While I’m busy getting married, Jon has graciously assented to being Guest Blogger. Thank you, Jon!
I promised to write a note about myself, as a scientist, as a string theorist. I’ve taken a slightly strange route into this field and I’m also perhaps not an ‘average string theorist’ whatever one of those is.
I did my undergraduate degree at Bristol University, in the South West of England, a wonderful, vibrant city. A perfect sized city full of student haunts, extremely multicultural areas and a constant buzz, whether at the many great arts cinemas, the constant flow of bands coming through the city, the excellent restaurants popping up all over the place and wonderful countryside not far away.
I loved being an undergraduate in Bristol, not only because the city was wonderful but also because I quickly realised that I was one of the lucky few who had taken a subject which felt right from day one. I enjoyed physics a great deal, I loved the challenges, the eureka moments, the nights not sleeping because I had a problem buzzing round in my head. I took four years in Bristol fascinated by just about every course I took and doing well at them too.
In the final year it was necessary to pick a project to work on for the year. What appealed most was a project in particle physics. I’d realised that this was about the most fundamental aspect of physics I could hope to be studying. I ended up doing a project related to the Babar detector at the Stanford Linear Accelerator centre (SLAC). My project partner and I had the task of working out the most efficient way to sift through data for certain events that would occur at this detector after a particle collision, out of the mass of background events which were not interesting for our particular study.
We were studying the lepton flavour violating events tau to mu gamma and had a particular motivation for studying this event. This meant trying to understand the theory behind it, in order to give a good writeup (not in order to better accomplish the task of data analysis). Anyway, I learnt about a variety of subjects and spent many many weeks creating code to sift for the particular events that we would be searching for in the real data. I’ve talked a little in the past about the genetic algorithm I wrote for this task which was a lot of fun to create.
Anyway, after a successful project I was offered a dream PhD. I was to spend a year in Southampton University learning quantum field theory, group theory, supersymmetry and teaching myself B physics (the physics of mesons containing b-quarks). I was then to go to California, to SLAC where my original masters project had originated, to study CP violating in B meson systems – definitely not string theory. I would have an advantage over many of the students there who would have jumped straight into the detector physics and analysis, whereas I would have a year of theory behind me.
So, I started at Southampton and again loved it, I spent hours pestering the lecturers over points that didn’t seem to make sense, gaps in arguments, trying desperately to get a thorough understanding of the topics we were studying. I had a lot of fun discussing and arguing with my fellow students about what we were learning. I hugely enjoyed the first six months of theory and it seemed that I could do it. That is to say that I could keep up quite happily with the courses, knowing whether or not I could do my own original research was quite another matter.
After six months I went to California to get oriented with the setup at Babar, to meet the people and to learn some more about the project I was going to be involved with.
I arrived in sunny San Francisco, and made my way to Stanford through the lush green hills under perfect blue skies. The area around Stanford is extremely affluent, and I was greeted by multi-million dollar houses and a never ending stream of 4x4s (this did not impress me!). SLAC itself is a huge expanse of land dotted with buildings maintaining the accelerator and the detectors along with a theory division and many administrative buildings. The site is very peaceful, close enough to San Francisco to allow for entertainment when you need to get out and close enough to Palo Alto and the surrounding towns that there is a wealth of fine restaurants to sate the appetite.
I met many of the PhD students working on Babar and some of the more senior staff. I had a tour of the grounds and wandered around the surrounding area. All was perfect as far as I could tell. I spent some time continuing to learn more about the physics and speaking with the young researchers. A friendly, close knit community who seemed to have a good balance of work and play.
I was told a little more about the work that I would be doing and something became quickly clear to me. I asked about the physics that the students did. Physics? They asked, we don’t do physics! We do data analysis. I still don’t know how true these statements were but they claimed that they hadn’t done any physics since they were undergraduates. They spent their time doing either engineering on the accelerator, writing C++ codes to analyse data or software for the detector. All of this is vital for the progress of theoretical physics, and I truly wouldn’t want to put anyone off this genuinely fascinating area, but it was a shock to me at the time. It seemed that although I had a training in theoretical physics, I was still going to be spending a good deal of my time simply doing data analysis.
I should note that all these students loved what they did. They had an incredible life in California working on very exciting projects and having spent some time performing these tasks of data analysis they would get more and more involved with the physics. However, the gap between experimental and theoretical particle physics is not small and somehow I was going to have to straddle the gap – essentially fulfilling both roles at the same time.
In retrospect I may have been able to do this. At the time it felt like I was going to be pulled into the world of data analysis. Something which I had spent a year doing as an undergraduate, had found interesting at the time, but having now spent 6 months learning quantum field theory the prospect had rather lost its appeal. I was just so hugely enjoying exploring the arena of theoretical physics that I was horribly torn.
I got back to the UK with a huge decision to make. My week at SLAC had been great, but the thought of giving up the more theoretical end of the subject was a terrible one for me. The options were either to do something that I had done before and knew that I could do, live in California with a great group of people working on an important research topic with a relatively safe future and a very good pay (compared the studentship in the UK). Or, I could Take a plunge into an area which I knew I enjoyed hugely but had never been let loose on, stay in Southampton with an admittedly great group of people but without the Californian weather or the pay to match.
This was perhaps the hardest decision of my life – I knew that these were two very different routes on offer. I had many sleepless nights over this, but eventually made up my mind. I had to be true to what I really loved, and that was the raft of subjects which I had been studying in Southampton.
Having made this decision and mucked people around in the process I had to make up my mind which of the fascinating areas of theoretical physics I was going to work on. I had done a very basic project as an undergraduate on string theory and five or so lectures in Southampton on this subject from Nick Evans helped to make up my mind.
I went to speak with him about his research and about the possibility of working with him and before I knew it I was calculating D7 brane actions in non-supersymmetric supergravity backgrounds in order to understand chiral symmetry breaking in strongly coupled gauge theories. I loved it!
A PhD in the uk is a bit of a strange beast, though it has changed slightly since I did it. My PhD was three years long. The first year was spent learning quantum field theory, group theory, supersymmetry and a bit of strong coupling dynamics. Then with two years left, including the daunting task of writing up you dive into research.
Normally one applies for a postdoctoral position a year before completing your PhD. This essentially gives a year of research, from the end of learning the groundwork to applying for positions. This puts a lot of pressure on the student to start on research work as soon as possible.
As I say, things have changed now and the PhD is four years rather than three. This doubles the time between starting research and applying for postdocs, which is a big difference, I feel.
Anyway, after a year with a paper and a reasonable number of citations under my belt I applied for positions and was offered a postdoc in China. I figured that now was the perfect time in my life to have a bit of an adventure, giving me the opportunity to pursue what I so enjoyed.
I shouldn’t give the British system a bad name. Many people in England come out of a three year theoretical physics PhD with a great wealth of knowledge under their belts. I left with three papers and feeling a bit overwhelmed by the task of being let loose on the world. My supervisor was however superb, a paragon of patience in the face of a constant barrage of questions and puzzles, and disbelief. He came up with great projects to work on and gave me enough responsibility to explore some interesting questions. During my two years of research I made some interesting finds and spent some time bashing my head against brick walls (I spent about 6 months trying to solve a system of equations which just never worked out in the end – it’s still on my mind).
Two years of study whizzed by, I did my research and I was lucky enough to travel to some great places for exciting conferences, meeting hugely inspiring and occasionally dauntingly intelligent people.
Two years on and here I am, currently sitting in a cafe in Beijing where I seem to spend a lot of time doing my work these days. I’ve loved China, as can be seen from my blog, I hope. There have been definite ups and downs but overall it has been a truly life changing experience. Working at the ITP in Beijing has also been a life of contrasts. There are many excellent researchers here, but I was essentially employed by my boss because there was nobody working directly in the area in which I had expertise. Suddenly I was the expert in this area, essentially in China, and while this responsibility has been excellent, it has meant that I haven’t had many other people to learn from and discuss questions with directly. I’ve given lots of talks around Asia over the last two years at a variety of levels to audiences ranging from entire groups of string theorists to a department full of scientists researching optics. That was actually quite a lot of fun!
So, that takes us roughly up to now, though I haven’t actually spoken about my research at all. I’d like to leave that to another post but I think I do need to make a disclaimer. It may sound strange but I don’t count myself as an expert in string theory. I’ve studied aspects of string theory but my expertise lies in using a particular area of the subject to try and understand one of the four forces of nature – the strong force – and some of its particularly unique properties. There are many questions in string theory which I still want to know about and I am learning more all the time. In fact one of the reasons that I’m very interested in Scitalks is precisely because I want to learn more string theory! I’ve read many papers and books on different areas of the subject, but having an added media format to learn from is really a very useful extra. It adds connectivity wherever you are in the world and whatever situation you may be in. I’m really keen on making this resource work!
Anyway, I hope to discuss a little more about my research next time.