Thursday, October 19, 2006

Critical Points

I seem to have reached saturation point, such that I have so many things going on right now that I have no time to write about them, until now. In the department things have been particularly hectic as I attempt to spend all hours getting some results for my boss on a project we're working on before he heads away for a while. Production of significant results has recently been invariant under temporal scalings. (symmetry broken as of this writing).

We've been having an interesting array of lecturers coming to visit recently. Yesterday Nobel Laureate Walter Kohn came to talk to the students and postdocs in a question and answer session. With his Viennese heritage he reminded me a great deal of my grandfather. Kohn was one of the developers of the density functional approach which has allowed the quantum mechanical study of an unbelievably vast range of applications. Not only are the two original papers apparently the most cited scientific papers of the last century but today the computational power that goes into calculations involving this formalism are second only to US defense computation. The idea is a relatively simple but extremely powerful one. The revolution came when it was noted that the Hamiltonian of a system of charges could be written simply as a functional of the charge density of the system. This is a function of just three variables as opposed to 3*N where N is the number of particles under consideration in the system. This may seem like an obvious statement but many of the consequences are far from trivial. In particular Kohn noted after a particularly insightful question that with this approach it's possible to show that in the groundstate of any system is encoded the information for all of the excited states. This, apparently, was not possible in the preceding formalism.

One of the reasons for Kohn's visit at the moment is that he has just completed a film about the sun, in particular its place as a source of energy and the increasingly critical dependence of the world on fossil-fuels. As a country whose main source of energy is coal, China is a key target for Kohn's video and his current aim is to get the video shown on Chinese television in as unadulterated a form as possible. Knowing people in the top ranks of the Chinese Academy of Science should help with this task. Speaking of coal-burning, in a BBC web-report today, Linfen was listed as one of the most polluted cities in the world, its main industry being coal mining. Friends of mine have told me that within just a few minutes of being in the city your skin becomes greasy and black. This is no small city and the cost of treatment for lung diseases alone must be astronomical, if indeed people are treated at all.

We also currently have a delegation of scientists from Thailand visiting and today we had a whirlwind tour of applications of Feynman integrals in condensed matter physics. The importance was clear, in particular in polymer science but the rate of slides was rather overwhelming!


Today, (having written the previous content yesterday) we've had a talk from George Atkinson on Globalisation of Science and Technology, US and International Strategies. Professor Atkinson is both a scientist, working currently on the Cassini-Huygens mission and the Science and Technology Advisor to the Secretary of State. The overall aim of the talk was to discuss the trends in globalisation of science and technology and how this can and will impact everyone. The role of science, both pure and applied as an essential driving force was emphasised but the most important point that I took away from the talk was that as a scientist it is my duty to be as involved as possible with policy making. If the scientists leave it to the politicians who are advised by just a few people, both the directions of academia and the impact of research on the world will most likely not take the most efficient or helpful route.

Atkinson spoke about the Jefferson Science Fellowships, whereby academics spend a year as scientific advisers followed by 5 years back in their institutes continuing to drive policy. This seems like a great scheme and from the diversity of the current fellows it looks to have an impressively global view.

The other main point was the importance of international collaboration which is again clearly a vital theme. With 70,000 Chinese students currently in America, the partnership between the two nations is clearly an important one. When the younger members of the audience were asked why they had not been to the States a unified echo of 'visas' was the response. Several members had applied and been rejected. Atkinson said that this was a known issue and things were being done about it.

I was recently contacted by an American academic who was over here on a conference. He wanted to meet up and have a chat and although I had no time to get away from the office we did exchange a few e-mails. I was interested to learn his perspective on the state of science in China in the short time he was here. One thing which shocked him and unfortunately undermines several of the above statements was that most of the researchers from China at the conference he was at were unaware of his work, even though he is from a leading institution in his field. The reason for this was a simple one. The campus on which he was staying had internet access to Chinese websites only. To get hold of material from non-Chinese research departments was not a simple task and consequently they were working in a strange sort of research vacuum. Until such basic requirements such as ease of communication are tackled, there will always be a gap between the Chinese and non-Chinese scientific community. The transfer of knowledge, even if it is second-hand is clearly vital to a globalisation of science and technology - this is a really basic step that must be taken.

The talk was driven by statistics and graphs and though his overall arguments seemed reasonable it's difficult to come to quantitative conclusions. He's an impressive speaker and this leaves me wondering whether I was impressed by what he was saying or by the way he was saying it. My conclusion is that it's a bit of both.

At the end were some nice quotes, related to what politicians actually want from their advisers. I'd forgotten George Bernard Shaw's quote that "If all the economists were laid end to end, they would not reach a conclusion". In fact Atkinson was paraphrasing and this was not his slight on economists by any means.

If I can get hold of this talk I will try and put it online.


At some point this week I should be getting a couple of British couchsurfers, coming over from Korea, though currently their communications have stopped. Couchsurfing really seems to be taking off and I generally get one or two requests a week to stay at my place. I'm very much looking forward to using this when I next go traveling independently.

Saturday afternoon I have a meeting with a British school party to tell them about life in China which should be fun. I'll report back on that soon I hope.

Because of so much work, reading and movie watching have been kept to a minimum recently though I have continued to take English corner for the Chinese students and teaching English once a week to a private pupil. All in all things are a bit ridiculous now. Of the three projects I'm working on, two are in relatively late stages of maturation and I hope to be able to finish them in the next few weeks.


I did make it to a friends birthday last weekend and we headed to one of the big clubs to go and see Mr Thing, formerly a member of the Scratch Perverts and former DMC world champion. The transformation from the slightly chubby mid-thirties guy who could quite easily have been the bloke who ran the terrible disco nights in my hall as an undergraduate, to a kid, absolutely on top of the world, stunning the audience was awesome. Scratch DJing as I've seen it comes in two categories, one of which is scratching and one of which is making music. There's a superb movie called 'Hang The DJ' which includes Q-Bert, very definitely filling the latter category. Along with MC Yung Gun (don't blame me!), Mr Thing whipped up the crowd into a frenzy and while we weren't dancing like crazy we were staring open-mouthed at the speed and skill with which he created the sounds. I've also never seen an MC who has managed to get the audience on his side so quickly. Several times I've seen them crash and burn in a sweat of awkward looks and a silent audience but this time he knew exactly what he was doing and got everyone shouting along. A great night and, with the winter nights coming in quickly, I expect to be spending less nights out at the outside bars and more in the great clubs.

OK, quite enough for now. More work to finish before the weekend.


Anonymous said...

Few blogs can mention Walter Kohn and Mr. Thing in the same post. Excellent full-spectrum reporting! I suspected you were busy of late what with posting becoming intermittent. Crack on Biscuit, it's all good.

Unknown said...

I wish I could have reported on Walter Kohn at Mr Thing. Still, I hope the general mix is enjoyable.

All the best,


Anonymous said...

I was listing to Mr Thing only last week.
You're missing a great program called Cirque Du Celebrity. It combines the worst elements from every reality show into one big pile of c

Unknown said...

Hi RQ,

Cirque Du Celebrity sounds utterly vile, though perhaps by combining all the worst elements into one we can reduce the amount in other programs. I feel that the conservation of c is not strong enough for our purposes however.