Saturday, October 31, 2015

Reading the grant guidelines and regulations

Every grant and fellowship program comes with many pages of rules, regulations, guidelines, criteria, ... How carefully should you read them? What can you learn from them?

I have two separate points.

First, as the applicant it is your responsibility to read and to take note of these regulations. This is time consuming and boring. But it is still your responsibility. Don't expect or demand someone else to do it for you. It is not the responsibility of your supervisor, department chair, local research administrator, group secretary, or the funding agency. Don't ask questions when the answers are there in the rules if you actually read them. And don't ignore the rules. For example, if it clearly states you have to be 5 years past your Ph.D, don't apply anyway if you are 3 years past your Ph.D. This may seem inane to some readers, but it does happen. Also, just because it says you can do something does not meet it is a good idea. For example, with regard to budget requests, you may be allowed to ask for $1 million over 5 years, but if you look at the successful applicants you will find almost all get about $300-400K over 3 years.

Second, if possible find out the real inside story about priorities and preferences from the people who actually make the decisions, e.g. someone who has served on the relevant committee. Many grant and fellowship programs will make claims about priorities or preferences, whether it is for specific research fields, women and minorities, renewable energy, early career researchers, national citizens, ..
However, this is sometimes just platitudes and was inserted in the guidelines to sound good or to pacify someone. Don't get your hopes up (or down) if you do (not) fall into this sub-class of applicants. On the other hand, sometimes these are real priorities and if you don't meet this criteria you are wasting your time applying.
Also, not all parts of the application are equally important. Some applicants agonise over preparing sections that actually receive little scrutiny. I know of one program where the actually scientific project and the letters of reference get virtually no attention. It is all based on the CV. The only way you will find out what does and does not matter is to talk to someone.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Hydrogen bonding in Hyderabad

Tomorrow in the School of Chemistry at Central University of Hyderabad I am giving a talk, "Effect of quantum nuclear motion on hydrogen bonding". Here are the slides.
My host is Susanta Mahapatra.

Monday, October 26, 2015

What is the origin of noise in this bad metal?

Last week I had a helpful discussion with Arindam Ghosh about this recent paper

Conductivity noise study of the insulator-metal transition and phase coexistence in epitaxial samarium nickelate thin films 
Anindita Sahoo, Sieu D Ha, Shriram Ramanathan, and Arindam Ghosh

The abstract states
The normalized magnitude of noise is found to be extremely large, being nearly eight orders of magnitude higher than thin films of common disordered metallic systems, and indicates electrical conduction via classical percolation in a spatially inhomogeneous medium.  
The higher-order statistics of the fluctuations indicate a strong non-Gaussian component of noise close to the transition, attributing the inhomogeneity to the coexistence of the metallic and insulating phases. 
The figure below shows how the non-Gaussian component [measured by the kurtosis] increases dramatically as the temperature decreases below the metal-insulator transition.

Some of the fundamental and related questions that arise are:

How much is the noise due to extrinsic disorder [i.e. due to impurities] and how much due to intrinsic disorder [inhomogeneities arising from phase separation at a first-order metal-insulator transition]?

What happens in a very clean system?

How does one actually do a microscopic calculation of this 1/f noise [e.g. from a disordered Hubbard model]?

What happens in a clean system when the temperature crosses over from a Fermi liquid at low temperatures to a bad metal with increasing temperature?

In a recent PRL there is also noise data for  an organic charge transfer salt, in which the disorder and proximity to the Mott transition can be tuned with the cooling rate.

Friday, October 23, 2015

The limitations of Skype meetings

Skype and similar teleconferencing tools are great. I use them regularly to keep in touch with family while travelling and occasionally to talk to collaborators. It is much better than the phone and way better than exchanging emails.

There are some techno-enthusiasts who claim we don't need to have conferences anymore because we can do it all on line and save lots of money. In companies there are those who push for tele-commuting and only have a central office with hot desks that people occasionally use. I have even heard of Australian universities who have hired faculty members from overseas solely based on a Skype interview!

I think such enthusiasm is a big mistake. I have been at a few conferences where some "big shot" did not attend but gave their talk via tele-conferencing. It really wasn't the same as having them in the room. Even without technical glitches, it was not very engaging. Once I was even at a social event where a couple "attended" via Skype. It was inane and awkward.

Recently I attended a committee meeting via Skype. This was the first time I had done that. On a basic level it was o.k., particularly because the subjects under discussion were not that weighty. However, I did notice how different it was to actually being in the room. In particular, I had no sense of body language, facial cues, or tone of voice. I could not really tell how what I said was being received or get much sense of the mood in the room. It was also harder just to engage with the meeting. I struggle with that sometimes, even when I am in the room!

I think when you know the other parties well and the subject is not controversial this is all fine. However, I think on any sensitive subjects or with people you don't really know for important meetings there is no substitute for a face-to-face meeting. People are intrinsically relational and emotional.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Engaging Indian school students in real science experiments

Science education in schools in the Majority World faces many challenges including lack of resources, poorly trained teachers, and a fixation on rote learning from text books. Even at “good” schools few students rarely ever do experiments or hands on demonstrations. The focus is on preparing standard answers for exam questions.

One recent big change in school education in the Majority World is the proliferation of low-cost private schools, even in extremely poor communities. Most of these are English medium. A recent cover story in The Economist chronicled this development.

While in India, I enjoy reading The Hindu newspaper each day. I think the quality of journalism and the substance of the issues covered is much higher than most Western newspapers. More than once a week there is an op-ed piece or article about the problems with Indian school education. Topics covered include the stifling of critical and creative thinking, the lack of autonomy given to teachers by all knowing and controlling principals, …

The last two saturday mornings my wife and I have visited a small private school to give a science lesson for about 2 hours. This school is run by a Charitable Trust. It has a couple of hundred students. A significant fraction are orphans (biological or economic) who live in a children's home also run by the Trust. Annual school fees are about 15,000 Rupees (roughly US$300) including uniform and textbooks. This covers less than half the actual cost; the rest is made up by private donations. Particularly poor students receive scholarships or fee relief. Unlike some Indian private schools this one does not expel students who do poorly on exams. (Schools do this so they can boost their average exam performance). Our personal connection with the school is that the Trust is connected to the church we attend in Bangalore. Both of our own adult children have volunteered at the school and children's home.

Here is roughly what I did in the science lesson. One week we had year 9 (called 9th standard in India) and the next week year 10.

The main goal is give a hands on experience that will help the students see that what they read in the textbook or memorise for the exam actually has something to do with the real world.
It is centred around a baking soda and vinegar film canister rocket. Since this involves cheap household chemicals the hope is the children and/or their teachers might do it again.

I begin with a brief discussion of the scientific "method": ask a question, make a hypothesis (a big idea), design an experiment, make measurements, record data, analysis data, conclusion, and communicate results. I then illustrate this by sticking a wooden skewer in a balloon then show how you can actually put the skewer through the balloon.

I do the film canister rocket experiment. I then just mix a little vinegar and baking soda so they can see gas is being produced. Why is there gas? What gas is it?

I then explain what chemistry is and illustrate with the chemical reaction of baking soda and vinegar,  using full chemical names and chemical formula. Since carbon dioxide is a product we briefly discuss   global warming. I highlight that different compounds in the chemical reaction are gas, solid, or liquid.

I then turn to physics. There are two relevant ideas here:
1. Newton's third law [which they all know word perfect!] and that drives the rocket.
2. When you convert a fixed mass of liquid or solid to gas the total volume increases by a thousandfold. A few grams of carbon dioxide has a volume of several hundred millilitres. Compressing that into the film canister produces a huge pressure.

Now the fun and most important part. We go outside and the students work in pairs where they systematically vary the amount of vinegar they add to the film canister and measure (estimate) the height the rocket goes to. Does more vinegar increase or decrease the height? Why or why not? They record their results. The quicker students I get to repeat their measurements.

After a lot of fun we return to the classroom. I review the chemistry and physics again. Then we compare measurements between different groups, discuss measurement error, and try and draw some conclusions.

The second week I was really happy because a friend came who just finished a Ph.D at Indian Institute of Science. He came from a similar socio-economic background to many of the students. I asked him to tell his life story to the class in the hope it would inspire the students. I don't think a wealthy white Western guy telling poor Indian kids they should study hard and have a lofty goal such as to become a scientist is particularly effective or appropriate.

Follow up. The following week I did the same session with three high school students who were being home schooled by their parents. I was very impressed by their creativity and critical thinking. On their own initiative they realised that it was difficult to make accurate measurements of the height that the rocket went to. Their solution was within about ten minutes to construct the launch device below. Instead of measuring the vertical distance they used a tape measure to measure the horizontal distance the rocket travelled.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Seminar at IISc & a FQHE quasi-particle question

Tomorrow I am giving a seminar in the Physics Department at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. The talk "Emergent states of quantum matter" is similar to the one I gave two weeks ago at JNCASR. 

Then an interesting question was raised. "There are two complementary pictures of the quasi-particles in the Fractional Quantum Hall Effect: composite fermions and fractionally charged anyons. Can one explicitly show they are equivalent?"
I am not sure. One can certainly show that the overlap of the relevant variational wave functions, Laughlin's and the composite fermion ones, is significant and that for small systems that the overlap of both of these wave functions with exact numerical wave function.
However, that "black box" proof is not quite the same as establishing "adiabatic continuity" between the two different representations. Has anyone explicitly done that?

I welcome other answers to this question.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Coffee table books for nerds

This past northern summer I was on vacation on Lopez Island in Washington state [near my wife's hometown]. While browsing in the bookstore I came across this fantastic "coffee table" book The Elements by Theodore Gray (co-founder of Wolfram Research).

There is a page for each element with a fascinating description and beautiful photos. A sample is above. You can view all the pages on the book webpage.
I bought a softcover version for US$25. I think it is important to support local bookstores, particularly given the vagaries of Amazon.

 I was thinking that it would be really nice if there was also a book about molecules, since they are a lot more interesting than atoms. A week later I was in the U of Washington bookstore and I came across Molecules by Theodore Gray! He has also developed some fancy mobile phone apps.

Now the hardcopy cost me US$15. This tells you something else about bookstores...

I am also told that some young kids love these books.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

A video worth showing non-scientists

Sometimes I give talks about science to high school students and to community groups, mostly churches. Recently I showed this one.

Besides the "wow factor" I think it is valuable because it demonstrates some very basic but profound and important points about science.

1. Common sense observation and experience can be misleading.

2. Consequently, nature appears sometimes to be counter intuitive.

3. The way to discover the way things really are is by doing experiments.

One can explain the historical significance of this experiment. Aristotle advocated basing science on common sense observations [heavy objects fall faster, objects that start their motion eventually slow down unless a force is applied to them, objects on earth move in a qualitatively different manner to those in the heavens, ....]. In contrast, Galileo went against this and did real experiments, dropping two balls of different mass [probably not from the leaning tower of Pisa].

This can also lead to a discussion of how scientific observations today confront us today with many counter-intuitive realities such as wave-particle duality, Schrodinger's cat, dark matter, ....

For high school or introductory college students who know Newton's laws of motion and gravitation one can explain how this illustrates the equality of inertial and gravitational mass.

Aside. Thanks to insights from my wife, I stop the video before the very end when Brian Cox starts talking about Einstein and the Principle of Equivalence. Non-scientists find this too confusing, get fixated on it since it is the last thing they hear, and then get distracted from the more basic stuff such as the above.

If your game, you could then discuss the problems with string theory....

Friday, October 9, 2015

Preserving my mental health

In Australia this week is Mental Health Week. 10 October is World Mental Health day.
I have been told that some of my posts and talks about  mental health issues have been helpful and so here are a few random observations.

These are just some things that I have recently noticed and are helpful for myself. They are personal and so may not be helpful  for others. But, hopefully they may stimulate you to think about your own situation.

This is one reason to turn off email occasionally.
Do you really need email on your phone?
It is one of the reasons I don’t even have dumb phone!
I am currently in India and something I like about one of the places we regularly stay is there is no internet in our room. You have to walk outside 100 metres to a different building to access it.

Short breaks.
Several times a day I take a brief walk on campus to clear my head.
UQ has quite a nice campus and so this helps.

The more that it is integrated into your weekly/daily routine the better. I am fortunate that my home is 25 minutes walk from my office. A few years ago I started walking home several times a week.
Now I actually walk both to and from work on most days.

Take a Mental health day.
Minimise particularly stressful situations.
I have slowly learnt that there are certain individuals, activities, and organisations [whether social or professional] that take me a while to recover from. It is not possible to avoid all of them! On the one hand, I don't encourage people to run away from problems and difficult situations. On the other hand, you don't have to be a masochist. Sometimes it is best to opt out.

Get enough.
One or two nights with little sleep, either due to stress or travel, gives me a very bleak view of the world.

Daily victories and small satisfactions.
My view of life is much more positive is on each day I can achieve at least one small thing I think is of value or enjoyable. This is where this blog helps. Writing a post gives a concrete and tangible achievement for the day. I struggle to get such satisfaction from administrative responsibilities or research dead ends!

Physical illness may reflect stress and poor mental health.
I got a cold/flu a few months ago. I realised that I had not been sick for a year and that the last few years I rarely get sick. In contrast, in times when I have had a lot of stress I often got sick and sometimes it took me more than a week to shake off a cold/flu. There is a general folklore that stress increases the susceptibility of individuals to colds, flu, and infections. I did a quick search of the medical literature to see if this is really firmly established but could not find anything particularly convincing. Does anyone know of a relevant study?

Nature and humour.
These are two of the best drugs! The video below combines both!

Monday, October 5, 2015

Emergent quantum matter talk at JNCASR

Tomorrow I am giving a seminar, "Emergent states of quantum matter" at JNCASR in Bangalore. Here are the slides. My host is N.S. Vidhyadhiraja

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Wrapping up an undergraduate research thesis

How do you do it while maintaining sanity and quality?

In Australia a Bachelor of Science is a three year degree. Students have the option of doing an additional year, and being awarded an Honours degree. This is necessary to do a Ph.D. and may help to get into some government jobs.
The honours year is roughly half course work and half a research project leading to a thesis.
The thesis is a bit like a mini Masters degree in other countries.
The thesis is meant to involve original research. For the best students their results may be part of a publication. The thesis is typically 40-80 pages.

I believe that Princeton is unusual among US universities in requiring ALL their students to complete a senior thesis.

Assigning, supervising, and completing these projects is particularly challenging for both advisors and students. Previously I posted advice for students giving seminar talks based on these projects.
Now I turn to the thesis.

First, students don’t actually know much science or have much real research experience. Although there are now a host of summer scholarship schemes and other  opportunities for working in research groups.
Second, the greatest challenge is that there is a fixed deadline for submission of the thesis.
This is quite unlike a Masters or Ph.D where people tend to submit when they “have enough results”. I realise that funding running out or starting a new job sometimes plays a role in when students submit.
Unfortunately, it often seems that just when a student starts to get some useful results, or worst they just appear on the horizon, the thesis deadline is looming. Further stress is created by impending final exams!
Students can also put a lot of pressure on themselves, because getting a good grade for the thesis may influence their future options, particularly if they want to do a Ph.D.

So what should students (and advisors) do to maintain sanity and produce a quality thesis?

Don't wait until the last minute to start writing.
Too many students do this in the hope they are going to finally get their experiment or calculation to work and then slap together a thesis at the last minute, sometimes pulling “all nighters”.

Realistic expectations.
Face your perfectionism.
You are not going to write the best thesis ever.
Look at copies of theses from previous years.
You may have higher expectations than your examiners.

Know what is expected or hoped for.
The presentation of the thesis is as important as any new scientific content.
Examiners enjoy learning something new.

Again, start writing early. 
Don’t wait until you get your results.
Introduction. Literature review. Clear description of the project and its goals.
Methods. Polish what you have. This can all be done sooner than later.

Watch your mental health.