BANG! The Universe Verse

I was asked to review this rather cute book:

BANG! The Universe Verse (Book I). The book is a portrayal of how the laws of Physics as we know them today arose in the short period of time after the Big Bang. The book also explains how matter forms, and how nuclear fusion and stellar activity plays a significant role in explaining why the Universe appears as it does at present.

But the cool thing about the book is that is is presented in a comic book format, with two cute characters guiding you through the science. Here is an excerpt:

“The proton in the centre may not be alone
As another has access to this VIP Zone
The neutron may not be quite as attractive
But it is quiet, well mannered, and rarely reactive”

This would be great to read to kids 🙂

You can read the PDF version online or support the author and buy the book.

Let there be cake…

Our weekly cake club has an elevated status. It is now possible to find ‘Cake seminars’ on the Talks@Bham page, which means our cake club agenda is not only publicly available, but anyone from around the University can drop in if they noticed the event….

…which is a bad thing, as I don’t think I baked enough cakes for everyone in the Uni. Anyway, here are the ones I baked for the weekly gathering…


There’s a new club night in Birmingham called ‘Helium’:

The DJs sport names such as ‘Diesel’, ‘Vermin’ and ‘Yumbolt’. Now if I were spinnin’ choonz at this club I would have called myself DJ Supersolid, but then again maybe they haven’t been keeping up to date with the latest developments in condensed matter physics.

The club has an ‘elements’ theme in general, with an Oxygen room, a Nitrogen room and a Carbon room. Cute. No Niobium room though, booo…

The brain is amazing

This morning I was awoken by the telephone ringing at about 6am. It only rang once. But this made me realise something rather profound.

I had obviously been asleep before the ring. In fact, I remembered what I had been dreaming about. Specifically, I dreamt that I was in a completely different location. I was at the home of some of my close relatives, nowhere near where I live, and we were discussing something over a box of chocolates (not that I dream about chocolate all the time or anything) but the important point is that this was a totally different environment filled with a set of people undergoing complex social interactions. As an aside, one should note that I always dream as though everything is happening for real – I can never control dreams or be aware that they are actually only dreams, so this felt like a totally normal series of events, as would happen during an average day.

Anyway, because the telephone only rang once I was able to gain a temporal reference of the time frame over which the following occurred: My brain was able to change its mode of operation from self-referential to external input driven, my mental model of the world was substantially overhauled by awakening into a completely different environment, realising who I am, where I was, the fact that there was a telephone ringing in the next room, understanding what a telephone is, that it was some time in the early morning, that the telephone should really *not* be ringing at this time, and that I should probably be doing something about the fact that it is.

In a period of approximately 2 seconds, by the time the ring was over, I was contemplating whether or not to get up and try to answer it. I usually don’t have such an accurate temporal reference to the experience of awakening, as I awake either naturally or via my alarm clock which I have actually learned to turn off whilst still mostly asleep so I have no idea how long it takes me to ‘come round’ under those circumstances.

Interestingly, I recall another occasion whereby I was awoken by an earthquake. This was a very different experience, I was completely confused, presumably because my brain couldn’t latch onto a real world model of my ‘self’ to load in that particular environment (i.e. one where the room was shaking around), as it had never had any reference data under similar circumstances.

Anyway, this just totally makes me crazy thinking about it. No need to load any data into RAM, no need to boot an OS, just taking in a couple of visual, audio and physical orientation-based input data streams for a half second or so is enough to kickstart those reinforcement learned neural circuits back into firing in recognisable patterns which correlate with wakeful consciousness, self-awareness, and understanding of your environment. You’re back to your normal self. Pretty neat, huh? That’s what a special-purpose processor running a hard-wired algorithm, evolved to be natively efficient, can do for you.

I just think the brain is cool sometimes.

Steampunk fun

Cool. I love steampunk stuff. Especially as quite a lot of the random junk equipment in my lab looks vaguely like it could belong in this genre. So here’s an exhibition you can go and see in Oxford:

Tech Know: Fast forward to the past

“The growing number of artists and amateurs who have built steampunk devices has led the Oxford Museum of the History of Science to mount an exhibition of them. The show runs until February 2010.

Browse the exhibits and spend time with steampunks and it becomes obvious how to spot members of that distinguished breed – they are the ones with the swagger and buckets of style”

Here are some more Pretty pictures

There’s also a blog:
Steampunk Art @ Oxford, The Museum of the History of Science, Oxford University

Second Campus?

So the freshers have arrived on campus and the new University term has started. To mark this occasion, the University have decided to adorn the campus with these boards, demonstrating some of the more visual results of research undertaken in the college of Engineering and Physical Sciences. I’m sure the idea is to convey the fun, excitement and beauty of research science.


However there is one problem. As I’m walking through campus, I keep thinking I’m in Second Life. In SL, people convey information on these giant boards that look identical to these ones… apart from they take longer to load in SL. Unless I haven’t had enough coffee in the mornings, then it’s a pretty close call. So you see, I’m now having even more difficulty separating my real and virtual lives…

In SL, you can click on the boards and they give you information. I’m wondering if we can write an iPhone app with one of the augmented reality frameworks that does the same thing with these boards. Perhaps it could take you to the group’s website, etc…

And yes, the students do behave in a remarkably similar fashion to SL avatars. Sometimes they just stand around like they are totally AFK.

Experimental insights: Steampunk fridge!

We were having problems lowering the Heliox insert into the storage dewar, the vacuum can would touch the top of the liquid Helium before the seal could be made, resulting in a rapid and somewhat violent boil-off of Liquid Helium. Frozen fingers ensued, as did cursing at the wastage of gas. Unfortunately I don’t have any pictures of said shenanigans, mainly because I was trying to desparately help get the seal made at the time.

But I do have a picture of our cunning solution:


A nifty set of bellows made from the flexible hose stuff that you attach to tumble dryers and some nice adapters to mount it onto the fridge fittings, courtesy of our technicians. I take no responsibility for the crazy MacGyver-ness this time, it was all my colleagues’ doing 🙂

(You can actually buy vacuum bellows from places like Kurt J. Lesker, but they cost hundreds of pounds, and this would probably have been specified as a custom job anyway, which can sometimes increase the price by an order of magnitude).

Anyway, the hose confines the boiling gas as you lower the insert. Which seems to work rather well. It also adds a nice steampunk touch to an otherwise commercial fridge assembly.