Thursday, April 30, 2009

Rubbish Collections

No, this is not a post about how complicated the recycling rules are here. This is a post about collections, the exams students take at the beginning of each term to make sure they learned everything the were supposed to learn in the previous term and to make sure that they have been studying over the break. So why do I title this post "Rubbish Collections" ? Because for many of the students, the collections they handed in were complete garbage or, as they say here "total rubbish" -- many students did not study over the break or prepare for the collections in any way whatsoever. Why not? Because they know that collections don't actually count. Since the only exams that count are given at the very end of the year, they can procrastinate doing any actual work until the very last minute... and some of them do.

To be honest, as a matter of principle, I'm all for procrastinating. In my one-day-to-be-written-book "The 9 habits of highly successful theoretical physicists", the first habit is "procrastinate like crazy". Many, if not most, of the successful theoretical physicists I know really do procrastinate. Why..? So they can free up time to think deeply about whatever topic they are working on. They procrastinate all the little stupid things that have to get done so they can focus on the really interesting stuff.

As for my students.. I had hoped that "the really interesting stuff" that they want to learn is physics. It seems that a few of the really motivated students really did put a lot of work in over the break trying to learn. But most did not. Some of them might actually be smart enough to be able to cram everything into their heads just before the final exam... but others... well, they are just asking for trouble.

(Yes, students are adults and if they want to screw up their education they have every right to do so. But it is painful to watch.)

In most American universities the final grade is some weighted average of quizzes, homeworks, and the final exam. Even if the final exam counts for most of the final grade, the fear of losing points in the final grade by bombing a quiz is usually enough to force students to study throughout the course. Right now it seems to me that there is a lot of merit to that idea.

While things around here can only be changed on geological time scales, winds have been blowing slowly in that direction of the American system. Not too long ago, the only exam that counted for a student was at the very end of their college career (talk about pressure!). Now they have exams that count once a year instead. Maybe in the future they will have exams that count once a term. In the meantime, I'm trying to think of some way to save the students from themselves.
Thursday, April 23, 2009

License to Kill?

This week the Fellows of the College conducted interviews for a new Principal of Somerville (more on this later). During this process there were many recollections of former Principals and their relative merits. While everyone is very fond of the soon-to-retire Principal, Dame Fiona, by far the most colorful, and perhaps the most popular in recent memory was Daphne Park, now Baroness Park of Monmouth.

Daphne Park does not look like James Bond – in fact her beady cosiness is more reminiscent of Miss Marple – but she was the true face of British Intelligence for the second half of the twentieth century. She served in the SOE (Special Operations Executive) during the Second World War, in Moscow during the Cold War, and in Hanoi during the Vietnam conflict. She smuggled men out of the Congo in the boot of her car (not an Aston Martin, but a 2cv), and became a senior controller for MI6, before moving on to become Principal of Somerville College, Oxford

Apparently she was exceedingly popular with the students and fellows alike because she would break open the brandy and whiskey at the drop of a hat. Then after a few, she would start telling crazy stories from her former life as a secret agent. At the time, her former career was officially classified, so everyone thought she was stretching the truth just a bit (although they still thought she was very entertaining)… but it turned out that all of the crazy stories were actually true.

You can find more about Baroness Park here and here and here.
Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Travel Misery

You would think that, being someone who travels a lot, I would know all the secrets and tricks of the savvy traveler. Sadly, no. This week, in fact, I fell into one of the traps that the airlines plant for unsuspecting travelers and I ended up getting home to Oxford about 12 hours delayed and extremely grumpy.

My first mistake was breaking one of the obvious rules of travel: always take a direct flight. Tempted by the much much lower cost of a connecting flight, I was supposed to take an afternoon hop from Newark to DC Dulles (United Express) and then catch an overnight flight (United International) to London Heathrow and be back at Oxford by 6am. The lower cost is great, but when things start to go wrong, a missed connection can add hours if not days to your travel time, as well as taking years off your life in stress.

Anyway, on the day of the flight there was some rain and the United connections from Newark to Dulles were all delayed. I got to the airport almost three hours early, but there was no room on any earlier United flight to Dulles so it looked likely I would miss Dulles-London, and there seemed to be no space on later flights because everyone was being bumped around due to the weather and open slots were already filled. The woman behind the desk said that there were several options

(1) Get to Dulles late and hope for standby on a later Dulles-London
(2) Just go home and have the ticket pushed to tomorrow
(3) A flight on Alitalia connecting through Rome that should get me to Heathrow only about four hours late.

Of these three option, (3) actually sounded like it was the best. I had meetings in Oxford that I really wanted to keep, and a four hour delay, while not optimal, sounded pretty good --- I would still be there in plenty of time. And so the woman behind the desk made the change.

And that was my second mistake.

Here’s the rub: Once the ticket is transferred to Alitalia, United has washed their hands of the situation. Options (1) and (2) vanish immediately. The ticket belongs to Alitalia, which has far fewer flights going to London. Although Alitalia was not admitting it at the time when we made the transfer of the ticket, their flight was going to be delayed too… which meant that I would miss my connection in Rome. As soon as I got to the Alitalia ticket counter, I knew I had made a mistake – and there was no way to fix the problem. Alitalia would not budge. They owned the ticket, and they would get me to London to make good on the ticket --- they just had no way to do it very efficiently. Going through Rome was not optimal to begin with, but now I was stuck with it, even though it was clear that I would miss the connection and then be stuck in Rome for quite a while longer.

I won't even bother to complain about not being able to sleep on the flight. I made it home to Oxford at about 7pm that day. 12 hours delayed. Grrr.

Next time I'll know better.
Saturday, April 18, 2009

My talk at station Q

Last week, I gave a talk at Microsoft station Q. In an earlier post, I mentioned that I was a bit afraid of giving this talk as the topic pushed rather deep into fields of mathematics that I have very little knowledge of. Here is a pretty picture from the talk.

(The picture was made with a public domain plotting program called POV-Ray which is very easy to use. I highly recommend it. It is to most graphics programs what LaTeX is to word processing.)

First of all, my apologies to many of the people who showed up to listen to the talk and felt that they were snowed by the relatively mathematical content. I had the talk calibrated for the station Q audience (people who are not afraid of mathematical words like "modular tensor category" and "Dehn surgery") and I did not expect it to be so well attended by more general physicists from outside of Q. Then, once the talk was prepared and in motion, I didn't know how to make it more user-friendly on the fly. I felt really badly about this: I personally hate it when a speaker talks to only a small subset of their audience. I find it annoying and rude, and I frequently walk out of such talks. So I feel badly that I was certainly doing exactly that. I promise to try to construct a more accessible version of this talk for the future. I think it is a pretty cool topic once you cut through the formalism just a bit.

OK, now for a brief description of the talk. The above pretty picture is a geometric construction known as “Chain Mail” invented by Justin Roberts in the mid 1990s. The rough idea is to get information about the 3 dimensional manifold of space you are living in. You break the manifold of space into cells (cubes in the picture) and you wrap a string around each plaquette of each cell (These are the longer darker strings) then you tie the strings together with other strings (the shorter lighter strings). Now view all these strings as a complicated knot (or more properly a link, since it is a knot with many strands). Then you evaluate a property of the knot such as its Jones polynomial, Kauffman invariant or the like. The result is independent of the details of the decomposition of space and gives you information about the structure of your manifold. In fact, it gives you precisely the so-called Turaev-Viro invariant (A theorem by Turaev and Walker tells us that this is the square of a Chern-Simons partition function. The theorem is proved in about three lines using the chain-mail construction). It turns out that this construction can also be shown to be equivalent to the Levin-Wen construction of topological lattice models -- the chain mail picture is interpreted as a 2+1 dimensional space-time diagram. This is what my talk was about. This equivalence gives you a very physical understanding of why the Levin-Wen construction ends up giving you a doubled (achiral) theory. (This work is collaboration with Fiona Burnell, who has been mentioned several times on this blog).

I had posted earlier that I was afraid that Mike Freedman or Kevin Walker would find some hole in my argument. They did indeed manage to find an error in the argument, but it turns out to be very minor and easily fixable. I had some good discussions with both of them after the talk and this made me think that perhaps we really did have something interesting to say.
I thought that after one term I knew most of the crucial Oxford terminology: Winter term is Hilary, spring is Trinity, Fall is Michaelmas. Magdalen college is pronounced “Mawdlen”, and I learned what “Desummoned” means here.

Then I got an email that completely baffled me “Please let me know if you need your collection invigilated”. Huh?

Well, “Collection” is the Oxford word for the exams that occur at the beginning of Hilary and Trinity to make sure that the students are learning what they are supposed to be learning and that they are studying over the break (collections do not really count on the student’s final record). “Invigilate”: I confess, I did not know this word, but indeed it is even in Webster’s (OED also includes this word, but that is not evidence of anything, since OED seems to list every bit of babble anyone has ever uttered).
in•vig•i•late \in-ˈvi-jə-ˌlāt\ verb in•vig•i•lat•ed; in•vig•i•lat•ing
Latin invigilatus, past participle of invigilare to stay awake, be watchful, from in- + vigilare to stay awake. First usage 1553

intransitive verb: to keep watch ; especially British : to supervise students at an examination. transitive verb: supervise, monitor
So there you have it. I’m not sure if this is standard British usage or if it is Oxbridge specific. (Any non-Oxbridge Brits want to comment?). I have to assume that the American analog “Proctor” would sound like an unpleasant medical procedure?
Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Experimental Progress --- Maybe

On the topic of station Q: Back in December I blogged about how we all want the station Q project to be a smashing success, so our field of science will prosper. I wrote in particular about two experimental efforts trying to observe “nonabelions” in nature. Last week, my collaborator, Woowan Kang (for entertainment, see this video of Woowan), gave a status report on his experiments at KITP. You can see it here if you like. I think this talk went over a bit better than the last time he tried to give it, back in December. At the very least there was a bit of statistical analysis and sanity checks on the data this time. I’m still can’t tell if he is seeing complete crap, or something very interesting. I’m both hopeful and fearful, but I’m trying to keep an open mind in the situation until the story is really solid one way or the other.

Simultaneously, there has been new data from Bob Willett back at the old Alcatel-Lucent ranch. You can see some of the data here. The data he showed in December is roughly v1 of this paper. There is additional data even more recent than v2 of the paper also which is not on the web. Again, the data is not completely solid one way or the other, although it is very suggestive. There has already been a theory paper here analyzing his data. However, there are some serious puzzles with the data too. Maybe that makes it even more interesting… or maybe that tells us that we are barking up the wrong tree. Stay tuned in the next few months/years for the stunning conclusion.
Monday, April 13, 2009

Finding my way

When I start work on a new scientific project, it is like arriving in a new city. At first everything is strange and frustrating. Then you start wandering around a bit. After a while, you come back to some point you have seen before and it makes you feel happy that you recognize something. So you start building a neighborhood of knowledge around one topic that you understand. Then maybe you take the subway somewhere else and start over again learning about another neighborhood. After a while the neighborhoods of knowledge grow and start to connect together and you get a perspective of what the whole city looks like. Eventually you feel like a native.

Of course*, it is always easier to build on your current knowledge, and not leave the comfortable city that you live in. But if you always do this, you get stagnant and end up too focused on minutia of your current specialty. So once in a while it is good to jump into the deep end and learn something really different

Is this a metaphor for my move across the ocean? I’ll leave that to the reader to decide.

But in truth, when I sat down to write this blog entry, I was thinking more on the scientific front. Over the last five or six years, with a fair amount of pain, I have delved into the rather mathematical field of topological field theories and conformal field theories. I had essentially no background in type of physics, and it was very hard going at first. Now, I am finally at the point where neighborhoods are starting to look familiar and, perhaps, I can think of myself as a native. Albeit one who still gets lost pretty often.

*footnote: Yes, of course, I know I use the phrase “of course” too often.