Tuesday, 30 September 2014

It's semester time again

Well, there is no doubt that we are back into semester time.  The campus is thronging with students, not least in the residence blocks, where I -- as a campus warden -- reside alongside them.  In the Physics Department itself, I've yet to see the students, as the central University organ increasingly organises campus-wide induction events for them, and I will miss the Departmental undergraduate reception we throw tomorrow.  On the other hand, I have actually met some physics students, when going round my residence area last night to chat to the new arrivals.  So, I guess that is summer gone - with its three-month window for getting lots of things done.  I certainly did things - perhaps even the right things - but of course my to-do list still has quite a few aspirations on it.  Never mind!  I'll get through them, and enjoy moving back into the time of year when I interact more with the UG students.  Special Relativity and introductory computing for me this semester...

The picture is from the halls of residence where I live, showing that over the summer, the University refurbish the rooms.  This photo was taken on chair-replacement day.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Well done Dr Goddard

Yesterday, for the first time since May last year, I found myself sitting in a room while my PhD student underwent his viva voce examination.  I'm pleased to say he did a great job, but with an external examiner who was very impressed with the thesis, it was always going to be a fairly painless event -- which is not to say that the student in question, Phil, was not a bit nervous beforehand.  

Now I am down to a single student, of whom I'm the lowly second supervisor (with Jim Al-Khalili).  He is planning to submit his thesis very shortly, and I'll be down to none.  Sad face.

Phil's thesis was on fission, using a microscopic quantum theory to undertake the most extensive study at such a level of fundamental theory.  Now he has left, and has a job, and it is up to me, and Phil's co-supervisor to make sure we publish the work coming out of his thesis.  Past experience tells me that when a student leaves their PhD to take up a job in another field, I need to get a paper written up quickly, if it is to ever appear.  For someone who has just finished a PhD, Phil already has a good publication record.  He'll get another couple of papers to add to the tally, but alas for nuclear physics, he's taken a look at the job prospects and the typical life of a post-doc, and got a proper job.

The plot at the top is from Phil's thesis and shows a few snapshots of a simulation of the fission of an isotope of plutonium.  Phil also put a couple of genuine "movies" in his thesis, in the form of flip-book animations in the corners.  I wonder if this is a first?

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Biographical Songs

This is very tangential for a blog about nuclear physics, but it comes from the fact that a singer I like is coming to Guildford -- home of my august research institution -- in a few weeks, and I shall be going to see her.  One of my favourite songs from her most recent album is a paean to another musician.  Called That Alice, it's about Alice Coltrane, a jazz harpist and pianist, whose surname she took up her marriage to musician John Coltrane.

I remember finding it strange and disappointing when I was a kid to have films come on which were set actually in Hollywood, and were about aspiring actors trying to make it in the film industry.  It seemed a bit of a lazy trick -- but my family liked watching them (which was true of films in general, in a way I wasn't, really) and I would end up seeing them.  I no longer have the same antipathy, but somehow I never even developed one to the musical analogue.  I think I was just always a whole lot more into music than films.

I'm not aware of too many examples of this sub-genre, but I post three here, which are all songs about other musicians, and that I all like very much.  I'll go in age order -- oldest first -- with the Animals' Story of Bo Diddley

Next is Pavement singing about R.E.M. in Unseen Power of the Picket Fence

and finally Laura Veirs with That Alice.  I hope she plays it on 15th

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Old Durham Town

Yesterday I went to Durham to give a talk in the DiRAC day - a symposium dedicated to scientific and technical results from the use of the STFC's supercomputing facilities. I gave a talk representing the work of the theoretical nuclear physics group at Surrey - mostly mine and Carlo's work actually. 

I arrived at Durham station at 10am, which gave me plenty of time for a walk along the river to the University.  I'd never been to Durham before, except passing through on the train.  It's a very pretty place, and it was a perfect autumnal morning to see the castle and cathedral through a little mist, with university boat crews training on the Wear in the foreground.

Although some of the University is in the old part of town, naturally the sciences are hived off in modern buildings a little further away.  Still, that part of campus seemed pretty nice.  I walked past  a Bill Bryson Library, though didn't find a Leslie Grantham House.  I picked up my badge from the registration desk and tried to book a taxi for the afternoon to take me back to the station. "Oh, we can't get a taxi for the afternoon," they said, "not at that time -- not with all the schools, you see?"

The first session consisted of a series of longer talks from a range of different collaborations that use the DiRAC computer - a combination of QCD and astro/cosmology projects.  The the lunch break was announced with a "lunch is in the upstairs meeting room.  Vegetarians should make sure they get there quickly."  I hadn't heard that at a conference for ten years or so.  Fortunately there was no problem and I got some (rather nice) lunch.  

I gave my talk after lunch.  Hopefully people enjoyed it.  No-one asked any questions, though they didn't in any of the talks in that session, which were in diverse ranges of science.   The chair stepped-up admirably to the mark, though, with a question for me (about future plans - always a good stand-by)

I couldn't write a post about Durham, without including Roger Whittaker singing one of his signature tunes.  Enjoy!

Friday, 19 September 2014

The New York Post

In pretty big news for theoretical nuclear physics in the UK, the University of York have just announced that they have two new posts up for grabs in nuclear theory - a professorship and a lectureship.  On the scale of things, a job opening might not sound so very newsworthy, but given that theoretical nuclear physics has dwindled so much in Britain to such an extent that the press release above cites only Manchester and Surrey as other places doing theory# - having a new group start is quite a big deal.  Now, I wonder who might apply...

It seemed sort of obvious to make some kind of "New York" pun in the title of the blog post.  In picking an accompanying graphic/video, I've gone for a much more tangential thing - a song which is purely about New York City.  If you don't like the first three minutes, try to plough past that, because that's where the best bits are.

# This is not exactly what the press release says, but it's reasonably uncontroversial to say that Manchester and Surrey have the only two nuclear theory groups in the UK - with a total headcount in single figures.  However, one could argue that the collaboration spread out over a few Universities (Kent, Cambridge, Durham) that works on Skyrmions, and at least some of the Lattice QCD people could be called nuclear theorists.  Part of the reason that one often doesn't is that they don't go via the STFC Nuclear Physics funding schemes, and don't habitually get involved in IoP Nuclear Physics Group (or its annual conference) so they self-identify as Mathematical Physics and Particle Physics respectively.  

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Job opening at Surrey

Guildford Cathedral + a play park 
Following the recent STFC Nuclear Physics Consolidated Grant round, and the award of a grant to our group at Surrey, we have an opening for a Research Fellow in theoretical nuclear physics.  The job advert is here -- closing date 21st November.  Tell your friends to apply (if your friends are theoretical nuclear physicists looking for a post-doctoral position).  

The nuclear group - and indeed the whole physics department - at the University of Surrey is a nice place to work.  We're a friendly bunch, and there is a capacious desk waiting for the successful applicant in our post-doc office.  

Guildford itself is a popular place to live, mostly because it is easy to leave, via the train to London.  Still - it has much to offer over many other commuter towns in the South-East.  It's in a pretty location in the middle of the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.  It's also the nearest big town for quite a large local area, with all the amenities that come with it.  Bizarrely, though, for a town of its middle class credentials, it doesn't have a branch of Waitrose, but fear not, because one is due to open next year.  Besides which, there's a shop just off North Street that sells quinoa.  Also, Guildford occasionally returns an MP who is not Conservative, though never one who is not conservative.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Conferences galore

It seems to be the week for announcement of conferences and workshops.  I guess once one person sends round an email fixing dates in peoples calendar, everyone else planning an event has to get their dates in the collective consciousness, too.   So, an interesting-looking conference is taking place in Slovakia next May, and another in Finnish lapland in April (with no website yet, but the graphic from the flyer is attached to this post.  This adds to a Slovenian conference in June that was announced a while back.  Then there's COMEX5 in Poland in September.  I mentioned this before since the organisers were so kind as to invite me onto the international organising committee.

For those interested in travelling to Eastern Europe, nuclear physics is a really good thing to be studying.  Largely this is a relic of cold war days, when each country wanted to be seen to be active in basic nuclear physics, alongside other applied nuclear activities.  The legacy continues with research activity today.  A much more comprehensive list of conferences is kept by NuPECC - the European nuclear physics umbrella body.  It demonstrates that there are other parts of the world where nuclear physics conferences take place.  The last two on the list (as of the time of writing) look rather tempting...

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Physics acronyms

I posted yesterday about getting a flyer for a big conference happening next year.  Then today, I got an advert about a smaller one happening next month, which is in fact the next conference I'm going to, as I'm an invited speaker at it.  

It's taking place under the banner of "FUSTIPEN".  I love this acronym.  It stands for France-US-Theory Institute for Physics with Exotic Nuclei.  Most physics acronyms at least make the effort of invoking some classical figure or other, and have a painfully contrived way of making it work.  Not theorists, though - making something vaguely pronounceable is enough for them.  Funnily enough, along with FUSTIPEN, there is also a JUSTIPEN (Japan) and CUSTIPEN (China).  In other word-play, going to France means I am flying in to Orly airport.  I must remember to post a selfie of me there looking a bit confused, captioned with "O RLY?"

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

EuNPC and mailing lists

Had an email today advertising the 2015 European Nuclear Physics Conference, and thought I'd pass it on here.  I've not been to either of the previous two outings of this conference series, though the first one, in Bochum in 2009 was attended by my then-postdoc.  These days I don't have a post-doc.  In fact, there are no longer any theoretical nuclear physics postdocs working in the UK, thanks to drops in funding, though we will have one at Surrey in the near future.  One is not a large number.

This one is in Groningen, in the Netherlands.  I've never been there, so it might be a nice excuse to visit.  Perhaps, of course, they will invite me to give a talk *cough* and then I'll be sure to go.  It's not the most exotic part of Europe -- and I perhaps should have attended the previous one, in Bucharest in 2012, seeing as I've never been to Romania.  The biscuit, though, was taken by a conference in the CompStar series.  CompStar is short for Compact Star, which is a term referring to the dense remnants (such as neutron stars) that are the end stage of normal star evolution.  There is a lot of nuclear physics going on in working out the properties of these stars, and one of my colleagues attended the conference.  It had to be somewhere in the EU, as I understand, because of some EU funding.  So, one of the organisers arranged for it to be in his home town, in Tahiti.  Because of the way France deals with its overseas territories, they are all part of the EU on the same basis as any other part of France (hence the curiosities in the maps on the Euro banknotes).

The email about the conference came via one of the nuclear physics mailing lists I am subscribed to.  It ended with the line "To unsubscribe from the NUSTAR list, click the following link: &*TICKET_URL(NUSTAR,SIGNOFF);".  So, some glitch there, which is no problem.  I don't want to unsubscribe, and If I did I could easily ask them.  It reminds me of a more painful e-mail related problem I am suffering at the moment, though:

It started, I think, when some paid advertising by the Conservative Party appeared on my Facebook wall and asked if I'd like to give the Tories some comments or feedback by filling in a poll.  Ever happy to tell the Conservative Party what I think of them, I went ahead and did it.  I then clicked on the box to agree that they could get in touch with me if they wanted to know more about what I thought about them, and gave them my email address.  

Then the emails started - The first was sent by Boris Johnson, and was written in an terrible style -- very tabloid (or BBC News website) with separate paragraphs each of short sentences.  That weird style that no-one uses to communicate, but someone has decided makes the message easy to digest.  The content was an attack on Ed Milliband, ending with a link for me to click asking for me to donate £10 to the Tories to "make sure [Ed] never gets in to Number 10".   I've now had about a dozen of the messages (around 2 per week) from various people, including David Cameron.  They are not all purely negative campaign emails, but most of them are.  David Cameron's was actually an exception, having a Better Together message.

They are pretty awful, though, and so I tried to unsubscribe.  Each email ends with a line saying "to opt out of messages from David Cameron and the Conservative Party, send a blank message to this address" with the "this address" part hyperlinked.  The sad thing is, though, that the unsubscribe mechanism doesn't work.  Every time I have tried, my blank email to them returns with a bounce message, and I keep getting these emails.  It's almost tempting to write a spoof campaigning email in the same style, complaining that they can't even run a mailing list, yet want to run a country. Sigh. 

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

The Nuclear Physics Forum

I've spent the day attending a meeting of the Nuclear Physics Forum at Daresbury Lab, Cheshire.  It's a kind of political community powwow for nuclear physics academics to discuss matters of funding, community management, strategy and so on.  Other areas of physics research that fall within the STFC funding remit organise themselves quite well with a voice to lobby policymakers and funders when they need to, and we haven't always done it quite so well.  Partly that's about size and manpower ... but here were were today to give us all a little kick to do things.  

One of the things is to set up a new community website.  It's, perhaps surprisingly, the first time I think we've done this in such a community-wide way.  Here it is, and I am now the official Surrey editor.  Hopefully we will keep some momentum up to make it all worthwhile.  One positive thing to have come out of it all is the formalised graduate school which we use to train our PhD students.  

Getting to Daresbury is always a bit tricky.  It's too far to drive.  Not literally, but practically for me.   Train is okay, but from the other side of London it's a pain, and then it's a fairly lengthy taxi at the Daresbury end.  So I flew up - 30 minutes after the taxi picked me up from campus, I was through security in Terminal 5 at DHeathrow and it's a 20 minute drive in a hire car at the other end...  I'm not sure it's the best way, but a bit more relaxed than other options.   The picture is from Manchester Airport this evening.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

The baby names of summer

In August, the Office of National Statistics publish tables of names given to babies in the previous year in England and Wales.  You can download an excel spreadsheet of the data from their web site.  Scotland's General Register Office did the same for Scotland-born bairns back in March, available on their web site.

I always find it kind of interesting, but since I have a child born last year, I was especially interested to see the names.  Our baby is called Alba.  When I tell people this, they usually say "that's an ... interesting name" which I usually take to mean they think it is an unusual name - or perhaps not a real name at all.  Maybe this is just my prejudice, as it was my reaction when my other half first suggested it.  I didn't think it was a proper name that people actually had.  She had seen it in the book The Time-Traveller's Wife and liked it from there.  Fortunately, we had the 2012 baby name data to look at, and Alba came in at rank 483, with 91 Albas born in 2012.  That's above Frances (89 of them), Veronica (77), Gemma (73), Bridget (52) and Caroline (28) but below Princess (97), Jorja (102), Lacey-Mae (107), Lillie-Mae (108), Gracie-Mae (123), Lilly-Mae (158), Lilly-May (179), Ellie-Mae (189), Lily-May (192), Ellie-May (207) and Lily-Mae (232).  I was sufficiently convinced that Alba was a real name, and it grew on me.

Last year, there were 118 Albas born.  Funnily enough, when we started going to baby activities and hanging out with other babies and their parents, we came across two other Albas in Guildford, making it the only name that multiple baby girls -- that we know -- have.

It's interesting seeing how once-common names have become uncommon, and that names I hadn't really heard of have become quite common.  Take my own name -- Paul.  In the year of my birth (1974) it was the most common boys name (in England and Wales at least, though I was born in Scotland), and had been moderately popular for some time before that.  It didn't take too long to drop way down the ranking.   The plot attached shows where Paul came in the boys name list for about a hundred year period.  The graph of other once-common names looks pretty similar.  In 2013, Paul was in position #285, off the scale on the graph I made a few years ago. Names more popular than Paul (in 2013) include Aryan, Zayn and Jace, which are all a bit unfamiliar to me, as well as some I'd have thought to be rather old-fashioned, like Sidney and Wilfred.

The ONS list for England and Wales give names only down to those with at least 3 occurrences "using S40 of the Freedom of Information Act in other to protect the confidentiality of individuals", so you can't see the really unusual and unique names, though names with three occurrences (amongst girls) include Weam, Wan, Tallulah-Blu, Shy, Ren, Pal, Meta, Lolly, Lava, Disney and Bellatrix. Boys' names occurring thrice include Ze, Tory, The, Rj, Pious, Pa, Or, King-David, Greatness and Berk. 

Scotland's GRO shows no such qualms about showing names given to fewer than three babies, so if you follow the link above, and are so inclined, you can see all the one-off names given in Scotland.