Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Fish Through the Posts

Today, being the Chinese Dragon Boat Festival, people are currently in the midsts of eating, drinking and being merry. However, as a large part of Chinese life is taken up with the former two occupations causing the latter I see little difference at the moment. This is the summer festival commemorating the death of legendary poet Qu Yuan and, through several steps of death, fish food and boats, we end up eating zongzi, a rice dumpling filled with red bean paste. Beer also seems to be a highly consumed item though I'm not sure that the poet was a heavy drinker himself. Anyway, in a bit I will head to the local beer garden to remember the valiant efforts to prevent this figurehead of Chinese literature becoming food for the fishes.

When not passing off weekday drinking for significant historical nostalgia I've been crawling through the muggy evenings with a few activities. Most significant among these was last night when I cooked the first meal which was really, genuinely cooking as I know it from my past. Not that I was cooking English food but that it contained several ingredients and consisted of more stages than simply opening a bag of dumplings, boiling said dumplings and consuming cooked fare. With carefully thoughtover quantities of chili, szechuan pepper, pork, soy and rice vinegar, the creation was a thoroughly wholesome feast when added to the other dishes which had been prepared and, when I finally get my fridge, I hope to do this far more often.

Yesterday evening was spent drafting a letter to the Italian ambassador to invite him/her to the grand opening of Strings 2006 which will be a public lecture in the great hall of the people. It was with great restraint that I mentioned Ferrero Rocher at no point in the text.

On top of my English corner lesson, which was distinctly underpopulated this week as many people are finishing projects at the moment, I taught my first one-on-one English class. Having never taught like this I didn't know quite how it was going to pan-out but I soon realised that it's actually a lot of fun teaching someone who's English is already at a pretty decent level. When learning Chinese I spend most of my time asking about the roots of words and why two words look or sound similar (I think this pleases and infuriates my teacher at a reasonable equilibrium). Unsurprisingly perhaps this analytic bent of mine influenced my teaching style and from a list of fifteen words we spent almost two hours exploring how they all linked together and could be used in different contexts. My student seemed pretty happy with the lesson so I hope to do more of this in the rapidly diminishing free time I still have.

I still have some topics I mentioned from a few posts ago which mean to discuss, but pre-beer garden is not a good time. I can indulge briefly and mention a film that I've been wanting to watch for some time and have only just got my hands on. THX-1138 was George Lucas' first movie and was based on a short he did while at university. Produced in 1971 by Francis Ford Coppola and starting Robert Duvall, this pair not only went on to make the Godfather films but also between the G.F. parts one and two, made one of my favourite movies, The Conversation. The Conversation is slow, with a minimalist jazz soundtrack and a superb performance by Gene Hackman as a surveillance expert asked to listen in on a conversation. It turns out that what he hears puts him in a morally difficult situation. The film is about sound, paranoia and interpretation and I shall say no more because I think that the less you know about the film, the more impact it has at the critical moment.

Anyway, THX-1138 is a dystopian fantasy drawing heavily on Brave New World and 1984 and takes place in a world where love is illegal and people spend their time in a drug induced state of emotionlessness in order to be more productive, buy more and build a 'happy' and constructive society. As in all (as far as I can tell) dystopian tales, the main character somehow gets out of sync with society and rebels. The story itself is not a unique one but the filming is beautiful with techniques from photography 101 taken to their logical conclusions and beyond.

A few years ago the film was remastered making it look minty fresh which many hard-core film fans seem somewhat dismayed about (or at least about the fact that Lucas has not let the original be released on DVD). There's little in the way of character building but this is clearly a deliberate point as the characters are so shallow, never having been allowed to become fully aware of their emotions. A large part of the film is spent listening to people order commands which are meaningless to the viewer and, in the grand scheme of things, presumably meaningless overall. As long as you don't mind these two points and have an attention span of more than a few minutes, this is a satisfying film to ponder over for a little while. (Incindentally, references to THX-1138 are in all of George Lucas' subsequent films and a few others to boot).

Right, the beer garden beckons.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Brane Gymnastics

A fun weekend in Beijing with some stunning sunsets seen from my apartment balcony in the quickly rising temperatures of the evenings.

Also, a couple of photos of the Nanchang campus just before we left.

I mentioned a few things I wanted to talk about last time and was way too tired. Now, Sunday evening I'm still pretty knackered but can at least cover one of the topics, though it is physics and I'm going to have to talk in a little stringy detail I'm afraid.

It's this paper by Nick Evans, my former PhD supervisor amongst others. Nick told me before that they were working on this so I was eagerly awaiting the results. The topic is meson spectroscopy from AdS/CFT though from a very different perspective to the work which was first performed by Karch and Katz (and KMMW). The idea of this original work was that in order to introduce quarks (fundamental matter) into the gauge/gravity duality, you need some new object for a string to end on.

A string stretching between the D3-brane and the new object knows that its ends are different, even when the two objects are brought to the 'same position'. From the fundamental construction of the correspondence, the D3-branes label a colour charge for the string and the other object should label a new charge, a flavour charge. Therefore, something with one end on a D3-brane and one end on the new object is in the fundamental of the colour gauge group and the fundamental of the flavour group.

There are two other types of string we can talk about too. There are the original strings which were there before we introduced the new object. These are simply the adjoint strings of the N=4 hypermultiplets. Then there is another new type of string which just sits on the new object and is therefore in the adjoint of the flavour group.

In the supergravity limit we can forget about the fact that this is a string and treat it as a point particle. We can write down an action for this which we treat as an effective field theory.

It turns out that the correct new object to introduce is a D7 brane. There are several reasons for this choice, one of which is the supersymmetry preserving properties of a system of Dp-D(p-4) branes.

Another, more phenomenologically interesting reason for this choice is that because there are two perpendicular directions to a D7-brane, there is an SO(2) symmetry of the scalar fields living on it. Of course, the scalar fields are charged in the adjoint of the flavour group and are not coloured and therefore correspond to mesons. The SO(2) symmetry simply corresponds to the usual chiral symmetry which we know gets broken by non-perturbative effects in QCD, so this symmetry is of considerable interest to us.

When we introduce a D7-brane into AdS5xS5, we can study the well-behaved brane-flows in the two directions perpendicular to the brane as a function of the radial direction in the AdS space (which corresponds to an energy scale on the field theory side).

The behaviour of the flow at large energies can tell us about the mass of quarks and vev of the quark bilinear and, in the massless quark limit, we find that the chiral symmetry is preserved. This is not a suprising result because in a supersymmetric field theory we don't expect to get a chiral condensate which would break the chiral symmetry.

So, we need to go to a more complicated geometry in order to find any QCD-like properties. The geometry which was first studied in the context of chiral symmetry breaking was the Constable-Myers geometry which is a rather strange deformation with a flowing dilaton, a naked singularity and an unstable gauge theory. However, it's realistic enough for us to be able to ask relevent questions about QCD.

In particular, when we study the solution of the D7-brane in this background, we find that in the massless quark limit there is a chiral condensate and the geometrical SO(2) symmetry is broken as the brane flows into the corresponding IR region of the geometry. Not only this but we can study the fluctuations of the brane, which correspond to mesons, find the eigenvalues of these fluctuations and discover that we have a massless mode in the massless quark limit, corresponding to the pion. In fact we have all the ingredients we would expect for a theory which exhibits chiral symmetry breaking (Note also that the relationship between quark mass, meson mass and chiral condensate agree with the Gell-Mann-Oakes-Renner relation in the small quark mass limit).

So, this is all well and good but we have only introduced one flavour of quark. We can introduce two D7 branes in parallel and study the DBI action of these but we find that because certain important superpotential terms, there is never an SU(Nf) axial symmetry to break and so we can't study the interesting effects that would go with this. We get no new results for multiple branes as compared to just one.

So, step forward a couple of years to last week and we have this new paper. Their idea is to study what happens when we have a brane corresponding to a heavy quark and a brane corresponding to a massless quark. What can the string stretching between them tell us?

In fact, I'll jump to the punchline before getting back to the technicalities. It turns out that by setting two of the parameters correctly
using experimental results and using the same non-supersymmetric background that was used to study chiral symmetry breaking, we can get the mass of the lightest B-meson to within around 20% of the correct answer. This is a pretty nice result in what is essentially a rather naive model which is not that much like QCD and is certainly not being used in the range of validity of the strong-coupling limit of QCD. What I mean by this is that at the energy of the B-meson mass, QCD is weakly coupled, whereas, the field theory dual to the supergravity theory being used is conformal but strongly coupled at these scales.

In fact, I'm not going to go much into the technicalities of the paper which I'm currently working through and reproducing the results, but the basic outline is this:

Construct the flows for the two D7-branes, corresponding to the heavy and light quarks. Write down the Polyakov action for a string stretching between them. Use the constaint equations for the strings and the conjugate operators of position in each of the eight directions perpendicular to the string to write down an operator equation which acts on a field living in the eight dimensions of the D7-brane.

We can study the large energy behaviour of this field which tells us about the operator ub(bar) in the lagrangian. We know that there is no mixing term like this and so the first order behaviour for the field is zero.

On top of this zero are the fluctuations which correspond to the meson itself. Using a plane-wave ansatz (because we are not interesting in interactions), we can set the wave-function equal to f(r)exp(ik.x) where r corresponds to four of the directions (three of them being on the five sphere) and x represents the directions in Minkowski space-time. With this ansatz k^2->-M^2 and we can find the eigenvalues of this equation which give us the meson mass. This all has to be performed numerically even though the metric for the Constable-Myers geometry has a nice analytical form, but when this is done, a 20% agreement to experiment is found. Nice!

Ermm, so there it is. The paper is nicely written and not too long so you would probably understand more if you actually read the paper yourself but hopefully there are a couple of random pieces of insight in there for you to chew on. I can see some obvious extensions to this but I'm not getting to tell you now because, if they work out, I might get a paper out of it :-P

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Return to the Fold

I'm back in a newly cleansed Beijing after a colossal storm that most appeared to miss as it went on to the early hours of the morning. Thunder and lightning clanged and clashed for a good four hours purging the air of the clammy pressure which had been building up for days. Prior to this the train back to Beijing had been a relatively uneventful 13 hours punctuated frequently by a kid playing on her phone in our shoebox-sized cabin without noticing that perhaps it might have made the other passengers a wee bit tense. Had it not been for her grandmother playing on the phone when her granddaughter had been taking respite, said phone may have accidentally been dismantled by the two temporarily short-fused physicists.

Lightning over Beijing, unfortunately not my picture:

I've got a few things I really want to talk about:

This paper, by my former PhD supervisor amongst others, came out today and I want to talk about the results which are interesting, surprising and could, I hope, be extended in interesting directions.

I want to talk about the semantic web which has been in the news on and off recently and I'd like to explore some of the possible interesting avenues that this could take the web in. I may discuss generative grammar if time permits and see where that takes us too.

I want to talk about the agreement to build ITER in the South of France and some of the really long terms goals of the fusion project.

Having finished the book I mentioned before on gauge theory, gravity and knot theory I'd like to discuss a few interesting subjects I've just become aware of which had passed me by before.

Ermm, and probably some other stuff as well. However, having not practiced my hanzi (Chinese writing) for about three weeks and with a lesson tonight (which has just finished) I've done a total of almost 8 hours Chinese scribbling today and my brain has turned to mush. Lesson went well in the end but I'm looking to step up the number of lessons I have per week when time permits.

Lots to do at the moment with a few project ideas to test out and a proposal to write before a string summer school which begins at the institute in a couple of weeks, continuing nicely into Strings 2006 which itself looks like being a superb event. At some point I may write a Beijing Strings 2006 survival guide for foreign visitors who I can see having a few hurdles to get over. There will be a lot of help on hand I've no doubt but with almost 600 people attending this event the likelihood of a few theorists going AWOL on the Beijing streets is pretty high. On top of all this is a busy weekend and another two hour English Corner to prepare for Monday. Anyway, before I do all that I figure an uninterrupted night's sleep would give me a decent head-start so everything else can wait till tomorrow.


P.S Some good news today with my latest paper being accepted to our first journal of choice with only some minor alterations to be made.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Anomalous Dimensions

I'm happy to say that having arrived in China I'm finally completely free of Big Brother!


On the whole my life here is relatively stress free when compared to somebody stuck in an office with many duties and a hierarchy of bosses to please. I do have various duties but none of them can be called stressful. I do have pressures but they're of a rather more ethereal nature than pressing deadlines or teaching on the whole. I have to publish enough quality papers to continue in this line of work which I enjoy so much. I'm still to publish a killer paper, a paper that really makes people sit up and pay attention and perhaps most importantly move in a slightly different direction because of a result that I've discovered. I feel that I've so far been links in a series of bridges but not yet a supporting column. I hope as I build up more collaborations and get to chat more with people in my field (something that I rarely get to do in my current situation) that that day may come.

Saying all this I'm sitting in the office in Nanchang on a Sunday afternoon and being a visitor gives me even more freedom from guilt than I would normally have. I'm taking the time here simply to sit down and read a text book without the distractions I have in the ITP (not that there are too many of them). In a pleasantly air-conditioned room I'm looking out at the sweltering afternoon heat as the ground bakes and the people spend as little time in the sun as possible.

It's rather difficult to know how to set the tone for a post like this. With only a cursory glance at the place it's not easy to make insightful comments about life in Nanchang. Because life in China is alien to me in so many ways this just feels like a subtly different flavour of alien. I hope that adding some photos will fill in some of the blanks.

Though I find it difficult in such a short time to take in the full picture, I it seems am taken in by most. In a controlled set of observations it was noted that 50% of people turned around to look at me once they'd passed. Woman can be seen whispering to each other and giggling at this lanky white guy as he wonders wide-eyed around the city with some bemusement.

Anyway, yesterday was another scorcher and three of us spent the day exploring the city, so as expected there are a few photos from Nanchang as seen from the only Westerner I've seen here thus far.

We started the day driving to the new campus of the university. Nanchang University (the city's main uni but by no means its only one) has 60,000 students and over the last three years a new campus has been built. Unfortunately, though the campus is rather elegant with rolling green landscaped gardens, interesting open spaces in the concrete buildings and some exciting architectural features, the opinion is a slightly forlorn one that the speed of construction has left a thin veneer covering a rather poorly constructed set of buildings which will start to show signs of wear all too soon.

Downtown Nanchang is currently in a fast period of development and the strange shells of buildings which come with this are in evidence all over the place.

The following are a few sights from around the campus giving a bit of a feel for the place.
There are many sculptures set in the still fairly empty grounds. These same dragons can be seen adorning the CCTV tower in Beijing

With rather fine shafts of light filling the interiors of the buildings, the stairwells make for an interesting view

At the main entrance gate you are greeted by a peace statue in front of which are Bo (Professor from Nanchang) and Feng (my colleague from the ITP).

Students study using both conscious and subconscious thought processes

Leaving the campus we headed to Tengwang, one of three famous pavilions in the South of China; their fame coming mostly from their appearance in poems by some of the most famous ancient poets (Wang Bo in this case). On the way to the pavilion we passed a wedding which was being celebrated by setting off an immense volcano of firecrackers which for a good few minutes were absolutely deafening.

This is a view of the pavilion from the front, though it looks classically built, this version (the 29th in its place) was built in the last 20 years.

From one of the parapets, you get a fine view of the Yinyang on the ground at the front with the 2^3 symbols around the outside, I shall attempt to find the numerological significance of this.

Somewhat mirroring the Yinyang was this pool which at feeding time becomes a frenzied sea of gold and green.

Within the building there are various shops selling all sorts of kitsch and tat. One of the shops sells quite unbelievable miniature writing on stone, ivory and metal. On a piece of stone some 1 inch square is around 20,000 Chinese characters and I attempted to get a sense of the scale through the magnifying glass.

and at the very top is a rather fine painted wooden ceiling.

Nanchang holds great import in 20th century Chinese history, being the city of the Nanchang uprising, the first major battle in the Chinese civil war between the Kuomintang and the Communists. This was on the first of August 1927 and the central square is Ba Yi (8/1) square, with a central pillar commemorating the events. Around the square is the main shopping area where we wondered around for a couple of hours buying a few souvenirs and a couple of DVDs I've been searching for for a while (including Lady Vengeance, the final in the vengeance trilogy of which Old Boy and Sympathy for Mr Vengeance are the first parts). While walking around I took a few snaps of Nanchang street scenes.

Relaxing on a bike, listening to music this guy seemed unaware of the hustle and bustle around him.

A Jon's eye view of the Nanchang populous, a large percentage of whom use umbrellas to shield themselves in the soaring temperatures.

And finally, the third part in Jerome K Jerome's trilogy would surely have featured something of this sort:

Just a couple more days here to study in such a peaceful setting before getting back on the train for the return leg.

Friday, May 19, 2006

The Word on a Shoe String

First a photo from the train with less than 6ft of bed space and the frilliest of pink covers.


Well, that was thoroughly enjoyable. Duty completed, I now have a few days in Nanchang to work in a relaxed place and see a few sights before getting back on the train for another overnight journey.

The talk today was actually great fun to give. After an hour of attempting to put my overheads in a form that could be projected and a while thinking that I'd have to do the whole thing on the blackboard (something that rather appeals) I gave the talk to about 25 people, mostly optics grad students and not a single one fell asleep, a phenomenon that happens all too frequently in physics seminars. I don't know whether the line I treaded encompassed enough people's knowledge but the number of heads nodding with agreement by the end seemed to suggest that I hadn't missed the mark completely.

Essentially I wanted to explain three things main things 1) What does a strongly coupled interaction mean, why is it a problem and what does it mean in terms of the theory on a D3-brane 2) Why you get gravity from string theory and why a D3-brane would warp spacetime to give you a strange 10d universe and 3) Why the theory of one can tell us about the other and what we can do with this fact. I probably had five too many slides for the time so I skipped a few bits when I realised that time was pressing and they weren't vital and after an hour and a bit I'd finished and explained pretty much what I'd hoped to. As I give more and more seminars I'm attempting to have fewer and fewer slides and spend more time chatting and repeating the important bits.

Here are a couple of photos of me in full flow.

Apart from that we spent most of today sitting around in the office chatting and going to great restaurants to stuff ourselves with fine Jiangxi cuisine. The department is a strange one with only three high energy physicists in residence. Two of them share an old lab as an office which they've decked out with luxurious leather sofas and finely fashioned desks.

The corridors also looked photo worthy so I got some snaps in the half light

and out of a window towards the setting sun I liked this distant street scene

Having topped myself up with a martini in the bar to sooth my tired throat it's time, once again to head to bed. Tomorrow we're in for some sightseeing to one of China's finest towers. Photos to follow.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Bubble Wrapped Brane

So, Nanchang is another big, industrial Chinese city, filled with people and all the paraphenalia which comes with them. So far nothing in the city itself is surprising though nothing is unpleasant. I have been surprised (though I shouldn't be by now) by the hospitality of my hosts. They've put us up in the best hotel in the city which is a very nice four star establishment with all mod cons, including an English snooker table on which, through much stretching and gurning to pot a single ball, we passed a good hour after dinner.

Food in Jiangxi is similar to Szechuan and Hunan in that there's a lot of chilli involved though slightly different use of other sauces and sugar does differentiate them. Local beer is fruity.

The train ride: it turns out that a 14 hour train ride is about as much fun as traveling, mostly in the dark, in a small rocking compartment sounds. It's fine, it got us from A to B and I'd do it again. The bed was a good half a foot too small which isn't a great deal of fun and the tracks appear to have been laid in a time where rolling stock rolled on cobbles. I can't complain too much though; it was clean and cheap and only a little late.

Do I sound slightly passive today? Well, perhaps the four hours of interrupted sleep have somewhat dulled my senses and perhaps I'm mildly concerned that the seminar I'm going to give tomorrow is going to be too hard for some and too easy for the rest. I've been asked not only to give a seminar on AdS/CFT which optical physicists can follow but I've also been asked to explain the latest developments in the subject. I can only do my best and the tiny crowd who will be there will just have to respect that I'm putting the effort into what I think is a non-trivial task.

Yeah, I'm tired. There are photos but that would involve plugging in the camera and clicking some buttons in a sensible order. Bed sounds like the better option.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Something Wicked This Way Comes

Last night as the sun set and the temperature wavered above 30 degrees, the air felt like nettles. Dark clouds blew quickly across the sky and swirls of dust came straight at you whichever direction you faced. A little before 9 the storm broke and forks of lightning darted across the mountains to the West of the city, the clouds magnifying the light overhead. For half an hour the rains came and seemed to clean everything and during that time I walked outside feeling cleansed and pummeled by the rolling thunder. Those dashing inside or sprinting with umbrellas clearly thought me a fool and in the sweltering heat I thought the same of them. It was only after the storm had passed, the temperatures dropped and I got back to my apartment that I realized the real reason that they'd all darted for cover. On washing my hair which had begun to feel a little strange I discovered a sink covered in muck and grime, picked up by the rain and deposited on the city. Walking around today, the cars parked last night look like they've been off-roading for a month, all covered from bumper to roof in a coating of sandy mud. I shan't be wallowing in the joys of summer rain any time soon.

I commented over the winter about how impressed I was that even in temperatures below -10 people didn't seem concerned about frostbite and spent a considerable amount of time and energy keeping themselves warm outside. I realise now that the temperatures have risen, that the reason I thought that so many people enjoyed this masochistic behavior was because a small percentage of an awful lot of people is still a lot of people. It doesn't take a large fraction of 14 million to look like Beijing is busy and only now that everyone is coming outside do I see the population in its full capacity. The streets are even more crowded, the roads even more congested and the cycle lanes at even higher potential of pile-ups. I'm starting to see China and its population troubles in full glory.

Now, with just an hour to go before I depart on a voyage to Nanchang I realise that in the time I will be on the train tonight I could fly back to Oxford and have a decent sleep at the other end. I could fly London to Moscow over four times. This place is big and the ride I'm about to take is a relatively short distance. I'm pleased this isn't the 72 hour ride to Urumqi in the East of the country which some have to face without a seat. So, the talk is written, books are packed and supplies for the journey have been purchased. Jiangxi province looks like an interesting one but I shall report first hand on what I find.

Jiangxi is the Pink province towards the bottom right, not far from Taiwan.

I'm currently making my way through a fun book by John Baez (nephew, I believe, of Joan) and Javier Munian on "gauge fields, knots and gravity" which is mostly covering ground that I know but in an interesting and enlightening way. When something suitable crops up I shall make some comments here. When the GUT paper comes out, which should be in a week or two, I shall attempt to explain that in reasonable detail too. I would advise having a read of This Weeks Finds which this time is not too mathematical and has some strangely fascinating comments on ice!

Zorba the Greek is packed as well and though I haven't had a great deal of time to dip into it recently it's a lot of fun and certainly comment-worthy.

Right, final preparations to make so hopefully the next post should be from Nanchang.


P.S. In a slightly tired state today I typed "birthday reminder" directly into the address window of my browser (Firefox) instead of typing it into a search engine. Before I noticed, google had been contacted and took me straight to the first site that is found when you type in "birthday reminder" - genius! The moral being, if you know that typing "John Baez" into google will find his site as the top search, type it in the address bar and you'll go straight there. I don't know which plugin I'm using which allows this (I'm guessing this is simply the power of the google toolbar) but it's a clever one.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Lost in Translation

Just arrived back from an extremely satisfying English Corner. This week we almost doubled the number of attendees to 15. Amongst other things, this time I got them to bring a poem in English to read and discuss and it's been a fun couple of hours dissecting Tennyson, Marlowe, Wordsworth and others. It's extremely rewarding to see them arrive, a little shy and withdrawn and leave all chatting away and seeming to have enjoyed the two hours. It's enjoyably for me but pretty tiring as I spent some time pre-class this evening preparing a quiz amongst other things and trying to work out what the poems meant. I'm not naturally very good at reading poems and getting their meanings if I'm only reading them in my head so I really have to concentrate to analyse them. Strange that I find calculating homotopy classes easier than dissecting Whitman.

In fact the title for this post refers not to this evening's class but to a movie from yesterday. The book "Everything is illuminated" is ingeniously funny in parts, darkly comic in some, shockingly disturbing in others and fascinating throughout. Unfortunately by missing out all these key elements the film retains almost no good qualities. In the book a lot of it is written in letter form from a Ukranian translator to his American friend who he helped to find out about his Jewish grandfather's past in Ukraine in the second world war. A lot of the simple comedy comes from translation in the letter clearly straight out of a thesaurus. A good third of the book is also concerned with the history of the schtetl that his grandfather grew up in and the subsequent invasion and destruction of it by the Nazis. It's all missing from the film, seemingly through lack of budget though this oversight leaves little to be desired. Read the book, don't watch the film.

Today I've spent writing my talk for Friday which is proving harder than expected (really, how do I explain the AdS/CFT correspondence in an hour to a group of students who know neither what a gauge theory is, nor presumably any general relativity? - well, actually I have an idea but I'm going to have to tread some lines very carefully). I've also been proof reading the new paper which will hopefully be released in a week or two. I've mostly been checking for grammar (though you would perhaps not have guessed so from my own writing) as I can only claim to understand a small fraction of the physics content. I've sort of been dragged (voluntarily) into this one due to certain computer skills I've obtained over the last few years and haven't been let in on much of the rest of it. I'm trying to piece it together as I go along and may write a post to solidify my shaky understanding.

Anyway, my eyes can't stay open any longer so I shall retire, through the 30 degree night air, to my now pleasantly cool flat.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Fly Me To The Moon

They laughed, they cried, they applauded, they cried some more...

As I finally popped my karaoke cherry last night, two things became apparent. First, I have a deep, rich voice, with tones of mahogany and melted chocolate, of black coffee and rolling thunder. Secondly, I can't hit a note for toffee, well, not the right notes anyway. My audience was however infinitely patient and far too polite as I murdered song after song, deep into the hours of this morning. From Frank Sinatra to The Beatles, from The Verve to The Stones, crooners around the world stirred in their graves and those who were not already in their graves wished that they were.
It was however a surprisingly enjoyable evening and it was only with marginal modesty that I minded my faulty larynx.

Party World was the venue for my friend's birthday treat, and so, on a school night we arrived there at midnight. Karaoke out here is of no relation to Karaoke in the UK where I would not only have offended the ears of friends, but also of strangers in some theme pub full of rugby players trotting out Hey Jude.

Party World is a mix of Willy Wonka's chocolate factory and the evil undertones of The 5000 Fingers of Dr T, a film that gave me nightmares as a child. It's like a luxurious hotel with several hundred private rooms on seven levels, all bedecked with leather sofas and a giant television connected to your interactive display panel through which you decide your fate. After midnight rooms become cheaper and you pay a fixed rate to sing your heart out till 6 in the morning while eating and drinking as much from the buffet as your diaphragm can cope with.

On arrival you are shown a safety video about what happens in a karaoke emergency, including where to find the gas masks (I kid you not!). Then, the evening is yours to eat, sing and sleep in your private room.

Terrified isn't quite the right word as there were also emotions of relief that I was about to face my biggest fear and finally have done with it. So, having 'sung' in front of an exceedingly small crowd I now realise that the nemesis was hidden in a more complex one and my next fear is that of singing in front of a big crowd. At least I now realise that they will be more afraid than I will.

Having said all that, it was actually a very enjoyable evening, some of the notes I sang happened to land in the right place though perhaps fewer than one might have expected through random chance. We stayed there till after three, by which point I couldn't produce another sound, having slaughtered a good 20 or 30 songs. To be honest, it was nice to realise that though I may not be able to control my voice enough to hit the right notes, with a lot of practice and some helpful pointers I may begin to sound OK. This could be the start of something truly terrible!

(I didn't get any photos but this guy's site has a reasonable selection of what a night at Part World is all about)

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Link City

A couple of satisfying films for this evening.

First, Capote, which I shan't say much about. The reason for this is that I was most impressed by several aspects of it which went completely against my expectations, and to say what they were would perhaps spoil its impact. Of course it's an impressive performance from Phillip Seymour Hoffmann though I think that he was even more powerful in a far darker film, Happiness. Not to play down the performance but with such an eccentric character a moving performance seems almost inevitable.

I tend to find, subconsciously or not, strong themes run through consecutive films that I watch and books that I read. One of the main themes in Capote is also examined in 'Through a Glass, Darkly', Bergman's portrayal of a woman and her brother, husband and father as she descends into a nether world created by the same mental illness which killed her mother. It's a character study of all four players and their ways of dealing with the situation. The brother, finding growing into his own new body and mind difficult, attempts to be the crutch for his older sister and is battered and scarred in the process. The husband, with complete commitment to his distant wife, struggles to know how to deal with her withdrawal from reality, and the father, filled with such guilt and self obsession retreats from the situation to face his own demons. It's the theme of the father which also runs through Capote, who, in writing about real human beings, becomes too obsessed with his own genius to notice his grotesque lack of humanity.

For anyone else who's a Max Von Sydow fan, I would advise seeing Intacto. It's a strange Spanish film about people who can take other's luck with a touch or a photo and has some beautiful scenes.

Anyway, neither of them are what one might call fun films but both are interesting and given a couple of quiet hours in which you may wish to ponder the darker sides of the conscious and subconscious, these may fit the bill.

Talking of subconscious, I was asked to write about another book which I read while away on the China jolly. This was Blink, essentially a pop psychology book, with little structure and a theme which digresses throughout. That said, it's an absolutely fascinating series of anecdotes about intuition, the subconscious and the prejudices and power which comes from these workings of the mind.

It doesn't go into the neurophysiology at all which many such books do. We know most about the human mind through studying patients who have damage to various parts of the brain. One of the most famous examples being Phinneus Gage and his rather unfortunate meeting with a long metal pole. Patients who've had Broca's or Wernicke's regions damaged, through stroke, accident or surgery offer a wealth of information about how we perceive and produce speech. Patients with commisurotomy (cutting the central commisure which joins the two halves of the brain) or even hemispherectomy (removing half of the brain) produce astounding and illuminating effects, telling us much about the dependence and independence of the two halves.
I'm clearly not an expert on this subject but I've always found reading about it fascinating. (This is a superb book for anyone who wants a simple grounding in neuroanatomy).

Anyway, Blink doesn't talk about this at all. It gives a series of anecdotes, starting with the story of a sculpture (A statue of a Kouros) bought after extensive research by an American museum. With great expense, the most modern scientific techniques and experts studied the sculpture in miniscule detail to prove that it was a genuine sculpture from ancient Greece. However, at the unveiling, gasps from experts who hadn't been blinded by the detail immediately claimed that it was a fake. None could say why they knew, it just felt wrong. They all had a punch of intuition immediately which through their unconscious database of fake and real sculptures they'd seen over the years told them the truth.

The book talks about many aspects of intuition (though it purposefully doesn't use this word) including a research team who can tell with astounding accuracy whether a couple will get divorced in the future, just by analysing a few minutes of speech. Another professor has studied the expressions of the human face in such detail that he can immediately tell, from a video of someone speaking, the micro-tells which give away their true meanings. He mentions seeing Clinton's microsecond flinch of an expression that says, I'm a bad boy and I want to be caught with my hand in the cookie jar. Not only has he analysed each individual muscle movement of the face but he can perform any one of them individually, in pairs, in triplets and up to any five individual muscle movements simultaneously with control. He has catalogued the thousands of combinations and worked out how they link in with the thoughts going on in the brain to stimulate such a facial response.

The book deals in detail with the subconscious reaction and prejudice to advertising as well as racial prejudice, including giving a fascinating and supposedly shocking online test which shows just how influenced we all are by the media portrayal of race, be it in movies, news, music or books (I say supposedly because having just tried it, I was determined to have little to no preference to black Americans over white Americans. Blink would perhaps have me believe that I'm currently not being indoctrinated with racially slurred images, I'm intrigued). It also talks about split second decisions made by the police in highly charged situations and some of the measures that are being put in place to counter some of the accidents that have occurred in the past.

Anyway, those are a few of the things that it talks about in great detail. I really recommend having a read of this book which is nothing if not jam packed full of fascinating stories of the pros and cons of having a subconscious.


Next week I'm off to a University in Nanchang, Jiangxi province. The physics department hasn't got many people who've studied field theory or string theory so I'm going to give a completely pedagogical talk, something that I'm really looking forward to...this is going to be AdS/CFT for optics specialists.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Thoroughly Tested Alien

Refreshed of mind but tired of body I returned to work this morning after a fun week with friends. As I strolled past my usual breakfast street seller I bought myself a healthy fried bun to see me through till lunchtime.

Arriving on campus I found a sea of people all holding their medical forms ready for the yearly examination, all empty stomached. Still, I followed the crowd with my form in hand towards what I was unaware was going to be the examination to last a lifetime.

As people shifted happily from queue to queue, we had every part of us prodded and poked, screened and tested like I've never seen before, all in view of everyone else in line for whom those ahead made for a world of entertainment. They had only minor problems with me as they attempted to attach four suction cups to my chest as I was chained by both feet and wrists to medieval looking probes. Unfortunately, my chest doesn't conform to the norms of a Chinese chest in terms of hirsutedness. As they appeared to ponder whether to shave my chest, my Chinese strained at the seams and only my quick memory retrieved the sign language for 'don't you bloody dare' and saved my fine mane. With a suitable quantity of yellow gunk they attached the probes and assessed that my heart is doing roughly what it should.

My first ultrasound confirmed that I was not with child, however they did give me withering looks when they saw that I was with fried bun.

It seemed that I was the only person to turn down the chest X-ray which was sat in a rusty old bus where people queued right next to the machinery prior to being zapped. That, I felt, I could do without.

A plethora of other tests proved that I'm still alive and I returned somewhat more battered and bruised than before to my office to start the week afresh.

Non-chronologically, last night I had one of the most enjoyable meals I've had in Beijing. Incredibly simple with only three dishes, its pleasure was obtained by sitting outside at 11.00 at night on a pleasant balmy evening, relaxing with a cold lager. With crowds milling around noisily in this makeshift outside eatery, this was the perfect way to end the holiday.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

My apologies for recent comments that I haven't replied to. Various routes have been closed of late making replying to comments difficult. I can still post and read comments so please keep them coming. It's really lovely for me to receive comments and is always a great surprise to get them when I arrive into work in the morning.

Cheers all, J

Mixed Musings

Not only was the 5th of May the birthday of Karl Marx, which seemed to go by unnoticed by most here, but it was also my six month mark in Beijing. A quarter of my time here has already whizzed by and again it seems like an appropriate time to reassess my life in China.

On the work front, things have been good, I've been making progress and I may have a third paper out (from my Beijing stay) later this month. This is considerably more than I was expecting though still I haven't got a firm collaborator with whom I feel that I can publish a series of papers. I do hope to keep up the good links I made in Tokyo and Kyoto and hope that if a suitable project comes up we will be able to quickly get on the case. I still spend a great deal of my time feeling confused and deeply unknowledgable about my subject and the offshoots of the area that I have specialised in. My new paper will be a complete change of direction though a great chance to learn some new areas.

The social life continues to be a lot of fun and always varied. I do feel however that because of my position as the only Westerner in a group who's social structure is very different from that which I know, I still feel like an outsider to a certain extent. Again, I don't blame anybody for this fact, except perhaps my slow learning of the language. If I really made a push to speed up my learning I think that integration would be made easier. I feel pretty shy about attempting to speak Chinese at a table in front of 10 Chinese colleagues but that's probably something that I should just try and conquer.

I have been making the effort of late and have had a few Chinese friends round for dinner. Dinner in my flat is still a pretty alien concept to me, though I'm beginning to master the rice cooker. That's a seriously depressing statement for somebody who would regularly spend an hour or two most evening experimenting in the kitchen. Perhaps I should buy a fridge this summer so that cooking for one is made easier.
It's a battle of mind/stomach and wallet as I can always eat out for less than it would cost me to cook for myself, it's also much quicker and tastes pretty marvelous. Dinner tends to cost around 40-50p and consists of soup, rice, plus three dishes containing meat, vegetables, tofu and often egg. Why would I spend 50 quid (around a week's wage) so that I can cook inferior fare for myself? There are reasons why but they're difficult to justify.

Having never lived alone, six months on my own in an apartment is also something that takes some experimenting with to feel really at home. The initial feelings of freedom can easily give way to boredom and loneliness though I feel that I'm managing to steer away from that reasonably well. Probably the simplest answer to this would be to get a television which would somehow seem like another independent being in the apartment. However, the lack of TV is a joy for me and I know that I would waste many many hours if I did buy one. I'm happy in its absence.

I've certainly not personalised the apartment much so a few posters and homely ornaments would probably improve the situation somewhat. I feel a little strange about buying non essentials out here, knowing that this is all so temporary, though perhaps it would be a good idea to splash out a bit.

Only in the last month have I really had a chance to see much of China outside of Beijing and that is certainly something that I plan on doing more of in the next six months. I hope to head up to Mongolia at some point, the beaches on the East coast and also Hong Kong beckons some time in the not to distant future. Of course it would be great to get back to Shanghai and spend some more time with my friends there.

In July I will make my way back to the UK for a couple of weeks to see family and friends and, if anybody is around, try and speak to some stringy people at British universities in an attempt to put the feelers out for the next postdoc which I have to start thinking seriously about in a few months time. I have a list of ideal places though these stretch and morph continuously, encapsulating almost anywhere in the world depending on my mood.

So, some ponderings on the last six months and some musings about up and coming directions for the next. With temperatures quickly rising I feel that I'm living in a completely different city from that which I arrived in as it plummeted to -20. I look forward to exploring this one in just as much detail.

Tomorrow is back to the grindstone with some quick calculations to get polished off and the second English Corner to run. I also have to get the reading group and the seminars back off the ground as they've slowed a little recently. Hopefully we'll be able to get them back on track before the Strings circus rolls into town.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Storms are Abrewing

Beijing has lost a dimension today in a strange half light which occasionally crackles with thunder and lightning. Somehow in the dim fog everything looks like painted cardboard if any more than 20 yards away.

I popped into the office this morning on my way to the canteen to get some lunch. It turns out that the holiday is a sham. At least three quarters of my colleagues are still in work making me look like even more of a slacker than I really am. It genuinely makes me feel bad and that somehow I'm not serious about my work (I don't blame them for this, it's just the situation of working in an alien environment and I have to deal with it). The fact is that I try and have a balance in my life. I attempt to work hard during the days (with the occasional chat on msn to friends and family when they come online) and then evenings and weekends I try to lap up as much of I can of life out here. A national one week holiday seems the perfect time to see friends, sit in cafes and let the mind do some more free thinking. However it appears that for the more serious scientists out here, this is not the case. I can understand that many of them are overburdened with admin work and they clearly fall into my sympathy pile.

I think this is genuinely a cultural difference that I'm still to understand fully. The fact is that the PhD students here work a whole lot harder than we did back in the UK (not all PhD students, but many that I know of). I don't believe however that sitting in an office all year is conducive to producing the best work, but that's just my take on it having been raised in the educational system of my homeland. I did find that the chatting casually in the office back in Southampton about physics and maths was often the best way to really learn the subjects, or at least to explore them in new and interesting directions.

Anyway, enough of that. I will take my break, reading the odd chapter of a paper or physics book here and there and sit back with only mild pangs of conscience.

Having posted a link of my Mother's paintings, today I post a photo of one of my Father's latest bowls. Details of his turning history can be found on his website in the links to the right.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Peking Punk

Holiday time and a strange mix of being far too busy and at a loose end depending on the number of people around at any given time.

Unfortunately no photos from a very enjoyable Monday, wondering around the hutongs, eating in lots of strange food outlets (from heart and stomach to a tasty Chinese cheese curd). We've been granted a week of good weather, presumably by those on high, which made for a balmy evening spent at Houhai lake with the garish lights somehow toned down by the increasing warmth. Dinner in a Yunan restaurant included my first taste of smelly fish grass which is a little like very small bamboo shoots and has an extremely strange but not unpleasant flavour. Getting used to this is a little like getting used to coriander leaves which at first can taste somewhat overpowering. A tasty dish and nice to have a new flavour added to the palette.

Back in the UK I was becoming increasingly frustrated going to restaurants, being served such similar things every time. I feel like I need my tastebuds activated by some unexptected combination of flavours which roasted field mushrooms in a herb crust or deep fried Camembert could never manage. It's great to be constantly bombarded with genuinely new taste experiences here which make eating so much more pleasurable. This isn't to say that I'm not satisfied by a fine juicy steak, the likes of which I haven't seen for many months now.

Monday evening I also rewatched Happy Together which was transformed on a second viewing. First time round I hadn't noticed the use of so many cliched styles which are stolen to impressive effect. It's actually a quite stunning film on second watch with so many techniques taken from French New Wave amongst other styles.

Tuesday was a bit of a write off, though I did spend many hours reading. I stumbled across this blog which has enthralled and shocked me in equal measure. A British guy named Shaun was arrested in Arizona on charges of being the mastermind of a huge drug ring and put in Joe Arpaio's legendary jail before his trial. He stayed there for two years in conditions of quite unimaginable horror. With temperatures above 100 F, air conditioning was turned off. Cockroaches infested every cell, people were fed potato peelings and murder and suicide were common... and this was a jail to house people who hadn't been convicted of anything. He started writing the blog by sending his parents letters written with the stubs of pencils, which they posted on his site. I shan't comment in great detail about my views about his case because I only know his side of the story plus that from a newspaper article which he claims is fabricated. Having spent many hours reading his blog my reaction is strongly to side with him.

(I should add, his blog contains a lot of graphic descriptions of all manner of unpleasentness)

I've still got a few months worth of his posts to read but having been convicted he's currently in a prison in Arizona in far better conditions but still with many stories to tell. It's fascinating to see how he changes over the months (mostly spent devouring a huge number of books on all subjects) and his writing about prison and criminal justice as well as his views on possible solutions to prison overcrowding and the huge tax burden which is placed on the public are very interesting. I would advise starting from the beginning of the blog if you're going to read it as the story grows and is based on past events. It's also the first two years which are the most shocking in terms of suffering placed on those who should be presumed innocent.

Finally, today I went to the Midi Festival in Haidian park. Another very warm day has left me a little frazzled from sitting in the sun too long. This is a four day music festival with four or five stages, a very relaxed atmosphere and a wonderfully diverse crowd. I took lots of snaps of the various people who come out of the woodwork at these events. I leave these without subtitle for now.

Anyway, a lot of fun though I had to leave early to have a Chinese lesson. The party's on again tomorrow so we may return for the evening's session which is a bit more dancy. Should be fun...