Monday, November 20, 2006

Beijing Resummation

The winds rolled into Beijing a couple of weeks ago making even short excursions outside a treacherous event.

Things have been really busy of late, hence a lack of posts. I finished another paper on Friday which is online today. We've got some interesting results related to AdS/QCD. We've calculated the back-reaction on the pure AdS geometry of a quark bilinear condensate. From this we can perform the usual five-dimensional holographic calculation to get the vector, axial vector and pseudoscalar sector masses and decay constants. The important point about this is that an IR cutoff can be dynamically generated (as you would expect from some sort of brane-distribution in the IR) leaving you with just three free parameters, as in QCD. We get consistent results, of the same order as those without the back-reacted geometry. The check here is that adding this singular behavior to the geometry doesn't mess up all the good results you already get from AdS/QCD. There are additional directions that we want to take this, in particular to investigate linear confinement. In particular the paper was motivated by these two papers (,2).

Anyway, so, that's been taking a little time to finish off. On top of that I gave a one and a half hour talk on Friday to some of the students on 'hadrons from holography' trying to introduce the idea of holography independent from the AdS/CFT correspondence (which is the most concrete example we have of a holographic theory). There's a very good talk by Raphael Bousso here on holography which is probably fully understandable by anyone with a degree in physics and still interesting to anyone with a keen interest in the subject.

Tomorrow there's a conference in my building on AdS/CFT and quark matter where I will be giving a talk on the first day. Most people will be talking about the recent, interesting work on quark-gluon plasma so my research will, I hope, be an interesting diversion. I'm also looking forward to chatting with some of the researchers and finding out the latest developments.

So, along with keeping up Chinese lessons (my two co-flounderers and I attempted to translate a Chinese version of Kurt Vonnegut's A Man Without a Country into English with reasonable if slow success!), English lessons and English corner (for which I still need to plan two hours of activities tonight) life-has been hectic as ever.

On Saturday night I met up with a friend who is about to leave for Singapore to become an air-stewardess. We went to a superb Thai hot-pot restaurant called The Lemon Leaf and spent three hours chatting while dipping all manner of exotic flora and fauna into a tom yum broth. It's expensive but well worth it. After that we headed for a foot massage to let the food digest. It's constantly amusing to see the faces of the masseuse when they see the size of my feet, often never having seen any quite so flipper-like. I had a new treatment this time which involved the use of hammers, little ones with rubber on the end. Though they sound soft, when they're perccusing your legs vigorously the feeling builds up pretty steadily to a fiery ache. I didn't try the scraping treatment however which I was told with a grin leaves you red-raw but free from bad energy, or something. I'm actually a fan of some Chinese medicine (though most of it should be investigated for long-term side-effects) though removing bad moisture with suction cups and bad air with pins and needles is something I've avoided so far.


So, this is the long-promised post attempting to sum up my feelings so far on the ultimate reason that I'm out here; not as one may perhaps imagine the cheap food and fine night-life but my research. So, I'd like to try and identify what it's like to be a post doctoral researcher and, in particular, one in Beijing.

Even with the inherent pressures of getting the next position, advertising myself through giving talks and contacting other researchers, getting interesting papers published and trying to stay on top of the recent results, life as a postdoc is generally a pretty relaxed one when compared with most office jobs. That is not to say that what I do doesn't require a great deal of effort and I don't spend some considerable time stressing over calculations and understanding the latest papers but in terms of being in charge of my own time and efforts, I'd say I'm pretty well off.

I don't have someone watching over my shoulder to see that I turn up at nine on the dot (though I usually do) and there are generally few deadlines. This lack of obvious, listable pressures presents its own problems as, in order to keep yourself motivated when calculations inevitably go awry and you haven't given a talk for a while is not trivial.

Especially out here where one is easily cut-off culturally from the discourse that one may have in a native English speaking department an extra effort has to be made. One year in and I'm fully aware that my lack of Chinese is an added burden to interacting fully with the group. There's currently an American Professor in Chengdu who is absolutely fluent in Chinese after three years here though I'm told that he doesn't spend much time with the laowai and immerses himself in Chinese culture and language. Clearly the way to go but this is a step into the dark which I've been hesitant in taking. Doing this and research seems a tough juggling act.

The structure of the department is a little different from that which I've experienced in the West, though not vastly. My boss has four postdocs and around 10 PhD students which unsurprisingly makes him a busy man. As he will also be head of the KITPC when it opens for real his juggling act between heavy burdens of administration and research must be very difficult indeed, but he does seem to manage. This group of 15 or so has a diverse range of interests from perturbative and non-perturbative QCD through cosmology, supersymmetric model building and more. The group gets together fairly regularly for one of the students or postdocs to give a talk, as I did last Friday. They're casual affairs which usually culminate in getting a food delivery. It seems that this way of organising the group has made for a good, relaxed atmosphere for the students to learn and research in.

A normal day is a little difficult to pin down but the general pattern goes something like this:

I tend to get up around 8.30 when the diggers and angle-grinders outside my window make sleeping impossible (they often start at 6 but I can now cope for a couple of hours with them disturbing my rest). I stroll towards the office about nine o'clock from the accommodation campus (with its 5000 or so students) through to the ITP site, about five minutes walk. On the way I usually pick up a snack from the stand serving students with a plethora of fried treats and cups of milk.

It's often this walk between my flat and the office which sets the mood for the day, whether or not I get charged down by a speedy cyclist or whether the lights turn in my favour as I get to the road, whether I get cut in front of at the food stall or whether the sky is a particularly glorious blue. The shuffle function on my ipod can also set me bouncing, or not, though currently I'm listening to some superb Chinese lessons which a friend has sent to me. I will talk about them some time as they're the best material I've yet come across for learning the language (this isn't Chinese Pod which is also a great resource).

The trees are coming to the end of their autumnal transformations, many of them now a vibrant yellow, having turned deep red briefly last week. If you can get here and walk up xiang shan (fragrant hills) when the red maple leaves are out, it's well worth it but timing is both crucial and very difficult.

Getting into the office I check the notice boards for interesting talks coming up, though most of the time the notices are all in Chinese. I head up to my third floor office which I share with another postdoc sit down and spend half an hour checking e-mails, the news, my site feeds (updated blogs) and the arxiv for recent additions, both good and bad, to the sum total of our knowledge of the universe. I may spend some time reading through any interesting papers which have come on that day.

The rest of the day is a bit of a slippery beast and working out the most efficient way to plan it can depend on many factors.

Currently I'm working on three different projects, all of which deserve significant proportions of my time and so I try and juggle that sensibly. Some of the time will be spent performing calculations, with pencil and paper or on the computer. Some of it will be spent writing up my thoughts and some will be spent talking with my collaborators about our project. As I mentioned before I'm working with a Japanese researcher in Japan and a German researcher in Poland and we often spend several hours on msn battling through our brain-waves or arguing over interpretations. Sometimes I will simply go and sit in the library working through a problem or browsing books for ideas.

Reading papers and books is my main source of input at the moment because, as I've mentioned before, most of the seminars are in Chinese. This is something that I would tell people to take into account as a huge factor if you're thinking of coming to a country where English is not a language which is spoken extensively. Because people unsurprisingly also chat about physics in Chinese, this makes talking with other researchers difficult. This isn't because they're unfriendly, they clearly have a great time from the animated conversations and frequent laughter I hear rattling down the corridors but I've failed myself in integrating with this set. I think I would probably recommend more than anything else spending a couple of months before you start research in a place like this to learn the language as intensively as possible. There are many good schools where you can spend 6 hours a day in class. You won't be fluent but you will pick up enough such that learning more becomes a lot easier. If you don't do this I suspect you will constantly be stuck at the first hurdle. Please get in contact with me if you are thinking of coming out here and I can find out the best schools to attend.

So, depending on the day of the week, my time in the office will end at around six or I will stay here till ten or eleven at night. Currently because work has been so busy I've been working at the weekends too which explains the lack of exciting extra-curricular activities to talk about. Usually I spend some of that time working in a nearby cafe, reading through a text book or a paper and taking things a little more easily. This is in no way as stressful as it may sound as relaxing with a coffee and a paper is an enjoyable activity. I'm not however somebody who can do this all the time so I do take time off to watch movies and read books (more reviews coming up shortly)

Rather unusually I have just learned that I will have to write a thesis at the end of my time here. Without this I will not receive a certificate. I hope that a concatenation of my papers with sensible editing will be enough for this. I've learned today that in China the reason for getting this certificate is that without it you can only become an assistant professor and not an associate professor.

So, that's a rough idea of the day-to-day life of an English postdoc in Beijing. On top of this I have the next stage to think about and am currently behind on my applications for next years position. As life goes on for a researcher, the burden of teaching, grant applications and supervision clearly supersede the rather casual, if busy lifestyle I've outlined here but, as people are certainly not in it for the money, there must still be a fair share of highlights to life as a researcher further down the line.


Benjamin said...

Over worked and underpaid really, I think. I enjoyed reading that portrait of the physicist at work.

Unknown said...

Perhaps, but it doesn't feel like that to me. I'd much rather be where I am than stuck in an office job working for 'the boss' doing something which didn't completely fascinate me.

It may sound like a lot of work but I love it.

All the best,