Frustrations of scientific publishing

For nearly a year now, my research collaborators and myself have been trying to publish a paper which, amongst other things, describes a new method for determining the energy required to dope materials. particularly but not exclusively for optical applications. We’ve submitted to IOP’s Journal of Physics: Condensed Matter, that we have published in extensively over the past 15 years. They have just rejected this work for a third time without giving any explanation except that they don’t think the paper contains ‘new science’ (on which we clearly disagree!) Of course there are other journals, and our paper will get published eventually, but this has proved to be an immensely frustrating experience.

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My Miliblog

So, after several months and much debate and hot air, we will at last find out who our new leader is today. It looks like it will be Mr Miliband, but which? Whether it’s David or Ed will have a long lasting effect on our future. I have always said that I think David has the best chance of uniting the party and getting our ‘middle England’ vote back. We need that if we are to win an election any time soon. But if Ed is elected, there is a danger of too many concessions to our core support and to the unions., which is the recipe for years in opposition! I hope the party has made the ‘right’ decision, but we’ll find out soon ….

A choice of Milibands

The phony war of the labour leadership contest is almost over, and we get to vote for our leader at last. David Miliband seems to be the favourite, and indeed he will get my vote, but his younger brother Ed seems to be picking up something of a late following. The fact is that these two brothers each offer something different, so it is very important that the party makes the right choice, if (as it seems) the choice is to be between them.

In an excellent piece in the Guardian’s on line edition, guardian.co.uk last Friday, Martin Kettle described the choice the party faces. If you haven’t read this, I recommend that you do.

In my own view, the decision we face boils down to whether we want ‘traditional, back-to-our roots’ labour values, or whether we want to reconnect with the voters who enabled Tony Blair to win 3 elections. I am concerned that a lot of those now supporting Ed Miliband are too young to remember what happened to the party in the 1980s. Then we moved to the left, elected Michael Foot as leader, and made ourselves unelectable in the view of the majority of the population. It took Tony Blair, and the creation of New Labour, to change all that. Do those now supporting Ed Miliband not remember those dark years when Thatcher held sway? Or do they want the party to shift to the left and, in so doing, stay out of power for decades?

Another factor in this discussion is the support of some of the larger unions for Ed Miliband. Undoubtedly they felt threatened in the Blair-Brown years, and think that an Ed Miliband administration would be more sympathetic to their cause. This appears to have been taken to extremes by the GBW union who have talked about ‘reconsidering their position’ over party funding if their favoured candidate doesn’t get elected. Ultimately, these unions will have to modernise, and in the long term, Labour must think carefully about its relationship with them, especially if they continue to make statements like this, which do us no favours in the eyes of the electorate as a whole.

Labour can no longer win an election by depending on its core support. Instead we must reach out to middle England, and to middle class voters. David Miliband is without doubt the candidate best placed to achieve this, and I am keeping everything available crossed for his success in the election that is coming up. Now all I have to do is wait for my ballot papers to arrive!

Some reflections on the NHSdirect decision and the GMB union’s possible intervention in the leadership contest

Sometimes it doesn’t help to have a long memory! While many are criticising the suggested closure of NHSdirect, am I alone in remembering how its establishment was mocked, including by those on the left of Labour? I always felt that it would have been better to use the resources involved directly, for doctors and nurses. As it is, it is an easy target for the coalition.

If it is true that the GMB union are really trying to employ strong arm tactics to influence the result of the leadership contest, then their leaders must be told in no uncertain terms to back off! The decision as to who our next leader will be must be made by the whole party, under our electoral rules. Their action only brings into question our continued association with unions like them! I’m not convinced that they are prepared to sign up to the forward-looking agenda that we must embrace if we wish to regain the confidence of the country, which we must do if we are to be re-elected.

Favourite beers at GBBF2010

Last week I posted a blog on the GBBF. This is a follow-up where I’ll mention the 3 beers that I liked the most. If you are able to try any of them, please do, and let me know what you think!

My favourite was the amazingly named Liquorice Alesort (5%) from the Ashover Brewery in Derbyshire. If you like beer and liquorice allsorts, this is one for you!

A close second was Strawbeery (3.8%), from Lees in Manchester. A refreshing, low alcohol take on a Belgian fruit beer.

My third favourite was Sharp’s Honey Spice (4.2%), from Cornwall, which combined refreshment with honey and spice tones.

There were many others, but these 3 were particularly memorable …

The Great British Beer Festival 2010

As well as my scientific and musical interests, I’m a CAMRA member and a fan of real ale. Each year, unless I’m out of the country, I make a pilgrimage to the Great British Beer Festival (GBBF), and this year was no exception, with the festival taking place last week from Tuesday (3 August) until Saturday.

The festival showcases real ale from all over the UK, and also has an excellent section for ale from elsewhere in the world. There are plenty of food outlets, and entertainment (including musical entertainment) is provided.

I first attended the GBBF in 1983, when it was held in Birmingham, and it has used a number of venues since then, including Brighton, and for many years, Olympia in London. The move to Earls Court a few years ago was made as a result of needing more space, but I preferred the slightly more intimate aspects of Olympia. However, the festival becomes more popular each year; this year attracting nearly 67,000 visitors, so the move was clearly justified!

At the festival, the Champion Beer of Britain is announced, and this year it was Castle Rock Harvest Pale, from Nottingham, which was already a favourite of mine. It is good to see this particular type of relatively low alcohol (3.8%) and very refreshing beer doing well.

This year the distribution of beers and breweries was changed, and whereas previously there were bars representing different parts of the country, this year it was done in alphabetical order of the brewer’s name. In my opinion this system didn’t work as well, and meant that in practice it took longer to find a particular brewery or beer. But if this is repeated next year, I suppose I’ll gradually get used to it! This however is only a minor, cosmetic criticism.

In conclusion, it was another great GBBF, and I look forward to GBBF2011!

The development of nuclear clocks: a new time standard

Currently, time standards (i.e. the way a unit of time is defined) are set by ‘atomic clocks’. These rely on using electromagnetic waves to excite electronic transitions in an atom. The atom chosen is caesium, Cs. But electronic transitions define the chemistry of the elements, and can therefore be subject to external influences. This leads to atomic clocks being constructed in very complicated ways so as to minimise these effects.  Nuclear transitions, i.e. transitions between the energy levels within an atomic nucleus, have the potential of offering greater stability, and considerably improved accuracy (potentially up to 6 orders of magnitude).

Electronic transitions in atoms correspond to a range of energies (and therefore frequencies). For example, for the simplest atom, hydrogen, there are transitions in the infra-red, visible and ultra-violet regions of the spectrum, but all can be probed by laboratory spectroscopic equipment. The issue with nuclear transitions is that, at least potentially, the energies involved can be much higher, making the transitions less straightforward to probe using available sources of electromagnetic radiation. At the very least, a laser will be required, and even then, the energies involved may not all be accessible.

The discovery that made the development of nuclear clocks a real possibility was that the isotope 229Th has a low lying state with a transition energy of 7.6 eV. Although this is in the vacuum ultraviolet region, it is easily accessible by laser spectroscopic methods. This isotope of thorium is rare; it results from the alpha decay of 233U, which is in itself not universally abundant. Not only is it rare, but it is expensive ($50M per gram!). It’s not available for mail order from a chemicals catalogue, for example, and relatively few laboratories in the world have supplies available.

So, how might the clock be constructed, and why is ii of interest to a materials modeller like myself? Well, the thorium nucleus must be embedded in suitable crystal lattice, so once a suitable material is identified, the question arises as to where the nucleus will substitute. One of the groups interested in developing nuclear clocks identified me as someone who could help with this question. The background to their research is given here. They had already identified LiCAF (LiCaAlF6) as a suitable host (it is transparent with a high band gap), so where would a thorium nucleus substitute in the lattice, and if it didn’t have the same charge as the ion it was replacing, how would the charge be compensated? These details are outside the scope of this posting, but can be summarised by saying that the thorium is expected to substitute at a calcium site, and the charge compensated is achieved by two additional fluorine atoms occupying interstitial sites in the lattice. You can read all about it here (contact me if you would like a PDF of the published paper).

So, where are we with nuclear clock development? With collaborators from the USA and Brazil, we will grow LiCAF crystals with 229Th nuclei embedded in them. Once this has been done, testing and ultimately device construction can commence. I will publish further posts as we progress with this exciting project!

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