Thursday, July 31, 2008

Eclipse hunting, part II

Well, I've finally arrived in Gansu province, in a small town called Pingliang after around 21 hours on trains. I'll be doing the same in reverse shortly. Sadly, weather forecasts for the region tomorrow are not looking good so I think my chances of seeing anything are remote, perhaps even more so than I am. Tomorrow at around 6 am I'll make my way to Kong Tong mountain, make the four hour walk to the summit, and see what I can see from there. Fingers are firmly crossed, but I'll just have to take what I get.

In the mean time it's been a fairly strange, interesting experience all around. I spent a day in Baoji, a city of around 4 million, walking around for a while, firstly panicking that nobody would sell me a ticket back to Beijing (you can never buy a ticket more than 5 days in advance here and pre-Olympics that has been scaled back to 3 days!) and than being amused by the stares of the many many locals who would follow me around, wondering what on Earth I could be up to in their little neck of the woods. I have a few photos of the People's park, including the most depressing fair ground I've ever come across.

This morning's ride to Pingliang has also been pretty strange, with non-stop stares from many people. Not, apparently amused, or moved, simply puzzled, with a look letting on little of what they were thinking.

Pingliang is in the East of Gansu province, and it's my first time in this region of China. My first impression is that the people are quieter than any Chinese I've ever met, not that they don't say much, but that they are soft-spoken, and after the hurricane of voices from Beijing to Baoji, this is no bad thing! Needless to say that these few days have been a great chance to speak Chinese.

So, after tomorrow morning, I head back down the mountain, photos captured, or not, get a train back to Baoji, spend a night back in the hotel, then in the afternoon I take another 16 hours on the train to Beijing. In Beijing I will have around 24 hours before I head to Korea where I'll be working for a couple of weeks. I'm really very much looking forward to this and am interested in seeing the contrasts to the Chinese departments I've been spending time in recently.

Anyway, with e-mails to check and various things to sort out, I'll have to leave it at that for now. I expect to next write from Korea...

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Eclipse hunting

It's a strange kind of trip where you don't know where you're going, but you know when - I mean by this that the destination is a time, and not specifically a place. My destination is some time around 10.30 am on Friday the first of August, at which point a swathe of land from Eastern China through Mongolia and Russia and up into Greenland and Canada will gradually become covered in darkness.

I've never had the chance to see an eclipse, other than through the dense clouds of a Cornwall morning, some time back in 1999, so I thought that I would take the opportunity to go eclipse hunting this time in a somewhat more exotic location. I say I don't know where I'm going because my trip is only half booked. Today at 5 pm I will take a train to Baoji, some 15 hours West, arriving tomorrow morning, at which point I will find an internet cafe, look at the weather forecasts for Friday and plan stage two.

Currently, as I mentioned before, my plan is to head to Pingliang, though the forecast at the moment is not looking great. My second best option may involve heading another 15 hours further North West, which is going to make coming back in time to catch my flight to Korea somewhat tricky, so I have to play this carefully. Unfortunately it's impossible to book train tickets more than five days in advance here, so I haven't even been able to secure a return trip from Baoji. This is rather crucial, as I will only have around 24 hours to play with!

So, that's the essence of my trip. The idea of seeing an eclipse from the top of a legendary mountain in a distant province in central China makes my head spin just thinking about it. I really hope that conditions are good on Friday, but whatever happens, I have an exciting, unknown trip ahead of me for the next few days...wish me luck!

Monday, July 28, 2008

Getting ready for the mystery trip

After a tiring couple of weeks giving talks I'm down with a bit of a lurgy, but resting up, ready for my big trip starting tomorrow. In preparation today I went to the electronics district in search of some special camera equipment. I managed a great deal on a simple tripod, but the second thing I was looking for didn't seem to be around. I was looking for a very very strong neutral density filter, something which would cut incoming light by around 100,000 times. This, sadly, the shop assistants simply didn't understand, and told me that a regular grade neutral density filter would be fine for my purposes, though I had expressly told them what I needed it for. I was not impressed! I do at least know a few more Chinese photography words.

So, tomorrow afternoon I head off on the 15 hour train ride to Baoji, China's 25th biggest city with a puny population of only 3.7 million. Currently I then plan to make my way to Kongtong shan near Pingliang, a sacred daoist mountain in Gansu province, where my prize may await me.

I've got a stack load of papers to keep me going through the train ride there and back (some time around the 2nd or 3rd of August) and plenty of pen and paper calculations which need to be done.

If it's not clear already, I will probably give the game away tomorrow.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Beijing car restrictions not helping the pollution levels

Well, at least that's the conclusion I make from looking at the official website here which monitors (certain) pollutant levels. Last Sunday a new scheme for car reduction was introduced pre-games which allows cars to go on the roads only on odd or even days, depending on the number plates. Since then, although the traffic has noticeably decreased, the pollution levels have been steadily rising. I created the following from the data on the above linked site (apologies for the mistake in the figure, API index should simply say API).

Beijing pollution running up to the games
It's worth looking at this blog for a thorough discussion of what these levels mean, but given that the visibility must be down to a few hundred meters today, it is clear that the current levels are really not good. Taken directly from that blog is the following:

1 = API 0-50 = excellent (old) => good (new)
2 = API 51-100 = good => moderate
3A = API 101-150 = slightly polluted => unhealthy for sensitive groups
3B = API 151-200 = light polluted => unhealthy
4A = API 201-250 = moderate polluted => very unhealthy
4B = API 251-300 = moderate-heavy polluted => hazardous

And given that I've seen the levels get to 500 on very very bad days, 100 doesn't look too chokingly horrible, though I understand that it is outside the guidelines set by the Olympic committee. With less than two weeks to go, I'm not sure what more they can do...

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Some more clues...

The 15 hour train ride to Baoji is now booked. I'll be arriving there on Wednesday morning. After this I have to make some last minute decisions, though currently I plan on heading to Pingliang in Gansu province. When I'm in Baoji I'll give some more information about this quest...

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Blogger still playing up!

Blogger is still playing up here in China - I had expected everything to be smooth here before the Games, but apparently not. Wordpress is completely out and the netnanny rears her ugly face at regular, though seemingly arbitrary intervals.

Anyway, I've just given my last talk here at the KITPC, a two hour talk to the students which was fun, as always. Tomorrow I have one more at IHEP and then I'm done for talks in China. Pretty tired after a two hour enjoyable ad-lib today. While the students do ask very good questions here, I feel relaxed talking to them, which definitely gives me good practice.

Anyway, my clue today for my magical mystery tour next week is that my first stop is going to be a small city in Shaanxi called Baoli. It'll take around 15 hours to get there by train.

And a photo from this weekend, reminding me that China is so constantly photogenic. Taken at Houhai lake while tucking into some spicy duck neck and chicken feet - beautiful!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


So, I finish in the department officially on Thursday. I have another two talks to give before then, including one at the Institute for High energy physics. A couple of the members of the department were at my first talk in the KITPC and asked me to give the talk again in their institute, though I think I'll make it a blackboard talk this time.

After Thursday I will be spending some more time on my research with people back in Santiago which needs to be finished off. I'm expecting to spend much of my time in the cafes which I used to frequent here which I'm looking forward to a lot.

Things are truly hotting up for the Olympics now, with around 100,000 military personel heading into the city, the anti-aircract missile launchers set up, the rules for crowd behaviour in place (no more than four people together wearing the same clothes, unless it is presumably military, the official cheer, etc.), the cars dissected into odd and even days for road use, the clubs shutting early, all the authentic street food removed from the pavements, the police checks at every transport intersection - this is truly the Olympic spirit :p

Anyway, I have other the beginning of next week I plan on getting out of Beijing and heading West, for something which I will let you in on over the next few days as plans come together. Anyway, it's something that I'm very very excited about, but still has some way to go to be finalised.

Photos from last weekend to come when time allows, as normal

Friday, July 18, 2008


Just finished my fifth hour of talks this week, give or take. All fun, and more to do next week. In the mean time I'm rather looking forward to a break this weekend.

That said, Beijing is pretty much shutting down over the Olympic period with many of the best places simply closing for the next month. My old hangout D22 which has live music and movie nights had sudden licensing problems and is locked for the time being, while the clubs in the local student area are all closing for the next month and a bit. I'll try and head to the 798 art district this weekend if I can, as I'm hoping they won't have had sudden problems with the surprisingly political artworks on display.

In fact this is the tip of an iceberg which essentially means that many of the local residents of Beijing are feeling pretty peeved about the fact that the Games are coming to town (ok, most that I've spoken to). You ask them in a formal context what they think of the Olympics and you will find out that this will be a wonderful display of modern China to the rest of the world and a moment to be proud of, but you ask them in private and most of them are pretty tired of the armed guards on the streets, the extra security checks all over the place, the closing of many venues, the hike in prices and many other things besides. Many of my foreign friends here are having there lives even more disrupted by huge restrictions on the visa process. At least half of my friends here are having to leave the country in the next week or so, having to temporarily ditch their jobs and wait for things to ease up. Many of those who are staying are finding sudden, surprising increases in their rent which landlords apply unapologetically.

Anyway, enough on the negative side. I thought I'd post up another photo today, this one from my flight from Dusseldorf to Beijing last week. At around 4 in the morning, somewhere over Mongolia we had a wonderful display of noctilucent clouds. Clouds high in the atmosphere that even after sunset are still lit by the light shining from below the horizon. Their pattern and colour are very distinctive and are really quite stunning. The bright light in the middle is Jupiter. See more here for information about such cloud displays.
Noctilucent clouds

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

On a different plane

Somehow jet-lag has turned to insomnia, something I usually reserve for periods of intense work when my mind won't stop turning over ideas. I'm not quite in that frenzy right now as I'm spending most of my time preparing talks.

Yesterday I gave an hour and a half formal seminar in the KITPC which was extremely enjoyable. I count it as a success when I have questions up until the end and several people coming to chat afterwards. As usual it's also brought up a couple of points I'd not considered which is always good!

Today I have to give another talk, though it's going to be more informal, on the blackboard, and I have a pretty good idea of what I'm going to be saying. Friday is another seminar and then I'll be giving at least two more next week. At some point I also have to have meetings with various researchers here in the department where we'll actually discuss some physics!

My mind is however rather fuzzy at the moment as I've managed to fall asleep at 6am and get up at 9am for the last few days. This, sadly is not me celebrating being back in Beijing, but simply an inability to get to sleep. Between bouts of putting all my effort into drifting off, I started reading the Language Instinct by Steven Pinker last night, an author who continues to completely change my world view on all things linguistic and neurosciency. Packed full of amazing anecdotes, if I weren't too tired I would be regailing people with them now.

Anyway, this post is a bit of an after lunch interlude as I simply can't focus on anything much right now.

Here's hoping for more than three hours sleep tonight!

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Back in the Wu

Somehow it feels like I never left. Everything here in Beijing feels so familiar. Stranglely the very fact that many things have changed feels familiar. You become used to the continuous dynamic of the buildings, the restaurants and bars, the flow of students in and out.

There's still building work going on at all hours of the day and night and despite the promises two years ago, the taxi drivers still don't have any English at all. It was said that during the Olympics, all taxi drivers had to obtain a minimum standard of English, but it seems that this idea has been dropped and foreign visitors coming to the games have been advised to only take taxis when they know exactly where they are going.

The weather has at least improved significantly from the first two days where the visibility was truly atrocious, and yesterday with temperatures around 35 degrees, we had a decent day of blue skies. Jet-lag was taking longer than expected so I crashed in the afternoon before going to catch up with some old friends in the evening.

Today I find myself in one of the same cafes I used to frequent where the coffee is strong (if not terribly tasty) and there is free wireless. Due, I believe, to a lack or regulatory enforcement, China is still the country with the most impressive wireless access I've ever seen, easily beating Japan, Korea and most of Western europe.

Today I'm attempting to finish writing a seminar I will be giving on Tuesday afternoon. This is one of the hardest seminars I've had to give. I will be talking about our latest paper on spectral functions in the quark gluon plasma form holography, which is something I talked about just last week in Munich. However, the Munich group has more string theorists per square inch than anywhere I've ever been, and a large number of them specialise in AdS/CFT. On Tuesday however I will be giving a talk at a conference on flavour physics, as an invited speaker. I've been to such conferences before and given overview talks on AdS/CFT, but to attempt to give a full-blown research seminar without losing everyone in the first few minutes is not an easy task! I'm going for lots of pictures and trying to repeat my main points in as many ways as possible without it becoming boring. Keeping this up for an hour and a half is going to be tricky...

It's going to be a learning experience for me at any rate. After this I'll be preparing a series of blackboard talks to a smaller group. This is all enjoyable, but means I can't concentrate on my research as much as I'd like right now. Still, I have scheduled a few discussion sessions with people here were I will find out what they've been up to since I was last here.

On a completely unrelated subject I'll leave you with a picture from the conference I went to a few weeks back in A Toxa, on heavy ion physics. A few of us went for a walk on our last day there. I waited back with another friend to take some photos and took this silhouette of multinational physicists disappearing into the sunset:

Anyway, better get back to generating graphics which will keep people on the ball!

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Beijing, we have a problem!

Well, I'm back in Beijing, currently suffering from jet-lag having managed a grand total of an hour sleep on the flight here from Munich via Dusseldorf. I'll be spending a couple of weeks back at my old department and will give a series of talks here on various research directions.

It's great to be back in this hot, muggy, chaotic, dynamic city, but one thing is clear:

There is less than a month to go until the start of the Olympics and the pollution is utterly horrendous! I mean, really, about as bad as I've ever seen it! My throat is already burning from the smog, and with visibility down to around a kilometer when we landed this morning, you could immediately smell the concrete, acrid stench as the plane door opened.

I do still believe that they will have it sorted for the Olympics itself, with a combination of cutting cars and factories down in the next couple of weeks and the huge program of rain seeding which they used to great effect last year. However, as far as I'm aware, the athletes are going to be arriving here in the next couple of weeks and I don't believe the problem will be solved by then. They are clearly going to have a short-term solution to this vastly long term problem and even that is going to be cutting it fine. I can see some of the athletes simply landing, seeing the current situation and heading back home.

I spoke previously about how I believed China was the only nation who would be able to turn the situation around in such a short time, but that was when there was two years to deal with the problem, not four weeks...we'll have to see.

In the meantime I have to write my talks for here which I only found out about a couple of days ago, and have some sleep to be catching up with too!

Monday, July 07, 2008

Weekend in pictures

A busy weekend of sightseeing in Munich. Not much time for discussion for now, but I'll leave you with some photos. We were lucky enough to get into the new synagogue on Sunday morning, which is a rather dehumanised building, though spacious and light inside. The opening of this new synagogue has been hailed as a triumph for the advancement of Munich over the last few years. The Orthodox priest in the foreground is not, as far as I'm aware, part of an intercultural exchange, though there is a church just next door:
Munich synagogue
Prior to this, on Saturday I had been to the modern art museum, which is a wonderful space, with some powerful contemporary art, helped greatly by the architecture which surrounds it. Click for a huge version of this photo (a nine shot panorama):

Pinakoteka Moderna Munich
They had a small selection of classic cars, and I was particularly taken with the reflected lines on the body work of this one:
reflections on a dream
And on Saturday evening I took myself back to the beer garden (the closest place to where I'm staying to get food) where I helped myself to a glass as I went through some work. Somehow the paper was all out of focus by the end of the drink!
glass completely empty
See a few more of my photos from Munich here.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Head in the clouds

I'm now in Munich and have just given my talk to the string theory group. The researchers here have been doing some very similar work so we have plenty to discuss which is always enjoyable. It seems that tonight this discussion will be taking place mostly in a beer garden which should be a lot of fun.

Yesterday night we sat on the runway in Mallorca for some time while thunderstorms delayed our departure. We missed most of them but still had some fireworks up at 30,000 feet. Some fine cumulonimbus showing their muscles. I'm expecting similar in the flight next week from here to Beijing so I will try and get some storm cloud photos if possible.

In the meantime, here is another shot from Cargese, with the light from the rising moon over the mountains, and Jupiter glowing bright, you can also make out the Milky Way stretching from the middle to the bottom right. In this photo Jupiter is not terribly sharp, but with a good camera and a lens of order 100mm it was possible to see two of her moons with a 20 second exposure.

Jupiter and moonrise
Tomorrow I'll try and get out in Munich for some photography too and will post anything noteworthy.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Looking up

I'm now in Santiago for 4 days before heading off again for Munich where I will be giving a talk and hopefully starting some work with a couple of researchers there. The Munich group is one of the largest string theory groups in the world and so this is both exciting and somewhat daunting, but it should be a useful experience whatever happens. Anyway, I leave for Munich via Mallorca on Thursday.

My return trip from Cargese was somewhat stressful due to bad planning on my part with a couchsurfer. This resulted in me having several spare hours on Saturday night with nothing to do and suprised to find that there are few 24 hour cafes in the city. Finding that all hotels were full and having all my baggage stowed at a railway station until the early hours of the morning I pleaded with a hotelier to let me sit on a seat in the lobby of his hotel for a few hours. It was only the next morning having had an hour of very cramped sleep (I didn't know it was possible to get into such a position that your stomach falls asleep, but apparently it is!) that I realised that  the 20 euros I had been charged for the privelage of sitting down for a couple of hours made London's top cinemas look relatively cheap. Still, a learning experience and I (just) made it back to Santiago with minutes to spare to make the flight.

Anyway, on a more positive note there was another rather pleasing atmospheric phenomenon which greeted me as I arrived into Paris on Saturday evening. Newly formed clouds, close to the sun in the sky, can give rather beautiful effects as light diffracts through them and causes iridescent colours to come and go. I caught this image as I was sitting on the bus on the way from the airport:
Iridescence over Paris
For more on iridescence, go to the always informative Atmospheric Optics site. I would really recommend having a full read of this site as having done so myself I now realise the number of spectacular phenomena around us, if only we know what to look for. This in many ways is tied into the reason I enjoy physics, the quest to understand the world around us, and in doing so take in as many riches as possible. Though my own research, which is far less close to home than atmospheric optics, may seem a distant cousin of such ideas, it is still the goal to understand the amazing things which go on around us, even if on vastly different scales.