7 Jan 2012

The Quiet Before The Storm

Back from new year, and suddenly my office is jam-packed with empty desks, and a lack of any Christmas chocolates. January is a typical time for Ph.D students to finish, so to be fair I knew it was coming, but it was still eerily quiet. On the plus side, a nice, shiny new desk for me! 

I now have the luxury of facing the people who enter into our office. There is definitely something to be said for seeing the face of your tormentor before they see your computer screen filled with everything but work.

It is not just my quiet office that is lingering in the air though. Next Friday marks my last chance of getting any data to analyse for my Ph.D. After January, MAST gets shut down until the next campaign in November. As my supervisor nicely put it, I don't want to even consider MAST breaking down before Friday ...

So far, my attempted experiments have been hit by a number of troubles; a water leak in one of the neutral beams a network error to name a few. A lot of people have been saying, well, it's not your fault though that it's not gone right so far. Technically that is true, but sadly that makes no difference to the people that hand out Ph.Ds.

It's a difficult situation to be in when the fate of your Ph.D lies in the hands of factors you can't have any control of. Never mind, if it all goes Pete Tong it's only a Ph.D after all.

If you don't hear from me after Friday,  don't let any of this put off all you potential Ph.D students, it's a barrel of laughs really ...

16 Dec 2011

Ph.D Second Year Blues

October passed, and with it went the first year of my Ph.D. Now, the second year looms overhead like a dreich Scottish afternoon. So, what can I expect?

So far the most common theme going around is what's known as the second year blues. Basically, your first year is spent becoming familiar with concepts, jargon and theory. Not too much in the way of pressure, well not in my experience anyway.

But, as the second year comes around, expectations rise. You're now at the point where you have to start holding your own. Sadly, it doesn't always work out this way. 

The experience I have had so far has been mixed to say the least. As I have become more knowledgeable about my subject, my passion (for want of a better word, passion is a bit of a overstatement) for the subject has increased. Naively, I've felt that everyone else should also show that increase in passion. Not so much.

As an example, I was supposed to be giving a talk on my progress to around 15 people - two people showed up, and they weren't even my supervisors. It does leave you feeling a bit deflated afterwards. Although it was an informal meeting ...

I think it's this expectation that leads to these second year blues. And of course the realisation that this is the year you have to make your mark on the field. When things don't work out, it hits you a lot harder than perhaps 6 months ago when you knew that any problems could be ironed out in your second year. Well, now it's the second year, and that iron has burnt a hole through your nice, shiny shirt.

Perhaps this post has been prompted also by the fact that today I should have been on experiment getting fantastic (can always hope) results from the spherical tokamak fusion device at Culham named MAST. Instead, just as we were about to get set up for the day, both our neutral beam injectors which are used to heat the plasma, decided to present us with a huge water leak. Now, I am sitting writing this post and contemplating an early journey home to Scotland for christmas. 

Not the end of the world, as I think we can reschedule the experiment for January, but seems to hit a lot harder just now. I've also heard that the third year is a piece of cake ...

23 Nov 2011

Is History Getting Harder?

Of course history is getting harder, there is more of it to learn every day, but that isn't quite the point I'm going to make in this post.

I got to work in record time last week, 8:10am for the record, only to find that our servers were down. Apparently the air conditioning had stopped working or something. That data I was wanting to analyse - forget it. So, the perfect opportunity to rifle through those papers and books I had left out for myself a few, eh, months ago. Go on then ...

I've often found that I learn best through repetition, like a lot of people I'm sure. However, that is not through  any repetition of my own doing; more seeing other people write the same thing down in different ways (I'm too lazy to write things out more than once - that was a punishment at school after all). After flicking through the mathematics on show during the last century, I eventually came to a conclusion - mathematical ability seems to be getting worse as time progresses.

Now to clarify, yes our knowledge is increasing with time, as you would expect, but I don't think our ability is. I'm not sure if this only applies to maths, but when I compare three formulae which are supposedly  describing the same thing, in three papers based 20 years apart, it seems like another area of physics altogether from the papers back in the 30's. 

For example, in 1970, we have the following:

Then, 40 years later, this equation pops up again as:

Still not easy, I'll admit, but easier to understand. 

A lot of people say to me, quantum physics is hard now, but in 50 years it will be taught to students in secondary school. Then it will seem like second nature. I'm not sure I buy into that.

What I do believe however is that we will learn to simplify it. Is that something to be proud of? Surely 50 years is enough time to get used to the maths involved so that we don't need to simplify it. But then, knowing what simplifications to make is a sign that the fundamental understanding has improved.

But why does this happen? Is it not more natural to start off with a basic understanding, then build up your ability in the subject through time? How did these people start off with something so complex, which left us scratching our heads as to how to simplify it? Good on them, I say, but I'm sticking with the simplified version thank you very much.

31 Oct 2011

Experimental Aftermath

Generally speaking, a Ph.D will be formed around a basis of results. For me, an attempt was made last Friday to get those results. 

I won't bore you with too much detail about my experiment, but here is a small overview: I'm working on a machine in Oxfordshire called the Mega Amp Spherical Tokamak, designed to produce temperatures of the order ten times hotter than the sun to allow nuclear fusion reactions to occur. At these temperatures, the atoms are in a state known as plasma. In order to keep it at these temperatures, the plasma must only contain the specified fuel. My job is to look and see how other elements sneak their way into the plasma and act to cool things down. I say cool it down, it's still hot enough to give my Scottish skin a fair old sun burn. 

I've summarised massively there as you can imagine, if anyone is actually interested in this please let me know and I can chat to you on Twitter or write a more detailed blog post.

So anyway, as I was saying, Friday came eagerly awaited. I even managed to arrive at work get out of bed at 6:30am. Excited about puffing methane and helium into a ball hotter than the sun - aye!

For the session, a leader is in charge of setting the parameters used in turning on the machine, and there is a physicist in charge of determining whether the physics was right. I was back-up Physicist in charge. Ok, the nerves kind of kicked in at this point. Bare in mind turning on the machine for ~0.5 seconds costs over 10K in electricity bills. 

But my first problem - where do I sit? The control room looks like this picture beneath. 

These chairs look onto the following array of screens:
Where to look - who knows? 

So first of all, I sat in a chair a in the corner, then sheepishly made my way into one of the central computers after I realised everyone was wondering whether I was involved in the experiment or not. Classy.

Then the day unfolded. around 5 hours and 10 shots later, our little methane gas puff was playing hide and seek. Only we hadn't seeked it.

Couldn't see a thing. Without this, I cannot study the transport, and my aptly named Ph.D title, 'Quantifying Transport Coefficients for Low-Z Impurities on MAST' was starting to tie up its shoe-laces and head for the front door. Panic. Oh crap, panic. 

I write this in past tense, not because we have now rectified all the problems, but because we atleast have an idea what could be wrong. 

We saw it go in. We know it's there. It's just making us work to find it. Such is life.