Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Dark and Evil Forest (My Backyard)

The house (or “terraced” as they call it here) that I rent from the college has a nice little garden in the back. As I mentioned shortly after moving in, I did not have much motivation to take good care of the garden. Then later that year, when I discovered a giant monster spider named Shelob living there, I decided that it was a good idea never to set foot in the garden again.

A year later, as one might expect, the garden began to get a bit overgrown. Actually, it began to get a lot overgrown. It looked like the deepest and darkest part of the Amazon jungle: I keep expecting to see anacondas and jaguars.

Unfortunately, it is written in my lease that I am supposed to keep the garden under control, and the all-knowing powers-that-be at college found out what it looked like and sent me an email reminder
This is just a gentle reminder that we do expect the tenants of College houses to keep the garden of their house under control
(This was actually one of the 363 emails that were lost this summer, so I managed to spend the whole summer thinking I had gotten away with my jungle experiment.)

This is what my garden looked like yesterday:
My excuse – that I’m turning the garden into a forest to combat global warming – might not go very far. So early this morning, I went and got myself some garden shears and a bunch of large garden-waste bags and went to work. My first shock was that most of the huge plants that you see in the picture are actually stinging nettles. Although you can apparently make good food from this stuff, the plants are plenty nasty. Even with thick gloves on they can sting you, and it really hurts! You can get some major welts that last for days. So the weed cutting went very slow as I only very gently approached these evil beasts.

Bit by bit, I filled up waste-bag after waste-bag. No doubt this is going to be a long project. So far, this morning, I pulled weeds for about three hours before I ran into Shelob, the monster spider, who scared me back inside. I decided that I’m not going to do any more gardening until later in the fall when it becomes too cold for spiders.

This is where I left the situation.

I know it doesn’t look all that much better, but maybe it is a start. It is hard to even see that it has improved, but believe it or not, there were four full-sized garbage bags of weeds removed from the yard between the first and second photo. At least there are one or two places where you can actually see the ground in the second photo.

The email black hole

The whole world is far too dependent on email. I am no exception. I have three email accounts that I check many times daily --- and usually I respond fairly quickly, even to things that I could probably ignore with few ill effects. But email is my main connection to most of the world, so I try to keep the lines of communication flowing properly.

This summer, however, something unimaginable happened – my email broke down. (shudder!) I didn’t notice it at first because only a small fraction of my emails were getting lost --- being mistakenly forwarded to a black hole of the cyber-aether. As the term began this fall, increasingly people would say to me “didn’t you get my email?”, and I’d just look puzzled. Finally, this week I figured out that there really was a problem and I started investigating. To my complete horror, I discovered a hidden backlog of 363 emails sent over the last few months. So (after fixing the forwarding problem) I started going through all 363 emails. Perhaps not surprisingly, it turned out that of these 363 emails that I was so horrified to have missed, only 6 turned out to be important enough to actually require a response (and/or an apology for not having responded sooner), and actually even these were not all that crucial. 6 out of 363 --- a pretty small fraction. Considering how much time I spend reading and writing email, I’m starting to wonder if I might not be better off just to send them all down the black hole.
Tuesday, October 5, 2010


The Nobel Prize in Physics today was awarded for the discovery of Graphene, a single layer carbon sheet. Back in this post in 2009, I mentioned that this was a hot topic at the APS march meeting.

It turns out that the whole trick to producing graphene is Scotch-Tape. If you take a piece of tape and you lightly touch it to graphite (pencil lead) you frequently will pull off just a single layer of carbon. Pretty cool. (This trick for pulling off thin layers with tape has been known for many years to chemists and material scientists).

Back in this post when I was taking bets for last year's Nobel prize, I made the following statement suggesting that it was not actually deserving of the prize:

Reuters proposes Geim and Novoselov (22%) for the discovery of graphene (carbon sheets) and Ijima (14%) narrowly behind for the discovery of nanotubes (carbon sheets rolled up into a tube). Not that I am opposed to carbon but…

I will remind everyone that Buckyballs, yet another form of Carbon, already won the Nobel prize recently – but in chemistry, not physics. I will also remind everyone that not every molecule made of carbon deserves an immediate Nobel prize. I know that the Carbonists have been lobbying hard, and admittedly both nanotubes and graphene are pretty cool. But I don’t think they are so overwhelmingly cool that they need a Nobel prize just yet. And if the lessons of Buckyballs are anything to learn from, we should expect that the hype will far outweigh the actual usefulness of, or interest in, the stuff in the long run.

I'm amused to see that Doug, over at nanoscale views seems to have a similar opinion.

On the flip-side, graphene is pretty cool stuff. If any fraction of the hype turns out to be true in 10 years, then I would certainly support the prize (and simultaneously eat my words). But from the buckeyball experience I would have thought the Nobel committee might have waited a bit longer on this one. It isn't like the winners are old geezers about to croak who have to be given the prize now since they are not going to survive until next year.

So there you have it... the Nobel prize won with Scotch-tape.