Sunday, June 28, 2009

Finally Fractional

News flash from Lucca Italy. Eva Andrei (Rutgers) announced that finally she has seen fractional quantum Hall effect in graphene. I had heard a rumor that she had seen this and was just about ready to make it public, but I expected it to be rather ratty data. But it was exactly the opposite – the data was absolutely clean. Gaps seemed to be in the 20K range, more or less as expected (an order of magnitude bigger than in GaAs because of the dielectric constant). Kudos to her. People were starting to wonder why on earth no one had been able to do this. It is not that easy, but once you know a trick or two… pretty soon everyone will be able to do it. We witnessed an important scientific milestone. No question about it.

On hand for this announcement were two people who already have Nobel prizes for discoveries in quantum Hall physics: Klaus von Klitzing and Dan Tsui, two of the founding fathers of our field. Horst Stormer was invited to the conference too, but I gather he is trying to take the word “retirement” seriously. Actually, it is rather rare to have Dan and Klaus in the same room – because Dan hardly ever travels. Turns out he showed up to this conference because he has a son-in-law in Italy and wanted an excuse to visit. It was a real treat to listen to him give a talk though.

(PS: I'm not suggesting that this new discovery will win a Nobel prize. But it is a big step nonetheless)

When will I learn?

When will I learn?

Once again, I find myself stuck in the Rome Fiumicino airport. Why? Because Alitalia has very few flights to London. So when my flight from Pisa was delayed (and perhaps I should have expected as much) and I missed my flight back to Heathrow, I was stuck for quite a while --- inconveniently long, but not really long enough to be able to go into Rome and look around. You would think, being that I found myself in this position less than three months ago, I might be a bit of a more savvy traveler by this time. Alas, I never learn.

Rule 1: Always take direct flights

Rule 2: If violating rule 1, do not take Alitalia.

Rule 3: You do not talk about fight club


Here's a simple multiple choice quiz. Which do you think took longer:

(a) Flying from Santa Barbara California home to Oxford on United Airlines with a layover in San Francisco, total distance 5425 miles

(b) Flying from Pisa Italy home to Oxford on Alitalia with a layover in Rome, total distance 774 miles

(c) They both took the same amount of time

I'll give you a hint. I am really annoyed with Alitalia this morning.


And while we are on the subject of great service from the airlines, I heard the following announcement in the airport:

“Attention please, if anyone needs a wheelchair, please come up to the front desk."

I couldn't make this stuff up.

Ahhh... Pasta!

For years, one of the stops on my physics conference circuit was the Villa Gualino in Turino, a huge resort complex with views of the Alps when the smog of the industrial city cleared. The building had a simple cafeteria with a nice view which provided food, and a bar where we were served coffee between lectures, and beer at night. One of the most memorable components of visits to the Villa Gualino were the people who worked there. The young man at the bar frowned in disapproval if anyone ordered a cappuccino after 11am, and smiled approvingly if you drank espresso and wanted to watch the world cup on the bar TV. His girlfriend worked in the cafeteria, and spoke very little English. Every day at lunch and dinner there was a choice of meat or pasta: “Meat?… or Pasta?” was about the extent of her knowledge of the English language. If you chose the pasta she would smile and say “Ahhhhh!… Pasta!” as if your choice both made her happy and indicated that you were a person of high character as evidenced by your choice. Once I tried to ask her what kind of meat was on the menu. It took me quite a while to have my question understood, but when she did understand, she insisted it was elephant. I think this was the only animal name she knew in English. I had the pasta – which made her happy.

For some reason my field of physics has not had a meeting at the Villa Gualino in many years. But this week’s visit to the Villa Guinigi outside of Lucca Italy reminded me of the “Ahhhhh… Pasta” girl. Pasta was served for every meal except breakfast – and it was terrific – not the plain dried and boiled stuff you usually get – and much better even than the non-dried gourmet stuff you can sometimes get at the expensive supermarkets. I have no idea what they do to make the stuff have the perfect texture that it does – but I really want to find out (being that pasta still remains a staple of my diet, I might as well learn how to cook it right).

Don’t even get me started about how you can get a terrific bottle of wine in Italy for about 2 euro.
Wednesday, June 17, 2009

An Opinion on How Science Works

I've always thought that there are really two types of people in the
productive physics community. There is a very very very small set of people who generate 95% of all the really meaningful progress. Then the rest of us are trying to pick up the pieces and help the leaders make progress by pushing here or there on some ideas that really come from the leaders anyway -- maybe extending this or examining that. It is not that we are being useless, in fact some of the stuff the rest of us do is pretty cool also, but we are more like support staff helping the truly brilliant.

In a bicycle racing team there are riders called "domestiques" who ride only for the sake of the overall team – they do nothing but keep up with the pack so they can cut the wind in front of the team leader and hand him water when he needs it. Their entire job in life is to assist the real leader - who then breaks away to win at the end. I think the vast majority of the theory community are more like domestiques. (Anyone who knows more about cycling can clarify.)

I tried out this analogy on Eva Silverstein, an official genius by the auspices of the MacArthur committee (Her typically modest comment on winning a MacArthur was “the whole thing was kind of ridiculous”). Anyway, Eva said, "yes, but…" as compared to biking the final result is not scripted. There is always a chance that you will be the one to make the next really big breakthrough. I guess that is what keeps it exciting for all of us.
Sunday, June 14, 2009

Fraud 3

I've already blogged about this before, so I will be brief. I just read the review of Plastic Fantastic in this Nature Article, by Martin Blume. Dr. Blume is pretty critical of the book. A few choice quotes from this review:
"Although some interviewees are mentioned, we do not learn which experts' views contributed the most."
"She tends to describe issues in black-and-white terms"
"It is unfortunate that Reich did not draw fairer conclusions, despite her hard work in reporting the facts."
Saturday, June 13, 2009

Oxford Tour - RC1

Way back in February, I had this blog entry about playing tourist around Oxford. I think that was my "beta" attempt at an Oxford tour. Recently, my parents came to visit and they got the improved Oxford tour RC1. (If you don't know what RC1 means, you are not enough of a geek. It suffices to say that RC1 is one better than beta). Here are some of the cool photos from touring around with my parents.

The tour of Oxford now starts in my dining room. Don't let it fool you... this is the cleanest corner of the house (See comments here about how messy I am). The four stacked chairs are Somerville college standard issue stacking chairs and the darker wooden table is also Somerville college standard issue. I have six more chairs and another table exactly like this in my college office (I think these chairs and are destined to be returned to the college soon, but I kind of like the table).

This is me standing outside of my flat or "terraced" as they say. The wooden door is mine. The two windows (first and second floor) between me and the bike are mine also. The bike is not mine. The large green garbage bin is mine. This should not be confused with the small green bin, or the small blue bin, or the green garbage bag, or... (See my post here for detailed discussion of recycling rules in Oxford).

OK, now on to the real tour of Oxford.

This is a nice view of Christ Church college founded by Cardinal Wolsey and refounded by King Henry VIII. In case it isn't obvious, this is one of the filthy rich colleges (See my discussion here about rich versus filthy).

Did I mention that my parents took all of these pictures? I'm a horrid photographer.

From here we go inside Christ Church to the great Hall where the students actually eat their formal dinners.
That's my mom walking away from the camera with the backpack on. The paintings on the side walls are of all sorts of famous people who are associated with the college one way or the other. The biggest painting is of King Henry.

Here is a closeup of the table setting for the next meal.
That's me in the background on the right (kind of hard to see in the dark). You can see the picture of Henry a bit better from here.

The really cool thing about the great Hall (besides it being 400+ years old, being founded by a king, and blah blah blah) is that many scenes from the Harry Potter movies were filmed there. Here is one of them. Don't ask me how they digitally change it from what you see above to what you see on the screen --- I have no idea. Just because I'm a complete Harry Potter FanClub Geek, I'll give you one more photo from the film -- this one featuring the film's best actor -- the sorting hat. . Oh... and that is Maggie Smith in the background (obviously) playing Minerva McGonagall.

Since all of Oxford was a religious institution at one time, most of the old colleges have elaborate chapels. Christ Church is a bit special though because, as I understand it, the Christ Church college was built around the chapel. The chapel itself was built to commemorate Oxford's patron Saint --- Saint Frideswede -- and to house her "relics". Pretty much anyone who is anyone in the old world is a saint by this time. There is even a sainted dog named Guinefort in France. Nonetheless, each town promotes its own Saint with great fanfare. (Not that there is anything wrong with Frideswide, but I think the dog is more original). At any rate, for better or worse, Frideswide is officially our protector.

Anyway there are claims that Christ Church chapel is the oldest continuously standing chapel in the UK. I believe this is a picture of the shrine to the Saint. From Christ Church, we walk on to Magdalen college (pronounced "Mawdalin"). Along the walk we go past Christ Church's herd of cattle.. .and a bit later we will go past Magdalen's herd of deer. In comparison, my college has a cat and occassionally a duck or two. (Read again the comment about some colleges being rich and others being filthy rich). Unfortunately, I don't have photos of either the cattle or the deer.

This is a photo of me and my mom in Magdalen college.

This is the courtyard of Magdalen. Those are lilacs wisteria growing up the walls. They smelled lovely at that time of year. ("Lovely" is a favorite word in this country. It seems to be a replacement for "fantastic" or "great" or "super").

My dad is a big fan of science history, so visiting the Oxford Museum of science history was an absolute must. They have a lot of cool stuff there, but I think this chalkboard is the highlight. That is Einstein's handwriting.

On the topic of geeky tourist things to do, my Dad was really excited about going to the Greenwich observatory outside of London. This is the Greenwich of Greenwich mean time. So, in the mean-time (har har) we took a day, and went out there. It is actually a really pleasant little suburb of London -- with a big park, and hill that overlooks the big city. The observatory is a kind of cool place for geeks like us. If you have read the book "Longitude" about John Harrison's life-long quest to build a clock accurate enough to allow navigation, you will be excited to see some of his actual devices in the museum here. Here is a picture of my father setting his clock by the official Greenwich Mean Time.

The other cool tourist thing we did was to go out to Blenheim palace for the day. This was where the various Duke's of Marlboro have lived over the centuries. Among other people, Winston Churchill (the nephew of the then Duke), grew up in this estate. The place is certainly beautiful -- miles upon miles of perfectly manicured fields, forests, gardens -- and of course an enormous palace. Here's the palace from the back garden
They also have a huge maze cut into hedges, a butterfly garden, a "pleasure garden" (whatever that is), miles of lakes, and they charge you an arm and a leg to get in (although apparently there is a secret backdoor you can get through if you act like you are a town native).

Anyway, to end our tour, here is a photo of mom and dad on the other side of the palace.
Sunday, June 7, 2009

Demographics of Trouble:

At Somerville, and at many of the other colleges of Oxford, the “Dean” is the person in charge of “nonacademic disciplinary matters.” So if a student breaks a window or is an overly obnoxious drunk or is generally causing trouble, they get sent to have a sit-down with the Dean.

Our Dean, Stephen Roberts (and engineering professor), is a pretty nice guy. I’ve heard that so long as a student genuinely appears to regret having done something stupid, they usually don’t get punished too much. Given this reputation, it is a bit surprising that more students have not yet learned the mantra: “Well, at the time it didn’t seem to be so bad.. but in retrospect, I realize that I was completely out of line.”

At lunch a few days ago Dean Roberts told me an extremely interesting statistic about students needing discipline. Of 83 disciplinary incidents this year, only one of these incidents involved a student in the sciences. This is not unique to our college. Apparently all across Oxford the statistics are similar. For those keeping track, History students, Law students, and PPE (Politics, Philosophy, and Economics) students were the people most likely to be troublemakers. Scientists are the least likely to get in trouble.

Why are so few scientists getting into trouble? There are three theories I’ve heard so far (feel free to add your own).

(1) Scientists are just nerdy goody-goodies and don’t do anything that could get them into trouble.

(2) Scientists have too much work and just don’t have any time to do anything that would get them into trouble.

I think both of these could be refuted by going to MIT and noticing that the total nerd culture of MIT certainly does not preclude the possibility of causing unlimited mayhem. Trouble usually is a result of too much partying, and MIT is not a quiet school by these standards. In fact, MIT has ranked in the top list of party schools – higher than almost any other of the elite institutions. In addition MIT students are famous for their Hacking exploits (here are some of the more public trouble they have caused).

There is, of course, a third possibility of why scientists are not getting into trouble

(3) Scientists are doing exactly the same things as non-scientists… but they are just smart enough not to get caught


On the topic of demographics, the Oxford University Newspaper, the Cherwell, recently sent around questionnaires to students to ask them about their sex lives. The article is published here. Actually, it is a very badly written article (see the comments below the article) and further it does not give you enough data to try to determine if their findings are statistically significant. Moreover, as with any data from a questionnaire, there are obvious issues about self-selection in who returns the questionnaire, and whether they are telling the truth.

Nonetheless, if we take the article at face value, some possibly interesting facts can be extracted.

One interesting fact is that historians, followed by PPE majors, are having more sex than others. See my above comments about historians and PPE being big troublemakers. Anyone want to comment about whether this is related?

Another interesting fact is that students who identify themselves as homosexual are more likely do well in exams than those who identify themselves as heterosexual. I have no idea why this should be, but probably there is a PhD thesis waiting to be written.

Finally, the article states that students from Somerville College (my college) are having the most sex of any college at Oxford. (Along with New College – “New” in this case means it was founded in 1379). Should we be proud of our standing as the most sexually active college?

In 1957, Charles Kerr, the chancellor of the Univesity of California stated that

"The chancellor's job had come to be defined as providing parking for the faculty, sex for the students, and athletics for the alumni."

Perhaps Somerville is just doing its job better than the other colleges (not sure how our sports teams have been doing this year though). I imagine that our ranking will probably help our recruiting for next year.
Saturday, June 6, 2009


Last night my friends Bernd Rosenow and Stephan Schmult took me out on the town in Stuttgart. Bernd has two young children and admitted that this was his first time going out on a Friday night since he arrived in Stuttgart last year. Stephan, on the other hand, is almost famous for being a party animal. He was a postdoc in my department back at Bell Labs and tales of his exploits (usually involving Nascar and gallons of beer) were still being told several years after he returned to Germany. He considers himself to be half german and half redneck American – his favorite beer is Coors light - and he knows pretty much every bar in the Stuttgart, as well as every cut-rate liquor store along route 22 in New Jersey. If the German/Redneck combination isn’t surprising enough, consider that he is also probably the world’s fifth best high mobility Galium Arsenide grower – no small achievement.

At any rate, the bar we went to last night was actually pretty nice: it was part-indoors-part-outdoors, had cool music, and was completely packed until very late. We finally left at around 2:15 am.

Although they showed me a very nice time in their city, there are certainly more interesting cities in Germany (Berlin and Cologne come to mind). However, if you are interested in my kind of Science, the Max-Planck-Institut für Festkörperforschung in Stuttgart is a pretty amazing place. (Festkörperforschung means Solid State Research, I think – isn’t it great how in German you can cram three words into one? I wonder what the longest word is in the german language.).

Unfortunately, it was a holiday week here in Germany, so the institute was a bit quieter than usual. I was happy though that Herr Doctor Professor Lab Director Nobel Laureate Klaus Von Klitzing (who is considered the father of my entire field of research) did make it to the lecture I gave, and he even seemed to enjoy listening to it. (Von Klitzing is a very social guy in person, but when listening to lectures he is famously quiet and very hard to read).

On the subject of Von Klitzing and the Max Planck directorship:
Von Klitzing is now rapidly approaching retirement age and everyone is wondering who will be the next director of the institute. The job was offered to Andrew Geim (discoverer of Graphene), who turned it down. Speculation is that Klaus Ensslin might be offered it also, but he already has a pretty sweet job at ETH in Zurich and it isn’t clear that he would view this as a step up. Beyond that, no one seems to have any idea who else is being considered. Anyone know anything?

Because of the holiday week, a few of the key players at the institute were not around. I was particularly disappointed that Igor Kukushkin was not in town. Although I’ve heard his name around the community for years, and I’ve even heard other people talk about some of his nice work, I’ve never actually met him. I had been looking forward to asking him a bunch of questions about his work and also congratulating him on his recent article in Science Magazine – which I liked a lot – so much so that I wrote an enthusiastic perspectives piece (here) about the experiment which was published in the same issue of Science (My one page piece is supposed to be reasonably accessible to readers of Science – I’m not sure it really is though – you can try reading it and let me know what you think).

Although I did chat with quite a few of the experimentalists there (Stephan Schmult and Jurgen Smet in particular), most of my time was spent talking to my collaborator Bernd Rosenow. Our little gang-of-four collaborators (Bernd, Myself, Ady Stern (see here also), and my graduate thesis adviser Bert Halperin) just posted a paper on the online physics arxive this week. We were extremely close to getting scooped by the Microsoft group who was working on the same topic, obtained the same result via a different method, and posted their result on the same day. Even though we had found the result almost two years ago (Well, actually it was Bernd who made the breakthought) we were slow to write it up because we didn’t think there was much chance that anyone else was (a) thinking about the problem in depth and (b) able to figure out how to solve it. We were wrong on both counts. At any rate, Bernd and I, having narrowly escaped being scooped, spent most of my visit trying to push to completion various other projects where we also thought we had a solid headstart, but maybe we don’t.