Monday, 31 December 2012

My nuclear year

Well, it's New Year's Eve and I've yet to post a suitably festive seasonal post to Blog of the Isotopes.  This is not because I switch off from blogging mode over the holidays, but more because I foolishly left both my phone and computer behind when I went to stay with my family over the holidays.  There was much jesty mocking at my expense about my ability to withstand such a trial.  I'm back at home now, ferrying clothes back and forth to the campus launderette since my washing machine seems to have packed up,  and I'm currently sitting in my office.  I figure now is a good time for a holiday post, and to review my 2012 as far as things nuclear physics goes.

I've always enjoyed all, or at least most, aspects of the academic life;  both the teaching and the research, and to some extent the administration (I liked being admissions tutor), but this year I tried to make a real effort to push the research side, hopefully not at the expense of anything else.  By and large, I think I've been successful.  If not on a global scale that will get my poached by Harvard then at least it has been a good year as far as I am concerned and my judgement of how far my own abilities will take me.  My list of publications in 2012 include four papers in Physical Review.  One of them is the (joint) second most cited paper in Phys. Rev. C in 2012.  It also led to a trip to Brazil - my first time south of the equator, and to a new collaboration, so that's all to the good.  The two current PhD students for which I am principal supervisor have had joint papers with me accepted for publication, both of which should appear in January, and so I am very pleased for them, as well as me.  I had an enjoyable conference trip to Bulgaria, with a small holiday in Plovdiv attached on the end, and made a visit to my old stomping ground of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, which I always enjoy, being able to catch up with old friends.  That trip was to visit a Surrey MPhys student who was on placement there.  Too bad we aren't sending a student there next year for me to visit.

The biggest news of the year for me, though, was some sad news, that I didn't post about at the time.  My PhD was co-supervised by two people;  Jirina Stone from Oxford, where I was based, and Michael Strayer from Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where I spent about half of my overall time while studying for my PhD.  Like many PhD-supervisor relationships, as with many general research collaborations, the working partnerships are friendships, too, and so it was with Mike.  While I lived in Tennessee I spent a lot of time around his house hanging out, and became friends with his family, too.  After my PhD, he employed me for a year as a postdoc, and was very helpful and sympathetic when I had to partially complete it in the UK following the serious illness of my then-wife.  For the next few years, I would go back and spend time working in Oak Ridge with him, until he moved to a position at the US Department of Energy in Washington.  At that point we more or less lost touch (I am really bad at keeping in touch with people, as school and university friends will surely attest).  It was thus with great sadness that I learned that Mike committed suicide this year.  At the time of his suicide, he was under indictment by the US government for potential misuse of government funds in the publication of a trade magazine for whom his wife worked.  I can only speculate on the mental state that led Mike to that dreadful solution, and how bleak he must have felt.  I feel only sadness that it came to this.  Irrespective of the rights and wrongs of the case against him, there was some irony to me, in a year in which much attention has been paid to the fact that the scientific publishing business has taxpayer-funder scientists writing articles for free for privately-owned journals only to be sold back to the taxpayer, that some part of the scandal involving Mike seemed to involve the fact that scientists were being asked to write for free, but that the staff working for the publisher would benefit financially.  It seemed to me, too, that the explicit mention of the "foreign" publisher of the magazine (being the UK's Institute of Physics) was rather prejudicing things, but I cannot claim to know all the details in this case.  Sorry I didn't keep in touch with you, Mike, and sorry it came to this. 

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Thorium and proliferation

I was just reading this interesting comment article in Nature about the dangers of using Thorium to make fuel for nuclear weapons, when I realised it was written by ex-Surrey PhD student Stephen Ashley, who is now a postdoc in the nuclear engineering group in Cambridge.  Good job, Steve!

Given that the article is a comment piece, already designed for general consumption, I don't see much point in me précising it here, but it's an interesting read.  And I thought at first the picture in the article showed someone holding a bowl of corks from wine bottles.  

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Hideous Kinky

So, there's this interesting effect going on with the size of lead nuclei as you add more neutrons, whereby the radius suddenly goes up at a much larger rate as you go beyond 126 neutrons.  This is commonly called the "kink effect" in the isotope shift.  People have been calling it that in published papers for years.

I recently wrote a paper with a student and another academic about the reason that this happens.  I think we came across the correct reason, and that it's simultaneously simple and profound.  Thinking those things, I thought it was worth writing up for publication in journal Physical Review Letters, which is the sort of place one sends stuff which should be of general interest to the wider physics community, and is also quite prestigious and a bit difficult to publish in.

The good result is that the referees liked the paper and it will be published there.  The bad news is that our title for the paper, "Why is lead so kinky?" was deemed unsuitable by the journal.  Even before sending it to referees, they asked us to change the title to something which reflected the content of the paper.  In every dictionary I looked in (including the one I bought when I lived in America) the word kinky meant having a kink in the sense of a bend, in exactly the way the radius of lead isotopes does.  Sure, there is also a meaning, usually listed in the dictionary as informal or slang, in which kinky means having an outré sexual taste, but obviously we didn't mean that.

In the end, we had little choice but to change the title, but it seems a shame.  The title seemed entirely appropriate to me, and we were answering the question posed.  On the other hand, I don't want to complain too bitterly;  after all, the paper was accepted, and the science was considered sound.  Too bad that the American Physical Society are in favour of bowdlerising.  Except when they aren't...

Friday, 14 December 2012

End of Week 11, and end of particle physics

Hello.  I've been a little quiet the last week or so, as the teaching part of semester has reached its climax.  Today is Friday of week 11, which is the last day that we teach in semester 1.  I taught, this morning, my last (ever) class in "High Energy Physics", which is, or was, for one year only, a combined special relativity and particle physics course.  For slightly complicated reasons to do with how the University has changed the module structure, there will be a 15 credit (a quarter of the entire semester's credit) course just in relativity next year, which I will be teaching, but I'm done with particle physics, possibly for ever!  It feels good.  I quite enjoyed teaching it, but found it a bit necessarily phenomenological and difficult to teach because of that.  With relativity there is no shirking from the theory.

A couple of posts ago, I boasted about the acceptance of a joint paper between one of my PhD students and me for publication in Physical Review C.  This week, a joint paper with one of my other PhD students, along with his co-supervisor, Arnau, was accepted into Physical Review Letters.  Go us!

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

A new, and very specialist blog

I've just written the first post in a somewhat specialist blog set up for the physicists in the department here at the University of Surrey who want to share useful things they have worked out in the gnuplot plotting program.

If any of those words make sense to you, you might like to read it here, and even subscribe to the rss feed.  I don't know how regularly it will get used, but a few different gnuplot users are registered as authorised posters.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Good news day

A couple of pieces of good news came my way today, so I thought I'd crow about them share them here.

Firstly, as you will all no doubt remember from this post last autumn, I have, for fun and general education, been taking some Open University courses which will lead to a masters degree in maths.  Today, I got the result through from the latest module ("Advanced Mathematical Methods" - which turns out to be a lot of those methods which physicists think are basic) - and I scored a creditable 92% in the exam, so I was pleased about that.  Well done, me.

The other piece of news was gleaned by my habitual checking of the manuscript status page on the American Physical Society website to see the current status of the paper I referred to in my last post, written by my PhD student, and me, to find that it had changed to "Editorially approved for publication".  Well done, me.  And Chris.  Mostly Chris, actually.

In case you're interested, here's the trail that is visible to the author on the status page, which shows what happened to the paper since the date of submission (7th Sep) to acceptance (today!).  It looks like we have a small correction to make (probably a figure axis label - I know it's wrong) and then we'll be sent proofs to check and hopefully it will be published in around a month from now.

CURRENT STATUS OF MANUSCRIPT: Editorially approved, but need author response

Copyright/Right to Publish received

04Dec12         Manuscript-correction request sent to author
04Dec12         Editorially approved for publication
26Nov12 02Dec12 Review request to referee; report received
20Nov12         Correspondence (miscellaneous) sent to author
09Oct12 20Nov12 Ed. decision and/or ref. comments to author; response rcvd
20Sep12 27Sep12 Review request to referee; report received
12Sep12 18Sep12 Review request to referee; message received (not a report)
14Sep12         Correspondence (miscellaneous) sent to author
14Sep12         Right to publish signature received
12Sep12         Correspondence (miscellaneous) sent to author
11Sep12         Acknowledgment sent to author
07Sep12         Correspondence (miscellaneous) sent to author

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Obscure references

One of my PhD students (Hi, Chris!) is absolutely brilliant at finding obscure papers relevant to his research.  In our recent paper, there are references to journals that I'm sure I haven't referenced before, mostly to do with numerical and computational methods.

Now, he's found a two-page paper on nuclear theory written by a certain G. F. Nash, from 1972, with an affiliation of the North West Kent College of Technology, Dartford.  I hadn't even realised that the place existed (it still does), nor that there was once someone there who published academic papers in theoretical nuclear physics.  According to ISI, the paper has never been cited since its publication in 1972.  The journal, at least, is not so unfamiliar to me, it being the Mathematical Proceedings of the Cambridge Philosophical Society, not least because of the classic paper by Crank and Nicolson published there.

I certainly look forward to seeing the bibliography in Chris's thesis, when it's done.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Meeting and Eating

I must confess at the start of this post  that I'm probably at one extreme on the issue that I'm posting about, but perhaps not too extremely.  It's about combining meals with communal activity.

So, I do find the smell and/or noise of people eating a bit distracting.  I don't mind it in a restaurant.  After all, you go there knowing there's food there, but in other circumstances, it's annoying.  Coming home late from London can be quite a pain if someone comes and sits next to you with a hot meal bought from one on Waterloo's quality fast food joints.  I mean, you are stuck there in a train carriage with no open windows and have to smell your uninvited companion's food.  Thankfully, the Underground has recognised the selfishness of forcing your hot dinner on everyone else, and banned it for that very reason.

Not so long ago, it was considered impolite to eat in public, and now it seems to be considered an inalienable right to be able to munch on a snack wherever and whenever you might be.  I've certainly had people come to my office to see me carrying a bacon sandwich and thinking it okay to sit there and eat it during a meeting. While part of me is tempted to blame "young people" who see perpetual eating as a right, in reality, it seems more part of a culture of not taking breaks.  It has become normal to schedule lunchtime meetings and say that it's okay to bring your lunch along and we can carry on working through the ritual of eating.

Partly it's just my foible, but when I'm trying to listen to something important but there's someone sitting next to me exceeding the decibels of the speaker by eating an apple, then the lunchtime meeting is pointless.  If I'm trying to listen to someone giving a talk, but the absolute right to munch crisps is sacrosanct, then I may as well not attend a talk.

Okay, I may be the over-sensitive one, but I don't think it's unreasonable to stop for lunch, or dinner, and not mix them up with talks, meetings, or anything else.  I get the feeling that I'm completely out of touch on this.  Am I?

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Google Scholar Annoyances

Last week, I posted about Google Scholar, and how it ranks areas of the arXiv above most journals in terms of a whole-journal h index.  More usefully, it keeps tracks of citations to my papers, so i can see whether what I'm doing is having any impact, and it suggests new articles to me that I might like to read.  It's suggested some that I'm sure I wouldn't have otherwise come across, from parochial journals, for example.

I try not to get too obsessed with the headline number, telling me my total number of citations.  After all, I can easily find someone I went to University with, whose single most cited paper has more citations than my entire lifetime's work.  And not just a bit more - a factor of 20 more.  Oh well.  One of the strange things, though, is that the number of total citations Google Scholar gives can go down as well as up over time.  The whole shebang is automated, of course, and a computer program finds all the citations and updates the database.  Presumably it sometimes roots out erroneous citations from the database.  The weird thing for me is that one recent paper of mine keeps jumping around in terms of number of citations.  It got up to around 11, then dropped to 0, then up to 5 or so, and today seems to have reverted to 0.  Even the Phys Rev C page for the article is aware of a few references, and it does not have a terribly extensive search remit, as far as I can tell.  Strange, and a little bit frustrating.  It'd be nice if it worked better than it does.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

End of the World

Last night featured the latest in the series of Institute of Physics South Central Branch talks that I organise at the University of Surrey.  We hosted Alok Jha, Guardian Science correspondent, Guardian ScienceWeekly podcaster, and author, who was talking about scenarios for the end of the world - meant either as the end of civilisation, or the literal destruction of the planet.  He's a nice speaker, he engaged very well with the audience, and provided an entertaining talk.  I usually try to have at least one speaker per year who is not necessarily talking about their own physics research, but rather has spent time understanding and digesting an area and presenting it to a public audience, and Alok fitted the bill very well.

Of course, with the prospect of the End of the World, we clearly are in need of Superheroes.  By coincidence, the Physics Department's student physics society is organising a talk on the physics of superheroes next week.  Like the IoP talks I organise, it is open to the public, and is at 7pm in Lecture Theatre F, so if you're in the vicinity of Guildford, it should be a fun way to spend an hour.  The speaker is Prof Alan Davies, University of Hertfordshire. A quick search indicates that he is not a floppy-haired actor, but a mathematics professor.  He even has his own wikipedia entry (I don't!).

Sunday, 18 November 2012

the arXiv and metrics

Open access publishing continues to make the news, or if not the news then at least the pundits' and bloggers' musings.  Following the recommendations of the Finch Report, RCUK had previously made money available to a select cohort of universities to cover the costs fees of publishing open access papers.  To partially redress the partiality, much more research money is to be diverted to pay for gold open access in a rather fairer proportionate way.  This is still a cause for concern for many people, since it still takes money away from research to give instead to publishers, and still has some unfair aspects to it.

From my point of view, this could all be fixed by encouraging a change to the academic and wonk culture to stop judging people by proxies such as impact factors of the journals where they publish, but to judge the scientific content of the work directly.  Still, until and if that ever happens, Google has done us something of a favour.  Some time ago, it started Google Scholar - a version of its search engine that searched scholarly articles.  Useful for me, certainly.  More recently it has started a rival to the traditional article metrics companies.  Individuals can keep track of their papers and who has been citing them via a subscription-free site, and metrics for individual journals can also be found.  My modest contribution to the world's body of scientific knowledge is summarised here.

Notwithstanding the problems of using whole-journal metrics as a measure of an individual article, Google has included the different subject areas of the arXiv server as separate journals in its measure.  An interesting result in this, is that in the Physics and Mathematics subject area of their metrics site, three of the top five "journals", as measured by a per-journal 5-year h-index are arxiv subject areas.  This is great.  At least if you are an astrophysicist - it says that the most cited astro-specific outlet it in the astro-ph section of the arxiv.  Sooner or later the people who insist on judging by journal-based metrics will notice this, and perhaps those responsible for the government's open access strategy will eventually notice too, and realise that they don't need to divert research money away from research.

My own area, nuclear physics, does not feature in the list.  Partly, that's because of volume, but also because of the culture.  Astrophysicists, and high-energy physicists clearly lead the field here.  I think it would be good if nuclear physicists more habitually deposit to the arXiv.  I do, and my latest submission is here (called "why is lead so kinky?" - the journal I submitted to has told me I must change the name).

Friday, 16 November 2012

Ben Elton's Dad

Yesterday, when driving home, I listened to that program that comes on after the evening outing of The Archers on Radio 4.  It involved a discussion with Ben Elton about a new novel he's written.  As a child of the 1980s, I still hold Ben Elton as a kind of hero.  After all, he was partly responsible for The Young Ones and steadfastly opposed the Thatcher government that we were then living through... I even bought his first novel when it came out and read it.  It was okay.  Sort of entertaining and funny as I remember, if not a great literary work.

The interview with him last night was interesting.  His new book is an historical novel about the separation of children in Nazi Germany to split up a Jewish and adopted non-Jewish siblings.  The interest was more in the fact that that very thing had happened to Ben Elton's family, and he described a bit about it.  I though Mr Elton coped quite well with a rather boorish interviewer, and I think I might buy the book now, as it sounds like it might be a good read.  But anyway... part of the interview was about how immigrants, especially those at times of war, are very grateful to the host country indeed for providing safety and a new life.  I reflected, that in some way, I should be grateful to Ben Elton's family for something rather less than bodily safety and a new life - for my current employment.

Lewis Elton, Ben Elton's dad was a nuclear physicist who was the first head of the Department of Physics here at the University of Surrey.  Although the University, and its predecessor institution, the Battersea College of Technology, was rather practically-geared at the time (and still is to a large extent), Prof Elton was a theoretician, rather freer of practical applications than many other academics, and he worked on nuclear physics.  He successfully built up a research group at Surrey that survives to this day as one of only two groups in Britain with current theoretical nuclear physics research.  He brought in Daphne Jackson, who became the UK's first female professor of Physics, and during her years here, the group expanded to include an experimental group.  Now, we are a successful general nuclear physics group, and are known around the world.  While the credit must be shared with all involved, if not for Ben Elton's dad, I certainly wouldn't be sitting here in this office right now.

The picture shows me with a copy of a book by Lewis Elton that I picked up before I had any inkling that I might end up here.  I bought it in a second hand book shop in Oxford when I was an undergraduate.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

No more in '94

A picture, from uossnaps, from before the
1994 Group existed.
Most, but not all, UK universities belong to a so-called "mission group".  The most well-known of these is the Russell Group.  The various groups are self-selected associations of Universities that chose to club together to form lobby groups to promote and defend their interests in a unified way.

The Russell Group formed in 1994 from some rather large and generally older universities.  In response, a selection of smaller universities formed the 1994 Group.  These were essentially most of the pre-1992 universities that were not invited to be part of the Russell Group.  The large number of universities established in 1992 following the conversion of polytechnics to universities then created the lobby groups Million+ and University Alliance.

I think it's fair to say that the Russell Group have been the most successful in creating a brand identity.  Indeed, they have successfully created the impression that they are a kind of premier league of universities in the UK.  I hear parents attending UCAS days talk about the ambition of their children going to a Russell Group university, and hear similar stories from teachers.  Little do people seem to know that these groups are just self-selected lobby groups, and they are buying the hype when they aspire to attend one group over another.  To be fair, to the extent that one takes stock in league tables, then Russell Group universities by and large do well, but I would sooner go to St Andrews or Lancaster (neither in the Russell Group) to study physics than many Russell Group universities.

Perhaps it is because of this general perception that after years of stable membership, things have been changing this year.  First, Durham, York, Exter and Queen Mary left the 1994 group and joined the Russell Group, and then St Andrews, Bath and Surrey left the 1994 group and remain, to the best of my knowledge, unaffiliated.  This means that I am at an unaffiliated university.  I can't imagine that it will change things much for me, or for the Physics Department.  Being a member of the 1994 group was not something I ever heard students or parents talk about when discussion choice of university to study at.  I wonder if the 1994 Group will survive the departures, and whether the unaffiliated universities will suffer anything more than not paying the subscription fees.  Time will tell, I guess. 

Monday, 12 November 2012

Copperhead Stakes

It's not quite up to the excitement of the recent US elections, and won't impact science funding a great deal, but on Thursday we have elections for police commissioners.  I can't say that I think this is a role that specifically needs to be elected (I mean, we have to stop somewhere in terms of electing public servants), but the election is happening, so I thought I'd take in interest and look up the candidates.

My postal vote arrived this morning, two days before the deadline for posting it, which seems to defeat the purpose of having postal votes.  According the the instructions, one should choose a first and a second choice.  The wording implies that the second choice is obligatory, but I'm not sure that is really the case.  But okay, I voted for two.

Choosing police commissioners in Surrey is a curious thing.  It is a very conservative and nimbyish place, and many of the candidates are competing with each other to be the least tolerant of crime - or at least of the sort of crime that upsets middle-class conservative voters.  Certainly, such things as anti-social and loutish criminal behaviour is something police should target, but the prominence given to it in the statements of many of the candidates seems rather to be ignoring other forms of crime.  Guildford in particular and Surrey in general is home to many City bankers, who have, aside form criminal insurance mis-selling and libor-fixing, have caused the wages of their relatively poor neighbours to stagnate and their pensions and/or benefits to lose value.  This seems like rather anti-social behaviour to me (as well as some of it being illegal), but it doesn't seem that the candidate police commissioners are aiming to address this.  Ho hum - too much to ask for, I think.

I was pleased to see that the Labour candidate, at least, mentions the benefits of, for example, working to help young people with drugs problems, saying that he would target money at drug intervention (as well as other things) - shockingly trying to actually fix problems than just punishing.  He has no chance of getting elected.

Since it's the first election for a police commissioner, there will be no swingometer in the overnight election program, but I look forward to staying up all night watching the results come in.  I wonder which county will declare first...

Monday, 5 November 2012


This semester I'm teaching a new course which I'm finding a lot of fun.  I don't much like the title, which is "Modern Computational Techniques", but it was chosen in homage to my colleague's Modern Analytical Techniques course, which explores some advanced experimental methods.  My course covers a range of (somewhat) advanced computational techniques that one doesn't necessarily otherwise see at undergraduate level - at least on a physics course.  It starts off with the use of the LAPACK linear algebra package to solve finite-differenced versions of various differential equations, with examples taken from electrostatics and quantum mechanics.  Then it moves on to a range of algorithms: The FFT, neural networks and genetic algorithms, and then on to Monte Carlo methods and finally some parallel programming.  It's a substantial enough module in terms of credits and time taken to go into the techniques in some detail, and each week I've got three hours with the students, first in a 2h class, then a 1h class.

I've scheduled the 2h class in a regular teaching room and spend the first hour going over the material on the board, and the second writing live and trying to be collaborative with the students, a code that solves the problem / uses the technique at hand.  The one hour class is in the computer lab with the students given an exercise to do.  The second hour of the two hour class can be a bit hairy, in that there's no guarantee that we'll be able to construct a working code and there is a certain amount of "winging it." Of course, I try to make sure that it is achievable, and work through the problem in advance, but today in week 6 of the course I failed to write a working code for a multilayer neural network and train it to be an XOR gate.  It didn't help that I made an error in deriving the learning rule in the first hour, in which the derivative of the error with respect to the weights in the neural network could not have been worked out, but I thought using a finite difference would work in the program just as well.  It should have... but I didn't quite make it by the end of the 50 minute slot.  Too bad.  Sorry class!  I hope that you're generally enjoying the course, though.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Lunchtime recitals & Evening talk

I've only been working here for a mere 12 years, and during all that time, I had never been to one of the weekly lunchtime recitals put on by the music department.  I managed to remedy that today by making the two minute walk from my office to the performing arts studio and listening to final year students perform.  It was heavily flute-themed, beginning with a piece by Carl Reinecke, accompanied by piano, another accompanied piece by Ian Clarke, dating from 2007 (and rather good, I thought), then a Rachmaninoff piano piece, which started off quietly and ended with a loud crashing tempestuous finale, and then back to a calmer flute solo piece by Telemann.

It is easy to forget that there still survives an aspect of University life which is about very highly-educated people sharing a communal experience of being amongst other very highly-educated people and engaging with each other.  So often it feels like I am here to do a job, to make bosses happy, to satisfy various metrics, but every now and then a glimpse of some crazy idealistic view of the academy peeks through.

So, more fool me for waiting so long before attending... and really, there is so much else going on that one can attend, but I rarely do so.  I even organise one series of events here, albeit under the cover of the Institute of Physics.  In fact, tonight we kick off this (academic) year's programme of evening public lectures on physics (and related topics), with Jon Butterworth of UCL (and Horizon and the Guardian, etc.) talking about a euphemistic "discovery" at the LHC earlier this year.  If you are a reader of this blog (if there are any) and you are in Guildford, feel free to come along this evening.  It should be a great talk, and I'm really looking forward to it.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Flora and Wagner

This morning, when driving my daughter Flora to school, I felt in a kind mood, and offered that we could stop listening to radio 4 (which she professes to hate, but still asks things about what they say) and suggested radio 2.  She gladly said yes, hoping for music, and indeed we were treated to The Fog on the Tyne (Lindisfarne version, thankfully - though she didn't say anything about the "we can have a wee-wee" line).  After a while she got tired of Chris Evans talking, and asked what was on radio 6 and radio 5, and I tried to explain (and that we couldn't listen to radio 6 or 5 in the car).  I then mentioned radio 3 and that it played classical music, and asked if she wanted to listen.  She said yes. 

It is now her favourite radio station.  When we turned it over, the music playing was Huldigungsmarsch by Richard Wagner.  She was absolutely delighted (having spend the journey thus far complaining about the traffic and how boring the journey was and how long it would take).  "Daddy!  It's like a carousel!  It's like a carousel, isn't it Daddy?" she said,  and we spent the rest of the journey listening to Radio 3.  Every time I turned it down to hear what she was asking, she forgot her question and just told me to turn it back up.  Hopefully this is going to make car journeys more enjoyable for all of us!

Edit: Here's Lindisfarne's Fog on the Tyne:

and here's Wagner's Huldigungsmarsch:

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

How many naturally-occurring elements are there?

The editor of Nature Chemistry, @stuartcantrill and I follow each other on Twitter.  If memory serves, that followed from a quick exchange about the correct value of the number of naturally-occuring isotopes between us.  The subject has come up again, with Stuart (correctly) correcting the value given in a blog post he tweeted about.

The question is not at all easy to answer.  It depends what you mean by naturally-occurring.  I think the common meaning is "can be dug up from the ground but didn't come from man-made sources such as weapons fallout."  So, how many is that?  Well, definitely any element with a stable isotope can be included there.  How many elements have stable - i.e. non-radioactive - isotopes?  If you look at a table of isotopes, such as this one you can look for the squares shaded in black, which is the usual notation for a stable isotope.  That gives us everything from Hydrogen (element 1) up to Bismuth (element 83) with gaps for Technitium (element 43) and Promethium (element 61).  The complicated thing is that really, everything heavier than around Nickel or Iron (around element 26) is know to be theoretically unstable, and in fact the decay of the only "stable" Bismuth isotope has been observed.

Still, it turns out that all the isotopes listed as "stable" in the chart can be dug out of the ground, and trace amounts of Technetium and Promethium are found in nature, because Uranium can be dug out of the ground, and though all isotopes of it are radioactive, they sometimes decay by spontaneously fissioning into lighter isotopes, which include Technetium and Promethium.

It is for similar reasons that some other radioactive-only isotopes can be found on the Earth, and this includes isotopes of all the elements heavier than Bismuth but lighter than Uranium (things like Polonium and Radon).  It seems that a bit of Neptunium and Plutonium (elements 93 and 94) can be found in Uranium ores, too.  According to this page found by Stuart, the number may be even higher, though I'd like to see the references to the papers where the things heavier than Plutonium were observed in non-man-made matter.

In some ways, though, the question is a bit academic.  If we extend our remit to the stars, where all elements heavier than lithium are made, then surely even heavier elements than those that can be dug out of the ground are found - at least fleetingly during novae and supernovae.  Stars are part of nature, after all.  What is clear is that we know that at least 118 elements exist in isotopes for long enough to say that they exist.  We also know, or suspect, that there will be an upper limit to this number, but exactly where that is, we're still trying to work out.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Sea U, Jimmy.

Every quarter, I get sent a copy of Nuclear Connect, a kind of trade journal for the nuclear industry.  There was one particular news story that interested me that I thought I'd pass on.  It concerns a recent announcement at an American Chemical Society, reported by them in a news story here.

The short story is that there is supposed to be at least 4 billion tons of uranium dissolved in seawater.  That's a staggering amount, but of course there is a lot of seawater out there, and even a low concentration of uranium could still amount to an overall huge weight.  Wikipedia seems to think there is about 109 billion tons of water on the Earth.

Apparently a technique, developed in Japan, has cut the cost of extracting uranium from the sea to around $300 per pound of uranium.  That would be at the natural isotopic abundance, presumably, so would need to be enriched for fuel. But still, to know that there is a huge reserve of uranium that can be extracted is useful.  It can always form a backup in case we don't come up with something better.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Sex, drugs and nuclear physics

Thanks to @scamperscamper and @thisiswilton for sharing the following on Facebook.  Nuclear Physics is getting some of the glamorous status that it clearly deserves at long last.

Friday, 7 September 2012

Bosons for free, and the golden 30.

A couple of interesting open-access things came to my attention in the last couple of days.  Firstly, and tangentially, a tweet that I saw retweeted pointed out that the articles that appeared on the preprint servers recently announcing the discover of the Higgs boson (or at least of a boson consistent with the Higgs) have now been published, free for all to read in Physics Letters B.  Of course, it was known at the time of the preprint appearance where they had been submitted, but it's certainly a win for the publishers and the proponents of "gold" open access that such a high-profile series of papers has gone this route.  According to the journal website, it costs $3000 of taxpayer gold for gold open access for each article.  I wouldn't be surprised if Elsevier subbed this one, though, given how cited these articles are going to become, but likewise I would not be surprised if CERN (i.e. CERN-subscribing governments) paid.  Anyway, the edition of Physics Letters B with the articles is here, and unlike most other issues, you can read some of the articles for free (and you can note the charges for the non-LHC articles in the same issue).

The other thing, and probably more consequential, is the announcement that the funding councils in the UK have top-sliced £10,000,000 of gold from their budgets and decided to give it to 30 particular universities in the UK so that they can give it to publishers to publish their research as gold open-access.  This was sort-of inevitable, given the Finch report.  From my point of view, this is somewhat problematic.  I am in one of the UK's 1994 group universities, but not one that made the 30 university shortlist.  It has the biggest theoretical nuclear physics group in the country, and is the obvious place for me to work.  It's a good place and has a good Physics Department (along with many other good departments).  It seems perverse to me, though of course I have a vested interest, to cut off funding like this on an institutional basis, irrespective of size of institution and so on.  A fermi function at absolute zero, where the energy levels are universities is not a sensible profile making use of any kind of logic.  Lazy expediency, perhaps.  To paraphrase a recent post on impact factors, distributing money in this way is mathematically illiterate.  Us little people, apparently, will be able to apply for money later, with some hoops the 30 golden boys can ignore.

Anyway,  none of this news should be surprising to anyone.  The HE sector is very innovation-shy from a management point of view.  Perhaps management is always small-c conservative.  The Finch report is quite a "no-one ever got fired for choosing Microsoft" outcome, where the solution is to give money to established successful (by some measure) business, rather than seek innovative solutions. And on the preferred 30, the funding councils (EPSRC more so than STFC, where I sit) have been moving to a preferred university status for a while.

Anyway, I don't suppose either of these things will affect me greatly.  I continue to submit work to the open-access arXiv before sending them off to journals. If you fancy reading it, my last one appeared yesterday.  It's open access :-)

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Brazil and Moseley, Mostly

The beach at Maresias
The view from the hotel
I have the pleasure of being at a conference in Brazil.  It's at a lovely location on the coast, by a nice beach, which is something of a surfers' haven.  I've never tried surfing, and I'm not about to start, at least not given the size of the waves here.  It's nice just being by the sea, though, and winter in Brazil is not a bad sort of climate to spend a few days in.  I attach an obligatory picture of the sea, taken a few steps from my hotel room.

As well as giving a talk, I've learnt about much of the nuclear physics research that goes on in Brazil, spanning experimental work, partly carried out at the São Paulo Pelletron, to theoretical stuff, to quite a lot of applied areas, like environmental radiation monitoring and cancer therapy.  All interesting stuff, but I just want to mention one interesting fact that I learned in a talk by Navin, a physicist working at GANIL in France, this morning.  He was talking about Moseley's Law, an empirical relation between the frequencies of X-rays emitted from atoms and the nuclear atomic number.  It did much to cement the Rutherford model of the atom in the earliest days of nuclear physics.  Moseley was British, and worked at Oxford and Manchester in the years preceeding the First World War.  If I remember rightly, there was a plaque dedicated to him outside of one of the lecture theatres in the Clarendon Lab at Oxford.

I already knew about Moseley's Law, but one thing that Navin mentioned in his talk was news to me.  I did know that Henry Moseley signed up to fight in World War One, and was killed by a sniper in Gallipoli.  The death of anyone is, of course, a personal tragedy to friends and family, but Moseley's death was also a loss to the physics community.  He was a first-class scientist, who would most likely have been considered very seriously for a Nobel prize in the years shortly after his death (they are never awarded posthumously).  What I didn't know was that, apparently, Moseley's death caused the British government to stop sending leading or promising scientists to the front line in wars.  I did not know that this was a policy and that it was caused by this single event.  I wonder if the rule still applies now and how they judge who is sufficiently good not to be conscripted (or even allowed to volunteer).

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Summer in Academia

Sometimes, when I tell people that I work at a University, they assume that I must have an enormous summer holiday, with no real work to do.  It is not the case at all, and I thought I would post about some of the things that have been occupying my time over summer.
  • A holiday, or two: University staff (in the UK at least) are contracted to work throughout the summer, but we do get to take leave, of course.  Given that we have a lot of teaching commitments in semester time, taking some of our leave in summer is a pretty normal thing to do.  As I've already mentioned, I was in Ayrshire for a week, and I took another week off to have a holiday in Spain, with my partner, daughter and mum.  The picture on this post is the beach at Dénia, where we were staying.  My body now looks strange, with a "tan", to which I am pretty unaccustomed

  • Teaching: The so-called academic year runs from October to June, roughly.  That's when we teach undergraduate degree courses.  Many universities, certainly including mine, have a large number of taught postgraduate courses.  Though my involvement on them is less than many of my colleagues, I do supervise dissertation projects, and they take place over the summer, which the MSc students do not have as vacation.  This year, I had a student working on a project using neural networks for pattern recognition in automated diagnosis of cancer.  That was quite fun, and I learned quite a bit along the way.

  • Research:  There are essentially three things that academic staff do:  Teaching, Research and Administration.  They all take place throughout the year, but during the summer, we get more time to spend on research.  Part of this is through supervision of PhD students (which takes place all year), and I've been spending time doing that.  I've also been writing up some papers that have been in a part-written state for various periods of time, and finished some of those.  I've been to conferences to talk about my and my students' research work, as well as to a science festival.

  • Administration:  I am the chairman of our department's Board of Studies.  As a result, I look after the discussion and implementation of new ideas in teaching and in the overall provision and structure of our degrees, as well as responding to new dictats from above on how we should teach.  Quite a bit of my summer has been taken with preparing a new joint degree in Mathematics and Physics.  The University requires a pretty rigorous validation procedure to be followed to start new courses and that took some time to write, and be reviewed.  The good news is that the course is running as of the coming year, and we will have a few students to teach on it.  They will be able to take different topics from across both departments, and hopefully will enjoy it.  I'm also acting head of the nuclear theory group, with the real head on sabbatical.  There have been a few things to deal with in that capacity, from managing research funding, to dealing with where new people are going to sit when they arrive in October.  Administration also covers all sorts of other paperwork related to teaching or research,  such as booking travel to conferences, and claiming back expenses afterwards.   We don't have personal assistants, alas.

  • Preparation for the new semester: I have a couple of new courses to teach this coming academic year.  One called "High Energy Physics" which is a combination of particle physics and special relativity.  I've been teaching an identically-named, but smaller module on particle physics alone, so this was relatively (ho) straightforward to prepare for.  The other is a final year course on advanced computational techniques - fancy algorithms and parallel processing and that sort of thing, all with a bit of physics context.

  • Other things:  I will probably fail to mention all the things that I've done over summer, but I organise a series of evening lectures at the University, under the aegis of the Institute of Physics.  I've been sorting that out over the summer, and have a sparkling line-up planned, hopefully kicking off with Jonathan Butterworth talking about LHC, and then featuring a splendid line-up of other speakers.  I attended a graduation ceremony, I visited a student on sandwich placement, I've attended student transfer reports for their PhD studies... 
Now, it's a Saturday, and I'm in my office getting some things together.  This evening I fly to Brazil to talk at a conference there.  The hotel I'm staying in looks pretty nice.  I'll try to blog a bit while I am there.  Despedida!

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Outreach at York

This is a quick public service announcement on behalf of my redoubtable colleague David Jenkins at the University of York. The Physics Department there have a 1-year position going for an Outreach Officer. If you are fancy it, do apply - and tell Dave I sent you :-)

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Holiday in Scotland

[Beach at Ayr]

I've just had an enjoyable week in Ayrshire, Scotland, in the company of some of the scottish part of my family. While I was away, I reached the ripe old age of 38, and it was nice to do it in the presence of my parents, who came up too to stay with my cousin, her husband and their children in the slightly chaotic house they've moved to.

The train journey up went pretty smoothly, though I've never seen such a busy train on a Sunday from Guildford to London. This was presumably due to the olympics. I ended up sitting at a table with a family, while my girlfriend and daughter, Flora, sat together further down the carriage. The little girl opposite me showed great interest in my Saturday prize Independent crossword, which I was trying to finish. I'm not sure that I was really able to give a good answer to her question she asked after some studying of the grid, which was "why haven't you done 16 across yet?"

The holiday was a nice combination of homely relaxation and day trips to fun things. The fun farm just outside Ayr was great. Flora liked feeding the animals and I could hardly peel her away from the "bouncy pillow" trampoline-like thing. This was especially nice as normally she shies away from both physical activity and things crowded with other boisterous children. The Glasgow Science Centre was also really good, easily among the best of such things I've been to, though swimming in the sea in Ayr was just a nice in a different way.

For my birthday itself, my Dad took me to the Ayr Brewing Company's only outlet; a hotel which has the brewery in its garage. Their beer was pretty good, and it was nice to hang out with my Dad, who I don't really see often enough. My girlfriend then took me for a pre-meal glass of champagne in a wine bar, and we then went off to meet everyone else for a meal.

Travelling back yesterday, I learned that alas I yet again failed to win the Saturday prize crossword in the Independent. On the other hand, I'm quite proud of the clue I submitted for the informal competition in the Guardian Crossword Blog this week.

Over all, it was a fairly nuclear-physics free week, though I may have done a little work on a paper about isotope shifts in lead radii - hopefully will submit that one in the next week or so.

Friday, 3 August 2012

Going for Gold!

If you're around my age, the phrase "Going for Gold," which I've been hearing quite a lot lately, will remind you of this. You're very welcome.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Ring-shaped nuclei

Nuclei are tricksome little beasts.  Made of two types of particles that interact in a quite complex way, according to the rules of quantum mechanics, and via the residual strong force, they can exhibit all sorts of interesting behaviour.

They can come in many shapes.  Their ground states are either spherical, or squashed or stretched spheres (smartie or rugby ball-shaped respectively), or possibly pear-shaped, or even tetrahedral.  If you excite them into some of their natural exitation modes, they can start vibrating, wobbling, or deforming in to new metastable shape configurations.

Over the years, physicists have searched, both experimentally and theoretically for interesting new shape configurations.  Perhaps the most famous topic within the nuclear physics community has been so-called "bubble nuclei" which have largely empty cores, thanks to the decreasing proportion of occupied s-orbitals.  A new paper on the arXiv server appeared earlier this week which looks at toroidal nuclei; those shaped like a lifebuoy or doughnut.  Previous calculations had shown them to be unstable, spontaneously returning to a spherical-like state, but new calculations show that a large amount of angular momentum can stabilise the torus-shaped nucleus, at least for the case of 40Ca that they calculated.

This nucleons in this nucleus would be kept in the ring by the strong nuclear force, and kept out of the centre by the centrifugal barrier.  The alignment of angular momentum would mean that they nucleons would be circulating in the same direction, creating a phenomenal magnetic field.

How such an excited state could actually be made in experiment is not clear.  The predicted excitation energy is extremely high - in a region where most if not all other excited states would quickly lead to fission, but the calculations are certainly interesting.  If the predictions are correct, we are likely to see the thing in nature sooner or later.

edit: I've added a pretty picture from the preprint to the top of the post.  It show a slice through the starting configuration they used for their iteration procedure on the left, and the resulting stable smooth ring predicted by the nuclear force on the right.

T. Ichikawa, J. A. Maruhn, N. Itagaki, K. Matsuyanagi, P. -G. Reinhard, & S. Ohkubo (2012). Existence of exotic torus configuration in high-spin excited states of
  $^{40}$Ca ArXiv arXiv: 1207.6250v1

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

What are Universities for?

I've just read an interesting post on the blog To the left of Centre partially concerning the recent behaviour of Queen Mary University.   It's worth a read, though it is quite depressing.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Open Access

There's be quite some talk about Open Access across the internet recently, largely thanks to the acceptance of the Finch Report, making it a requirement that the results of publicly-funded research be freely available to the public.  This seems like such a obviously correct thing that it might come as a surprise to many that it is not already the case.  On the other hand, it often seems like much science research is just a scheme to turn public money into private enterprise, so perhaps there should be no surprise.

On top of this, European grant funders are doing the same, as I tweeted recently from the Euroscience Open Forum in Dublin last week, during a talk from Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, the current European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science.

In a way, though, it's all a bit disappointing.  Currently publicly-funded scientists perform research, write it up in the form of a paper and send it off to an academic journal.  The journal editor, or editorial team, will arrange for peer-review (done at (usually) public expense, as an unpaid favour by other scientists), and if the peer-review is successful the journal will publish it.  Then they will charge the scientist's (or scientists') institute thousands of pounds to buy the article back in the form of a journal subscription.  It's this subscription cost that the new policy will seek to change in some form or other, and they have done it not by challenging the whole system, but by encouraging, or mandating that authors pay to have their articles made open access (which many journals allow).  Typically, most journals currently charge of the order of a couple of thousand pounds to do this.  Many of the blog posts and twitter comments worrying about the new announcement have concentrated on this part - that pushing the cost to the author rather than the reader is no help.  Those comments are probably right.

To my mind, the better solution would be to dispense with traditional journals and do something along the lines of Peter Coles's suggestion for an electronic open-access journal that would be rather cheap to run.  There are already other examples around, such as the wonderful Journal of Integer Sequences, and the major stumbling block, judging by comments I've seen, is that employers and potential employers currently put much stock in the impact factor of where a scientist has published, and people not already somewhere high up the ladder will want to do what gets them jobs.  Clearly, in a sane world the employers would judge the merits of the science, rather than just look up the impact factor of the journal.  If the UK government wants to be bold and iconoclastic in its support of open access, it should rather ask for all REF outputs to be presented to the panels scrubbed of their publication details and outlaw the use of bibliometrics as a proxy for judging scientific merit.  It make make the REF more expensive to run, but changing the open access model would overall make science cheaper to fund.

Of all that's been written or spoken about this issue (and I attended a couple of sessions at ESOF2012 about this) the only one that really makes me think twice is the fact that many learned societies depend somewhat on income from journal publishing.  In my area, the UK Institute of Physics and the US American Physical Society publish good journals, to which I send most of my papers at present.  They are generally good guys in my mind;  their journals are priced pretty reasonably, and the IoP even make all their articles free to read for a month on publication, and I do appreciate that the current model for publishing is somewhat expensive.  I slightly worry for these good institutions if the traditional journal is on the way out, but it's not a strong enough argument to retain the old model, for me.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Tax avoidance

I just had the pleasure of talking to an estate agent, who was trying to put me in touch with a company that lets one avoid stamp duty, using a scheme something like this one.  Frankly, I'd rather Mr Osborne had the money than a bunch of shysters *sigh*

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Time management

[plovdiv mosque]
In principle, when attending a conference, it would always be nice to prepare the talk carefully, long in advance, preferably before travelling.  I have been accused of having bad time management for not (always) doing so. With so many things I want to do, I find it optimises my time best to use the journey to prepare my talk, though it doesn't always work out as swimmingly as I plan.  It seems that things have never been much different.  I am sitting having lunch in Plovdiv, reading George Gamow's Thirty Years that Shook Physics, about the early history of Quantum Physics, and I came across the following anectode:
[I was] asked to deliver a lecture in the institute of Henri Poincaré, of which he [de Broglie] was a director. I decided to come well prepared. I planned to write the lecture down in my (still) poor French on board the liner crossing the Atlantic, have somebody in Paris correct the text, and use it as notes at the lecture. But, as everyone knows, all good resolutions collapse on an ocean voyage offering many distractions, and I had to face the audience in the Sorbonne completely unprepared.
If it's good enough for Gamow...

P.S. I am writing this sitting in a café in Plovdiv, next to the ruins of the Roman hippodrome. From my seat, I can't take such a great picture of it (since it's basically underground), so the picture attached to the post is of the square, with the Djumaya mosque to the right). The sundial on the corner of the mosque is about an hour out, but I guess it doesn't cope with summer time very well.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Rila Mountain Workshop & Chaos

Last week, I was in the Rila Mountains in Bulgaria for a nuclear physics workshop.  Like ever, I find myself newly-invigorated with the fun of doing research, talking about it, and finding out what other people are getting up to.  The picture in the post is the view from the conference room, on those rare occasions when my attention was not fixed on the speaker.

There were two talks about the link between quantum chaos and nuclear spectra.  Quantum chaos is nothing but the quantum analogue of classical chaos, in which, for example, two trajectories in a dynamical system with very similar starting points will diverge in behaviour in later times, no mater how similar the starting positions.  This makes the future behaviour of such systems hard to predict, as even though the equations are deterministic, the ability to measure the starting point with infinite accuracy is not possible.  This is one reason why weather forecasting is so hard.

In quantum mechanics, most systems are not quite like this.  We don't necessarily talk of trajectories, and starting positions may not necessarily be allowed to be close together thanks to quantisation.  In nuclear physics, the normal language of quantum chaos is in terms of the statistical spacing of energy levels and not much to do with trajectories.  In nuclei, this energy level spacing agrees with the predictions of random matrix theory, suggesting some chaos in the underlying nuclear force.  A few years ago I tried to do some work on the link between chaotic motion in nuclei using a kind of quantum theory which had a semiclassical aspect to it, which showed both classical chaos in its semiclassical trajectory and quantum chaos in its spectrum.  I thought I had at least hinted, in making this link, at something profound, but the referees didn't think so.  I ended up including it in a lightly-refereed conference proceeding, which has been lightly-cited since, but listening to the talks made me think I should pick up the subject again.

Since the conference has finished, I've been having a holiday in Plovdiv, Bulgaria's second city.  I'm going home tomorrow, but I'll be a bit sad to leave.  The weather is nice, it's a nice city and the beer is cheap.  But all good things must come to an end...

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

The Nature of Tin-100

Some large fraction of experimental work in nuclear physics concerns exploring the boundaries of what nuclei exist in nature and how they behave.  Nature allows nuclei - made of protons and neutrons - in certain combinations only.  Broadly speaking, the number of protons and neutrons should be similar, and not too large.  The conditions are set by the fact that protons like sticking to neutrons and vice versa, but not so much to each other, but as long as there are roughly equal amounts then it's okay, and that protons, being electrically positively charged, don't like to congregate together in large numbers.  This second effect means that when you start getting to the heavier elements (with >20 protons, say) then the proton to neutron ratio favours neutrons.

One of the most "exotic" nuclei with the same number of protons and neutrons yet observed in the laboratory is Tin-100, with 50 protons and 50 neutrons.  This is a particularly special case, since 50 is a so-called magic number in nuclei, which means that having 50 particles of one type is a particularly stable configuration.  The fact that it is heavy and does not have the excess of neutrons to balance the repulsive electric force means that it is nevertheless a bit on the unstable side.

Still, having these magic numbers makes it important to study, as the structure should be particularly clean and easy to understand from a theoretical point of view, which is why my colleagues have just published this article in Nature describing some of its properties.  Particularly they have looked at the beta-decay, which gives a measure of the structure of the nucleus as a proton decays into a neutron to turn it in to the neighbouring nucleus Indium-100. 

Good job Surrey colleagues, and I'm sure our REF coordinator will be pleased, too.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

End of the year

It's that time of year when semester has just finished.  The undergraduate students have left, and we have had our first examination board meeting today, with the external coming along later in the week for a second meeting.  It's nice to see the results of the hard work of most of the students, and I'll look forward to the graduation ceremony next month, where I get to dress up in academic dress and see the students do the same as they are formally awarded their degrees.

So now I have three months ahead of me with little UG teaching-related activity.  Except that I'll be teaching a new course called "Advanced Computational Techniques" in October, so need to get that in to shape.  First stop, though, is conference in Bulgaria.  Hopefully my white linen suit from an online made-to-measure tailor will arrive in time...

Friday, 1 June 2012

C. S. Wu

Having noticed in my last post, somewhat after the fact, that it would have been the 90th birthday of Andrei Sakharov recently, I notice that my SEPNet colleague, Karen Masters, has just blogged about the 100th anniversary of the birth of another giant of nuclear physics, C S Wu.  Read her post here.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Sakharov Stories

When I was at secondary school, one of the biggest news stories was the ongoing changes happening in the Soviet bloc.  From perestroika and glasnost, then on to the demise of the Soviet Union and the rest of the communist countries in Eastern Europe.  It was through these stories that I learned the name of Andrei Sakharov for his role as a peace activist. I think I was vaguely aware at the time that he had a background in science, though I can't remember now if I knew he was a nuclear physicists.

Sakharov died while I was still at school, in 1989, in time to see most of the changes.  Now, in 2012, when 1989 is more than half my life ago, I am a nuclear physicist (though an inferior sort to Sakharov), and I note that the journal Physics-Uspekhi has published a series of articles commemorating Andrei Dmitrievich, on what would have been his 90th birthday, yesterday.  The all-round good guys and gals of the publishing arm of the Institute of Physics publish the english translation of Physics-Uspekhi, and being the generous sorts they are, they make all articles free to read for the first month after publication.  There are some nice biographical articles there, by old names from Russian physics, and they are worth a read.  There are some more technical ones, too, which are probably less suitable for a general audience...

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Departmental Football Tournament

Yesterday was the annual Physics Department 5-a-side football tournament.  As ever, I took part in the lecturer team, the Hamiltonian Academics.  Not being a great footballer, and the sort who was always picked last at school, I never really excel, but usually enjoy taking part.  Today, my legs are a little sore.

I couldn't help thinking, while standing in goal, of Billy Casper at the beginning of the film Kes.  Fortunately, I got on a bit better that he did.  The scene has been put on YouTube, and is presented below for your delight

The Surrey Physics Blog

In case any of the readers of this blog are interested, I am a contributor to the blog of the Physics Department here at the University of Surrey.  I posted yesterday about finding the roots of cubic equations.

Monday, 16 April 2012

The end, and a re-start?

The big (and sad) news in the world of nuclear physics research is that the Holifield Radioactive Ion Beam Facility has ceased operation.  It's a shame, not because science facilities must run for ever, but that HRIBF really seemed in the prime of its life and was doing things that can't be done elsewhere.  As ever in such cases, though, science was not necessarily the highest priority when making the decision.  My (only?) colleague in the world of nuclear physics blogging, Miss Atomic Bomb, has written about it.  She works there.  My slightly tenuous link is that I used to work in its shadow, literally - in the (now demolished) theory building next door!

On the other hand, I flew to Germany today.  Usually when I fly, I pick up a free copy of the FT.  This is not so I can complete the look of an English businessman in a suit and bowler hat, but more because they print interesting news stories that are often not covered much elsewhere.  At £2.50 per issue, I tend not to ever buy it myself, but I enjoy reading it when I do, and more importantly it has what I consider a sufficiently challenging, yet sufficiently easy cryptic crossword to keep my occupied on the plane journey when I've finished reading the news.

Today, the FT carried a story on the expected future price of uranium mining stocks, which apparently have fallen to about half their pre-Fukushima value.  It is reported that Japan is going to restart some nuclear power stations following some stress-testing.  This is happy news for people with an interesting in uranium mining, I guess, and interesting to me as I didn't really see how Japan could do otherwise.

There were actually another couple of stories mentioning nuclear issues - about the talks regarding Iran's nuclear intentions and an editorial speculating about North Korea's.   Perhaps I should be reading the FT more often.  I do live a very short walk from a library at which I can read a free copy.

Anyway, while I have mentioned the FT crossword, I can tell you about the joke that I learned as a child, and obviously didn't understand at the time.  It goes, "What is pink and hard in the morning?"  The answer is "The Financial Times crossword."  I heard a friend of my parents tell it, and I re-told it as "What is pink and difficult in the morning?"  Much less funny.  

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Nuclear Tourism

Just a quick post to point out that I've been in Montreal, home of McGill University.  Ernest Rutherford, the father of nuclear physics, worked here between 1898 and 1907, and it was here that he performed the work that won him the 1908 Nobel Prize in Chemistry (though his later work in Manchester ought to have gained him a second prize, in Physics).

There's a small Rutherford Museum in the Physics Department here.  I saw it only through the glass in the locked door to the entrance.  It turns out one can only visit by appointment, and I turned up towards the end of my last day in Montreal.  Still, here's a picture of me standing next to Rutherford, in the lobby of the Physics Department at McGill:

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Astro coming to Surrey

One of the most popular "physics with..." courses we offer at Surrey is Physics with Nuclear Astrophysics.  It seems to capture the imagination of applicants, combining, as it does, a couple of the more fundamental areas of physics, linking them with their joint role in the creation of the elements in stars (though the course content is more than just the specialism).

We are able to offer it because of our large nuclear physics research group, which is approximately the largest in the UK, depending how you count.  We do not have such a research group on the pure astro side. At least, not at the moment, but rather excitingly (for me, at least) the University has just advertised for three posts in astrophysics.  I don't know many astrophysicists personally, but I'm sure there are some nice ones out there who'll I'll look forward to having as colleagues.  For those that do not subscribe to THES to see the adverts, there are some details on the University's website.  

Friday, 16 March 2012

An off-topic spot the difference

I wonder if readers have noticed the remarkable similarity in appearance between still-Archbishop Rowan Williams, and the priest sprite from popular 1980s home computer game Jet Set Willy?

Jet-Set Sprite
Re(s)igning Archbishop

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Towards a Low Carbon Future

An interesting report was published today by the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at the University of Oxford.  The whole report can be found here, but I think the key points in the executive summary speak for themselves (except for the strange repetition of "UK" in the second point):

  • If the UK is going to go down the decarbonisation route there is an enormous challenge in meeting the electricity demand, particularly with its increased use in transport and possibly heating. At present the current proposals for new nuclear reactors will be no more than sufficient in replacing the current fleet.
  • If the UK is serious about developing a world leading capability in the UK we need to develop a long term nuclear strategy encompassing both reactors and fuel cycle.
  • Use of nuclear power to a degree that cuts global warming will require either much higher uranium reserves than currently identified or a change of fuel cycle to minimise uranium use. If the fabrication of MOX fuel is to proceed, it should be as part of an overall strategic plan to maximise the benefit to the UK from the burning of UK plutonium in UK reactors.
  • The structure of the UK nuclear industry is aligned more towards the ‘no nuclear’ stance of 2003 than the ‘new build’ stance of 2012. There is a clear need for an independent body to advise and drive a long- term nuclear strategy.

Nuclear plant pictures

I'm not sure I'll get a chance to go to this, but there's an exhibition of photographs of nuclear power plants showing in London at the moment.  As someone whose exposure to nuclear physics research is largely through simulations and calculations, I am always rather impressed whenever I see bits of kit.  Probably never more so when visiting NIF in the US, which was a very hi-tech space age kind of place.  I'd probably rather visit a nuclear power station, but I bet the pictures are interesting.

Edit: Oh, it's even better. It's part of a huge nuclear series of events.

Friday, 9 March 2012

STFC publicise nuclear physics

I may have moaned a bit in the past about the extent to which STFC supports nuclear physics in proportion to other areas, but I was pleased to see today that its latest press release is all about some excellent work by UK nuclear physicists working at the Jyväskylä Laboratory in Finland, looking at isotopes of rutherfordium.

Now around 10* of the 1010 press releases on their website are about nuclear physics, which is definitely a step in the right direction.

*My methodology for coming up with the number is based on the substring "nucl" being in the precis part of the press release.  It may have led to an inaccurate number, but I doubt that it's widely wrong.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Happy Birthday to Neu. Tron.

Okay, I'm a week late in remembering the birthday, as members of my family to whom I send birthday cards may not be surprised to hear, but 80 years ago last Monday a paper was published in the journal Nature entitled "Possible Existence of a Neutron."  It was penned by James Chadwick, and describes his work, which is regarded as the definitive proof that atomic nuclei contain neutrons, as well as protons, and that these neutrons can be observed as separate entities.  He won the Nobel prize for this discovery in 1935.

His experiment built, as most of science does, on the work of others, amongst whom were Irène and Pierre Joliot-Curie.  They had previously been investigating the radiation that is emitted when alpha particles from a radioactive source impinge upon the element beryllium.  This radiation was very highly penetrating - i.e. it could pass easily through matter.  At that time, only gamma rays were known to be so highly penetrating, and neither the Joliot-Curies, or others, such as the German physicist Walter Bothe, who also produced neutrons realised that the observed radiation was anything but gamma rays.

By some careful experimentation and deduction, Chadwick realised that rather than very high energy gamma rays (so high that they would seem to violate the conservation of energy and momentum), the radiation combing from the alpha-bombarded beryllium were in fact neutrons - neutral particles with about the same mass as protons.  The outreach people at Cambridge, where Chadwick performed these experiments, have produced a nice site about the work, going in to a little more detail about it.

I suppose the Joliot-Curies and Bothe were a little peeved that they missed this explanation, but all three went on to win Nobel prizes;  Irène and Pierre Joliot-Curie for the discovery of the transmutation of elements through nuclear reactions (ironically enough, Chadwick's experiment was transmuting elements, but he didn't observe or measure the direct proof of that), and Bothe for experimental techniques in nuclear physics.

Monday, 20 February 2012


Between Friday night and Saturday Morning I flew back to the UK from India. It was a flight taking place entirely at night-time, and after a quick G&T and meal, I thought I should try to get some sleep. I thought I'd flick through the entertainment system first to see what films there were, though I was certainly not intending to watch any of them. So, I flicked through. There were some films I thought might be worth watching, if only I wasn't planning to sleep. Then I looked at the TV programs section. There were a few categories. I looked at comedy, then drama. There was a "factual" section, too. I looked there, idly wondering if there was something by my colleague Jim Al-Khalili for plane-goers to enjoy. There wasn't, but there was an episode of a program called William Shatner's Weird or What. I'd never seen an episode, but I did know that I was in one.

The show consists of a series of basically pseudoscientific or paranormal things being described by William Shatner, followed by scientists explaining why the paranormal thing actually has a normal explanation.  It's a somewhat painful show to watch, but at least it gives the scientific explanation the last word. Anyway, I got a call a while back from the producers to ask if I'd consider being the scientist in an episode to talk about the possibility of travelling to parallel universes. I chatted to them a bit, and they though what I had to say was relevant for the show (in which South American crystal skulls were purported to be the portals to other dimensions). The filming was a bit of a palaver. They kept messing me around with the times, and eventually I agreed to turn up at the studio at 5pm one day, only to find that they'd decided to film on the roof of the building but wanted to wait until around 8pm to start to get the lighting effect they wanted. They never mentioned the roof to me, and it was freezing. Oh, and they never paid my expenses (and there was no fee). So I'd definitely advise not appearing on the show for those reasons... but it was kind of fun. It turned out, too, that the one episode of the show that was available on the plane was the exact one I appeared in.

So, I watched it. I fast-forwarded through a lot of it, and when it got to my bit I hesitated. On those rare occasions when I appear on TV or the radio, I really don't like watching or listening to it. I realise that I'm not alone here, but I don't make a habit of watching my efforts afterwards, on the whole. But actually, it wasn't too bad. The editors did a good job. If only the director had pointed out that my shirt collar looked a mess...

Anyway. If you really want to, and you're flying a long-enough-haul BA flight soon, you could always check it out.

Friday, 17 February 2012

We don't need no (nuclear physics) education

Way back in January 2010, the big political topic in the UK nuclear physics community was the cuts being forced on STFC from above, and how they would distribute them amongst the various areas it funds.  That was assuming that they didn't have the stomach for a fight with BIS for more money, based on the apparently correct argument that there was a kind of accounting error when PPARC and CCLRC merged, along with nuclear physics from EPSRC, to form STFC.  If they did have the stomach, then they didn't win the fight.

Lo and behold, Nuclear Physics was disproportionately cut.  We had lots of arguments at the time as to why it should not suffer in this way, not least because a joint EPSRC/STFC-commisioned report highlighted how we were already disproportionately small - not just compared to other fields, but also to other countries - yet provided important training: e.g. "In all application areas, the panel felt that a vibrant, healthy research base is a key component in providing a high quality training programme and skills base."  The then science programme director of STFC, John Womersley publicly defended the apportioning of the cuts as "fair and balanced" (I'm not sure that I hope he used this phrase because Fox News have changed its meaning to be quite the opposite, or whether that would be more depressing).  He also denied the link between academic nuclear physics and the nuclear industry, in defiance of the commissioned report. He has since been promoted to CEO of STFC.

A little before the funding announcements were made, I speculated that no-one really cared about academic nuclear physics, irrespective of a link between the existence of the field in the UK and our ability to build nuclear reactors, understand the safety issues, the radiation issues, to innovate in new technologies, to understand the nature of nuclear waste, to train a body of potential nuclear industry workers with a knowledge of the basic science and so on, because we could buy everything, including expertise from France.  They have a large nuclear power industry, and a commensurate investment in basic nuclear science to drive developments and deliver innovation (as the commissioned report notes).

I was hardly surprised to read today that we have signed a nuclear energy agreement with France. Good.  We can carry on having a thriving City of London, the workhorse of the economy, based on solid financial transactions, and use the proceeds to buy in technological solutions to problems that we can forget, through underinvestment, how to solve.  Allez les Bleus!