the exam, but can't really say anything.  I sat there and observed two eminent professors - Jim Al-Khalili as the internal examiner, and Joachim Maruhn as external - quiz my student about his thesis, while I resisted the temptation to interject on his behalf.  Fortunately, he'd done some very good work, with some impressive mathematical manipulations to calculate essentially analytic absorbing boundary conditions for solutions of the nuclear time-dependent Hartree-Fock equations, that the positive result was not much in doubt.  The equation in the figure is one such result, looking notationally awesome as only continued fractions can do.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

The Hamiltonian Academics

To follow up from yesterday, here is the official team photo for the 5-a-side staff football team from the departmental competition.  I'm the tall one in white.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Football, bacon and a 7:30 start

A mixture of the Hamiltonian Academics and
the last team to beat us.  I'm the tallest one.
Well, it's been a year since the last departmental football tournament, and today was the day when teams from around the physics department contested the Al-Khalili challenge cup, named after the original organiser of the tournament, and renowned Leeds United fan Jim Al-Khalili.

I turned up a bit later than I might usually do, thanks to attending a committee meeting for the local UCU branch.  As usual, as someone who doesn't normally do enough exercise that looks much like playing football (though I do walk a lot, run a bit (but at a steady slow pace) and swim a bit) I got quite tired quite quickly, and soon moved to my usual position of playing in goal.  I can't remember exactly how many goals I let in, in the 3 halves I played in goal, but there were a few.  I did make some saves that I was reasonably proud of, though.

My day started much much earlier.  This morning, from 7:30 to 9:30 I had agreed to chair a "IoP business forum" event, organised by the Institute of Physics, and held at the Surrey Research Park, a Univeristy-owned business park adjacent to campus.  It was a good opportunity to wear a suit, though it did involve getting up early.  I don't particularly mind doing that, though the same thing happens as usually does when I set my alarm extra early - I don't really sleep properly and keep waking just in case it's really time to get up.  Of course it's not, and I set my alarm perfectly competently.  Then I dream I've missed the session, because I was having breakfast in one room, and was too polite to leave midway through a conversation to go and chair the session in the other room.  Oh the perils of being English.  In the dream I even ate the bacon roll that was provided for breakfast, though I don't eat meat in real life.  Well... of course I made the event just fine, and though the (internal) room was suffused with the odour of bacon and sausage sandwiches, I didn't eat any of them.

It was a pretty interesting event, even though it was all about funding opportunities for businesses, so not really relevant to me.  It was essentially about how to take taxpayer money and give it to private enterprise, which is of course what governments are for.  I'm not sure I chaired it desperately well, but the people who came seemed to engage with it, and it was interesting for me to see another side of life.  I always enjoy visiting companies when I go and see students on placement for some of the same reasons.  Then I enjoy going back to the university. 

Saturday, 11 May 2013

The prophet motive in physics

As a not-famous science blogger one question no-one ever asks me is "who are my science heroes?"  The answer, which I don't have to give since no-one asks is "no-one".  It's not that I don't admire the scientific achievements of many people, though I try to be careful of the effect whereby all good things get attributed to a few people while many may have contributed.  It's more that the idea of raising people up to a sort of hero status seems anathema to me and my view of science.  Science is about ideas, not personalities.  Most humans, myself included, are somewhat flawed, and I'm uneasy about the apparent mixing up of people and ideas when it comes to hero-worship.

Richard Feynman might have had a birthday today if he'd been alive, and he might have been a good physicist, but should I worship him in a crypto-religious sort of way?  I don't think so.  I'm not sure he was a particularly nice guy.  Maybe he was, maybe not.  I've heard conflicting opinions on this from people that knew him, but I don't think it matters much, since I don't much like worshiping people. I won't judge his physics by his personality, and I won't judge his personality by his physics.  It seems straightforward to me. I worry that things get conflated, though.

Friday, 10 May 2013

Greek is actually a real language

In a meeting earlier today, we were discussing outreach activities for the Physics Department at the University.  Amongst all the debate, and the useful discussion about things that we could actually do, I pointed out that I get irritated by science outreach in which greek letters are used to stand in for similar-looking roman letters.  Like the logo here, for example, or our own University's physics society logo.

I don't think there's anything to be embarrassed about to read a greek letter and know how to pronounce it, and it smacks of a kind of reverse arts-science ignorance-pride to use them as if they were just shapes that your computer font happened to supply.  The fault is more often in the other direction, when the likes of Jeremy Paxman on University Challenge shows impressed wonder at the correct answer to a science question and outright scorn at the ignorance to an arts question.  We don't have to respond in kind by treating the greek alphabet as if they were only symbols for use in physics equations and shunning their pronunciation or their other meanings.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

The Casimir Force

Conference Photo from the 2003 Kazimierz Dolny
conference.  I'm in there somewhere.
I received an email this morning that I almost deleted at a glance as a circular that was not relevant to me.  It concerned the proceedings of a conference in my area that I didn't attend.  However, I paid just about enough attention to note that the email announced the proceedings of an annual conference in Poland that had just been published and that would be freely downloadable for one month (as per IoP Publishing's usual policy for subscription journals).  I took a look and found a bunch of interesting articles.

It made me think of the conference series, held in Poland every year and organised by the University of Lublin.  I attended one of them around ten years ago, not long after I became a lecturer at Surrey.   The town it takes place in, Kazimierz Dolny, is a lovely small town in southern Poland, and the conference is was full of very relevant stuff for me.  Partly, this is because Poland has a ratio of nuclear theorists to experimentalists that is roughly in line with the rest of the world, while the UK's is out of line (see p19 of the recent IoP report for the data), and the Lublin group in particular, I guess, lines up well with me.

I also remember some other things about the conference:  A French student in attendance challenged me to a drinking competition (thinking that Brits were all great drinkers).  Against my better judgement I agreed, and was glad that my challenger turned out to be sufficiently drunk when making the challenge that he managed only one drink of the competition before being unable to continue, and that I was therefore not honour bound to go any further... and I remember that this was a conference in which it was expected that one shared a room with another attendee.  I shared mine with an attendee (also from France) about my age, and really I've never experienced someone else who snores so badly.  To be fair, he did apologise in advance on the first day as he was well aware of it.

As well as the memories, it made me think of the fact that many University groups run regular renowned conferences every year in nuclear physics that attract good international speakers as well as being great training opportunities for local students.  Poland have this one and the Zakopane conference (and apologies Poles if I've forgotten another).  Of course, Poland supports a far larger community of nuclear physicists than countries like the UK do, but still... it got me thinking that it might be nice to organise such a thing.  On the other hand, perhaps I should prefer that I get to travel to these sorts of events run by someone else in rather nice places.  I won't be off to Kazimierz again this year, but I'll be going to one of the regular Bulgarian conferences, swapping the North Downs for the Rila Mountains.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

... for coins

Last week, after a triumphant victory in the Wates House pub quiz (we got £1.50 each in profit, before you take the purchase of drinks into account), my partner Natasha and her dad, who also took part in the quiz, discussed more lucrative ways to make use of the accumulated bits of assorted information that litters our brains.  In the ensuing post-pub machinations, Natasha signed me up for The £1,000 Minute, which goes out on Smooth Radio every morning.  It's not a station to which I am particularly accustomed, but i didn't protest too strongly when she signed me up.  Lo and behold they got back pretty quickly, and asked me to appear today.

One is supposed to answer 10 questions in one minute, and if you get them all correct, then you get £1,000.  I listened to the slot for the last couple of days, and the questions seemed not too hard, providing that they are all on suitable topics.  Yesterday, for example, there was one about celebrity chefs and I had no idea.

So, at 7:40 this morning they called me up and I was live on Smooth Radio enduring small talk as a preamble to attempting to transfer £1,000 of Guardian Media Group money to the washing machine replacement fund.  Sadly I got off to a terrible start, from which no recovery was possible (mostly because you need to get all ten questions).  I couldn't think of the name of Helen Mirren to the answer of who won the best actress award at the Olivier awards last week, and I would never have been able to answer the next one on the name of the Beckhams' one-year-old daughter.  Then later on, I recognised the opening lines "I was dreaming of the past, and my heart was beating fast" from which I was supposed to identify a song, but I am really bad at linking spoken, not sung, lyrics to songs.  I can't remember all the questions I got right.  Salinger wrote Catcher in the Rye and Bratislava is the capital of Slovakia, and five forgotten others... Oh well.

Fortunately, Smooth Radio don't seem to have a listen again feature, so me doing what I allude to in the title of this blog post is forever lost.  Instead, here's John Lennon's Jealous Guy, the song I failed to spot: