Monday, 30 April 2012

Religious Schools and Bigotry

The UK has seen a noticeable push towards state support of religious schools over the last ten years or so.  I don't want to get into the various economic reasons that underlie this; the point is that government-supported schools should be welcoming to all citizens.  And as we all know, if there's anything known for being open and welcoming, it's religion:

It emerged this week that the CES wrote to nearly 400 state-funded Roman Catholic schools inviting them to back a petition against gay civil marriage.
Earlier this week, reported that students at St Philomena's Catholic High School for Girls in Carshalton were "encouraged" to sign the anti-equality pledge by the school's headmistress.
I'm sure that gay and lesbian students will feel right at home!  Certainly, we shouldn't let our concerns for them get in the way of Catholic's right to advocate for traditional marriage (one man and one or more chattel).

The only good news about this whole thing is what the bigots are opposing; full marriage equality, which is being introduced by our main Right Wing party.  Even the Conservatives have figured out to get on the correct side of the issue.

Also, only tangentially related but it really pisses me off when people try to justify bigotry with religion.  If I believed in a god with such a flawed morality, I wouldn't worship it.  Indeed, the fact that so many religions depict their god as a ethically primitive barbarian really makes me wonder.  Am I supposed to be impressed?  Really?

I'm Really Not Dead...

I know, I know, I promised something new almost a week ago.  Still, between the travel plans, shifting money around so I can afford the travel, trying to get something sufficiently finished to talk about at conferences, and writing my talk, I've been quite a bit busier than normal.  If anything, I might actually be less busy once I'm actually travelling; we'll see.

Still, I will try to post more regularly, starting today.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

I'm not dead ...

Only resting.  I'm busy with large stacks of papers to read and travel plans to finalise.  But I should be able to get something substantial up tomorrow.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Last Flight of the Shuttle

The Discovery has made its last flight, on its way to the Air and Space Museum.  Much has been written about the end of the Shuttle program.  To me, the sadness is not the end of the program, but the lack of anything to directly replace it.  And I'm looking forward to seeing it in reality, too.

I wish they could have delayed this flight till I'll be in DC in a couple of weeks, though!

Tuesday, 17 April 2012


Today's been one of those days.  Little accomplished, certainly nothing I planned to get done.  In fact, it feels like I've gone backward thanks to finding an error in a calculation I did last week.

At times like this, when the world seems set against you, there's only one thing any self-respecting Englishman can do.  Make some tea.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Majorana Fermions

A Dutch team of researchers are claiming to have seen evidence for the existence of Majorana fermions in superconductors:
Majorana fermions are particles identical to their own antiparticles. They have been theoretically predicted to exist in topological superconductors. We report electrical measurements on InSb nanowires contacted with one normal (Au) and one superconducting electrode (NbTiN). Gate voltages vary electron density and define a tunnel barrier between normal and superconducting contacts. In the presence of magnetic fields of order 100 mT, we observe bound, mid-gap states at zero bias voltage. These bound states remain fixed to zero bias even when magnetic fields and gate voltages are changed over considerable ranges. Our observations support the hypothesis of Majorana fermions in nanowires coupled to superconductors. 

(That's the paper's abstract).  I originally read of this at a reasonable article over at the BBC, but I felt there were a few things I wanted to say.  One thing that could easily mislead the lay person is that Majorana fermions are far from the first particle to be its own antiparticle.  Photons, the particle of light, are a simple example.  Rather, Majorana fermions are there own antiparticle and have not been discovered yet.

Friday, 13 April 2012

The Hierarchy Problem

I've got several drafts in progress, but none of them look like getting finished soon and I wanted to get something substantial out today.  So I thought I'd talk briefly about an important concept in theoretical particle physics, the hierarchy problem.

The Big Lie

Personal Headphones.

If you're going to claim the right to listen at volumes I can hear on the opposite side of the bus, I'm going to claim the right to beat you round the head with a nine iron.  Or at least not pay for your hearing problems later in life.  I'm just saying.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

The Theorist's Pleasure

So you're working on a physical problem, and you need to calculate some physical quantity.  So you sit down to start writing, and it's soon clear that this is going to be a tricky calculation.  But that's no reason to quit; you are confident you can overcome any challenge.  So you keep going, but the intermediate expressions are getting long and unwieldy, and you are faced with the question of errors.  It begins to occupy all your thoughts, and you work to seek and implement checks to catch mistakes.  When you do, you feel frustrated and return to hunt them down.  When you don't, you can only feel temporary happiness because you must press on in search of the goal.

As things continue, you hit that crucial point where expressions start to simplify, rather than the reverse.  With the end in sight your anticipation of success grows, but you must control yourself, holding back to avoid going of prematurely and letting a mistake slip in.  But the emotional excitement grows, as the hours, days or even months of work look to pay off, line by line as things simplify till, finally, you get to spurt out the result in a short, beautiful expression...

Then, afterwards, you feel really mellow and relaxed.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012


A couple of weeks ago, I talked about Angband, my introduction to Roguelikes and the iconic *band.  However, the most famous descendent of Rogue is probably NetHack, which is derived from Hack and is the iconic Hacklike.  It is renowned for the huge number of item interactions, powered by a flexible and powerful control system.  As a simple example, in Angband, the only things you can equip as weapons are actual weapons---swords, maces etc.  In NetHack, you can equip anything as a weapon; and there are times when you'll want to.

I'll be honest.  I'm not a huge fan.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Going Round in Circles

Why is the Large Hadron Collider a big ring?

One answer is that is uses the same tunnel as the Large Electron Positron collider, the previous CERN high energy experiment.  When LEP was shut down, the LHC made use of the facilities, rather than dig new ones.  However, this ultimately only kicks the question back a step to ask why LEP was built that way.  And neither machine is an oddity; the recently closed Tevatron also used a circular design, as did BaBar, CLEO, SppS and most high energy machines in at least my lifetime.

A Rose by Any Other Name

I figure now is as good as any time to explain the name of this blog.  Some people will have already figured it out, I'm sure, but it is taken from a quote by Douglas Adams.  I've cribbed the exact text from Wikiquote:

Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, "This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!" This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it's still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything's going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for. We all know that at some point in the future the Universe will come to an end and at some other point, considerably in advance from that but still not immediately pressing, the sun will explode. We feel there's plenty of time to worry about that, but on the other hand that's a very dangerous thing to say.
While this probably doesn't qualify as even my favourite Douglas Adams quote, I do like it for two main reasons.  It warns us against thinking that the world or universe was designed for us.  We evolved to fit them, and if the ambient conditions where different, we would be different.  This rejects the common religious opinion that god built the world for us.  It also resists the anthropic/landscape arguments that have become common of late, and about which I intend to write a more detailed post at a later date.  (Short version: I'm not a fan, but there aren't many flaws in the arguments to pick on.)

Adams's words also remind us that environmental concerns are, at heart, about self-preservation, at least at the species level.  We (probably) can't wipe out all life on Earth, but we can certainly end human civilisation, if not humanity forever.  I think that would be a bad thing.  We ignore this danger at our peril.