Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Visiting Lowell

One of the things that makes our MPhys programmes at Surrey different to other places, is that our students spend a year away from their home institution on a research placement.  It could be at another university, or at a private or government laboratory, and it could be close to home, or far away.  Wherever it is, our students get a unique experience of physics research.  

When our students are out on placement, they get visited by us – the Surrey academics – to make sure things are going okay, and to provide a bit of contact between the home and host institutions.  Today was my turn to visit one of our students, Bobby, on placement at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.  I've never been to Lowell before, or met the group here, so it was a real pleasure for me to come and see them, and the University here.  Lowell is an old industrial mill town in the Northern part of Massachusetts, near the border with New Hampshire.  Very different from the parts of the US that I know well, such as Tennessee, where I used to live.  I'm pleased to say that Bobby is getting on very well here.  He's enjoyed his time greatly, and there has been a lot of mutual benefit between him and the group with his being here, working on radiation detectors.  

The picture shows Bobby (left) with the two professors here that he's been working with – Partha Chowdhury and Kim Lister.  They are standing next to the main beam line of the accelerator facility housed at the UMass campus.

Tomorrow I head to my old stomping ground of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to see Sarah, who is on placement there. 

Saturday, 18 October 2014

I was in France

As promised, last week I attended a workshop in France, at GANIL (pictured) in Caen.  I talked about the work of Phil, my recently–completed PhD student who, and whose work, has featured much in recent posts.  My talk seemed to go down well, and some good comments inspired some useful concepts to bring up in the paper that I am (supposed to be) writing up.  I shall have to acknowledge the commenters in the paper.

I was glad I went to the meeting, though it was a little bit of a flying visit.  I spent more time travelling than attending the meeting, and had little time to see the sights.  As ever in France, I made an attempt to talk to people in French.  Mostly they responded to me in English, which certainly aided my understanding of them.  

France now seems like a long time ago.  I'm now in the USA, to visit some of our (University of Surrey's) MPhys students on their research placements.  All this travelling and waiting round at airports means that I should have plenty of time to get on with things.  I have a to-do list for my trip and have been getting through the tasks.  Writing this blog post isn't on it, but getting on with my edit of the papers coming out of Phil's thesis is (along with preparing course material, commenting on student reports, my annual appraisal, preparing some slides for a colleague who is on his way to a partner university, chasing up some placement student possibilities for next year, and writing some BSc project proposals).  I will try to knock one of those things of the list now, before I head out for the evening.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

We stop-start, shoogled aboot in our seats

I spent today in a meeting in Edinburgh talking about the activity in UK nuclear theory to the committee of NuPECC - a Europe-wide body that oversees nuclear physics research activity.  I had the prescience to book a flight up yesterday that was due to leave around 5:30pm.  Prescient because all flights from Heathrow seemed delayed by around two hours because of the weather.  Rather than getting to my hotel at around 8:30pm, I was there more like 10:30pm.  But okay - I certainly came off better than my poor colleague who were booked on flights due to leave around 8pm.  I think she got to bed around 2am.

The hotel was a cheap one I found on  It started off a bit badly when the night porter tried to let me in and managed instead to lock us both out, asking if I had a phone so he could get us back in.  Poor guy - I think it was one of his first nights on the job.   The hotel was nice, and I slept just fine, and walked over to the part of campus of the University of Edinburgh where the science stuff is.  Of course, it is a rule of old Universities that arts subjects happen in the old buildings in the centre of town, and science subjects in new buildings further away.  

The meeting went just fine.  There were a bunch of talks by different members of the UK community - an overview, then talks from different physics areas.  I covered, or tried to, all the physics areas where theorists contribute.  I think people generally listened to my talk, and there were certainly a few questions at the end.  

Following lunch, I can say that the University of Edinburgh mass catering department is quite good.  The sandwiches were reasonable, and they had these nice empanada things with hot sauce, which I ate perhaps too many of.  In fact, straight after lunch I shared a taxi with some STFC brethren (including sororial brethren) to the airport, sitting in one of the fold-down seats that face backwards in black cabs and soon developed quite some travel sickness.   I have no idea if the over-consumption of these empanadas was a cause. To be fair, the cab was jolting about quite a lot, and I guess it was nice in some ways that the driver mounted the pavement to get us to the airport sooner.  Boy, I felt sick though.  Elizabeth gallantly swapped seats with me, which helped, but it wasn't until around the time I got on the flight that I really felt much better.  Weird - I don't often get travel sick these days, though I did when I was a kid. 

The taxi ride inspired the title of this post, from this poem by Stephanie Green 

Thursday, 9 October 2014

I wanna be nuclear theory

I'm heading to Edinburgh later today in readiness for a meeting tomorrow morning.  The meeting is a NUPECC (Nuclear Physics European Collaboration Committee) meeting in which various members of the UK nuclear physics community are being asked to present talks to the committee to give them an overview of what goes on in the UK in nuclear physics research.  

I've been asked to give a talk entitled "Nuclear Theory in the U.K."  Hopefully all the committee members will understand the provenance of my title slide, shown in the picture attached to this post.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Doogy Lev

A few weeks ago, as I was enjoying the nut roast on a Sunday lunchtime in the White House pub in Guildford, I caught a snippet from a travel advice program on the TV on the wall of the pub, talking about Bulgaria.  It was the usually reliable Simon Calder, and I thought I heard him say that the currency in Bulgaria was the Euro.  That seemed like bad travel advice, since the currency there is the Lev, though I dare say Euros are accepted in hotels and so on.  

Anyway, I made a comment to my companions about it, and one of them said that I should send then a Tweet, so I did.  Lo and behold, some weeks later (today), I had a notification on Twitter that the BBC travel show wanted to use my comment on the show, and could I send a picture taken by someone who would give permission for them to use it.  

Well, my wife# suggested I send the picture taken by her friend Roger a few years ago (it's the one attached to this post), since she thought it was nice.  I thought I ought to therefore ask him if it was okay for me to do that, and he said that it was.  I feel it only fair to suggest that anyone looking to buy  detectors for their Synchrotron facility should look no further than Quantum Detectors, whose CEO is said Roger.  As you can see from the picture, he has a fine eye for detecting photons.

# Not really my wife - we're not married, but I'm too old to refer to her as my girlfriend.  

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?