Saturday, October 27, 2012

Late One Night at King's Cross

Now tell me this isn't real...
Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Awesome things from East Germany

The old state of East Germany is famous for a lot of things that are not very pleasant  --- the secret police, or Stasi, comes to mind as being the worst the country had to offer (the movie "The Lives of Others"  or "Das Leben der Anderen" gives an idea of how the Stasi operated --- it is a frightening but wonderful film).  Despite the bad things of the old east, one is forced to also admit that some very great things came from East Germany as well.  Some people are even nostalgic for the old East German times --- thus coining the modern German portmanteau "Ostalgie"  (from Ost, meaning East, and Nostalgia). 

Even from a western perspective there are some unquestionably awesome things that were produced by East Germany.  Katarina Witt, perhaps the most popular ice skater ever, comes immediately to mind.   A bit more obscure, but certainly just as awesome, is the legendary Ampelmann: the hat-sporting character on East German pedestrian traffic lights.  The Ampelmann has now achieved cult status ---  with entire stores in Germany devoted  to selling products, such as tee-shirts, bearing his likeness  (you can also order Amplemann products on the web, here). 

File:Ampelmann.svgHere are closeups of the Amplemann in his two possible poses. 

And in these two photos below, I have crossed a street in Berlin at the kind direction of the Amplemann. 

Now to finish off this blog post, I think it would be entirely appropriate to post photos of Katarina Witt.  My younger brother is a big fan (he just loves Olympic skating) and I thought that maybe, if I post some pictures of her, he might actually read my blog. 

This is Katarina Witt in her gold-medal-winning Carmen routine from the 1988 Olympics in Calgary (she also won gold in 1984 in Sarajevo).  I remember watching that performance.  She was stunning (here is a video of it, or here).  She also earned some international cred by being completely unimpressed with famed slalom gold-medalist and lady's man Alberto Tomba.  After he declared publicly that he would woo her at the Olympics, her only response was "I don't think he knows very much about figure skating."
And this is Ms. Witt, a few years later, and off the ice.    She certainly looks a lot better than Alberto Tomba. 
Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Death Star?

This picture on the left appears to be the reactor core of the Death Star.  Looking down into the hot blue nuclear furnace, this reminds me of the scene where Obi-Wan has to disable the tractor beam so that the Millennium Falcon can escape the clutches of the evil empire (shown on the right).  

Actually the picture on the left is not really from Star Wars.  It is a photo from the inside of the Reichstag Dome in Berlin looking down into the debating chamber of the Bundestag below.   The blue things are the seats of the Bundestag.  

The symbolism of the dome, which is open to tourists, is that the people should always remain above the government.  And the futuristic design is supposed to symbolize that Germany is moving into the future away from its ugly past.  (These interpretations are gleaned from Wikipedia.   I am not wise enough to be able to interpret architecture on my own.)  

While I like the idea of having such symbolism, you might think the architect, Norman Foster, might have designed something that looked a bit less like the inside of the Death Star (he also designed London's futuristic Gherkin).   On my visit to the Reichstag Dome, I half expected R2D2 to come running around the corner at any moment. 

And in this photo, my friend Sabine is contemplating making a jump to the control tower so that the X-wing fighters of the Rebel Alliance can escape the tractor beam.

May the Force be with her!

Added: How could I have mentioned the death star without posting a link to this:
Sunday, October 7, 2012

Getting Your Degree

If you come from an American school you are probably used to the idea that graduation occurs once per year on some random weekend day in May or June, during which the college town overflows with family and friends.

But this is not how it works at Oxford.  There are something like a dozen degree ceremonies per year.  Once you have been given permission to graduate (or if you are a DPhil, it is called "leave to supplicate", which strictly speaking means, "permission to beg" for your degree), you then have the right to sign up for a ceremony.   This can be shortly after you finish, or could be many years later.   It is not at all unusual for people to return to Oxford to finally collect a degree they earned twenty or more years ago.

In September, a whole bunch of my recently finishing undergraduate students decided to collect their degrees together.   This most excellent bunch, having (most of them) started four years ago this week and finished this past June, is the first set of students who I have seen through from their first year to their last. So I admit that I am particularly attached to them.    I came to the ceremony just to wish them well, and of course, to take their pictures!

.. and here they are!

Apologies for the fact that some of the pictures are not great.   Extra points if you can spot the portrait of Mary Somerville, the namesake of our college.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Nice Optics

One thing that is actually nice about all the light drizzle around here is that you get quite a few good rainbows. (For those who might not recognize it, that is Keble College on the right and the Clarendon lab of the physics department straight ahead). 
Just as I was taking this photo my colleague John Chalker came up behind me and said "Don't let anyone see you doing that, or they might force you to teach optics!"  

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Nobel Bets 2012

It is that time of year again when the brightest of the brightest lie awake at night wondering whether they will get that elusive call from Stockholm.  For the rest of us, it is that time of year when we place our bets and take our chances.

Official betting odds have the Higgs boson as the heavy favorite.  See the official odds here.  The odds stand at roughly 1 in 3 that the prize will be somehow related to the Higgs.  Although at least seven people have some possibility of being included in this prize, the favorite combination appears to be Higgs and Englert. 

That said, betting odds are not everything.   The betting odds for Bob Dylan winning the literature prize are now almost 1 in 10.   However, these odds have apparently been artificially pushed up by many people who like the idea of putting their money on the rebellious bard.   (Still, Murukami remains the odds-on favorite for literature).

So do I think Higgs will win the prize?  Yawn.  Yes, I think that is probably the best bet for this year.     (The atlantic monthly says it is a sure thing). 

Reuters, however,  is betting against the Higgs.  They have listed three alternatives here.

1. Photoluminescence in Porous Silicon, Leigh T.  Canham.   Yawn.   Yes, this started a big field, and has been cited many times.  I just don’t think it is interesting enough.  

2. Slow Light, Steven Harris and Lena Hau.  Yeah, this was pretty cool.  And it would be very nice to have another woman physics Nobel Laureate.   But again, I somehow don’t think this is a likely one.

3. Quantum Teleportation, Charles H. Bennett, Gilles Brassard, and William K. Wootters.  This one is interesting, and potentially possible.  But I think it is slightly the wrong combination.  The teleportation paper was 1993 --- and it had seven authors.  I would instead choose Quantum Cryptography (which came first by many years) and award the prize to Bennet and Brassard (for their 1984 paper) along with Stephen Wiesner, for work in the early 1970s which had some of the key ideas in it.  In some ways the ideas that these guys were working on in the 70's and 80's really launched the quantum information field.   (Also Wiesner is an interesting character --- a bit of a hermit genius.)   

I still have my money on Higgs, but the quantum option an interesting one.

And who else should be on the list?   

For a number of years I've been saying Michael Berry for the famous "Berry Phase".  Yes, I know there were several previous discoveries of Berry Phase before Berry, but no one really nailed the issue  the same way that Berry did.    A possible combination (and one I'd really like to see) with Berry would be David Thouless.   I used to think Yakir Aharonov would be a good combination with Berry until I found out about this paper by Ehrenberg and Siday which was ten years before Aharonov-Bohm and has basically the same result.

Another one that no one besides me seems to think is likely is the discovery of neutrino mass by the Super-K collaboration.  I guess the problem there is that it is not clear which person (or people) would get the prize.  It is certainly deserving though.

Anyone else have opinions?

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Shrunken Heads and Other Fun Things

When the British Empire spanned the globe, one thing they liked to do was to collect things from the outer reaches of the known world.   Lieutenant-General (pronounced "Left-tennant" here)  Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt Rivers  was particularly good at collecting things wherever he traveled.    His collection of, well, what his mother must have thought was complete junk, formed the basis of what became Oxford's Pitt River's (and natural history) museum.

While there are many many strange things in this museum, probably the most bizarre is the collection of shrunken heads or tsantas.     Here is one of the best looking of the collection   In case you can't read it, the sign behind it says "Scalp of an enemy painted red on the inside.  The holes round the edges indicate it has been stretched on a hoop --- N. American Indian"

They make these by removing the skin from the skull and then steaming the skin until it shrinks down to a tiny size.   Yuck.

Here is a photo of some more shrunken heads, this time with my hand in the photo so you get a size of how small they are.  The small guy on the bottom reminds me a bit of my brother when he is making his "vulture face".   It is hard to believe (and it is rather disgusting to think) that these were once people!

The museum is just filled with crazy stuff from all over the world.     If you've read the recent best-seller "Remarkable Creatures" by the author of "Girl with a Pearl Earring", you will be excited to know that many of the things collected by Mary Anning are in this museum as well. 

For those who have not read the book --- don't worry there is a movie being made.   If you can't wait for the movie,  Mary Anning was a fossil hunter in the 1800's who discovered some of the very first dinosaurs.  And although she was working class,  a spinster (a woman, for that matter), and not very well educated, she overturned the scientific establishment and became the world expert on fossils.  On the left are some of her smaller finds (The tag above says "Teeth of Large Marine Reptiles")

Among the other things they have in this museum is a huge collection of minerals.   I tried to get some good photos for my upcoming solid state physics book (very very close to done now!) but it turns out to be very hard to get nice photos of a rock.

The museum has a grand central hall filled with large dinosaur skeletons, large animal skeletons, stuffed animals, a stuffed (now extinct) dodo bird and countless other strange beasts.

On the particular day I visited the museum, two other animals were on display:


These are my parents.