Sunday, March 27, 2011

Blogger spam + McEuen novel

Two unrelated topics.  First, blogger needs to get their act together regarding comment spam.  They have some attempt at automatic spam detection, but it's clear that in the last two or three weeks people have figured out how to evade their blocking algorithm.  The spam comments quote some fragment of the original blog post or a previous comment, and then have a clickable username that links to some shady vendor website.  Very annoying.  I'd really rather not shift to a moderated comments approach, but I may have to if this keeps up.

Second, I was very surprised last weekend when reading the Wall Street Journal, and coming upon an article about Paul McEuen (author link, physicist link), who has written apparently a very successful novel.  As one of my friends exclaimed upon hearing this news when I told her at the APS, come on Paul - you're again making the rest of us look like lazy underachievers!  I'm going to have to get this on kindle....

Thursday, March 24, 2011

March Meeting, further thoughts

I had to cut my March Meeting a bit short this year, to get back to Rice in time for the dedication of our new Brockman Hall for Physics.  Still, a few more thoughts from the APS meeting:
  • Michelle Simmons gave a terrific talk summarizing the work, over more than a decade, of her group at the University of New South Wales on their progress toward their eventual goal of building a quantum computer based on P donors in Si (the Kane approach).  I knew of the work, but I'd never seen it all laid out like that, and it was impressive.  There are very few people out there in the CM community with the fortitude to plan out and pursue steadily a coherent, goal-directed research program over a dozen years.
  • I also saw something I hadn't observed in a number of years:  a speaker completely blowing off the 10 minute time limit on a contributed talk.  When the yellow warning light clicked on, it was clear that the speaker was nowhere near the end.  When the red light clicked on and started to blink, still no conclusion.  The session chair stood up and loomed intimidatingly.  No dice.  Finally the speaker ended after a total of about 16 minutes.  That takes nerve (and a lack of consideration for the others in the session....).
  • I chaired two sessions this year (note to self:  only chair one session....), and in contrast to the previous point, really didn't have any bad talks at all in there.  Very pleasant, generally.  Most interestingly, the metal-insulator transition in vanadium oxide session was 100% experimental talks!  Perhaps theorists have given up?  (kidding.)  

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

2011 APS March Meeting, first thoughts

A few brief thoughts at the APS March Meeting (more later....) in Dallas:
  • First time I've ever been at a convention center with a graveyard adjacent to the building.  Quite a time saver if there are really bad talks, I suppose.
  • Frank Wilczek still gives a terrific talk about the connection between superconductivity and high energy physics.  Very droll, too.  He clearly has a strong aesthetic desire for supersymmetry, but just as clearly acknowledges that all of this could go up in smoke, depending on what the LHC finds.
  • The APS's attempt at a mobile app (for iPad, iPhone, etc.) is so painfully slow and incomplete (no scheduling ability I can almost understand, but how can you not list the room numbers for the sessions?) that it's better to use wireless internet access to visit the APS meeting website instead.
  • Roland Wiesendanger also presents an outstanding talk.  His group's accumulated work on spin-polarized STM is very impressive, and definitely made me feel an intense bout of "imaging envy" (in the sense that my group's work usually does not have beautiful 3d renders of data sets that grace the cover of glossy journals).
  • Lots of discussions with people about looming budget concerns, and separately the decline of science journalism.  On some level, these topics are related....

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Advice on choosing a graduate school

This is my 500th post (!), and I realized, after spending a big part of the last two days talking with prospective graduate students, that I had never written down my generic unsolicited advice about picking a graduate school. 
  • Always go someplace where there is more than one faculty member with whom you might want to work.  Even if you are 100% certain that you want to work with Prof. Smith, and that the feeling is mutual, you never know what could happen, in terms of money, circumstances, etc.  Moreover, in grad school you will learn a lot from your fellow students and other faculty.  An institution with many interesting things happening will be a more stimulating intellectual environment, and that's not a small issue.
  • It's ok at the applicant stage not to know exactly what you want to do.  While some prospective grad students are completely sure of their interests, that's more the exception than the rule.
  • If you get the opportunity to visit a school, you should go.  A visit gives you a chance to see a place, get a subconscious sense of the environment (a "gut" reaction), and most importantly, an opportunity to talk to current graduate students.  Always talk to current graduate students if you get the chance - they're the ones who really know the score.  A professor should always be able to make their work sound interesting, but grad students can tell you what a place is really like.
  • I know that picking an advisor and thesis area are major decisions, but it's important to realize that those decisions do not define you for the whole rest of your career.  I would guess (and if someone had real numbers on this, please post a comment) that the very large majority of science and engineering PhDs end up spending most of their careers working on topics and problems distinct from their theses.  Your eventual employer is most likely going to be paying for your ability to think critically, structure big problems into manageable smaller ones, and knowing how to do research, rather than the particular detailed technical knowledge from your doctoral thesis.  A personal anecdote:  I did my graduate work on the ultralow temperature properties of amorphous insulators.  I no longer work at ultralow temperatures, and I don't study glasses either; nonetheless, I learned a huge amount in grad school about the process of research that I apply all the time.
  • You should not go to grad school because you're not sure what else to do with yourself.  You should not go into research if you will only be satisfied by a Nobel Prize.  In both of those cases, you are likely to be unhappy during grad school.  
  • I know grad student stipends are low, believe me.  However, it's a bad idea to make a grad school decision based on a financial difference of a few hundred or a thousand dollars a year.  Different places have vastly different costs of living.  Pick a place for the right reasons.
  • Likewise, while everyone wants a pleasant environment, picking a grad school largely based on the weather is silly.
  • Pursue external fellowships if given the opportunity.  It's always nice to have your own money and not be tied strongly to the funding constraints of the faculty, if possible.
  • Be mindful of how departments and programs are run.  Is the program well organized?  What is a reasonable timetable for progress?  How are advisors selected, and when does that happen?  Who sets the stipends?  What are TA duties and expectations like?  Are there qualifying exams?  Know what you're getting into!
  • It's fine to try to communicate with professors at all stages of the process.  We'd much rather have you ask questions than the alternative.  If you don't get a quick response to an email, it's almost certainly due to busy-ness, and not a deeply meaningful decision by the faculty member.
There is no question that far more information is now available to would-be graduate students than at any time in the past.  Use it!  Look at departmental web pages, look at individual faculty member web pages.  Make an informed decision.  Good luck!

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Blogging scarcity - tidbits.

My blogging has been sparse of late because of several colliding deadlines and constraints (NSF report due; review article due; APS meeting coming up; impending travel; visits of prospective graduate students; the ever-present book; teaching; impending move of my whole lab to the new Brockman Hall for Physics).  This doesn't mean that there aren't interesting things going on out there in condensed matter physics (and physic in general) - just that I've been extraordinarily busy.  

To tide you over, here are a handful of interesting links.

This is an amazing video made entirely from shots of Saturn and its moons taken by the Cassini spacecraft.  It looks like something out of Hollywood, but is a zillion times more fascinating because it's real - no cgi here.

This older preprint (I'll revise the link when the paper comes out in PRL next week) puts forward the argument that the pseudospin degree of freedom of electrons in graphene does actually correspond to a real half-integer angular momentum.  Surprising - I need to think about this more.

This experiment is extremely slick.  The authors are able to use the magnetic field gradient from a sharp magnetic scanned probe tip to interact w/ individual nitrogen vacancy centers in diamond (which have an unpaired electron spin).  This is basically magnetic resonance imaging of single electron spins.

This paper shows a clear implementation of an idea that is increasingly popular:  using the plasmon properties of metal nanostructures to enhance solar energy harvesting.  Essentially the evanescent optical fields from the metal nanoparticles trap the light near the interface where, in this case, the photochemistry is happening.