Friday, 23 November 2018

Dear Prudence

I notice that it was 50 years ago yesterday that the Beatles White Album was released, so here is one of my favourite tracks from it:

Thursday, 22 November 2018

Croydon's pneumatic railway

I had some time to kill in Croydon the other day, and went into Croydon Musuem, which contains artefacts and exhibits spanning the last couple of hundred years of Croydon's history.  One interesting technological exhibit is a pipe from Croydon's atmospheric railway. Rather than pull (or push) the train carriages by a locomotive engine, an atmospheric railway uses a pipe which is partially evacuated to suck the train along using pneumatic force.  Some atmospheric railways feature large pipes inside which the whole carriage is placed.  This is the design of the hyperloop system being developed in the USA right now, and was used for non-passenger mail-rail systems in London in the past.  Croydon's used a smaller pipe in which a slug, attached to the carriage, is propelled.  The railway in Croydon never worked very well, as mentioned in the exhibit, pictured here, and the line was converted to a conventional rail line with locomotive engines used on it. 

Thursday, 8 November 2018

Scientists in da house

The internet is awash with commentary on the car crash that is American politics right now, thanks to its embarrassing and dangerous clown-president.  There have just been mid-term elections there, and I saw some election news at least relevant to this blog;  that there are eight new scientists elected to the US Congress.  One, Elaine Luria, is a nuclear engineer, having majored in Physics and History at the US Naval Academy.  That's her picture, taken from her official campaign website, at the top of the post.

The US congressman–scientist closest, though, to nuclear physics (as opposed to nuclear engineering) is probably Bill Foster, whose 1983 PhD from Harvard was on the experimental limit of proton decay via the reaction p →e+0.  He then went on to a career at Fermilab where, among other things, he was a member of one of the experimental collaborations which observed the top quark and is a coauthor of the discovery paper.

I don't think scientists necessarily make better politicians than those of any other particular background, but having a good range of different sensible backgrounds in any parliament seems like a good idea to me.  I don't know if there's an up-to-date list of scientists in the UK House of Commons, but I do recall a few years ago some clamour at the lack of those with science backgrounds in parliament compared with those with a background in other fields.  Here is one commentary by Mark Henderson suggesting that there was only really one scientist (who had worked in science as opposed to having a degree in science and going into some other career) in parliament in 2012.  This may be an extreme way of measuring, but even counting those with science degrees puts them at a much smaller proportion in parliament than in the graduate population at large.

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Lise Meitner at 140

Just over a week ago I missed commenting on the 50th anniversary of the death of Lise Meitner.  She died on 27th October 1968.  Fortunately, I've not missed commemorating her 140th birthday, which is today, 7th Nov 2018.

Lise Meitner, along with Otto Hahn and Otto Frisch, identified the process of nuclear fission in 1939.  This was a major breakthrough in understanding in physics, and of course had a momentous impact in world affairs, as the discovery rapidly led to the atomic bomb only a few years later, thanks to the exigencies of the wartime economy.

Famously, Lise Meitner was not awarded a Nobel Prize for the discovery;  that went to Hahn alone.  That aside she had the usual difficulties of doing science in a man's world, such as the lack of access to university education for which she had to fight and get special dispensation.  She was the first female full professor of physics in Germany, in 1926.  The UK, by contrast, first promoted a woman to a professorship only in 1971 (Daphe Jackson at the University of Surrey).

Meitner spent her retirement in the UK, and is buried not too far from Guildford; about 25 miles away in the village of Bramley, next to the family members she came to the UK to spend the final years of her life with.  Here is a picture (from Wikipedia) of her gravestone at Bramley.

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Lewis Carroll in Guildford

I was at a 5-year-old's birthday party on Sunday (along with my own 5-year-old, of course) up a street in Guildford called The Mount.  It's a steep residential street that I have never felt inclined to walk up before but, being there, I figured I'd go into the cemetery that is half way up and see Lewis Carroll's grave.  

Lewis Carroll has geographical links with a few places that I have been to because of my career in nuclear physics:  Oxford, where I did my PhD and where he taught mathematics.  The village of Daresbury in Cheshire, where there used to be a world-leading radioactive ion beam facility for nuclear structure research, and there is still a prominent tower that once housed the accelerator, is where Carroll was born.  Guildford is the home of the University of Surrey which has a large nuclear physics group, which is old enough to date back before the University was in Guildford, but was in Battersea.  Lewis Carroll spent quite a bit of time in Guildford after he installed his sisters in a house in the town.  He used to come and spend Christmases with them, and it was during one of these visits that he was taken ill and died.  

The University of Surrey has recently decided to name their building after people (previously they were named in a grid-reference style: AB, BA, BB, etc).  Lewis Carroll is one of the people so chosen, as shown in the picture below.

The other thing which links Lewis Carroll with physics is that many physicists seem to particularly enjoy Lewis Carroll's writing.  This is why they end up as physicists, and not as literary critics. 

Monday, 5 November 2018

per second per second

I started reading James Joyce's Ulysses yesterday, on the flight home from the COMEX6 conference.  I'm not quite sure what I was expecting, excepting one of the best novels of all time, but I was was a little surprised to find some musing on that difficulty in basic physics of understanding of weight as a force:
What is weight really when say the weight?  Thirtytwo feet per second, per second.  Law of falling bodies:  per second, per second.  They all fall to the ground.  The earth.  It's the force of gravity of the earth is the weight.

Friday, 2 November 2018

COMEX6: Days 2-5

After writing a post following the first day of the COMEX6 conference, I've not given a day-by-day account, and now the conference is coming to an end.  I'm glad I came.  I have a to-do list (consisting of 22 items) based on things I have heard in the presentations, people I've talked to, ideas that have come to me based on discussions between the attendees.  I always come away from conferences full of ideas and enthusiasm, and the trick is now to follow at least some of it up to keep the momentum going.

Last night was the conference dinner.  I was a bit aghast when I learnt that the earliest coach leaving back for the hotel would be at 11pm.  That's well past my bedtime these days.  But it was all fine.  I'm not at my most comfortable in social situations, but I had a good time, and the vegetarian food options were really good (excepting amuse bouche of oysters, which I did not let amuse my bouche).  There was enforced fun in the form of group drumming.  I wasn't taking a video of that because I was drumming, but the attached video is an excerpt of the professional drummer who was part of the team leading the fun.