Saturday, November 28, 2009

Where is Shelob?

Earlier in the year I blogged about S.O.U.S. (Spiders of Unusual Size). One of these little beasts had made her home in my backyard and I decided to give her a rather wide berth. Particularly since I was away so much of the summer, it seemed reasonable that she could have reign of the backyard while I was gone. Well, returning home for the beginning of noughth week, I discovered that she had disappeared – vanished without a trace. I joked that we had made a deal, I bought her plane tickets to florida for the winter, and in return she spun a web with the words “Some Physicist” (*). However, what I really suspected was that she had just come to the end of her life cycle (which for some spiders is not very long). Particularly in cold climates, spider life cycle tends to be yearly and it I figured it was a good bet that Shelob had croaked.

Alas, I fear this may not be the case. Over lunch with Dame Carol Jordan, the discussion randomly turned to the S.O.U.S. “Oh, yes”. She said. “I think that type of garden spider hibernates for the winter and comes back out in the spring… impressive little things aren’t they?”.

I wish I hadn’t asked. Remind me to not go out in my backyard for the next year or two.

(*) Joke credit goes to Nuntiya Kakanantadilok
Us nerds know how to party.

My friend Christiane decided that for her birthday she would throw herself a star-trek themed party. You might expect this to be a complete nerd-fest (ok, maybe it was) but it was really fun!

Here is a picture of Christiane dressed as 7 of 9.

And here is a picture of the actual 7 of 9.. not bad huh?

Then we had Christiane's boyfriend Luke dressed as Riker (left) and Dina dressed as Betazoid Deanna Troi (right). Dr. Justin is in the middle there appropriately dressed as a medical officer. Compare to the original Riker and Troi:

Random vulcan star trek officers included Christiane's mother and sister:

Note the full life-sized picture of 7of9 in the background. Also note the flag of the united federation of planets. Way in the upper left of that photo you can also see part of some random star-trek weapon hanging on the wall. Probably Klingon.

And one photo of the general crowd. Darcy in the foreground has some serious vulcan ears... or maybe they are elf ears she is just trying out in advance of the next party --- I'm hoping for a lord of the rings themed party coming up soon.

Dancing went on til 2am. Not a bad party.
Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Too Cliché: The great discovery of Ogg.

.. and while I am on the subject of thermodynamics..

Once upon a time there was a very clever caveman named Ogg. Ogg made the remarkable discovery that hot plus cold equals warm. Although this knowledge has been passed from generation to generation, somehow, the memo did not reach British plumbers.

Of all the complaints Americans have about the UK, one of the most cliché, and yet most valid, is the complete stupidity of the plumbing. The Brits absolutely insist on having two taps for water: one that delivers hot water and one that delivers cold – and never the twain shall meet. So when you wash your hands, you have the choice of water that is scalding, or water that is freezing. Americans inevitably turn them both on then rapidly pass their hands under each one in quick succession to create the illusion of warm water while trying not to burn themselves. (Kirill Shtengel likes to joke that the British shower has a hot shower head and a cold shower head and you are supposed to jump back and forth between the two).

I mean, how hard is it really to plumb the two taps together so you can make warm water from hot and cold?

Yes, I understand the intention is that you are supposed to fill a basin with the combination of the two, and then you are supposed to wash your hands in the basin. But, for example, in a public restroom, you usually don’t have a plug for the basin, and even if you did, you wouldn’t want to actually touch water that had touched the basin anyway.

In my house, there are three sets of faucets. The kitchen sink, the bathroom sink, and the tub. Of the three, the only one which is 20th century in its plumbing is the tub – which conveniently is the only one of the three where it really doesn’t matter.
Sunday, November 8, 2009


The weather is turning chilly here in Oxford. Like clockwork, the heat and hot water failed in my apartment last week. I became painfully aware of an important principle of thermodynamics: When it is cold out, if you don’t have heat, you get pretty cold too.

Anyway, after a few days of poking at the boiler, I narrowed the problem down to a problem with the pilot light. I tried relighting it, but even after a dozen attempts or so (and a few more cold nights), still no luck.

My last resort before calling a professional was to consult the oracle of google. Typing in “flamingo 40 boiler pilot light problem” came up with a number of discussions of exactly this issue. It turns out there is some “Overheat Themostat Reset Button” hidden in the device. If it gets tripped you have to reset it before the pilot will light again.

As a physicist I've always been a big fan of thermodynamics. Reading about thermo makes me generally happy. But I think watching the heat come back on after multiple cold nights made me even happier than reading Enrico Fermi's great lectures on thermo.
Monday, November 2, 2009

2009 Concert Tour

Many rock bands go on tour and give the same show night after night. Typically they sell t-shirts listing all of the locations and dates where they performed. This is what I feel like with the colloquium talk I’ve been giving this year. I constructed the talk for KITP Santa Barbara last spring (See here. On the web here) and it went over so well that I decided to do a few repeats. Soon, word got around that it is a pretty fun talk and all of a sudden, I’m doing repeat performances all over.

Here is the list just for October and November:

Friday October 2nd NUIM Maynooth Ireland
Thursday October 8th Univeristy of Warwick, UK
Friday October 23rd, University of Exeter, UK
Friday October 30th, University of Saint Andrews, Scotland
Friday November 6th, University of Leiden, Netherlands
Wednesday November 18th, Royal Holloway University, London ,UK
Wednesday November 25th,University of Utrecht, Netherlands

By the end of the term, I suspect I will be rather sick of this talk. Maybe I’ll sell t-shirts* (or veggie burritos).

*Credit: the idea of making a concert t-shirt is from Susanne Viefers.
Sunday, November 1, 2009

Andy, Andrew, and Saint Andrews

My two friends Andy McKenzie and Andrew Green used to be the only two people I knew in the Physics department at the University of Saint Andrews. I postulated that your name had to be Andrew to work there. This postulate was eventually disproven when they hired Chris Hooley.

This week I visited Saint Andrews for only a day, and had a terrific time while there. (Sadly, Chris, who is endlessly entertaining (See here), was not around during my visit).

When I arrived in Saint Andrews, I met up with Andrew Green for a pint of Deuchers (which is a very fine Scottish beer) and a sushi dinner. Then we went to a bar where there was a jazz jam session. Andrew is a very accomplished jazz trombonist, and over the years (I hesitate to say how many years we have been friends now) we have frequently talked about our common interest in jazz. I haven’t played in a quite a few years; and I believe somewhere along the line Andrew also fell out of practice for a bit, but unlike me, he did manage to start up again (with some effort) and now plays quite well. I was really looking forward to hearing him play for the first time. He even suggested I bring my horn, but I couldn’t bear to play in public without at least a few months of woodshedding to get the chops back in order … maybe this will be a project for the future. Anyway, the Saint Andrews jam session seemed like a very nice group of musicians. People subbed in and out very generously, and nicely accepted players of all levels. Many of the players were pretty good, and some were extremely good. One or two were less than good (to put it generously), but no one seemed to mind much. Rather than making me cringe, it made me feel that I should have jumped in and played --- chops or no. The bar was crowded and most people were only half listening anyway, so the occasional painful moments passed without notice.

Andrew did a super “Stolen Moments” (To quote him, “That tune works really well on trombone”). His playing was extremely clean (Even some very good trombonists fall short on this score), and his improvisation on this tune was very smooth. I was suitably impressed. The rhythm section was led by an ancient, and rather portly, pianist who was great. The drums and bass were also quite good. The guitarist -- a retired GP who looked like he was about to keel over at any moment -- also managed to hold his own. Andrew opted out of most of the tunes of the evening to give others a chance to play.

I’m sure the jam session would have gone late into the evening, but for the fact that by decree of the neighbors music must stop in that bar at 11:30. Perhaps this was just as well, as I had had a long day already – having been awake way too early to give all my tutorials in the morning at Oxford before heading to Heathrow.


The next morning, after my colloquium (which went very well), I chatted physics with three very interesting sets of people for the rest of the day:

First, Andrew Green – I took the opportunity to tell him all about this topic which I am pretty excited about these days. He gave last week’s condensed matter theory forum talk at Oxford (which was excellent), so I had already heard recently about his work.

Second, Ulf Leonhardt: I had never met him before, but he seems to be doing some really interesting stuff. Among other things, he was one of the guys who developed the recently publicized idea of the invisibility cloak (yes,that is for real).

Third, Andy McKenzie and his research group. Andy is a terrific experimentalist who studies many interesting exotic materials systems – including Sr2RuO4 which is one of the materials that “topological” people like me are most interested in these days.

I wish I had had more time to chat with everyone – but soon enough it was time to rush back to the airport. Maybe I’ll go back up there for another visit soon.

PS: This is my 100th blog posting!