Monday, October 25, 2010

Wrap-up, Osheroff-fest

The symposium in honor of Doug Osheroff was great fun. It was great to see old friends again, to hear some stories that I didn't know, and to find out what other former group members are up to. The actual talks were generally pretty good, with a number of speakers focusing on how exciting and vibrant the whole field of low temperature physics was in its heyday. There were a total of seven Nobel Laureates there (DDO, Steve Chu, Bob Laughlin, Bob Richardson, Dave Lee, Phil Anderson, and Tony Leggett), and a bunch of other luminaries (Michael Fisher, Daniel Fisher, Bill Brinkman, Ted Geballe, and even a special and unexpected (by me, at least) appearance by Ed Witten). Steve Chu's talk was remarkable in part because he so clearly loved the chance to give an actual technical talk about some of his research, which you get the feeling he doesn't do so much at the DOE. Fun stuff, even when Bob Laughlin was giving me a hard time :-)

Sunday, October 24, 2010


I am currently visiting Stanford for my thesis advisor's big birthday bash/retirement festivities. It's really great to see so many former students, postdocs, and collaborators, and it's more than a little surreal to be back here after so long. It's a shame taht a few couldn't make it - they're sorely missed. There is going to be a day-long symposium tomorrow in his honor that should be very interesting. I'll post some brief description of some of the talks, if they seem like they are of general interest.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Excellent talk today + the point of colloquia.

Today I was fortunate to host my department's weekly colloquium, with Prof. Wilson Ho from UC Irvine as the speaker.  He gave a great talk about "Visualizing Quantum Mechanics", in which he showed (using experiments from his own group) how scanning tunneling microscopy can be a great teaching tool for illustrating concepts from undergraduate quantum mechanics.  He covered the exponential dependence of tunneling on distance, imaging of molecular orbitals, the crossover between classical (activated) diffusion and quantum (tunneling-based) diffusion, particle-in-a-box physics in 1d atomic chains, visualization of Fermi's Golden Rule via light emission experiments, and other neat results.  The audience included not just the usual collection of faculty and grad students, but also a bunch of the current undergrad quantum students as well.  

The talk was pretty much a letter-perfect example of what a colloquium is supposed to be.  It was accessible to a general audience, was genuinely educational, had appealing visuals, and contained enough intellectual "meat" to be satisfying for experts, including some not-yet published stuff.  It would be nice if every speaker realized the difference between a colloquium and a seminar....

On an unrelated note, I can't resist commenting on this awful article from Reuters hyping the LHC.  I'm as happy as anyone that the accelerator is running well, but does the CERN press office really need to keep churning out this kind of garbage?  Can't they just have a nice release/article talking about how nicely the experiment is running, and how they're hitting their targets, without making just laughable statements?  I think we can be pretty damned sure that the LHC is not about to discover incontrovertible evidence for parallel universes.   

Monday, October 11, 2010

Buckyball celebration/symposium

In honor of the 25th anniversary of the discovery of C60 at Rice, the university is holding a symposium to celebrate.  In addition to the surviving members of the discovery team (laureates Curl and Kroto; Prof. Heath, Dr. O'Brien), there are many big names in the business (Millie Dresselhaus, Marvin Cohen, Phaedon Avouris, Hongjie Dai).  Andre Geim is going to skype in, apparently, since getting the Nobel Prize this past week has understandably scrambled his travel plans.  Unfortunately I'm flying to Washington, DC later this morning, so I will miss most of the fun, but I'm sure it will be a very interesting and lively event.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

2010 Physics Nobel for graphene

The 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics has been awarded to Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov for graphene.  Congratulations to them!  Graphene, the single-atomic-layer limit of graphite, has been a very hot topic in consensed matter physics since late 2004, and I've posted about it here and here.  There is no question that graphene is a very interesting material, and the possibility of serious technological applications looms large, but as Joerg Haber points out, overhype is a real danger.  The prize is somewhat unusual in that it was very fast on the scale of these things.  I also find it interesting that only the Manchester group was given the prize, given the impact of the work going on in this area at other places at around the same time (for example, take a look at the first few talks in this session I put together at the 2005 APS March Meeting).  I do hope that those in the British scientific funding establishment take note that future prizes and innovations like this are at severe risk if research and educational funding cuts continue.

Monday, October 04, 2010

"Definitively inaccurate": One more comment about NRC rankings

One last post before the Nobel in physics is announced tomorrow.... As many people in the academic blogosphere have reported, there are some serious issues with the NRC rankings of graduate programs.  Some of these seem to be related to data entry, and others to nonuniform or overly simplistic interpretations of answers to survey questions.  Let me give a couple of examples.  I'm in the physics and astronomy department at Rice, and for several years I've helped oversee the interdisciplinary applied physics graduate program here (not a department - applied physics does not have faculty billets or its own courses, for example).  I filled out faculty NRC paperwork, and I was also in charge (with a colleague) of filling out the "department"-level NRC paperwork for the applied physics program.  I know, with certainty, that some of the stats for the two programs are very very similar, including the allocation of work space to graduate students and the approximate completion rates of the PhD program.  However, while these seem to show up correctly in the applied physics NRC data, they are both skewed bizarrely wrong (and very unfavorably, like the completion rate in the NRC data is too low when compared with reality by at least a factor of two!) in the physics & astronomy departmental NRC data.  Now, overall the department did reasonably well in the rankings, and if one looks particularly at just the research stuff per faculty member, physics and astronomy did quite well.  However, this issue with student data really stinks, because that's what some sites geared toward prospective students emphasize.  It's wrong, there's no fixing it, and it looks like it will be "definitively inaccurate" (to borrow a phrase from Douglas Adams) for at least a decade.