Are university degrees a Veblen good?

SC06 2006 Rolls-Royce PhantomA general election is coming, in May 2015. The political parties will be aiming to put out policies for university education in the run-up to the general election. Labour seem to be going for reducing fees from £9,000 to £6,000. The Conservatives, as a matter of principle, like both free-market competition and low taxes. But here these two, competition and spending less taxpayers’ money, may contradict each other.

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From Afghanistan to the Virgin Mary’s cloak

On SuSASSOFERRATO - Virgen rezando (National Gallery, Londres, 1640-50)nday I went to the National Gallery‘s Making Colour exhibition. It was fascinating. One of the first paintings you see is Sassoferrato‘s Virgin Mary – shown to the left. It was painted over 350 years ago, but the blue cloak is still stunning. The exhibition was basically on how artists achieved beautiful colours like that of the cloak.

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PhD thesis summaries for the social-media era

Macaca nigra self-portraitIt is a bank holiday weekend, and our brains need a rest, and maybe some fun. So try lolmythesis.com. Theses are long, PhD theses are often around 200 pages in physics — hard and time-consuming to write, sometimes quite hard to read. lolmythesis.com is where students boil down their master works into a single, hopefully amusing and illuminating line.

Some of them are just great. The front page features the most recent ones, which changes constantly, but at the moment we have: “Turns out society is screwed without fossil fuels”, which is good to know, and “Sometimes when people don’t say things, they don’t say things differently”, which sounds deep.

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Physics degrees can pay off, but will they save us?

Back in 1999, only a couple of years after I was appointed at Surrey, I went to a summer school on statistical physics, in St Andrews, Scotland. One of the lecturers was a guy called Jean-Phillippe Bouchaud. He gave some interesting lectures on the statistical physics of glasses, these are systems like window glass in which the molecules are stuck, at least most of the time. Since then our careers, and I suspect our salaries, have diverged. He is now senior management of France’s largest hedge fund, Capital Fund Management.

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Gluing jelly back together

There were a lot of great talks in the Liquids 2014 conference, but one stood out. It stood out because it was based on a beautifully simple idea, and because it might just save lives. The talk was by Ludwik Leibler (ESPCI, Paris). It considered the problem of how to stick two polymer gels together. Polymer gels are soft solids that are mostly water but are solid because long polymer molecules form a network inside them. Many foods are polymer gels. Jelly is a classic example.

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Why is evolution so much better than us?

Actin filament atomic modelOne of the things I work on is the nucleation of crystals. Nucleation is how crystals start to form, and so control over nucleation basically means being able to start a crystal growing where we want and when we want. We scientists have tried really quite hard to do this, for decades, and to be honest we are still pretty rubbish at it. We still can’t predict what we need to do to make a crystal on command. Sometimes nothing happens when we want a crystal to nucleate, other times when we want one crystal to form, instead we get dozens. It is a bit of a tale of woe.

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Swift movement in shrink-to-fit genes

Circle Line Party getting pretty crowded (2540701648)The remarkable fact that people who work on understanding our DNA always mention in their talks is that we have about 1.5 m of DNA in the nucleus of each of cells, and these nuclei are only around 5 thousandths of a millimetre across. That is a lot of DNA in a small space. Stretched out the DNA is longer than some of us are tall, but this DNA is crammed into a space too small to see with the naked eye.

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Monkeying around with HIV

Young Rhesus MacaqueI have just got back from co-organising a science workshop in Lausanne, Switzerland. It was great fun, I thoroughly enjoyed many of the talks. And as an organiser it made me happy to see the scientists enjoying the talks then realising that they can use these ideas in their own work. Some of the attendees who met at the meeting for the first time were even talking of teaming up and working together. If they do, it’ll put a smile on my face that I have helped that.

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