4th year MSCi Physics

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4th year MSCi Physics

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Voice of the Future

In which I went to the Houses of Parliament to hear from politicians interested in science.

Yesterday I spent the afternoon in the Houses of Parliament- more specifically a building linked to the Houses of Parliament called Portcullis house. (It really is physically linked by an underground walkway for MPs.) The reason I was there was for an event called the Voice of the Future organised by the Royal Society of Biology.

I say ‘event’ because it was a strange set up. The whole thing was meant to be like a select committee– it took place in the actual rooms where select committees are held. Lots of scientific organisations sent young representatives to ask questions of an array of different politicians. I was there on behalf of CaSE which I’ve mentioned before and is the campaign for science & engineering.

I initially didn’t have a very high expectation for the day as we had been sent a long document with loads of rules that also explained that we would not all be allowed to ask questions and if we were they were pre-vetted and written down for us to read off a piece of paper and not necessarily the ones we submitted. This gave the whole thing a bit of an artificial feel, as the politicians had seen the questions before they were asked, and we were basically just reading aloud probably other people’s questions.

I was concerned that this had given the politicians a chance to get rid of anything they didn’t want to answer, but it didn’t appear that way- some of the questions were tricky and quite confrontational, and they covered all the areas that I wanted to ask about– the EU, science in the media, open source publishing, how scientists can help politicians and lots more.

In fairness, fact that the questions had been pre-chosen was openly talked about so that anyone watching the broadcast (it was on BBC Parliament and some kind of live stream) would know. I get that we probably would have doubled up on points if we had not made sure of the questions beforehand, and also it is probably a good idea to give the politicians a read of the questions so they have the facts they need to answer them fresh in their minds.

However it was still a bit simulated, and definitely wasn’t a debate, as some people called it. We could ask unscripted follow-up questions but it certainly didn’t have the atmosphere of a healthy debate, as the chair told us they had to be on the same topic, and even that if we defamed anyone we could get sued! I’m sure this was just a precaution, but this and the fact that we were in a very tightly controlled environment (even the way we walked to the chairs was discussed at length) on film made it quite unnerving and not a situation where I felt comfortable to really ‘answer back’ or speak up about a differing opinion. That said, that was not what the occasion was- it was meant to be like a select committee which I’m sure is very much under scrutiny and with lots of formalities.

I did learn a lot about science and policy from the day, and there were some really interesting people speaking. There were four panels: the first was Sir Mark Walport the chief scientific advisor, the second was the science and technology select committee, the third was Jo Johnson minister for science and the last was Yvonne Fovargue who is the shadow minister for business innovation and skills.

The most interesting in my opinion were the second and last panels. The select committee in particular were very forceful in their opinion that more scientists should get involved with policy, and speak to their local MPs about their work. There was also a call for better translation of scientific evidence and facts for MPs who are often given a large amount of data with not much time or the understanding needed to process it properly. This is a thing that CaSE and many of the other organisations around the table do, and something I would definitely like to get more involved with.

One of them (my journalistic skills are failing here as I couldn’t see which one!) also made the excellent and difficult point that scientists sometimes fetishise science and assume that scientific views carry more weight- this is obviously the case within science, but living in a democracy you can’t automatically de-value anyone else’s opinion.

After the second panel, we were witness to a parliamentary first which was the first ever address from outer space from Tim Peake which was pretty awesome and apparently a lot of effort to collaborate with NASA and arrange!

It was great to hear from the politicians that they are approached by scientists often and find it easy to access expert opinions. It seems like there are lots of schemes for scientists to meet politicians, but I suppose we were seeing only the people with a self-professed interest in science, so it would be interesting to see if that theme carried on generally into the rest of Parliament.

There was also a trend that the people with the most power tended to give more bland and evasive answers, so maybe it gets harder to be openly positive and enthusiastic as you gain more power!

Overall it was a fun and insightful day and I left feeling a lot less cynical than I expected to going into it, as many of the issues sounded like they were really being considered by the politicians and they all seemed incredibly well-informed and intelligent which was kind of a surprise, although I suppose it shouldn’t be!

If you are a part of one of the organisations it is organised by I would definitely recommend asking to go, as it was a good chance to hear first-hand MPs discussing science and for an insight into science policy. Don’t have your heart set on asking a particular question though!

Stress & the sea

In which fourth year is hard & projects are projects are projects.

For my last research interfaces task (yes it is finally over now) I had to write a short ‘article’ style thing on my Masters project. I thought I’d share it with you here and then tell you about some of the realities of it that I didn’t write about…

Listening to the sea  

It’s not often you find a whole new scientific discipline in the rubbish. That’s what W. Steven Holbrook effectively did back in 2003 when he noticed that there was meaning in the noise people searching for oil were throwing away.

For decades people had been taking ships out into the centre of the ocean and firing high pressure bubbles of air into the water to create sound waves searching for oil beneath the ocean floor. When the waves reach areas with a sharp change in material, for example from rock to oil, part of them gets reflected back. These reflections are picked up at the sea surface by detectors sensitive to changes in pressure, called hydrophones.

Holbrook’s breakthrough was to realise that although we were just listening to the ocean floor, we were also talking to the sea, and it was talking back.

The reflections in the seabed are large and dominate the results seen at the surface. The rest of the data was discarded as noise, but in the sea itself there are a myriad of density changes as the temperature and salinity vary with depth. These changes in density cause reflections just like the more prominent ones in the sea floor.

Measuring the temperature and salinity of the sea is important to climate scientists, as it reveals how different bodies of water mix, and how heat is transferred between them. Prior to this, instruments had to be lowered into the sea to measure properties directly at different discrete depths and positions, and the gaps in the data then filled in mathematically. This new method allowed two or even three-dimensional sections of the ocean to be examined in huge detail. Because it is a relatively new discipline what features it can and can’t see are still in question.

For my project I am looking at an area just north of Scotland called the Faroe-Shetland channel. It is a deep channel in an otherwise high ocean ridge, meaning that it is one of the only places that cold, dense water from the Arctic can mix with the warm salty water of the North Atlantic, bringing us our relativity balmy climate. Once the warm water comes across the ridge it cools and sinks drawing in more warm water. This giant circulation, seen by some observations to be slowing down in 2005, is of global importance for understanding future climate predictions.

I am using data from an international ocean model that predicts the temperature and salinity of the oceans all over the world using physical principles and real data. I am creating ‘synthetic seismograms’—pictures of what you would see if you listened to the ocean using sound waves in this area. These pictures can investigate what frequencies or types of waves are best for picking up certain features of the ocean and are used by scientists in these surveys to help make sure they understand what they are seeing.

Whether it is using gravitational waves to see deep into spacetime or firing high pressure bubbles into the ocean, Physics gives us new senses to listen to and interact with things previously out of reach to us. The climate is a vast and complex system that physically connects us all and needs huge amounts of data and modelling to even begin to understand and predict. To be able to find out more about this and do some research of my own on it is a privilege.


So that’s the official line on my project: meaningful and fun!

However I’m not finding it easy work—I am not the best at programming, so though I’ve learnt a lot it takes me a long time to work out how best to do things and I have little intuition about how to make the most efficient code. It doesn’t help that my laptop is also four years old now and really struggling with not crashing when doing anything more intensive than creating a ten item vector.

The main problem I am having though is that I find it very difficult to ask my supervisor for help and not present problems I am having in a very optimistic and breezy light: ‘oh yeah none of it works right now but by the next time I see you it’ll be great!’ Take it from me this is not a helpful approach! It is always best to ask for help upfront and talk it through with your supervisor—who I know is there to help me with the project—even if you do feel stupid at the time, it is better than come back week after week not having got over the initial problem. This is definitely something I’m working on.

I’m sure that getting confused and stressed about your project, as well as going down the wrong routes are part of the learning process, but at the moment it is really getting on top of me!

Not everything is bad however: doing some sport particularly helps me feel less stressed and I’ve been doing some bouldering (as in the picture) at a place that is quite close to Imperial (http://www.urbanascent.co.uk/) if any of you want to try it out! I’ve also got a great running app that has audio of zombies chasing you which is really motivational, if also a little genuinely scary, especially in the dark.

My parents came down last weekend for a quick visit and we excitingly went and stood outside Downing Street to see if we could see any of the EU referendum drama. I’ve been invited (well I kind of just asked to go) to Voice of Young Science, which is a discussion between young scientists, politicians and policy makers with us (the young scientists!) asking the questions. I’ll be sure to try and find out lots more about the EU and many other science policy types of things there, and I’ll definitely be writing a blog sometime about why the EU is good for science funding and universities, a pretty important point that will probably be lost amongst the immigration and legal issues in the wider debate.


Endless presentations, endless presentations, endless presentations.

In which Research Interfaces is finished. It is finished right?? No? Two more hand-ins? Oh.

I would like to preface this blog by saying I enjoy my degree. Three and a half years in and I still love physics, still like Imperial. I know the department are trying to give us a well-rounded education by making all its fourth year students take a compulsory business course.


Yesterday this was our timetable:


This block of time was the end-of-course RI presentations and party!

Except it isn’t the end of the course. There are still two tasks to complete.

The presentations got off on the wrong foot really, because we’d all just got our twenty page business proposals back, and there was, let’s say, some slight controversy over the marks, which seemed to be a large spread, with many people feeling hard-done by. Our team did too, to a certain extent. Although our mark was actually OK overall, some of the sections had been marked really low (50% for some!), especially low for a coursework. You can get 50% in labs for instance if you just put the correct experiment title into LaTeX and then fill the rest of the space with a semi-articulate rant about why Isaac Newton predicted the world will end in 2066 and why you agree with him.

The comments, we felt, didn’t really explain the marks and not having a chance to explain why we had gone the direction we had in some of the sections was frustrating.

There was also another controversy about how the groups had been chosen. About half of them were all male, and the other half equally split between male and female. Not that there’s anything particularly odd about that.

However rumours started spreading that this gender split was a deliberate experiment to see how teams performed. Despite the staff initially being very angry about us suggesting this, it is now confirmed that there was indeed structure in how the groups were chosen, but apparently it wasn’t for an experiment.

This is strange. The only reason I don’t think it is unethical is because I am sure there will be no correlation between how well people did and the gender of their group!

If they had split it theoretical/non-theoretical students or something, then that would have been actually interesting/unethical because that probably does have the potential to shift the marks a bit. I genuinely have no idea what’s going on with this—with a sample size of fifteen groups how huge do they think these gender disparities are going to be for them to be visible? Also the people who organised the groups are marking the projects and presumably have some opinion about which groups should perform better.

If it is an experiment, it is a horribly designed one.

On the day of the presentation, people were confused about when it started and confused about how we were going to send over our PowerPoints. Lots of people were wearing suits for the presentations which added to the air of discomfort!

Once we got in and assembled ourselves alongside our teams, the computer wasn’t working. It was quite clear from our side of the seats that it wasn’t plugged in to the projector, but I think 200 palpably angry physicists shouting ‘plug it in’ from the front rows and the back rows who couldn’t see, shouting other technical instructions was a bit too stressful for the staff.

So we all changed rooms.

The first room was cold—I think they’d had the air con on all day in preparation for this long, packed stint. The other room was hot and fair to say people were even more angry by this point.

We of course had to change back halfway through anyway, because the other room wasn’t free, and someone had come and checked out the computer and found out that it was indeed just unplugged.

The presentations finally got underway, and I thought they were actually all actually very slick and well-presented business cases (even if some of the ideas for products weren’t the most innovative/grounded in reality). I was actually quite shocked when one of the judges said, to sum up ‘it is clear which teams have put in lots of effort and who needed to put in a lot more’.

I think all the teams who hadn’t done as well as expected in the 20-page report were all pretty put out by that comment, as everyone I know has put in what they would consider far far too much time and thought into this course.

Then there was food and drink on the 8th floor common room which was very nice, and the winning teams were announced. It was a really strange day.


In which I went to CERN!

Happy 2016! I hope everyone had an interesting and vaguely relaxing break.

I was actually wrong in my last blog to say that nothing particularly interesting would happen before the end of term—I ended up helping out in the Science Museum lates for Tim Peake’s launch. Some people from Astrophysics had a pop-up planetarium and an infrared camera and I entertained (and scienced) the people waiting for it by showing them how to make a spectroscope out of a DVD. (It actually works surprisingly well.)

Two years ago I won an Imperial Essay competition and part of the prize was a trip to CERN. Due to various complications the trip was postponed and postponed, but a couple of days ago it finally happened! I’ve always wanted to go to CERN, ever since I first heard about it, when I was too young to even know what a hadron was!


The trip was even better than I imagined however, as we were shown round by  Prof. Sir Tejinder Virdee who as well as being a professor at Imperial, was one of the founding members and head of CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid) one of the detectors on the LHC. Having overseen the planning, construction, testing and finally results of the detector, he had some amazing stories to tell, for example how he travelled to the Soviet Union to help convert top secret military factories into places to grow the lead tungstate crystals used in part of the detector.

He was also incredibly thoughtful, giving us an introductory talk, getting and signing us a picture book of the construction of the detector, introducing us to everyone, and even arranging our own very fancy lunch in the CERN restaurant. He also tipped us off on the possible discovery of a new, never-before-hypothesised particle which may be starting to emerge from the recent high energy runs… Something to watch out for!

The atmosphere at CERN was lovely, with people from all nationalities and different sets of expertise working alongside each other. We saw the main site of CERN, with accommodation, offices and restaurant, and then drove to the other side of the LHC ring, into France, to go down into CMS and see the detector for ourselves.

As I mentioned I am slightly obsessed with CERN, so have seen hundreds of pictures of the detector, but I couldn’t imagine the scale of it until I was standing right above it. It is huge and vastly complex and did I mention huge, and it isn’t even the biggest detector in the Collider—ATLAS is six times larger in volume! (Though CMS is of course the best detector as Professor Virdee assured us.)


Due to a water leak a few weeks before, part of the detector was slid apart so we could see some of the inner workings. All the parts of the detector can be slid separate to work on—nothing is ever unplugged to prevent faulty connections.


Inside CMS

We followed the huge mass of wires into another underground room where the initial data is taken and most of it is instantly discarded. Each second there are 40 million collisions when the LHC is running—too much data to ever work on, so instantly all except 100 000 of the most high energy collisions are discarded.

The whole time we were escorted by another guide, who I think was keeping an eye on us to make sure we weren’t tempted to try and pull out a cable!

We saw the server rooms where the data is processed, and the control rooms with open links to other control rooms all over the world where people watch the data come in live to instantly spot any problems. I had no idea this was the case!

In the afternoon we visited the museum which has parts of the insides of the detectors on display as well as some of the old detectors used in the history of particle physics, and I bought a lot of CERN memorabilia!


The tiny beam-pipe!

It was an amazing trip to a beautiful place. CERN is right next to Geneva and the LHC ring is surrounded by snow-capped mountains and Lake Geneva, and CMS itself is striking, buried at the bottom of this vast cylinder and brightly multi-coloured so it looks an impossibly intricate children’s toy.

I am incredibly grateful that I had a chance to visit it, and look forward to hearing about the collider starting again soon!


Sadly, Geneva fountain wasn’t on when we were there


In which I invite you to ask me any questions about Imperial :)

Happy Christmas!

It’s nearly the end of term and I don’t really have that much to report on! General Relativity is still crazy interesting, Quantum Information is still confusing and my Masters project and business course are still going well.

Last week we had our flat Christmas dinner and by some miracle all my old housemates were free to attend. It has been really nice to manage to keep the tradition going and still have a successful gigantic dinner even though our kitchen is tiny, everyone is so busy with deadlines and exams and we only at the last minute remembered that one of our housemates was a vegetarian!

IMG_7594 IMG_7599

As I don’t have much to say in this blog I thought I’d suggest that if anyone has any questions about Imperial—specific course recommendations, about living in London or going to university in general, then you can ask them in the comments and I’ll do my best to reply! I might even help with some physics homework problems if you’re lucky.

Have a good Christmas break everyone!