March 24th is Ada Lovelace day.   For more information, see

Here is my Ada Lovelace post:
I really struggled to come up with a woman in technology to write about here.   I was never supervised by or with another female for the whole of my four-year physics degree from 1997-2001, although there were a few female lecturers.   To be fair to my college in Cambridge, my year was an exception and they were quite shocked (as I was) when I pointed it out just before I graduated.   I thought about it then because of the conversation I was having with one of my tutors, but it hadn’t occurred to me at any point along the way.   And it didn’t bother me.   I just studied, like everyone else.   And I did well.   It never crossed my mind, or the minds of any of us, that I should be treated differently.   And I think that this is very common among women of my age (I’m 30).   We have never experienced any direct sexism at all.   Maybe we’re approaching the more difficult stage now, after we have dealt a first firm blow to the gender stereotypes.   Soon we might be the ones needing flexible jobs so that we can take maternity leave and collect poorly kids from school to nurse them at home.   But hopefully, our partners will be sharing equally in things like that and so we won’t be seen as a drag on an organisation solely because of our gender.    But it is still true that we don’t have many females ahead of us in the system to look up to.

I don’t think about role models very much to start with, but when I tried to identify a female role model in the area of science and technology I drew almost a complete blank.   I know a few more senior female researchers, but they weren’t highlighted in my mind specifically as female role-models.     After thinking about it for a bit longer, I started to wonder what had happened to the other females who are my age that I’d worked with or known well along the way.   So I googled the ones I could think of, and they all seem to be doing fantastically well.   They’re still in science, and they are working in some great institutions and that’s inspiring to me.   All of us struggle at times, and mostly it’s not anything to do with gender – it’s things like job stress, dealing with uncertainty and the insecurities of being a postdoc, and men are struggling with the same things.   But still, you don’t want to be the only female scientist that you know.   And I really like the feeling of there being a group of us female scientists, all going forward together.  If something does come up that is more likely to bother a woman than a man, we have each other to talk to.    We are all scientists by nature, and the most important thing is that circumstances in life (be they social or cultural or practical) don’t stop us being who we are and doing our bit for society in the way we know best – as scientists and university teachers and technologists.

So the females in technology that I want to highlight are those who are in my own age group, the ones who are blazing their own path in academia even though no-one has given them a role-model to follow.   My friend Paula is now a senior research associate in Cambridge, doing amazing research into computational linguistics.   The first time I met Paula we were both 18 and it was our first day at university.   She told me that she wanted to be an astronaut and then was so grateful that I didn’t laugh at her (something that others had apparently done).    She changed her mind about what she wanted to be, but she found the path she wanted to take and is very enthusiastic about it.    Aldona and Debra were starting out as PhD students in the group I joined for six months at the University of Toronto.    They are both now postdoctoral researchers in atmospheric science, having won fellowships to fund themselves.    They were very aware of the issues surrounding being a woman in science, because we were all working for a female PI.   Out of a group of 11 people, 10 were female.   There was definitely a different group dynamic, but it worked.    And Laura, who I worked with at Los Alamos.   She had a young child running around, but it didn’t seem to hold her back.   And she was all about the science.

I can’t finish without a mention of a  technology role model that I didn’t have.   My mum is a role model for me in many ways, but science and technology was one of the areas that she never really got a chance at.  She’s good at maths, and she went to university in the late 60s to study physics.   But she was the only woman in the whole of the physics department, and the male environment got to her so much that she left.   She then worked as a computer programmer, but she was still very aware of the all-male environment  around her.    I remember her ranting when I was a kid about the pictures of naked women that were all over the office she worked in.   When she pointed out that she found them offensive, she was ignored.    I have a suspicion that she might have put some of those pictures in the shredder at some point.    Good for her.   After being a stay-at-home mum for me and my sister, she took up a career as a horticulturalist.   Eventually she worked out that in spite of all the qualifications she had in that field, she’d make more money temping.   And now she works in database management and general computer administration.    I think she still struggles a bit because no-one really thinks that a woman of her age (and she’s not old!) might be capable of running computer systems and programming competently.    So even though we are both in the workforce at the same time, she probably experiences more gender discrimination than me, even now.   But she sticks with it.    She knows what she’s good at.    Maybe that’s the sort of role model we all really need from time to time – someone to remind us that even though we can still complain about the way things are, in general the treatment of women in science is really improving very quickly.   And we all have to stick with it and do our best, and one day all this discrimination rubbish will just be a footnote in the history books.


Coffee is very important for grad students.

Circuits by Analogy

Some not so useful useful but cool sounding and true analogies I have used during my office hours while teaching undergrads about circuits:

Charging a capacitor is like falling out of an airplane.

“Charging” an inductor is like a bunch of uranium decaying.

A circuit with an inductor and a capacitor is like a pendulum.

A circuit with an inductor, capacitor, and resistor is like a pendulum in oil.

A circuit with an inductor, capacitor, resistor and AC power source is like pushing a kid on a swing.

Physics and the Earth

As I delve deeper into the context of the physics I’m doing at the moment, all I seem to find is more and more information about the really serious state that the oceans are in.   I’m not sure whether this is just because I automatically hear much more about it now that I work in this field, or because it’s finally getting the much-needed press and so this stuff is being found out in the public sphere more and more.

In one way, I’m lucky because at least the physics I do is contributing to knowledge of the way the earth’s systems work, and in that sense I feel that I’m at least doing something positive about this issue on a daily basis.   Bubbles are at a crucial place on the boundary of the ocean and atmosphere and better knowledge of how many there are and where they are can only improve our understanding of the exchanges between these two great reservoirs of air and water.    On the other hand, all this will have a benefit a long way in the future (it’ll probably be ten years before models that incorporate this sort of data are really being used regularly), it seems that there is less I can do on a daily basis.   I choose stuff in the shops that has travelled as short a distance as possible to get there, I limit travel by car as much as possible, I don’t buy stuff I don’t need (like silly plastic toys that are only going to get thrown away), and I try to be aware of the consequences of my choices in life as much as possible.   I truely believe that all of those are important things to do.   And many people could do more of them and I could do better – it’s all dependent on the availability of information and the availability of real options.

However, I also feel that as a scientist, there should be more I can do.   After all, I understand the issues better than most people, because it’s part of my job to do so.   I understand how science works and how the evidence leads to these conclusions.   I have spent time in the oceans, and I’ve seen some of the effects of environmental changes (and I can imagine more).   Maybe I need to have more patience, and I’ll see places to do something extra soon.   But I feel that one of the biggest motivations for really changing your life to at least stop the problems getting worse, if not to start to reverse the recent trends, is knowledge and understanding of what is happening.   Really understanding it, not just looking at a picture of an ice floe and thinking “well, that won’t be there in the Arctic in the summer in ten years time”.    People really need to understand what it is that has been done, and then very quickly get over most of the anger and sadness that this knowledge causes and move on to actual changes that can be made.   Many of them are personal and they start with better informed consumers and voters.

Some days, when physics is a hard thing to do, when there are tough deadlines and a lot of responsibility for creating my own projects and direction, and when I’m floundering in new understanding of something, I wonder why I do what I do.     And then I realise that I’m one of the few people that really has a unique role here, to communicate what is happening from direct scientific knowledge and to convince people that these changes to their outlook and lifestyles really are important, and that they do make a difference.   There needs to be a connection between the scientific facts and the individuals whose actions have caused those facts.   And that divide should be bridged by a scientist.  Maybe people don’t really think about physicists as being those who are working in this area, but there is as much physics in all this as biology and ecology and chemistry.   I think that all scientists should do what they can here.   Just understanding how science works is something that you can try to share with other people, which may help them digest the information about the environment in the news.

If you’re interested, a great place to start informing yourself about ocean-related issues is the Shifting Baselines project and also the blog below:

And number one thing (in my opinion) on the list of “things that you could change but you probably don’t really know about” is to think very hard about any fish you may eat.   Overfishing is causing tremendous damage to the ocean, not just because of the removal of fish but because of the massive habitat destruction that dredging causes.   There are some fish that are still sustainably harvested, and try to find that out.   In the UK, I’m not sure about the best sources, but the Monterrey Bay Aquarium has  a great website with recommended alternatives to some of the fish that are found in the US:

I think that physicists really have a role to play here…   I took a course called “Systems” in the third year of my undergraduate degree, and the much of same thinking really applies to environmental phenomena.     We may feel that because our academic work doesn’t relate directly to environmental stuff, we are not in a position to talk about it.   But sharing our understanding of science itself is really invaluable.

Instant Anger Relief

No physics today, just the incredibly adorable and surprisingly watchable puppycam

Instant stress/anger relief.

Compactification in String Theory Part I: Motivation

A new attempt to reinvigorate the blog!

Yes, I am aware that I already have two physics related threads that have started and ended at “Part I” (false vacua and string theory). However, I’m really motivated by the introductory explanations. I promise to come back and finish the other ones real soon. But for a while, I’d like to talk about compactification.

A word about the word…I’ve had at least two scientist friends laugh when I’ve said “compactification”. Also, the text editor I’m typing this in thinks its a misspelling. Apparently in all other science fields, the correct word for taking big things and making them small is “compaction”. 

Well, we string theorists are just a little bit cooler then you “real scientists.”  We’re not taking some obsidian and making it smaller (like my roommate, the geologist, and one of the laughers), we’re making goddamned extra dimensions smaller. You read right, the extra dimensions.

For casual, non-specialist readers (if there are any left) the first few posts will be an introduction–an attempt to explain WHY we need to “make the dimensions smaller,” what that means, and why its so hard. I hope to follow up much later with more technical issues and a few comments of my own very small research in this subject. At the very least, you will be able to read pretentious, unfunny Woody Allen short stories and chuckle with smugness.

Ok, so let’s get on with it.

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What is String Theory Good For (Part I)?

This is, I guess, my foray into the bloggy string wars (or the stringy blog wars?). But not really. I just want to give you some of my brief perspectives on why string theory is kind of a big deal. This will possibly precipitate screaming and gnashing of teeth in the comments section, but whatever. It is not my intention to get into some sort of flamewar (or whatever the kids are calling it nowadays) so I probably won’t respond to any comments.

A short list of what you might think string theory is good for.

1. Nothing–unlike a lot of my colleagues, I think this is a perfectly reasonable perspective. In fact, if you had this perspective about all of particle physics, I think it also would be perfectly reasonable. In short, what we do benefits absolutely nobody. We should all probably be using our brains to search for a cancer cure.

However, I find to stomach arguments that other completely useless things–like calculating the QCD beta function to n loops, or calculating the homotopy groups of spheres is somehow more worthy. Usefulness is not why most people engage in many areas of math and physics. 

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I was told on friday that Sidney Coleman’s famous Quantum Field Theory course was actually videotaped in the 70’s and now exists online, and it’s true ! It’s kind of awesome, but also a little bit depressing, like when someone gives you the most recent season of the Wire on DVD–you know you have to now devote a huge amount of time to it (75 hours of QFT!). I just watched the first lecture, and the man is compelling, even when talking about sign conventions! The video doesn’t pick up the board real well (I remember a while back, there were some written circulating notes from this course, does anybody know where I can get them?). I haven’t felt so learned in black in white since that one summer when I stumbled upon the oddly magnetic Bishop Fulton J. Sheen on public television (for the good bishop on the subject of temptation, see here . I love his blackboard work!). A few comments about the Coleman videos:

1. Man, the 70’s looked like they sucked. Glad I didn’t live through them.

2. Sidney Coleman is a nerd’s nerd right from his Wallace Shawn voice to Urkel-esque laugh.

3. He’s also kind of a badass. Throughout this first class, I think he must smoke about twenty cigarettes. He also gets obvious glee from twisting his moustache at several points. And there’s nothing not awesome about that.


LHC Fever! (And more bad science journalism)

The LHC has turned on! W00t! Last night a few of us had an LHC “party” where we stayed up until 3 am to watch the webcast of the machine turning on. Of course, the webcast didn’t work, and we all just went home and today I’ve been exhausted and gotten no work done. 

I’ve been impressed by the media coverage of the LHC; with a few exceptions. Once again James Owen Weatherall has graced the pages of Slate with his dubious writings on particle physics. His articles continue to baffle me. In his  most recent one,  the main points seem to be:

1. The discovery of the Higgs is bad for particle physics because then the standard model would be complete, and there would be nothing else.

This was the subject of his first article which came out last year here, and which I tried to refute  here. Let’s reiterate: no. Everyone (at least, everyone who knows what they’re talking about) expects some new TeV physics besides the Higgs. There are all sorts of indications that this should be the case, from cosmological constraints on dark matter, to suggestions from the hierarchy problem.

2. Even so, there’s no reason to expect us to find the Higgs. Glashow, Weinberg and Salam included it as the simplest way to induce electroweak symmetry breaking (ok, he doesn’t quite put it this way), but there are many other possibilities. 

Well, sort of. There are many other ways of inducing electroweak symmetry breaking (a higgs sector, little higgs, technicolor, etc), but my understanding is that precision electroweak constraints can rule out a lot of these models (for example, I think technicolor is mostly considered ruled out), and that plain old vanilla Higgs still looks like the best bet. Anyway, it doesn’t matter, it’s not really the point. When physicist say the “Higgs” what they really mean is “the Higgs, or something very much like it” (a higgs sector, little higgs, technicolor, etc, i.e. a particle or particles responsible for electroweak symmetry breaking). 

Again, Mr. Weatherall might have cleared up his numerous misunderstandings had he talked to any actual physicists (Glashow, Weinberg, Salam, Higgs seem like good possibilities, since he’s talking about them all over the article). In what sense is this man qualified to write articles about particle physics?!

I leave you with an  article  about what some actual physicists think the LHC will find.

A wave is more than its equation

When I first started at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography a year ago, I was a complete novice when it came to ocean-related activities.   California thrives on these things and I stuck out as a rather puzzled (and pale) foreigner from an industrial town in the north of England.   “We don’t ‘av sea up thur, lad.   In’t that where them fish down at chip shop come from?”     So I thought I’d at least better learn to surf, so as not to look quite so out of place.

I went to some classes organised by the university.   I did all right, considering that I had never actually seen anyone surfing in real life and so I genuinely had no idea what I was supposed to be doing.   It’s amazing how hard it is for a proper Californian to understand that concept.  ” No, I really don’t know… where does catching a wave actually happen and how do I make it happen?”    I did enjoy it as well, except for the class with really high surf when I swallowed more ocean than anyone could possibly have intended and consequently felt like vomiting for most of the last 20 minutes.     I didn’t give up though and I did learn to surf.

Mostly, I learned that surfing is an amazing example of physics in action.   You have all these wavepackets coming along, steepening as it gets shallower and all travelling at a speed which depends on their wavelength.   You see waves interfering and you see when the waves start to become non-linear as the assumptions of the simple wave equation break down.   And you are in the middle of this, frequently (at least in my case) upside-down a metre or so beneath the breaking wave crest, experiencing turbulence in a very personal way.   I thought back then of writing a piece for a physics magazine at home about how all 1st year undergraduate students should be taken off to a beach and taught to surf, so that they could experience wave physics first-hand, and appreciate what all the equations really mean in practice.

And now I discover from the video below, that someone actually teaches this class at Scripps and I never knew.   Good for them, but boo hiss that I didn’t find out until now.    I really think that this sort of class should be offered to all physics undergrads, so that they don’t forget that it all connects to the real world.    I wish that I’d known – I’d have asked for a copy of the course material so that I could see how it was presented.   I’m going to push for things like this to be more common when I get back to the UK.   I admit that surfing in the UK might not seem as attractive, and indeed might put off those fainter of heart, but so what?

Go forth, physicists of the world, and surf…

it seems that embedded video won’t work on this site so here’s the link: