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Zoe Louise Matthews | ASY-EOS | UK

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Dr Matthews says, “Jusk ask!”

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2011

Dr Matthews, I presume? :-)

A lot has been building to this: a lifetime of obsession with physics and discovery; four years of hard study; about three and a half of the most exciting years of my life, working on the ALICE experiment; eight months of balancing an awesome career in nuclear physics with the mammoth task of writing a book…Now, at long last, my PhD journey is finally over: viva painfully anticipated, prepared for, worried about and finally completed (“Surviving a viva” blog to follow); minor corrections exacted; final edit of thesis printed and submitted to be hard bound for the library; I will graduate this Christmas and henceforth be known as Dr Matthews (…at least, for a few months. Then I will get married and become Dr/Mrs Chater.)

I am now buzzing with the notion that I have somehow passed the grand test of being a scientist. People say you don’t feel any different – it’s not true. I do. A younger me would say, “This is well mint”. (I used to insist that my A level in English Language was a license to use language “creatively” – to indulge in slang and occasionally use certain nouns as adjectives as I deemed appropriate. Actually I still do this!) This has been the biggest challenge I have faced to date, and now that it’s done it feels like I can finally start believing in myself.

I think lack of confidence can be an issue for many scientists. It comes in all shapes and sizes: from causing mild panic or reservation with a looming challenge, or feeling nervous talking about what they know for fear of scary questions; to shying away from responsibility or limelight and feeling faintly like a fraud sometimes. In fact I think in general a lack of confidence makes science very difficult. I’d love it if any readers who feel this is true for them could comment. It can be really damaging to a person’s learning – you start out wanting to understand something, to find the correct way of thinking about it; but you don’t want to be seen as foolish, you don’t want to make a mistake or look stupid, so you start to withdraw from asking questions. You internalise your confusion and the problem becomes more and more intimidating. One tiny bit of confusion, if left unchecked, can leave a person so lost they start to disengage from the subject area and it starts to seem a bit like another language.

However, scientists are all about asking questions. They are all about getting it wrong. They are all about being unafraid of looking foolish. Why is this? It is because all of these things are essential for advancing our knowledge of the world. We have to test what we think to be true and adjust our current thinking accordingly, even if that means throwing out a huge misunderstanding and looking mightily silly in the process. If we are shown to be mistaken, we change our view to a more correct one. Being wrong, then, isn’t something to fear but something to embrace and accept. I want any aspiring scientist out there reading this to promise themselves that whenever they are confused, stuck, puzzled, lost, or just curious, they will always find the bravery to ask; whether that means trying it out in an experiment, reading papers on it, getting their pen and paper/calculator/text book/whiteboard out, or literally finding someone who knows and insisting they explain and explain until the penny drops. Does anyone remember Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon fishing through a ball pit, desperately trying to mould his surroundings to make sense of the behaviour of electrons in graphene? (a great blog about this is here) This is the kind of commitment to getting answers I am talking about :-)

And those of you out there who can call yourselves bachelors, masters or even doctors of science, have achieved something remarkable – you are now qualified to ask anything from the biggest questions in science today to the most seemingly daft questions you can think of, and when anyone threatens to call you silly you can simply say, “Ahem, excuse me. I am a scientist…and there is no such thing as a silly question when it comes to science.” Just like my A-Level English Language gave me license to be creative, I am hereby giving scientists everywhere license to be bludgeoningly inquisitive. We owe it to today’s budding scientific thinkers to set this example.

I wonder if “bludgeoningly” is a word… ;-)

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Flow

Monday, November 7th, 2011

I find life quite bewildering: the way it can seemingly drag on for prolonged periods, as if moving through treacle, progression frustratingly gradual; the way that then, like light suddenly escaping some unperceived medium, I am gushing forth with great speed, into the great unknown, the future, the life I thought would never come. It feels like my timeline is completely broken. Over the past few months, things have simply flown by, leaving me somewhere I never thought I would be. Liverpool, to be specific.

Since I last posted, so much has happened I hardly know where to start…should I perhaps begin with the last, and most remarkable interview I had last year, which happened to be for a heavy ion physics position here in the UK? My new boss, after seeing my interview in a “brain-drain” article in The Times, invited me to apply for the position many months ago, when it was based at Daresbury. Soon after this, the application process was frozen due to funding cuts. Luckily, the vacancy was moved to Liverpool and survived, but became a shorter term post for a more experienced candidate. I hadn’t expected or even imagined success, but simply went to the interview and introduced myself, enthusiastic and hopeful. The experience was a delight, and it felt great to finally meet people who seemed to appreciate my skills, experience, achievements and passion (not least, I imagine, because this was the one job opening in the country for which my training was perfectly designed. This is precisely the difficulty that many postgraduates are now facing, as positions in scientific research are not only extremely competitive but also sadly rare, and in other areas they are seen as over-qualified or lacking in “real-world” experience).

A schematic view of the collision ellipse of a heavy ion collision. "Flow" is measured in phi (around the beam axis, z) with respect to the plane indicated, known as the "reaction plane". More on this later!

The position was for a research scientist to work on an experiment at GSI, Darmstadt, measuring a fascinating heavy ion observable known as “flow” (observations of which, at RHIC, led to the idea of the Quark Gluon Plasma as a strongly interacting, low viscosity liquid, and has been observed more recently at ALICE). However, in this case, it would be for isospin-asymmetric nuclear matter, in order to investigate the symmetry energy of the nuclear equation of state. Symmetry energy describes the difference between protons and neutrons in the EOS, and it is especially interesting for understanding phase changes in, for example, the neutron-rich matter of neutron stars at high density (their masses and radii are intrinsically linked to the EOS).

Of course, I went back to my usual business of PhD completion, convinced that the trip to Liverpool University had been an enjoyable confidence-boost that would go no further, and that come September I would most likely be undertaking a PGCE course. It was not until a week before Christmas, as I was discussing the job market with visiting friends, that I received a phone call that has since changed my life. “Could you start on the 1st February?”

My partner, Phil, and I spent the weekend thinking through the logistics and trying to decide whether relocating was possible at such short notice. The same week had brought him the unfortunate news that his research group at Birmingham in Hydrogen Storage was unlikely to gain further funding, so his days at Birmingham were coming to an end too.  He was so supportive, and although we have both considered Birmingham our home for many years, we decided to leap on the opportunity and spent most of Christmas viewing unfurnished properties in Merseyside.* Apparently, rental agents’ busiest time of year is the new year, supposedly due to break-ups caused by the stress of Christmas. We probably viewed about 20 properties in a few short days, with help from my parents living a reasonable drive away in Manchester, and for every viewing we secured, 3 or 4 were cancelled the same morning as the property had already gone. Luckily, we found somewhere lovely, fresh on the market, across the pond in the Wirral.

*Yes, after spending years as students living in run-down rental accommodation ready-furnished with bright orange sofas and worn-out mattresses, we decided the move was a perfect opportunity to take the relationship-altering step of buying all our furniture together. We have conquered the challenge of long distance, sure, but that’s nothing on going to Ikea, so they say. We’re still together though, so we seem to have survived! :-)

I say “my partner, Phil, and I” with reluctance because, there is one more change in here that I have neglected to mention. On Christmas morning, the first I have ever spent away from home, I awoke in the afore-mentioned orange student house, buzzing with the usual excitement and feeling slightly strange. I am used to having a giddy Santa-oriented Christmas with the kids and dog of my family bringing the day to life with a frantic joyous noise. Instead, I was to spend the day in the calm and tranquil adult company of Phil’s family. He had promised to bring up breakfast in bed before we set off, but instead he invited me to come downstairs for it. Drowsily pottering down in my dressing gown, I was greeted with a trail of candles which led through the house, to my coat and boots, and then out into our garden, which was completely blanketed with snow. At its foot, there stood Phil, waiting for me to join him. At first I thought it was a romantic impulsion to run outside and play in the snow and feel the Christmasness of it all, but in fact it was the setting of his sweet proposal. Apparently I couldn’t stop giggling and kept interrupting him with “Aaah! No way!” All I can remember is it feeling so magical.

Christmas Proposal: I found it fascinating that, hours later, after brioche and buck’s fizz for breakfast, the candles were still lit, their little melted snow-coves providing protection from the wind

With only a weekend to move in before my job started, I am amazed that it came together quite as well as it did. With the very generous assistance of our families, we have somehow managed to get moved in, unpacked, our furniture budgeted, bought, brought home and built, all the paperwork and logistics out of the way…I am getting settled into work and finishing off commitments in Birmingham, and we have a home office that is set up for me to continue to finish off my thesis. We even have a wedding folder ready to fill with ideas once we get the chance to think about it. It’s been a whirlwind of a winter.

I am keen to tell you more about GSI, flow, the work I am now to be involved with, and some of the incredible achievements of the Physics department at Liverpool. These things will have to wait for another time. However, I will leave you with something I was drawn to reading Derren Brown’s Confessions of a Conjurer (a Christmas present from my mom) – Csíkszentmihályi’s definition of “flow” – something completely different, referring to personal motivation. Derren described it as:

“…a kind of retrospective happiness we can look forward to when we are in our “zones”; when our skills match the ongoing challenges of the moment in such a way that we lose ourselves and our sense of time, and experience the kind of focused reverie, the unhindered creative flux…”

This for me describes so well the feeling of work when it is going well. Of course, there are times when I get completely stuck, or times when there are more mediocre tasks to be done that I can’t help putting off, but to be in the midst of this “flow” is to have the most enjoyable work experience, to feel that you have found precisely what you were meant to do with your life. Crucially, it can apparently only be achieved by pursuing difficult challenges, and developing high level of confidence and ability. Could this be a major factor (alongside the obvious) in why many scientists love their job so much? :-D

Csíkszentmihályi’s view of the mental state in various conditions of perceived skill and challenge.

I must confess that I am teetering on the anxious side in work at the moment, as everything is new and confusing still, but these things take time. To paraphrase Brian Cox after his recent appearance on BBC Breakfast, it’s not about being a genius but about working hard and constantly improving. I’ll try to keep you posted. :-)

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Uncertainty

Friday, October 21st, 2011

I had a very enjoyable day yesterday, spending the afternoon in the first year undergraduate physics laboratory session as a demonstrator. Teaching is a really nice way to break up the week, especially if your job involves long periods of sitting and playing with code. It’s a great chance for you to revisit the basics and help to lay some groundwork for the students for their future. I have been doing this throughout my PhD, but now as a member of staff it’s a little different. Any time we spend not working on research has to be clawed back somewhere else,  and for some, teaching is a hindrance to be avoided wherever possible. For me, even though I can’t do very much teaching, and I am also busy with viva preparation, it’s still so worth it to spend time discussing concepts, explaining equations and helping to spot mistakes, and to get to see pennies dropping in their minds when things start to click. It reminds me of the feeling I would get when I finally understood something that was puzzling me.

On the subject of rewarding puzzles, I’ve been playing Professor Layton’s latest game in the car on the way to work (my fiance drives in). This should be a recommended hobby for any wannabe-scientist – it stretches your logical problem solving and gets your brain thinking in ways it’s not used to. The topic of the “Lost Future” series is time travel. If only I had a time machine…then I could do all the teaching and research I wanted, and still have time for baking cakes :-)

These first few weeks, the students have been challenging their ideas of “precision”, “uncertainty” and “error” in the lab. They have been learning that the precision of their tools does not always cover the uncertainty on their measurement. For example, if a ruler has markings to 1 mm, but it is used to measure a surface that is not flat, is the measurement still so precise? If a stop watch can in theory measure to 0.0001 of a second, but a human pushes the button, have they really obtained time so precisely? They have been learning how to deal with random errors and standard deviation, and where that fits in with repeating their measurements. Given that a measurement has a fixed expected value, they can expect to find a spread of measured values that tells them about the statistical fluctuation in each one. They have also started to understand that, even with infinite statistics, their result may still have an undetermined error that affects their result.

Professor Marcus du Sautoy’s “Faster than the speed of light?” on BBC2 a few nights ago began to touch upon what many bloggers on here have already discussed at length – the idea that some unseen systematic effect can influence a result that otherwise seems very precise. In this case it was the possibility that some unknown factor caused OPERA to apparently measure faster-than-light neutrinos (note that I am not saying this is definitely true, but it is what most scientists are expecting to be the case). To visualise this type of uncertainty, one commonly thinks of taking a metal ruler to measure a distance, and then making the same measurement in extreme cold and hot conditions, causing the ruler to shrink and expand respectively. The tool itself in this case has caused a systematic error – all of the measurements will be off by some amount. If this effect is missed, one could easily draw the wrong conclusion from the measurement.

Historically particle physics, which often features huge data samples, tiny backgrounds, and very precise detectors and beam positioning, has been able to pick up on quite surprising external systematic effects. These include effects from the moon’s gravitational pull, nearby train lines, the curvature of the Earth and underwater radioactive rocks/glowing sea creatures. Some systematic effects can simply be corrected for (for example, adding an appropriate amount to the size of a millimetre when measuring distances in the cold with your metal ruler). Others may have a more complicated influence on the result, and simply make the uncertainty of the measurement larger. However, some, you simply don’t know about. And these are the ones to really watch out for.

On the topic of science documentary, I really enjoyed the third part of Jim Al Khalili’s “Shock And Awe: The Story of Electricity” on BBC4 last night. As my building at Liverpool University is named after Sir Oliver Lodge, it was great to learn a little more about his work in electromagnetism, and his role in demonstrating the incredible usefulness of it in communication technology. I recommend you give all three programmes a look.

In the spirit of error analysis, am taking an experimentalist approach to my viva preparation. I am hoping that by arming myself with as much knowledge and revision as possible I will reduce my uncertainty. And I am keeping my eyes peeled for any unknown systematic errors.

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Things you should know when embarking on a PhD thesis

Saturday, September 3rd, 2011

I list here the wisdom I have gained on my thesis journey. I hope that it may reach a PhD student in their time of need and help them through. It is long though, so consider whether reading it counts as procrastination ;-)

1.       It is not as easy as you think. Try not to go into it as naive and carefree as I did. I used to think I liked writing about what I love…how wrong I was!

2.       The day you decide to start writing up will probably be about a year or so earlier than you actually start writing up (case in point). While you have analysis to do, you will always have a good reason not to be writing. Try to fight this as early on as you can (but be aware that as you learn, what you write will change).

3.       Microsoft Word is just not going to cut it – if you want to stay sane and have a bug free bibliography, learn to use LaTeX. OK, maybe this is overstating it a bit. I know that some people do write theirs in Word – it can be done – but seriously, this may well be the biggest document you write in your life, so if endnote/layout issues have been known to get on your nerves writing a three page report, just imagine how maddened you will be 100 pages in. LaTeX all the way.

4.       Paint is DEFINITELY not going to cut it – invest in a decent image editor like CorelDraw. You won’t regret it. Alternatively, get your graphics-savvy fiancé to buy it for you and teach you to use it. Thanks Mr Phil!

5.       Writing your title pages, subheadings, and bullet-points of what sections you will have is an instant page booster. It may seem like a bit of cheap procrastination, but it is advisable, as getting your structure together at the start will help as you fill in the gaps later. However, your progress curve over the week you decide to do this has no bearing on the speed with which your page count will rise in the thick of the writing-up.

6.       You won’t be able to write what you don’t remember. It may sound obvious, but read up before you start writing your introductory sections. Your understanding will have dramatically improved since the literature review you did in your first year, so read up and get it clear in your mind so you have a good place to start from.

7.       You will have entire days/weeks/months where your page count remains the same and you struggle over the phrasing of one or two sentences (and these sentences will probably be edited out later after all). Don’t monitor your progress by page count or you will find yourself giving up on the hard stuff in favour of putting in more bullet points and title pages.

8.       A “NOT READY” figure template is very useful for when you know what needs to go there but it’s not quite ready. Just don’t get too giddy boosting your page count with them, and don’t forget to check they are all gone at the end!

9.       The thesis is a personal battle. It’s not a race to pip anyone else to the post, and comparing yourself to others will put you off. Be moral support for each other, and have a mutual understanding that no-one asks the question, “How’s the thesis going?”

10.   It is not as difficult as you think. It genuinely can be a big psychological challenge. At some point during writing up you are going to look at your half-written thesis and begin to believe the whole thing is impossible. It’s not. “Keep calm and carry on”. Getting past this point, in my opinion, is a big part of what makes a person worthy of a PhD.

11.   Your house will get very clean. You will do all the ironing, take up gardening, complete the Professor Layton games, check your emails more than 20 times a day, bake frequently, find time to plan your wedding, start being interested in trash TV, consider writing a thesis diary (case in point) and read articles about how to write a thesis excessively (sound familiar?). Yet you will feel too guilty to procrastinate in beneficial ways such as cooking a proper meal, socialising, leaving the house, reading a good (non work related) book, straightening your hair or job-hunting. When you hit this low point, it’s time to ban procrastination and set yourself a routine with daily goals and regular SHORT breaks. I treated myself to Wii fit yoga mornings, delicious afternoon snacks, Desperate Housewives evenings and a few hours at the weekend to consider my career.

12.   Getting a job before you have written up makes writing up very difficult but not impossible. Just make sure you are completely honest with your potential employers, prioritise your time carefully and be prepared to say goodbye to your Desperate Housewives evenings.

13.   Your eating habits will deteriorate into force-feeding yourself with Haribo and crisps with one hand whilst typing with the other. You will lose weight and your eyesight will get worse. You will no longer have a sense of the time of day. You will start to lose your marbles and common sense, because you can’t be a thesis-genius and a normally-functioning human simultaneously. A colleague said to me once that there is a certain level of pallor that a person has to achieve before their supervisor will allow them to submit a thesis. I reached this level a few months early.

14.   Your analysis will never be “finished”. Fact. Draw the line somewhere and learn to let go.

15.   A sense of humour is important. In aid of this, here is a list of the most amusing spell-checker suggestions I had for physics words not found in the average LaTeX dictionary:

  • Glueballs=bluebells
  • Regge=Reggae
  • SUSY=sudsy
  • Kobayashi=Oafishly
  • Maskawa=Mascara
  • UHECRs=ushers
  • Dimuons=damsons
  • Pomeron=pompom
  • Froissart=Croissant
  • Pogoshyan=Pogonias

Don’t you secretly hope one of them has snuck in by mistake?

16.   Comments/feedback will be trivial, until a month before submission, at which point your thesis will suddenly need to be virtually rewritten. Never underestimate how blind you are to clumsy writing structure. Because it is your own work, it is so hard to tell if what you have written flows in an understandable way, without a fresh pair of eyes or seven. And other people won’t know what’s missing until reading a complete draft from start to finish, so it’s the big issues like structure, consistency or poor explanation that may only be spotted late in the day. So give your thesis to anyone who will read it and take on board what they say, leaving enough time to exact a complete overhaul if necessary. The worst editors are too attached to their early drafts, so just go with the flow of feedback and comments. Try not to be disheartened – when you have done it, you’ll start to really love your thesis, I promise.

17.   You will be born again during the “last push”. When you think you are about one week away from submitting, you will be filled with energy you haven’t had since undergraduate exam days, and will find yourself able to stay up working 24 hours straight. While you have motivation, use it!

18.   When you think you are one week away from submitting, you have at least a month of work left. If you are lucky like me you won’t run out of optimism and you’ll work your socks off for 30 days straight thinking each week is your last.

19.   You will have forgotten something. To try to combat this, spell check thoroughly. Search your final document for stars, red text or “insert me here” remarks. Look at every page individually. Check each reference, figure and table. Give yourself a few days before submitting to do this. And then try not to cry over the mistake you inevitably find days later.

20.   Don’t forget to write your abstract, author’s contribution and acknowledgements. These can be left to the end. However, don’t leave your conclusions to the end – it’s dangerous!

21.   Final word count excludes headings, tables, captions, contents, appendices, footnotes etc. Try this site for a quick way to get this final number.

22.   Submission is a total anticlimax. After waiting for printing and binding, filling out forms, queuing for ages with the precious thesis copies in hand, you start to build the anticipation as it becomes real. Your mind wanders, and you imagine fireworks going off, the admin staff handing out champagne to everyone in the room and people shaking your hand and congratulating you. You hand it over and the man behind the desk says, “Thanks. We’ll be in touch about viva dates. Next?” True, it’s not all over yet. However, it’s a brilliant achievement, so go out and have a cocktail or 3 to celebrate anyway.

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On se retrouve encore, enfin (we meet again at last)!

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011

Bonjour, QD readers. Nice to see you again!

Whilst many historic things have been happening in science this year (the touch-down of Atlantis marked the end of NASA’s space shuttle era, a type 1a supernova could be seen from my bedroom window with a pair of binoculars, scientists bade a sad farewell to the TeVatron, a plethora of physics came out of Quark Matter Annecy, and a general feeling like this erupted in the science community surrounding perplexing OPERA neutrino results, to name only a handful), I have been absent from the QD community throughout, busy being swept up in my own world of excitement. Forgive the length of this blog, as I try to summarise!

Visiting heavy ion facilities:

1. Working at GSI, in Darmstadt, Germany, on the “S394″ experiment to try and determine “symmetry energy”:

I spent a few months here on and off. The experiment uses various detectors to measure the “flow” of neutrons and protons coming out of high-density collisions of gold, ruthenium and zirconium ions (using beams from GSI’s ion accelerator fired onto targets). It’s a bit like squishing large nuclei together and then seeing how they expand, to try to understand how the neutrons behave differently to the protons. It is particularly relevant for understanding the behaviour of matter in neutron stars. I have said something about this already but I will save the details for a later blog, and my amateur video. Watch this space!

The ASYEOS S394 Experiment at GSI

2. Helping out on an experiment using the INDRA detector at GANIL (Grand Accélérateur National d’Ions Lourds), Caen, France:

This is where I am right now. GANIL is a seriously tranquil place. There are pretty gardens with rabbits and butterflies and apple trees everywhere, during what feels like the height of summer. You could almost expect a tellytubby to emerge from behind a bush. But at the heart of this green paradise lies an ion accelerator, feeding beams of heavy nuclei to a “fishbone” of target experiments. We are, in this analogy, at the chin of the fish, where INDRA (Identification des Noyaux et Détection à Résolution Accrue), a 4p detection array sitting inside a vacuum, is being used to measure collisions of tantalum with much smaller ions, like aluminium. The energy of the collisions is small enough that the two ions form an excited nucleus and then decay again, and INDRA measures the result.

GANIL: The accelerators and the "fishbone". INDRA is in D5 (the chin of the "fish" perhaps?)

Presenting on the ASYEOS S394 experiment at various conferences including:

1. IOP Nuclear Particle Physics Divisional conference in Glasgow:

This is one of the largest conferences of its kind, where all particle and nuclear physicists of all disciplines get together and celebrate their work. It was brilliant to see how much overlap there is between the fields – something I am learning now as a particle physics PhD student turned nuclear physics researcher.

2. The Gordon Conference of Nuclear Chemistry, Boston, MA:

My first trip to the US ever, to present a poster at one of the most prestigious conferences in the world…and I won the poster competition! The prize? To give a talk at the conference! What an honour. The food here was amazing too. Short animation maker Odd Todd was a guest speaker – if you are looking for someone to make your science into a funny bite-sized video for kids/the public, give him a look here.

3. IOP Rutherford Centennial Conference, Manchester:

Celebrating one hundred years of the atomic nucleus. As well as some wonderful historic talks (I love these), the conference featured so many aspects of current nuclear physics research, from the structure of nuclei to nuclear astrophysics to hadronic physics to quark gluon plasma. It was great to see so many familiar faces and famous scientists from so many different places gathering close to my home town. I was a quite disappointed when rioters embarrassed our country in front of them that week though.

Ernest Rutherford, the man who started it all

Joining Merseyside STEM and the Liverpool University Outreach group:

I have been involved with the “Physics is for Girls” and “Spectrum of Physics” events at the University and visited a school close to home in Birkenhead to talk to AS level students about my career. The more I work with kids the more I think that I would love to teach some day. Highlights of these activities included an insane pop quiz which proposed to possibility of diffracting a human being, and the brilliant performance of “Science is cool” by Sarah Annaud and Jennifer Bullock – playing with liquid nitrogen is so much fun and yet you can learn so much from it. Keep your eye out for the relaunch of the University of Liverpool’s physics outreach site for more information.

Planning a wedding:

Anyone know what this is? I found it in a field in Germany. Not quite a bluebell...

Most suppliers for our spring wedding are now booked. Planning a wedding is excellent light relief when you have many other things on your plate: It’s brought me closer to my mother, brought out my creative and list-making-organisey sides, and got me learning about girly things I neglected to think about before: I have been wildflower-spotting everywhere from Wales to Darmstadt, found my favourite classical piece of music (Elgar’s Salut d’Amour), and experimented with chocolate wedding cake making with my hubby to be. A small note to those of you who consider making a wedding cake at some point: your basic maths is going to come in very handy.

Sir Edward Elgar. Am I the only one seeing a resemblance to Rutherford, or is it just the 1900's moustache? ;-)

Submitting my thesis (oh yes!):

Finally, after a few false-starts, distractions, pauses and challenges; and countless hours with nothing but me, the laptop and a bag of Haribo; it’s in. Please take this important piece of advice: Entering full time employment before you have finished your thesis makes finishing your thesis very difficult indeed. This is the advice that my fiancé gave me a few years back, but that I failed to heed because the opportunity to work in heavy ions was too exciting to miss. However, just like him, I made it through eventually, thanks to a great amount of support from my bosses, my old supervisor and the UK ALICE group. I have my viva in a month. Writing a thesis is one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do, and looking back it is hard to pinpoint what exactly makes it so much worse than just writing a series of papers/reports. I think the magnitude of the task can have quite an impact on you psychologically, making it into more of a challenge than it actually is. In my next post I will try to write my attempt at a  thesis-writing guide – something I had originally hoped to do in a diary fashion as I went along. How foolishly optimistic I was back then…

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Intention to post…

Thursday, April 28th, 2011

Hey QDers…

So…I just spent most of my day and night coding for the ASYEOS experiment’s online monitoring. :-D ASYEOS is a group looking at the nuclear equation of state, and how it differs for neutrons and protons, particularly in high density environments, like when we smash metal nuclei together at about 400 MeV (using SIS at the GSI facility, Darmstadt, Germany). I haven’t posted in an age, because since my new job started I’ve been busy helping with preparations for our experiment out here in Germany (and briefly publicising it in Glasgow at the IOP’s nuclear and particle physics divisional conference). Things are pretty mad at the moment and the next month will be the busiest of them all, as our experiment runs.

Our cave, which has been closed for a few weeks for another experiment, opened again this morning, and as soon as the radiation-safety door light turned green, in flooded the many members of our group, who have traveled from America, Poland, Italy, UK…our various detectors are being installed and tested over the next few days and everyone has their hands full. This is going to be an incredible month of data-taking. I promise to post about it just as soon as its over (I have had my camera out and hope to make an amateur video diary of sorts)! I promised my fiance I’d make him something of a diary to get us through the time apart. He’s been great through it – I tell you something, it’s not easy planning a wedding from abroad, especially when you’re working 13 hour days, and he’s helped out a lot!

Anyway that was all. There have been some excellent posts on here recently. I can’t wait to update you all on what’s been going on at GSI. For now though, it’s bed time in Darmstadt. Sorry!

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Clever little creatures

Thursday, April 14th, 2011

Does anyone remember the sonoluminescent Pistol shrimp? I found out about these for the first time when visiting a lab in Kosice. One swift, loud click of their claws blasts the water so fast that it creates a 60 mph cavitation bubble, collapsing rapidly to generate a temperature of around 5,000 K and emitting a burst of light in the process. Scientists (including those in Kosice) are still studying sonoluminescence in the lab by producing stable cavitation bubbles, which oscillate on an acoustic standing wave, and measuring the tiny pulses of light emitted each time the bubble collapses. The exact process by which the light is produced is still in question! Temperatures of up to 20,000 K have been reached in these bubbles. It’s no cold fusion (it was originally thought the temperatures could reach that required for thermonuclear fusion…not quite!) and it’s not quite the trillions of degrees that are seen at ALICE at the LHC in lead collisions…but it’s still impressive!

Pistol Shrimp Killer Claw

Well, last night I was watching QI and found out about Mantis shrimp (not actually shrimp). These creatures are the boxing-ring equivalent of the Pistol shrimp, in that their left hook can deliver a whack with the acceleration of a 0.22 calibre bullet, creating a cavitation bubble on impact (which then collapses, giving the victim a second blow from the shock wave).

They also have arguably the most complicated eyes of any creature on the planet, with more photoreceptors than any other eyes.  They have hyperspectral vision – the ability to see from UV through visible to IR light all at once. They can distinguish between 100,000 different colours, 10 times more than a human eye can. Each eye can move independently on a strange alien-like stalk. And to top it all off, they are the only known animal to be able to see circularly polarised light, and can convert this into linearly polarised light and vice versa. Not only are they superior to other eyes in nature but they are giving current imaging technology a run for its money, and are inspiring new developments in cameras, CDs and DVDs and so on.

Mantis Shrimp

 

QI also enlightened me to the cleverness of the Venus Flytrap, using a technique that is crucial for particle physics – coincidence triggering. In order for the trap to close, two “signals” (stimulation of “trigger” hairs) must be seen within a time-frame of around 35 seconds. This time constraint increases the likelihood that the two stimulations came from the same source (hopefully something alive and juicy). This makes it more probable that the signal is coming from a lingering bug, rather than a falling bit of dirt or drop of water. What the plant is doing is “enhancing its sample” – selecting mostly on what is likely to be food, so that it is unlikely to waste most of its time with its jaws around a bit of sand while prey passes it by.

The “trigger” works in a very clever way – each stimulation produces an electrical signal of a certain amplitude. There is an internal threshold, above which a signal would cause the trap to close, but this single signal is not enough. The charge dissipates over time in such a way that if another signal is seen within 35 seconds, the threshold will be exceeded, but after that it won’t be enough.

Venus Flytrap - Coincidence triggering

 

The “trigger” is a crucial tool when looking for a needle in a haystack in science – if what you are looking for is rare, or if there is quite a lot of junk that you don’t want, then it helps to have some selections on what “events” to choose. This is because while your electronics is busy looking at an event, it isn’t generally able to look at any others, (although complex trigger systems like the one in ATLAS can hold onto multiple events while processing a decision on whether to keep them). You don’t want to be busy looking at something boring when what you really want comes along and you miss it. This is just like the Flytrap – it doesn’t want to waste time and energy with its mouth around something inedible, especially if it means possibly missing the opportunity for food.

The “coincidence” trigger – a trigger requiring two or more signals within a certain time period – is one of the most important kinds of trigger particle and nuclear physicists use in their experiments. Let’s take for example an experiment that uses accelerated beams of gold nuclei incident on a thin film of gold, where the objective is to identify events where two gold nuclei collided (this is what the ASYEOS experiment in May was doing!) Detectors surround the target and can measure particles that pass through them and deposit energy. How could one tell the difference between a gold-gold collision and, say, a cosmic event from space, or a noisy detector module? Using coincidence triggering, one can require that more than one detector saw a signal at the same time, or that, say, the near-side of the detector saw a signal and, very soon after, the far-side of it saw one in a similar longitudinal position. Of course, this means the timing of the detectors has to be synchronised, and this is affected by things like cable lengths as well as the positions and responses of the detectors.

Another notable part of QI, but one which made my head spin and my stomach churn, was the description of a Brazilian ant-zombifying fungus. Spores are released from the fungus and attach themselves to ants, find a way inside their bodies and then the fungus begins to grow. Chemicals released by it send the ant crazy and it wanders off, climbs a tree and clamps on desperately to vegetation perfect for the fungus to grow on, before dying. Here, the fungus can grow, living off the ant’s body and releasing spores again for the cycle to continue. How horrible. Apparently there is a whole family of mind-controlling fungi…I am amazed as to how this can work, and how something might have evolved to do this. On the off-chance anyone with some neurological or mycological expertise is reading this, I’d love to know more!

Poor crazy ant. *shudder*

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Alternative valentine’s day

Sunday, February 13th, 2011

I know it is a little late in the day, but I would like to wish readers a Happy Alternative Valentine’s day (intended for 13th Feb). My fiance and I had our romantic celebration early this year, to coincide with the weekend, as he is working away from home in the week so we will be apart tomorrow.

To explain, we almost never say “happy valentines”, because that would be boring. So without further delay…

Happy 378th anniversary of Galileo’s arrival in Rome to face an inquisition for heresy, based on his scientific support of Copernicus’ view of the solar system (WE revolve around the SUN, not the other way around). As I am sure many of you know, he went on to plead guilty (for a lighter sentence), and was placed under house arrest until his death. Let us never forget that religious authority once so disgustingly suppressed the pursuit of the humbling reality of science. It wasn’t the first or last time, but perhaps the most poignant. I think this is one of many parts of scientific history that serves as a reminder, not only of humanity’s incredible ability to imagine and comprehend a world outside our own existence, but of how huge and difficult a step that can be.

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“No fees, no cuts”: Students voice anger over plans to raise tuition fees

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

Today I am sitting at my desk listening to the persisting chants of Birmingham’s protesting students, who have taken over Aston Webb since early this morning and are now playing music and marching across campus. Over 40 of them have joined a sit-in which is planned to last 36 hours. There is a strong, determined, almost positive atmosphere. It is impossible to ignore.

"No fees, no cuts": Over 40 students joined the sit-in

"No fees, no cuts": Over 40 students joined the sit-in

The last time campus was this frenzied was the Prime Ministerial debate in April. Since then, much has changed. Despite Lib-Dem promises, the government now plans to raise tuition fees to up to £9000 per year. Public funding for many subject teaching budgets may be withdrawn. Protests against tuition fees and university cuts are being held across the UK today, including a rally in London’s Trafalgar Square. Over 20,000 students across the country pledged a “walk-out” from lectures at 11am.

Government cuts have left many departments reeling, and a “freeze” on science funding (which still means effective cuts) has left STFC funded research like particle and nuclear physics among the hardest hit (after the funding body’s own severe funding crisis). Raised tuition fees will discourage many talented individuals from studying physics, and a lack of jobs in the field may force many existing scientists away from the country. Staff and students alike are very concerned for the future.

Particle Physics PhD students working at CERN have today joined together in support of the protests and stood atop a Large Hadron Collider Dipole outside the CERN cafeteria in Switzerland, Geneva, with a simple message: “Education is not for sale”. In my opinion, it is fairly poignant, as CERN strongly supports the idea, “Knowledge should be free” (making its research freely available to the public).

UK PhD students at CERN voice their concern

UK PhD students at CERN voice their concern

The UK PhD students are based at CERN to conduct their research. “We held our own demonstration in solidarity today”, Eleanor Davies of Oxford University (shown middle right) said, “We feel that future students will be discouraged from going to university, particularly those hoping to study science and technology courses – these are some of the most expensive courses to run and it is likely the tuition fees will be the highest for them.”

Sara Mahmoud from Liverpool University (shown crouched bottom left) invited the students to join her on the dipole in protest, worried that her younger brother may not be able to afford a degree. She told me,

“I am appalled by the recommended cut on university teaching funding and I think the looming closure of whole departments is nothing short of barbaric.”

Jody Palmer of University of Birmingham (shown top left), agreed:

“All of us here today were lucky enough to obtain our degrees before top up fees were introduced, though many of us have large debts still to pay off. It’s short-sighted of the coalition to think increasing fees wont affect participation, whatever their clauses are. Science particularly requires top class graduates, and that means students from every walk of life. You have to find the best in ability, and without them, our long term prosperity is in jeopardy.”

Though today’s protests are not supported by NUS, they are planning a Lobby of Parliament, so if you are against raising tuition fees and cuts to education, please send your constituency details to here. Also, PLEASE write to your MP.

One final point: Protests that raged earlier this month became out of control, and the rally in London appears to be doing the same. I urge anyone taking part in protests today to keep it peaceful. Violent action does not speak for the majority and destroys our reputation and message.

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The Long Wait is Over: ALICE sees Lead Ion Collisions

Monday, November 8th, 2010
 

Collisions of Lead ions in the ALICE Detector's central barrel

Collisions of Lead ions in the ALICE Detector's central barrel

The moment the ALICE Collaboration have been waiting for has arrived. Today, the LHC announced that collisions of Lead ions are finally underway. We can at last begin studies on the curious quark gluon plasma, as our “mini-bang” factory recreates the extreme environment of the early universe in 10^-22 second microcosms. I cannot begin to describe the excitement it has generated in the community. We are thrilled.

The image above shows the tracks from one of the collisions propagating the detector, reconstructed using the High Level Trigger as the data was being taken. As you can see, the analysis challenge is much greater with Lead than with protons, if only for the density of tracks that need to be identified. It is here that the ALICE detector gets to shine – nearly 20 subsystems will work together to measure and unravel information from the events, so that we can know as much as possible about what is happening. This is what ALICE was built for.

My own journey with ALICE is drawing to a close, as my thesis nears completion and I prepare for the next stage in my life. However, for those that remain involved with ALICE, the story is just beginning. I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to play a small part in such an exciting piece of history. I look forward to reading the papers that will come from this unique data, and that could change the face of science, for years to come.

Keep your eyes on the ALICE website for more images and any further news.

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