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!

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Where to publish, if not CPC?

A couple of weeks ago I posted about the campaign against working - for free - for the commercial publisher Elsevier.  Since I think there are basically sound reasons for doing so, I am attempting to do this.  It is more or less unproblematic for me, since there are good professional-body-run nuclear physics journals.

On the other hand, some collaborators and I are planning to publish a code we have written for use by the wider community.  The only really obvious place to put it is Computer Physics Communications.  It publishes computer code write-ups and has an on-line archive (hosted, ironically, at a UK university, not Elsevier) that is rather stable and would allow people to download it for some time to come.

Does anyone know of any alternatives?  Something like Phys Rev C/E with the code online as supplementary material?

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Teaching in India

So, I've given my series of four classes on nuclear structure at this postgraduate school in Roorkee.  Since it was a school, with the idea being to teach early-years postgraduate students about  some rather specialist stuff, I prepared some lectures which I delivered at the blackboard, deriving the Hartree-Fock equations in the case of the Skyrme interaction.  I think they went quite well, with the students asking sensible questions, though I did not have as good an idea about the background level of the students' knowledge (e.g. they were completely comfortable with Dirac notation, whereas many first year UK PhD students seem uncomfortable with it).

Some of the other lecturers are giving more conference-like powerpoint slides, with a effort to make them more didactic than a regular research conference presentation.  I particularly liked James Vary's switch to a hands-on calculation of solutions of the Schroedinger equation via a tool he has put on his web site.  I was the only one working at the blackboard, so I wonder if it was what was really wanted.  People are usually too polite to tell you when you have done a bad job at things like this, so i'll just wait to see if I'm invited back before I judge how well I did.

Last night we had a hands-on computer session.  I created a very simple Skyrme-Hartree-Fock code for the purpose.  There are only around 20 lines of code in it, but it solves for the ground state of 4He, using a very simple density-dependent nuclear interaction.  My plan was to get the students to play with it, get a feel for how to run it, to get it to converge and to interpret the results, and perhaps make an extension to it.  My first shock was that the school organisers told me that I should re-write it from Fortran 95 to Fortran77 (or should that be FORTRAN77?  I think that's the official spelling!).  With some effort, and a little sadness, I did their bidding.   If I wasn't in India, I would actually have been supervising a computational class back home at exactly the same time, ironically.  The students worked hard and, just like students everywhere, variously succeeded with the task to different extents.  I think it was a useful exercise, though, to get involved with actually getting to grips with the nuts and bolts of how to do these calculations, even if it doesn't turn out to be your direct research area.

Being in India is fun.  By default the food is vegetarian, which makes my life easier.  English is very widely understood, making my life easier, too, and they speak a great slightly quirky - to a Brit - version of English.  For example, every morning the guest house puts an English Language newspaper outside my room.  One of the headlines yesterday was about how some police detectives were being investigated for some crime they may have committed. They were described as "sleuths".  A perfectly correct word, but to me it conjures up an image of men in tweed with big magnifying glasses.  It made me smile.  Not as much, though, as when my host, describing the high quality of the students that the IIT institute attracts described them as the creamiest students, when we might have said the cream of the crop.  English is a great language...

Sunday, 12 February 2012

In India

I'm sitting in my rather grand suite at the guest house of IIT Roorkee, a rather prestigious science-based University in India.  I'm here to teach a series of lectures at a postgraduate school for PhD students across India.  I'm talking about the Hartree-Fock approximation, and I hope I've pitched the level right.  Unlike the UK, where our nuclear physics summer schools have around 35 experimental students and 2 theoreticians, it's completely the other way round here.  Oh well, they may find it all a bit easy.  We'll find out tomorrow.  I should remember that the UK has probably the most extreme ratio of nuclear experiment to theory anywhere in the world in its academic community.  Still, my course will be rather practical theory, with details of how to really do the calculations in anger, rather than concentrating in derivations, so I think it will be interesting for the students. 

This is my second time in India.  I was here some years ago for a conference, and am happy to be back.  There's so much to like about the place:  The people, the culture, the food, the driving.  Well, at least three of those things.   Now I shall take a medicinal drink of quinine-laced tonic water (with some gin for good measure) and try to sleep through the jet lag.  Good night!