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.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Cheers, Phil

Today is one of those rare days in my career when I say goodbye to one of my PhD students because they are done - finished writing their PhD and about to go off to pastures new.  Phil - my student in the picture - has finished writing his PhD, and his only task for his last day tomorrow is to take the version he has printed this evening to the binders and then to the postgraduate office to hand it in.  He's starting a job on Monday, but will be back to defend his thesis in due course.  

This leaves me with no PhD students (at least not as principal supervisor) so please do tell all eligible candidates to come my way, and that they too can look mildly pleased in the future to have completed their PhD.

I think, for a PhD student, Phil has a pretty respectable publication record - see here (and that doesn't cover his main thesis results).  Too bad he has realised that there are some good opportunities in non-academic life.  If only I had, all those years ago... It's A-level results day today.  I got my results 22 years ago, and they took me to University.  The peers of mine who did not go to University now have a much better standard of living than I do thanks (among other things) to getting on the UK housing market, which is constantly propped up by recent conservative governments whether Conservative or Labour.  It's not necessarily a terrible injustice that this is the case, but it's certainly one way in which government policy has (probably) unintended consequences.  I'd rather be able to tell students a more positive story.  

Monday, 11 August 2014

Turning 40

Ayr beach, recently
The last few weeks in my non-virtual life have been quite busy.  I seem to be getting older and more stuck in my ways, so as well as going to the same conference in Bulgaria as I've been to in succession for the last few years, I also went on the same summer holiday to stay with my cousin and her family in Ayr.  That was a lot of fun, as always.  It's nice to see them, and nice for my daughters to hang out with my cousin's kids.  

Since I've been back, I've had a few celebrations for turning 40 years old.  The weekend before last most of my family came down and we had a nice lunch in Guildford's finest pub (the Drummond).  They came then because they couldn't make the party this weekend on Saturday, that being closest in date to my 40th birthday on Friday.  I had a lovely time.  In fact, it turned out that my Dad did make it to the party after all, albeit at 11pm.  He wasn't going to be able to make it because he works on the cricket test matches for the telly.  He wasn't expecting the match to end when it did...

Normal service, whatever that is, should resume here about now.  

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

"Many, if not most, particle physicists despised nuclear physics"

My recent post mentioning Skyrmions has prompted me to walk down the corridor to get back my copy of Selected Papers, with Commentary, of Tony Hilton Royle Skyrme, which I bought on a whim when World Scientific were having a sale.  A quick search through my email reveals I bought 9 books at the time, all for £6 each.  I guess I thought it was a great bargain at the time, and actually I've made decent use of some of the books.  I don't suppose I'll ever open the 1200-page Sixty Years of Double Beta Decay but it may give me a bit of exercise next time I have to move offices.

Anyway, I thought I'd try to get better acquainted with the basics of Skyrmions, and it seemed like a good place to start.  I haven't got onto the real subject matter yet, but can't resist quoting this from the preamble to the commentary on the Skyrmion papers (which form one section of the book).  Penned by the editor, Gerald E. Brown, who died recently -- there is a special issue of Nuclear Physics A coming out soon in his honour (see here) -- it is written in an informal way discussing the history of the Skyrmion and its links with other field theory approaches to nuclei and nucleons.  He (Brown) says
I told [Feynman] that the MIT bag model of quarks was simply too large;  it had a radius R of ~ 1 fm. With such a large radius, the nucleons would be like grapefruit in a bowl.  It would be difficult to see how they could perform the independent motion that they exhibit in the shell model.

Feynman responded by a number of objections and penetrating questions, but he was obviously intrigued.  This was a great stimulation to me, since many, if not most, particle physicists despised nuclear physics.  (In fact the only criticism that I have of Sanyuk's article is that it tries to convert Tony Skyrme retroactively into a particle theorist.)  Feynman asked me how I wanted to compress the MIT bag.  I told him that the pion cloud would compress the quarks.  Only later, I discovered that in the Skyrme model, the pion cloud compressed the quarks to a point, the point source of the baryon number.

The underlining is mine.  The whole prologue is written in the same style -- the sort of freewheeling arrogance that big-name professors sometimes profess.  Quite a rollicking read, really.  But is it true? Do most particle physicists really hate nuclear physics?  It would explain a lot.