Tuesday, 28 January 2014

A London Day

Indian visa centre queue
It's the final part of the Royal Society Scientist-MP/Civil Servant Pairing Scheme today, and so I'm in London for the wrap-up event.  I decided to come up early to go to the Indian visa centre, since I need a visa to travel to India next month for the FUSION14 conference.  On the occasions that I've been to India before, I've done the same two-stage process of going to London to drop off my passport and then coming back a few days later to pick it up.  The first time was for a conference visit to Shimla, in 2005, and I queued at the embassy next to Bush House for my visa.  A couple of years ago I was in Roorkee for a summer school, and I visited a visa centre near Victoria.  Now they have moved to a centre on the A1 between the City and Islington, and I headed there with my passport, specially-large format photos, and pre-filled-in forms, filled-in on the internet and printed out.

When I got there, there was a very short queue for the pre-screening desk at the entrance, where they check that you have the right documentation before going any further.  In principle, what should have happened is that they should have looked at my documents, judged them to be okay, and pressed the button labelled "no appointment" to give me a number to listen out for to then be seen by someone.  I didn't make an appointment since the web site was too dire to let me, and there's no real need because of the turning-up-without-an-appointment option.

What actually happened is that a frustrated guy left as my documents were being checked, unable to wait any longer to be seen.  He left his appointment number with the checker clerk at the front desk as he walked out.  After the clerk checked my documents, he picked up this number and handed it to me.  The number was 1136. I don't know what I would have got otherwise, but with the current number at 1129, I didn't have very long to wait.  What a result, though sucks a bit for the others who didn't get this break.  

When I left, the queue just to see the first clerk was snaking out the door.  In my relief, i took a photo, above.  I then had a bit of time to kill, and wandered down to the Barbican, and into the Museum of London, through the elevated Barbican walkways.  I didn't stay too long in the museum, it being a bit crowded with school parties.  I did like the Barbican Estate, famous home of Arthur Scargill, who has alas given succour to those who would run down unions.  It's quite a remarkable place.  Rather impressive and beautiful, despite being a post-war housing estate.  It's new on the scale of some nearby structures, such as the Roman wall, but is already developing stalactites and stalagmites (see pic).

From there, I headed to the West End, in preparation for my Royal Society meeting.  I found somewhere to have lunch, and then somewhere to sit with wi-fi to do some work (and write this post).  By fortunate happenstance, that place happened to be the quiet and comfortable upstairs room at the Harp - a hidden gem of a pub a stone's throw from Trafalgar Square.

Monday, 27 January 2014

I'm a c********

Human civilisation has only been around a few thousand years.  A couple of hundred generations of humans, and no more.  Quite something, when you think about it - and look how far we've got; the wheel, New York, wars, and so on.  

Artistically, humans have expressed themselves in many ways, too.  Once, it was orally-recounted stories.  Epics such as Gilgamesh, myths from many cultures, sagas and tales.  Dramatic arts have been round a long time, too, with ancient Greek plays having survived to attest to that, continuing through Shakespeare and the present day.  Then there's poetry - also been around a long time, and still relevant to people's desire to express themselves today.  Music, of course... been around as long as humankind in one form or another.

Yet there are some art forms which have had to wait for a certain coming together of humanity's  greatest achievements, that eclipse such base forms as Sophocles' Theban plays, or Bach's fugues.  For now we have TV Celebrity Talent Contests - solid proof of the power of evolution to drive everything forward to a more advanced state.

Such is the irresistible power of the medium, it has become the natural way of expressing life in general - including science.  As regular readers (hi Mum!) will remember, I took part in FameLab earlier this week.  And you might even remember that I took part in I'm a Scientist, Get Me Out of Here some time ago. 

An email that arrived today has announced that, for the new round of I'm a Scientist, there is a special nuclear zone, sponsored by STFC.  If an interested nuclear physicist is reading this, why not take part?  Take your place in the pinnacle of human artistic expression.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Chance, necessity and famous unwatched films

My redoubtable colleague Richard Sear has long been the chief blogger of our departmental blog.  I have write-rights on it, too, but you have to look back a fair while to see my last post.  My bad.

Now Richard has started a blog of his own, entitled Chance and Necessity.  I have already added it to my blog reading list.

On Wednesday, Rich and I were talking about the nerdy and quite funny Twitter hashtag #sixwordpeerreview, with jokey and short referee reports for scientific papers.  He then mentioned another hashtag he liked, which was something to do with quotations from the film The Princess Bride.  I can't find the hashtag now, and am beginning to think I just dreamed the whole thing, but that hashtag was a bit lost on me, as I've never watched The Princess Bride.  Rich seemed to think this a bit surprising, that I should have reached the age of 39½ and not seen said film.  I have seen Star Wars, on the other hand.

Since I then went on later in the day to host this FameLab event that I mentioned before, I thought I'd use this idea to break the ice when introducing the judges.  I asked each of them to say a bit about themselves, mentioned the anecdote above, and asked them to give the most famous film that they'd never seen.  Simon Watt's answer, which elicited cheers from the audience, was that he hadn't seen any Harry Potter films (or read the books).  Jim Al-Khalili, cited A Clockwork Orange, and Mark Cropley choose Grease.  

Reader, are there films we might be surprised you haven't seen?

Friday, 24 January 2014


Yesterday, after work, our Head of Department invited staff to Wates House, which is either one of the campus pubs or an extension of the Physics Department, depending on your view.  It used to be the SCR / Staff Club back when we had such a thing.   The reason for the invite was the fact that, for the first time, we have exceeded 1,000 applicants to come here to study Physics.

I took advantage of the Head's largesse and enjoyed a pint of Hogs Back Brewery's Winter Ale, then it was time for my colleague, Jim Al-Khalili, and I to go to the other part of campus to help with the South-Eastern regional final of FameLab.  I was to compere and Jim to lead the judging panel.  I was only really told about what would be involved a day or so before.  As well as generally introducing everyone and keeping proceedings moving, I learnt that I was also supposed to "do a set" for about 10 minutes to entertain the audience.  Well!  Fortunately, being the consummate professional bullshitter that I am, I wasn't too fazed by the challenge.  What did make me look, or at least feel, a little unprepared was that there were lots of FameLab facts it was suggested I tell the audience.  Not being familiar with them, they didn't trip off my tongue in a very natural way... but it all went just fine.  If I had to do it again, I would look like an old hand, I'm sure.  

As for the important part of the event - it consisted of 7 winners of previous heats who had to come onstage with nothing but what props they could carry (if any), and speak for 3 minutes about some science topic.  I must say that they all did very well, and I'm sure the judges were not exaggerating when they said that the standard was higher than at other FameLab competitions they'd judged.  Only one person could win, and that was Caroline Shenton-Taylor, who talked about anti-rubber - material that gets wider when stretched, unlike rubber bands (and most things) that get narrower.  I thought she did a great job of explaining, with a useful Meccano prop, and was a worthy winner.  Caroline will now go off to the final in London in April.   The runner-up, Claire le Cras, will be in a play-off with other runners-up to go there too.

In the end, I didn't do any stand-up as such.  During the judges deliberation, the small crowd, of mostly friends of the contestants, were chatting happily away, and no entertainment was called for.  Probably for the best.  The few jokes I tried slipping in elsewhere were received with groans.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Applicant Day at Surrey

We had an Applicant Day today, when we invite people who have applied to study Physics at the University of Surrey.  22 applicants came, many with parents, to see the Department and the Univeristy.  As usual, my involvement started in the morning, when we (the academic staff) hang around in the Physics Seminar Room when everyone is arriving and chat to them over coffee.  I'm not a great one for small talk, but I managed to spark up some conversation okay.  There are usually good ways in - like asking people how the journey in was, and stuff like that.  I moved on to the weather, then asked the applicants if they had just had to sit some A level exams, to be told that they have stopped them at January.  I should have know that, really, but I hadn't picked up that this change had come in so quickly.  The exam boards must have needed to get their skates on, given the long and careful process they use to prepare exams.

The next stage is more socialising.  At lunchtime when the applicants are off getting a tour and lunch with the current students, the parents stay in the department and have lunch with us.  The lunch is  a sandwich buffet provided by the University catering department.  It's quite decent as these things go, and for some reason, they brought far too much today.  The picture shows the state of things after everyone had had their fill.  The emptiest plate is the one with the batter-coated chilli cheese things that leave a satisfying greasy spot on your paper plate after you've eaten them.  In case you worry about the waste of food, you can rest assured that such a quantity of leftover food never seems to go to waste in a University.  The student grapevine soon gets to work.

A little later on in the day, we have a kind of interview with the candidates.  It's not an interview in the sense that we are using it to decide whether or not to take the students, who have actually already usually been offered a place with a conditional A-level grade requirement.  Rather it's to have a chat about the applicants' interests and about the University and the course.  I only had two students to see today, and had an enjoyable chat to both of them.  For the rest of the afternoon, when not with me they are in the practical lab.  Ostensibly this was set up (by me when I was admission tutor) to be a place where we would demonstrate some experiments and talk about some physics concepts, but it has since transformed into a place where - although that happens a little bit - the applicants all end up chatting to each other, and with the current students who demonstrate the experiments.  When I pop in there to pick up or drop off the applicants for our "interview" I'm more likely to hear the applicants being told about the nightlife in Guildford as a diffraction grating.  It's certainly good that they get a holistic view of life at the Uni.

I hope the applicants and their parents had a good day.  We must be doing something right.  Our current first year is our biggest ever, and the lousy picture I've included at the top of the post shows a photo taken with my phone of the video display screen in the Department.  It's a slide from a couple of weeks ago showing that our application numbers are up quite a bit on what was already a record year.  We just learned today that, with applications via UCAS now having just closed, that we have gone past the 1,000 applicants mark for the first time.  

Monday, 20 January 2014

Photographic evidence

Just to prove that I really was in attendance at the recent Conference on Physics with Large Arrays of Novel Scintillators, here is the conference photo, taken on the banks of the Liffey, just outside the conference venue.  I'm in the back at the middle:

Thursday, 16 January 2014


I'm in Dublin Airport, about to leave for home, having enjoyed a couple of fine days at a conference on "Physics with Large Arrays of Novel Scintillators".  I was an invited speaker, not because I know anything about Large Arrays of Novel Scintillators, but because I apparently know something about the Physics that can be done with them.  It turns out that these arrays are ideally suited to measuring giant resonances - vibrational states of nuclei that I like to calculate and that link in with all sorts of interesting things like the properties of neutron stars.

I learned quite a few things from the workshop, especially about detectors, which I must admit are things that I know less about than I'd like and certainly less than I should.  

This trip to Dublin marks the first overseas trip I've made since the birth of my second daughter, Alba.  With Flora, my first daughter, I'd got in the habit of sending a postcard every time I go abroad, and I realised as I walked into the tat shop that I'd need to buy, and write, an extra postcard.  So the tradition continues, and Alba's first postcard from the trips that Daddy makes abroad should soon be winging its way to her.  Of course, it'll arrive long after I see her later this evening...

I wanted to add a picture to this post, of something suitable.  I haven't taken a whole lot of pictures in Ireland, but here is one from the window of a bookshop selling books very cheaply.  I'm not so sure the word "mad" would be used in such a way in the UK these days, on account of the pains of real mental illness and not wanting to make light of it.  In any case, I couldn't help looking at that sign and internally reading it in Father Dougal's voice.  They've got mad prices, Ted!

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

New Year extra

I neglected to accompany the last post with any kind of non-text adornment.  Not even a picture of something festive.  Well, here is a song I like, by The Walkmen, called In The New Year;

Monday, 6 January 2014

Whoa! It's, like, 2014 already?

Hello faithful readers.  It's a little while since I posted, and any posts I composed in my head over the holiday period never made it online, partly thanks to a rare under-use of computers over the break, thanks in part to a broken laptop charger, and also to an adorable baby daughter.  I will try to catch-up in the following short paragraphs, though will no doubt forget some things

Happy 2014!  201410 = BBC13, so I'm calling this year BBC and switching to base 13 for the duration of it.

The size of the neutron skin in lead-208 continues to be a matter of interest across a few intersecting fields of nuclear physics, and I was interested to see a paper appear on the arxiv towards the end of last year from the Edinburgh group with a measurement of the neutron radius via pion photo production (= generating pions through photon interactions with the nucleus).  They got nice small error bars, though the analysis from the measured cross sections to the neutron skin thickness involves some model-dependence.  Nice paper, though.

The time between the start of the semester (early October) and Christmas was just about the busiest I have ever been with the day job.  I ended up getting into the office at 5 many days to get through things.  This was through a combination of all my yearly teaching allocation (aside from projects) being in one semester - including a new course - and partly through a couple of major admin deadlines to do, which included getting all our courses (re-)accredited by the Institute of Physics.   Just before Christmas the letter arrived with the confirmation that they all passed muster!  Hooray!  And to top it all, I have passed on the chair of the Board of Studies to my colleague, so congratulations to him.  Or me.

I'm going to India!  At the end of next month, there's a conference on nuclear fusion in New Delhi.  I sent in an abstract and learned just before Christmas that they will give me a talk.  I love India, and am excited to be going back.  My job allows for a reasonable amount of travelling, and I always enjoy going to new places.  There are some places I'm not so bothered about going back to, but India is one I don't imagine tiring of visiting.  

I have two other trips to meetings at which I'm talking before then.  To Abingdon in a couple of days for a community nuclear physics meeting.  It's in the Cosener's House, a pretty place owned by the  funding council.  It's licensed for civil weddings I see on the web page, so if I get married, I could always surprise my lucky partner by holding it in an STFC premises.  The next meeting after that is in Dublin, next week.  It's on "Physics with large arrays of novel scintillators" which is less rude that it sounds.  

The next meeting after those three is probably the one I am / should be organising in April.  It's the annual IoP nuclear physics group conference, and it's the responsibility of the group at Surrey to organise it.  Through various discussions with the IoP conference team, we've decided to go for the Selsdon Park Hotel in Surrey, famous for the moniker of Selsdon Man, not to be confused with Piltdown Man.  The conference venue is also a golf course, and Surrey golf courses are also famous dogging sites, as pointed out by one of my colleagues, so who knows what hilarity might ensue.

I was pleased to learn that my ex-student, who got his PhD last year, is back at Surrey to do a post-doc in the department (which also reminds me I should email him some comments to feed back to the referee on our most recent paper).

There were many good blog posts and some good news stories over the break about the expansion of the EU to allow the free travel of Bulgarians and Romanians into the UK.  I'm not going to try to link to them all now, but I did feel a similar sense of frustration as others to the the response of some of our press, and politicians to the situation.  Let me just add two things to much of the things that have been said.  (1) I think it is wrong on the one hand to promote the free movement of capital between countries but restrict the equivalent free movement of people.  It is putting the wrong freedom first, and (2) I work at a University at which there are already many Romanians and Bulgarians.  They can be here because of their skills, just like we have doctors etc from all over the world.  I think it is of dubious moral standing to plunder poor countries for their skilled people while turning others away.  This is generally what we do of course, and what the EU rules are forcing us to stop doing, at least for these two countries.