Monday, April 30, 2007

Time for work

This week the University of Glasgow has given me the task of keeping track of what I do and how long I do it for. Fortunately this only relates to research and teaching, so I wont be having to give a detailed account of absolutely everything e.g. this week I spent xx.xx hours on the toilet, xx.xx hours brushing my teeth, xx.xx hours pissing around on the internet (in my own time of course), etc. This Time Allocation Survey is part of the fairly new idea (for this university at least) of Full Economic Costing, whereby the university calculates the budgetary footprint of each member of staff - in theory allowing them to more accurately manage their accounts. For example my footprint doesn't just cover my salary (which in fact is payed for by PPARC/[now]STFC), but includes office space, equipment, pension, etc, which the university has to cover. But I also do things for the university like teaching, outreach, and (hopefully) making the university look good by putting out good research. All this together is taken into account. This week I think I will mainly be doing research.

Anyway, I'm not sure is blogging comes under research or teaching...

Friday, April 27, 2007

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Equality for all, except...

Tonight I caught the end of a party political broadcast by the Scottish Christian Party (next week across the UK there are local elections and in Scotland there are also elections for the Scottish Parliament.) Now the SCP seem to be an angry bunch, but I wasn't quite prepared for the comment that their leader, the Rev. George Hargreaves, said at the very end of the broadcast. Now one of the SCPs main bugbears seems to be the Equality Law that is soon to be introduced across the UK, with their particular attention being on the fact that it means you can't discriminate against someone due to their sexual orientation. Being Christian's you might think "how can they be against something that says everyone is equal?", because isn't that how God views people. Well they don't quite see it that way. The law is in fact an affront to all Christians and is in fact discriminatory against them! Yeah, right! Now I come to what the Rev. George said. He compared the introduction of the anti-discrimination law to the Nazi's introducing a law banning the preparation of Kosher food. And then went on to make the statement that pretty much suggested that, as the Nazi's followed up this law with the Holocaust, the UK Equality law would lead to a similar fate for Scottish Christians! Comparing a piece of anti-discrimination policy to events that led to the Holocaust is really fucked up. Not that I was ever considering "placing my cross by their cross" (their slogan for how you should vote), but these guys will most definitely not be getting my vote!

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Down and out in Vicarage Road

It's finally happened. The inevitable has come to pass. With three games of the season to go Watford have become the first team to be relegated from the Premiership.

It's been fairly obvious through the season that we've not been of the same calibre as the majority of the teams in the top flight, but there've been a fair few games where we've shown plenty of spirit and fight (unfortunately goals are what they use as the arbiter of things in football matches - when will they learn!). In many games we just couldn't hold onto our lead, or clean sheet when the games were in the closing minutes. Ultimately our players weren't good enough despite our manager, Aidy Boothroyd's, always upbeat assessments of things.

What do we come away with from this season. Well the players will have gained some experience for when we go up again, but experience isn't always the best substitute for skill. Mainly we'll have come out of this season with lots of money. Aidy's been very frugal in his spending, and we made a job load of cash from selling Young to Aston Villa, so we're sitting on a whole wad of cash which should be of a lot of benefit in the Championship.

Hopefully next season, in our more natural surroundings of the Championship, they'll be a few more wins I can cheers on. Unfortunately I wont be able to watch any of them on TV. (It looks like Luton are going to League one, so they'll be no M1 derby next year.)

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The last post (from the APS)

This will be my last post from the APS meeting. I'll just take a moment comment on a few more of the talks I've seen.

One of the most entertaining talks of the meeting was on Selling Physics to Unwilling Buyers given by Lawrence Krauss (of The Physics of Star Trek fame). Krauss is well known for his public understanding of science work and is very good at it due to his enthusiasm and understanding of the problems that the general public have with science. He doesn't shy away from saying that the vast majority of people think that science is dull, difficult and that scientists are untrustworthy. But he thinks that the apprehensions are things that you can get past by showing science in its true light. We need to show that science isn't some abstract thing that has no impact on people's lives, but is in fact integral to pretty much every area of life, and basic science is in fact easy to demonstrate and understand. Also people need to be shown that by applying the basics of scientific, or experimental principles, they are able apply a better filtering of ideas or views that are obvious crap from those which have a weight of evidence. I can't do justice to all the things he said here, but the main new thing I came away with was that I should use more video clips in public talks.

At the moment I'm sitting in the morning plenary talks session and have heard a couple of very good talks. The first talk was by Jacqueline Hewitt from MIT and was about looking from a 21 cm background from neutral Hydrogen in the dark ages. The 21 cm line (the wavelength of the electromagnetic wave) is a radio frequency emission line from neutral Hydrogen (i.e. an electron bound to a proton), and the dark ages represent a period in the universe between the production of the CMBR (i.e. the time at which protons and electrons first are able to stay bound within Hydrogen atoms, without being disassociated by the radiation field) and the reionisation of that Hydrogen by radiation from the first stars after they form. I'd not really heard much on this subject before and was very interested to here about the methods for going about trying to detect this emission. I'll keep an eye on this stuff in the future as they should be able to learn a lot about structure formation in the early universe from such observations.

The next talk in the plenary session was about global warming by James Hansen - I think it's probably more useful to hear this stuff from a scientist who works on the subject than from Al Gore. I've never really been confronted (or looked out myself) the evidence for human induced global warming, so this talk was very enlightening. He showed how the Earth's climate (temperature, sea levels, greenhouse gas levels) has fluctuated by large amount over periods of hundred of thousands of years and the reasons for this. The main point being that these changes are very gradual and the feedback mechanisms of the Earth take a long time to respond to them, whereas now the man-made release of greenhouse gases is well over and above natural level and the planet can't deal with these as part of the natural long term trends. The idea that short term variations in the solar flux have lead to the current warming don't seem to hold up much weight after you've seen the long term trends. He proposed many of the main ideas to deal with energy consumption and emission problems, but obviously these need governments to introduce proactive policies or nothing will get done.

Anyway I need to make a move and head to the airport soon. Next post will be back from blighty.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Hair brained

In some physics related hair news, top Caltech GR theorist Kip Thorne has decided to emulate a black hole and have 'no hair' (really sorry about the black-hole physics based joke.) I saw him wandering about at the APS meeting the other day and he'd completely removed his famous ponytail!

More science news

Other interesting talks I saw yesterday involved dark matter and GR.

In this dark matter session I saw a talk on Noble liquid dark matter detectors and axion detection. The talk on Noble liquid dark matter detectors was by Richard Gaitskell of Brown University. This man is the most English man ever! He puts Hugh Grant to shame. The talk was littered with many utterances of "Damn!" and general foppish bumbling, in the endearingly charming way that only a true Englishman can pull off. It was an entertaining talk describing the how you can look for neutron recoils caused by WIMPs (a term for a variety of dark matter candidates) within various Noble gas detectors. The other talk in this session that I saw was about axion detection by Dave Tanner of the University of Florida (who some of us at Glasgow, and within the gravitational wave community will know). The axion is another dark matter candidate. It was proposed as a solution to the CP problem in various weak interactions (you expect interactions to be symmetric i.e. if you take a reaction and mirror it [swap the charges, parities and directions of the particles involved] then you expect things to look the same, but there are certain interaction involving the weak force where charge conjugation and parity are not symmetric [imagine walking towards a mirror, but your reflection moves away from the mirror - that would be a strongly broken symmetry]). You can't detect the axion itself, but it will decay into two photons although with a decay time much greater than the age of the universe. If you want to try and detect this decay you have to induce the decay. The talk was about the axion detector ADMX, which aims to detect axions forming a cold dark matter halo around the Milky Way. It does this by using a microwave cavity to try and induce the axions to decay. One of the most interesting ideas talked about was a future plan to generate and detect axions using optical cavities within large magnetic fields. You create axions from the photon field on one side of a wall, this axions flow through the wall and are then converted back to photons on the other side - you essentially are "shining light through a wall"! It was very interesting.

The final talk I saw yesterday was a nice historical perspective on the development and use of General Relativity. It was a very entertaining talk, with lots of anecdotes, which showed that even the great minds who worked on the foundations of GR could make mistakes.

Later today I give my own talk, so I should give it a run through at some time to make sure I can stay on time (I've only got 10 minutes).

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Science report

In a shock to all my loyal reader's I'm going to talk about science and comment on some of the talks I've seen here at the APS meeting. Yesterday afternoon I went to a talk given by Geoff Burbidge of Burbidge, Burbidge, Fowler and Hoyle (or B2FH as it is commonly referred to in the astronomy community) fame - this was one of the seminal works on stellar nucleosynthesis i.e. the creation of heavy elements within stars. The paper was published in 1957 so Burbidge was giving a lecture in a session dedicated to the anniversary of it. As you'll probably gather from the paper being 50 years old Burbidge himself is getting on a bit. He's originally English, but has lived in the US for many years and has an accent that fluctuates between the two as he talks. The start of his talk was a good historical perspective of his field, which is always interesting to here from one of the people who was around at it's very start. However, for the majority of the talk he moved onto discussing his many problems with current cosmology. You see he is one is the dwindling minority (a fact he indeed joked about) who, like his more famous co-author Fred Hoyle, still hold onto some form of a steady state universe. Part of his theory relies on the CMB being explained by the synthesis of Helium from Hydrogen, rather than from the hot fireball Big Bang model. Although he makes his points well, some of his conclusions do seem to be rather clutching at straws to hold onto a model that pretty much all evidence points against. It was a very entertaining talk in all.

Today I have seen some very nice talks on the proposed Dark energy missions SNAP, Destiny and ADEPT. The first talk was by Saul Perlmutter, the lead author on the original Supernova cosmological acceleration results (supernova observations seemed to show that the universe is currently undergoing an accelerating expansion caused by an as yet unknown dark energy). He gave a very nice, and understandable, overview of the scientific objectives of SNAP (Supernova Acceleration Probe). Another of the talks was by Daniel Eisenstein of the University of Arizona describing the science objectives of ADEPT, which goes about the dark energy problem in a rather difference way that the supernova observations. This is instead looking for Baryon Acoustic Oscillations (BAO). This requires looking at the large scale distribution in space of galaxies at different redshifts. Now my knowledge of BAOs was very limited before this talk, but it was all very well explained and I came out feeling quite well informed on the subject. It basically says that there should be a naturally preferred distance scale between galaxies set down by the speed of sound propagation, and therefore matter density propagation, in the early universe. You look for these preferred scales by looking at the distribution of galaxies, and indeed they are seen. I shouldn't be too enthusiastic about these missions though as they're in direct competition against the gravitational wave mission LISA for being the first Beyond Einstein mission to be funded - of course it would be nice if they could all be done.

I also saw a talk this morning by a promising young physicist by the name of Jennifer Watson, of the University of Edinburgh, but currently working at SLAC. I learned all about the B → k*ll decay process and how you can distinguish it from the charmonium decay. Fascinating stuff ;)

More news tomorrow maybe.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Jacksonville landing

Last night I decided to have a look around the area outside my hotel in Jacksonville. I ended up in the Jacksonville Landing - a selection of bars, clubs and restaurants surrounding a circular open area with a fountain and stage. The Landing overlooks the St. John river and has a nice friendly feel to it. The weather was perfect for sitting around outside enjoying the surroundings and doing a bit of people watching. The stage had a couple of bands playing and I sat down for a few beers to listen to them. The music was generally a selection of cover band standards like Brown Eyed Girl, but the second band (called the Mystery Band) did throw up one rather random song when they played Groove is in the Heart by Dee-lite (with a slide whistle used for certain musical effects) - it was interesting.

Radio free football

My first post from the APS meeting is being made whilst listening to the Watford - Man Utd FA Cup game (we're 1-0 down at the moment, boooo) on my laptop. I've spent much of this morning looking into ways of listening to UK radio stations while I'm using a US proxy address. I found this handy list of web proxy's through which I've been able to listen to certain BBC radio stations (I could here Trevor Nelson on Radio 1 fine) - although, very annoyingly, BBC Radio 5 live and BBC Three Counties, which are broadcasting the match, aren't connecting properly (maybe due to overload of listeners!). Instead I'm listening via the Man Utd website, which is broadcasting the Century FM commentary, and doesn't actually care where in the world my IP address is. I was going to try the Watford website, but it required payment. (GOAAALLLLLLLLLLL! - Bouazza just equalised, get in!) I did try and find somewhere (fuck, fuck, fuck - Man U just went back in front with a Ronaldo goal) to watch the game by going to the local Hooters (I've never been into a Hooters before - honest - but the outfits the girls wear are actually hideous). I asked the manager if they were able to show the game and he consulted a list of all sports being played, which did contain the match (result, I thought), but because it was Pay-per-view they weren't going to be showing it (damn).

Soon I should actually work out what sessions of this meeting I'm going to attend this afternoon.

[The dream is over, we've lost 4-1 :( So long Wembley!]

Friday, April 13, 2007

Leaving on a jet plane... back next Wednesday

I'm now just under 7 and a half hours from leaving for my latest work related trip to Florida. I'm again flying Continental via Newark airport, but hopefully things will be a bit less stressful than last time! I've packed, gathered all my shit together (passport - check, tickets - not needed, cos it's all e-tickets these days!, US power adapter - check) and booked the taxi for early in the morning, so all's good.

I'll probably post from the APS meeting (which is what I'm going to be attending - this is no holiday ;-)) and will maybe even have some physics news from there! I might also be spending a large part of tomorrow night scouting out potential FA Cup football watching venues (apparently it's being shown on Setanta 2, so I just need to find a bar with a subscription - should be easy!) Anyway, I might attempt some sleep before my flight, so goodnight UK.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

T-minus one month and counting

So it's now exactly one month before people will get to hear the reality of what our band(s) sound(s) like! Echoing what I wrote in a previous post - just to drill the date and venue home to everyone - we're playing on Friday 11th May at the Research Club. The tension for my bandmates and I is surely going to rise considerably over the coming weeks and we're going to be practicing like demons to get everything sounding tight, but it should be worth it. No pressure!

Right, I must get home to do some of that practicing I mentioned.

Sunshine on an overcast day

Posted from Phys. Rev. X:

Sunshine is a new sci-fi film directed by Danny "Trainspotting" Boyle and written by Alex "The Beach" Garland and last night some of us went to see it. The flim follows crew of a second attempted mission to reignite the Sun, which has (for a probably best unexplained reason) stopped working properly. As a bunch of (astro)physicists (including one solar physicist) going to see a film about the Sun dying, naturally we're going to find a few holes to pick in the science, but mainly we were just hoping to see a good film. I could write a very long post with all the factual problems with the science in the film, but being factually correct isn't the main point of most popular sci-fi as the setting is just frame on which you hang the film. The main point of the film was to focus on the psychological effects on the crew as they passed into the zone where the intense solar radiation meant that communication home was no longer possible - wait a minute this zone appeared to start outside the orbit of Mercury, but we can easily recieve signals from there! No, I mustn't start on the nitpicking - and also how they dealt with being humanity's "Last, best hope" (Babylon 5 anyone) for salvation.

As far as eye candy went the special effects were great. We were treated to many majestic views of the spaceship, the Icarus 2, backdropped by the tremendous, yet terrifying and mighty, Sun. The film ramped up the level of crazy throughout, and this was generally well acted. There was a fair bit of distorted camera effects and angles, and mildly subliminal images towards the end of the film, which didn't, for me, enhance the film or serve any purpose. You were left more with a feeling of "What!?" than "oooooohh...aaaaaaahh..." at the end.

Overall I enjoyed the film as an entertaining spectacle, but was left rather flat by it. I wasn't really moved by any of the characters to care about any of them. I wasn't even particularly bothered about the success or failure of their mission considering its grand goal was trying to save all of mankind. Sunshine didn't give you the all out action and fun of something like Armageddon, which serves it's purpose as a bit of fluff sci-fi very well, but it also didn't give you the darkness, or real psycho craziness of something like Event Horizon. It sat somewhere inbetween and didn't quite satisfy. A modern film that does the etherial, going a bit mad, aspects of space quite well is Solaris, which just lulls you and kind of washes over you (that said I watched it on a plane, so was fairly spaced out myself) as it doesn't try to give you a big heroic saving mankind theme. But if you want proper sci-fi of the kind that this was trying to be then you can't beat a bit of 2001.

Monday, April 09, 2007

(Almost) gone, but not forgotten

I'd completely forgotten about the Premiership football fixtures today until I had a look at the BBC website just now. It seems that, after their dismal performance on Saturday, Watford have pulled off a win, beating Portsmouth 4-2. And we scored four goals in one match! It's pretty amazing considering up until today we'd only managed a grand total of 20 goals in 32 matches.

We've five matches to go before the end of the season and I think the only possible chance of top flight survival is if we win all of them - and even then it would probably be a very close run thing! However, this is probably about as likely as me winning the lottery jackpot 44 times in a row, being inundated with marriage proposals from the world's top supermodels, and finding that my next door neighbour is Elvis. A man can dream though! Which would I want more though,Watford to stay up or the rest... ;)

Our next focus is Saturday's match against Man Utd in the FA Cup semi-final. Winning this is just slightly more probable than us staying up. Unfortunately I'm going to be in Jacksonville, Florida at the time of the game. I'm not holding out much hope of finding somewhere to watch the game, but I'm definitely going to try.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Get your skates on

Last year I wrote about about my return to roller skating and how I'd try to keep it up. This didn't really happen and my skating venture was a rather one off affair. However, the recent good weather inspired adren-junk and me to grab our skates (although she does have blades!) and get out into the park for a bit of rolling around. The other day we gathered together a group of friends, a sk8er cru if you will, and set off to Kelvingrove Park. Some of the cru were dissing my skates and their hypercool hockey socks, but they're just not old skool enough!

As ever I was a bit tentative to start with, but the skates soon became like extensions of my feet - well not quite, but things did improve over the course of the afternoon. It was also fun to have other people there to skate with, despite there only being two pairs of skates between the group. This has also encouraged other people to buy some skates to (ellielabelle, nimoloth). Hopefully this will be incentive for me to keep the skating up this time round.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Rush hour

Copied from my post at Phys. Rev. X:

Yesterday evening a new sketch show was shown on BBC3 - well according to the website it was first shown on 19th March, but I first noticed it last night. BBC3 sketch shows can be a bit hit and miss (generally miss) as they'll put out almost anything until they hit upon a winning formula with something decent that they can then go and push big time onto BBC2 (or the golden realm of BBC1), a la Little Britain. This new show is called Rush Hour and it features a few of fairly recognisable comedians, e.g. Adam Buxton (of Adam and Joe fame) and Frankie Boyle, plus many who I've never seen before. One of it's writers is Charlie Brooker, who's a regular Guardian columnist as has written on things like Brass Eye and Nathan Barley - a fairly good pedigree. As I said above, BBC3 (in fact pretty much any) sketch shows can be fairly dire for the most part, with the occasional one or two funny sketches per show. Rush Hour was a pleasant surprise. As the title may suggest the sketches focus around people driving to work, or on the school run, say, during rush hour. In the one show I've seen there was a good variation between the characters, and they were also fairly fresh i.e. they mainly weren't rehashes of characters from other TV sketch shows (with one major exception of the lecherous boss character, who just seemed very familiar). The comic acting was at a fairly high standard, with the one sketch including Frankie Boyle as a policeman driving his young daughter and a classmate to school, being particularly well done. But the most important thing was that it was funny. There was nothing side-splittingly hilarious, but it was all good quality comedy, with no moments when you had to cringe and wonder why someone though a particular sketch would be a good idea.

I'll watch next week to see if anything starts to really annoy me. If two episodes have been decent enough then it might be onto a winner - with me at least.

Literary surprise

I've never come across a book that suddenly turns into a musical before. That is until I read a specific chapter of Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver last night. All was normal until a sleep deprivation, but mainly syphilis, induced psychosis (the character in the books, not mine!), brought about a veritable Les Miserables style song and dance, including extras galore consisting of dancing skeletons, priests, slaves and fishwives! I'll write a proper review of the book when I've finished it, but I really recommend people read it.