Friday, March 31, 2006

So, my parents turned up with P+M, on time and in the correct hotel with only a little fuss from taxi drivers getting lost on the way. It's lovely to see them after five months though somehow because of msn and skype it doesn't seem like nearly that long. Internet communications have clearly revolutionised how we can view distance and contactability. I guess it wouldn't have been that many years ago that someone living in Beijing would only have post as a means of communication with the outside world.

It's interesting to see Beijing, through my parents with a new if somewhat jet-lagged set of eyes. So many of the things that I take for granted now leave them surprised, confused, impressed and it takes me a while to shift perspective to realise why such things may appear odd. A small meal in a dumpling house for lunch was greeted with oohs and aahs at the quality, quantity and of course price of the food. To me now, this is a little snack of moderate taste at a regular price but of course to someone who just spent twice as much on a latte from Starbucks as a meal for five is going to be pretty impressed.

After a wonder round the hutongs in what is now a rather temperate atmosphere we headed to the drum and bell tower, neither of which I've been to but both of which are worth a visit to have a decent view of the city as well as to see the largest bell in China (almost 20 ft tall). (Click the picture to see the site I'm linking from)

In the drum tower you get a drum show every half an hour of some enormous drums (from

Worth a visit if you're in the area, very cheap to get into. Don't bother with the guided tour, everything is very well explained and people are happy to chat if you have questions.

After a visit to my flat for my parents to inspect that I wasn't living in either a pigsty or some sort of seraglio, they left reasonable assured. We headed back to teir hotel, via my department, and had a superb head massage leaving us all feeling invigorated and ready to face the rest of the day (which for those with jet-lag was no small task). I have photos of my parents just after said massage but they both look a little dishevelled so shall ask permission before I post the picture.

My mother learnt Chinese 30 years ago. The confidence may have wained a little but the vocab is fast coming back and soon she will have overtaken me. It's great to be with mostly non-Chinese people again as it means I get to practice much more than when I'm with my colleagues. Somewhat ironic but true. I've been having what can be classed as genuine, if slightly muddled conversations now and such pressure is surely necessary for my improvement which is currently only happening theoretically and not practically. I look forward to some more improvement over the next couple of weeks.

A fine dinner at a Mongolian hotpot restaurant finished off the day and the weary travellers as I said my goodbyes after a mammoth day for the newest Beijing intakes.

Everyday when I come home from the office I'm greeted by a group of inline skaters practicing and practicing and practicing, come cold, wind, sand and whatever else Beijing may have to hurl at them. They're really good and spend their time coming up with ingenious ways to hurtle through a slalom with maximum difficulty. Today I asked them if I could watch for a while and take some photos. They seemed only too happy to oblige and these were some of the results. (I may have to clean my camera lense!)

The building in the background is the icebox which is my apartment.

An early start tomorrow so I shall hit the sack with a new pile of books bought from England to keep me going for the next few days. Will review when I've read the Kazantzakis, Proust, Marquez, Steinbeck (again, I know, sorry) and a book on modern art called The Shock of the New, which I've been looking forward to reading for many months.

Fittingly I sign off with 'Supergrass - Time To Go' fading into the background. Adios.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

First of all a rather fine photo courtesy of Nasa/JPL/Space science institute of the South pole of Jupiter in all its marbled glory.

I have a tenuous link to this photo in that my work experience at the age of 15 involved working on the Cassini-Huygens mission to Jupiter and Saturn which has taken so many spectacular photos as well as carrying out a host of other imaging and sensing measurements. In particular I was involved (as far as I remember I was reproducing things which had already been done, I make no actual claims to have helped) with the probe to Titan (one of Saturn's moons) which floated 'gently' down onto the surface of this strange moon to sample the atmosphere and work out what sort of surface was down there. It ended up landing on a coastline of a liquid ocean which may well be methane though it seems to have chunks of water ice floating around in it.

The orbiter itself has taken a wealth of data on a huge range of astronomical phenomena from testing general relativity (successfully) to studying the spokes of Saturn's rings and also giving us these great photos of Jupiter.

These sort of missions also go into my category of extremes that I spoke about previously. The accuracy of the trajectory is stunning with the position and timing being known to within a fraction of a second after many months of slingshots around planets at many km per second and the effects of all planets and moons being taken into account. Rocket science may not be string theory but it's still a pretty fine art.


A little physics before I take a break for a couple of weeks (though work will have to come too!).

Today we had a seminar from Ed Samulski from The University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. It was one of the few seminars I get to watch where I understood every word. This is partly because it wasn't in Chinese and partly because Ed Samulski is an excellent speaker. What's more strange perhaps is that his research is in a completely different field to mine. In fact he's a chemist and his research is into liquid crystals, a 45 billion dollar industry, so one that gets a reasonable amount of government funding. His talk was about a new phase of liquid crystals which he and his coworkers had discovered a couple of years ago. The validity of this finding is still disputed and various papers attacking it will be coming out in the next few months.

The idea of a liquid crystal is a relatively simple but ingenious one. Crystals have their molecules aligned in a nice lattice or grid such that the system is very highly ordered. The molecules are stuck in their positions and though they may vibrate around, they don't shift places. Generally when you heat up a crystal, at some point it will melt. When it melts, all this order is lost. The lattice breaks down and the molecules (which now have more energy as they've been heated) rush around in all directions bumping into each other.

It turns out that for some types of molecule something happens in between these two points. Some molecules (such as chains of a few benzene rings) are long and thin and can be thought of like rods, or rolling pins. What happens in between the solid and liquid phase is that there is an intermediate state which has less order than the solid and more than the liquid. The molecules all move about freely as they do in the liquid but this time their orientation is the same, they are all lined up in the same direction, with the long axis of the rolling pin all pointing one way.

What's so useful about this is that when they are in this state, by applying an electric field to the new phase (called the nematic phase, or liquid crystal phase) you can change which direction these molecules like to point. What's more, when the molecules are pointing in one direction only light of a particular polarisation (read: a wave oscillating in a fixed direction) can easily pass though the material. By altering the current and using extra polarisers you have a system where you can change the amount of light that passes through it, just by altering the electric field. That's exactly how LCD displays work. They have this liquid crystal in a grid on the screen, a set of polarisers sandwiching the liquid and a series of electric plates to turn the light on or off for a particular colour of grid. Simple as that.

So...nothing new here. What Prof Samulski discovered was that if you bend these rods (using clever chemistry tricks) you find that there's another form of ordering that can take place related to the plane in which you bend the molecules.

What this all boils down to is that he found a new phase in between the nematic phase and the liquid phase called the biaxial nematic phase which may be applicable for making much faster and higher resolution LCDs. Along with all this he managed to show that mean field theory which is often used to model liquid crystals matches pretty poorly, even in the most ideal of cases.

Anyway, I wanted to talk about that as it's unusual to go to such a clearly explained lecture. I apologies that my explanation will be trivial for those who know it and a muddle for those who don't but if you want to know more, I suggest you follow some of the links.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

It seems my flat has some otherwise unknown Chinese form of insulation which can keep it at an even temperature for many days at a time. I don't generally have a great problem getting up in the morning but this morning I cringed and cowered in bed for two hours with my two jumpers wondering whether I could make a dash to get my wooly hat. A shivered sprint to the shower was followed by the worry that my ticker may not stand the sudden change in temperature and I'd be found some days later, a blue, slightly worried looking corpse.

I finally made it into clothes, wrapped up in as many layers as I could find ready to face the blizzard that I was sure would greet me outside. I stepped out the door braced to fight off the frostbite, only to be wrapped in a balmy summer's glow and a warm breeze that completely confused my still unthawed brain. It appears that they've cleverly constructed my flat from some form of icebox material. Now that the heating has been switched off the air in the apartment, cooled over the last few days of dropping temperatures has stayed in the same state despite the arrival of spring. So I sit here wrapped in hat and scarf in the knowledge that, though it's now almost nine, I would be warmer with my laptop in the street outside. C'est la vie.

Anyway, not a great deal to report of late so I shan't make up stuff just to fill the space. Hopefully a few more pictures and stories as my folks arrive laden with books and more goodies from back home.

I will however leave you with a photo from my departmental canteen. You can either spend 40p on a huge tray of extremely tasty food with rice, various Chinese breads, wraps and a potluck on animal parts or you can spend 30p and get hand pulled noodles.
These are drawn from the dough in an elaborate series of fast arm movements. thrown into a pot of broth and cooked for a minute. Then it's ladled into a bowl with meat, vegetables, spices and more broth to create a hugely filling, presumably healthy and very tasty meal. The noodle expert seemed very happy to have me take his picture:

Monday, March 27, 2006

26 hours without caffeine. I put this achievement on par with the old water/wine trick. I can't concentrate on any one thing for a minute, my eyes are propped open with chopsticks and the coffee sitting opposite me has sprouted legs and is doing the can-can. It's for precisely this reason that I'm attempting to detox, I'm clearly dependent. In fact, most academics I know thrive on a diet of caffeine and glucose in some warped admixture. Two of the top physicists I've seen talk have also been, as far as I could tell, sky-high on coffee. They are both excellent, enthusiastic speakers who research fascinating areas of string theory and extra-dimensional physics, but together if utilised in the right way could almost certainly solve any possible future global energy shortages. They simply can't stop moving.

I'm currently reading a strange range of papers, firstly to learn some new areas of particle physics and secondly to see if my previous work can be extended in any interesting directions. In just a few days my parents will be here and I'll take a long overdue break but there are some problems I want to try and work on before then.

Anyway, this is going to be a very short post as you could have predicted from my current state. Must find something else to do for five minutes....

Saturday, March 25, 2006

As a consequence of the weather in Beijing rolling slowly towards the relatively pleasant I'm freezing, or at least my flat is. As the temperatures rise the authorities turn off the heating, all at once, everywhere in China (though only half of China is allowed heating at all). So as the gales howl and temperatures drop at night the flat is getting pretty nippy. This isn't a big complaint as I'm currently warm and comfy with the help of some extra thick jumpers.

So, it's only Saturday evening and already it's been a funny old weekend. Yesterday evening after a long days work I was, well, stood-up is the honest description. It turned out that said standing-up was only a 14 hour time-shift but will get onto that momentarily. Anyway, not wanting a wasted evening I headed towards the local bars and arranged to meet some friends. In between cancelled plans and newly made plans was an hour, left hanging in the air, open to the elements. Somehow I found myself in a cafe drinking herbal tea reading a book containing three lectures by C.P.Snow on Science and Government, thus far a study of the relationship between a German and British scientist around the 1920s. Anyway, a nice little read but not what I would normally take clubbing with me. So, friends and I intersected at the appropriate point in the evening allowing the effects of herbal tea not too put me in an overly relaxed state.

A pleasant evening dancing and chatting with most and sundry. Arriving back at a semi-godly hour and chatting briefly with friends in various continents in mixed states of insomnia.

So, at ten this morning my standing-up hiatus came to an abrupt and slightly bleary eyed end as the phone rang and a lunch was planned. With a slight diversion into the office to try and see if my subconscious had worked out anything about dual coxeter groups in my sleep (it had, it was half right, not good enough) I headed to the East of the city and ended up in a quite bizarre restaurant. This is something that Beijing has got down to a fine art. If you took a survey of all the possible stereotypes and generalisations that people may have of Thailand, boiled them down to their very essence and wrapped them in a banana leaf you would have, well, you'd have The Banana Leaf. Almost certainly Beijing's most gaudy Thai restaurant where you get sung to by a mixed transgender band and winked at by waiters and waitresses alike while plastic palm trees provide a jungle above you but. In fact, as you walk in you have to leave any sensibilities and inhibitions you may have in a small coffer which is locked and returned at the end of your meal so the singing and overall atmosphere was actually a lot of fun. Not only this but it was the single best Thai meal I've ever eaten. With tom yum soup infested with king prawns the size of lobsters and banana roti to soothe the sour burn and compliment the lemon grass infused in everything it was an exceptionally well made meal.

So, after some wondering around and sitting in cafes I returned to the office to finish a little work and now, wrapped up like a swaddled infant, I shall attempt to catch up on some sleep.

OK, after some photos which have been in short supply of late.

Spring is definitely in the air as a stroll through Tsinghua University gave an opportunity for some blossomy photos:

This statue in the Tsinghua grounds is a tribute to the doctors who battled SARS while it put East Asia into a state of extreme panic. I certainly wasn't really aware of how people felt but from what I've been told it was a genuinely terrifying time in Beijing.

In the taxi today I got a few shots. This it would appear is the most sedate way to travel and read your book while watching the world go by.

I liked the colour contrasts in the this scene as the workmen are given their tasks for the day.

and finally, this is the reason that I don't cycle in Beijing. As we entered a ten lane highway this guy is peddling slowly along in the middle of the road on the phone. To cycle in Beijing it appears you need not only a complete disregard for life and limb but also a temporary loss of any form of adrenalin release which would make you realise that most situations here are utterly terrifying.

OK, that's it for now.

Friday, March 24, 2006

I feel it would be somewhat dishonest of me to only write about the good aspects of both my academic and social life, so this week other than getting another paper online, I've had a bit of a damper put on my research status. Not too major I hope.

In January I put a paper online which was the first that was entirely my own work. There are some fun results and a couple of somewhat important results. The usual course if events is that you submit a paper to the Arxiv first (you only need to be affiliated with an institution to do this, and not be on the blacklist - an interesting story of the balance of academic freedom vs. the domination of crackpots!). After a little time of seeing what the reactions to the paper are, you submit it to a journal to be peer reviewed by an anonymous researcher in a field close to your own. They then say whether a)It should be accepted in it's current form b) It should be accepted with minor corrections c) it should be revised and then reconsidered or d) rejected completely.

I received my news a couple of days ago that (quite fairly) several of the sections to my paper were somewhat superfluous and clouded the more interesting result. It was also claimed that one of the sections was not concrete enough and therefore unclear. These are all perfectly reasonable statements and in fact I agree with them in terms of what is important for other researchers to read. Whether or not once I've made these pretty major structural changes to the paper it will be accepted was a little unclear but I've little choice but to rewrite, resubmit and hold my breath.

Anyway, it was a bit of a blow to my academic confidence which, despite the release of the new paper, is feeling a little low at the moment. My research career so far is around two and a half years old and I've spent almost all that time working in a single rather narrow area. Now that I try and branch out a bit, I realise how many areas in my knowledge have become extremely hazy with the long hiatus since I learnt them for the first time three years ago.

Anyway, I remain somewhat stoic on this and press ahead in an attempt to learn as much as I can as fast as I can. Unfortunately my academic personality is a rather fickle one as I flit from one book to another and skip through papers, probably without studying them in as much depth as I should. There's just SO MUCH OUT THERE TO LEARN that knowing what is vital and what can be left for another time is a tricky balancing act that I'm far from mastering.

Anyway, I'm not too worried and feel that an awareness of these problems, as I've mentioned before, sees to a good part of the battle.


In some maths news which will probably be on every science blog in the next few days is the announcement of the 2006 winner of the Abel prize for mathematics. Essentially the Nobel prize for maths (I'm not sure whether one would claim that this or the Fields medal is more important).

Sorry, this will be a little technical but probably brief.

This year it was awarded to Lennart Carleson, in large part for his work on harmonic analysis and his proof of convergence of Fourier series on the space of square integrable functions. This is something that as a physicist I had taken for granted when introduced to the concept as an undergraduate. Square integrable functions are particularly important in quantum mechanics and in particular in defining the Hilbert space of states. So this proof is an important one in many areas of physics.

Reading the official site for the Abel prize it looks like Carleson has been a major player in solving some of the most complicated problems in mathematics over the last few decades including proofs of the existence of strange attractors in certain systems.

Attractors come about in the study of dynamical systems, whereby a wide range of starting conditions for your system (which may be a complex set of pendulums for instance) end up in, or near, a small set of states after some time. Their states appear to be attracted to the subset. Attractors have very important applications in areas ranging from the stability of heartbeats to solutions in string theory. The state space of such systems can be plotted to indicate the points of attraction and probably the most famous of these is the Lorenz attractor which is found in chaotic dynamical systems.

In my brief meanderings to try and find out a little more about the subject of convergence I found that the concept 'almost everywhere' has a mathematically rigorous definition.

The definition is that if a property holds almost everywhere then the space in which it doesn't hold is the null set. Not being a mathematician, this definition seems pretty odd to me but apparently this concept is important in some areas of analysis.


Anyway, I'm clearly flitting again and have books that I should be reading and coroot lattices to digest (a healthy afternoon snack that I recommend to all). Another full weekend in view but first things first.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Sorry, and finally for tonight, I found this classified in a local paper, it's an alternative approach to finding the perfect partner:

Tracing boy toy, clean, cute and hot, working and living richly in here, casual date if reply. Over 35, under 175 and passenger, don't think this ad is for you, so no bother. Me, old, ugly, short and cruel. Disgustful? then send ur beautiful pic to mailbox: ADDRESS NOT COPIED FROM PAPER .with brief intro may as well.

The Beijing book and movie club made a return in style with well over 20 people coming along yesterday. An excellent range of people from all over the world showed up and chatted Renais, literature on psychedelia and modern Hong Kong cinema over wasabi nibbles and yak jerky (much better than it sounds). People seemed interested to hear about my time in Japan especially as there is often a very strong anti-Japanese feeling with Chinese youth. I informed them that my time had been fantastic and that all of the Japanese people I met were extremely nice, very generous and stupendously polite. This garnered a few deep intakes of breath and puzzled looks though most were genuinely interested to hear this.

I've been told by one Chinese person in their 20s that they were shown films at school every week explaining the terrible things that the Japanese did to them over the years so it's unsurprising that such vehement expressions of distrust are still common (though I have met many Chinese people who have nothing against the Japanese). I wonder how long it will be before these defensive barriers are lowered and such strong xenophobia disappears. A while I fear but things in China are changing fast and I don't think that long-term predictions are simple in this atmosphere.


So, I'm moving onto a new project and various options are up in the air. I'm sharing an office with a professor at the moment who's an expert on GUTs (well, if not branes, then GUTs seem the next best thing!). We're going to have a chat on Monday about his research, so since the beginning of this week I've been working my way through a mammoth review to get myself up to speed on an area that I'm only familiar with from attending seminars.

These GUTs (grand unified theories) are, hand-wavingly, one step below TOEs (Theories of everything). Apologies, it appears that high energy physicists are rather anatomy obsessed. A theory of everything tries to unify all four forces of nature in a single theory. String theory is, most would say, the closest we've come to this. These theories therefore include gravity which is the especially tough part to try and get it to work together with the other forces at very small distance scales.

GUTS attempt to unify the three forces of the standard model (Electromagnetism, weak and strong) into a single force which splits into three forces at some high energy scale (much higher than the energy of our current collider capabilities but much lower than the energies around at the time of the big bang).

To do this, one of the first concerns is to understand the symmetries of your theory and, as I've spoken about before, each of the forces of nature is characterised by a certain set of symmetries. The subject of symmetries is a huge and complex area of mathematics called group theory which is part of the foundation of modern particle physics.

Certain areas of this field are more relevant than others and in particular certain types of symmetries (Lie groups) are found in a large class of theoretical physics problems. I'd like to explain this in more detail but feel that a) to do so I would feel much more comfortable gesticulating wildly as I expound and b) the Chinese lesson I've just had has filled the area of my brain that deals with group theory with a serious of guttural utterances which my body doesn't want to produce.

Anyway, so I have to look over the books that I learnt group theory from several years ago, finish this paper and try and think of some sensible questions for our discussion on Monday.

Many meetings this week as well but I may sneak off tomorrow afternoon for a spot of sightseeing. I'll be in the office over the weekend for some time so feel I owe myself a small treat for having got the paper (for which the e-mails requesting citations are already coming in) out of the way.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

A busy day today followed by a planned busy evening but the paper is online now so we will have to see if there is any reaction/confusion/outrage/euphoria associated with its release. I suspect that the ripples will not be huge but will wait and see.

Monday, March 20, 2006

This is very good, I'm sitting in a completely spotless flat which has had the first real clean for, well, an embarrassingly long time. The side effect of this is that I'm rather afraid to move as I don't want to disturb the idyllic equilibrium. So instead I shall catch up on recent bits and bobs of varying significance. First a photo (which I know have been lacking somewhat recently) from another hotpot meal which we had on Friday night at a friend's house. Due to lack of chairs, it was a rather bohemian affair and apart from two of us being well over 6ft and playing various contortion games to get comfortable it was a very enjoyable evening.

Details of the preparation of such a meal can be found a couple of posts ago.

A lot of the weekend was spent in the office finishing off a paper which we released into the wild today. This is my first submission to hep-ph. This means that we think that the results are worth explaining to the people who interface between theory and experiment (these are very important people). Usually my work is only worthy of explaining to theorists, because it doesn't attempt to explain the real world in any great detail. The latest paper however is an extension of a previous model to do just that. Anyway the name of the paper is 'Three Flavour Physics from the Holographic Principle' and I shall put a link to it as soon as it comes online. The results are superb in some places and a little disappointing in others. Really what we want to do is to extend the formalism with enough freedom that other people can play around with this model and try and mimic the real world of the strong force as accurately as possible. I expect some comments though mostly from people asking to be referenced.

On the subject of physics, I found an interesting discussion on cosmicvariance about a paper written at the beginning of the year by my former PhD supervisor Nick Evans, Tim Morris and Oliver Rosten. Clifford Johnson has a great explanation of the paper which is itself really nicely written. Though I think that it's a great result, I'm still a little unsure how it is useful for calculating brane flows and sugra field solutions though that's probably because I haven't thought about it in enough detail. Hmmm, yes (cogs turn, wheels go grind), I'll think about it some more. It's such an elegant solution to the problem of describing a gauge invariant regularization in AdS/CFT that there must be something useful we can calculate with it.

This weekend, while I wasn't in the office I was finishing old books, starting new ones and getting back into some Japanese cinema.

Bright Future
is a strange film from Japanese director Kiyushi Kurusawa (no relation). It's about the contrasting thoughts on the future of two young guys working in dead-end jobs in modern Tokyo. One feels that the future is bright though lives in a dream and spends his time in the real world in a state of pathos and frustration. The other has a solid view of the future and knows that he can mold it as he wants, though with a nihilist slant. Several storylines run in parallel but each essentially carrying the same theme. A toxic jellyfish is used throughout to mimic the sentiments of the dreamer, I think. The film uses unusual camera techniques to take the atmosphere through scenes of numbness, frustration, elation, hope and more. Anyway, an interesting film probably with more subtlety than I've understood from a first viewing. One of the actors is Tadanobu Asano who is also the lead in the Thai film 'The Last Life in the Universe', which I urge people to see, though expect an exceedingly sad film.

In an thoroughly pleasant couple of hours sat in a cafe I finished Tortilla Flat which, though, as I mentioned before is clearly from a less mature author than his later work, still ends with a scene of similar power and simplicity to many of Steinbeck's other books. It feels a little like a sketch for several of the people in Cannary Row though this is probably because many of the characters he uses are from his real adventures in Southern California. He gets a little caught up in trying to be over eloquent but it's still a great novel. I'm now half way through the Steinbeck canon and don't feel disappointed with anything I've read so far - I'll stop rattling on about Steinbeck for a bit as I've run out for now.

The new book is The Joke by Kundera. This was his first novel and was written during the Soviet occupation of his home. This made both publishing it in the first place and getting it out to a wider audience extremely difficult and only in this, the fifth translation, is Kundera happy with the English version. The first, he explains, were so thoroughly torn apart and reduced that while being censored in Czechoslovakia he felt in some ways equally censored abroad. Though it's been through a rocky history, it's great to read a translation which is so highly lauded by the author, something that I worry about when reading modern translations of older books.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Incidentally, when I said 'appropriate' in the last somewhat strange post I wasn't implying that there were any inappropriate goings on, merely that three in the morning didn't seem to be the best time to expound on the drinks policies of the slightly surreal Beijing bar scene.

Saturday night was a reunion with people I hadn't seen for several weeks and the location turned out to be an unusual canal-side set of bars, all slightly out of the way of the normal throng of party-goers. Most of these clubs have an all you can drink policy for some disproportionately small sum, including the one we went to. I was expecting that this meant that all drinks would be watered down and in fact an evening of drinking only marginally alcoholic drinks rather appealed. It was only the day after that I realised the disparity between price and ridiculous strength of drinks. A city of 14 million people is hard to monitor in every way and one of the many dirty dealings that slips through the net is the sale of illegal alcohol. It turns out that either the drinks we were having were illegally brewed or, worse, were cut with methanol, apparently a common practice. I'm pleased to say that I didn't have enough to decide which of the two options we'd consumed but I'm going to be a lot more careful in the future when going to less commercial bars.

Though it was a fun night with friends around, the bar was exactly the sort that I despise the most. With a heavy air of solicitous intention in the atmosphere, most people seem to have a far narrower agenda than simply having a good time. I love to dance and I enjoy a good time with friends but the strange ambiance of everyone being there for one reason just doesn't gel with me. Doc Shock should lighten up perhaps but I spent too much time feeling awkward in such places at a younger age to be able to shift this particular chip on my shoulder.


It's now Sunday evening and fingers crossed that I'm up to the final few stages in the process of writing a paper that I spoke of before. Will provide news when the situation is clarified.

Friday, March 17, 2006

I walk at a shallow angle to the wind with long dark coat flailing in the gusts and sand in my mouth. It's three in the morning having arrived back from a night which I shall expand on when it feels appropriate (2 quid all you can drink - this is ridiculous - my typing I hope gives away my current state.). The wind has grown to a vicious howl and the dust-devil the size of a building which my lift drove through on the way to the local station was a mere precursor to the evening's events. Beijing knows how to throw a curve ball weather-wise and I'm growing to expect the spectacular. Taxis through tornadoes, I return gob-smacked.

So after two years waiting, the WMAP data is out. This satellite has been taking data to study the anisotropies in temperature and polarisation in the microwave background radiation with stunning accuracy and today the results were belatedly announced. I shan't rewrite what everyone else has written as there are a lot of people who know infinitely more about this subject than I do and have given a great overview of what the results mean. See Cosmic Variance and Bad Astronomy Blog for two of the best reviews I've found.

Basically though, the results mean that our current ideas about the early stages of the universe, given by the standard cosmological model, match the data even more accurately than before. There are still a couple of anomalous data points but basically the conclusion is that we really do seem to be along the right lines when it comes to the history of the universe. I do find it truly incredible that from a few simple elements on our planet, organic compounds were created, simple life evolved, more complex life evolved, we became self aware and quickly started learning about what was around us. In a remarkably short space of time we have the audacity to think that we know what was happening in the first few fractions of a second after the big bang. To me it seems less powerful to say that we are self aware than that the universe has itself become self aware with us as the vessels. This isn't meant to sound like science fiction, it just all seems pretty miraculous to me.

So what does the universe look like when viewed in microwave? Well, with unprecedented accuracy, something like this (courtesy of NASA):

This image and it's underlying data has got a lot of people very excited. Funny old world huh?

Thursday, March 16, 2006

The temperature has leapt over the last few days peaking at a little over 20 degrees. As in all other cities, Beijing is a much much more pleasant place to be when it's balmy and having been back for almost two weeks, I'm again oblivious to the pollution - the spring in my step is only marginally degraded by overly vigorous gym activity.

With the fine weather appeared a proliferation of yappy dogs owned by middle-aged men. Highly coiffured and with unreasonably short legs, these pooches strut around like there are no Korean or Hunan restaurants in the neighbourhood. Little do they know!

Perhaps the dogs are kept in until after Spring Festival by their owners as the volume of the fireworks would most likely give these little snappers a heart attack (though of course they may have been bought specifically because this is the year of the dog). In a local paper I got some statistics from the Spring Festival bonanza. Officials don't seem too worried that a mere 838 people were injured in the capital over the two weeks of the festival along with only 384 fires started by poorly aimed rockets. Pollution levels were up 50% on the first day, mostly in the form of sulphur dioxide - I didn't need an environmental survey to tell me this!

genuinely, the most remarkable fact is that although around 5 million dollars of fireworks were set off in Beijing itself (that's a lot of cheap fireworks) nobody was killed - this can only be put down to some miraculous intervention as far as I can tell. (63 people were killed in other provinces).

Another set of interesting statistics I learned were in relation to pirate DVDs out here. It's possible to get just about any film you want from anywhere in the world, generally before it's been released anywhere in the cinemas. I have several DVDs which were 'to be viewed only for awards purposes' - or some such subtitle. What's interesting is that Chinese market is limited to only 20 foreign films a year on a legitimate basis. This means that the likelihood of anyone having a genuine of a foreign film is pretty low. I'm still unsure about how safe it is to take pirate DVDs out of the country and, though of course I don't own any myself, wonder hypothetically how much customs care about an individual having a few films in their possession - I hear mixed messages.

Anyway, a busy day so I'll retire early, if only to await whatever insight into the structure of the universe WMAP may bring us.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

An enjoyable weekend back in BJ with a heady mix of work and play.

Firstly a report on the state of play of all my research...ever.

I think that this is probably a regular theme in the research of a theoretical physicist.

1) Think of an idea, be it groundbreaking or just a minor extension of somebody else's work.

2) Read the relevant papers - a lot of papers are written in a very short format missing out most of the calculation. This means that you have to make all the mistakes that they made in getting to the final answer. The difference is, you know when you've got it right because you have the answer sitting in front of you - or so you hope. The number of papers that are simply wrong is remarkable.

3) Start playing with the equations. Get used to the calculational tools and learn where they break down and where they are malleable.

4) See a clear path from the start to the final outcome and have a rough idea of how you will write the paper. You may be able to see a couple of minor stumbling blocks but they shouldn't be a problem.

5) Minor stumbling blocks turn out to be a major problem. This either spells the end of this project and tells you why nobody else has done the calculation or it's an interesting inconvenience which will teach you something in the process of overcoming it.

6) If you continue, you will get over the obstacle and see the light at the end of the tunnel. Finish the calculation and sit back, go home and go to sleep.

7) Wake up sweating in the middle of the night realising that a simple assumption you've made makes no sense at all. Somewhere in your calculation you've accidentally calculated that the universe is made of cellophane, the world is flat or nothing exists at all.

8) Get into the office and start all over again.

9) Repeat steps 6 through 8 until you're so blind to your own research that you no longer notice the blindingly obvious mistakes.

10) Write up the paper and repeat steps 6 through 8 several times for good measure until you've used up a redwood's worth of paper.

11) Submit paper to the web.

12) Repeat steps 6 through 8 but don't tell anyone that what you've put online has a huge flaw in it.

13) Replace paper in the middle of the night when nobody is looking.

14) Continue step 7 until step 1 is repeated and you can start again.

I'm currently running through steps 6 through 8 for the second time on the current paper. This means that though I should be able to write up tomorrow, I know that there is probably a long path ahead.

This means that I've been in the office over the weekend and when I haven't been in the office I've been seeing friends and talking physics.

So away from physics, I sampled my first home-made hotpot meal at a friend's house which is something that I'd like to try back in the UK.

Take a large pot and preferably an electric heater. Heat up some broth, be it oil or water based in the pot but make sure it has lots of flavour. Then for the next few hours, throw in bits of meat, vegetables, tofu and whatever else you fancy into the pot to cook for a few moments before dipping it in a sauce of your choosing and eating. A nice, casual dinner party meal for a few people. Like fondu, without the cheese and with a much bigger pot.

During the meal we watched three movies. The first two were short films taken from full length versions by Asian directors Fruit Chan and Chan Wook Park, both notorious for their extreme subject matter and Park specifically for his obsession with tales of revenge. Fruit Chan's film, Jaozi (meaning dumplings) is an exceedingly strange film essentially about the image consciousness of the Hong Kong fashionistas. I shall not reveal the contents of the dumplings on this blog. If you want to know, there are the usual places to find out everything you ever wanted to know about movies. (Incidentally the IMDB has now been on the web in some form for an impressive 17 years!).

Park's film is again a revenge story with a catch-22 element and some interesting twists. About the innocence of an easy life, though pretty gruesome, it includes enough surreal slapstick moments and cunning twists to raise it above a simple thriller. Both these films are worth a watch if you're into Asian Extreme though I get the impression from reading around that a lot is lost in the short film versions.


Complete change of topic....

I was involved for a couple of summers in the development of ATLAS, one of the detectors for the LHC, the particle accelerator planned to begin running in 2007. I've spoken about it in some detail before and it's not what I want to write about in detail now. What I do want to point out is that it's a stupendous feat of engineering and scientific expertise (something that I had a truly microscopic part in and so make no claims to have added anything to the impressive nature of this monstrous creation - I helped to program a calibration system which works out how the central detector changes shape over time so that the exact position of the particle collisions can be calculated).

The point is that the accelerator is by far the largest machine ever built and ATLAS is by far the most complex - it's essentially a five story computer/detector with sections cooled by liquid helium, many hundreds of thousands of miles of wiring and designed to deal with 40 million beams crossing each other at effectively the speed of light every second. Not only this but it needs to make decisions about every one of these crossings before the next one comes along. It's taken about 15 years to build this thing and there's a lot riding on it. In fact there's the future of high energy physics riding on it. If this thing doesn't see anything, a lot of us will be out of a job, science funding would be slashed as physicists had spent four decades barking up the wrong tree. We're expecting to see a whole zoo of new particles here which will answer a lot of the questions of the last 20 years of research - we hope. Anyway, the reason I mention it is because it's big.

In fact what got me thinking about this was Paul Cook's blog where he wrote about the discovery of a planet only five times the size of the Earth circling a nearby star, the point being that the viewing this planet is like seeing an object the width of a human hair, on the moon! Since the invention of the telescope and the discovery of the moons of Jupiter we've come an immensely long way. We do however have a lot further to go.

He also mentioned LIGO which is a piece of technological wizardry similar in magic to the LHC and ATLAS. Imagine putting on a pair of headphones which allowed you to hear two black holes colliding somewhere in our galaxy along with echoes from the big bang - not just the ever popular but somewhat troublesome microwave background radiation that permeates the universe - that's from a slightly more recent era. LIGO hopes to be able to do this but rather than using sound, it will use gravitational waves. There is a problem with this however as gravitational waves are ridiculously weak. The effect they have is to warp space time...a bit. Really, just a bit. In fact LIGO needs to be able to detect when the distance between two points which are several miles apart changes by one hundred millionth the width of a hydrogen atom. THAT'S JUST PREPOSTEROUS!!! What's even more preposterous is that we think we can do it. The thing is running, taking data and getting more and more accurate readings all the time. We haven't spotted any black hole collisions yet but we think that they will be seen. This is another giant leap in our slow but sure emergence from blindness that we call scientific progress. Exciting times ahead

As you can probably tell from previous posts, I have a bit of a thing about extremes of design and engineering and being in Beijing I get to see a great deal of fast, if not safe, skyscraper construction. The Taipei 101 tower is currently the worlds tallest building at just over 500m, much to the chagrin of the Chinese. They don't like this runaway nation to have anything better or bigger than it and are already building a structure in Shanghai which will be taller than 101, just. But neither of these buildings are anywhere near the height of the Al Burj and the Burj Dubai which are planned to be around 800 m tall. The Dubaians have a habit of building the biggest and best having completed by far the world's most expensive hotel last year (though apparently they forgot to sound-proof the luxurious rooms). In fact these two buildings, one of which is planned to be finished by 2008 are not only tall but, in my opinion, pretty stunning monoliths. Frank Lloyd Wright planned and designed in detail a building which would be a mile high and the Japanese still consider building a 4km high pyramid with it's own weather system to create an entire, enclosed city.

This talk of extremes brings me nicely onto today's seminar by Prof Ronald Fox from Georgia Tech whose talk was titled 'A physicist's perspective on the origins of life'.

He started off pointing out that what we would call astronomically large numbers (eg. the number of protons in the universe, about 10 followed by 80 zeros) are actually tiny when we start talking about combinatorial numbers. Combinatorial numbers means given a certain set of objects and a set of rules for how to arrange them, how many distinct (or indistinct) possibilities there are for the arrangements. For instance there are about the same number of combinations of choosing 50 balls from 100 as there are protons in the universe. If you want to come up with big numbers, don't look at the cosmos, look at simple combinatorics. In fact if you want to get into numbers larger than even these combinatorial numbers (and of course you can get any size number you want with combinatorics, the point is if you want to calculate combinatorics that have anything to do with the universe you are marginally bounded), you need to follow Turing's arguments about computable numbers which is really well explained on this page.

Anyway, getting off track again. So combinatorial numbers are big and it has been pointed out that the number of possible amino acids given a certain number of base pairs is so ridiculously large that the probability of having the set that we seem to have is essentially zero. So life shouldn't exist.

It's sort of an anthropic principle based on rather weak assumptions about the nature of amino acids.

Ronald fox disagrees with this simple argument and I have to agree with him. The lecture was showing how you can take a relatively simple route using energetics rather than combinatorics to show that any rocky planet with similar conditions to Earth is likely to produce the same form of RNA that we have on Earth. You can show this starting with the abundance of the important elements (of which there are only a dozen or so), necessary for life. From this you can show that monomeric organic compounds are likely to form using simple chemical arguments. From this it is again simple to show that given a fair range of conditions: some heating, or pressure waves etc. you will almost certainly get polymeric organic compounds and they will be the same whatever planet you have as long as the physical laws in all parts of the universe are similar to here. His arguments follow a similar though more complex line through to the construction of RNA, concluding that this is an almost inevitable product of a rocky planet with conditions similar to ours. His theories are not proved (or indeed proofed) but Francis Crick agrees with his reasoning and it seems pretty reasonable. NB. My organic chemistry is pretty poor so the above may well have mistakes - the basic outline is however correct.

The point is that you can get a long way with the origins of life just using arguments of energetics and some assumptions about the physical and chemical laws of the universe (which seem pretty reasonable and even if they're not, they're pretty firmly fixed within our galaxy which has somewhere around 10^11 sun-like stars).

Saturday, March 11, 2006

The chaotic weather of Being in March has arrived as promised. In just 6 hours the temperature has changed by 20 degrees and we've had both a sand storm and a blizzard. I presume that the dust from the sand storm seeded the giant flakes which are currently descending on many parts of the city, only to disappear immediately on the very warm ground. I look forward to more of the same.
These are the sand plastered cars this morning:

and this is the current weather outside:

I'm attempting to get back into my motivational guise as I organise more seminars for the group and it seems to be going well at the moment. With lectures planned for the next few weeks and a reading group to start in a few days time I hope that I can get a little more cohesion after the extremely enjoyable but rather disruptive Spring Festival followed by my absence.

In just a couple of weeks time my parents will be out here which should be another great break from the office (though some papers will be included on the planned trip for good company). This does mean that I'm making a big effort to finish off a paper I'm working on at the moment and hope to be able to get the bulk of it out of the way next week.

Because of all this I hit Beijing at a sprint and already have a full schedule with social as well as academic engagements filling the hours. In the couple of hours spare before heading into the office this morning I started Tortilla Flat which is a saga of the Peisanos of California told with a theme of the Arthurian legend, one of Steinbeck's obsessions. It was his first commercial success and, though very enjoyable, is clearly from a less mature writer than his epic works. It still has many of the same themes that he uses throughout his California writing though with a somewhat less subtle emphasis. Very enjoyable but don't start with this one.

With a four week hiatus I'm back listening to music at work and last night's accompaniment to late night maths coding was a good couple of hours of Dr. Nina Simone (She had an honorary degree in music and humanities). Combined with a fiery temperament (shooting her neighbour whose laughing disturbed her) and a strong gospel background, she's one of my favourite vocalists of all time.


Still a few shots from Japan to put up from my last day in Narita. I guess the highway code in Japan differs from that in England as I don't recall a kendo chapter in my version.

and a contented family of terrapin/tortoise (?) sunbathed in Naritaji.

as did this chap who clearly has the right idea about not rushing about like a fool


Courtesy of the prolific and usually controversial Reference Frame, comes news of an experiment into creating high temperature plasmas who's unexpected results could make small scale fusion reactors a much more realistic possibility than before. With a bit of tweaking, this machine has gone from producing temperatures of a few million degrees to around 2 billion. The machine itself is not a fusion reactor but if the phenomenon could be understood and harnessed, the creation of such high temperature plasma would be a huge breakthrough in fusion technology.

For those who don't know, Lubos Motl's reference frame is the most popular academic's blog out there (correction, the most frequently viewed according to some statistics. Cosmic Variance is another very popular one and if anybody can tell me of others that I'm missing out on, I'd love to hear.)and is a great place to read (one opinion) about the latest results in string theory, the latest debunking of loop quantum gravity, world and local politics and much more. His Conservative viewpoints are often highly against the grain of the usual academics stance and particularly his views that the theories of global warming are far from scientific is an interesting argument against the usual media hype. Worth a read though be prepared to leave his site in a huff if you don't have a strong constitution for polemic

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

I'm back in Beijing now and the pollution, the racket and the chaos on the roads actually feels satisfyingly like home. It was superb to go and see Japan and I really do plan on heading back there as soon as I have an opportunity but getting back home to my own flat is good.

Things are now pretty hectic with work and I have a few ideas floating around that I would like to crystallise before they disappear completely. (Baryons in singular AdS geometries along with baryons in holographic toy models are interesting areas to tackle at the moment, though both may be blind alleys).

I have my first Chinese crackpot physicist. I've spoken a little about crackpots over the last week or so but today I met one first hand.

A middle aged chap sidles nervously into my office, looking a little lost. He mumbles something in Chinese to me so I mumble something back. He then pulls out a lever arch file, brimming with papers and scribbled notes and takes from this file a ten page document in Chinese and English. The title is something about grand unification, geometrics, global economics and politics. I look puzzled as the English seems to have been created using a piece of automatic translation software and appears to consist of a broken string of physics terms along with names of famous physicists interspersed with the word Nobel throughout. I can't understand what he's talking about and tell him this, in Chinese. We go through to a friend's office where I ask if he can help out with interpreting what the guy is trying to tell me. In the end we had a half hour chat (with me just listening and picking out key words in the Chinese chatter). The guy claims to have a grand unified theory, even better than Einstein he says! He appears to be unaware that Einstein never came up with a grand unified theory (though he did of course try). It's pointed out to him that he has no predictions and indeed no equations in his work to which his reply is that he has the equations in his head. Predictions are a bit of a sticky point and are glossed over. He claims that he will win the Nobel prize but needs some help in checking through his paper first. In fact he does have an equation in his paper which claims that some unit of energy = 5000 US dollars. This is a truly unified theory linking economics with high energy physics. Impressive stuff. I do feel sorry for him, though I'm told that this is quite common in China for rich men, who want to make their mark, to write a paper peppered with key terminology and absolutely no physics whatsoever. They then come to the department looking for support. I think that there's a bit more to it than this and this chap was clearly not quite with it. I'm not sure what was going through his head but his arguments about David Gross, Einstein, quantum mechanics and the Swedish Nobel academy obviously made sense to him.

Anyway, another eye-opener and apparently I should a) expect more of this and b) not take these people to my colleagues offices for interpretation.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Yesterday, or perhaps tomorrow, time and space were playing by a new set of rules. Hours and minutes followed in mysterious patterns and one way streets changed direction in a blink. For this reason I find it easy to believe that as I wandered around Gion I may have been in some mezzanine hour in an alternative Kyoto were Geisha are non existent. Not a Geisha in sight though I searched far and wide and in my meanderings found myself in some pretty seedy alleys where there were elegantly dressed women, however their purpose was clearly of a far less reputable nature.

Though I didn't know where I was in relation to my hotel, I fancied a walk and so headed off in an unknown direction only to find myself at the hotel an hour later having stumbled over a curry of unspeakable awfulness and a Dutch cafe pumping out Thelonious Monk as fast as it could distill its fine brews.

I now find myself in a Starbucks by Kyoto railway station with enough minutes to kill for a bite to eat but not enough for another temple. Surrounded by a million other bloggers tapping away about whatever specifics of our lives we think may grab the reader.

I did head up Kyoto tower for a panoramic view of the city and in the process got a snap of the Kyoto station (in the foreground):

I also attempted to go to a Kimono showroom but was politely ejected as it was members only. Oops.


In the free evenings here I've been reading more of the Sea of Cortez and my initial reaction has been replaced by a certain enlightenment. This is Steinbeck's own voice gobbling up information and taking in the reactions and personalities of the people that are met on this voyage with a voracity that only a man who could distill such observation to the strength and simplicity that he does in his novels could. Though I wouldn't recommend this book to anyone who hasn't read a fair number of his books, it does give a fascinating insight into where his power comes from. His punch comes from a keen eye and a deeply analytical mind which is hidden in his novels by the final concentrated punchline seeded in every character. I don't necessarily agree with everything he has to say on human nature, science (in particular his arguments about teleology take on rather Pythonesque proportions), politics, love or many of the other topics he goes into in this book but it's an eye opener into what molded such a fascinating person. I would recommend this to any Steinbeck enthusiast though be warned that it's in some ways very different from his fiction.

While I'm on the subject of interesting rhetoric, I want to mention somebody that I found out about yesterday. In 2001 a college dropout from Wellington, New Zealand wrote a paper on the nature of time and succeeded in getting it published in a major scientific journal. There was a lot of controversy surrounding who Peter Lynds really was but I shan't go into that. (Incidentally, there are many, many well known crackpots out there who put their papers on the web because they are rejected from journals. I'm not claiming that Peter is necessarily a crackpot but the whole story is pretty strange.)

I'm intrigued as to what the scientific community made of this paper at the time. I've done some digging and found that this paper has only five citations. Not a great number for a paper that purported to change our view of the nature of time but not bad for an unknown college dropout. His paper contains very little mathematics and indeed no proof of what he's trying to explain. Perhaps that's because the framework of what he's trying to say is not available mathematically and he truly has stumbled across a deep truth but I'm not convinced. It is a rather philosophical discourse on Zeno's paradox and the discreteness of time. He seems to be claiming that such results can explain quantum mechanics and solve Zeno's paradox in a trice. I'd thought that Zeno's paradox had been solved simply with the theories of Leibniz and Newton when the nature of infinitesimals were better understood.

In reviews of this work I find writers drawing parallels between Lynds' and Einstein's papers of 1905 and 1915. I find this parallel particularly strange because whereas Einstein gave us a simple mathematical framework by which a new understanding of the universe could be formulated. Peter's rhetoric seems to give nothing but some philosophical musings about consciousness and quantum mechanics. It could be science's failing (I don't think so) but mathematics is the language that we use to model our ideas to form testable theories which can probe or refute an idea. Explanatory musings are a good start and perhaps a good end but the middle must be filled with mathematics, the logic of which should be the most foolproof method of reasoning we have. I'd like to know from anyone who knows more about this paper whether it had any impact on science other than from a publicity point of view.

(OK, having read the paper again I think that it's purely metaphysical ramblings as opposed to pure science. It's all very well to postulate but rhetoric alone will not overturn firm scientific reasoning without many more people behind it.)


So finally I get my view:

She hides, and lurks, taunting you briefly with a flash of snowy white flesh until suddenly at the instant of being spat from the belly of a mountain at 300 km/h into the blinding sunlight, Mount Fuji shows herself in one triumphant revelation and all her breathtakingly spectacular beauty. Mount Fuji is a stunningly awesome sight. Flanked by lowly minions, rising unrivalled in stature above the cityscape at her feet, a snowy peak covering the Platonic ideal of a volcanic slope, with a light halo of clouds dusting the crest. Naturally, photos don't do justice to this incredible sight and I urge you to see it for yourself, nay climb it if you get the chance. I haven't but I will one day. I'm doubly pleased to have seen this magnificent view as I seem to have a habit of going through places with some of the world's greatest wonders without seeing them. I've now been through Agra twice and not seen so much as a marbled corner of the Taj Mahal and going passed Mount Fuji twice without seeing her would have been the icing on the cake, or perhaps the lack of it. Anyway, I wanted to write that having just been passed only moments ago while the image is still fresh. I think it will be for some time. Excuse the verbose posturing but it is truly one of the most amazing views I've ever been lucky enough to see.

I took a vast number of photos balanced precariously as the train swayed gently. Many were fuzzy and these I think are the best.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

In a six hour walkathon (feels like a lot to my ill-exercised feet) I've managed to see roughly a 0.25% of the temples in Kyoto, that is to say four of the 1600. Not to mention the Shinto shrines on top of this impressive collection.

First today, as I left my hotel I wanted to get a picture of the truly preposterous speakers that they've thought to install in this rather understated university hotel. I'm not sure if the clash police have been informed but I'm impressed that they got the go ahead for this purchase.

It seems that whoever was in charge of audio installations was also involved in selecting pieces of artwork which will scare any children who might happen to be wondering around the hotel alone.

So other than bizarre juxtapositions within the hotel, this fine, clear Saturday morning started off with a meeting with one of the PhD students where we chatted work to see if our interests could connect. It seems they might and we will certainly be keeping in contact. Following this we started out templeathon taking in a decent swathe of the city to visit four of the most popular temples. They're all stunning but, unsurprisingly, the heaving crowds detract somewhat from their serenity. Being one of the members of said crowd I feel it unfair to complain and in fact there were enough breaks in the sea to pause for the odd moment and reflect on the last couple of weeks and to get some nice photos.

The first temple we went to is known as the silver temple as the plan was to cover the main building in silver. Unfortunately this plan failed as money was in short supply but the name stuck and they were left with a very wooden but very fine temple with zen gardens and rock pools leading up the mountain side.

The second temple was the Golden Temple and somehow it seems that money was no object in this case and they succeeded in constructing a lavish building, sitting in the middle of a reflecting pool, covered in gold. Not a bad job!

The last photo from today is from the last temple we visited and simply one of the many statues dotted about the grounds where people really do come to worship. I thought this one was particularly elegant so got a snap.

There were many more photos but I've trimmed them down to this for the blog.

After a five minute kip which I plan on having ten minutes ago I shall head to Gion to grab a bite to eat if it's not too expensive and see the Geisha. I've neither read the book nor seen the film but have read bits and pieces about them so am fascinated to see what it's all like. Will report back.

For now, sayonara.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

I don't bend. I don't mean I'm a man of unwavering moral standpoints and a firm worldview. I mean that my genuflecting abilities are somewhere between poor and nonexistent. This makes kneeling at a Japanese table a little like trying to squeeze myself into a shoebox whilst wearing flippers and a stovepipe hat and continuing to remaining elegant and in control. It's not going to happen. Going through such a large growth spurt at the age of 16 or so left me with knees that don't do what knees should do. I fine meal of okonomiyaki (literally 'as you like it' - a pretty silly name for a dish IMHO) was somewhat impaired by my lack of flexibility though slightly lubricated with a pint of Kirin.

This clearly isn't me but it's the best picture of okonomiyaki I could find

I was joined (in fact treated) for this meal by some of the postdocs and PhD students from the Yukawa institute where I gave a seminar today. 'Flavour physics and the AdS/CFT correspondence'- the usual. I hope that it was far from a disaster but there were some very good questions which knocked me sideways temporarily. I'm not too bothered as I'm sure that most postdocs have this experience on a semi-regular basis. Plus they were genuinely good questions which have got me thinking in more detail about points that I usually brush over. In fact one of the world experts on the area I was lecturing on was in the audience and most of the questions came from his direction - Having chatted with him today, I hope to be able to learn more from him tomorrow.

The Kyoto University campus is large and tree lined with buildings ranging from 120 years old to brand new sparkly ones. The present Yukawa institute for theoretical physics is relatively flashy and has a great view of the mountains which surround Kyoto making it stiflingly airless in the summer.

It's strange going from Ochanomizu with only a few thousand students which feels homely and personal to this one which, though very pleasant, feels far more anonymous. The department itself is impressive and staffed by many great physicists in a very hardworking environment.

Anyway, before I shuffle to the land of nod, here are a couple of photos from the Japanese countryside at 300 km/h and from Kyoto station which is an interesting example of modern Japanese architecture, not captured terribly well by this photo but it's a fun building.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

I'm writing this as we tear our way on the Shinkansen through the Japanese heartland on our way to Kyoto, and for others on the train, to Hiroshima. Japan it seems is a patchwork of interweaving industrial towns and densely packed urban areas interlaced with paddy fields and stunning mountain scenery. Today, Japan is largely hidden in a mass of low lying clouds making the air humid and the countryside seem particularly quiet. As the Shinkansen speeds its way up to 300 km/h and gently rolls from side to side as it turns on its banked corners we appear to get a good overview of the makeup of this densely populated island. This land which is one of the most technologically advanced civilisations on Earth and the second largest economy still retains an air of mysticism as we pass the many temples, jutting off the hillsides and the houses with tatami matting and interior paper walls. It seems to have stayed like this because it ain't broke. The quiet, observant, hard working way of life seems to have paid-off sufficiently to have been kept on as a work and life ethic for today. It's a fascinating place with fascinating people and I do hope to spend more time here in the future.

As I leave Tokyo it's time to assess the possible collaborations. It's been useful for me, in many ways it's been an exciting experience where I really do feel that my knowledge is valuable and I hope that I have helped with some of their projects. At the same time, it's got me thinking about some ideas that I'd thought about a long time ago and haven't considered in many months but I think should be interesting lines of enquiry. I certainly hope that we can retain the links that have been built up over the last week and keep in contact with the postdocs there working in similar and dissimilar areas to mine.

Kyoto is likely to be a somewhat different atmosphere where the string theory group is very large and the area that I work in is probably pretty well known. My seminar tomorrow will need to be tuned from that which I gave in Tokyo to appeal to a slightly different audience. I think I'll have to play it by ear.

I pause to look out the window in the knowledge that I could be staring straight at Mount Fuji without seeing it. I know that we pass it on the train but it takes a clear day to get a good view of one of Japan's most spectacular features. The landscape is becoming hillier as we dive in and out of the tunnels though the industrial plants still pepper the landscape.


I'm currently reading The Log from the Sea of Cortez, by Steinbeck which is in a strangely different style from his previous works I've read. He wrote several non-fiction books but the only other one I've read was Travels with Charley, In Search of America, in which he took off with his dog and his faithful van, Ricconante, to discover the real America. It's a lovely book and I find that it's Steinbeck’s simple style of observation which is so powerful. East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath are character studies which take in vast tracts of human emotion without ever becoming flowery or overly complicated. This simplicity makes them cut straight to the key ingredients of the human psyche. In The Sea of Cortez he takes a slightly different path as the purpose of the journey was to observe and record the marine life of the California Littoral first hand with his friend Ed Ricketts (on whom Doc in Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday is based). Steinbeck is trying to do something huge with this book. He and Ed are trying to uncover not only the mysteries of the flora and fauna of the Gulf of Mexico but to try and discuss life, the universe and everything, something most people have done with enough Whiskey and few enough hours on the clock, though any recording of such a conversation would almost undoubtedly be cringingly awful. I find it's his parables and tales in his other books, which he does not analyse, that cut to the heart of the matter whereas in this book he's trying to explain his thoughts and observations without metaphor or hidden meaning. I'm still not sure whether I like this as much. He writes about the complex structure of the animals in a technical language but I can't help hearing the voice of Tom Joad or Lennie Small when he talks in this far more articulate language and it jars a little. It's Lennie's unclouded, simple view of life which makes Of Mice and Men so painful. I'm not that far into the book and it will probably be that I become used to this different style of writing but for the moment, its mixture with his lovely, pure turn of phrase isn't sitting quite right.