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.



Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Graduation week - for me too

As I walked across campus this morning, I saw the sight of many people dressed up smartly, some in academic dress, for it is (undergraduate) graduation week at the University of Surrey.  Today, it's the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences (aka FHMS).  My faculty ("FEPS" = Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences) is on Friday, and I'll be present at the afternoon ceremony to see our students graduate.  The other two faculties on campus presumably have their ceremonies tomorrow and Thursday.  One of these faculties, by the way, is now called "FBEL" = Faculty of Business, Economics and Law.  It used to be called the Faculty of Management and Law, with the abbreviation FML, which I'm sure caused much amusement to the students before it was deemed that it needed to change.

It can't really be denied that graduation ceremonies are a bit on the boring side, but for the period of the ceremony when the person or people you are there to see are graduating, it's actually rather nice.  I get to see the students who I worked with for their Final Year Projects, and taught in several other courses.  Students who were my personal tutees, students who I know struggled with problems of an academic and non-academic nature, now reaping the reward of their hard work and perseverance.  Occasionally I also see a student who I utterly fail to recognise and wonder why - perhaps because they studied more from books than from lectures or were unusually quiet, or didn't take my optional courses.  Indeed, now that our intake is the size it is, there will be some students who I will never teach, given the way the teaching allocation currently stands.

As I mentioned last year, and the year before, and the year before that,  I have been taking some Open University maths courses for fun, and to give myself the stick of assignments and deadlines to force me to learn some things I never formally did before.  It's been fun (mostly) and it's been useful for several reasons -- not just that I learned new things, but also because it has reminded me what it is actually like to be a student in terms of having particular assignments to do, exams to do, and even what interacting with a University from the other side is like.  Of course I did all that before, but interesting to do it again having seen life from the teaching side.  

This year, I had my final module for the MSc in Mathematics, which was the dissertation.  I wrote one on spline approximations to solutions of the Schrödinger equation, and I'm pleased to say that I passed and did just fine (getting a distinction, as I found out yesterday).  That means I can complete the story by attending a graduation ceremony from the other side, too.  I only managed to find a small picture of the gown I'll be entitled to wear, hence it looks a but blurry, but it's attached to this post.  Might be nice to wear this one at Surrey graduations for a bit of variation!



Monday, 14 July 2014

Nuclear Matters



So, after last week's NuSYM14 conference, it's back to to getting on with summer tasks in the office. I've spent the morning so far reading through a chapter of my students draft PhD thesis and giving comments, and I'm shortly going to meet a visitor of another mystery academic, who phoned me up to ask if I could help them with time-dependent density functional theory.  I don't know if I can, but I'll find out soon.  

The picture from the NuSYM conference was sent by the organisers to everyone that took part, and since it is going up on the conference web page anyway, I thought I'd reproduce it here, too.  If you want to see all the slides from all the talks, you can find them, too, on the conference web page.  In the picture, I'm in the panama hat, which unfortunately shades my face (although that's rather the point of it).

Speaking of nuclear matter, I've recently learnt of a conference going on in Kent this summer which includes at least one talk on nuclear matter -- specifically on its compressibility.  This conference is all about a model, known as Skyrmions, which are a field-theoretic approach to nuclei.  Typically, they are treated more as mathematical curiosities, or perhaps fairer to say are more studied by mathematical physicists and there's not much dialogue between them and people who style themselves nuclear physicists.  Too bad, really.  I don't think I'll make it to the Kent conference, but I never knew their model had got so far as to be applied to describing compressibility of nuclear matter, so will at least check out their work on it.


Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Dining on Hope

Later on this evening is the NuSYM14 conference dinner, in a fancy restaurant on Liverpool's Hope St.  Walking around there always makes me think of this song, with its obvious Liverpool connection:


Expected Liverpool

In a followup to my recent post, where I found myself making an unexpected trip to Liverpool, I can now report that I am deliberately in Liverpool, to attend the "4th International Symposium on the Nuclear Symmetry Energy NuSYM14".  The eponymous nuclear symmetry energy is the characteristic energy it takes to change protons to neutrons (or vice versa) in the nucleus.  More often than not, it's discussed in the context of infinite nuclear matterwhich is an idealised nucleus of infinite extent, which dispenses with difficult things like finite number of particles, and the complication of the surface of the nucleus.  It's an easy(ish) thing to model and calculate, and the symmetry energy can then be worked out by making calculations with different proportions on neutrons and protons in the nuclear matter.  

The conference symposium is about all the ways this fictitious system and its properties can be used as a proxy to link together a lot of actually observed things - like the properties of neutron stars, the properties of finite nuclei and the results of heavy-ion collisions.  It's a nice small-scale event (with about 50 people) and I gave a talk on Monday, which was about work that my BSc Final Year Project student did a few months ago.  That was about linking properties of the giant quadrupole resonance, in which real nuclei vibrate with a particular shape (going between stretched rugby ball and squashed Smartie) and nuclear matter.  We (or, in fact, James) found that these resonances seem to probe the derivative of the nuclear incompressibility.  The previous knowledge of this parameter of nuclear matter was very poor.

It's been nice to catch up with a bunch of people, and I've met a lot of new people too, since this is quite a genre-crossing field.

The conference is at the University of Liverpool.  We're in an old lecture theatre (but a perfectly fine one).  The coffee breaks are in the lobby of a new central lab teaching building, in which laboratory space for many disciplines has been put together in a shared facility.  It's probably the only building in the world where a room labelled "Radiation Laboratory" is opposite one labelled "Flint Knapping".  It also has an awesome vertical garden just outside it, shown in the picture.