Wednesday, December 27, 2006

I'm about spent for the day. With no break over Christmas and an official working weekend this weekend things are as busy as normal. Having given seminars at IHEP, the ITP, Tsingua and CCAST over the last few weeks, I'm feeling all talked out. They've all gone OK as far as I can tell and the Tsinghua students seem to have a keen interest in learning more about string theory. I have quite a few more to give when I'm in Japan but these will be on a different topic so I need to get around to sorting those out ASAP.

The threads on Asymptotia and Jaques' Musings sent me searching for information about starting my own research wiki pages. I haven't found anything ideal but pbwiki is about the best free wiki host I've found so far. If anyone can recommend something better then please do tell. If all goes well it should be a great place to keep distant collaborations alive (though msn does a pretty good job of that already). I'm also participating in a string theory reading group with students in the department and have set up a private wiki where we can ask questions and post solutions. While I'm away this should be a good way to keep the momentum going.

So, anyway, I'm all worked out today so I thought I'd try and remember some of the books that I think are worth reading and films worth seeing that I've been indulging in over the last couple of months. Novels have been on hold recently as whenever I haven't been too tired to read I've felt guilty if I haven't had my nose in a text book or paper. I have managed to read a few bits and pieces snuck in with a coffee now and then.

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize a couple of years back, 'The Electric Michelangelo' is an odd mixture for me. On the one hand the story is an interesting tale and the writing is truly stunning in places with imaginative use of language utilising the scenery of pre-war Morcambe Bay and the Coney Island funfair to set a great palette of characters. The problem is that the structure of the book feels awkward. The author is so keen to get the sentence texture just right that standing back from the book the timing jars and the flow is rather stalted by the excellent detail. The characters become a bit bogged down in the detail and you're never really sure what the point is. The main events of the book are built up and occur close to the end of the book making the rest of it lack direction. That said, I enjoyed it and the dark world of the tattoo artist in dingy Morcambe and burlesque New York is still a fun read.

Still in New York 'The Emperor's Children' by Claire Messud is a character study of a group of friends and residents of Manhattan pre and post 9/11. It's a simple book but the story runs easily and there are not only enough interesting characters to build a meaty tale but there's the odd unexpected turn. The book tackles the issue of the mask that we put on in society, and asks at what level anyone really knows us in this multi-layered zoo. Some fun ideas and all worth exploring.

I'm currently reading Lolita, having been told many times by a good friend that I was missing out. Seeing half the Jeremy Irons film version didn't convince me but the book is another world and the writing is truly beautiful, very painful and completely engaging. The subject matter is clearly a difficult one but the character writes with such honesty and acknowledged guilt that you don't hate him as you may expect, you simply feel sorry for him. It's not only the depth of the character study but Nobakov's stunning word-smithery which makes the book flow like little else I've read. I'm only half way through but it's clearly a classic for good reason, not just controversy.

Sadly that's about it for books recently but I've been able to indulge a little more in films. Quite a few of these films come with a health warning, mostly far from family viewing.

Visitor Q
fits nicely into this category, though it is about the ultimate disaster in family dynamics. I feel somewhat sheepish to put a link to this movie as the very ideas in the film are pretty repugnant. Miike, who direced Audition - a similarly dark though strangely beautiful film about revenge, plays with just about every taboo imaginable in this film but does so in a way which pushes buttons to make you constantly feel unsettled, not by the subject but the way in which it's portrayed. Anyone who makes it to the end of the film will probably realise that as always in Miike's films there's a lot of very dark humour in with the unsavoury material. In fact it's the less extreme aspects which are the more disturbing, the completely over-the-top ones being just that.

Also from Japan is a much calmer, though far more humanly painful piece from Yasujiro Ozu- Tokyo Story. It's also about a breakdown in a family but this is a passive rather than active breakdown as in the previous film. With tastes attuned to Hollywood action, the slow pace of the movie does age it and there are few shocks to the story given the premise. However, with Ozu's skills the film is beautifully filmed - using the tatami shot for much of the movie - and still engaging. Ozu's films rely heavily on the ideas of "mono no aware", translated as "the awareness of the transience of things, and a gentle sadness at their passing" in wikipedia. For me this Japanese philosophy explains why many of the most moving films I've seen have come from the East. The slow, accepting view of life rather than an active perturbation of it in movies makes the viewer as involved as the director and consequently the director has the ability to move you even more.

Neither slow nor non-perturbative is End of Evangelion. Having mentioned to the friend with whom I set up the 'Beijing book and movie club' last year that I hadn't watched much manga, he immediately gave me a list of must-sees and this was one of the top. It's is a remake of the final episodes of a television series and so, unsurprisingly is rather confusing without the background. It is however breath-takingly imaginative and mind-blowingly surreal and makes CGI effects seem completely redundant. It's strong imagery feels somehow Daliesque (who involved religion in many of his creations) and even without the background and a full comprehension of what's going on, the philosophies (and I don't think it's overstating it to call them genuinely thought provoking ideas) are satisfyingly troublesome. As usual I'm not actually going to tell you anything about what happens in the film but if you aren't annoyed by a lack of concluding explanation and want to see what can be done with animation I thoroughly recommend you to give this a watch. I've never been a terribly big science fiction fan as I see how much time most people seem to put into this genre to get the most out of it. Anyway, even without truly understanding the background of this cartoon it's a hugely creative, powerful watch.

OK, that'll do for now. As I said, this weekend is a working weekend followed by a big night on Sunday and a couple of days holiday. Then off to Korea the following Sunday. The adventures continue.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Christmas greetings

Merry Christmas all!

I hope everyone has a great day and a good break before the New Year!

Christmas Eve was spent at Club Tango, dancing to the minimal beats of DJ T with the usual Beijing flare of fire breathers, dancing santas, flaming drinks and enthusiastic crowds. Though a lot of fun with some superb music it's not the same as Christmas Eve in the Chequers in Oxford. I trust that the usual gathering happened and look forward to hearing how everyone is.

Today's a working day as normal but I'm not going to talk work now. I'll shortly be video chatting with my family, thanking them especially for the mince pies and mini-christmas pudding plus many more food goodies which I unwrapped this morning.

Christmas here is a strange affair. Many seem to delight in the decorations, songs and general Christmas cheer. I went to a famous restaurant next to Tango last night and the staff were all dolled-up in Christmas gear. Before going to the restaurant I went for a quiet stroll beside the frozen river. It's not pleasant to be outside at the moment in Beijing as pollution levels are about as bad as I've seen them but the idyll under the trees away from the traffic (20 meters is about as far as you can get from traffic usually here) with the frozen river was a nice moment to reflect and think of home.


I haven't spoken about books, music or films recently though I have a backlog to discuss. However, yesterday as I sat in my regular coffee spot, a cacophany of computer games and raucus students around me (I use these terms only because I didn't get enough sleep the previous night) my blood pressure rose (the noise plus the strange 50% jump in prices on Christmas eve, plus the network connection which kept timing out) but as I put on Susumu Yokota - Grinning Cat I became sealed in a wonderful, hermetic world where these strange, ambient noises, disharmonies and missing beats are all perfectly measured and I sat back relaxed, instantly calmed in my strange little abstract world. If you like abstract music to work to I suggest giving Susumu Yokota a go. I imagine you can find it on

Some time soon I'll talk about some of the weird and wonderful films I've been watching, from Visitor Q and Santa Sangre to more Kim Ki Duk and a selection of the finest anime I've viewed, having been told I was missing out by ignoring this genre (I'm swayed on occassion). I'll also talk about a few books I've been reading though novels have been left of late as I've been working rather non-stop.

I also want to talk about the famous Buddha box, which has its origins in Beijing. Sorry, I'm off on a bit of an electronica tangent at the moment but it's keeping me sane, or something approximating that.

Merry Christmas once again!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

I return from another session with the postdocs trying to get them performance-ready for the big January show where all Beijing postdocs will entertain each other for an afternoon of song and dance acts. Despite the effort I had remained unconvinced that reciting nonsense poetry was the best option. This decision was confirmed when it was suggested that translating the poem into Chinese may make things easier for the audience to understand.

I came up with an alternative for them in case they really did want to perform something in English and so, a little after lunch today, I found myself standing in front of a dozen theoretical physicists singing Monty Python's the galaxy song. Another of life's strange experiences indeed and, fortunately, not as unpleasant for me as it might have been a few months ago. It was probably unpleasant for them and they agreed that it was probably too complicated to learn in the next couple of weeks and so will find a Chinese number to perform instead. Perhaps a wise choice.

Anyway, apart from that and a very enjoyable evening spent last night chatting with some American's and a Scot in my apartment building over some fine Mexican food and a few beers, work has been almost non-stop. Saturday I was working till late in the evening though again in the pleasant surroundings of a cafe near to Tsinghua. I did get away for a few hours on Sunday to go to Beida (Peking University), and in temperatures well below freezing, spent an enjoyable, relaxed time strolling round the fine century old grounds. Beida, Tsinghua and Nankai university joined and moved down South during the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression. According to the museum it has been a center for both cutting edge science and forward thinking since its founding and many key incidents in China's recent history have been linked to the student movements and academic power of the institute.

On the way to the grounds I passed basketball players running around in around -6 in rather surreal settings.

The famous lake at Beida will become an ice-rink soon but for now it makes for a pleasant, quiet setting.


On a complete change of topic there has been a website I've wanted to write about for a while, having found it through one of the science blogs I regularly read. (I can no longer find who's blog this was, so if you would like the recognition you deserve for finding this interesting site, please send me an e-mail or add a comment)

I've spoken several times about this website with both stunning photographs (like this)and very good explanations of them (Like this description of nacreous clouds or this description of fallstreak holes). (Though I'm quite happy with my status as a physicist in terms of other people's perception of this job - I attempt to show them that I not only enjoy working in the scientific community but enjoy external social interaction too - I do find the name: The cloud appreciation society, a little off-putting.)

As I've mentioned many times before I became rather obsessed with the incredible range of visual effects that light can produce with water droplets, ice particles, dust and air, during my trip to Colorado in 2005. I spent a long time open-mouthed at sights like this:

(Click for a larger version - blogger is allowing up to 8 MB photos on the site now.)

Anyway, to complement the CAS site is the atmospheric optics site which has a similarly stunning range of photos and great explanations to go with them. The bulk of photos on this site are related not to the often chaotic world of cloud effects but to the fantastic, symmetric patterns which, if one is lucky, can be seen produced by light reflecting and refracting from ice crystals suspended in the Earth's atmosphere.

(Photo by Les Cowley who runs the site and kindly let me include his images on the blog.)

Though every snowflake may be different, the hexagonal symmetry of snowflakes and ice crystals is rather stable. Crystals are a good example of the microscopic structure being retained in the macroscopic form (Note that the structure is dependent on the conditions under which the ice formed - there are a dozen or so different phases of ice with different symmetry properties. I seem to remember John Baez wrote a good post about this but I can't find it now. If anyone knows it, please tell me.)

Generally I will only write an explanation of physics or mathematics if I think I can explain it any more clearly than the source in which I've found it. In this case I suggest having a read through the discussion here as to the formation of the most common phenomenon, the 22 degree halo.

Occasionally the conditions are just right so that the whole sky can be illuminated with a complex display of arcs, halos and sun dogs. See this photo for the best display I've found.

Anyway, I'll be looking out for good conditions to get photos of some of these effects, especially over the winter in Korea and Japan. The second half of the Winter school in Korea will be at a ski resort so I hope to return with some good shots.

Friday, December 15, 2006

In a spin

After a year in China I still haven't worked out which teas will send me to sleep and which will get me buzzing (and some have a much stronger effect on me than coffee). Unfortunately on Wednesday evening during my English lesson I opted for pu-er in the hope that I would rest peacefully ready for the next day's talk at IHEP.

One night but just three hours sleep later I took myself across to the theory group in the institute for high energy physics where Beijing's particle accelerator is stationed. Security was rather higher than I'd expected and gates were cordoned off with policemen all over the place. I was informed that it was for a special international visitor who was coming to give a talk. Sadly they were not talking about me but in fact I had a parallel billing with George Bush Snr. It also transpired that he hadn't bothered to rearrange his talk in order to come and hear about the wonderful world of the AdS/CFT correspondence. Along with a Sino-French conference on the LHC and a talk by Steven Chu I was pleased to have as many people as I did in the audience, though I was told that on a normal day I would have had a few more. With some luck, some skill and fine hospitality on the part of my hosts I managed to get in a quick hit of caffeine before the seminar and the hour and a half talk was a pretty enjoyable one for me at least. Lots of good questions and a generally enthusiastic audience.

Post seminar and large Beijing duck meal, complete with sea cucumber and duck's feet, we went to have a look at one of the control rooms for the accelerator. It's a hive of activity with perhaps ten people milling around and monitoring the 20 or so screens watching the histograms come up and coding up for data analysis and beam control.

When you are running a particle accelerator you don't simply press go, get the particles up to speed and then crash them together. A lot of the time is spent in tuning the machine such that you have good control on the bunches of particles you're accelerating to near the speed of light - getting a smooth profile and getting as many as possible to increase the luminosity of your equipment. The more controlled bunches, the more you can study in a shorter time. This isn't an easy job and the 240m circumference ring is no exception. (Have a read of Joanne's recent detectors masterclass for a good overview of the complementary subject).

The spectrometer attached is primarily built for precision measurements of the J/psi resonance and BES has accumulated the largest number of J/psi events of anywhere in the world.

On top of this is a large proportion of time set aside for studying and using synchrotron radiation for a variety of purposes. Synchrotron radiation is radiation given off when you accelerate a charged particle. Some of the time this happens because your electrons have to go round a corner and some of the time it's because of the wigglers, magnets in your system specifically used to wobble the beam. There are 13 stations around the beam where they use this radiation for medical purposes and/including imaging techniques. A great deal of groundbreaking work has been carried out here in the realms of protein imaging and in areas from archeology to nanotechnology.

Currently BES is being upgraded but the accelerator is still in use so we chatted with one of the scientists on duty. I was interested to see the control room and find out what goes on but I do have a bit of a thing about spending too much time in such places. I spent a week at SLAC a couple of years ago on shift for the Babar detector. The idea is that at all times there must be a couple of people monitoring the huge number of graphs telling you how the detector is functioning and how the data is coming out. If anything goes wrong there are a sequence of strict protocols to go through from flicking a switch, to waking an expert who has to rush in to look at the problem. At some point I will explain why as a theoretical physicist I was performing distinctly experimental duties.

These shifts last for eight hours and I was lucky enough to have shifts ranging from 8pm-4am to those going from 4am-12am (I seem to remember - there may be a four hour slippage somewhere in there). With jet-lag and a schedule of 5 or 6 shifts to complete in a week this is the most confused my body clock has ever been. What is worse than sitting in the control centre monitoring the data is sitting in the control centre when there is no data. Sometimes the beam is lost, literally falling out of the correct trajectory and breaking up and so those in the detector room have nothing to do. At 2 in the morning with nothing to do but a need to stay awake I vaguely remember sending some rather bizarre e-mails that probably appeared drug induced to those on the other end. I also have memories of cycling back to the guest house at four in the morning through the rather eerie undulating Californian roads getting into the realms of the hallucinatory.

Anyway, I'm firmly at the other end of things at the moment sitting precariously in extra dimensions. The weekend beckons...

Monday, December 11, 2006

Indeterminate states of consciousness

I'm in a cafe on a Sunday evening, slowly working my way through the all you can drink for a pound menu (all soft drinks so as far as I'm aware I'm not poisoning myself as is quite possible here). I've just finished a few hours work, though hours, minutes and days feel much of a muchness to me currently.

It's been a tiring but enjoyable weekend and I'm writing this in the few moments break while working as I'm not expecting much time to breath over the coming week or so.

Friday night started as many Friday nights here do: stuck in traffic in Beijing's non-stop rush-hour (my patience levels for Beijing drivers diminishes by the day). Eventually we made it to the karaoke palace to indulge in the free buffet and meet a swathe of new people.

This was a breakthrough event for me in some ways. I'm regularly surrounded by only Chinese but this was the first time I could take part in any real capacity without using English the majority of the time. This was partly because I was rather a novelty and so I was, on occasion, barraged with questions in Chinese left, right and centre. Some of which I managed to understand and answer with moderate proficiency. This shouldn't be taken out of context, it really was still very basic Chinese but there were moments when I didn't feel completely out of my depth.

The mix of people were from the TV and movie industry, several actors and actresses from one of the national movie channels, program buyers and sellers, a producers daughter (12 years old, to whom, at some unspecified date, I am obliged to chat to in English) and a theoretical physicist. One of the men had spent some time in Russia and when he was told (not by me) that I could speak Russian the mix of languages quickly escalated to completely incomprehensible levels. By the end (after the usual 'how much can the foreigner drink?' tests) Russian conversations were reduced to names of Russian places and 'Ochen harashoa' - very good. I'm not convinced that in the many hours I was there he realised that I understood almost none of what he said.

The actors and actresses were, unsurprisingly rather good on the microphone and this gave me some breathing space in which to save face. I did succumb to a few numbers with the actors doing a fine job of not looking in pain.

Post karaoke we headed to gui lu, ghost street, which has a huge selection of late night restaurants (something which is lacking in most of Beijing - many places are closed by 7 in the winter) and we hotpotted it through till around 3 in the morning.

Saturday day seemed to disappear by the time late lunch had been eaten and an hour doing some work in a cafe had been disturbed with pan-pipe versions of simon and garfunkle and the Righteous Brothers muzaked almost beyond recognition. We had another date with the TV execs, this time at Beijing's battle of the bands. Turning up at Tango club after a dim-sum meal at the superb restaurant next door we stood in a huddle of around 40 supporters for one of the bands, for whom the lead singer is the producer's sister's brother. Most of the bands were the usual, enjoyable, Mando-rock but the particular band we were supporting used a selection of Chinese traditional instruments and singing techniques, modernised into a sound which was actually superb (In a future posting I'll write about some of these instruments and techniques which are often very alien to Western tastes). I have a recording of the event which I will attempt to load up here when I can. Both luck and talent were on our side because they won, meaning that they will be heading to Malaysia for an international event.

Post battle we went to play pool for a few hours before heading to Banana club for a repeat of last year's gig with Carl Cox. Though written in overly-self-conscious tones, my review from last time stands and Beijing remains the city with the most enjoyable clubs I've ever been to. Eleven years on from my first dance floor experience (Josh Wink - Higher State of consciousness at a small club in Western-super-mare) I still get the same buzz when the crowd is euphoric and the base beats are rearranging your internal organs. Such feelings will presumably fade in time but not just yet.

So, getting back at about 4.30 this morning and enjoying a reasonably number of undisturbed hours of sleep I'm back to the present.

Time has done funny things again and it's now tomorrow so I should probably go.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Not all Nonsense

The talk at IHEP next week has multiplied to talks at Tsinghua and the ITP in quick succession. Should be fun.

In the mean time the weekend promises some rather interesting possibilities, mixing Chinese movie stars and karaoke in one big out-of-tone-glam ensemble.

For now I am bound to link to two stories which have become prominent in the last couple of days.

One of these is from Cosmic Variance, where Joe Polchinski has enlarged on his American Scientist article, answering some of the criticisms Peter Woit and Lee Smolin's books leveled at string theory and the modern theoretical physics community.

This is, unsurprisingly, one of the most level-headed reactions to these books and I look forward to seeing whether the debate can continue with this level of maturity. Unfortunately these threads frequently descend into name calling and the physics is lost somewhere after the first few comments.

Secondly, on a not so impressive note are the claims of a Reading computer scientist to have solved a millenium old problem of dividing by zero. As Clifford Johnson mentions, this sounds like it's straight out of The Onion. Unfortunately this seems to be all too real. The commentators on the BBC site seem to realise, for the most part, that this invention is about as vacuous as the denominator. Mark-Chu-Carrol has written about the best account I've found debunking this bizarre idea. What's most worrying as he says is that there's a class load of kids who not only believe that their teacher is a genius but that the solution he's found to this non-problem is anything other than meaningless.

OK, stars to mingle with, ears to maim.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Poetic Justice

As a China physics blog it seems sensible to provide a link to the New York Times article (linked from The Reference Frame) recently published in relation to particle physics in China, in particular the current accelerator at IHEP, the upgrade which will be taking place relatively soon and the possible scale of Chinese involvement in the ILC. I have a naive suspicion that China, increasing its power in so many ways so quickly, may play a greater role in the ILC than expected. In fact with the current trend to construct objects far greater in magnitude than most other nations would dare (three gorges dam and Beijing-Lhasa train) that I wouldn't be surprised to see it built out here. I'm sure many would not be so amused and the last statement was not said with any inside knowledge!

Anyway, I shall hopefully be able to give more of a first-hand account of the current research happening at Beijing's particle accelerator centre when I go there next Thursday to give a seminar. I look forward to finding out the current climate and will report back with what's news.

In the mean time I've been having once of those rather surreal afternoons. Having been asked to help out with the Beijing postdoctoral New Year's festivities I agreed to do what I could, though I will not be present when they take place.

Those who were reading this 11 months ago will know about my Spring Festival antics (Jan 17th and 18th entries here). I had presumed that my poetic rantings had gone unheard, but, apparently not and the sound of an Englishman reading poetry to a group of 200 Chinese scientists and their families was enough to get some people interested. This afternoon I stood in front of a group of a dozen postdoctoral researchers teaching them to read poetry. The looks on their faces were a reasonable mixture of bemusement and disconnected disinterest. This makes a little more sense when I mention that I was teaching these poor souls to recite Spike Milligan's On The Ning Nang Nong. I chose this (along with the Jabberwocky) to perform last year as I was fully aware that the meaning would probably be lost in the recital and so it was better for their to be no meaning at all. However, now that it's not a native English speaker reciting, things seem all the more surreal.

By the end of the hour I'd got them all bonging, booing, Pinging and Jibber, Jabber, Jooing in time and so, when they come to do this in front of however many hundred other people will be watching in January, an experience will undoubtedly be had by all.

I wish I had more time to write up some reviews of the books and movies that I've been collapsing to recently but that will have to wait.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Towards the Sun

Somehow Friday has arrived and we seem to have missed out the middle of the week, even though enough has happened for two weeks worth of days. Relativity in action! A few hours yesterday in a cafe at Tsinghua gave me some time to catch up on a couple of papers and I have some possible ideas for a new project.

I've had some good news this week that I'll be going to the Yukawa Institute in Kyoto for a two month visit at the beginning of next year. This will be following a two week winter school on string theory in Korea with what look to be some great speakers.

My last trip to Japan was just two weeks but I had an incredible time out there. The physics was productive and taking in the culture was a joy. I look forward to more of the same.

So, for those who will be coming out to visit next year, I will be a few clicks East until the middle of March. I also will not be coming back for Christmas, as holiday time here is pretty strictly controlled (though my boss has been extremely kind so far in allowing me much more than I should have taken). Still, last Christmas was a peaceful experience and I'm sure something fun will come up this time.

The second piece of good news is that Parcelforce gave in and have reimbursed me for the computer which was badly damaged on the trip from the UK to China. This positive note is only the full stop at the end of a rather ugly saga, but I am pleased that they have done the right thing under the circumstances.

I mentioned a few posts ago when talking about learning Chinese that I've found a superb resource. I have been lent a tape set of 90 half hour Mandarin lessons called Pimsleur Mandarin. They're tedious, really really tedious. The repetition is unending and the pace is slow but if you want to learn the language then they are an invaluable resource. With such an alien language repetition really is the key and I can now be seen walking around with my headphones on uttering random Mandarin phrases as I walk to and from work.

To keep you interested there is a rather salubrious undertone to the lessons. You work up slowly to asking someone if they would like to have a drink or dinner with you but by lesson nine you get a series of crippling rejections by a woman who eventually tells you that you really don't understand, she doesn't want to go out with you at all. Soon you are married, kids have arrived and your wife is borrowing money from you. Around lesson 19 a woman has plied you with beer and you are in her hotel room while her husband is nowhere to be seen, in fact she doesn't know where he is. I'm on lesson 22 on tenterhooks! I'm probably reading too much into this and it's done rather more subtly than I've outlined but the extra touch is a clever one.

Though I complain regularly about the language, it is improving bit by bit. There are however aspects which will forever remain a mystery to me. Though it is in traditional script, meaning that only those in Taiwan will understand it, this ancient Chinese poem is an example of the problems that a highly degenerate language can give you. Enjoy!