Thursday, April 29, 2010

For your reading pleasure

Fiona Burnell and I have been working on a rather massive paper for almost two years now. Finally, this week, we declared it finished.

If you want know what it is about, you can read my short description here – or you can read the complete paper here, or you can read the reader’s-digest-massively condensed version here. If you don’t want to actually read it, you can just marvel at the cool figures.

Now, this is not the paper that has taken me the longest to write (My record in this respect was this paper, which I started with Gunnar Moller before he started graduate school, and we finished it almost exactly five years later when he was a postdoc). What is unusual about this paper is how long it is --– 35 small print pages: almost a third longer than any other paper I have ever published (not counting review articles). It feels really good to have it done.

What now? Time to write the next paper! .. and if you are the kind of person who reads this stuff, just wait til the next one… it gets even cooler soon!
Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Bells

When Paul Wiegmann visited Oxford early last year, he stayed in the cushy accommodations of the very weathly St. John’s college. Despite the luxury, he was seriously perturbed by the Bells of St. Johns.

“At 1 am they rang and woke me up. Then at 2am they rang twice and woke me up. Then at 3am they rang three times and woke me up…” ... and so forth.

My house (or “terraced”, as it is called) is very close to St. Barnabus Church. There are also hourly chimes at that church all night long, but I’m just far enough away that they don’t disturb me while I am sleeping (a block away is about enough, being that I’m slowly going deaf).

Bells at Oxford are just a fact of life you get used to. In addition to hourly chimes from everywhere, you frequently hear a bell cacophony that continues on and on for minutes, or even for the better part of an hour sometimes. You rarely know where these things are coming from, or why they are ringing in the first place. Many of the 40-something-odd colleges and halls have bell towers, as do many of the dozens of churches scattered around Oxford.

Perhaps the most impressive, if not the loudest, set of bells is at St Giles church, which is conveniently squeezed between the Theoretical Physics department and Somerville College, and can be heard very clearly from both. The bells in this church have an impressive history. The tenor F# bell dates all the way back to 1632 and bears the inscription


“Honar”-ing the king probably meant “do what the king tells you if you want keep your head”. “Feare”-ing God probably also meant, “do what the church tells you if you want to keep your head”. Perhaps “Learn to spell” would have been a good addition to the inscription as well.

Despite the ruckus caused by the frequently ringing of these bells, I confess to having a soft spot for bell-ringing. Back in high-school in Rochester New York, I was heavily recruited by several churches to be part of their bell-choirs. I was considered a choice recruit because I could read music well and, as an agnostic jew, I was always available on Sunday mornings. Admittedly, this was handbell ringing (See here or here), not real quasimodo-style bell ringing, but I’m not sure that any church in Rochester New York even has a proper bell-tower for that. The handbells were popularized as practice tools for their larger counterparts, but have now taken on a life of their own – particularly in sacred music, and in places where they don’t have real bell towers. At any rate, some of these bell-choirs were really fun to play in and they had talented musicians as their leaders. The down side was that I occasionally ended up having to sit through church services --- I guess the corresponding benefit of this was that I finally learned a bit about what goes on in churches (although it also more or less cemented my opinion that I was not really missing much as a non-church-goer). At any rate, I think I may have been the only agnostic Jew in high school who could quote new testament scripture.
Organization is not my strong point. Anyone who has seen my office, or my apartment can vouch for this. Starting my new life as a professor last year, I was worried that lack of organization – particularly in running a research group - might be my downfall. For me, in fact, the entire concept of research is fundamentally disorganized – and I’ve always felt that this is a good thing, since random wandering encourages random discovery.

Some professors do manage to run large organized groups. I think the larger the group, the more organized it has to be. Some even have detailed hierarchical structures, including lieutenants (pronounced “leftenants” over here), sergeants, and so forth. Each person has a unique and well defined project. Higher rank members oversee lower-rank members. They have group meetings periodically where one person reports on their progress, and research gets done very methodically. The top dog doles out the projects and sets the overall directions. The foot soldiers take their orders and produce the results.

But for many theoretical physicists that I know, this is not at all how research works. A more accurate description is that a researcher has some general field of interest and they simply mess around with ideas in that field until they figure out something interesting to work on. They work on this interesting idea for a while, two steps forward, one step back, and eventually do manage to make progress. But this type of messing around is not something that is easily organized. And it is particularly hard to oversee someone else’s messings and decide whether they are messing around correctly or not. Such researchers tend to have smaller research groups and tend to interact much more closely with their students and postdocs.

Of course when it finally comes time to publish discoveries, I do think it is very important to present a very organized picture of what you have found, and I do agonize over the organizations of my publications and talks. But this is more an exercise in covering your tracks and making it look like you knew where you were going all along.

Just sayin'...
Saturday, April 17, 2010

Volcano Woes

I’m used to having my travel schedule disrupted by all sorts of things: Thunderstorms, Snowstorms, Incompetent airline companies, Needing to saw a hole in my bed, and random other unforeseen circumstances.

This week’s unforeseen circumstance was a volcano – mount Eyjafjallajokul in Iceland. If you have not been following the news, I’ll fill you in: The massive amount of ash spewing from the volcano has dispersed across the skies of Europe and has completely shut down all air travel for thousands of miles around.

It figures it would be a volcano in Iceland. First they ruin their own economy, then they destroy the travel industry of the entire continent. This is hardly surprising from a country whose main industries are “fishing, dragons, and screaming” (if you don’t get that joke, look here Although if you live outside the US, you might not be able to stream this brilliant video. Try looking here).

Anyway, at the time of the eruption, I was in Ireland – just an hour flight from home. But alas, for the last three days, and for the forseeable future, no planes have been, or will be, moving. So the only way off the island was by Ferry.

(Random aside: I was amazed to discover that only about 12,000 years ago there were land bridges from Ireland to UK and from the UK to continental Europe. But alas, these bridges are now long gone).

Getting a reservation on one of the ferries was no mean feat. There are precious few ferries, and they quickly started to fill to capacity. (“Capacity” turns out to be far more than they can handle, since on a typical day, I’m told they run at about 10% of capacity – if that). Along with thousands of other people in the same predicament, I started franticly surfing the web trying to get a reservation. (Calling was beyond hopeless). There were very few web sites that would take reservations any more, and many of these sites were freaking out and crashing from the extreme traffic. After a few hours of searching, finally, for a brief moment, Fortuna smiled upon me, and I managed to nab a ferry reservation to Holyhead (Batman) in Wales, for the next day at 8am.

So at 6am Saturday morning I left Maynooth Ireland to go to Dublin Ferry Port. The scene there was hardly to be believed – people lined up to get on the ferries as far as the eye could see. You would think it was a rock concert or something.

Loading the Ferry, the Ulysses (appropriately enough for a Dubliner), was smooth enough. Show your reservation number, and walk right on. There was a guy there grabbing everyone’s baggage and throwing it onto a baggage carosel. Had I been thinking I would have refused to part with my luggage, but at the time I was just happy to be getting on the ferry. Huge mistake (more on this below).

The Ulysses itself is actually very nice. It seemed like it was actually a slightly re-configured posh cruise ship. Imagine the Love Boat, but a bit smaller. Now imagine taking the Love Boat and jam packing it with 1500 tired and grouchy people in a space more suited to about 100 people. (For those who might be interested, I spent the trip sitting in a corner reading appendix E from this massive article which I had the foresight to print out the night before. I only wished I had used a slightly larger font – my eyes are getting too old for the “print reduced by a factor of 4 so you don’t have to carry around too much paper” trick).

The seas were remarkably smooth, and the trip was very quick. This was not a coincidence. If the weather had been windy or rainy, the volcano ashes would have dispersed or found their way down to the ground as rain and air travel would have resumed. Alas, the unusual streak of fair weather and smooth sailing in Europe this month seems to have come at just the wrong time.

On the other hand, what was decidedly not smooth was the situation at Holyhead. The baggage carosel at the Holyhead terminal was set up to handle about a dozen bags, maybe a hundred,… not ten thousand. The masses of humanity squeezed into the arrival hall and complete confusion reigned. Just when we thought that maybe a few people were starting to find their luggage, the next ferry docked and complete confusion started all over again.

When I finally found my luggage after about an hour and a half (No exaggeration – I was cursing myself for stupidly allowing my luggage to be separated from me in the first place) I then had to find my way to the train. Of course there were thousands of other people with the same idea. The confusion was so complete in the station that it wasn’t even clear where the line for the train started and where it ended. I wandered around in the confusion for quite some time (you might think they would bring out a few extra police or rail workers to help with the situation, but no). As I got more frustrated, I debated getting a cab to take me to anywhere else besides Holyhead so I could reconsider the problem there. Just then a security officer came along and declared that I was standing in the line for the train tickets and just beyond that was, the train platform. He pointed only about 50 feet away to what was supposedly the front of the line. This was another rather lucky break. In only about 40 minutes I made it to the front of this line, grabbed my ticket and walked onto the next train. In another stroke of luck, the next train was direct to Birmingham – whereas many would have required at least two transfers. Fortuna was certainly smiling on me now.

I hesitate to think about how long some people must have been waiting to get on the train. The line stretched so long it was probably hours and hours before some of the folks at the back of the line got out of there.

Anyway, from Holyhead the journey was pretty simple. 4.5 hours to Birminham, short layover, and an hour from there to Oxford. I made it home by about 8 pm. I typically make it home from the US in much less time.

Next travel disruption? Earthquakes? Locusts?
Tuesday, April 13, 2010


Much of the teaching at Oxford is done in “tutorials”: one, two, or three students at a time with one professor (A similar system exists at Cambridge with the one important difference being that they are called “supervisions.” Oxford students insist that the word “tutorial” is better because you can shorten it to “tute”, which they do more often than not).

The tutorial system is very manpower intensive, but reasonably effective in forcing the students to keep up. I’ve been handling a full load of tutorials since the first day I joined here last year.

In addition to tutorials, there are also regular lectures. Last term, (Hilary 2010) I gave my first lecture course. It was a softball intended to ease me into the hard work of lecturing: a graduate course with only one lecture per week for 8 weeks. (Graduate courses are considered easier to teach as there are fewer students, the students are all very motivated, you can talk about whatever you want, and if you do a bad job there is far less carnage).

For those who are interested, the topic of this course was “Topological Matter”. If you want more details you can check out the web page here. (Feel free to try some of the homework assignments for fun. Many of the problems can be done without having attended lectures, and they are meant to be fun – well, fun for physicists).

As I probably should have expected, in 8 lectures I made it through about a third of my intended course outline. For a graduate course this is not so much of a problem. The course is meant to introduce the students to certain topics that they want to know about. If they learn fewer topics, but learn them better, that is fine too. Maybe another year I’ll teach the remaining two thirds.

Next year, however, I will be lecturing Condensed Matter (aka Solid State) Physics for 180 undergraduates (give or take). In this case the syllabus is very constrained, and I am required to cover certain topics –-- as these are the topics that will be examined. An interesting feature of the Oxford system is that the lecturer is not the person to write the exam. Instead, a syllabus is agreed upon before the course starts, and the exam is written based on the syllabus. The lecturers, as well as the tutors, are responsible for imparting the information in the syllabus and hence preparing the students for the exam. If a lecturer does not cover all the material, then the students could be in some trouble, and this makes everyone very unhappy. I have until January 2011 to prepare this course, and it already feels like I’m going to be very squeezed for time!
Monday, April 12, 2010

The Swedish Chef

Jim Henson was truly a genius of entertainment – bringing us beloved characters from Cookie Monster, to Kermit, to Miss Piggy. One of the ones that always made me laugh was the Swedish Chef: He looked absurd and spoke some vaguely Swedish sounding gibberish. You can see him here in his finest form.

Did you ever wonder why Jim Henson decided that the Chef would be Swedish? He could have been almost any nationality: Turkish, Italian, Chinese, Mongolian,… but would he have been as funny? Somehow I think not. Something is inherently funny about the Swedish language – even if when you are not actually speaking Swedish.

Last week I was in Stockholm for Maria Hermanns’ thesis defense. (More on this later –-- maybe). At dinner the night of her defense, her proud research advisor Hans Hansson said “I am going to tell a joke now, and I apologize that I cannot translate it into English. It is only funny if it is told in a silly sounding language.” When the joke was told (with great gusto) all those who spoke Swedish laughed uproariously.

For the record here is the joke in translation:

There is a fishing vessel – a shrimp boat – off the coast of Sweden, and it has a full load of Swedish shrimp. But somewhere in the huge pile of Swedish shrimp there is a single Norwegian shrimp that had somehow wandered across the border and was caught in Swedish territory.

Q: How do you know, of all these shrimp, which one is the Norwegian shrimp.

A: The Norwegian shrimp is the one jumping up and down screaming “I’m a lobster, I’m a lobster!”.

Like I said. It isn’t very funny in English (And apparently you have to know something about the relationship between Swedes and Norwegians). But in a silly sounding language, apparently it is hysterical – just like the Swedish chef.

Note 1: The reason Hans was reminded about this joke was probably because a few of the people at dinner were eating giant shrimp sandwiches for dinner. (Here, “giant” modifies “sandwich” not “shrimp”). This sandwich consisted of a heap of shrimp about the size of my head on a small slab of bread – the dream sandwich!

Note 2: You might want to try out the “Swedish Cheferizer” which turns any English into Swedish Chef Gibberish.
Sunday, April 11, 2010

Awful to Awesome

Note from the road:

Wandering through the Temple Bar district of Dublin yesterday afternoon, I came across something that was halfway between awesome and awful: a band that specialized with folk covers of your favorite rock tunes -- complete with fiddle as the lead. I managed to find a few videos of them on youtube. Here is a video of them doing Paint it Black. Unfortunately, I could not find a video of their truly grisly version of I will survive. Some of the covers were so awful that they went all the way around the circle to awesome again.
Saturday, April 3, 2010

Motivated Students and Motivating Students

Some of my students are extremely serious, motivated, and smart. I frequently see the same hard-working students at lunch or dinner arguing over some physics problem, or doing some calculation while eating. I’m very impressed with these students, they are a pleasure to teach, and as one might expect, these are exactly the students who have been doing extremely well on their exams.

Even some of the students who arrived at Oxford with an educational deficit (perhaps having gone to a not-so-good high school) have a fair chance of catching up and doing well if they are smart and really work like crazy. Alas, in some cases, if a deficit is too large to begin with, it may be too great to overcome. Nonetheless, I’ve already seen some driven students come here with a philosophy of “succeed or die trying” (or as they said in Sparta "e tan e epitas", with your shield or on it!”). A few of them have pulled off what can only be described as exam miracles.

Then there are a few students of the opposite variety: those who are not working hard enough and are barely scraping by. My initial philosophy upon coming here was to treat them as adults: If they want to waste their education, they are fully entitled to do so. However, it soon became clear that this was not going to be an acceptable policy. To begin with, poorly performing students are considered a bad reflection on a college (and inevitably on the professors that teach them). Secondly, one must remember that much of the funding for education in the UK comes from the government (Oxford was essentially free to UK citizens until just a few years ago –-- now it is absurdly cheap [by US standards], but not free). As such, allowing students to waste their education, and hence UK taxpayer money, is frowned upon. Finally, academic competition between colleges is fierce (as measured by the famous “Norrington Table” – the subject of much discussion around here – I’ll save that for another post). The colleges that perform well by this measure are then able to recruit better students, and then perform even better in future years. At any rate, the upshot is that part of my job is to squeeze the best performance possible out of my students.

A few weeks ago, over a late night beer, I asked a few of my more experienced colleagues how they get their students to work harder. Although answers varied, at least one took a “no-holds-barred” approach: Students worked… or else. Basically this professor viewed it as his job to whip the students into shape, whether or not they appreciated him later for doing so. It turns out that most of his students do actually appreciate him for doing this (although I’m sure there will be a few who don’t like this kind of military approach to matters).

Somewhere along the line most students run into a strict but fair teacher who commands total respect and demands the impossible. In the end, students frequently like and remember fondly these demanding teachers for forcing them to learn. For me, perhaps, it was Mr. Fraction at Twelve Corners Middle School, who was not a math teacher, but an English teacher. He gave me detention every day for a month until I could improve my handwriting to the point where it was readable. I’m not going to say that my handwriting is now particularly legible, but without him, probably even I would not even be able to decipher my own scrawl.

I’m not sure if I have it in me to be one of these taskmasters, I find it difficult to chew out students even when they deserve it. But perhaps slowly, as I get more annoyed with students who are not performing as well as I know they could, I might morph into Mr. Fraction.

Comments encouraged from profs or other teachers who might be reading this…
Thursday, April 1, 2010

What it takes to be a Tiger

Before his recent fall from grace, Tiger Woods was a spokesperson for Accenture, the world’s largest consulting firm. Not a bad spokesperson: dominant in his sport, good looking, and all-American. As long as he kept a squeaky clean image, his contract with Accenture netted him 20 million US $ per year. In Airports all over the western world (JFK, Newark, Heathrow, Stockholm, Amsterdam, to name a few) huge billboard pictures of Tiger were posted with slogans like “We know what it takes to be a tiger.”

When Tiger’s Mistress scandal broke early this winter, Accenture was very fast to sever its ties, but it took them months to replace all of the billboards with Tiger’s photo on them. For the entire winter I walked through airports and watched people snicker at the billboards “We know what it takes to be a tiger – yeah, now the whole world knows too… Har har har.”

Finally, this week I noticed that all the Accenture-Tiger ads in Heathrow have been replaced with an ad that has an elephant on a surfboard. Actually, perhaps Accenture should have done their research into the mating behavior of elephants before choosing this – elephants are pretty far from monogamous.