Saturday, December 26, 2009

Harper's Index for 2009

As 2009 draws to a close, so ends my first year as a resident of the UK. As such, I thought it might be a good time to look back at the year and compile a “Harper’s Index” of interesting things about this year:

Number of Airplane flights: 52
Number of Successful landings: 52
Carbon footprint: Very Bad
Number of transatlantic flights: 12
Number of transatlantic flights that were unpleasant: 12
Number of flights longer that 11 hours: 4
Number of days this year I have consumed more than three cups of coffee: 4

Estimated average number of times I have had tea per day: 2
Estimated average number of times per day I think to myself “I should go buy some better tea”: 2
Estimated number of meals I eat per week which are cooked by Somerville College: 3
Pounds I’ve gained this year: 3
Number of times I’ve eaten haggis: 1
Number of times I’ve eaten kangaroo: 1
Number of times I’ve thought, exotic food is interesting, but really I like plain food better: 2

Number of flights missed due to being late to the airport: 1
Number of holes sawed in my bed while desperately trying to recover my passport in time to make it to the airport: 1

Number of weeks I spent in Oxford this year: 30.5
Number of weeks spent traveling (including vacation): 21.5

Number of boxes moved to UK last January: 75
Number still to be unpacked: 13
Number of boxes of things I probably should have thrown out instead of moving: 13

Number of Giant Spiders in my backyard: 1
Number of Giant Spiders gone AWOL: 1

Number of weeks in the winter spent with Scarlet Fever: 1
Number of tablets of penicillin consumed: 21
Number of months in the summer with a persistent cough: 2
Number of bags of Halls Mentholyptus and Vicks Double Action Consumed: 8

Number of professional talks given: 28
Number of these I recommend for the general public: 1 (See here and here)
Number of talks which were repetitions of the same chalk-talk about Topological Phases of Matter: 12
Number of times the talk was about Topological Lattice Models and Chain-Mail: 6
Number of times I made a joke about the electric slide: 1
Number of times no one laughed at the joke about the electric slide: 1
Papers Posted on 8
Number of South-Park episodes watched this year: 23
Number of South-Park episodes that were too gross even for me: 3

Number of Blog Postings this year: 98
Number of Blog Postings about Pogo: 3

Despite my physicist instincts, I know that certain important things are not easy to summarize with a single number. So here are a few more interesting opinions from the year:

Biggest advance in feeling like UK is home: I’m no longer self-conscious about the fact that everyone knows I’m a foreigner the minute I open my mouth.

Biggest little kudos to the US Government: Every time I go through passport control coming into the US, they say “welcome home”. I like that.

Biggest little kudos to the UK Government: They figure out your taxes for you.

Biggest big kudos to the UK Government: Health care works.

Stupidest thing about the UK: Lack of intelligent Plumbing

Biggest bummer: That many of the closest friends I’ve made in Oxford won’t be there next year.

Best travel discovery: At Heathrow there is always someone in duty-free waiting to give you a shot of Baileys. You can even take two or three before they get mad at you.
Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The blizzard of ’09: Another lesson in thermodynamics.

When admissions draw to a close, vacation begins. I jumped on a plane to go visit my family in the Washington DC area (Brother Alan, Sister in Law Terry, Niece Seneca and Nephew Milo). My other brother, Rob, also managed to fly in from Chicago.

Well the visit started out fun enough, but after a few hours, dire reports started appearing on all news outlets that the blizzard of the century was about to hit the area. Now DC does not get a lot of snow most years, so like London, when it does snow, they really don’t know what to do with it. In short, it shuts down the entire city.

Usually a snow day is pretty fun. You go out for short periods of time to shovel, or play in the snow. Then you come inside again to warm up. If it only lasts a few days, no big harm done. That is, unless you don’t have heat in your house. Only a few hours before the blizzard was set to hit, the heater in my brother’s house died. It was an old heater, but it certainly picked an inconvenient time to croak. Fortunately, the heater-repair-guy was able to come by before the snow started falling. Unfortunately, he was unable to do anything to help. In short, the whole thing needed to be replaced – which they would not be able to do until after the snow stopped falling.

Thermodynamics lesson: If there is no heat source inside, the temperature of the house will fall to be the same as the temperature outside.

Before the snow started, Rob and I drove out to the local home depot and filled the trunk of Terry’s little Honda civic with a stack of Duraflame logs to burn in the fireplace. We badly underestimated how much wood we would need to burn though. [Although whether we estimated correctly or not, we more or less filled the trunk of the civic. It was dumb not to try to fill it more though].

Well, even with something to burn, the large Maryland suburbia house was not really meant to be heated from the fireplace alone, so most of the house was pretty cold. As the temperature outside dipped to 20F (-7 C), the temperature inside hovered around 50F (10C). [We measured the temperature one room away from the fireplace. In other rooms, it was probably colder]. If we really burnt wood quickly, the temperature would rise only to about 55F (13C).

We all dressed really warmly. Here’s a picture of the three brothers and the Niece and Neph sitting in the room with the fireplace (Alan is on the couch with Seneca, Rob is on the chair, and that is me and Milo on the floor. Note the Oxford sweatshirt on Milo). Surprisingly Seneca and Milo didn’t seem to mind the fact that it was cold at all. They sometimes refused to even wear sweatshirts or socks insisting they weren’t cold. I have no idea what it is about children’s metabolism that makes them generate so much heat, but I was pretty cold. In that picture I was wearing two layers of pants (“trousers” in the UK. “pants” usually means underwear), three layers on top, two layers of socks, and a hat.

In this picture is our savior: Terry… and the Duraflame logs. (Note again the oxford sweatshirt).

We had a lot of fun playing inside. We ran around the house a bit to keep the blood flowing (OK, to be honest, running around the house with Milo and Seneca is on the agenda whether or not there is heat in the house). Rob and I swung Seneca and Milo around in circles until both of us had pulled all the muscles in our backs and then some.

By the middle of the next day, we were running out of wood already. The snow was not falling as hard, so we sent out a team of hearty adventurers to try to find more snow. After clearing the driveway (one of the neighbors had a snowblower) Rob and Alan took out the all-wheel drive Subaru (For those interested, here is the difference between all-wheel and 4-wheel). Not all the roads had been plowed and those that had been plowed were not very clear. Nonetheless, they made it out to a local market that had both more Duraflames and some real wood as well. They stocked up on enough to last a few more days.

This is more or less what it looked like outside at the time. The total snowfall was about 21 inches. Yeah, I know, if you are from Montreal or any other really snowy place, this is nothing. But DC is a very warm climate. That was more snow that DC usually gets in any entire year – all in one day.

Of course, the snow was pretty fun to play in too for some of us.

The next evening Rob had to go back to Chicago, and I was supposed to fly to Rochester to visit my parents. The main roads were clear by then, so it was no problem getting to BWI airport. But the airport was a zoo. There were people I talked to in the airport who had literally been there for three consecutive days trying to get home for the holidays. Many of them were military on holiday leave who had set up a virtual camp in the airport. Our planes were somewhat delayed, but at least left that day.

The next day the repair people started work on the heater. By that time, Alan and Terry had grown exhausted of living in the cold and the family drove to Terry’s Mom’s house to stay there for a while (it is not far away – if the roads are clear). With luck, in a day or two more, they can move home again!
Wednesday, December 16, 2009


The undergraduate admissions process here is interesting. To begin with, the faculty does the admissions directly, rather than some centralized admissions office. If you apply to Oxford to “Read” physics, you are interviewed by the Physics faculty who would be teaching you, were you to be admitted. This gives the faculty a chance to choose their own mistakes.

In the UK it is a strict rule that you can only apply to Oxford OR Cambridge, not both. Given this, Oxford gets a bit over 1000 applicants for roughly 180 Physics places. Actually, that is pretty good odds for the students, as in some other subjects the ratio is much worse. Incidentally, admission here is like Early Decision in the states where it is understood that you will attend if you are accepted. A few alternates are chosen in case someone bails out, but this is pretty rare.

The students send the usual transcripts, recommendation letter (just one from their school), and short essay. They then are asked to “sit” a pretty hard entrance exam. The exam was instituted in a truly organized way only a few years ago, so the clever prep-schools are just beginning to be able to train their students for the exam. Up to this point, however, the entrance exam has been the best indicator of future success at Oxford. So the exam is now taken pretty seriously. (Perhaps once Stanley Kaplan and Princeton Review start giving courses to help people game the system on this exam, its validity as an indicator will drop).

The students who perform above a cutoff on the exam are “summoned” for interviews (this does not involve flue-powder). Those that do not make the cutoff are “de-summoned”. In a few cases, a student may be “rescued” from below the cutoff for one reason or another – for example, if their school does not even teach physics and they had to learn everything on their own. If you score way up near the top on the entrance exam (top 50 or so) you are virtually guaranteed a place unless you do so badly on the interview that you are suspected of cheating on your exam. In all, roughly half the students are summoned for interviews. So that means roughly 2.5 students will be interviewed for one place.

When the students are summoned for interviews, they are asked to come to Oxford for several days – during which they stay in the dorms and mostly seem to roam around and get nervous about their interviews. During that time they are given at least three interviews. Interviews are typically done in teams of at least two interviewers to one student. Whichever college is the student’s first choice college interviews the student twice (two teams of two interviewers), and their second choice college interviews them once. Sometimes a student declares a first choice college, but that college has too many applicants so the student is assigned a new first choice college. If you are a phys/phil (physics and philosophy) candidate you are interviewed these three times by physicists and then at least twice by philosophers as well. Some of the overseas candidates are interviewed by telephone, and one has to assume that these interviews have bigger error bars. We have a fair number of overseas applicants, but I'm surprised we do not have more from the US. (Even including travel costs, Oxford is still less expensive than most elite US colleges I think).

Each interview results in a grade from 1 to 10. All of the interview scores are uploaded to a central database, which all the faculty can examine. All of the student's information (including grades, tests, interviews, etc etc) are posted and also amalgamated into one overall score and everything is listed in a systematic and organized way. Each college is listed along with how many slots they need to fill (usually 6 or 7 per each of about 30 colleges) and all the data about all the students they interviewed is listed too. (Hogwarts college is also listed in this file – I’m not making this up, I think it represents stray unaffiliated interviews, unaffiliated students, or something like that). Once all this data is posted, then the drafting and horse-trading begins.

If a student has an amalgamated score in the top 100, they are essentially assured a place – and almost always in the college they designate as their first choice. Even if their first choice college does not want to take a high scoring student for some reason, these students will be snapped up by the second choice college or by other colleges who did not get enough good applicants. Almost all of the arguing and finagling is to allocate the last 80 places in the class. Essentially we have to pick 80 students of roughly the next 200 highest scorers at this point (and defend the decisions).

If a student scores worse than 300th, they are almost certain to be rejected. In a few rare cases, a student will mathematically land worse than 300th, but will be rescued because of extenuating circumstances – like if they come from a particularly poor school, or difficult family situation, and they had to work like crazy even just to get this far (which is often a good indicator that they will still be able to do well by continuing to work like crazy). In these cases, the colleges that decide to take students who score lower, must stand up and make the case of why they are not taking better scoring students… and sometimes they are even requested to report years later on the progress of such rescued students to reaffirm that this philosophy of breaking the rules is actually a good one.

This year I won’t be taking part in the horse trading meeting (the other physics fellow from Somerville is in charge this year… I’ll get my chance next year). The meeting sounds a bit like the NFL draft, where everything happens in real time and every decision is publicly announced with great fanfare – and objections may be raised at any time and the drafting team must defend its decision. The college representatives (the faculty) have several objectives --- both to draft a good "team" for their own college, but also to make sure that any student they think is worthy is taken by some college, even if their own particular college does not have a place for them.

This year I think Somerville will do very well in the draft. While, not having any super-super-stars, a number of strong candidates listed Somerville as their first choices – and we will be very happy to have them. We need to recruit about 6 students and we have most of them nailed down before the draft starts. I’m optimistic that this will be a reasonably good class!
Saturday, December 12, 2009

Why The Principal Knows Everything

I’m always the last to figure things out. But the clues were all around me:

Fact 1: Dame Fiona, the principal of Somerville college Oxford, seems to know everything that goes on within college. I always attributed this to her particularly acute perception –- on account of the fact that she was trained as a Psychiatrist.

Fact 2: Dame Fiona’s cat, Pogo, freely wanders the entire college, frequently unobserved. Yesterday he was sitting amongst the high school students as they waited for their admissions interviews.

Fact 3: I have never seen Fiona and Pogo in the same place at the same time... except in this very famous painting of the two of them that hangs in the great Hall.

Yes, now it is obvious: Pogo is Fiona’s alter-ego. With appropriate credit to J. K. Rowling, Fiona is obviously an Animagus, akin to one of my favorite characters Minerva McGonagall who also turns into a cat, and who also is the head of a house… coincindence? Hmmmm...

The painting is painted by Susannah Fiennes, who is the cousin of Ralph Fiennes, who plays Lord Voldemort in the films. Another coincidence? Hmmm... See correction in comments section.

[Photo Credit: Christiane Riedinger].
What is physics? I mean, what is it all about? What is the big uber-goal that we are all working for? What are the really important directions of research these days?

If you ask a physicist any one of these questions, you will inevitably get the same kind answer. Every physicist will tell you “What I work on is really important and interesting. What I do is what physics is about.” (Here “I” means whoever you ask, not “Steve Simon”). And I think most physicists passionately believe this. If they didn’t believe it, they probably would have (or should have) switched fields long ago to work on what they think is truly important.

Just for example, if you ask “is physics an experimental science?” chances are if you ask an experimentalist they will say “Of course.” If you ask a string theorist, they might say “Er… not necessarily.”

I think this diversity of views of physics is a good thing. The only thing, we really all share, is the underlying belief (perhaps faith) that the world around us can somehow be understood. However, sometimes diversity of views causes some real problems. Obviously dividing up the limited funding pie is a seriously sore point for many people.

“Why should *THEY* get so much funding when what *I* do is so much more important and interesting.”

“Do we really need to hire another physicist who does X when Y is so exciting these days.”

Or conversely

“That stuff isn’t even physics! Why would we pay to have *that* in our department”

Here at Oxford this diversity of opinion rears its head in some interesting places. One point of conflict (that seems less prevalent in the states) is over the undergraduate syllabus. Here in the UK (indeed in much of the non-US world) the undergraduate syllabus is extremely constrained. This is quite a change from my undergraduate experience (Brown University) – which required only obtaining 28 passing grades for graduation, and had no further detailed requirements: every choice of what to study was left completely to the student. In Oxford, the students follow a very rigid path. [ There are obvious advantages to each system – to be discussed another time.]

So it seems that over here someone is always saying what a travesty it is that a student with an Oxford physics degree might graduate without any exposure to X, Y or Z. Typically the person stating this is someone who has particular interest in X, Y, or Z. Further, getting X,Y,Z into the curriculum boosts the status of those researchers who study X,Y, and Z in the department – as there will always be a need, thereafter, for people to teach the subject.

But do undergrads really need X,Y,Z? How much does it even matter what they learn? Is a college degree about learning a particular topic, or about learning how to learn – about stretching you brain on anything really hard.

I think both answers are valid, although I do have a bias. If you want to guess my bias… here is a hint: For the record, here is a list of courses that I did NOT have as an undergrad:

Statistical Mechanics
Solid State Physics
Electricity and Magnetism
(beyond the level of Purcell’s introductory book)
General Relativity
Astrophysics or Cosmology
Advanced/Relativistic Quantum Mechanics
Field Theory
Fluid Dynamics
Advanced Laboratory

[yes, I did realize upon graduation that I was woefully unprepared for grad school, so I finagled to take some extra courses for a year to make up some of the difference].
Tuesday, December 1, 2009

His Dark Environment

The winter here gets very dark. This is not surprising considering how far north we are. Despite our relatively mild winters (courtesy of the Gulf Stream) we are far north of even Quebec City.

The shortest day of the year, the winter solstice, December 21st --- is a date celebrated in one way or another by most cultures on earth. On this day, London only gets 7 hours and 50 minutes of sunlight – substantially less than New York which gets 9 hours 15 minutes. On the other hand, if you happen to live in Oslo, you only get 5 hours 53, and if you live in Svalbard you won’t see the sun at all from the end of October til mid February.

However, surprisingly, the solistice is not the day when the sun sets the earliest, or rises the latest. In New York, the earliest sunset is actually December 8th and the latest sunrise is January 4th. As you get further north, these two dates get closer together: Here in London, the earliest sunset is December 12th and the latest sunrise is December 29th.

At one point in graduate school I remember pondering the geometry of why this happens --- which has to do mainly with the angle of the earth with respect to its orbital plane (if I remember correctly). I think it was my friend Dave Morin who managed to figure it out --- not surprisingly he just finished writing a classical mechanics textbook with a ton of really hard problems in it.