Thursday, 16 April 2015

Swatting the Fly in the Cathedral

I've just finished my visit to UMass Lowell, where the Surrey student on placement is getting on very well.  The group who have kindly paid for him to come out and work with them are pleased with how he is doing, and I was impressed with how far he'd got in understanding how germanium detectors and the corresponding electronics work.  Hell, I still thought germanium detectors detect germanium, and Tom put me straight.  

I gave a seminar to the Physics Department at Lowell today.  I had initially given it a rather pedestrian title – I can't remember what now, but my host suggested I spice it up a bit, and I went for "Swatting the Fly in the Cathedral," referring to the title of a popular science book about nuclear physics, in which the fly in the cathedral is an analogy in terms of size of a nucleus in an atom; i.e. really, an atom is a lot of empty space.

I think the seminar went okay.  Always hard to tell.  There was a a great bunch of Emeritus staff present, including one from the UK who had left for the States long ago, and another who had been at Sussex in years past.  We had a good chat over lunch, talking about mutual acquaintances, and memories of places in common.  That generation of academic – especially in nuclear physics and in the US really takes me back to my time at Oak Ridge, where there were still those who could talk about the early days of nuclear physics. 

Now I'm waiting at Boston airport to fly home.  I leave at 10pm local time here, and arrive at 10am local time in England.  Then I will make my way to be a human in the cathedral in Guildford, where our graduation ceremonies take place.  There'll be two of my recent PhD students there, and I hope to be fully awake through the whole thing.

Monday, 13 April 2015

U Mass

I'm at UMass Lowell for a few days this week, mainly to visit one of our MPhys students who is on placement here for his Research Year.  I had Sunday to myself, and contemplated doing tourist things in Boston, but decided in the end to see what Lowell had to offer.  It's an old mill town, and there is lots of related heritage.  I wandered round the town, and it was a lovely day.  The first warm day of the year so far, apparently.  I went to Kerouac Square, in honour of Jack Kerouac who was born in the town (though famously wandered away from it).  I went to the American Textile History Museum, and I tried to find somewhere to eat at a Sunday lunchtime.  Some pictures from my day are at the top of the post.

There are no doubt a lot of reasons to go to visit Boston itself.  To me, it famous for being the birthplace of some of my favourite bands from the late 80s/early 90s.  I feel like I shouldn't let a visit to UMass go by without posting the Pixies' song UMass.  This version was recorded live at the Tsongas Arena, here on the campus in Lowell.  It's from the Pixies' last album, in 1991, before their long hiatus (their follow-up album was released last year), and is not really one of their better songs, in common with the whole album... but it's certainly relevant for me sitting here in UMass today.

Friday, 10 April 2015

"Before anything else, there was Fortran"

One day, I'll write a post about why we teach our Undergraduate physics students the Fortran programming language.  It's a question that comes up a lot.  Probably I'll end up explaining in comments on this post... but if you're reading this moderately shortly after I've written it, you'll be able to hear this program on Radio 4, about the history of the Fortran language.  It's one of a series covering different computer languages, all presented by Surrey alumnus, Dr Aleks Krotoski.

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Report from Manchester

It's part-way through day 2 of the Manchester IoP joint conference between the Nuclear, Particle and Astroparticle Groups of the Institute of Physics. 

The days have started with plenary sessions across all the groups' interests, followed by group-wide plenary sessions, then parallel sessions within the groups.  I've been to talks on the status of the Higgs experiments at the LHC,  studies of double beta decay and the search for neutrinos double beta decay, studies of the isospin nature of the nuclear interaction, reactions for nuclear astrophysics that you can recreate in the lab, gravitational wave searches, laser spectroscopy for measuring the radii of nuclei via hyperfine atomic transitions, shapes of various isotopes of interest (octupole states, oblate N=Z nuclei), proton-rich nuclei, neutrino-nucleus interactions, electric dipole moments, beyond standard model searches, and neutron-rich nuclear studies at the RIBF facility in Japan.  It's been an interesting mixture of things that are familiar, and some thing that are less so.  

In combining the nuclear and particle groups, there have been a few examples of places where the interplay between them are vital in providing a complete understanding;  for example Sean Freeman's talk on double beta decay is concerned with deducing Standard Model quantities, but involves having to understand the nuclear properties very well.  Teppei Katori's talk on neutrino-nucleus interactions this morning is another case.  He pointed out the obvious reason why people study Standard Model physics, rather than nuclear physics - on the slide, pictured, in somewhat poor quality.  The slide says "The Standard Model (easy).  Nuclear Physics (hard)"

The first picture shows a scene typical for Manchester, with light being reflected from the layer of water on the ground. 

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Spring back, fall forward

The clocks are changing in the UK tonight.  There's a mnemonic, supposedly helpful, about the direction in which to change the clocks.  It goes "spring forward, fall back."  I expect we are sufficiently familiar enough nowadays with the term fall for autumn, but I've always found it just as plausible to think of the phrase "spring back, fall forward" as being just as natural.

Some very scientific research (# of Google hits) tells me:

Spring Forward: About 71,200,000 results
Spring Back: About 296,000,000 results

Fall Forward: About 718,000,000 results
Fall Back: About 295,000,000 results

I can work out which way we do it with a little thought, and knowledge behind the rationale on which it's done, but my mnemonic way of doing it is to remember that there is a payoff for the bad transition and a slight downer on the good transition:  As it goes to winter, at least we get another hour of sleep.  As we go to summer, we lose an hour of sleep.  So, tonight, we lose an hour.  In my case, I guess it means my daughter will get me up at 7, rather than 6.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Ready for IoP conference 2015

It's approaching the Easter break, so it's time for the annual Institute of Physics Nuclear Physics conference.  Last year I chaired the conference, so this year's will be a more relaxed affair for me.  It's in Manchester, and it's being co–hosted with the particle physics conference, so there'll be an opportunity to go to some sessions on particle physics should the mood take me.  

Today, the seven Surrey students who are talking at the conference gave practice talks and we had a lively session watching and listening to them, then asking questions and giving them feedback.  I'm speaking too, on Tuesday, so if you're there, please come along to my session!  Full details on the conference website.

It'll be nice to have a few days in Manchester.  I illustrate this post with a shot of Canal Street – one of Manchester's famous spots for a good time in the evening.  I might not make it there, travelling with my one-year-old daughter, but she'd probably rather like it.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Unsquare Loser

18 down in today's Independent Crossword is "Jazz pianist's difficulty interrupting rock guitarist (7)"

If you need a little musical inspiration for the clue, these two fine songs might provide it: