Monday, December 25, 2006

Tuesday, November 28, 2006


I just got an electric shock! Usually its only 100V in Japan, but I managed to pick the special 200V three-phase outlet.

I'm OK though, apart from the strange new ability to see through clothes.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Friday, October 20, 2006

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Stop creationist propaganda in our schools!

That this House shares the concerns of the British Centre for Science Education that the literature being sent to every school in the United Kingdom by the creationist religious group Truth in Science is full of scientific mistakes and fails to disclose the group's creationist beliefs and objectives; and urges all schools to treat this literature with extreme caution.

Please write to your MP to encourage support!

[Via Pharyngula.]

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Friday, September 29, 2006

Seven Year Itch

At the end of September 1999, almost exactly seven years ago, I left the shores of Great Britain for Geneva, Switzerland. To start a PhD at a university I had barely heard of, in a city whose image produced two polarised reactions, either extremely dull, or thrillingly international. I left behind a family that had given me the courage, or foolhardiness, and sense of adventure to set off on my own like that, a university that had filled my head with facts, instilled a boundless yet not entirely solidly founded sense of self-confidence, but never properly taught me how to actually do anything, or even really how to live.

While I've been away I've missed out on most of the New Labour government, Big Brother, Ken Livingstone, Pubs finally being allowed to open late, Chav culture, the new Berliner Guardian, and tuition fees (only just - jammy bastard that I am). I've a feeling that Britain has changed almost as much as have, i.e. a lot, and also not so much. Of course these days what with the internets and all, it's pretty easy to keep up to date with things. I still wonder how much of a culture shock it will be when I finally come back "home" (that is still my plan, though slightly postponed for administrative reasons. Will I like it? Will I want to stay? Can I still go skiing regularly? Will I keep talking to everyone like they are a child?

I had written a paragraph about being a scientist here, but it was a bit predictable and I just lost it by foolishly pressing the back button. Anyway, I've been doing this science malarky for nigh-on 11 whole years full time, and I still love it and couldn't imagine doing anything else. That may just say something about my lack of imagination, but my grasp on reality is sometimes somewhat weaker than my imagination is, so I think I made the right career choice. Whether I ever discover anything worthwhile is another matter, but so long as I train then follow my instincts I can at least try to follow in the steps of the great scientists of the past. There can't be nothing worthwhile left to find out after all.

I'm writing this while my experiment slowly warms up (its now at 1.5 K), and it might soon be ready to let me go home and do its thing all by itself. This computer logging the data has been causing us no end of trouble, but we finally figured out that propping it up so there is a space underneath (its a laptop) and directing a fan to circulate air round it seems to stop it from crashing (fingers crossed).

Anyway here are a few of the highlights of the last seven years (update: this is mostly for my own sake, its getting pretty long):
  • My first day at work being the start of a two-day outing to the Great St. Bernard Pass in the swiss Alps.
  • Finding a beautiful wooden-floored spacious apartment in Geneva for a very reasonable rent.
  • Working with one of the most talented people I've ever met.
  • Spending ten days on lake Como at an Enrico Fermi summer school here.
  • Learning how to do experimental physics well.
  • Skiing.
  • More skiing.
  • Helping run the international students' association and helping a lot of newly arrived foreign students feel welcome and to make friends.
  • Getting lessons (for free!) from one of the best oboe teachers I could ever imagine.
  • Playing first oboe in the huge and grand Victoria hall in Geneva with a great wind orchestra.
  • Playing ultimate frisbee against teams from all over Europe.
  • Loving and losing (but surviving all the better for it).
  • Going to Japan for the first time in 2003, eating spectacularly well, and producing a paper which may well be the highlight of my career (downhill from there!).
  • At a conference in Bordeaux, drinking three bottles of wine between five of us, as recommended by my very oenologically knowledgeable colleague, each worth around fifty euros.
  • Getting a PhD! This is way more fun than the UK version, you get to give a public talk, your grandparents are there sitting behind the jury ready to give them the evil eye if they ask too difficult questions, and then a huge party afterwards.
  • Deciding it wasn't time to go back the UK yet, and getting a prestigious fellowship to Japan.
  • Getting a new type of measurement working in my new lab in Japan. It was really tricky and took ages, but I got it to work even better than in my old lab!
  • Winning the 2005 Tajima ultimate frisbee competiton.
  • Being invited to speak at a big international conference, and using Roobarb and Custard-style animation to describe my handwavy arguments. Not being laughed off stage.
  • Being asked to go and work at a Very Well Known British University. Now if only they'd find some money to pay me!
  • and lots more...

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Institutions Hinder Female Academics, Panel Says

NY Times
Women in science and engineering are hindered not by lack of ability but by bias and “outmoded institutional structures” in academia, an expert panel reported today.

Full report here.

I went to a session on women in physics at a recent conference (attendees: 1900, of which 99 were women). It was very interesting and there was a lot of passionate discussion, much more so than in any of the talks about quantum phase transitions, funnily enough.

I do think this is an important topic, both for the sake of the field of physics missing out on otherwise productive and talented people, and for those women who feel unable to continue in what is a very rewarding and stimulating profession. It does seem though, that things will not improve on their own, and a concerted effort is needed to change the situation. On the other hand, the steps needed (from concrete things to do with childcare, to general changes of attitude), should benefit the quality of life of everyone, male or female.


More discussion chez BitchPhD.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Friday, August 04, 2006

Climbing Mount Nishi-Hotaka

Click for more photos (n.b. they are in reverse order)

Friday, July 21, 2006

94 cows - 24 hours

What a guy:
I'm proud to have someone like that among my friends of friends network.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Tajima Ultimate

(Click for more photos)

Sorry for lack of updates, some coming soon, but click on this for photos of this weekend's frisbee competition. We came third in the end, not quite as good as last year.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

True Crime Stories

I have an exciting anecdote for you that might possibly help make up for my lack of posting recently (for those who haven't heard it already).

Japan is probably one of the safest countries in the world, at least when it comes to being a victim of crime, let's forget about the earthquakes, typhoons, and dodgy blowfish dinners. You can leave your door unlocked and swan off on holiday, and the worst thing to happen would probably be your tatami going mouldy.

So it was all the more shocking when I witnessed a breathtakingly audacious piece of daylight thievery in Osaka.

It was the week before the big ultimate frisbee competition (see above), and the team were having our final practice, in the rain, devoted sportspersons that we are (bet you'd never expect me to say that! In fact it was still quite warm). We had a few ringers on the team, including a chap called Neil, a self-confessed frisbee fanatic who had come all the way from Okayama, nearly 200 km away, to play with us (at this point we still thought we might be in with a chance of winning again, so we could pull in the talent).

We practise on some baseball grounds by the side of a big river, and there are numerous train and road bridges crossing the fields (hence the origin of our team's name - Kinki Trolls (the region around Osaka is called Kinki, and we play under a bridge! And we're all butt ugly of course). Since it was raining we left our bags under one such bridge, a stone's throw away from where we were playing. There are bunch of homeless people who live there, seemingly for the long term, judging from how well constructed their shelters look. They seem to be generally harmless and they clearly aren't out to cause trouble for the people who play in the sports field around them, or they'd probably be moved on.

Everyone was getting rather tired after a few hours running around, when suddenly someone spots this chap over by our bags. He shouts after him and the guy picked up one of the bags, got on his bike, and sped off, with my teammate's best japanese curses and swearwords ringing in his ears. Apparently he had been hanging around for a while watching us, and picked his moment when we were all distracted to make his move.

Neil, whose bag it was, sped off in pursuit along with another couple of people. One of the old homeless guys offered use of his bike, which was a rickety old bone-rattler, and not really up to the job. It did however permit the rider of said bike to flag down a guy with a motorbike who was riding round on the dirt tracks by the river, tell him to pick up Neil and give chase.

Meanwhile back at the field, we called the police, and a policeman arrived just as the others arrived back empty handed. The policeman explained that sometimes bags get stolen, rifled through for cash, then thrown in the river. Neil was distraught. As well as a a fair bit of money, credit card, MP3 player, digital camera, gaijin card etc., it contained an item of inestimable value. A book bearing the mark of each and every one of the 88 temples that together form the pilgrimage around the island of Shikoku. It was the first time he had taken it away from home since the trip itself!

So we walked back slowly towards the nearest police box to make a written report, and as we did so came across another police car, the occupants of which didn’t have a clue about what had happened. However they had been spotted by a park attendant, who was bringing with him a bag he had found in the bushes! Apparently the thieving scoundrel had veered off the main path, which was why nobody caught him, looked through the wallet, and taken only ¥20,000 in notes leaving everything else behind, including the small change! The cards, electronics, and most importantly the book of temple stamps was still there! Phew. We went to a very good ramen restaurant nearby to recover.  It was all over in not much more that an hour.

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