Thursday, 29 November 2012

Obscure references

One of my PhD students (Hi, Chris!) is absolutely brilliant at finding obscure papers relevant to his research.  In our recent paper, there are references to journals that I'm sure I haven't referenced before, mostly to do with numerical and computational methods.

Now, he's found a two-page paper on nuclear theory written by a certain G. F. Nash, from 1972, with an affiliation of the North West Kent College of Technology, Dartford.  I hadn't even realised that the place existed (it still does), nor that there was once someone there who published academic papers in theoretical nuclear physics.  According to ISI, the paper has never been cited since its publication in 1972.  The journal, at least, is not so unfamiliar to me, it being the Mathematical Proceedings of the Cambridge Philosophical Society, not least because of the classic paper by Crank and Nicolson published there.

I certainly look forward to seeing the bibliography in Chris's thesis, when it's done.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Meeting and Eating

I must confess at the start of this post  that I'm probably at one extreme on the issue that I'm posting about, but perhaps not too extremely.  It's about combining meals with communal activity.

So, I do find the smell and/or noise of people eating a bit distracting.  I don't mind it in a restaurant.  After all, you go there knowing there's food there, but in other circumstances, it's annoying.  Coming home late from London can be quite a pain if someone comes and sits next to you with a hot meal bought from one on Waterloo's quality fast food joints.  I mean, you are stuck there in a train carriage with no open windows and have to smell your uninvited companion's food.  Thankfully, the Underground has recognised the selfishness of forcing your hot dinner on everyone else, and banned it for that very reason.

Not so long ago, it was considered impolite to eat in public, and now it seems to be considered an inalienable right to be able to munch on a snack wherever and whenever you might be.  I've certainly had people come to my office to see me carrying a bacon sandwich and thinking it okay to sit there and eat it during a meeting. While part of me is tempted to blame "young people" who see perpetual eating as a right, in reality, it seems more part of a culture of not taking breaks.  It has become normal to schedule lunchtime meetings and say that it's okay to bring your lunch along and we can carry on working through the ritual of eating.

Partly it's just my foible, but when I'm trying to listen to something important but there's someone sitting next to me exceeding the decibels of the speaker by eating an apple, then the lunchtime meeting is pointless.  If I'm trying to listen to someone giving a talk, but the absolute right to munch crisps is sacrosanct, then I may as well not attend a talk.

Okay, I may be the over-sensitive one, but I don't think it's unreasonable to stop for lunch, or dinner, and not mix them up with talks, meetings, or anything else.  I get the feeling that I'm completely out of touch on this.  Am I?

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Google Scholar Annoyances

Last week, I posted about Google Scholar, and how it ranks areas of the arXiv above most journals in terms of a whole-journal h index.  More usefully, it keeps tracks of citations to my papers, so i can see whether what I'm doing is having any impact, and it suggests new articles to me that I might like to read.  It's suggested some that I'm sure I wouldn't have otherwise come across, from parochial journals, for example.

I try not to get too obsessed with the headline number, telling me my total number of citations.  After all, I can easily find someone I went to University with, whose single most cited paper has more citations than my entire lifetime's work.  And not just a bit more - a factor of 20 more.  Oh well.  One of the strange things, though, is that the number of total citations Google Scholar gives can go down as well as up over time.  The whole shebang is automated, of course, and a computer program finds all the citations and updates the database.  Presumably it sometimes roots out erroneous citations from the database.  The weird thing for me is that one recent paper of mine keeps jumping around in terms of number of citations.  It got up to around 11, then dropped to 0, then up to 5 or so, and today seems to have reverted to 0.  Even the Phys Rev C page for the article is aware of a few references, and it does not have a terribly extensive search remit, as far as I can tell.  Strange, and a little bit frustrating.  It'd be nice if it worked better than it does.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

End of the World

Last night featured the latest in the series of Institute of Physics South Central Branch talks that I organise at the University of Surrey.  We hosted Alok Jha, Guardian Science correspondent, Guardian ScienceWeekly podcaster, and author, who was talking about scenarios for the end of the world - meant either as the end of civilisation, or the literal destruction of the planet.  He's a nice speaker, he engaged very well with the audience, and provided an entertaining talk.  I usually try to have at least one speaker per year who is not necessarily talking about their own physics research, but rather has spent time understanding and digesting an area and presenting it to a public audience, and Alok fitted the bill very well.

Of course, with the prospect of the End of the World, we clearly are in need of Superheroes.  By coincidence, the Physics Department's student physics society is organising a talk on the physics of superheroes next week.  Like the IoP talks I organise, it is open to the public, and is at 7pm in Lecture Theatre F, so if you're in the vicinity of Guildford, it should be a fun way to spend an hour.  The speaker is Prof Alan Davies, University of Hertfordshire. A quick search indicates that he is not a floppy-haired actor, but a mathematics professor.  He even has his own wikipedia entry (I don't!).

Sunday, 18 November 2012

the arXiv and metrics

Open access publishing continues to make the news, or if not the news then at least the pundits' and bloggers' musings.  Following the recommendations of the Finch Report, RCUK had previously made money available to a select cohort of universities to cover the costs fees of publishing open access papers.  To partially redress the partiality, much more research money is to be diverted to pay for gold open access in a rather fairer proportionate way.  This is still a cause for concern for many people, since it still takes money away from research to give instead to publishers, and still has some unfair aspects to it.

From my point of view, this could all be fixed by encouraging a change to the academic and wonk culture to stop judging people by proxies such as impact factors of the journals where they publish, but to judge the scientific content of the work directly.  Still, until and if that ever happens, Google has done us something of a favour.  Some time ago, it started Google Scholar - a version of its search engine that searched scholarly articles.  Useful for me, certainly.  More recently it has started a rival to the traditional article metrics companies.  Individuals can keep track of their papers and who has been citing them via a subscription-free site, and metrics for individual journals can also be found.  My modest contribution to the world's body of scientific knowledge is summarised here.

Notwithstanding the problems of using whole-journal metrics as a measure of an individual article, Google has included the different subject areas of the arXiv server as separate journals in its measure.  An interesting result in this, is that in the Physics and Mathematics subject area of their metrics site, three of the top five "journals", as measured by a per-journal 5-year h-index are arxiv subject areas.  This is great.  At least if you are an astrophysicist - it says that the most cited astro-specific outlet it in the astro-ph section of the arxiv.  Sooner or later the people who insist on judging by journal-based metrics will notice this, and perhaps those responsible for the government's open access strategy will eventually notice too, and realise that they don't need to divert research money away from research.

My own area, nuclear physics, does not feature in the list.  Partly, that's because of volume, but also because of the culture.  Astrophysicists, and high-energy physicists clearly lead the field here.  I think it would be good if nuclear physicists more habitually deposit to the arXiv.  I do, and my latest submission is here (called "why is lead so kinky?" - the journal I submitted to has told me I must change the name).

Friday, 16 November 2012

Ben Elton's Dad

Yesterday, when driving home, I listened to that program that comes on after the evening outing of The Archers on Radio 4.  It involved a discussion with Ben Elton about a new novel he's written.  As a child of the 1980s, I still hold Ben Elton as a kind of hero.  After all, he was partly responsible for The Young Ones and steadfastly opposed the Thatcher government that we were then living through... I even bought his first novel when it came out and read it.  It was okay.  Sort of entertaining and funny as I remember, if not a great literary work.

The interview with him last night was interesting.  His new book is an historical novel about the separation of children in Nazi Germany to split up a Jewish and adopted non-Jewish siblings.  The interest was more in the fact that that very thing had happened to Ben Elton's family, and he described a bit about it.  I though Mr Elton coped quite well with a rather boorish interviewer, and I think I might buy the book now, as it sounds like it might be a good read.  But anyway... part of the interview was about how immigrants, especially those at times of war, are very grateful to the host country indeed for providing safety and a new life.  I reflected, that in some way, I should be grateful to Ben Elton's family for something rather less than bodily safety and a new life - for my current employment.

Lewis Elton, Ben Elton's dad was a nuclear physicist who was the first head of the Department of Physics here at the University of Surrey.  Although the University, and its predecessor institution, the Battersea College of Technology, was rather practically-geared at the time (and still is to a large extent), Prof Elton was a theoretician, rather freer of practical applications than many other academics, and he worked on nuclear physics.  He successfully built up a research group at Surrey that survives to this day as one of only two groups in Britain with current theoretical nuclear physics research.  He brought in Daphne Jackson, who became the UK's first female professor of Physics, and during her years here, the group expanded to include an experimental group.  Now, we are a successful general nuclear physics group, and are known around the world.  While the credit must be shared with all involved, if not for Ben Elton's dad, I certainly wouldn't be sitting here in this office right now.

The picture shows me with a copy of a book by Lewis Elton that I picked up before I had any inkling that I might end up here.  I bought it in a second hand book shop in Oxford when I was an undergraduate.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

No more in '94

A picture, from uossnaps, from before the
1994 Group existed.
Most, but not all, UK universities belong to a so-called "mission group".  The most well-known of these is the Russell Group.  The various groups are self-selected associations of Universities that chose to club together to form lobby groups to promote and defend their interests in a unified way.

The Russell Group formed in 1994 from some rather large and generally older universities.  In response, a selection of smaller universities formed the 1994 Group.  These were essentially most of the pre-1992 universities that were not invited to be part of the Russell Group.  The large number of universities established in 1992 following the conversion of polytechnics to universities then created the lobby groups Million+ and University Alliance.

I think it's fair to say that the Russell Group have been the most successful in creating a brand identity.  Indeed, they have successfully created the impression that they are a kind of premier league of universities in the UK.  I hear parents attending UCAS days talk about the ambition of their children going to a Russell Group university, and hear similar stories from teachers.  Little do people seem to know that these groups are just self-selected lobby groups, and they are buying the hype when they aspire to attend one group over another.  To be fair, to the extent that one takes stock in league tables, then Russell Group universities by and large do well, but I would sooner go to St Andrews or Lancaster (neither in the Russell Group) to study physics than many Russell Group universities.

Perhaps it is because of this general perception that after years of stable membership, things have been changing this year.  First, Durham, York, Exter and Queen Mary left the 1994 group and joined the Russell Group, and then St Andrews, Bath and Surrey left the 1994 group and remain, to the best of my knowledge, unaffiliated.  This means that I am at an unaffiliated university.  I can't imagine that it will change things much for me, or for the Physics Department.  Being a member of the 1994 group was not something I ever heard students or parents talk about when discussion choice of university to study at.  I wonder if the 1994 Group will survive the departures, and whether the unaffiliated universities will suffer anything more than not paying the subscription fees.  Time will tell, I guess. 

Monday, 12 November 2012

Copperhead Stakes

It's not quite up to the excitement of the recent US elections, and won't impact science funding a great deal, but on Thursday we have elections for police commissioners.  I can't say that I think this is a role that specifically needs to be elected (I mean, we have to stop somewhere in terms of electing public servants), but the election is happening, so I thought I'd take in interest and look up the candidates.

My postal vote arrived this morning, two days before the deadline for posting it, which seems to defeat the purpose of having postal votes.  According the the instructions, one should choose a first and a second choice.  The wording implies that the second choice is obligatory, but I'm not sure that is really the case.  But okay, I voted for two.

Choosing police commissioners in Surrey is a curious thing.  It is a very conservative and nimbyish place, and many of the candidates are competing with each other to be the least tolerant of crime - or at least of the sort of crime that upsets middle-class conservative voters.  Certainly, such things as anti-social and loutish criminal behaviour is something police should target, but the prominence given to it in the statements of many of the candidates seems rather to be ignoring other forms of crime.  Guildford in particular and Surrey in general is home to many City bankers, who have, aside form criminal insurance mis-selling and libor-fixing, have caused the wages of their relatively poor neighbours to stagnate and their pensions and/or benefits to lose value.  This seems like rather anti-social behaviour to me (as well as some of it being illegal), but it doesn't seem that the candidate police commissioners are aiming to address this.  Ho hum - too much to ask for, I think.

I was pleased to see that the Labour candidate, at least, mentions the benefits of, for example, working to help young people with drugs problems, saying that he would target money at drug intervention (as well as other things) - shockingly trying to actually fix problems than just punishing.  He has no chance of getting elected.

Since it's the first election for a police commissioner, there will be no swingometer in the overnight election program, but I look forward to staying up all night watching the results come in.  I wonder which county will declare first...

Monday, 5 November 2012


This semester I'm teaching a new course which I'm finding a lot of fun.  I don't much like the title, which is "Modern Computational Techniques", but it was chosen in homage to my colleague's Modern Analytical Techniques course, which explores some advanced experimental methods.  My course covers a range of (somewhat) advanced computational techniques that one doesn't necessarily otherwise see at undergraduate level - at least on a physics course.  It starts off with the use of the LAPACK linear algebra package to solve finite-differenced versions of various differential equations, with examples taken from electrostatics and quantum mechanics.  Then it moves on to a range of algorithms: The FFT, neural networks and genetic algorithms, and then on to Monte Carlo methods and finally some parallel programming.  It's a substantial enough module in terms of credits and time taken to go into the techniques in some detail, and each week I've got three hours with the students, first in a 2h class, then a 1h class.

I've scheduled the 2h class in a regular teaching room and spend the first hour going over the material on the board, and the second writing live and trying to be collaborative with the students, a code that solves the problem / uses the technique at hand.  The one hour class is in the computer lab with the students given an exercise to do.  The second hour of the two hour class can be a bit hairy, in that there's no guarantee that we'll be able to construct a working code and there is a certain amount of "winging it." Of course, I try to make sure that it is achievable, and work through the problem in advance, but today in week 6 of the course I failed to write a working code for a multilayer neural network and train it to be an XOR gate.  It didn't help that I made an error in deriving the learning rule in the first hour, in which the derivative of the error with respect to the weights in the neural network could not have been worked out, but I thought using a finite difference would work in the program just as well.  It should have... but I didn't quite make it by the end of the 50 minute slot.  Too bad.  Sorry class!  I hope that you're generally enjoying the course, though.