Sunday, February 25, 2007

Expansive intake

As I only have another few days left of my stay in Kyoto I packed in a good deal of sightseeing on Saturday. On Wednesday I will be heading off on the Shinkasen to Tokyo where I will meet with various researchers in different Universities to discuss possible projects. I will certainly miss the gentle pace of life here in Kyoto which has enabled me to get a lot of both research and background reading done - I'm not sure I could keep up this pace indefinitely however. I expect life in Tokyo to be more frenetic but from my experiences last time Ochanomizu is a very relaxed and friendly place to work.

However, Saturday was anything but gentle sightseeing, though it was very enjoyable. After an early start we headed by train to Osaka, about a half and hour from Kyoto central.

Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe blend seamlessly into one another and you are reminded starkly of the lack of usable land here in Japan. We headed up Osaka's Tsutenkaku Tower for the city view. Originally designed as an Eiffel tower on top of an Arc de Triomphe, the first version burnt down and was replaced by a 1960s take on an Eiffel tower on top of an Arc de Triomphe - This is not an astounding architectural success, but it does give a good view of the city.
Osaka in half light
We spent an hour or so seeing some of the highlights of the city including sampling the famous takoyaki, choux pastry surrounding vegetables and chunks of octopus cooked in a giant waffle-iron - highly recommended. If you find the main arcade street there will be a stall with quadruple the number of people as any other stall; it's worth the wait.
Osaka Takoyaki
Parisian/Japanese street style:
The mossy Buddha, continually watered by worshipers:
Mossy buddha
From Osaka we took the train along the coast past the refineries, which caused such terrible problems after the Kobe earthquake (which cost over 6000 lives and 200 billion dollars of damage), and through the city of Kobe itself, on to Himeji castle, an ancient fortification of stereotypically Japanese design, though quite unlike the counterpart Medieval European castles.

I read that this castle was not only used extensively in The last Samurai and Kurasawa's Ran but it was Tiger Tanaka's Ninja training camp in You only Live Twice. It's an impressive construction and quite a startling view from below.
Himeji 2
Himeji castle 1
Himeji geometry
Back to Kobe to take in the night view from the hills overlooking the city via a walk through China town. Though I love the food here (as is beginning to show abdominally - regular swimming is losing the battle against sushi, I fear) I'm missing many Chinese dishes and baozi eaten in the street was a good reminder of treats 'back home'.
Back to Osaka where Saturday night was beginning to rear its head and we made our way to a sushi restaurant which Tatsuya's father, a veritable epicurean by the sounds of things, had suggested. Everything from uni nigiri (a sea urchin roe/gonad treat - one of my favourites) to raw horse sushi was on the menu (though we missed the latter). Another superb meal and the best otoro I've ever eaten. One of the five exquisite plates we gobbled our way happily through:
great sushi
and finally we took our weary feet and swollen bellies back to Kyoto where a planned Saturday night on the town disintegrated before our tired eyes.

Today (Sunday) has been another useful day working in a local cafe. There were festivities at the nearest temple which is currently in full plum blossom bloom. I braved the crowds for half an hour but whatever the Japanese version of a baboushka is has sharp elbows and the pushing power of a rhino and with battered mid-riff I made my escape, hoping to return in a couple of days when the crowds will have dispersed.

String theory and M-theory a Modern Introduction - reviewed

String Theory and M-Theory by Becker, Becker and Schwarz seeks to update the three or four main texts on string theory which are currently on the market. It was clear that the time was right for a new book on the subject, and this seems to hit the mark very well. I've read sections of it in detail and browsed the rest. From my point of view this is the most approachable book on the subject which doesn't shy away from getting stuck into the technicalities.

For someone learning this subject from scratch the structure of the book leads you in very nicely with a good number of well-chosen worked examples and many unworked problems at the end of each chapter which will get you familiar with the material. I think the idea of these worked examples is a good way to make sure you're really following, while not every step is spoon-fed like this.

I may sound a bit overenthusiastic, but in the few hours I've had to read through this so far I've been genuinely impressed. It doesn't go into as much detail on certain topics as you would find in Green, Schwarz and Witten, Polchinski or, unsurprisingly, Di Francesco et al (CFT), but to get you up to speed and reading cutting edge papers, I think this will do very well.

The main extensions to the previous texts are not much of a surprise: Flux compactifications, black holes in string theory and the gauge/gravity duality. There are major modern subjects which are not discussed in detail or indeed at all, for instance D-brane model building isn't covered and as far as I can tell tachyon condensation is given only a cursory mention. I'm sure there are many other important areas which are not covered extensively but once you've read the main chapters, you should be ready to learn from the more complex reviews on the topics which have been deliberately left out.

The index seems to be a little sparse, for instance you have to look for 'Anthropic Principle' to find the entire section on The Landscape. I've found another couple of similar omissions.

It is suggested that the book be used for a one year course and this seems very doable, including going through all the questions. It's not going to render the current top books dispensable but I think that for many topics the style and approach here will be much better for the first timer who finds Zwiebach too basic and Polchinski daunting on a first reading.

Yahoo Pipes

From an article on the BBC I've started playing around with what at first seems nothing more than a bit of fun from Yahoo, but it looks like it could be pretty important stuff.

Yahoo Pipes allows you to take the data from a website and pipe it through an operation, that is, to do just about whatever you want with the content.

I've just been playing around for a bit but so far I've taken the rss feeds from hep-th arxiv and passed the content of flickr through a filter searching for words in the hep-th feed. The outcome are photos with titles like:

gluon, blackhole, derivative, topological string theorists, etc.

This is the user interface and my simple pipe example (unreadable at the moment, I'll try and sort that out) which requires no programming knowledge as far as I can tell.
OK, this is a trivial example, but I presume it would be simple once they put the documentation online, to pass blog content through to find out who's writing what about which papers in the furthest corners of the blogosphere.

Examples of content manipulation are to filter estate agent's sites just for apartments near your area (here). This means that rather than other people's sites being simply static, or in the case of wiki, editable but still static to some extent, sites can be altered dynamically to give you exactly the content you want.

Once you've created the pipe you can publish it at the press of a button so that other people can use, copy and edit the operations you've implemented.

This looks like an exciting, powerful tool and relatively simple, as I say once there's more extensive documentation. I'd be really interested to see how this takes off and if anyone comes up with more useful pipes than my simple example then please let me know.

It looks like the full documentation will become available next week (see here for more)

Friday, February 23, 2007

From Kyoto with links

Lots of picks from this week's news, blog articles and random finds.

  • From the BBC is an interesting article about the new high resolution bionic eye being tested in the US. An implant on the back of the retina feeds into the optic nerve from a camera placed in front of the eye. This new technology has around 60 electrodes, corresponding to 60 pixels which compares to the previous version with just 16. The previous version was already helping people to detect objects around them, though wasn't high enough resolution to recognise faces. Prohibitively expensive now, I guess it will be some time until it can help any large number of sufferers of the particular conditions this is supposed to aid. Still, the steps ahead in technology and the increase in our understanding of the visual cortex are all leaps in the right direction
  • For information on image processing and the visual cortex I recommend Paul Churchland's rather grandiosely titled book on the brain: The Engine of Reason, the Seat of the Soul. If experts know of better sources for non-experts then I'd love to read more.
  • From eyes to mouth and Kevin Smith reports on his experiences with Chinese dentists. Considerably hairier reading than my stories of international mullet catastrophes.
  • And from teeth to ears, from Retrospectacle comes the most bizarre headline of the week and an interesting story to boot. Rather than using piezoelectric crystals to convert movement to energy, NASA is using protein found within the inner ear to help turn astronaut's body movements into energy for their space-suits.
  • This story has been talked about in a number of places but Peter Rhode debunks the myth that what most would define as a quantum computer had been built. After much hype that a fully functioning, completely coherent 16 qbit device was manufactured and on the market, the makers agreed that in fact it was a quantum computer in the, err, classical sense. It seems that the device uses some quantum mechanical effects for very specific purposes, but then that's one way to define the regular computer you're sitting at now.
  • From Bad Astronomy Blog came a fascinating article about an area of research which has taken so many exciting leaps forward in the last few years. Before the late 90s we could only presume that our planet was not alone. Technology then reached the phase that we could detect extra-solar planets and we quickly started racking them up. We now have a list of over 200 known planets outside our solar system, most of which are gas giants but our ability to spot smaller ones is continually getting better. Another step forward was recently published when the spectral signatures from a couple of planets some 100 light years away were analysed. The analysis seems to show silica dust in the atmosphere and no detectable water, which is presumed to be hidden in the lower layers. I'm not sure how significant the spectrum itself is, but the fact that we can now do this is amazing, and there is bound to be a lot more to come in the very near future.
  • Some interesting, more technical articles to peruse: Kicked off from the articles here and here on Cosmic Variance, talking about Boltzmann brains - rare statistical fluctuations in the vacuum in which a conscious entity appears and has time to make observations of its surroundings (This is a big simplification, but you really should read the CV articles for more of an intro) - I had a read of the paper by Don Page, which was being discussed. It's fascinating, seemingly on the verge of metaphysics, but there seem to be enough clever minds interested in the consequences of all this that it is taken seriously. Reading the paper is a challenge in semantics and I can't profess to have taken it all in. The general idea seems to make sense but I can't help but feel that it's all rather too subjective in terms of discussing the ordinary observer's place in the universe.
  • From Bolzmann brain's via entropy and to the ultimate computer. Seth Lloyd talks about the maximum possible computing power allowed by the universe, in this nature article. Something that B.G wouldn't even dream of, though Google might.
  • In this paper by Casero et al, a new model of chiral symmetry breaking from AdS/CFT is proposed by studying open string tachyon condensation. One of the most interesting results is that this type of model automatically seems to give linear confinement: which is hard to produce in most AdS/QCD scenarios. In addition, the full non-abelian chiral symmetry breaking can be studied, with non-massless quarks (c.f Sakai Sugimoto model). There are many interesting aspects to this paper and I'm sure that anyone working in this field will be digesting the results.
A couple of photography pages to finish with this week.
  • I'm currently thinking about upgrading to a high quality, not broken camera and so have been looking on flickr at photos, photographers and camera discussions. I came across this guy's site. He specialises in high dynamic range images (HDR and links therein) by which many photos with different exposures are overlayed and altered such that the contrasts and tones stand out significantly more than a single shot would. My feeling is that sometimes this is rather over the top, but some of the time the effects are startling and the photos are truly beautiful. Here are a few particularly impressive images (1,2,3,4). Some of them begin to look like caricatured drawings but I'm interested in learning more about this.
Hope there was something for most. Interesting contributions from sources I haven't seen are welcomed. E-mail address is in my profile.

  • I almost forgot, for cephalopod fans everywhere I couldn't miss off the first collosal squid ever caught, in the Ross Sea.


In the language challenged state I frequently find myself in, one of the most difficult situations to confront is the hairdressers. It's mainly the unspoken staring from both staff and customers while I'm trying to gesticulate as to roughly what I'm after that makes me feel rather awkward. In my local in Beijing I'm now quite used to this and have enough vocab to speak a little, so that is not too much of a problem anymore. They still haven't managed quite what I'm after but I think we're going in the right direction.The other great thing in Beijing is that if you get it all horribly wrong then the hair catastrophe which ensues is a remarkably cheap disaster (about 70p for cut).

The difference here in Japan, as I've just discovered, is that for the price of one major hairtastrophe, I could have at least 30 bad cuts in Beijing. After finding a hairdressers near my apartment and establishing that there was no common language between us, I was given several magazines to peruse and choose which of the Japanese men with very straight hair I would most like to look like (for those who don't know, my hair has waves upon curls upon waves, as soon as it gets long enough). I gave up and pointed to something which looked plausible and half an hour later walked out of the shop, substantially poorer (about two days Chinese wages), looking nothing like the man in the photo but with some semblance of having been to a barbers rather than a wind tunnel.

This is always a difficult situation and I've only ended up with a few really bad haircuts due to communication problems. I'm not expecting this situation to change much in the few months I have left in China.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

How goes the night

Since my hours became desynchronised with normal society while trying to brain-storm some ideas a couple of weeks ago I've had time, late at night, when my mind was no longer in the mood to follow equations on scraps of paper to read some interesting novels which I received for Christmas.

It's been a while since I raved about a Steinbeck, simply because I haven't been able to get hold of a new one for too many months. However, in my package of Christmas goodies I received a couple which I've been intrigued about for some time.

I've talked at length about my reasons for enjoying Steinbeck so much on this blog. To sum these feelings up though, it's Steinbeck's very simple but direct language which frequently takes my breath away. Steinbeck's books are about humanity, from the joy of life to the pains of death, of lost friendship, of unrequited love, of brotherly love and brotherly hate, and it's these extremes which somehow he manages to conjure, like cannon balls, out of simple words to make your core reverberate with empathy for the characters. Most of these characters in their totality are far from those in my life but every facet is somehow embedded in the man in the street, good friends and relatives and everyone in between. Steinbeck generally focuses his books on the West coast of America in the early 20th century but still his characters resonate with modern England.

However,not all of his books are set in the dust bowl, or the depression. Steinbeck was, for a short time, a war correspondent during the second world was and was a part of the allied propaganda machine, the war effort to inform those 'back home' that the boys were strong, that times were going to improve and that though the war was a terrible thing, it was really going to be alright in the end - I simplify greatly.

Once There was a War is a collection of Steinbeck's articles written during his stay in England, in North Africa and in Italy, spending time with the troops, sometimes under fire or sheltering during bombings, sometimes in the interminable times when simply nothing happened; the times when the nerves frayed and people lost their minds. Interestingly this is not Steinbeck's writing at its best. For a start he was writing for a cause, rather than for himself and his motivations are different, his writing was also edited with pieces of information removed when deemed inappropriate. I also think that he is best at dissecting the closed soul. Here he has the soul of the soldier magnified already and so the impact of what is already a powerful set of sentiments is lost a little. It's still a fascinating, important account of what it was like to be a private, to be sat waiting for your mission, the superstitions which built up, the personalities who were never affected by the pressure and those who simply crumpled and much more.

This form is however ideal for his studies of the individual. While it may be easy to think of the war in terms of large groups of people on vast missions, he uses his skills here to look at single soldiers as well as the collective feelings. This is really a book of well-written anecdotes, not about strategy and the art of war but, as always with Steinbeck, about people and what happens when they are pushed.

The second Steinbeck is also a book written during the war but this, historically, was almost certainly a more important book in terms of boosting the moral of the allies than Once There was a War. The title of The Moon is Down is taken from Macbeth indicating the 'descent of evil powers on the kingdom' (Introduction to Penguin classics version). The book is the tale of an unnamed town in an unnamed country, similar to Norway, invaded one day by an unnamed army. There is little struggle and at first the people simply don't know what to think. The book is a tale of the resilience and simple unwillingness to be dominated of this quiet, peaceful peoples to the force which had come to disrupt their existence.

The aim of the book was very similar to the aim of Once There was a War, to boost moral, to show that the allies could win through and that the determination of the good man and woman was enough to defend against the invading force.

When it was first published, the book was heavily criticised for treating the unnamed enemy as human beings. Indeed they came across as polite, respectful within their remit and fallible, not simply as mindless machines which were on a mission to destroy everything in their path. In fact these accusations were publicised and hurt Steinbeck deeply; he had simply done what he knew best, to put a real personality to all faces of humanity.

It only became apparent after the war that this had been quite simply one of the most important pieces of propaganda literature to come out during the occupation. The book had been smuggled through a huge swathe of Western and Northern Europe, published, copied, and published again in areas for which being found with the book almost certainly meant death. The people who read the book knew that the forces occupying their towns and villages were human beings, they would not have been fooled by Übermensch characters, and the book boosted the moral of the hundreds of thousands of people who were lucky enough to get their hands on it in the translated Norwegian, Danish, Dutch and French versions.

Again, this is not Steinbeck's greatest work of fiction but it's an important historical document and another example of his understanding of our true nature.

OK, it's now getting late and while I'm still awake I want to continue reading the new book by Becker, Becker and Schwartz: String Theory and M-theory: A Modern Introduction, which I'm borrowing from the Yukawa library and I am fast becoming convinced that this is the most in depth, accessible book on string theory yet published. I'll write more soon, but so far it's proving to be excellent.

Conservation of energy

I have a sudden burst of energy. Usually this is the first sign that I'm about to come down with a bug, but I'm going to ignore that for now and go with the flow. NormallyI would go to the gym, have a big session and completely wear myself out. Luckily the swimming pool I've been going to here is closed now so I'm going to try and use this burst of energy to be productive and get some of the things which I've put off for a while out of the way.

The burst of energy is partly a sudden realisation of the number of things I want to get done in a finite amount of time. The number of places I still want to see in Kyoto in the week I have left. The number of papers I want to read, books I want to finish, calculations I want to do and on, and on, ad infinitum. In fact I'm too tired now for much of the above to be accomplished succesfully, so I shall try and write up some of the less taxing things I wanted to put on the blog.

In fact, I'm sitting on the bus on the commute back to my hotel as I'm now staying the other side of the city. Everyone is giving me strange looks, as I type away, but I'm in the mood that a half our sitting, doing nothing is a wasted half hour. Usually I would be listening to my Chinese practice lessons getting similar strange looks as I mumble the conversations back to myself, but now's not the right moment. (I'm now around 40 lessons through the Pimsleur course and my opinions haven't changed that it's the best resource for beginner's Chinese that I've yet come across - two lessons a day will give you some very basic, but usable Chinese in a month. Without a teacher this is as good as you're likely to get.)

So, four weeks into Japan and the status report is that my work is going OK. I've spent a fun, but tiring couple of weeks working in an operational mode which is very enjoyable. As a theoretical physicist, I often spend a lot of time getting the mathematics of my calculations right. The physical interpretation often fits in at the beginning and end of a calculation (in my experience).

That is, you think of an idea, you work out how to do it, you then spend a long time doing the calculation and getting it to the stage that you believe it to be the 'correct' answer to your original question. The last stage is then working out why you got the result you ended up with. The first and last stages are the stages where I get to call myself a physicist. The middle is usually mathematics and computer programming. They're enjoyable and challening, but it's for the buzz of coming up with the idea and the thrill of understanding the answer that I do what I do.

I'm lucky that the work I've been doing for the last few weeks is a good mix of maths and physics. My collaborators and I have simply been working out what the mathematics that we're playing with means, physically and how we can push it in different directions, without making the physical picture meaningless. That's in some senses the idea of theoretical physics. You come up with an idea which is on the edge of what is known, you then play with the idea and see if it keeps you within the realms of possibility or whether the results are simply impossible. That's clearly a great simplification, but it sums up some aspects of it.

In order to work out whether the ideas we're coming up with are meaningful I've had to do lots of reading of papers in areas which I am not familiar. This is good for me but is also challenging, learning the terminology and methods of reasoning in (what in this case is) a far more phenomenological field than that which I am used to.

Another thing that has got me buzzing this evening is reading a post over at cosmic variance on Boltzmann brains, a topic which I know very little about, though it is something that I've been thinking about from a non-technical standpoint, for a long time. Reading this post, and the far more in depth study written previously here, has motivated me to sit and read some of the papers, though there are so many topics that I want to learn about that I fear this one will simply be added to the ever growing pile. Read the above linked posts for an interesting, if cursory discussion of some of the truly deepest questions in physics, including: why does time seem to go the way we perceive it to. Whether or not you've pondered this before, it's a truly massive question and a fine line to tread between metaphysics and real science.

I have my own thoughts on Boltzmann brain's, but I want to ponder my arguments before baring my soul :-)

Pause - OK, I'm back home in my flat. I went to a cafe that I spent all Sunday working peacefully in to see if I could use my laptop there but they didn't have wireless connection. In fact of the 6 or 7 cafes I've spent time working in here in Kyoto, only 2 have had internet connection. Compare that to Beijing where almost every cafe has internet connection and all expectations are suddenly reversed. This is a pity because the gentle hum of a cafe late at night is one of the most conducive places I find for good work. So, I'm back in my apartment, the terrible Japanese television programs are well and truly turned off, msn is off, skype is off, even the BBC news site is off and I will see what I can achieve now.

The things I want to get done are not all related to my work. I've been reading some great novels so, in the next post or two I will try and give some brief reviews. If you're looking for a synopsis of the storyline in a book, you're unlikely to find it in one of my reviews, that's not the way I work.

Talking of books I've just written a large section about my confusion with the Japanese fascination with Manga, and then deleted it. I can't quite state my thoughts on this clearly. I find it strange that this nation is so engrossed by these comics. I know I appear to use Wikipedia as a default but it often happens that I search around on the web and find that Wikipedia does have the most complete information that's accessible on a subject which I'm not familiar with. Again, on the cultural importance of Manga, there's this interesting paragraph in Wikipedia:

"Though roughly equivalent to the American comic book, manga holds more importance in Japanese culture than comics do in American culture. In economic terms, weekly sales of comics in Japan exceed the entire annual output of the American comic industry. Several major manga magazines which contain about a dozen episodes from different authors sell several million copies each per week. Manga is well respected both as an art form and as a form of popular literature, though it has not reached the acceptance level of historically higher art genres such as film or music. However, approval of Hayao Miyazaki's anime and other works of manga are gradually changing the perception of anime and manga, placing them closer to the status of "higher" arts (Top of box office charts of all-time in Japan is Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki, 30.4 billion yen). Like its American counterpart, some manga has been criticized for being violent or sexual. For example, a number of film adaptations of manga such as Ichi the Killer or Old Boy were rated Restricted or Mature in the States. However, there have been no official inquiries or laws trying to limit what can be drawn in manga, except for vague decency laws applying to all published materials, stating that "overly indecent materials should not be sold." This freedom has allowed artists to draw manga for every age group and for about every topic."

In the cafe I've been frequenting in the evenings to work, students spend hours sitting flicking through these comics, sometimes in deep concentration, sometimes casually browsing through the pictures. I find it strange that so many people of all ages engross themselves for hours at a time in what, at a cursory glance, seem to be somewhat facile stories. I'm genuinely interested by this cultural phenomenon and if any manga fans can enlighten me I'm happy to listen.

OK, I'll try and sum up a couple of novels in the next post or two.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Viewing arrangements

I return to the office rather cold but extremely pleased to have fulfilled some wishes I've had for many many years.

While watching the sunsets from my office I couldn't help noticing that the campus has an observatory tower on top of one of the buildings.
Sunset from Yukawa
(As long as the sun keeps setting I'm gonna keep taking these pictures!)

With a little research it turned out to be the astronomy and geosciences department. Today after lunch I headed over there and found the appropriate student who uses the telescope to inquire whether I could tag along if they were going to be using it, hoping to see what goes on. I knew this was a little cheeky but couldn't resist and he was very happy to oblige.

After a warm spring day the evening had turned rather cold and when we arrived at the building to meet him again it was distinctly chilly, but the sky was clear and the moon, at only a small sliver of light, was not overwhelmingly bright.

In the observatory tower sits a fine Meade 14" Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope, somewhat putting my 4inch Newtonian, bought after my bar mitzvah, to shame.
My telescope saw me through many frosty evenings, though all one could see was a fuzzy Jupiter and Saturn, a solid Venus, a wobbly mars and some fine detail on the moon. The occasional comet that came through was also marginally magnified and stared at for hours.

The guy who was kindly showing us the observatory has been at the university almost a decade (from undergrad). He's studying short-period binary star systems and in all that time he's never used the telescope to look at any of the incredible things one can see at in the sky, only to investigate the light emission from the binary systems! I could hardly believe it, but as we went from object to object he gazed in the same wonder that I did, extremely happy to be seeing these stunning sights for the first time.

The first object on view was Saturn, which is particularly easy to spot at the moment and the rings and three of the moons were clearly visible. Of course it looks just like it does in the books, but to actually see it for real is quite something. There's a photo on my flickr site, though attempting to put my 3 megapixel camera up to the lense without damaging anything didn't make for a great shot. So, courtesy of NASA and STscl is a rather stunning image of Saturn with a polar aurora to boot.

While I was in Australia in my gap-year, the highlight of the trip for me almost without a doubt, was spending eight days camping in the outback in the Kimberleys, many hundreds of miles from the nearest settlement and ten times that distance to the closest city. The night sky was truly unbelievable and the images remain with me. On a clear night in the UK you can see stars, of course, usually a few of the planets, though they are easily mistaken for stars, the moon and, on a very clear night if you're lucky, the faint band of the Milky Way and a tiny smudge of Orion's Nebula.

In the outback everything was infinitely clearer. The Milky Way was no longer a faint haze but a dazzling streak across the centre of the sky and, what blew me away, were the views of the large and small Magellanic clouds and the Andromeda Galaxy. I never knew that they were visible to the naked eye but with enough time to adjust to the darkness they are all stunning, perspective changing views of the cosmos.

Hubble views of the Large and Small Magellanic clouds.

Again courtesy of Nasa and STscl.

In the telescope that we were using it was not possible to view Andromeda without using the electronics to take in more of the light than we can with our eyes and the large and small Magellanic clouds are visible only in the Southern hemisphere.

We could however see Orion's Nebula, M42, beautifully and again this is a perspective changing view. Instead of just seeing planets and stars you are viewing a giant cloud of dust and gas, producing new stars in its heart. The colours are a lot more diffuse than those that you would see in a text book, but the shape is unmistakable and the beauty of it is stunning. Objectively this isn't the case, it's just a bright smudge in the sky, but if you consider what's really going on there it's quite a mind blowing view of a completely new aspect of our universe that I had never before seen.

Again from NASA and STscl:

With the electronic eye attached to the telescope and plugged into the computer we had a great view of the crab nebula, an object first seen around 1000 years ago when a star exploded making it visible in the daytime for almost a month. This was recorded in Chinese texts and now what we see is the gas hurtling away from the rapidly rotating neutron star at the centre at somewhere near the speed of light. The pulsar rotates at roughly 30 times a second! I remember learning this when I was a kid and truly not believing such things could be possible, I still find it pretty crazy. The fastest pulsar weighs a little more than the sun, has a diameter of around 16 km and spins at over 700 times a second. The equator is going at roughly a quarter the speed of light. That completely blows my mind!
The Crab Nebula from NASA and STscl:

I'll end this post by linking in to a pen and ink sketch from my mother, drawn recently while on an art trip to Florence. I haven't talked about telescopes in any detail here but, in particular, the production of lenses for telescopes is an incredible process which often takes months to slowly spin and cool the lens and grind it to an accuracy such that they deviate from the perfect shape by less than 1 part in 100,000. So, to tie in with the modern story of the telescope I include the following rather older lathe for grinding lenses:

None of the things that I saw were particularly unusual, but I've simply never had a chance to look at them through a half-decent telescope. I hope to again some time, though now my main aim is to view the aurora. Any trips to Northern Europe will be happily accepted (post November).

Sunday, February 18, 2007

LaTeX in Blogger!

This may be old news to some, but it's pretty big news for me.

I've just downloaded a script which runs on Greasemonkey under Firefox. It means that I should be able to use LaTeX on Blogger, so here goes:

Well, frankly that's about as marvelous as it could possibly be. May this man be praised! Read here for the instructions, it should take about 2 minutes to set up as long as you have the above programs. If you don't have Firefox, then I would highly advise it anyway, and Greasemonkey is pretty useful if you want to tweak the way Firefox looks.

Let's try something marginally more complicated.

You simply write in the main editing window in LaTex and then press the button which is implemented from the Greasemonkey script, and there it is!

This shouldn't make me as happy as it does, wow!

Unfortunately the implementation is within the blogger scripting, so you won't be able to comment in LaTeX as far as I can gather.


A very happy Chinese New Year to everyone! May you have a fine year of the pig.

I have mixed feelings about not being in Beijing this time around. Last year was a great experience, helped by having a very good friend come to visit me. Parts of Beijing become spectacularly decorated and the sounds, smells and tastes are a true cornucopia for the senses. Something I would advise everyone coming to experience at least once.

Last New Year was a strange contrast of feelings. It seems like you're in a war zone, without any of the people around. For the first time in over a decade the government permitted the use of fireworks in the city and for two weeks people went a bit loopy. There wasn't a single pause in pyrotechnics for more than 30 seconds for two weeks, the consequence of which was sulphur dioxide levels through the roof and probably a few less feathered friends in the area (not that Beijing has a large population to start with from what I've seen) .

The flip side, as I say, was that most people had actually left the city, leaving it rather empty if you were lucky enough to find yourself in the right area. For anyone who has been to Beijing, I'm sure you can imagine that an empty city is a very strange place to be.

Come New Year some 150 million people take the trains and head homewards. The queues for tickets are truly atrocious, especially because most of the tickets are only released a week, or sometimes five days, before the date of departure. The trains are then crammed, with many people standing for up to two days if they're unlucky enough to have no seat between Beijing and Urumqi.

Given that I'm out of China, I thought I would try second best and so yesterday evening I headed off on my own to a Chinese restaurant, getting ready to inflict my poor language skills on whoever got in my path. This turned into a most confusing situation and the following took place at the counter with all the chefs and waiting staff:

Me: Hello (Chinese)
Waiter1: Hello (Japanese)
Me: You are all Chinese? (Chinese with a slightly cocky grin, waiting to greet them with a 'happy spring festival')
Waiter1: What? (Japanese)
Me: You are Chinese? (Slightly unsure of myself)
Waiter 1 calls over chef 1
chef 1: Hello (English, sounding equally unsure)
Me: Are you Chinese? (Chinese)
chef 1: Ah, wait a moment! (English, followed by calling waiter 2 from the room behind the kitchen in Japanese - I presume waiter 2 must be Chinese)
Me: Hello (Chinese)
waiter 2: Hello (English)
Me (losing my grip and realising that I can only communicate in English but trying one last time): Do you have an English menu? (Chinese - realising that if she does understand this it will be even more confusing)
Waiter 2 doesn't understand.
Me: Do you have an English menu? (English)
Passer by 3 (Passers by numbers 1 and 2 are too busy laughing to say anything) points to the pictures on the walls: English menu (English)
Me: Thank you (Japanese)
Chef 2: You are English? (English)
Me: Yes (English)
Chef 2: Where do you live? (English)
Me: Beijing (English)
Chef 2: You speak Chinese? (English)
Me: (head in bowl of mapo dofu) yes!
Chef 2 explains to remaining waiters, customers and chefs the situation and consequently everyone stares and laughs until I've eaten my poor approximation of Chinese food.

Anyway, a very Happy New Year!

Saturday, February 17, 2007


If you were completely disgusted by that top layer of solidified milk on a rice pudding or similar dessert then stop reading here, this post is not for you. This particular delicacy seems to split eaters just about as evenly as marmite or, in Japan, Natto. I happen to be in the latter category and so it was with great delight that I was taken for a meal of yuba (link is to the restaurant we dined at - see yuba kaiseki cuisine).

This meal was a strange combination for me, taking place in an extremely elegant restaurant with a selection of 10 or so dishes of the best fish, the freshest vegetables and some of the finest tempura I've ever eaten, combined with a childhood love of that top layer of solidified milk.

Yuba is a double-boiled soy bean milk, though it tastes much like full-fat cows milk. The top layer solidifies in the copper bain-marie in which it's slowly heated. Once solidified you use a wooden implement to separate the thin film from the sides and then pick it off the top of the liquid. You then dip it in a very fine savoury sauce, and eat.
Then wait for a few minutes for the top layer to solidify again and repeat, again and again and again. For anyone who covetted this particular foodstuff as a kid this will be a dream come true. All the rice-pudding tops you could ever want, without getting full from the slightly inferior food underneath.

After a couple of hours of extremely fine dining we headed back to the office, our preternatural urges satisfied.

Incidentally, for any scientists who enjoy cooking, or cooks who want to know why food does what it does, then I highly recommend McGee on Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture. This is an incredibly detailed encyclopedia detailing just about every ingredient and process that goes into making the bread rise, the meat tenderise, the eggs fluff up and the pineapple preventing the jelly from setting (the enzyme in pineapple which catalyses the breaks down of gelatin is the same enzyme which makes it a great tenderizer of meat. It's also why some people, myself included, are allergic to pineapple, with fairly unpleasant oral reactions).

Every topic is treated in great detail giving feasts of information about the chemicals, enzymes and molecular processes which go on in the kitchen. It's a true joy for anyone who has a love of food and science.


Today, having feasted on fine foods yesterday, satisfying my childhood urges, I enjoyed a rather more adult culinary treat. In the South-East of Kyoto, a short train ride from the centre in the ever-misty foothills of the surrounding mountains sits the Yamazaki Suntory Whisky distillery. Since the 1920s this distillery has been producing some world class whiskies. My last distillery experience was marred slightly by arriving there early by almost two decades. Now, with a few fine whiskies under my gastronomic belt I could appreciate a good deal more some of the subtlety of the process than I had at the age of 11.

You start off in the whisky library, free to browse the bottles from around the world:
Whiskey library
Though the tour itself was in Japanese, the tasting session is omni-lingual and although we were forced to taste the samples with ice and water (the Japanese I'm informed are not used to drinking it straight) the 12 year old whiskys were pretty good (I'm no connoisseur but I found the added mix of ice and water meant I couldn't really appreciate the depths of flavour).

After the two free glasses however, you're free to sample from the tasting menu, for a price, and then the dram comes as you like it. I splashed out on a glass of a 1980 distillation and it was truly one of the finest whiskies I've tried.
25 year old Yamazaki
If you enjoy whisky and are in Kyoto I would highly advise taking the short trip out. You'll also be able to pick up some excellent, bottles straight from the factory at much cheaper prices than you could elsewhere.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Rounding up

I'm resynching as my mathematica code whirls away in the background, losing decimal places and approximating integrals as it does so. Now, I thought I'd put my weekly summary in a slightly more appropriate place so, when possible, Friday will be the day I attempt to compact the week's web finds into a few bite-sized morsels.

  • Where better to start than perhaps the finest mathematically orientated all-male a capella group your likely to find at Northwestern University. From Flip Tomato comes a fine Valentine's offering from the Klein Four Group.
  • To go with your musical harmonies, Clifford picked up on a particularly stunning astronomical harmony. In fact this story is more than just a pretty picture. The signals from this particular object (a white dwarf surrounded by the shell it threw off in its old age) don't behave as one may naively expect, but from recent studies of several similar objects it looks like the answer may have been found.
  • Also in an artistic vein is a link to the work of Vija Celmins on John Baez's diary (Feb 11th). Well worth a look.
  • Asymptotia as well as Cosmic Variance have been posting their favourite titles of papers on the arxiv. OK, so maybe we don't get out enough, but this week not only was there a good title from a friend of mine, but what looks to be a rather interesting paper. In Matrix Big Brunch, James Bedford et al extend the work of A Matrix Big Bang to include a big crunch in their cosmology and glue together the big bang and big crunch geometries to get a closed cosmology. Using matrix string theory, both of these singularities are resolved though it seems like there are some questions regarding the perturbative nature of the theory at the turning point between big bang and big crunch. Any additional commentary on the paper is welcome.
  • Another good explanation from Bee at Backreaction talks about our fascination with understanding the universe on ever smaller scales, and in particular gives another nice explanation of why we should all be aware of what's going on at the LHC and the ILC. The questions of whether we should be spending the large sums of money on these things are discussed at the end, but there's a huge amount one can (and should) say on this subject.
  • As I noted in the last post, there's a good review of Michael Dine's new book over at Jacques Distler's Musings. As I said in my review, it's a good overview of a lot of topics. It's not going to get you up to research speed but it will point you in the right direction.
  • I've mentioned it before but I thought I'd also note it in a summary post that for a very nice introduction to 'the world as a hologram', you can't go far wrong with this video from Raphael Bousso. As I discovered from showing this to some graduate students, in order to generate some discussion, a basic knowledge of black holes is useful.
  • There's a truly stunning movie linked via Pharyngula of the mechanics of DNA replication. No prior knowledge required, but what looks like a fun animation is backed up with some unbelievably complicated calculations. (Note that in the comments is a note which I don't claim to understand on a technical level but it seems to indicate that aspects of this model - for it is only a model - may have been discredited). See some more, impressive biological animations at this site.
  • While I'm on movies, and in Japan: For all your trivia about both contemporary and classic Japanese cinema go to Midnight Eye. Absolutely rammed full of good information about the weird, the wonderful, and everything in between.
  • In software I thought I'd share a find this week which is making the use of Windows Live Messenger (WLM) slightly less painful. As I've mentioned before I spend some time each day on WLM discussing work with various collaborators around the world. This is a great tool with which I've had many, many hours of useful conversations. With a little tinkering it's possible to write in tex and get an output of the conversation saved in order to remember the conclusions you came to and the paths you took to get there. With Messpatch (once you get over the gaudy web page) you can tinker with Messenger to get it looking and acting just the way you want, well, just about. I can't vouch for the amount of spyway which is put on your system when you get this program but Adaware should see to that.

Here endeth this weeks summary. If people see or write articles which they would like me to link to, then please ask. I'm very happy to do so if I think others will benefit.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Physics in a nutshell, in a nutshell

I've spent the last couple of evenings reading through one of several new graduate level textbooks on theoretical particle physics. Michael Dine's book Supersymmetry and String Theory, beyond the Standard Model is a concise, fact-filled book covering a huge range of topics. Within its 500 or so pages the Standard Model is summarised including a discussion of many non-perturbative effects in various gauge theories in diverse dimensions, a tour of the basic setups in non-supersymmetric model building, technicolour, supersymmetry, including SUSY breaking scenarios, general relativity, cosmology, astroparticle physics, plus string theory including discussions of many of the modern issues and many more topics besides.

However, because so much is packed in to this relatively short book, at times it feels more like an encyclopedia than a text book. It is a great resource if you know these things already and want to be reminded of the key points of a subject or, if you're not familiar with these subjects, to get a flavour of what's important and why. However, with this book alone you will not learn how to perform detailed calculations in many of these areas. The topics are just too deep for such short sections to get you up to research level. This is clearly not the idea though and there are many references pointing you to where you should go having got the basic ideas.

Some of the time this works very well but unfortunately on some occasions I think that the equations which are chosen for a given topic are confusing. That is to say that many steps are missed out and they may leave the reader who wants to learn these areas rather unsatisfied. This doesn't mean that a text book should give you a free ride but in this case the leaps are sometimes made without the necessary explanation. That said it covers so many of the key topics in modern beyond the standard model physics and I think this is the first text to do a good job of that.

The prerequisites I would suggest are a very thorough understanding of the standard model, including the basics of some non-perturbative physics and, perhaps surprisingly, supersymmetry. If you haven't come across supersymmetry before then the two pages in which the anticommutators of supercharges are introduced, the chiral, vector and supergravity (super)multiplets are given and superspace is discussed will probably leave you confused as to what's going on. This is easily remedied with one of the great reviews on the subject, but be warned that the encyclopedic breadth does leave it a little shallow at times.

So, as I say, if you have a reasonable idea of these topics already and want a good reference, or you want a text which will point you in the right direction for many areas of research then this is a great book. Despite the occasional large leaps in logic I'm enjoying reading this and the style in which it's written makes for a rather good overview of these diverse and fascinating topics.

See also Jacques Distler's review of the book.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

A melodious tip

First of all a tip for anyone coming to Kyoto. Japanese cash machines generally do not accept foreign cards. I've spent the last three weeks hunting for one which will, to no avail. However, scouting around on the web, the most convenient one can be found just outside Kyoto station in the basement of the building below Kyoto tower (very easy to spot). This is a niche tip perhaps but it may come in useful for some weary traveler.

On Saturday, on the way back from the station I spent some time wondering in and out of buildings, cafes and areas which looked interesting. I was drawn to the mildly cacophonous sounds emanating from what looked to be an old scrapyard. I carefully peaked inside to have a look and was met with the surreal sight of musicians, dotted around randomly, playing their various wind instruments, standing between the mangled bikes, scrap metal and garbage blowing around the ground. It seemed to be some piece of conceptual art, though when I found someone to ask I was told that they were university students and this was simply the best place for them to practice. Somehow the strange contrast was rather relaxing and I stayed for a while listening to the practice and sneaking in a few shots.

Tuba practice:
Tuba practice
and trombone practice:
trombone practice
Looking back now, I probably should have found a chair and stayed longer. Enjoyable in its rather eccentric way.

All the Hallmarks of a holiday

No Valentine's day post would be complete without a link to the eternal embrace.

Valentine's day in Japan (and Korea) differs from the traditional form that we celebrate in the West. On this day it is only the woman who gives the gift (usually chocolates). The man then thinks he has got the better deal. However, this is a double bluff. A month later is the man's turn to give a gift to the woman. With a month's warning now the man is in twice as much trouble when he forgets!

In fact this tradition has become somewhat of a burden as the women in an office are often expected to buy chocolates and flowers for all their male co-workers. The translation of this gift is 'obligation chocolate'.

Anyway, enjoy your day and if you don't, then partake of the Korean tradition whereby the men who don't receive a gift get together in March to mourn over bowls of black noodles.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Catch-up summary

I had assumed that many people who read this blog will by default read all the other blogs that I dip into each morning. I also tend to reason that if an article is on a BBC website that they will pick up on the story. This is clearly not the case and I hope that by doing what I'm about to do, I may be able to bring to those who wouldn't normally hunt around for such articles, what I consider to be an interesting selection.

I thought I would summarise, once a week or so, the most interesting articles I've found, which may include a list of papers I've been reading, news articles on any subjects and blog posts of note. I'll see how it goes over the coming weeks.

So, for this week I list the following as particularly noteworthy:

  • On top of my own posts on the subject, including my review in the previous post, there have been articles about Nick's online popular science/ murder mystery book on both Asymptotia and Not Even Wrong. From what I hear it's going down well and getting a lot of hits.

  • Cosmic Variance has had an interesting and important discussion about the uses and future direction of blogs as tools for outreach, teaching, collaboration, scientific dissemination and more. This has been followed by an interesting response from Flip Tomato. I know of several pure research blogs which I dip into from time to time and the dynamic of input and breadth of discussion is impressive. I have my own research wiki though currently I'm using a none-too-impressive free online wiki service, having no web space of my own. If anyone knows of a good, free web-server on which I can setup my own wiki that I can tweak, I'd be very interested to know.

  • An important point in the development of the International Linear Collider, the successor to the LHC, was announced in a press release here, and follow ups from Cosmic variance and Asymptotia are both fact filled accounts of the physics, technology and politics involved. The announcement is related to the completion of several design aspects of what will be a most spectacular piece of engineering and a huge leap in our understanding of the forces of nature. Some of Clifford's comments are a good summary of the physics discussed in the Newtonian Legacy (see previous post).

  • Over at Retrospectacle there's an article for those who have always wondered where prions (the proteins responsible for mad cow disease and its human counterpart) fit into the biological family tree. Certainly five or six years ago if you had a tonsillectomy in England, they would test the removed appendages for prions. I'd had such an operation just before starting my undergraduate studies and so this post clears up some of the questions I'd had.

  • Prior to this article, still on Retrospectacle are some interesting, relatively technical (to the non-biologist) articles on the workings of the auditory system, Shelley's particular area of research.

  • Also tied in with Retrospectacle is this article from the BBC about the incredible language skills of one particular African Grey parrot with a vocabulary of almost 1000 words and the ability to combine these into new combinations when shown never before seen objects.

  • From way back in the year at Bad Astronomy blog are the top ten astronomy images of 2006. All of them are stunning photos, but the number 1 spot blows me away every time I see it.

  • In research papers, there have been several preprints over the last couple of months on baryons in the Sakai-Sugimoto model - in particular this one, which came out not long ago. The Sakai-Sugimoto model of AdS/QCD includes a non-abelian chiral symmetry, using a stack of D8 anti-D8 branes. In the most recent work a five-dimensional soliton is studied on the world-volume of the D8s and the potential is taken to be that of a field configuration holographically dual to the baryon. The spectrum is then calculated by finding the eigenstates of the Schrodinger equation with this potential. Lots of interesting things to look into further with this work, I feel. (I can see that this review is too brief to explain what's really going on but if any of the words match your area of research, take a look at the paper).

  • I came across this paper by Green and Bachas "A Classical manifestation of the Pauli exclusion principle" from 98. This is related to the existence of two, unique holomorphic curves in M-theory describing fermionic states in IIA string theory. The two solutions correspond to no fermions and to one fermion, but the lack of any other solutions is said to be a 'classical manifestation of the Pauli exclusion principle'. If anyone knows of more work that has been done on the spin-statistics connection in relation to string theory objects I would love to know. Looking through the citations I can't find any other papers which discuss this for more general systems.

  • In Chinese blogs, The Weifang Radish reports on a new post from Chinabounder which has caused the violent spectrum of replies it was expected to. For those out of the China loop, Chinabounder is a blog by a British expat in Shanghai who seduces Chinese women and then writes about his exploits. A Chinese professor got hold of the story, started a witch hunt to find the guy, give him what he thought he deserved, and wrote a large number of extremely aggressive articles about the behaviour of expats in China. Some of his articles are also discussed here on The Weifang Radish. The whole story is completely over the top, somewhere between amusing and terrifying and seems to be a lot of people venting their collective spleens over the web.

  • This BBC article on queuing in China is an interesting one, though I can see many similar situations ahead as China gears up for the Olympics. Taxi drivers will only be licensed to drive during the Olympics if they reach a certain fluency in English speaking and listening. I'm yet to see this progress, but I'm beginning to feel that just about anything is possible over there. There's a famous, modern saying that in China nothing is possible and nothing is impossible - this sums up life there pretty nicely.

  • I've discussed in previous posts about my wonder at some of the incredible engineering feats which are somehow not only dreamed up but actually come to fruition. The LHC of course being one which I've spoken about in the past, in detail. However, away from science and into the commercial world, Dubai has somehow jumped onto the world scene of spectacularly lavish buildings. Though the Taipei 101 is currently the world's tallest building at a little over 500 metres, this is going to be dwarfed by the Burj Dubai, due to be completed in 2008 at somewhere in excess of 800 metres tall (One official website comments that the latest redesign puts the final height at 1100 metres, but I don't know how official this is). Marvel at the photo at the bottom of this page for an idea of how this is going to change the landscape.

OK, that's probably a little overwhelming, but I hope that there's something interesting in there for most.

The Newtonian Legacy reviewed

I wasn't expecting to write about Nick's book just yet but starting it on Saturday evening I couldn't bring myself to shut down the computer. Not willing to go to sleep with so many unanswered questions I stayed up until late Saturday night reading through it, thoroughly engaged and amused.

So, it's a murder mystery set in and around historic Winchester in Southern England at the PHI Institute. This is perhaps the English, fictional equivalent of the Perimeter Institute or the IAS (have a look here for a very good read about the IAS). A post doc is murdered and the affairs that he was engaged in and the circumstances of his death become more and more intriguing throughout the story. A fellow postdoc who finds the body gets involved. Not only does he assist the police in uncovering what was going on but along the way he and his colleagues explain to the police officer involved (who happens to have an undergraduate degree in physics) what the people at the PHI Institute actually do and why they do it. It goes without saying that he also gets caught up in several steamy affairs, the local narcotics scene and arms traders - it comes with the job, you know!

As we follow the exploits of the wide array of characters (drug dealers, bohemian artists, hit men as well as the physicists and police), we discover about the Higgs mechanism (from the basic ideas through to composite Higgs models), possible alternative scenarios at the LHC, the interesting and highly strung politics of just about any physics institute, the basics of string theory, some cryptography and the history of alchemy. Along with this are the philosophical musings of the postdocs at the institute, all pretty accurately portrayed.

The idea of mixing in science with an engaging storyline for the general public has a long history and I thoroughly enjoyed the stories of Mr Tompkins from George Gamow when I started learning about quantum physics and special relativity.

The weighting of science to storyline is different in The Newtonian Legacy, but for an interested reader I think it gets the balance right. As long as they have a basic grounding in school physics and a keen mind they will come away, not fluent in the language of technicolour, but they should have a good idea of why we are all getting so excited about the LHC and understand more of what being a theoretical physicist is about. This book is a very enjoyable read, and it's free, so go take a look.

Anyway, I'm sure this took a lot of time and energy and I hope Nick won't be under too much more pressure if I suggest this would make a great series, I hope to see more from the PHI institute in the future.

Kenkoku Kinenbi

Though the students and staff here work outrageously hard, the Japanese calendar seems to have a surplus of holidays, on average a couple of days every month. It seems that some of these are ignored and people still work, but today many people are out of the office because it's Kenkoku Kinenbi, the day celebrating the nations foundation. I've heard a few alternative interpretations including that this celebrates the day that Japan was literally formed when God dropped a clump of mud from the heavens. However, the official line seems to be that this celebrates the date in 660 BC when Emporer Jimmu took to the throne. It appears that celebrations are kept low key and the people are urged to reflect on the meaning of Japanese citizenship.


I was wondering about what to write for the trip last weekend to Nara. Listing temples is pretty tedious for readers and there are dozens in Nara and the surrounding area. However, Nara is well worth a trip from Kyoto, just an hour away by train. The deer parks surrounding the temples and the giant seated Buddha are all worth the short day trip and the stroll up the very scenic hills to the temples overlooking the city makes for a fine afternoon. Again, most of these are working temples and feel wonderfully peaceful as you look over the modern cityscape below. Well worth the trip there. The extra, short train journey to Horyu-ji temple, around 1400 years old is certainly a good choice and the museum with a collection of national treasures is small but very impressive.

The simple code for an embedded flickr slideshow comes from here.

Thursday, February 08, 2007


A few random bits and pieces for now. I still have to discuss the trip last Sunday to Nara including the visit to a temple with some of the oldest wooden structures in the world. The post needs some serious editing and will have to wait.

Some quick links for now. First, the excellent videos from the ASTI summer school are back online, having been unavailable for some time. These are perfect for first year particle physics students and would probably be good for keen undergraduates, too.

Secondly, a software tip: I'd used Google Desktop Search as a superb way to search within files (specifically for searching through the jungle of PDFs in the mire of folders on my computer) for a couple of years now, expecting by default that Google software would be the most convenient for a windows user. However, after a little searching I realised that there are many other very good free products out there. In particular, I've found that Copernic Desktop Search to be better at pinning down particular files and you can organise how the search is displayed. There's also a window where you can preview the files on the search page. It's not integrated within Firefox, as Google Desktop Search is, but I still prefer the interface. Anyway, if you haven't come across these products, they are vastly quicker than the default windows search function.

While we're on the subject, if you're a high energy physicist working with Firefox, I recommend the Spires search plugin. I can't find the original Mozilla page I installed the plugin from but there is one which looks identical to the one I use here. Save valuable seconds on your searches!

Having just had a good chat with Hari Dass, who gave an interesting talk on QCD strings from the lattice perspective, I have lots of leads to follow up...have a good weekend folks!

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Rite of Spring

Saturday was an important festival in the Japanese Calendar: Setsubun marks the start of Spring and the day when the evil spirits are banished. Traditionally, in a household with children, the father will dress up as a demon and the children will throw dried beans at him to ward off the bad spirit, until they return the following year.

Kyoto is one of the best places to be for this festival and within Kyoto the Yoshida temple is a highlight, which happens to be 15 minutes walk from where I'm staying. It was packed with people and stalls selling all manner of local delicacies.
Snack stalls
Within the temple itself people prayed and received blessings from the monks, and a huge bonfire was in the final stages of construction.
The Japanese like to burn things; Due to lack of space there are very few land-fill sites and so virtually all waste is incinerated (something which has currently caused political unrest in an outlying town to Kyoto where a brand new incinerator has recently been opened). The bonfire at the shrine was not, however, for burning household rubbish. Throughout the year people come to the shrine and inscribe their wishes, either on pieces of paper which are attached to tree branches, or on blocks of wood, in the hope that Buddha will grant these blessings.
Prayer tags
At the end of the year, whether these wishes have been fulfilled or not, the wooden blocks should not simply be thrown in the bin, hence the fire which is used to burn the now defunct prayer tokens.

Near Yoshida shrine is the Heian temple where we walked to see what promised to be the highlight performance of the day. The temple is stunning and because we had some time before the show, we walked around the very beautiful and equally empty temple gardens.
ancient tree - Heian Temple
Reflections 2 - Heian Temple
We also watched a short play in one of the temple side-buildings. Though it was modern theatre and, I presume, an amateur company, some of the traditional aspects of Japanese drama are still firmly entrenched. Having been completely spellbound watching the Kabuki theatre last year at the Kabuki-za in Tokyo, I was hoping to go and see the local speciality next weekend. Noh theatre is supposed to be rather harder to follow than Kabuki. I sat through and enjoyed the Kabuki performance last year because I had an audio commentary in an ear-piece which explained every aspect of what was happening, from the costumes, stories, history and actors to the alien music and the cries from the audience throughout the performance - this is really highly recommended, but pay the extra for the electronic commentary, otherwise you will be bored within half an hour (of the total five hour performance). Unfortunately the Noh theatre here does not have audio commentary so if I can't find a translation of the performances I'll probably have to give this a miss. A return to Kabuki in Tokyo will not be a bad second choice.

Anyway, the modern drama was short, pretty confusing and moderately enjoyable. It was however free and as I was sat drinking a warm, mildly alcoholic rice-porridge drink (perhaps the Japanese equivalent of mulled wine) it was a pleasant place to spend half an hour.
Modern theatre
The central performance was in the main forecourt of the temple and, cordoned off by ropes and surrounded by onlookers, the stage was set with various props placed around the arena. Local dignitaries sat within the stage watching from prime position. Seven monks appeared, dressed in yellow garbs with white veils around their mouths, and opposite them were three warriors each with a child, carrying various weapons, in tow. (Any analysis of the events from me is speculation as I've little idea of what was really going on).
Monks at Heian
At this stage Evil showed up, face covered with a multi-eyed mask and followed by more children, this time carrying flaming torches. The children were extremely young and had some considerable difficulty keeping the flaming torches not only upright but also away from each other. It seems common sense that making your shoes out of the same material as your torches is not great planning. Anyway, I waited with baited breath for one of them to set alight to their neighbour as they waved the flames around and bits of torch scattered the ground in the wind, but none ignited.
Flame carriers
Evil then marched to centre stage and was held off by the warriors, the first one firing arrows (not terribly pointy, but arrows nonetheless) into the crowd, the second one fighting with a stick. The method of the third eludes me. With interludes of talking and chanting, the players and dignitaries circled the arena several times, Evil chanting 'evil' and the rest replying with 'evil, be gone, good luck, come in'. After several times around they headed out to the front of the temple where the chanting continued.

It seemed that this was the climax and having watched for some time we headed back to Yoshida shrine for local refreshments.

This all took up a good few hours of the day so I headed back for a quick nap to catch up from the previous night. Later on I headed out for dinner alone doing the usual trick of trying to decide which restaurant will be good as well as having a reasonable chance of my being able to order something not outrageously expensive. Eventually I stumbled upon a suitable place, bursting at the seams with Saturday diners. This particular cuisine (the name of which is currently in a notebook elsewhere) is Japan's answer to the shish kebab. Meat, vegetables and fish on a stick, flame grilled or fried and eaten with a selection of sauces.

I was rushed to the round counter surrounded by other diners, thrust a menu and the indication was made to order straight away. There was enough English on the menu to select a range of treats which showed up over the next hour or so and, washed down with a local drink, was a fine dinner. Definitely worth a go if you find a restaurant offering this. I can't recommend the sticks of chicken cartilage particularly highly - very crunchy without much flavour.

Post dinner I went to do some work in a local cafe and stayed until 11, at which time the giant bonfire at Yoshida was due to be lit. Following the herd I got back to the temple and joined the enormous queue waiting to climb the stairs to the bonfire. The two or three thousand people surged up the stairs and walked around the bonfire, some throwing things in, many taking videos and photos, the majority simply warming themselves up.
Bonfire 1
Having been thoroughly singed and jostled by the crowds I left, headed back home and had another troubled night.

OK, Sunday still to come but I'll leave it there for now. More photos of Saturday are in and around this page on my flickr site.

The Newtonian Legacy

As this is a physicist's blog in which I attempt to include a little 'kultcha', on occasion, I now have the perfect combination. Usually I don't blog about books if I haven't read them and I'm hoping to have a chance to read this very soon.

From Nick Evans, my former PhD supervisor, comes the mixture of crime, intrigue and popular science you've been waiting for. The following is taken from Nick's site where the book is freely available to download.

"A younger researcher, Andreas Born, is found dead at the particle physics institute where he works. A policewoman is assigned the job of penetrating the intellectually charged atmosphere his colleagues work in. She is forced to unravel the mysterious world of subatomic particles to understand the dead man's motivations.

Meanwhile, Carl, one of Andreas' collaborators embarks on an exploration of Andreas' murky life outside physics including sex, drug dealing and bizarre alchemical experiments. Carl is followed by a mysterious stranger and must fight to preserve both his life and the relationship with his girlfriend.

Learn about the frontier of particle physics within a fast paced crime adventure."

Anyway, I may be biased but I think it looks like a great idea. Along with the murder are discussions of string theory, the Higgs, quotes from Feynman, the odd equation and diagram, and all in a style which looks to take the reader through some good pop-science while being a fine mystery.

As I say I haven't read it yet but I'll put up my thoughts when I have. Anyone else who has a chance to read it, please tell me, and Nick, presumably, what you think.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007


This afternoon I found my eyes doing funny things when reading a white on black blog. I'd been told in the past be a reader that this was not ideal and so, with Blogger's new template wizard, I've done some alterations. Suggestions are welcomed: font size, colour, layout, etc. and I'll see what I can do if there's a consensus.

Late debate

Though work is very much on the boil, I don't want to miss the opportunities while I'm here to take in a good deal of the area in and around Kyoto. So that's taken up both Saturday and Sunday. Friday night was an extremely enjoyable evening spent chatting over drinks, do-it-yourself sushi and many other fine foods at a local postdoc's house with physicists from a good range of international locations.

Seven hours spent sitting on tatami matting took its toll but it was great to talk about a huge range of subjects and learn a good deal about Japanese history and culture, both ancient and modern. It was particularly interesting to hear views about the present Prime Minister who, it seems, has thoughts on altering the constituation which currently does not allow Japan to have an army (imposed after the second world war).

"Article 9: Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes. 2) In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized."

(The constitution makes for interesting reading in general.)

This absence of army has saved Japan both lives and money and it appears that the money saved may have helped the electronics boom over the past few decades. Though views from the evening seemed very sensible, I've since discussed the issue with others and heard a spectrum of opinions on the subject.

Anyway, the restriction imposes a protectorate relationship between Japan and the US which some would like to get away from, the point being that if relations with the States soured in the future Japan would be forceless except for the defense Army. In fact the defense army did go to Iraq in order to dig wells but, as they are not allowed to carry arms, they were guarded by Dutch soldiers.

It's a thorny issue and in the turbulent climate, while the ideal is clearly for everybody to have only a defense army (which would therefore be needless), many Japanese feel vulnerable. It seems that the current Prime minister may also be more likely to avoid the prickly relations with China and Korea which are ignited every year by going to visit the war memorial at the Yasukuni Shrine (including the spirits of 14 class A war criminals which are remembered there - this is the main controversy).

The relationship between the two nations is one that I often find a difficult subject, though one that I continue to be interested in on the level of individual Chinese sentiment. Almost every Chinese person I've spoken to (though not 100%) has gone from placid to raised hackles at the mention of Japan and strikingly strong language is frequently used. This is not just on a national level but many people I've spoken to have said that they could never be friends with a Japanese person.

A sad state of affairs and one which I initially tried to parallel with Germany's post war relationship with the rest of Europe - these are not appropriate parallels to draw. The continued bad feeling stems mostly from the lessons taught to children in Chinese school and the many films on Chinese television about the cruelty of the war (this is not to trivialise the subject in any way) - it seems they are taught that Japan would enact the same atrocities if given half a chance. The situation is also perpetuated greatly by the continued trips by Japanese politicians to the war memorial and by the publishing of Japanese textbooks with extremely biased discussion of the war - speaking with people and reading around a bit it seems that though the children may be briefly fooled by these books, the general knowledge of the well-educated population is closer to the truth.

(There's a TIME article here on the education of Chinese children on the subject of the war.)

I had the pleasure when my Japanese collaborator came to visit Beijing to introduce him to various friends who afterwards claimed, to their surprise, that in fact some Japanese could perhaps be good people and though true friendship would still be difficult, some of the prejudice had clearly been lifted. Though it's only a small step it was extremely pleasing to be part of this link.

Anyway, so the evening continued and we went from discussing links between Nordic and Asian language structures through Japanese cuisine and whiskey manufacture to the current boom in wine sales in Japan, into European history. It turns out that my knowledge of English common law is pitiful and if I'm tested on the differences between the continental and English judicial systems I'm likely to be left floundering. This was after the others had waxed lyrical about their nation's past, present and future legal systems.

By three o'clock the Euro debate and the price of pizza was being hotly contested and as my legs were beginning to make noises they shouldn't and with a schedule to keep to the next day, I left at just 3 o'clock. It turned out that the drinks kept flowing and the conversation continued on past 7am, and though it would have been enjoyable I would have been even more exhausted than I am now.

Whatever the conversation, it's a lovely change to sit around and chat like this. It's something that for various reasons I haven't had a chance to do as much as I'd like in Beijing.