Albert Einstein (Nobel) The stereotype of the academic scientist is often an Einstein-like figure. A solitary genius with frizzy white hair wrestling with the secrets of the universe. Reality is a bit different. Most of the actual research in universities is done by PhD students and postdocs (people who have just done PhDs), and also by final year undergraduate students. And these students and postdocs often work in groups or teams. Continue reading »

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During a meeting with Jim Al-Khalili and our project student, Spencer (Jim mentions our project here) we talked about the appropriate length units with which to discuss different physical objects.  When talking about things of human dimensions, metres are sensible units, but when talking about distances between stars, light years are more reasonable, as we can discuss the numbers while sticking to values somewhere vaguely near one unit – i.e. one metre or one light year.

There’s a convention with the normal scheme of units that there are base units; metres, seconds etcetera, and then prefixes, like mega-, nano-, kilo- and so on.  The convention about these prefixes is that they appear every three orders of magnitude, so every factor of 1,000.  That means we use kilo (1,000) then mega (1,000 times 1,000) then giga (1,000 times 1,000 times 1,000) up and up to the highest defined prefix, and likewise down in thousandths to go to tiny units.

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Saturn SA5 launchOccasionally I say to a student, that’s “not rocket science”. This is probably annoying, and I should stop it. I am trying to say: “Don’t worry, it is easy, you can do it”, but I am not sure I am succeeding.

The expression implies that rocket science is hard. I am not sure this is true. Rocket trajectories in space are simply classical mechanics and are straightforward to calculate. It also begs the question: What if you are a rocket scientist and want to describe something as easy? You can’t say: “That’s not rocket science”, because it is rocket science.

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Chocolate ice creamI am reading, and enjoying, “The Big Short:  Inside the Doomsday Machine“, Michael Lewis’ book on the 2008 financial crash. Judging from the book, the main reasons for the crash were human factors, basically people were placing multi-billion dollar bets they didn’t understand. They assumed the bets were virtually risk free. This was a mistake. One reason they underestimated the risk was that they neglected correlations. Correlations are important in the both bond markets and in physics. In physics for example, we know that nearby electrons are correlated, as they repel each other. Continue reading »

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Hello!  A slightly belated welcome from me to the Surrey Physics blog.  I’m one of the regular contributors, along with Jim Al-Khalili, Richard Sear and Clare Harvey.  I thought I’d kick off by introducing myself and some of what I do in the Physics Department at the University of Surrey.

Now, as it happens, it’s the first day of the second semester, which means that the final year undergraduate projects are starting.   What better way, then, to summarise myself than by talking about the different projects I have running this semester.

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ChocolateI am writing a review on crystallisation, i.e., on how crystals like salt, ice, etc, form. So I am reading lots of scientific papers on crystallisation. A lot of them are very technical but I came across one on chocolate. From this I learnt that there are six forms of chocolate, of which the tastiest is number five and the white bloom that sometimes forms on chocolate is number six. Continue reading »

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On and off, I guess I have been seriously fretting about the meaning of quantum mechanics, the powerful and hugely successful theory of the subatomic world, for over a quarter of a century. Now you might be thinking I am just a bit slow on the uptake – surely by now, as a practising theoretical physicist, I should feel comfortable about the mathematical formulation developed in the 1920s and which explains so beautifully how the building blocks of our universe fit together. After all, it underlies much of modern physics, chemistry and, increasingly likely according to the latest research, biology too. And trust me, we cover loads of quantum material in our undergraduate degree at Surrey. Continue reading »

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