Friday, 25 May 2018

Chadwick and Ellis at Ruhleben

Earlier this week I took a book, "Biography of Physics" by George Gamow out of the University Library.  It was published in 1962, costing one guinea.  As far as I can find out, it seems to contain the oldest reference to the work of J A Wheeler on toroidal nuclei, in a passing comment.  This is the reason I wanted to refer to the book.  In reading the section on nuclear physics, though, I learnt something that is presumably fairly well-known, but that I didn't know.

At the start of the First World War in 1914, James Chadwick was working at the University of Berlin, and was interned as an enemy alien for the duration of the war, in the Ruhleben camp on the outskirts of Berlin.  Gamow writes "The first year in the camp was dull, since the young and talented physicist could not make any friends among his fellow prisoners, consisting mostly of businessmen, travelling salesman, etc.  Then after a big battle somewhere in France, a new prisoner appeared in the camp.  He was C. D. Ellis, a brilliant officer of His Majesty's Highland Regiment, who had been captured on the field of battle.  The two Britishers became friends and, to kill time, Chadwick started teaching Ellis the facts of nuclear physics.  When the war ended, both returned to England and Ellis enrolled as a graduate student of Cambridge University where Chadwick was a lecturer.  A few years later, Ellis published a paper which represented an important extension of Chadwick's work."

I did not even know that Chadwick had spent the war years interred in Germany, and certainly not that a soldier was converted into a physicist by Chadwick.  Looking up Ellis online, the story told is slightly different, in that Ellis is said to have been holidaying in Germany in the summer of 1914 just after passing out first of his class from the Royal Military Academy.  He was therefore also interned at the beginning of the war.  This information seems to stem from Ellis's entry in the Biographical Memoirs of the Royal Society (Sir Kenneth Hutchison, F. R. S., J. A. Gray and Sir Harrie Massey, F. R. S., Biogr. Mems Fell. R. Soc. 1981 27, 199-233 doi:10.1098/rsbm.1981.0009), though in that source they say that in later life he destroyed all his personal records, papers and letters, and hence there was some difficulty in reconstructing his biography.  They seem, though, to have only given information that they are pretty sure of, so I suspect Gamow's account is not right.  Anyone reading know more to the story?

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Sk8r Boi

On Thursday evenings I have ice-skating lessons.  I've been having them for a little over a year, now. When I started, they put me in a Level 3 group (Level 3 in the NISA scheme), because I could already skate around a bit from going a bit when I was a kid, though never having had any formal lessons.

It's been somewhat slow progress.  I passed Level 3 only a couple of months ago, and then now tonight passed Level 4.  I definitely notice the improvement, and I am more confident when I am on the ice with my kids.  It's a lot of fun, though I'm a bit nervous at the amount of backwards skating that is done at Level 5.  Still, it's nothing that I can't achieve with enough practice and determination. It also helps that I chose to live within walking distance of the nearest ice rink.

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Virtual Tour of a Nuclear Accelerator Facility

I've just spent the last couple of hours hosting a series of interviews between some of our Surrey MPhys students and a potential host for their year-long research project.  

The host (Ed Simpson) is actually an ex-Surrey MPhys student himself, now based at ANU in Canberra.  Hopefully they will take a student or two from us.  Hopefully, too, I will be able to go over there to visit the student(s) while they are on placement.  

Meanwhile, I just had a go looking around the virtual tour of their lab that Ed developed.  It's very nice -- take a look if you are interested in how a nuclear physics lab looks and works.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

David Pines, 1924–2018

I have just learnt that the physicist David Pines died last week, aged 93.  He was not a nuclear physicist, and he and I never crossed paths, but his work on quantum many-body physics may just as well have been developed by someone working on nuclear physics as on the correlated electron systems that Pines was working on.

He was one of the key players in the Random Phase Approximation (RPA) which allows one to treat the very complicated system of many particles interacting together under the rules of quantum mechanics as a simpler problem of non-interacting particles.  It is very widely used in nuclear physics.  He also wrote and co-wrote, some very useful textbooks.  I have a couple sitting behind me on my shelf, and they are well-used.  The picture I have included here is a scan from the the back panel of the dust jacket from my copy of his book Quantum Liquids, co-written with Philippe Noizières.  The book dates from 1966, and presumably the picture from around that time.  Certainly no later.  More recent pictures and biographies can be found at the Santa Fe Institute where he latterly worked, and in a more personal reminiscence from Piers Coleman, co-director of the Institute for Complex Matter, which Pines founded.

My closest (albeit non-) encounter with Pines occurred when I was collaborating with Chris Hooley of St Andrew's University.  Chris is a condensed matter physicist, working on strongly-correlated electron systems.  Pines was being invited to St Andrews, perhaps to receive a prize -- I don't remember exactly, but in any case there was to be a formal dinner at which Chris would have to give a speech introducing Pines.  This was to happen shortly after Chris was visiting me in Surrey for some work we were doing together (see here, if interested).  He was wondering what to say in his speech, and I suggested he say something along the lines of "It gives me great pleasure to welcome a physicist whose surname is an anagram of a body part.  I refer, of course, to the spine." 

I expect he didn't use this line, but you never know. 

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Jim Al-Khalili FRS

I took a day of annual leave today, not having any scheduled work duties, in order to spend the day with my two youngest children.  At playgroup this morning, as they were busy playing with a toy kitchen I checked my phone to find that my colleague in the Physics Department at the University of Surrey, Jim Al-Khalili has been elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society.  I am delighted for Jim.  It's very well-deserved.  

It also has a positive side-effect for our Department, in terms of prestige and of visibility at the Royal Society, as well as a providing a role model and mentor for members of the Department.  Jim is famous for his public understanding of science activities, and he is also a brilliant research academic.  His work has mainly concentrated on nuclear physics, with quantum biology being a more recent area in which he is beginning to make impact -- as evinced by the recent award of a £1m Leverhulme doctoral training centre in quantum biology to the University.  Jim is one of the two co-directors of the centre, along with Prof Johnjoe McFadden from the School of Biological Sciences. 

I should probably drop into conversation at this point that I have collaborated with Jim on both nuclear physics and quantum biology.  It made me wonder who it is that I have most joint publications with.  It turns out Jim is well up there, with 13 (my "Jindex"?), but he is beaten by my Surrey colleagues Paddy Regan and Phil Walker, and one of my PhD supervisors Michael Strayer, each of whom I share 14 publications with.  They are all trumped by my other PhD supervisor, Jirina Stone, with 15 joint publications.

Anyway.  Well done, Jim!