Plans are afoot.
Monday, 23 January 2012
The concept is: 3 mins to explain a complex scientific concept. No powerpoint!
The other entries were super so I was very shocked and surprised to be a finalist. Famelab is a great event aimed at finding the next generation of science communicators, with prizes along the way. It's international as well so check out entries from all over the world.
The UK Final will be held at the Royal Institution in March so I have some time to think of a new subject...and obviously some props!
My video is here:
Essentially I'm explaining Young's Double Slit experiment. It's the greatest and bestest quantum physics demonstration we have. And you can derive nearly all of the theories of quantum mechanics from it. Although I don't think Young expected me to explain it using Justin Bieber though.
To find out more about FameLab in the UK go to their website here
For more information on Ignite Bristol go to their website here
Thursday, 15 September 2011
I like to play with lasers. And when I tell people my research involves building them, 9 times out of 10 the response is ‘Can you make me a lightsaber?'. Perhaps this is an indication that I need to find new friends; ones who understand that when I say ‘No, I can't' it doesn’t give them credence to respond with ‘But if they managed to do it a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away, why can't we?!'. So, to put an end to all the late night pub debates and endless neeeeeewaw noises let me explain exactly why I can't make your lightsaber.
Before we embark on our quest for truth, it is imperative that I explain what a laser is. Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation describes how gain media (technically any material, even jelly babies) are excited to emit synchronised packets of light called photons. This synchronisation is the fundamental characteristic of a laser that differentiates it from light from a household bulb. The gain medium can be thought of as a series of tiny ladders that electrons sit on. If a photon, let's call him Luke, meets this electron it causes the electron to jump to the next rung of the ladder. Universal law says things can't stay high; they have to come back down and in order to ‘relax' back to its original position the electron pops out a clone of Luke to balance the books. You've now doubled your photon count. Adding a feedback mechanism like mirrors to bounce the Lukes back into the medium will amplify your original signal and before you can say Millenium Falcon you've got yourself a high power laser.
The two main reasons why a laser can't be crafted into a lightsaber are:
Ridiculously high powers needed
Lasers can't be shaped in air
Back of the envelope calculations are what experimental scientists do best. And I've done one for the power needed for an infrared (non-visible) laser to shear through the average arm. The equation I used is straightforward; the amount of power is related to the energy spent raising the temperature and then vaporising the arm, the velocity of the laser going through the arm and the spot size of the beam. These factors are limited by how deep the laser can penetrate before being absorbed and the thickness of the arm. With a few assumptions which I'll declare straight away (lightsaber speed was taken to be an average baseball batting speed of 70 MPH, thickness of arm 10 cm and beam area of 5x5 cm) this gives a required power output of over 160 kilowatts, the equivalent of 250 toasters running simultaneously for one minute! So you better strap on a 4 tonne generator on your back if you want to start fencing with your lightsaber.
The second reason is a purely superficial one. It explains why you won't be able to craft a rod shaped laser, fine-tuned to stop mid-air one meter from the source. Laser radiation is not a discrete entity like rope but a flowing wave that propagates and is subject to attenuation. Attenuation causes the intensity to decrease over distance, similar to sound getting quieter as you move away from the source. The intensity is reduced because the air will absorb and scatter photons. Some photons will interact with the atoms in the air and excite them (absorption) and others will bounce off the air particles, deviating from their original course (scattering). The most detrimental to high power laser radiation is absorption that leads to thermal blooming, an effect caused by intense heating of the surrounding air. The heating effect changes the refractive index which determines how much a material bends light. As the air increases in refractive index, it begins to act like a lens and defocuses the beam to break up into separate spots like a Jackson Pollock painting.
Despite these drawbacks, the destructive power of lasers is still fascinating to the public and heavily featured in blockbuster movies or fashioned onto cute cats captioned with ‘pew pew pew'. Perhaps it's not a coincidence that Ronald Reagan proposed the Strategic Defence Initiative, fondly known as 'Star Wars' two days before the release of Return of the Jedi. Although Reagan's idea was panned at the time for many of the reasons I've stated above, technological advances such as the use of adaptive optics to counteract beam wander and the ability to string together multiple kilowatt lasers have rekindled interest. Simple laser guns set to dazzle (as in causing glare, not razzle) are already used in non-deadly operations, and the US have supposedly reached 100 kilowatts by incoherent combining of seven laser amplifier chains. So I'm sorry I can't build you a glorified glow stick, would you like a giant laser cannon instead?.......................................................................
Hey dudes and dudettes - I submitted this article to the Guardian/Wellcome Trust science writing competition, sadly I didn't get selected as a finalist. I KNOW, WAAAAAT? I only hope Dara O'Briain got to read it and it made him geek out. A major flaw might have been the fact that I name dropped Jackson Pollock...total hipster douche move right? It gets worse...I accidently typed Jason Pollock, so I didn't even douche properly?!!! Like a true writer, I'm blaming my proof readers for this, because they all read G2 and should have spotted this.
But it's a happy Vietmanese ending for me as I used this as my template for my talk at Ignite Bristol 6 on Wed 14th Sept and it went down a treat. Many thanks to Dan Roddy, Oli, Damo et al for organising, doing sound, and video and making everyone feel very tony tiger greeeat. It will be youtube uploaded in the next few weeks..I'll keep y'all updated! I was massively nervous speaking in front of 200 or so people, but so glad I did it...fight or flight!! Recommend others try it out, especially if you dig having slight heart arrhythmia.
Monday, 22 August 2011
Project Management Tales of Woe:
Stage 2: Preparing to start work on a project
- Oh wowzers, we won the project?! This sentence can be said at anytime beyond the submission date, because usually the customer gives you a period of validity. ESA like to quote 4 months validity, which means they’re allowed to think about how good the proposal is for 4 months. The fact that I’ve said ‘4’ and then written this number twice actually means nothing, because the customer is the customer, and the CUSTOMER CAN DO WHATEVER THEY LIKE. That’s why they have cash to throw around, and we scramble at their feet, clucking away like the one legged pigeon at Trafalgar square. COO COO pay attention to me COO I’ll take that shrivelled piece of ham from your panini COO COO. So at X months after submission, you’ll get a response.
- There is usually excitement mixed with panic if the team wins the contract. Depending how long the customer has taken to get in touch, many things could have happened which will affect the original statement of work proposed. People may have died in horrific liquid nitrogen accidents, or maybe a lucky lady will have bestowed upon herself some semen and become pregnated (maternity pay is like the holy grail). Therefore resources will be comprised. The main risks here are other won projects which will stretch the time the lab rats can dedicate, and broken equipment will often crop up like whack-a-mole.
- The contract sent through by the customer will of course be filled with mistakes. During the bid process Commercial will have made a compliance matrix filled with things we are non compliant against, for example, if the customer said ‘Please make sure a red coloured garment is worn every Friday post-contract-signature’ then we would have to state non-compliant with a caveat ‘The colour red is indicative of aggression and Vodafone, both of which will cause employees to descend into madness. We suggest sky blue as an alternative, in reference of health and safety doc colourpalette/546792/version2/issue9ab/2011/contract2.pdf.’. You’ll open up the contract and lo and behold the customer has totally ignored that well crafted amendment.
- Negotiations begin and outlook will go spastic! You’ll get meeting invites left, right and centre, with version control spiralling into all kinds of various nomenclature ‘ContractV2.doc, ContractV2.1.doc, ContractV2.1_Lia.doc, ContractV2.1_Lia_a_few_sentences_added_by_Dave_19082011.doc’
- Finance will now have to deal with cash flow and invoices. Hopefully the customer hasn’t prepared a statement in the contract saying something like they need 30 days to process invoices. Oh they have? Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiip. This works out in a funny way, because of in house processes and when you take your financial month end/start dates the actual time between issuing an invoice, sending it to the customer who then request a receipt of order from their finance team, and then actual monies arriving in the bank could be 60 days.
- The customer usually never never never agrees to pay upfront. No monies for now. The payment plan will revolve around us giving them something; could be reports, code, results, prototype etc.
- So now we know that: we’ve won the contract but no money will be given until 3 months time, the contract needs to be re-written before signature. The party poppers and cake are put on hold.
- The tech guys however, a pretty chuffed. Nothing can piss on their fireworks!
Saturday, 20 August 2011
I've been working in industry for nearly a year now, and as of March I hung up my safety goggles and lab coat to enter the world of Project Management.
I've learnt a lot from this, good and bad. It's like been told you're going to lose your sight but hey, at least your other senses will become enhightened. SUPER HEARING!
So anyway, I'll spill my guts and tell you how things really work up in corporate...apart from approve memos, lead a workshop, remember birthdays, direct workflow....
Stage 1 – Bidding
- A man from Business Development who wears a Rolex watch and carries a briefcase struts into the office like a stallion and declares that he has an ITT Pack.
- Oh I forgot, you aren’t all fluent in the language of acroynmania. ITT is the Invitation To Tender and is released from people with lots of money to those which have no money but want said money. Although that makes it sound a bit dodgy, like the pimp king hands an envelope to his night ladies and invites them to tender to his…erm. Well, in science you have to at least make them a pretty code or a robot. Maybe the pimp king could issue an ITT for a blowjob robot. NEW CUSTOMER!
- Anyway, the ITT contains various documents, but most importantly a statement of work which is like a massive ‘want’ list, but not as simple as an Amazon wishlist.
- The statement of work should tell you what they want doing, except the customer is too lazy, or too incompetent to do it themselves.
- So you use the info in the ITT Pack to prepare a bid to submit saying how you’d use your technical expertise and wisdom to make the customers dreams come true. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA
- All the scientists start brainstorming away and channel some form of Obama esque confidence YES THEY CAN DO IT! This involves very badly drawn diagrams on whiteboards, most likely done using the blood of a placement student as the company can’t afford marker pens anymore. Many journal papers are googled, and the scientists sit smugly, declaring 'if a PhD student can do it...!!'
- In the meanwhile, the commercial, financial and legal teams start printing out a million copies of their sections in the ITT pack. They will now start scrutinising each clause with a magnifying glass because everyone in industry is trying to simultaneously hug and castrate everyone else. This is why 10 copies of the same page lie around their office, just in case the wavefunction of the words on one copy collapses onto itself and reveals a hidden meaning, something along the lines of 'if you submit a proposal we now own your shoes'?!. The commercial team enters a transient state of being where neither time, space or matter has any meaning. No amount of toilet paper will absorb the crap that starts to float around the bowl of contract negotiation. A multitude of carefully written caveats, appendices and compliance amendments will rise from the crap pile to be slung wildly, like we’ve returned to monkey-state. And no, we haven’t even bid nor won the contract yet.
- The business development beefcake will once again bless the scientists with his presence and declare that the request for quotation date is actually only a week away. Oops. This means writing up about 70 pages worth of empty promises (Technical Proposal) and then another 70 pages worth of ‘covering ones arse’(Finance, Management and Admin Proposal).
- The coffee machine breaks.
- The scientists enter the following path of realisation: 1. Elation (we might actually get some work!) 2. Logic (let’s look at the prototype we built last year) 3. Fear (the prototype doesn’t work/all the parts came from Maplin/we stole the hardware from an Xbox) 4. Desperation (we need the money. Let’s bid anyway)
- A fancy excel file and Microsoft project gantt chart is created by the project manager by consulting with the technical team. These documents contain the schedule and the labour and material costs.
- This gets escalated to commercial and finance who decide the project is predicted to last too long and costs too much. They suggest lobotomising one of the lab rats and keeping him as a weekend slave in order to deliver on time.
- The project manager scurries around like a small ferret, attacking people at their most vulnerable in order to co-erce them into doing a task on a tighter timescale. I personally like to stand outside the toilet waiting for them to exit and then scream ‘build the PCB from scratch in 2sec, not 2 hours!!!’.
- A final schedule and cost is agreed upon. It is almost unrecognisable to the original ‘realistic’ one produced by the tech team. The costs are then escalated to include any warranty, profit, contingency and risk.
- A £10k job turns into a £1million price to quote.
- Everyone pastes their written sections into a final proposal.
- Variance in font size and style causes the project manager to overdose on flapjack.
- Microsoft Word 2003 causes the project manager to commit partial sodomy on her computer.
- The final proposal is ready! Everyone is amazed. Smiles all around. Except for commercial, who still think we’re about to be *beeped*
Thursday, 11 August 2011
[My own pic ^^]
Since the last time I checked, I'm still Chinese. Despite not growing up in the motherland I still hold a deep connection with China and am fascinated with how the culture has evolved. My mental umbilical link is probably a by-product of patriotic allegiance. I'm sure my parents still believe some of the propaganda they learnt whilst they were young no matter how flawed or retrospectively ridiculous. Just ask my mother about the war with Japan and you'll a similar argument to neighbours who paint their fences slightly different pantone shades. But I'm still proud goddamit! I think my cultural heritage is awesome because it's full of swords and karate and being the first at making anything, or just making that thing longer. What we lack in the classical sense (works of art, or works of musical genius for example) we make up for in sheer determination, intellectual dexterity and a fierce proudness in what we as a nation and a race achieve.
We'll save the history lesson for another day, but to sum it up, China hasn't had a lot of time to progress its culture in the arts and sciences. To modernise or improve anything you have to at least have a foundation first. But China doesn't have the established music colleges like Julliard or the prestige of Bolshoi for ballet, and I think this is deeply known throughout our community. We built our city on fuck all. And now we've been pigeon-holed as very tiny efficient factory workers. Let’s take technology and science: despite being regarded as brainy and clever, the Chinese have had little impact on the international science community in terms of Nobel Laureates, major laboratories and conference presence.
There are no listed Nobel Laureates in the sciences that were of Chinese nationality when in receipt of the infamous prize. Charles Kao, father of fibre optics, and one of the most important physicists of our modern generation was born in Shanghai but pursued his groundbreaking research whilst studying at UCL with Standard Telecommunications Labs. To me, this is like saying 'China is pretty good at beating the maths into your brain, but if you want to do something new and amazing, run away'.
But things are changing, and at a vast rate. Development in China always has a swift turnaround; just look at how we multiplied our population! Science and industry is now top priority for the Chinese (they’ll work on healthcare and the environment another day...). The government love science so much they have a ridiculous number of governing bodies to look after it. The 'we're in it all together' attitude means that even big industries look out for the academic research institutions, and from what I've seen after staying as a guest of a rector of a certain Chinese university, being high up in academia is much like being a part of Mad Men or Shia le Beouf in Wall Street.
So hell yeah, get your protractor out, Chinese science is coming back to square root your ass Western science. The Royal Society recently reported that China now publish more than 10% of the world's scientific papers, winning a shiny new silver medal and buddying up to USA (who win
1st in productivity). They set up research labs quicker than Cheryl Coles return flight ticket, with both industry and the government fully supportive of the nerd-fest.
China aims to increase funding into science by 12.5% from 2010 to 2011 (a total of 29.6billion US dollars) . Compare this to the UK science cash funding of £4.6 billion)
16 science and technology schemes were launched in just the 2008 and 2009
By 2015 the total R&D expenditure will reach 2.2% of the GDP
However, money can’t buy you everything – and sure enough, cracks are starting to appear both internally and externally. Many now criticise the quality of the scientific papers leaving China, often stating that there are underlying concerns of fraud. On the other side of the argument, funding for a research student in China is solely dictated by the number of papers produced as well as the impact factor. Apparently in Zhejiang University a paper accepted into Nature or Science will get you a lovely check for £19,000. So it’s unsurprising how this intense pressure has caused a less than perfect performance.
However, I assure you, the Chinese don’t cheat! And to claim fraud is an overstatement. It’s a situational awareness issue; one which is embedded within the culture, and most notably seen in the Chinese governments swift decisions to ban social media networks. China just isn’t aware or maybe they are too aware, of how the ‘modern’ world operates. They see something like a journal paper for the literal piece of paper and the credentials it provides but not necessarily the sense of pride and requirement for transparency which someone in the UK would. I’ve heard that one main issue is the concept of referencing and Chinese-English translation, all boundaries which cause researchers to unintentionally plagiarise.
A long term goal of mine is to write some articles supporting the Chinese/English academic relationship. Although I can only speak Chinese to the equivalent level of a pubescent child , I hope in time I’ll be able to get across a few simple messages that better prepares a student/professor/even government official to enter the competitive world of the science community with the right etiquette and foresight. The current formula they are running won’t cut it, and they will need to drastically change if they want any credibility to match the amazing new laboratories and opportunities the country will soon offer.