Monday, December 28, 2009

Dragon's Egg by Robert Forward - a review

Sci-fi isn't usually my thing, I tend to get wound up by ridiculous names of endless two dimensional characters and mind-boilingly bad science, though clearly there are some major exceptions to this generalization.

I no longer remember where I came across the shining review of Robert Forward's Dragon's egg (possibly from some of Douglas Hofstadter's writing) but the idea hooked me immediately and despite the fact that it's no longer in print I managed to get hold of a copy through the wonderful AbeBooks.

The concept is based on a simple question: Is it possible to have life in conditions where there is normally little complexity? The majority of Dragon's egg takes place on the surface of a pulsar, where gravity is 67 billion times stronger than that on earth and there is no 'chemistry' as we know it. In this world the complexity comes from a chemistry where the leading force is the strong nuclear force and combined with the fast spin of the star, when life evolves it evolves at a rate a million times faster than that on Earth.

The story itself is rather wonderful (we see intelligent life, albeit far smaller than on earth, evolve from the prebiotic soup of the thin crust of white dwarf matter and accelerate past that on Earth) but what is even more astounding is the level of physics that went into the writing of the story. Starquarks, giant magnetic fields, the interplay between the beings and their landscape and the exchange with the humans who come to visit them all make for an incredibly detailed and well thought-out novel on a fascinating subject stemming from an important question. The book includes an encyclopedia of the biology, geology and history of the star and its inhabitants which adds to the depth of the story.

The writing is not going to blow you away, but for sci-fi it's very readable and is definitely going to get you thinking. As this is the five year anniversary of the observation of one of the most monumental events in our galaxy on a star not unlike that which the book is based on, see if you can get yourself a copy and think about what else may be out there.

Friday, December 25, 2009

A very merry Christmas

I hope that all are well and that you have a fantastic Christmas and New year. I'll leave you with a view from my parent's garden in Oxford after a wonderful night of frost. The journey that day between Oxford and London was truly spectacular.

Christmas Berries

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Gap filling

This week I have been mostly.....Santiago leaving, Stansted fretting, coffee drinking, Oxford home-coming, mince-pie scoffing, cold feet chilling, night snowing, wine mulling, TV despairing, Christmas present belating, academic meeting, paper writing, deep breathing, London visiting, norovirus cuddling, program writing, cafe frequenting, gallery visiting, book worming, photo taking, path pondering.

Gaps may be filled in, or not.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

On chaos and the teaching of mathematics, in no particular order

The normal busyness continues apace but I fancy punctuating this chaos with a little update. I'm currently doing some proofreading of a book (not my own) which is both fascinating and densely packed with information (I'll reveal details when possible). At the same time I'm attempting to get two papers finished before Christmas and if at all possible next week.

Ah, yes, and I'm back in Santiago, if only briefly. My carbon footprint continues to increase month on month and December is no exception as I had to come back to Santiago for a week in between my Dublin trip and Christmas. After an 11 hour mammoth journey back to Spain on Thursday (starting from Oxford at 4am and culminating in a 4pm collapse back home) I have lots of things to finish before I head off again on Thursday including giving a short talk to the postdocs and grad students in the department. I'll be introducing in 15 minutes the depths of string theory, gauge theories, the problems with strong coupling dynamics, AdS/CFT and its applications to heavy ion physics, and more importantly why they should care about all this. This will be aimed at a diverse audience ranging from the groups which work on non-linear systems to those in nanotechnology and beyond. Anyway, it'll be a challenge but it should be a fun one.

Christmas farewells are filling the evenings, with a big party last night (in which I managed to make sushi for a group of 30+ whilst avoiding food poisoning, the latter being my principle triumph) and dinners until I leave but somehow I have to get these papers finished and as much of the book proofread as possible in the meantime (snide comments about my own bad spelling are not strictly necessary/neccessarry/necisary/nessacary).

On the night before coming back to Spain I had dinner with a friend of my parents, an ex maths teacher who has spent a great deal of time attempting to spread his ideas for teaching maths not only more effectively, but in a way which avoids the building up of the normal hierarchy of students in a class which leads to a range of bad feeling between those who can and those who can't. The method is simple and I'd like to talk more about this some time, but the basic idea is to get the students to read out a very short section from an appropriately chosen text book following which another student will explain what the section means. I think this is an extremely intelligent way to get pupils not only to be able to solve maths problems but to truly understand the workings of mathematics as they are introduced to it. Far too much emphasis is put on getting kids to learn through repetition of solving problems and not enough is put on building up the background of true understanding which is needed for getting onto ever more complex concepts without getting lost in the forest of terminology and notation. Clearly problem solving itself is necessary for polishing the edges but problem solving is infinitely easier if one has a thorough understand of the internal workings of mathematics rather than simply knowing how to turn the handle.  Unfortunately it seems that getting teachers to try this method is extremely difficult, especially in the current climate where schools are terrified of trying anything new for fear of dropping down the league tables - one of several curses of the current UK education system. Anyway, I'd love to devote some more time to discussing this so we'll see if the Christmas 'break' allows. Until then, it's back to reading and typing...

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

and quickly...

I wanted to post a photo of a little project I started after my friends in Santiago gave me a photo printer for my birthday a while back.

My flat is covered with my photos, but most of them are of the inanimate, so I thought I'd start a wall of portraits I've taken over the last couple of years. This wall will grow, with time, but for now I'm just setting up bordered sets of photos, some of which have something to do with their proximate pair, and some of which do not. Just a bit of fun for now, but it's nice to have a few familiar faces around the house:

Wall photos
The one photo of me (middle right) was taken by Toomanytribbles in Athens mid camera swap.

Click for a closer look.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Everything under the sun

Having not stepped foot in the British Isles for more than a few hours since February, there have been a few changes over these last months. The streets of Oxford have their transient shops, going through waves of success and failure, and changing week on week, but despite the new facades it feels something like home. I count myself as lucky that while I don't currently feel I have a place to call home (knowing that at each stage of my journey I will, sooner rather than later, be moving on somewhere else), I actually feel quite at ease in this state of fluidity.

I spent today back in the centre of Oxford working in a couple of cafes before coming home to tea and mince pies to continue study. I have two more projects that we would like to finish before Christmas and these will keep me out of trouble for the coming weeks.

Thankfully television is no distraction. In my hotel in Dublin I made the mistake of turning on the TV (the first time I've seen television in many many months) and realised that I'm so out of touch with British pop culture that I have no idea who any of the "celebrities" on the unending, jaw-droppingly bad reality TV shows are. Such ignorance fills me with more than a little pride.

I don't have a raft of exciting tales to tell from Dublin, though yet again this charming, if outrageously expensive city brought several days of enjoyment, both through plenty of scientific discussion, the odd guinness and a little time to tour the city. On an icy cold Saturday I sat atop an open-air bus to see the city, something that I can highly recommend if you have a short time to see somewhere you don't know well. Touristy though it appears, it's convenient, and unless you're reading up on the place before you arrive, you're likely to learn a great deal whilst catching all the highlights.

Anyway, the only other tale to tell is of the flight over from Stansted to Dublin where, above the murky cloud-line I was greeted with another wonderful halo display, this time witnessing my first ever sub-sun as the light reflected of the plate crystals in the clouds below us. Seated over the wing (in order to take advantage of the leg-room) I missed out on any possible Subparhelia but caught a few glimpses of sundogs, changing quickly as we passed layers of cirrus clouds.

Bright subsun:

halo and subsun from a plane
22 degree halo with sundog:
halo and subsun from a plane
and 22 degree halo with subsun tangent arc:
halo and subsun from a plane
As always consult atoptics for the full explanation of these phenomena.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

AdS/CFT and novel approaches to hadron and heavy ion physics - Beijing KITPC program 2010 - an advert

While in Beijing for an academic visit in the summer of 2008 I spoke with my old boss and director of the KITPC, Yue-Liang Wu about the possibility of organising a program on an AdS/CFT related subject. I got the support of the director, got together a team of people for an organising committee (Stanley Brodsky, Nick Evans, Hong Liu, Craig Roberts, Dam Son, Xin-Nian Wang, Urs Wiedemann) and over the last year have been going through several stages of proposals before getting confirmation of support and the go ahead to start inviting people. We've been sending out invitation letters over the last couple of weeks and have a few people now confirmed internally (the names are only viewable currently to the organisers) and thought that now would be a good time to advertise via the blog.

The program will last for seven weeks from the 11th of October until the 3rd of December  2010 and we hope to get as many people interested in AdS/CFT applications to hadron and heavy-ion physics and those involved in these subjects from other perspectives to come along, collaborate, speak, and integrate their ideas in order to advance the field through interdisciplinary works. The idea is for people to come for at least two or three weeks in order that there time can be relaxed and there's plenty of opportunity to build up lasting collaborations.

One of the main problems of the field as I see it is that there are many groups trying to essentially deal with very similar questions but with such different languages that collaboration is often difficult. One of the aims of this program will be to give people the platform and time to reduce this difference and for ideas in diverse areas to be exchanged and discussed in a nice environment, with a good cross-section of international researchers.

The abstract of the program can be found here and I would highly recommend anybody interested in this field to apply to the program, to come and chat with a lot of like-minded people and to explore Beijing, a truly incredible city with a diversity of cuisine, history, language, music, art, architecture and nightlife unlike any I've experienced anywhere else in the world. I love this city, and am hugely looking forward to not only working with a lot of people on a fascinating topic in physics, but to sharing the city with many newcomers.

If you have any questions at all about the program then please ask and I will be happy either to answer directly, or to find out anything you need to know from the staff at the KITPC who are organising all the local details.