Category Archives: Physics


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.

IceCube Construction Featured on National Geographic Channel

According to my Librarian, The National Geographic Channel will be re-airing a show on man made marvels tomorrow and next Thursday on antarctic construction, with a partial highlight of the IceCube Experiment.  IceCube is a cubic kilometer of arctic ice laden with photomultipliers, and a surface array to detect air showers.   The PMT’s pick up Cherenkov light from fast moving charged particles (mostly muons), which come from cosmic rays and neutrino collisions with the water molecules.  Once completed, you can think of IceCube as being, among other things, a giant cubic telescope that views the universe with neutrinos instead of light.  It also contains an earlier detector called AMANDA, which is shown here as the yellow cylinder.  Photo comes from

Download Hermann Weyl’s 1919 Book For Free

If you speak German, and like science history, you can download Weyl’s 1919 Zeit, Raum, Materie book in PDF for free from The Internet Archive. I wanted a sort of journalistic, “this is how it went down” kind of book, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. There’s some nice first person stuff in the forward, and some nice philisophical musing at the end, but mostly is seems textbook stylie. I just skimmed it a bit, so maybe the gems are buried deeper.

If anyone can find anything on his early attempt at gauge invariant therory of unified electronmagnetism and gravity, I’d be grateful to hear from you.

You can also check out a collection of original papers on Relativity from before 1920, too. These are all translated into english.

The end of the affair….

I’m part of a collaboration that built and operated a particle detector at a collider which finished taking data in July of last year. I wasn’t here to build it by a long shot, but I did run and repair part of it during last two years of data taking. Now I’m only analysing data for my thesis, not doing any hardware work anymore, and I’m finding its a mixed blessing. Continue reading

Generalized PDFs Imply a Gravitomagnetic Moment!?!?!?

Today I’m writing conference proceedings, which are boring me to write, so they will probably be inhumanely boring to read, and lethally boring to publish. I may try to write them so the first letters spell out a hidden message, just to stay focused.

Part of the way I’m constructively procrastinating is skimming a review paper on Generalized Parton Distributions. They’re a pretty cool idea. So QCD can’t be perturbatively calculated at arbitrarily soft scales, so nobody knows how to directly calculate from first principles whats happening inside of hadrons. The lattice folk are making progress here, but that technique takes a lot of power, so those calculations can’t easily get incorporated into general calculations.   You can parametrize what’s happening in a hadron, measure it, and the factorization theorem tells you your resulting functions are universal, modulo an evolution of the factorization scale. So we can measure parton distributions functions here at HERA, and then you can roll them up to the LHC/TeVatron scales or down to a fixed target, and everyone agrees on what these functions are and do. If you are operating at first order, the vanilla type of PDFs naively tell you what the probability of finding a quark or gluon of a certain type and certain longitudinal momentum is. At higher orders the interpretation isn’t so clear, but they still return a real scalar. There’s no interference, no helicity, no transverse momentum. You can tack on spin or other stuff, but its always a bit of a blunt object.  How the proton gets its spin out of the quark-gluon shimmy is still a big mystery, so theorists have been experimenting with difference ways to combine PDFs and form factors, to include interference terms, and understand all components of nulceon spin. The situation is stabilizing a bit, and this paper seems to imply that the parameterization they describe is widely used.

I got a bit shocked by the following couple of lines:

…according to an extension of the equivalence principle of general relativity to describe the interaction of the nucleon with the external gravitational field one arrives to the interpretation of B(0) as an anomalous gravitomagnetic moment being the analog of the anomalous magnetic moment [47]. There is also evidence supporting the conjecture that the equivalence principle is valid separately for quarks and gluons resulting in exact equipartition of momenta and angular momenta in the nucleon. The most precise numerical support comes from lattice calculations [48].

AH!  What!!?!?!  Who said anything about gravity!?!?!  But it’s not really what it looked like at first glance.  B(0) is zero, btw, so whatever you want to call it is moot, but the cool thing is that [47] paper, where the author sees a relationship similar to the equivalence principle, and this cancels out that B(0) thing at all orders.  I can’t do GR, so I can’t comment on the validity of the approach, but its a cool idea…..

Physics Envy on a Cold Day

I read a post by a biologist philosopher about how supposedly physicists are undertaking “stamp collecting.” And I’m fairly annoyed that they missed the entire point. They read this article on attempted classification of string vaccua, and likens this attempt to taxonomy in biology, in their eyes lowering physics to a descriptive science. This whole flame war started with Rutherford claiming “In science there is only physics. All the rest is stamp collecting.” Let me liberally translate to clarify: “In science the only quantitatively predictive field is Physics, and everything else is descriptive.” This certainly was true in Rutherford’s time, but discovery of atomic structure elevated Chemistry to predictive, and the discovery of DNA elevated biology. Now we’re all buddy-buddy. In real science, 99% of the time you first gather data, then classify, then build models, and then you have a quantitative principle to make predictions. This went faster with physics because we deal with much more homogeneous systems. An old friend and ex-ZEUS student I know is now writing Monte Carlo simulations for Neuro Bio. That aint taxonomy. Heck, even economists have real models these days, and their particles have agency.

The big missed point is the following: String Theory isn’t predictive, or descriptive, yet. It has never made better than tenuous qualitative connection with reality, and I wouldn’t bet any money that it will improve soon. Why? Because its history is all bass-ackwards. It may have started from meson spectroscopy and QCD flux tubes in the late 60’s, but then everyone thought they smelled gravity and got the great idea to start from a unprobeable scale and grope their way back down to experimentally plausible energies. In string theory you first assume an underlying principle, then build a phenomenological model, then gather data. This isn’t to say its totally unmotivated, but it does incur a large investment risk.

The authors whole point is that stamp-collecting is a type of science, and shouldn’t be looked down on. This is half true. It is necessary for developing falsifiable theories, but should not be considered a form of science in itself. People can gather data, and arrange it in clever ways, but without predictions and basic principles, There’s very little objectivity, or application.

So biology in Rutherford’s time was like stamp collecting, but all those stamps they collected were issued from a genuine authority. Woit claims the String Vaccua Project “…is stamp-collecting done by people who don’t have any stamps, just some very speculative ideas about what stamps might look like.” He breakdown of the string vaccua project on his blog, if you want to read more. He also comments on the original biologist’s philosopher’s post.

Edit: Dr. John S. Wilkins, the author of said blog, is a postdoctoral research fellow of philosophy, not biology, as originally stated.


You know, I love my work, but there are days I wish I did physics with cooler demo-potential.