Tag Archives: 2014 posts

Early February madness

I have commented in previous posts about everything that’s going on at the moment for me in terms of work, including preparation of new lecture material, revision of our final year courses, etc. But the last 3 days have been particularly busy, even hectic, and I thought I should describe them here.

On Thursday (6 February) I travelled to Hannover for a research meeting. This was a relatively simple trip, involving a bus to Crewe, a train to Manchester Airport, and a very convenient flight (with FlyBe) to Hannover. On arrival I was met by my host, who took me to my hotel, and later we had some preliminary discussions over a beer in a local bar.

On Friday I went to the Institute of Mineralogy at the University of Hannover, where I met in person the PhD student I’ve been helping via email for just over a year. She summarised what she had done recently, and we discussed possible future research directions for her. I was then scheduled to give a talk, which I did, and I’m pleased to say that it went well. This was followed by lunch, and in the afternoon I was involved in further research discussions with my host and some other researchers (from the University of Bonn). Hopefully this will lead to something fruitful in collaboration terms in the future! The meeting lasted until the late afternoon, when I returned to the airport, in time for my flight back to Manchester.

In planning this trip, I was happy to take the flights from Manchester; they were direct, and the airport is far more convenient than Heathrow or Gatwick! The only problem was that I would arrive back in Manchester too late to take a train home. So I booked a hotel, with a view to taking the first train home in the morning.

That takes me neatly to Saturday morning, 8th February. I got up at 5:00 am, and took the 6:05 train from Manchester Airport to Crewe as planned. On arrival I had a short wait for a bus to Keele, and I got home at just after 7:30 am. This gave me time for breakfast before setting out again, this time by car, to drive to Middlewich High School for a workshop on Borodin’s 2nd symphony, which one of my orchestras is performing at a concert in March. This lasted all day, and was hard work but good fun; I was wilting somewhat by the end through tiredness, but I’m glad I went.

So now, as I write this, I feel I haven’t stopped since Thursday, and that a good rest will be needed on Sunday. Next week sees my first lecture and problem class on X-ray diffraction, with a research funding trip in the middle of the week, so I had better be ready for these!

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My Crystallographic Links

As you may have picked up from my Twitter feed and my most recent post, I’m giving lectures on X-ray diffraction this semester. In preparing them, and thinking about crystallography in general, I have thought back to when I was taught the subject at UCL around 1976-77.

We were taught crystallography by Judith Milledge, herself a former student of Kathleen Lonsdale, who in turn did her PhD with W H Bragg (the older Bragg). Judith was assisted by Monica Mendelssohn, and I remember that both Judith and Monica were very helpful to us, in spite of our probable lack of appreciation of their subject!

In 1978 I graduated and started my PhD with Stuart Walmsley on lattice dynamics of molecular crystals, and in that year the UCL Crystallography Unit transferred from the Chemistry to the Geology Department. They didn’t have to physically ‘move’, because by then Geology were occupying parts of what is now called the Kathleen Lonsdale Building, where they were located. The reason for the move may have had something to do with actions of the then head of department, Max McGlashan, but I have no official evidence of that!

So, in a few weeks’ time, when I give my lectures, I will try to be inspired by the thought that I was taught crystallography by Sir William Bragg’s scientific granddaughter!

2014: an intensive start

2014 is less than 3 weeks old at the time of writing this post, but already my head is spinning from what I’m currently trying to do, as well as what lies ahead in the next 3 months. I’ve tried quoting the late Michael Winner to myself (‘Calm down my dear!’) with mixed success, but sometimes writing it all down helps put things in context, so that’s one aim of this post.

After a fairly quiet first few days of the new year, I had 3 days of frantic activity corresponding to the visit of a research collaborator. Like me, he works in a university and has a full teaching and administrative load, so the times when we can get together to work on research are precious. We managed to deal with the referee’s comments on our latest paper, which has now been accepted, and to plan new work. So it was a successful if exhausting time!

Having recovered, it was time to turn my attention to some new teaching I’m doing this coming semester. It’s on X-ray diffraction, which (almost unbelievably), I’ve never taught before. I’m excited, if nervous at the prospect, but with 2014 being the International Year of Crystallography, it couldn’t be better timed. Also on the teaching front, we’re redesigning our Chemistry course, and it’s the turn of the 3rd year this year. So I’m leading a proposal for a module on Materials Chemistry and Catalysis, and contributing a Quantum Chemistry section to a new Physical Chemistry module. This has involved some administration and preparation of proposals, which is still ongoing. I should also mention that we are currently half way through our autumn semester exam period, and I will have marking to do soon.

In parallel with teaching preparation, I’m now trying to complete another research paper with my Brazilian research collaborators, which I aim to submit in the next few days. Once this is done, there are another couple of papers awaiting my attention. We also have to write abstracts for a conference in the summer, but the deadline is 1 March, so there is still some time for that.

For about a year now I’ve been trying to help a student at the University of Hannover with some fairly complex materials modelling work, and her PhD supervisor has invited me to their next group meeting, on 7th February. So I’ll have a quick trip to Hannover, which will need a talk to be prepared. Fortunately I have a talk that can be updated fairly easily, but it still takes time!

Finally, I have some exciting activities ahead on the musical front. My two current orchestras both have trombone-intensive programmes in their March concerts, so some practising is needed at some point. I’ll post more about these later, but on 8th February, immediately after my quick Hannover trip, I have a workshop to attend on Borodin’s 2nd symphony, which is an exciting piece.

That’s about it for now. I think the reasons for my spinning head syndrome may now be apparent, but writing it all down has helped a bit. My Twitter and Facebook feeds will document the next few weeks, and I’ll post an update here when I have time.

Contemporary thoughts of a Manchester United supporter

I’ve supported Manchester United since 1968, when I was 11. That was the year they first won what was then called the European Cup (more information about that here). There wasn’t much football on TV in those days, but I remember watching the match with my father on our black and white TV, and thinking that this would be a good team to follow. I wrote down the names of the players (including such legends as Bobby Charlton, Styles and Best), and the rest, as they say, is history. I should say at this point that my father was a great football man, and a Newcastle United supporter. I often wonder what he would make of the way the game has changed in the years since his death in 1986.

Throughout my early University years, as an undergraduate, postgraduate and postdoctoral researcher, football didn’t play a major role in my life, largely because of most of the places where I lived (which had not much TV access at all; hard to imagine now), and the fact that I had very little time to watch it anyway. I moved to Keele University in 1986, the same year in which Alex Ferguson arrived at Manchester United. Having a more stable life, and my own TV (!), I was once again able to follow ‘my’ team. And later, in 1994 I married Angela, a ‘proper’ football enthusiast, who introduced me to Champions League football on TV, and generally rekindled my enthusiasm for the game. Over these years, Manchester United steadily became stronger and better, culminating (of course) in their treble win in 1999. From then on, up to the end of the season in 2013 when Ferguson retired, the trophies kept coming in. It was tempting to become complacent, but at the back of my mind was the feeling that it couldn’t last for ever.

So, fast forwarding to the end of the season in 2013, I supported David Moyes as replacement for Ferguson (see an earlier post). Although this support has been tested over the last few months, I still think he’ll turn out fine, provided he is given time, and money to add to the team. At the time of writing, Manchester United are a poor 7th in the league table, and they are out of the FA cup. Survival in the Capital One Cup depends on overturning the first leg result by beating Sunderland by a sufficient number of goals on Wednesday. The transfer window is open until the end of the month, but so far there is only speculation about new players joining the club, or of players leaving.

So, having supported my team for nearly 46 years, these are obviously trying times! But I have come to the conclusion that there is no point in bemoaning poor performance, since Manchester United are now going through a period of change, and (just as happened in 1986) it might take several years for them to rebuild. It seems unlikely that they will qualify for Champions League football next season, and even a top 6 finish isn’t guaranteed. So it’s a case of taking each game as it comes, enjoying the successes when they happen, but being philosophical about the defeats. It will take time, but Manchester United will rise again!

Limitations of infrastructure on the latest technology

My latest tech purchase has been a Google Nexus 7 tablet. It is a truly excellent device, purchased to replace my Coby tablet which did an great job in introducing me to tablets (see previous posts which refer to its use) but which was struggling with the  increasing demands I placed on it.

In fact I am typing this post on the Nexus, and finding the virtual keyboard and spell checker, as well as the intelligent predictive text, to be very easy to use. But I digress.

When one reads the tech literature, new devices always seem to have been tested in environments with perfect WiFi! Splendid as the Nexus is, it is totally unforgiving of the indifferent WiFi that I have in my office (even after the summer ‘improvements’), and is similarly frequently dismissive of the ‘MiFi’ device I use at home. For example, this evening it downloaded a PDF with no problem, but then refused to send an email, claiming there to be ‘no connection’! I eventually had to send it using my phone, with good old GPRS.

My point, I suppose, is that it would be refreshing if reviewers occasionally tested devices in the sort of conditions that many users encounter! In the meantime I will sadly be obliged to visit coffee houses and the like regularly to use their WiFi (for example I’ve found The Cloud to be consistently reliable, and it is found in Costa and Wetherspoons!)

To end with, I’m happy to report that my old Coby tablet is now thriving. I did a system restore, and set it up with a minimal number of apps. My wife is happily using it mainly as an eReader, and it much prefers her more patient and considered approach!

Harry Greenwood and Keele’s Computational Chemistry past

Dr Harry Greenwood, former director of Keele’s Computer Centre, died just over 15 months ago, on 10 August 2013, aged 92. At the time this led me to think about Harry’s role in Computational Chemistry at Keele, that being the area he did his PhD research in. I started writing this post shortly after I learned of his death, but had to set it aside due to many other demands on my time. I have recently been inspired to complete it by my preparation of some new lectures on Quantum Chemistry, and particularly the development of a molecular orbital exercise for the students taking these lectures.

Harry was Director of Keele’s Computer Centre between 1967-1987. I arrived at Keele in 1986 as a member of Richard Catlow’s group, and so I briefly overlapped with Harry’s tenure. As a computational based group, we made considerable demands on the computing infrastructure at Keele, and we appreciated the help of Harry, and of his successor, Colin Silk, in those early years.

Harry did his PhD at King’s College London, with Charles Coulson in the area of Valence Theory, which Coulson made such an impact in. Amongst Coulson’s other students were Roy McWeeny, who was later an academic member of staff at Keele (more on him later), and Alan Lidiard, who was the PhD supervisor of my postdoc supervisor at Keele, Richard Catlow. Incidentally, Coulson died in 1974, shortly before he was due to examine Richard’s thesis.

Harry’s scientific ‘brother’, Roy McWeeny, did his doctorate with Coulson while he was in his first period at Oxford (before King’s). In the preface to his Third Edition of Coulson’s great book, Valence, McWeeny mentions that this was in the years 1946-8. Coulson was at King’s between 1947-52, and Harry’s PhD must have been during this time. McWeeny was at Keele between 1957-65. I have not been able to establish whether McWeeny and Greenwood were at Keele at the same time, but if they were, it is quite significant that two of Coulson’s students were at Keele concurrently!

There is another intriguing Keele connection, in that Coulson’s PhD supervisor at Cambridge was Sir John Lennard-Jones, who was the second Principal of the University College of North Staffordshire, (which became Keele University), between 1953-4.

Finally, John Pople, a scientific brother of Coulson, was responsible for the Gaussian program, which is a widely used computational chemistry code. I’ll be using Gaussian next week, and the students will use this modern code to repeat Coulson’s calculations on molecular hydrogen from 1937.

Returning to Harry Greenwood, he was part of Coulson’s (and ultimately Lennard-Jones’s) scientific dynasty. I am very aware of this as I try to teach the subject that they developed. It is certainly inspirational!