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 prĂ©cising 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 outrĂ© 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