Physics is wonderful, its applications are sh*t, Engineering is sh*t, its applications are wonderful

I’ve spent the week in a sunny Dublin, at a workshop on crystallisation. The workshop looked especially at using computer simulations to understand the fundamentals of crystallisation, and on applications to crystallising drugs. Most drug tablets, like aspirin, paracetamol, etc, are crystals. So at the workshop there was a mixture of physicists, chemists and chemical engineers, and some of us were from universities and some from drug companies.

It was really interesting to hear about all the challenges involved in making a drug tablet that works, in the sense of delivering the drug to you in a safe form while dissolving in your stomach and/or intestines. I did not realise that some drugs are so insoluble in the water inside your intestines that not only is it hard to get them to dissolve there, but even once they are dissolved they can reform crystals inside you – which of course is very undesirable. Continue reading

Boosting the economy by discouraging rent seeking

“Rent seeking” is an technical term used by economists. There is a good Wikipedia page, but roughly speaking it means investing money to make more money via ways that do not grow the economy, i.e., do not increase the sum total of a country’s wealth. The idea is basically that if someone invests money by say buying a house and renting it out, then they are making money for themselves without making the country wealthier. On a bigger scale, if say a utility such as electricity is supplied by a oligopoly with minimal competition, then the companies of the oligopoly can make a lot of money from their customers by charging high prices. But if anything this profit making harms instead of boosting the economy. Both these are examples of rent seeking; rent seeking in this sense can involve literal rents such as for houses, but it does not have to. In contrast if money is invested, say, to make a better, more fuel-efficient engine for airliners, then the company makes profits from selling the engines, but cheaper air travel could then boost the economy, making others richer too. This is the econmially good, non-rent-seeking way, to make money.

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Touching is believing

20150519_180540At a workshop I was at in Princeton in April, one of the speakers illustrated a rather beautiful state of matter called the gyroid phase, by passing round a 3D printed model of this state of matter. I was instantly both impressed and envious. There is a cool gif of the gyroid here, but holding a model in your hands and turning it over to see it from all angles, is better than any picture on a 2D screen.

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Flaming ice

burning hydrateI am doing a bit of reading up on a substance that looks like ice, but, as you can see, burns. The substance is called gas hydrate or methane hydrate. It is a crystal and it looks like ice because it is quite like ice. It is a crystalline arrangement of water molecules, like ice. But the arrangement is a bit different. The water molecules form an array of cages. A cage of water molecules is shown at the top left — H20 molecules are shown in red (oxygen atom) and white (hydrogen). In these cages sit methane molecules. A methane, CH4, molecule in the cage is also shown. It is the methane that allows these crystals to burn.

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Different standards for graduate recruiters and universities

One of the largest, and maybe most prestigious, recruiters in the UK, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) has decided to stop using A-level grades (via a UCAS points score) as an initial selection mechanism for applicants to its graduate scheme. See here for the story in The Guardian and here for a post on a PwC blog. Previously PwC required that any applicant have to have at least 340 UCAS points to be considered. As an ex-admissions tutor who used these same grades to select prospective students, this caught my eye.

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India’s monsoon and Surrey’s green fields

I got back from a couple of workshops in Princeton in America yesterday. They included a talk by an author of this paper on how we appear to be changing the summer rainfall  that India relies on to grow the crops to feed its billion people. On my doormat I found an election flyer by the Guildford’s save the greenbelt party. There is an election in the UK the week after next. They want to stop house building on green fields in the Guildford area. I don’t doubt their sincerity, and green fields are something we all enjoy. But when you read about the changes in rainfall that crops required by a billion people, this does look a bit parochial.

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Close encounter with a Nobel Laureate

Olive oil with Balsamic VinegarI always get a bit stressed before I give a talk, so I was listening nervously to the talk 40 mins before mine, when in ambles Nobel Laureate Philip Anderson. He took a seat at the front left of the room. He is in nineties now so long since retired but clearly drops round sometimes. The workshop is at Princeton where he is an Emeritus Professor. My seventh and eighth slides were on his classic More is Different article from 1972. I did slightly brick myself at that point. But I needn’t have worried, he ambled out after the next talk, so missed mine. I guess I am a bit disappointed, but I was also a bit less stressed.

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More is different

Gold-crystalsMore is Different is the title of a famous article (pdf) by Philip W Anderson in Science in 1972. In it he argues that when you go from say one electron or one atom or one molecule etc, to many electrons, many atoms or many molecules, then completely new behaviour governed by new laws of physics arise. Many molecules are different from one. A classic example of this new behaviour is the colour of gold, one gold atom is not gold coloured, only a crystal of many thousands or more gold atom is. Anderson argues for the importance and interest in studying behaviour like this that only happens due to having many atoms or molecules. He was pushing against particle physicists claiming that what was important was discovering the most fundamental particles, and that once they were known, then everything else (e.g., working out why gold is gold coloured) was just routine*.

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