Alex's (very) occasional blog

New version. Old one still kicking around somewhere. (Views personal, etc.)

Archive for the ‘Physics’ Category

There are insufficient data to warrant a discussion of this problem.

leave a comment »

Fig 2.

So ends Margaret Thatcher’s one and only published scientific paper. Many people have contributed less to science. But not many of those became Fellows of the Royal Society.

‘The saponification of α-monostearin in a monolayer’ was published in 1951 in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture (not open access…) and describes the results of a series of some somewhat fiddly-sounding temperature- and pressure-dependence studies of the saponification of a glyceride.

Paul Nurse railed a couple of years ago against the modern style of paper writing, preferring the simpler times and terms of his youth. This paper reads as though it should have an list of apparatus at the beginning. Instead it opens with a cursory overview of the context of the experiments – the monostearins studied have found use as emulsifying agents, and their properties in this context are not well understood. The young Margaret Roberts was seemingly tasked with elucidating these for J. Lyons, the food manufacturer. A contemporary in the company recalled that Roberts had the job of “improving the over-run [air content] of ice cream”, which ties in well with the emulsifier work she published (in ice cream, emulsifiers can act as both stabilisers and aerating agents). It ends as all good science should : “The reason why equation (3) is not obeyed at higher temperatures is obscure. … no satisfactory explanation was found and it is felt that there are insufficient data to warrant a discussion of this problem.”

So, no, as everyone knows, she didn’t invent Mr Whippy. Not least because soft-scoop ice cream was already well-established in the US by this time, also because it seems unlikely that any one person could invent such a thing. But it is likely that she worked in the ice cream group and undertook research relevant to the product. And so went Thatcher the Chemist.

But what of the co-author, Hans Helmut Gunter Jellinek ? Much more interesting, if less well documented.

Jellinek was born in 1917. His wife Ruth was born in Stuttgart n 1918, and the two were married in England in 1948.

Hans Jellinek’s career began in England, possibly at Lyons itself, and at some point over the new twenty years he and his wife moved to the USA where he took up a post at Clarkson College of Technology in upstate New York. While holding down a job at what is now Clarkson University, he went to Japan and also seems have gained some local notoriety, and an excellent local-paper headline in the Schenectady Gazette.

He published over 160 articles and books over a 40-year career that ranged from the kind of food research he did at Lyons, to studies of the degradation of plastics, to the interfacial properties of ice and snow.

He retired a professor in 1982, seemingly so that he could spend more time with his work. At this point he received a lovely note from his co-author of 1951. Maybe it is just formality, properness, but I do wonder if, in all the time from joining him as a junior colleague to writing to him as a Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher had ever called him by his first name.

Jellinek letter


Written by alexconnor

April 17, 2013 at 23:09

The Wheatstone Bridge.

leave a comment »

Q corridor

One thing I missed when noting the passing of my dear old research group was the disappearance of something with a bit more history : with the retirement of the doyen of diamond science Alan Collins, went the last vestiges of the venerable Wheatstone Physics Laboratory.

Named for, as you might suspect, Charles Wheatstone, it was the home of Rosalind Franklin and Ray Gosling, also of Maurice Wilkins’s co-authors on his coincidental paper. It was the home address of an awful lot of academics for at least 60 years.

To be honest, I don’t know very much about it, other than that it was also my academic address. I assume that it used to be a physical place, rather than just a slightly fancy name. Most of my colleagues used the more prosaic ‘Department of Physics’.

It may well have come into being when they rebuilt after the war. It might have been what ended up as the old teaching lab. Or they might have just re-used the door signs.

That’s gone now too, a lovely old wooden lab replaced by a gleaming white plastic one.

Written by alexconnor

September 2, 2011 at 20:52


leave a comment »

1st generation caesium fountain atomic clock
(A caesium fountain atomic clock, from NPL’s flickr. I would bet money that they don’t need all of those mirrors on days when the photographer isn’t there.)

Simple, elegant things. Yet somehow very hard to explain. (Also prone to wonderfully spurious precision — less than a second in 138 million years !?) Getting from frequency to time is not necessarily an intuitive thing (also, frequency is a Bad Word). Many years ago, after writing the thing in the first link above, I spent an hour trying to explain it to someone. Working from analogy, getting time from distance travelled a car, was the best I could manage. Pretty sure it didn’t work.

Written by alexconnor

August 27, 2011 at 21:31

Posted in Physics, Pie, Science

Tagged with , ,

Idle thoughts.

leave a comment »

IBR Roomba Swarm in the Dark IV
A long exposure of pseudo-random-walking roombas with LEDs on top of them. If this isn’t physics, I don’t know what is. (image borrowed from flickr)

For better or worse, the successful(ish) case made for investment in science in recent years has been built around a purported contribution to economic growth. The case has been made sometimes in quite a sophisticated way, sometimes less so (and it is heartening that there is less talk these days of occasional floatations of spinouts, and more about the broader role of science in the economy), but a big part of the argument was the production of science graduates and what they bring to an economy.

Late last year, slightly unnoticed in the shadow of the Spending Review, the Treasury published its Infrastructure Plan. The plan shifted the ground slightly, counting investment in science (and particularly science-trained people) alongside the motorway network and the National Grid. Essential for the nation. (Something some of us have been saying for a long time.) The conversation was no longer about the occasional bonus, the high-value spinout, or even the WWWs of this world; it is a focus on the intellectual capital that results from investment in science, and a recognition of the importance that it has across the economy. Investment in research justified by both the people and the ideas it produces.

So far, so good.

What comes next is perhaps trickier. The higher education system, that which hosts much of the research funded by government and produces those science graduates, is undergoing an ever-so-slight transition. I don’t think anyone would want to predict how it will look in ten years’ time, but it is not unlikely that the structure of some university science departments will change. Some will keep a focus on research, others will likely put their efforts into ‘the student experience’, becoming, essentially, non-research departments.

So an old question arises: does a department need research to generate STEM graduates? If not, then one of the major loadbearing beams of the argument for investment in science and research is lost. If so, what does that mean for the departments or universities that answer the call to focus on teaching?

Written by alexconnor

July 4, 2011 at 22:13

Posted in Physics, Sunburn

Tagged with

Diamonds bounce.

with one comment

It’s perhaps a little known fact, and one hard to arrive at from first principles, but is something that any young experimentalist learns within a couple of hours:  if dropped on a hard floor, diamonds bounce.  And they bounce well. Like a golf ball on a country road.

This is an occupational hazard when working with diamonds. It was not uncommon to walk into my old lab and see a professor’s backside in the air as he crawled round the room searching the for the unique sample he has been studying for the past six months. I say ‘was’, because my old group has now gone the way that all research groups ultimately do — a quick check of the dept. website shows that following the retirements of a couple of key members, it is no more.

Research groups don’t tend to be mourned, or even have their passing marked, so I’m not going to write an obituary here. Well, not really.

A diamond
Diamonds – notoriously difficult to photograph

Much of the work of the group was on understanding the properties of defects in diamond  (“blue-skies research on atomic-scale defects in the perfect covalent crystal”, as the grant application put it). This covered both the standard electrical semiconductor things, but also the optical properties :  how to change the colours of gem diamonds, and how to tell if a flawless diamond you buy from a jewellers came out of the ground looking that good.

So, kind-of esoteric, but also kind-of commercial. But legacy is more than that: the work by members of the group on the properties of the negatively-charged nitrogen-vacancy centre in diamond is being exploited in the development of single-photon sources for quantum cryptography; they are, I think, using diamond detectors in ATLAS as beam profile analysers.  I keep getting citation alerts (yes, vanity…) from the American Mineralogist.  I can’t read the papers, but choose to assume that it is seminal work they are publishing.

As for the people, amongst the usual smattering of academics, quants and investments bankers, the ‘alumni’ of the group include a science teacher and a clinical scientist(?). Also the world’s most helpful post-doc Karl Johnston appears to be heading up the solid state physics at ISOLDE at CERN.

Laboratory glamour
Lab glamour.  (I don’t seem to have a picture of the diamond lab I used – this was Shu’s one next door.)

Objectively (ish), a middle-ranking group has reached the end of its natural life – science rumbles on, and the younger researchers have found new homes (and it was perhaps enough of a slap in the face to find that, in later years, we were increasingly chasing funding from the “applied materials science” stream). Still, I do wonder what they are going to do with all those leaky, lightless rooms under the car park.

Written by alexconnor

May 1, 2011 at 21:10

Posted in Physics

Tagged with , ,

%d bloggers like this: