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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The World Cup Final and Conferences

The last 3 World Cup Finals, and the one that will happen this year. have all coincided with a conference that I attend regularly, the European Conference on Defects in Insulating Materials. So, in my mind the 2 events are associated with each other. I have watched the final in 3 different conference locations, always with my Brazilian research collaborator, which has added ‘spice’ to the occasion! In 1998, when France beat Brazil, we were in Keele, while 2002 found us in Wroclaw, Poland. On that occasion, Brazil beat Germany, so that was OK! 2006 was perhaps most eventful. We were in Milan, and the final was between France and Italy! To be in an Italian city as the drama unfolded was something else. When Italy won, my Brazilian friend memorably remembered his Italian roots, and went native while the rest of us tried to go to bed and sleep in preparation for the conference.
So, what of 2010? We’ll be in Pecs, Hungary, in some unsuspecting bar, watching who? It would indeed be poetic if it was England against Brazil, but that seems unlikely if we play like we did against Japan recently! But who knows?

The abolition of ID cards

Our new ConDem Home Secretary, Theresa May, today announced the abolition of the ID card scheme. I seem to be one of the few people among those I know, both socially and via the web, that regrets this.

For some reason unknown to me, many people equated ID cards with an invasion of civil liberties. But they are not seen that way in the many countries that have them!

For me, an ID card would have been very useful for my travels, which sometimes take me to more ‘exotic’ locations, and where having a second form of photo ID would be useful. Even in the USA I have been asked for this, including, somewhat scarily, twice at immigration! On these occasions all I could do was show my work ID card and hope for the best.

No-one has mentioned the practical advantages of an ID card scheme, and I’m sorry that I won’t now have one. I’ll have to look into applying for a driving licence with a photo ID, as this seems the only alternative.

Learning to play the ukulele!

OK, I’m a musician. An experienced trombone player and a very amateur pianist. But I’ve never played a guitar or an orchestral stringed instrument like the violin. Then my admiration for the music of George Formby sparked an interest in the ukulele, and my dear wife Angela has just bought me one as an anniversary present. So I’m going to learn to play it, and blog my progress, which will make a change from my usual posts on chemistry and politics! More when I’ve tuned it!

New Labour or Next Labour – but let’s move on!

This week we learned the timescale for the election of the new leader of the Labour Party. Nominations have to be in by late May, and then we have nearly four months before the result of the ballot is announced in late September. I think this is crazy!

Some colleagues will relish the opportunity for plenty of discussion and debate, but I feel that, having lost the election, we need to quickly re-establish ourselves and move one. Without an official leader we will not be taken seriously, even if we are in the safe hands of Harriet Harman, good though she will undoubtedly be. I would have preferred a month of campaigning, and an election in July, with a new leader in place well before the end of the summer.  Instead, discussions will drag on interminably, and the press will have a field day (or perhaps that should be a field four months?)

As for choice of the new leader,  as I have said previously, I am backing David Miliband as the best person to unite the party and regain the confidence of any voters who deserted us earlier this month. I hope he will win the leadership election, but I have a long frustrating wait before finding out if he has!

Comment on ‘The Brightest X-Ray Machine in the World probes Molecules’

I recently retweeted a link to an Science Daily piece on the ‘Brightest X-ray Machine in the World’, which refers to the Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS) at Stanford. Calling it the ‘Brightest X-ray Machine’ seems to need some clarification, which I will attempt to do here.

First, we must remember that X-rays, whether we think of them as electromagnetic waves or photons, have energies that depend on their frequencies (or wavelengths). ‘Hard’ X-rays have wavelengths in the range 0.1-0.01 nm, which correspond to energies of about 12 to 120 keV (energies and wavelengths or frequencies being related by the Planck equation). It is the wavelength (or frequency) that determines the energy of the X-ray photon. It is easy to confuse this with the ‘brightness’ of the beam, which refers to the number of X-ray photons emitted, and which can be measured in units of power per unit area (i.e. the number of photons of a particular energy striking a given surface area). In the article, a beam intensity of 10 to the power of 18 Watts per square centimetre is quoted for the LCLS machine.

It is the energies of the X-rays that determine what they can be used for in an experiment. In order to ‘strip’ electrons off an atom, energies that are greater than or equal to the binding energies of the electrons are needed. The advantage of having a brighter (more intense) X-ray machine like the LCLS is that more photons are available, so for the above case, more electrons can be removed, making their detection easier, and meaningful results more possible to obtain.

This can, of course, be directly related to the photoelectric effect experiment, where light is shone onto a metal surface, and electrons observed to be emitted from the surface provided the light frequency is high enough. Increasing the light intensity can liberate more electrons, but only if the frequency is high enough.

The ConDem’d: Day 2

Yesterday I speculated on who would get the Education jobs in the new cabinet. Well, the picture is now clear. Michael Gove is the Schools Secretary, and David Willetts becomes Minister for Universities and Science, working under Vince Cable. Although my left wing inclinations give me an instinctive mistrust of Gove and Willetts, both were on record when in opposition of making some interesting comments which might just be good news for Science and HE.  Gove had ideas for helping get more science graduates into teaching, and Willetts was against the much-disliked Research Excellence Framework (REF)  ‘impact’ criteria applied in judging research grant proposals. Unfortunately, it’s a lot easier to make such claims when in opposition, and in the cold light of real government other things tend to get in the way. But I have surprised myself by feeling a note of optimism as a result of the appointment of these two ministers, much as I disagree with their politics!

Other cabinet positions announced yesterday included Theresa May as Home Secretary, Ken Clarke as Lord Chancellor, Philip Hammond as Transport Secretary and Ian Duncan Smith as Work and Pensions Secretary. Of these, the one that gives me most concern is the first. I don’t mind Ken Clarke; at least he’s pro-Europe!

It will be interesting to see how Gove and Willetts get on; there is some hope that they might do some good for education and Science in the UK.

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