Friday, October 30, 2009

I am going to gain so much weight

A few night’s back, high-table dinner was a terrific leg of lamb. Fist course was a shrimp salad, and dessert was a chocolate and beet root cake (sounds strange but it was actually wonderful). As if that was not enough to keep me fed, the cake was served with clotted cream – which, when combined with the cake, is delicious! Once I turn that corner and start eating clotted cream… it is only a matter of time.
Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Squalid State

This posting is not about the status of my flat (no comment as to whether that would be an appropriate title).

“Squalid State” is the derogatory term used to refer to the field of “Solid State” physics by other physicists, and sometimes with good reason. The field is full of people studying what appears to be the boring minutia of particular physical materials: why this impurity increases specific heat and that impurity reduces it – and so forth. This entire field of study looked so horrid to me when I was an undergrad that I absolutely refused to even consider taking a solid state physics course.

It is rather ironic then that I became a solid state physicist – or, more properly, a “condensed matter” physicist who spends a lot of time thinking about solid state. So why am I now excited about the field whereas once-upon-a-time I thought the whole endeavor was dismal? Well, I now realize that some of the most exciting physics out there is in condensed matter systems, that the diversity of condensed matter is unrivaled in any other field, that many of the deepest ideas can be tested and explored best in condensed matter systems, not to mention the importance of potential applications in this field. Unfortunately, these exciting features are extremely well hidden in introductory solid state physics courses --- almost as if by design.

This year the physics department at Oxford has decided to revamp its third year syllabus. Everyone agreed that the previous third year undergrad program was not working and that we would all benefit from trying something new. I volunteered to develop the solid state physics course for a maiden voyage in 2010-2011, when I will teach this to 180 student, more or less. I view myself as the ideal person to teach this precisely because I thought it was so boring. My job will be to make it non-awful, to somehow bring out the exciting part of the field rather than the dismal part.

However, to some extent I am trying to do this with one hand tied behind my back. The IOP (british Institute of Physics) mandates that certain topics MUST be taught in an undergraduate syllabus. Further, my colleagues will not stand for me eliminating certain other topics. Finally, the total number of lectures cannot exceed 22. Despite these rather serious boundary conditions, I still think that I can put together a very nice course – and this is what I’ve been working on for the past few weeks, and will continue to work on for the next year.

So, to all the physicists reading this: Did anyone have a good solid state physics course? If so, why did you like it, who taught it, what was covered, what book did you use?
Thursday, October 8, 2009

Noughth Week

Last week ended my summer of constant travel and I returned to Oxford for “noughth week”. To understand this nomenclature one needs two pieces of information:

First, the weeks of the term are numbered 1-8 (Yes, the terms are only 8 weeks long, making them officially insanely short). No one at Oxford ever uses real calendar dates – instead they will just say “our next meeting is Monday of 5th week” or something of that sort. If you make the mistake of asking “what are you doing on November 3rd?” a person will likely ask “which week is that?” This system does actually make some sense because you can have meetings that occur perpetually on, say, Friday of 1st week (as the Physics Theory Sub-Department meeting does) independent of the term or the year, which is then somehow immune from the fickle fluctuations of the Gregorian calendar.

The second piece of crucial information is that “noughth” means “zeroth” (as in “all for nought”).

With those key facts it should be clear that “noughth week” is the week before classes actually start at Oxford. During this week in Michaelmas term (fall term) the new first year undergraduate students (“Freshers” over here rather than “Freshmen” or “Frosh”) arrive, and the 2nd-4th year students return, hopefully more rested than I am, from their summer breaks.

Over the course of noughth week, things accelerate extremely quickly. Since the terms are so insanely short, once you are in-term, everything is a sprint. The students move in by about Wednesday of noughth week, and by Friday all organizational meetings are done so that by Monday of 1st week, the term is going full speed.

Perhaps the most important event of the week is meeting the new Freshers, which mostly happens at an event known as Fresher’s Dinner. This is a formal dinner in the Great Hall where, very unusually, the Faculty sits at the tables with the students (usually the faculty sits at High Table). As one of my colleagues warned me “Depending your students, this dinner can either be really fun and interesting, or a socially difficult Marathon of trying to think up small talk”. Fortunately, my incoming students this year were a lot of fun to chat with.

Oh, and the Somerville chef decided to serve Kangaroo meat (there was also a vegetarian option). And of course there is a lot of wine at dinner. The drinking age is 18 in this country – so this is to be expected for a formal dinner.

This year’s crop of new Physics students at Somerville consists of four boys and two girls, plus one Physics-Philosophy hybrid, also a girl, making the gender mix pretty close to 50/50. While there are a few girls in the upper classes, it still is a bit unusual to have such a high fraction of girls in the Physics group. (My second year students, for example, are six boys and no girls). Perhaps this is just gender balance finally coming to physics, or perhaps it is an anomaly (or more likely a bit of both).

At any rate, now that the term is starting, my life is about to become completely insane for the next eight weeks. Forgive me if I am a bit sparse on the blog postings.

Oh, and with history repeating itself, at the beginning of noughth week, I had the flu.
My grandfather was a bookie – a guy who professionally handles bets. Although a good bookie never needs to risk much of his own money (since his bets are well balanced with just a bit of a margin for profit) most bookies do know what a good bet is and what a bad bet is.

Apparently I have no idea what a good bet is – even when I know a topic extremely well. My predictions for the Nobel Prize in Physics this year were way off*. Even listing everyone I could think of who was in the running, I didn’t even get close. The winners were not even on my radar screen. This is particularly embarrassing since two of the three winners were old Bell Labs guys and I certainly knew very well of their work, and of its importance [ although I never met either one of them since even the younger of the two retired from Bell a decade before I ever arrived ].

The two guys at Bell, Smith and Boyle, are credited with inventing the CCD (Charge Coupled Device). That is the little semiconductor gizmo that turns an optical picture into a stream of electrons which then can be turned into a digital computer file. There’s a CCD in every digital camera. The other guy, Kao, who shared the Nobel with them, developed the fiber optic, which comprises the famous “series of tubes” which carry information through the internet. Bits of information are turned into photons that run down glass fibers called optical fibers.

The prize this year was perhaps an unusual one – it is clearly technology rather than physics, but it is important technology. There has been some grousing around the internet (for example, here) that this prize was not deserving because it is just engineering. (Here I’m repeating here a comment that I posted on Doug’s blog here) The key question is what the Nobel prize should be about --- what the Nobel prize "brand" should mean. There are certainly plenty of important technology/physics advances that could potentially be recognized --- and the original intent of Nobel’s will certainly gave this latitude. It also said that the discovery should be made within the previous year --- a requirement which has been duly ignored ever since ---- which shows mainly that the Nobel committee can do whatever they want to do to promote the "brand" as they see fit. However, by far, MOST of the prizes have been for "fundamental" physics advances, and not for technology advances, which sets a precedent for what the committee thinks it is supposed to be about and this prize does not look so consistent with that interpretation. (The integrated circuit prize was another recent prize for technology --- although I think that this prize was perhaps more agreed upon as being a universal game changer that needed to be recognized).

*I did make the right prediction for the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine, but almost everyone seemed to know that one in advance.

** Added: Obama's Nobel: Yes, I was pretty surprised by this one too. Many people say he hasn't earned it yet, but if you read the explanation given by the committee, it makes sense. I like it.