Alex's (very) occasional blog

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One of an occasional series.


Written by alexconnor

April 6, 2012 at 20:50

Posted in Not really Flanders., Steps

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The hyperbolic hotel.

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The primary television transmitter for northern parts of the Czech Republic was completed in 1968. It serves the city of Liberec, along with much of Bohemia, southern Germany and south west Poland. Uniquely for a mountain-top transmission tower, it is also a hotel. A hotel from another time.

Egg chairs.

Hotel Ještěd sits a kilometre above sea level, on the top of the highest peak of Ještěd-Kozákov Ridge. It is not, as you might imagine, built in the traditions of a medieval, turreted Bohemian castle. Ještěd is the height of middle-European 1960s luxury.

It is reachable by treacherous mountain road, a hike through an ancient forest, or, and this is preferable, its own dedicated cable car.


It stands proud, king of the mountain, and also of its own ski resort. Thirty metres across at its base, the tower rises as a circular hyperboloid.

It should feel like a lighthouse; it feels like a space station.


Unlike other mathematically-themed hotels, Ještěd isn’t very big. It has 12 proper rooms, with a further half-dozen ski-chalet bunks. The restaurant has nine tables. But mathematics can only take you so far. Ještěd is a triumph of design over all things. Built as a new summit to the mountain, the tower defeated nature long ago.

The interior is inch perfect, besting time and progress. From the egg chairs in the hallways to the banana splits in the restaurant, Ještěd lives and breathes 60s glamour. (Though I can’t imagine that the Liberec of 1973 was any more the Monaco of central Europe than it is today — the Manchester of Bohemia, the guidebook says.) There are drawbacks to perfection. The shape means that as the weather warms, chunks of ice fall from the top of the tower and clatter down the outside of the structure. The sound echoing through the minimalist rooms. The staff are, understandably, a little surly, shut away at the top of a mountain. Aside from the restaurant and some Czech TV, there isn’t much to do, at least for English speakers; this is very much a German beach. But, hyperbole to one side, what a beach.


Written by alexconnor

January 3, 2012 at 22:56

Last, best hope for peace.

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It is not as much of a secret garden as it likes to think it is, if only because those navigating central London by tall buildings will likely stumble across it. But it always feels empty. A sense of quiet, even on its busiest lunchtime.

Between Seven Dials and Denmark Street.

Out the back of Seven Dials, and a few steps away from the modernisation wrought on Tottenham Court Road (whither Dionysus ) the Phoenix garden is a bit of London that never really got over the last great war. For forty years it served as a car park (itself a hidden gem, I imagine, for those who knew where to find it). And now it is the last of the unnecessarily repetitive Covent Garden Community Gardens.

The four scourges of inner city gardens.

A haven from the four scourges of modern life. The garden even has an eighteenth-century, Palladian-type church to complete the illusion.

That you can rent it out for the day somehow seems to miss the point.

Written by alexconnor

November 13, 2011 at 13:17

Posted in Sunburn

Tagged with , ,

The Wheatstone Bridge.

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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


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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

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Running on the backstreets.

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Should have a solidus.

I notice this. Apt.

W.C. is one of those linguistic curiosities: pervasive (common to at least half a dozen languages, more-or-less the pan-(western-)European identifier for a toilet), yet obscure. Does anyone really call a toilet a W.C.?

Written by alexconnor

July 17, 2011 at 21:49

Posted in Not really Flanders.

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Idle thoughts.

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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

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