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!

The long wait for the Labour leadership election

In an earlier blog post I bemoaned the length of time being taken for the Labour leadership campaign. And now we are nearly at the end of July, and still it goes on! The candidates have now canvassed support, and CLPs and Unions have made their preferences. So what is still to be done? Rather than delay another month, it would be far better to have the election in early August. The sooner our new leader is in place, the sooner we can move on and provide a credible opposition to the ConDems. The continuing delay is nothing but harmful and frustrating!

European Conference on Defects in Insulating Materials, 2010

I recently attended one of my regular conferences, the European Conference on Defects in Insulating Materials, which was held in Pecs, Hungary from 11-16 July. For me, this conference was really excellent, with all my current research collaborators attending, providing an unparalleled opportunity for networking, and planning future projects. Earlier in the year I defended scientific conferences against criticisms, and this conference was an excellent example of how conferences can be really effective. In a series of future blog postings, I will describe some of the topics covered at the conference, and how they link with my current research interests.

All quiet on the blogging front!

I haven’t posted to my blog for some time, I realise. This won’t do, but why the silence? After the election there was plenty to write about. Since then I’ve been bogged down by a combination of exam marking and administration, preparing a talk for a conference last week, and a kind of resigned feeling of despair at the actions of the ConDem government, culminating in the awful budget last week. Now the students have packed their bags, we have a rare ‘research window’, and time to post some entries. Watch this space for more soon!

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