No choice but to be beautiful

CowpeaMosaicVirus3D The beautiful structure to the left is a reconstruction of the protein shell of the cowpea mosaic virus. This is a virus that infects the cowpea, a type of bean cultivated in warmer climes than the UK*. Viruses are the simplest form of life. They simply consist of a protein shell that contains and protects their genetic material, which is inside this shell. This virus’s coat is made of 120 molecules, of just two different types of protein – shown in green and yellow here. Inside are two molecules of RNA that cary the virus’s genes, plus a couple more proteins.

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Ola Brazil! Hello Switzerland!

One of the nice things about WordPress is that it shows the countries people are in when they read this blog. The result for about 7 months of this blog is below. Somewhat to my surprise, Brazil is in 4th place. Hello nice people from Brazil! At the other end of the spectrum, in 7 months only a single post has been viewed from Tunisia. Hope I haven’t offended my one Tunisian reader.

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Giants in Chihuahua

Silicon single crystalWe take crystals for granted, maybe because they are so common. The Earth’s crust is crystalline, as are our cutlery, and even our bones and teeth are partly crystalline. But crystals are remarkable things. Although most crystalline materials are made of many tiny crystals mushed together (our bones are like this), sometimes huge single crystals can grow. There are crystals in the Naica mine in the Chihuahua state* of Mexico that are over 10 cubic metres in volume. This corresponds to maybe 1030 atoms. And in a single crystal, all atoms are on the same crystal lattice, all 1030 of them here. So the relative positions of pairs of atoms in one corner of the crystal are the same as in the opposite corner over 10 metres or more than 10 billion layers of atoms away. That’s a lot of layers, and presumably they grew one at a time. These big crystals may have started growing before the first civilisations arose in what is now Egypt and Iraq, thousands of years ago. The growth of large perfect crystals can be a slow business.

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Frogs and snails, And puppy-dogs’ tails

Raw cane sugar Demerara

According to the nursery rhyme* I was told when I was a child, boys are made from “Frogs and snails, And puppy dog’s tails” while girls are made from “Sugar and spice, And everything nice”. I am rewriting my biological physics lectures to talk a little bit about what we are really made of. This does include sugars, but is mainly water, protein, fats and related molecules, and mineral. We are roughly half water, with the remainder 20% protein, and 10% each of lipids and the mineral in our bones. Lipids are the molecules that make up the membranes in our cells as well as what we call fat. There are smaller amounts of lots of other stuff, like sugars, DNA, etc.

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Is British science meritocratic?

I think UK science is pretty meritocratic, certainly few seem to care where you went to school or university. But there have been some alarming newspaper articles on some professions being dominated by those who went to private schools; for example 71% of judges were privately educated. They don’t report figures for science*. And at yesterday’s Open Day a parent of a prospective student asked a colleague and I about how much employers care about where a physics graduate does their degree. We both thought that most would judge an applicant mostly on their merits although the prestige of their university is not completely irrelevant.

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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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