Sunday, March 28, 2010

The inevitable phase shift

When I first arrived in the UK at Heathrow about 16 months ago, I got on the bus to Oxford and bought myself a round-trip bus ticket. Why? Because one-way is almost as expensive as round-trip and I knew I would be going back to Heathrow soon for any one of my various travels. And so I carried the return ticket in my wallet for a while, and then returned to Heathrow for my first trip. When I came back to Heathrow, I bought another round trip ticket and so forth. So whenever I was in Oxford, I was always carrying around my return bus ticket to Heathrow.

Finally this week in Oxford, I looked in my wallet, and discovered that the inevitable phase shift had happened. I was in Oxford, but I did not have a return bus ticket in my wallet. So from now on, I will be carrying the return ticket when I am on the road, not when I am at home in Oxford.

But what had happened to cause this “phase shift”. Where had my return ticket gone? Had I lost it? No, I was careful about keeping that ticket safe. What had happened was that last week I handed the bus driver in Heathrow a ticket and neither of us noticed that it had already been used. So I actually got three trips out of one round-trip ticket. Well, assuming that I don’t make the same mistake again (either intentionally or unintentionally) I guess from now on, even my bus tickets will indicate that Oxford is home.
Thursday, March 25, 2010

My Very Cool (ex-)n-Girlfriend

Before my ex-girlfriend, there was my ex-ex-girlfriend, and before her was my ex-ex-ex-girlfriend, and so forth.

As luck would have it, Margot, my (ex-)n-girlfriend, from all the way back in high school, recently got back in touch with me after X years via Facebook (here n is a positive integer and X is a positive real number – both larger than I would like to admit). As it turns out, Margot and her family now live in Portland Oregon, and she has what must be officially the coolest job on the planet –-- she is a vet for the Oregon Zoo. Here is a photo of Margot in action

Being that the March Meeting of the American Physical Society happened to be in Portland this year, I took the opportunity to stop by, catch up, meet her family, and (of course) to see the animals in the zoo! Incidentally, for those of you who don’t already know this about me, I just LOVE zoos. (Maybe it is not so surprising that Margot and I dated each other all those years back.)

Here is a video of Margot in her element, doing dental work on a rather large leopard. And if you like cats you can check out this video too, of the world’s cutest cat – an Ocelot kitten.

Margot’s office in the vet building is a low key affair, but you have to be impressed by the equipment for doing such things as taking x-rays of elephants (Here is a video of exactly that – The elephant is near the end. Margot is at 1:29, I think she is being an anesthesiologist for a bear).

Some of the job is a bit less glamerous - like inspecting turtle poop for signs of parasites (there were none on the day of my visit).

During my visit there were a few animals that needed some vet attention. A relatively elderly zebra was showing signs of congestive heart failure, and they were afraid they would have one zebra less by the end of the day… but in fact it seemed to be recovering slowly. (Although I’m happy for the zebra, it would have been really interesting to watch a zebra autopsy had the zebra actually kicked…. So to speak).

A very cute beaver seemed to have some sort of swollen red eye. Margot poked her head into the lodge where the beaver was hiding but couldn’t get a good enough look at the eye. She decided to return later to try to get a photo of the eye and also to send another vet down to take a look. One of the zookeepers yelled at the beaver “Don’t rub it!”, but I don’t think the beaver listened.

We stopped into a small quarantine building where a female cougar was being kept away from the others. (This cougar may have been acquired from the wild, or from another zoo, I’m not sure). Well, this rather large cat was not in a good mood, and as soon as I walked into the small building it looked at me as if I were her lunch. It stared me down and growled rather alarmingly. Margot scolded it like a mother for being in such a bad mood and threw it a whole (dead) bird for lunch. The cougar did not even blink at the bird, but continued staring at me as if to say “I’m not eating that bird, I want the big guy for lunch.” Grouchy or not, this was a rather beautiful animal.

Perhaps the worst situation of the day was a zookeeper who got some disinfectant in his eye and had to go to the hospital. Despite the assurance of Cosmo Kramer that vets do better work on humans than doctors do, these vets restrict their treatment to animals of the non-human kind.

Most interesting, perhaps, was the work on the elephant’s feet. Apparently elephants in zoos (particularly Asian elephants) frequently develop foot problems, as they are (a) not really meant to be confined to small areas and (b) are not really meant to be walking on such artificial surface. As a result, they tend to develop abscesses and similar trouble. On this particular day the vets were going to try out a new curative on the elephant’s feet. Here is a photo of a vet (Mitch) working on the foot of a female elephant named Sung-Surin, (which I'm told means "Sunshine" in Thai) , but they call her "Shine" for short. (Sorry that the photo is so blurry, I need a better camera). In these photos I am making friends with Shine. She seemed completely unperturbed by my presence. I gather that female elephants are typically better with humans than the male (bull) elephants. In fact, I've been told that as a rule, bull-elephants are considered extremely dangerous and should not ever be in contact with humans. The Oregon zoo has several bulls, and on the particular day that I visited, one of them needed work on his foot. This bull, named Tusko, weighs about twice what Shine weighs -- about 13,500 pounds (over 6000 kilos) -- a rather imposing beast. In this picture (below) you can see him behind some very very thick steel bars that separate him from his human keepers. Apparently on occasion he has gotten upset and rammed his head into the bars, doing some serious damage to the steel, although not actually managing to break out. On this particular day he seemed perfectly willing to do as his keeper asked of him, in return for carrots being thrown into his open mouth. This method of feeding seemed to work pretty well for keeping him calm, and also worked pretty well for giving him his daily medicine: Among other things, an entire bottle of advil which was thrown down his throat and he swallowed in one gulp (perhaps not even noticing that it was not a carrot). To work on repairing his feet, Tusco was convinced (with rewards of carrots) to slip his foot through a very small gate in the giant steel bars, allowing the vets access to his foot while he munched happily on his carrots. You can sort of see in this photo how this works.

Not all of the day was spent doing actual useful vet things. Margot was nice enough to take me around to meet some of the animals just for fun. (As well as meeting her husband and kids, who are very nice human animals.) The penguin in this photo (Moe) is considered their penguin ambassador, as he is pretty good with humans. He still has a tendency to defecate on people though (which I very narrowly avoided). Nonetheless, he didn't seem too upset about being handled. Penguin feathers feel remarkably like fish scales. Perhaps I should not be surprised by this example of convergent evolution but I certainly did not expect them to feel this way.

The armadillo is another very people friendly animal. Apparently this guy is taken around to schools and the like. He is totally harmless and only rolls up into a ball when he is very scared. I think he is a bit scared in this picture, but he eventually unrolled and sniffed around a bit more. Pretty cute little guy. Probably would make a good pet.

Then there are more of the bigger animals. We fed the giraffes from a high window . Advertising has clearly worked on me since now I can't look at a giraffe without thinking of Toys-R-Us. In the picture with Margot you can see the giraffe sticking out his tongue a bit. Actually, the tongue is much longer --- I think about a foot and a half long.

And there are the bears: These black bears were not on display (not sure why) but were living in a cage near the vet building. They seemed pretty happy to have someone come around to feed them all sorts of bear food. "Bear food" in this case consisted of apples, grapes, spinach, lettuce, carrots, broccoli, and generic large animal pellets (similar to the stuff we fed the giraffes). You had to be careful not to stick your fingers through the fence, but the bears seemed to more or less understand that the food was the vegetable-matter and not the people-matter. After they tried all of the stuff that was being offered, it was clear that they really only wanted the spinach and lettuce.

Sadly, I'm out of pictures at this point. There were quite a few animals in the zoo that I saw, but did not photograph: The otters, the beaver, various snakes, some bats (including one in the hospital for a broken arm), some cute rats, lots of monkeys, some boars, bears, lions, hyenas, and other beasts. And alas, perhaps the coolest animal that I saw was not amongst those that I caught on film: The Amur (Siberian) Tigers. Margot seemed particularly fond of them, and, being fully objective, Tigers are among the most amazing animals on earth. Like many of the animals in the zoo, the Tigers did seem to know who she was, and they seemed to like her as well. When we arrived, they were sitting out in their yard sunning themselves (it was perhaps the first sunny day of spring). Despite the fact that they were mid-snooze, when Margot called their names, they were immediately up and alert and they responded by sticking out their tongues and made this face at her.

I gather that this is an expression that indicates affection towards Margot. I was told that if they didn't like someone they would let that be known in no uncertain terms.

To finish off this post, I am including a photo (from the zoo web site) of the two Amur tigers: I think their names are Nicky and Nick (they are brother and sister). Ain't they cute?
Thursday, March 18, 2010

Something to Cheer About

When the nerd-herd arrived in Portland last Sunday, there was a convention already underway at the Oregon convention center -- the Pac-West Open National Cheer and Dance Championships. This consisted mostly of 10-13 year old girls in cheerleading outfits, carrying stuffed pink unicorns or similar, doing cartwheels down the hallway. I’m glad that they thought that the arrival of 6000 Physicists was something to cheer about (and it is about time, I might say). Nonetheless, the combination of physicists and cheerleaders made a bit of an odd mix for a day or two.

Fiona Burnell
commented that it would be pretty awesome if some physicist would dress up in a cheerleader outfit, carry a pink unicorn, and go sit in the front row of some of the physics talks and start drilling the speakers with nasty (but valid) physics questions. Everyone agreed that this would be pretty awesome. Sadly, she confessed that she didn’t have the guts to do it herself (and alas, before getting tenure, it would probably not be such a good idea). I don't think I could pull it off either -- I've never been able to do a proper cartwheel. But honestly, someone should do it.

Bible Thumping

This year, I took forever to decide if I would be going to the APS march meeting in Portland or not. Finally, with only 10 days remaining before the meeting, I bought my plane ticket. With such a late decision, and with 6000 other physicists having booked long ago, I had some trouble finding a decent hotel. Now I’m not one who insists on luxury, but after hearing some horror stories about people bringing home bedbugs, I’ve been a bit more careful about making sure that the places I stay are not complete dives. On the other hand, I am on a pretty tight travel budget so I don’t want to spend too much money (and I’m cheap, just on general principles). But with help of the great Google, I did some research and found a terrific deal. For only 50$ per night, about a third of what most people are paying here, I found myself a first class room – very clean, comfortable, modern, all the amenities included (including a truly great breakfast included every day) and right on the tram-line…

… But there is a catch: My hotel is run by, and inhabited by, evangelicals, who are bent on saving my sinner soul. A large portion of the hotel is converted into a church; many of the rooms of the hotels have been converted into offices of organizations with names like “Christian Council”, and “Serving God Committee”; and the little coffee shop where they serve breakfast is called “Sacred Grounds” (get it?).

On the one hand, the workers here are extremely friendly and helpful. On the other hand, when you go down to breakfast in the morning, the awful Jesus-music is playing on the stereo, and the workers have a tendency to incessantly come over and start conversations with the customers to try to score conversions. I found this all out on the web before I got here, and decided that I needed a fool-proof strategy to keep these people off my sinful back.

So here is my scheme: My hotel room has conveniently been provided with a bible (needless to say). Rather importantly, this is not one of those mini-Gideon versions, but rather a large-print big hefty tome. So, every day when I go down to breakfast, I bring the bible with me and open it up on the table next to me as if I am deep in study. (Being that I have a somewhat rabbinical beard these days, I make a point of opening it up to something near the end [ex, Revelation] so it is clear I’m reading the new part, not the old part). Then I scribble notes on a pad of paper next to the bible. Of course, the notes that I am scribbling are my daily physics thoughts, but to the watchful coffee shop evangelists it looks like I am making notes on the word of God. So far, it has worked. They are convinced I am among the blessed, and not wanting to disturb my study, they have left me alone.

I gotta say, it really is a first class room… the breakfast is great, and 50 bucks is hard to beat.
Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Notes from the 2010 March meeting

This year the March meeting of the American physical society is in Portland Oregon – a pretty hip but relatively small city of about half a million people. This week’s influx of 6000 physicists must have made a substantial dent in the median coolness of the city --– particularly within a mile or so of the Oregon convention center, where the nerd-herd is grazing. Among the exciting events of this year’s March meeting is the yearly “physics sing-a-long” and the public lecture on “the physics of superheros” (I kid you not).

Nerd bragging rights aside, there actually has been a lot of pretty awesome top notch physics stuff going on this week. Here’s a partial list of the things I thought were pretty cool so far:

(1) The BEC in a box. JILA has managed to shrink an entire BEC lab down to a small box (well, ok, about the size of a large air conditioner). They set the thing up in the exhibition hall just to show it off.

(2) More and More about topological insulators. The field just keeps getting hotter. There were tons of talks on the topic last year, this year it seems there are even twice as many…

(3) In the topological direction, there have been a bunch of talks about quantum Hall blah blah blah. Closely related was a great talk by Rafi Budakian’s on observation of half quantum vortices in Strontium Ruthenate: Very cool experiment.

(4) Yu-Ju Lin from the experimental group from NIST (The extended family of Bill Phillips) gave a great talk on producing artificial gauge fields for neutral atom BECs

(5) I’m a bit surprised there have not been more talks on AdS/CFT (maybe it is still too early and it is more of an idea than a theory). Nonetheless, the talk given by Allan Adams was really nice – explaining very clearly how gravity can (!potentially!) help us understand phase transitions of complex materials.

(6) No high Tc. I think it is notable how few talks there are on High Tc superconductivity. Maybe the field has finally been put out of our misery.
Sunday, March 14, 2010

Border Control and Security

When I go through border control, the agents behind the desk typically ask a few questions, not because they care, or because it matters what the answer is, but just because they want to see if you trip up at all, which might signal a person who is nervous or making stuff up. I usually respond with minimal answers just to avoid anything that might make the process take longer than usual. A conversation with a passport control agent coming into the US usually goes like this:

Agent: You live in the UK?
Me: Yes
Agent: What do you do there?
Me: I teach
Agent: What do you teach?
Me: Physics
Agent: How long have you lived there?
Me: 15 months
Agent: Are you carrying any tobacco, alcohol, or food?
Me: No
Agent: OK, you may go.

Once, being very tired, going into the Netherlands, at Schiphol airport, I tripped up, and then was pulled out of line for everything but the strip-search. The conversation went something like this

Agent: What brings you to the Netherlands
Me: A conference
Agent: What kind of conference
Me: Physics
Agent: Where is it being held
Me: Ugh… actually I can’t remember

I had flown in very early in the morning, and I was jetlagged, and I had been travelling a lot and simply couldn’t remember where I was supposed to be going.

Agent: You can’t remember?
Me: Ugh… Sorry, I travel a lot. I have it written down somewhere.

At that point they took me out of line, and made me produce all my documentation, and searched my bags just for good measure.

So this week I flew into the US from England and went through passport control at the Minneapolis airport. The conversation took a slightly unusual turn:

Agent: You live in the UK?
Me: Yes
Agent: What do you do there?
Me: I teach
Agent: What do you teach?
Me: Physics
Agent: How long have you lived there?
Me: 15 months
Agent: Are you carrying any tobacco, alcohol, or food?
Me: No
Agent: Are you carrying any macroscopically quantum coherent superfluid Helium?
Me: Uh… (long pause) … well, no… but good question, I suppose.
Agent: OK, you may go.

Well, turns out the passport control agent was a bit of a physics buff. In fact this is not the first time I have heard of this sort of thing happening. My thesis advisor Bert Halperin, tells a story about going through security at Tel-Aviv. My recollection is that the story goes something like this

Agent: You are giving a talk in Isreal?
Bert: Yes
Agent: What is the title of your talk?
Bert: “The composite fermion Fermi liquid”
Agent: Are there gauge field fluctuations
Bert: Ummm.. Yes.
Agent: Did you go beyond mean field theory?
Bert: Yes, we studied it at RPA level.
Agent: Why not Hartree-Fock?
Bert: Well, there are some divergences in the propagator that we haven’t been able to regularize yet.
Agent: And is that really a problem?
Bert: Probably not. In fact there is some recent work suggesting that the divergences don’t matter in physical observables.. but it is not in my talk this time.
Agent: OK, you may go.

Apparently starving physics grad students sometimes work border security as a night job.
Yes, I know I have not been keeping up my blog very well. Hilary term, (Jan-March) is pretty busy for me. This year, in addition to the usual tutoring, I had to teach my first lecture course (details here. If you are interested, you can look at the homework assignments). But really, just being busy is not a very good excuse for not blogging. My other excuse is just that I ran out of interesting things to say (to the extent that anything I write here is interesting at all in the first place). I hope to resume writing (and hopefully being interesting) soon.