Archive for Scotland

The 2016 Nobel Prize for Physics goes to David Thouless, Duncan Haldane and Michael Kosterlitz

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on October 4, 2016 by telescoper

Well, as I suspected, the Nobel Prize Committee for Physics played with a very straight bat and did not award this years Prize to gravitational waves. I thought there was a reasonable chance they might bend the rules, and the polling was very even , so clearly some people thought so too. Anyway, I don’t think any bookmakers will be taking bets on next year!

Anyway, none of this should detract at all from the winner. Half this year’s prize was awarded to David J. Thouless (University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA)  and the other half to F. Duncan M. Haldane (Princeton University, NJ, USA) and J. Michael Kosterlitz
(Brown University, Providence, RI, USA)

”for theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter”

Although they now live and work in the USA, all three of the winners were born in the United Kingdom (two of them, Kosterlitz and Thouless, in Scotland); Haldane retains British nationality, Kosterlitz is now an American citizen and Thouless has joint US/UK nationality.

And here’s the text of the citation:

This year’s Laureates opened the door on an unknown world where matter can assume strange states. They have used advanced mathematical methods to study unusual phases, or states, of matter, such as superconductors, superfluids or thin magnetic films. Thanks to their pioneering work, the hunt is now on for new and exotic phases of matter. Many people are hopeful of future applications in both materials science and electronics.

The three Laureates’ use of topological concepts in physics was decisive for their discoveries. Topology is a branch of mathematics that describes properties that only change step-wise. Using topology as a tool, they were able to astound the experts. In the early 1970s, Michael Kosterlitz and David Thouless overturned the then current theory that superconductivity or suprafluidity could not occur in thin layers. They demonstrated that superconductivity could occur at low temperatures and also explained the mechanism, phase transition, that makes superconductivity disappear at higher temperatures.

In the 1980s, Thouless was able to explain a previous experiment with very thin electrically conducting layers in which conductance was precisely measured as integer steps. He showed that these integers were topological in their nature. At around the same time, Duncan Haldane discovered how topological concepts can be used to understand the properties of chains of small magnets found in some materials.

We now know of many topological phases, not only in thin layers and threads, but also in ordinary three-dimensional materials. Over the last decade, this area has boosted frontline research in condensed matter physics, not least because of the hope that topological materials could be used in new generations of electronics and superconductors, or in future quantum computers. Current research is revealing the secrets of matter in the exotic worlds discovered by this year’s Nobel Laureates.

It’s not my field, but I send my heartiest congratulations to Professors Thouless, Haldane and Kosterlitz. Enjoy your trip to Stockholm – it’s lovely in December!

Note that the Thomson-Reuters Nobel Prize “predictor”“, which is not often right, was wrong again!

 

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Scotland Small?

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , on September 18, 2014 by telescoper

Scotland small? Our multiform, our infinite Scotland _small_?
Only as a patch of hillside may be a cliche corner
To a fool who cries “Nothing but heather!” Where in September another
Sitting there and resting and gazing around
Sees not only heather but blaeberries
With bright green leaves and leaves already turned scarlet,
Hiding ripe blue berries; and amongst the sage-green leaves
Of the bog-myrtle the golden flowers of the tormentil shining;
And on the small bare places, where the little Blackface sheep
Found grazing, milkworts blue as summer skies;
And down in neglected peat-hags, not worked
In living memory, sphagnum moss in pastel shades
Of yellow, green and pink; sundew and butterwort
And nodding harebells vying in their colour
With the blue butterflies that poise themselves delicately upon them,
And stunted rowans with harsh dry leaves of glorious colour
“Nothing but heather!” — How marvellously descriptive! And incomplete!

 

by Hugh McDiarmid (1892-1978)

Scotland Should Decide…

Posted in Bad Statistics, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 9, 2014 by telescoper

There being less than two weeks to go before the forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence, a subject on which I have so far refrained from commenting, I thought I would write something on it from the point of view of an English academic. I was finally persuaded to take the plunge because of incoming traffic to this blog from  pro-independence pieces here and here and a piece in Nature News on similar matters.

I’ll say at the outset that this is an issue for the Scots themselves to decide. I’m a believer in democracy and think that the wishes of the Scottish people as expressed through a referendum should be respected. I’m not qualified to express an opinion on the wider financial and political implications so I’ll just comment on the implications for science research, which is directly relevant to at least some of the readers of this blog. What would happen to UK research if Scotland were to vote yes?

Before going on I’ll just point out that the latest opinion poll by Yougov puts the “Yes” (i.e. pro-independence) vote ahead of “No” at 51%-49%. As the sample size for this survey was only just over a thousand, it has a margin of error of ±3%. On that basis I’d call the race neck-and-neck to within the resolution of the survey statistics. It does annoy me that pollsters never bother to state their margin of error in press released. Nevertheless, the current picture is a lot closer than it looked just a month ago, which is interesting in itself, as it is not clear to me as an outsider why it has changed so dramatically and so quickly.

Anyway, according to a Guardian piece not long ago.

Scientists and academics in Scotland would lose access to billions of pounds in grants and the UK’s world-leading research programmes if it became independent, the Westminster government has warned.

David Willetts, the UK science minister, said Scottish universities were “thriving” because of the UK’s generous and highly integrated system for funding scientific research, winning far more funding per head than the UK average.

Unveiling a new UK government paper on the impact of independence on scientific research, Willetts said that despite its size the UK was second only to the United States for the quality of its research.

“We do great things as a single, integrated system and a single integrated brings with it great strengths,” he said.

Overall spending on scientific research and development in Scottish universities from government, charitable and industry sources was more than £950m in 2011, giving a per capita spend of £180 compared to just £112 per head across the UK as a whole.

It is indeed notable that Scottish universities outperform those in the rest of the United Kingdom when it comes to research, but it always struck me that using this as an argument against independence is difficult to sustain. In fact it’s rather similar to the argument that the UK does well out of European funding schemes so that is a good argument for remaining in the European Union. The point is that, whether or not a given country benefits from the funding system, it still has to do so by following an agenda that isn’t necessarily its own. Scotland benefits from UK Research Council funding, but their priorities are set by the Westminster government, just as the European Research Council sets (sometimes rather bizarre) policies for its schemes. Who’s to say that Scotland wouldn’t do even better than it does currently by taking control of its own research funding rather than forcing its institutions to pander to Whitehall?

It’s also interesting to look at the flipside of this argument. If Scotland were to become independent, would the “billions” of research funding it would lose (according to the statement by Willetts, who is no longer the Minister in charge) benefit science in what’s left of the United Kingdom? There are many in England and Wales who think the existing research budget is already spread far too thinly and who would welcome an increase south of the border. If this did happen you could argue that, from a very narrow perspective, Scottish independence would be good for science in the rest of what is now the United Kingdom, but that depends on how much the Westminster government sets the science budget.

This all depends on how research funding would be redistributed if and when Scotland secedes from the Union, which could be done in various ways. The simplest would be for Scotland to withdraw from RCUK entirely. Because of the greater effectiveness of Scottish universities at winning funding compared to the rest of the UK, Scotland would have to spend more per capita to maintain its current level of resource, which is why many Scottish academics will be voting “no”. On the other hand, it has been suggested (by the “yes” campaign) that Scotland could buy back from its own revenue into RCUK at the current effective per capita rate  and thus maintain its present infrastructure and research expenditure at no extra cost. This, to me, sounds like wanting to have your cake and eat it,  and it’s by no means obvious that Westminster could or should agree to such a deal. All the soundings I have taken suggest that an independent Scotland should expect no such generosity, and will get actually zilch from the RCUK.

If full separation is the way head, science in Scotland would be heading into uncharted waters. Among the questions that would need to be answered are:

  •  what will happen to RCUK funded facilities and staff currently situated in Scotland, such as those at the UKATC?
  •  would Scottish researchers lose access to facilities located in England, Wales or Northern Ireland?
  •  would Scotland have to pay its own subscriptions to CERN, ESA and ESO?

These are complicated issues to resolve and there’s no question that a lengthy process of negotiation would be needed to resolved them. In the meantime, why should RCUK risk investing further funds in programmes and facilities that may end up outside the UK (or what remains of it)? This is a recipe for planning blight on an enormous scale.

And then there’s the issue of EU membership. Would Scotland be allowed to join the EU immediately on independence? If not, what would happen to EU funded research?

I’m not saying these things will necessarily work out badly in the long run for Scotland, but they are certainly questions I’d want to have answered before I were convinced to vote “yes”. I don’t have a vote so my opinion shouldn’t count for very much, but I wonder if there are any readers of this blog from across the Border who feel like expressing an opinion?

 

Would Scottish Independence be Good for English Science?

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , on November 13, 2013 by telescoper

On Monday the Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts, visited Edinburgh where he took in, among other things, the UK Astronomy Technology Centre and was treated to an explanation of how adaptive optics work. There being less than a year to go before the forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence, the visit was always likely to generate political discussion and this turned out to be the case.

According to a Guardian piece

Scientists and academics in Scotland would lose access to billions of pounds in grants and the UK’s world-leading research programmes if it became independent, the Westminster government has warned.

David Willetts, the UK science minister, said Scottish universities were “thriving” because of the UK’s generous and highly integrated system for funding scientific research, winning far more funding per head than the UK average.

Unveiling a new UK government paper on the impact of independence on scientific research, Willetts said that despite its size the UK was second only to the United States for the quality of its research.

“We do great things as a single, integrated system and a single integrated brings with it great strengths,” he said.

Overall spending on scientific research and development in Scottish universities from government, charitable and industry sources was more than £950m in 2011, giving a per capita spend of £180 compared to just £112 per head across the UK as a whole.

It is indeed notable that Scottish universities outperform those in the rest of the United Kingdom when it comes to research, but it always struck me that using this as an argument against independence is difficult to sustain. In fact it’s rather similar to the argument that the UK does well out of European funding schemes so that is a good argument for remaining in the European Union. The point is that, whether or not a given country benefits from the funding system, it still has to do so by following an agenda that isn’t necessarily its own. Scotland benefits from UK Research Council funding, but their priorities are set by the Westminster government, just as the European Research Council sets (sometimes rather bizarre) policies for its schemes. Who’s to say that Scotland wouldn’t do even better than it does currently by taking control of its own research funding rather than forcing its institutions to pander to Whitehall?

It’s also interesting to look at the flipside of this argument. If Scotland were to become independent, would the “billions” of research funding it would lose (according to Willetts) benefit science in what’s left of the United Kingdom? There are many in England and Wales who think the existing research budget is already spread far too thinly and who would welcome an increase south of the border. If this did happen you could argue that, from a very narrow perspective, Scottish independence would be good for English science.

For what it’s worth, I am a complete agnostic about Scottish independence – I really think its for the Scots to decide – but I don’t think it would benefit the rest of the UK from the point of view of science funding. I think it’s much more likely that if Scotland were to leave the United Kingdom then the part of the science budget it currently receives would be cancelled rather than redistributed, which would leave us no better off at all.

Switching Allegiances

Posted in Biographical, Education, Football, Rugby with tags , , , , , on February 3, 2013 by telescoper

So here I am, then, in the office on a Sunday afternoon,which I suspect is going to be a pretty regular occurrence for the foreseeable future. I mainly came in to sort out papers for tomorrow’s Senior Management Group meeting, which will be the first such meeting I’ll be attending in my new capacity. I have managed to prepare for it in fine style by losing my diary, which isn’t a very good start to my career as any kind of manager.

Yesterday was taken up with flat-hunting which, if all turns out well this time, was successful. I also had time to watch a bit of the opening match of the Six Nations Rugby between Wales and Ireland. For the last five years or so I’ve always been in Cardiff for Wales’ first home game of the competition, although I’ve never actually managed to get a ticket for the match. It felt a bit strange not being there anyway. It has to be said that Wales were pretty chronic in the first half, going into the break at 30-3 down, but they recovered in the second half and it was quite an absorbing match all considered. Ireland’s excellent defence held off a spirited Welsh comeback and Ireland won 30-22.

Although I’ve lived in Wales for a while, and have enjoyed the match-day atmosphere in Cardiff, I’ve never switched allegiance from England as far as rugby is concerned. Later on yesterday England beat Scotland in their opening match of the Six Nations, showing quite a bit of flair in doing so but also making quite a lot of mistakes. The 38-18 scoreline flattered England, I felt, and they’ll have to up their game a lot if they’re going to match Wales’ Grand Slam last season.

Football is another matter in which allegiances are difficult to change. Many’s the time I’ve thought of giving up being a Newcastle United supporter but I’ve never managed it. I disapprove of people who think they have an option concerning which team to support, actually. I was born in Newcastle therefore I support Newcastle United. That’s the end of it. We all have our cross to bear. Anyway, yesterday brought an unexpected ray of sunshine into a gloomy season for the Toon with a 3-2 victory over Chelsea. Following a first away win of the season against Aston Villa last week it may even be possible that they’ll avoid relegation. Perhaps.

Switching allegiances between universities is almost as difficult. In today’s academic world we’re supposed to think of higher education as a marketplace in which different institutions compete for funding for both teaching and research. I’ve never felt comfortable with the idea that opening up higher education to “market forces” is in anyone’s interests. Certainly on the research side, there are so many collaborations between groups in different universities that cooperation is more the rule than competition although, as with any rule, there are exceptions. Friendly rivalry is as good a thing in higher education as it is in football, but anything more serious than that can only be justified in the case of Sunderland.

Match Day

Posted in Biographical, Sport with tags , , , , , , , , on February 13, 2010 by telescoper

Unusually for a saturday, I’ve been a bit busy today and I’m also going out later, so I’ll refrain from one of my discursive weekend posts and keep it brief (but not necessarily to any particular point).

Today, of course, is the date of Wales’ first home match in this year’s RBS Six Nations Rugby competition. They lost to England 30-17 last week (at Twickenham) largely because of a bit of indiscipline by Alan Wyn Jones who got himself sent off the field for ten minutes after tripping an England player. England forged ahead during the time Wales were down to 14 men and although Wales fought back later on I thought England deserved to win. It wasn’t, however, a very good game to watch.

The scene was thus set for a home game for Wales in Cardiff  today against Scotland (who lost at home to France last week). It’s really impossible to describe how special it is to be in this city when Wales are playing rugby. The Millennium Stadium can hold about 75,000 which is large compared to Cardiff’s population of around 330,000. The Scottish fans, easily identified by the kilts and the smell of alcohol, were out on the townin large numbers last night. No doubt many of them woke with substantial hangovers this morning, but it has been a beautiful sunny day and the sight of the Scots – blue and tartan – mixing with the Welsh – red and green with a liberal sprinkling of dragons- was marvellous to see as I walked around this morning running a few errands.

The atmosphere in town was just sensational, unique to Cardiff, and enough to make you just want to walk around and soak it up. Actually, enough to make you wish you had a ticket for the match too, which unfortunately I didn’t. Still, it was live on TV.

When I got home the crowds were already walking down past my house towards the stadium, which is only a mile or so away,  for the 2pm kickoff. Among them was the sizeable frame of legendary Welsh rugby hero JPR Williams. He’s quite  old now – a quick look on wikipedia reveals that he was born in 1949 – but he hasn’t changed much at all since his heyday in the 1970s.  Taller than I had imagined.

Anyway, I did a little gardening in the sunshine just before the match started and, standing outside, I could hear the sound of Land of my Fathers being sung before the kickoff all the way from the Stadium. It made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. Tremendous.

The match itself was strangely disjointed to begin with but ended in extremely exciting fashion. Wales playing surprisingly poorly in the first half and Scotland surprisingly well. Wales appeared nervous and a bit disorganised and the two Scottish tries both involved defensive errors by the Welsh. The half-time score of  Wales 9 Scotland 18 was not what I would have expected before the start of the game, but was a fair reflection of the balance of play at that point.

The second half initially followed a similar pattern, Scotland edging 21-9 ahead at one point,  but Wales gradually crept back into it. However, it was a yellow card for a Scottish infringement that led to Wales gaining enough momentum to claw their way back to 21-24 with a try created by Shane Willians and scored by Leigh Halfpenny. Then, with less than a minute to play,  Scotland lost another player for a cynical piece of foul play that prevented another Welsh try. Wales decided to take the penalty kick to tie the game at 24-24 with just 40 seconds left. The Scots restarted with only 13 men on the field and only seconds left to play, hoping to run down the clock and finish with a draw. However the Welsh were scenting an unlikely victory and the Scots were very tired. The Welsh managed to keep the ball alive – the next dead ball would have been the end of the game – and, unbelievably, Shane Williams popped in to score a try. The match ended Wales 31 Scotland 24.

It wasn’t the best rugby I’ve ever seen in terms of quality, but it’s definitely the most dramatic final ten minutes! I’m not sure the referee was right to allow the restart after the kick to level it at 24-24 as it seemed to me the time was up then. I’m sure the rugby fans in Cardiff  tonight won’t be quibbling, though. The city will be buzzing tonight!

Today was also the day for two important footall matches. In the FA Cup, Cardiff City travelled to Premiership leaders Chelsea and, predictably, got thrashed 4-1. The other match that interested me was Swansea City versus Newcastle United in the Championship. That finished 1-1, a result I was happy with since Swansea are playing well and Newcastle had lost in feeble fashion 3-0 away at Derby County earlier in the week. They go back top, if only by one point.

All in all, a most satisfactory day, and it’s not over yet. Tonight I’m off to the Opera (for the first time in what seems like ages). So guess what tomorrow’s post will be about….