Are you after my research group’s website?

October 20, 2015

If you are after my official research group’s website, please navigate to This is my personal blog with opinions, politics, and poetry.

Hysteresis and the European Institutions

November 14, 2015

Readig this interview with Yanis Varoufakis I was pleased to see him mention the phenomenon of hysteresis. Later on, he states

I wish we had never entered the eurozone, which is not the same thing as my saying I think we should get out.

This is exactly the type of comment that it is hard to get across, but it all becomes much clearer when one has an understanding of what hysteresis is. In Varoufakis’ own words:

The path that you take to somewhere, once you get to that somewhere, doesn’t exist anymore. We just can’t turn around upon the original path and find ourselves outside where we used to be.

This observation has important implications in many areas of political discourse. But where does the word “hysteresis” come from?

If you have played with magnets, perhaps as a child, you will have noticed that some metals, when in contact with a magnet, will themselves magnetise. For example, an iron nail stuck to a magnet will itself attract other iron objects. Sometimes this effect remains even after the material is removed: the iron nail keeps attracting other iron objects, so it has effectively become a magnet itself. This is one of the classic examples of hysteresis: the nail has been subjected to an external influence (the magnet) and has changed its properties (become magnetic) with the change remaining even when the original external influence has been taken away.

How does this come about? It turns out that a piece of iron is made up of many “magnetic domains” that is, regions of the sample where the magnetisations of different atoms are all pointing in the same way, leading to a net magnetisation of the domain. The magnetisations of different domains, however, point in random directions, which is why a piece of iron is usually not, by itself magnetic. However, application of an external magnetic field will orient the domain magnetisations, so that they all now point in the same direction. This makes the iron have a net magnetic field of its own. The thing is, the domains actually have lower energy when they are aligned, so when we then remove the applied field they stay in the aligned configuration.
An “energy barrier” was overcome by the external field. Once the system has gone over the barrier, you cannot take things back to the way they were simply by removing the field that took the syste to the state it is in now.

The same happens with the European Union and other international institutions. Their creation overcomes barriers and makes the participating countries change in ways that are irreversible. Going back to the situation where those institutions no longer exist does not take us back to the original state – it leaves us in a different state altogether. I think that is what Varpufakis means when he says that it is one thing to wish that bis cou try nad never entered the Euro, a d a different thing altogether to wa t it to get out. Reforming the Euro zone is tbe only way forward – dismantling it is not an available option anymore.

The terrorist’s problem

November 14, 2015

The terrorist’s problem is that they don’t have enough people on their side. That is why he or she resorts to terror. Their hope is that their outrageous acts will provoke an over-reaction. That over-reaction will have a prejudical effect on members of what the terrorists perceive as their wider constituency. That, in turn, or so their twisted logic goes, will mobilise more of that perceived constituency to their cause.

Let us break that logic. Let us stand with the French people, with their security forces, but also with the vast majority of muslims who want nothing to do with these abominations. Let us defeat terrorism.

Quite horrified…

November 13, 2015

…after reading Christine Odone’s article complaining that her daughter is being overly encouraged into studying scientific subjects at school. She fails to see the poetry in science, its role as the ultimate challenge of authority and liberation of the human intellect.

I think, however, that if we use economic arguments to convince politicians that more of the population (e.g. girls) should be given access to, and encouraged to take up, scientific subjects then we are bound to antagonise the “arty types” who feel pressurised to do something for purely economic reasons, something they see no meaning in. It is, of course, quite circular: they don’t see the meaning because they don’t understand it (sadly, C. P. Snow’s “The Two Cultures” is as relevant as ever).

Thousands of women and men lost their lives over many centuries trying to pursue science in the face of virulent opposition from religious authorities and others: Hypathia of Alexandria, Girodano Bruno, Miguel Servet… It’s a long and illustrious list. What would they say if they saw how we have now reduced the reasons for pursuing science to merely pragmatic and economic ones?

But of course if we make the effort to convince by appealing to the poetry of the Universe, the struggle to find truth in the face of authority, the liberating effect of reason and experimentation, then we lose the politicians and the captains of industry that ultimately will fund the efforts to do science and to extend its appeal to a wider and wider section of the population.

I just wish that self-declared “arty types” like Odone were able to see through what’s going on. The sad truth is that you cannot feel passionate about science if you do not have an understanding of it.

I Saw it There

October 6, 2015

My country was in flames and then
I saw it there: the British flag,
a friendly face.

It was the worst day of my life.

Huddled and cold we were.
The trip was long, the night was dark,
but a warm soup lit our hearts.

It was the worst week of my life.

Daily shopping, the school run,
read the papers, bask
in the warmest winter sun.

It was the worst month of my life.

Walking through the masses
my eye catches your eye.
A spark, an understanding,
a shared life – so many plans.

It was the worst year of my life.

Because it gave me hope it was the worst day of my life,
because I felt that warmth it was the worst week of my life,
because I was at home it was the worst month of my life,
because I became yours it was the worst year of my life.

Because I’m in despair, so cold,
unrooted and adrift in this barren land
in flames no more – just smouldering –
this land that they call mine.


Six O’Clock News, BBC Radio 4
Tuesday 6 October 2015

Inspection copies

July 28, 2015

Some years go, I worked at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, in the campus that is now called the “Harwell Oxford”, and got there every morning through a long journey involving a short car ride to Banbury train stations, two trains to Didcot Parkway (change at Oxford) and finally what should have always been a short hop on the bus from the station to the laboratory, but often became the worst part of my commute, with long and frequent delays. Didcot itself had another campus, a hi-tech looking business park called “Milton Park”. I used to look at the Milton Park shuttle buses with envy: they were frequent, free and new, with a nice exterior designed to suggest that whatever went on inside that campus was very high tech. I always wondered what they did – though I suspected it wouldn’t be as cutting edge as what we did at RAL (neutron scattering, synchrotron radiation, high-power lasers, space hardware and my speciality – theoretical physics).

Today I have had my first conscious experience of a business based at the Milton Park campus. It is certainly academic-related, but I wouldn’t say it is very high tech. I had ordered inspection copies of a couple of recent textbooks by reputable authors, from a reputable publisher. I am revamping my teaching of Quantum Mechanics and I was hunting for an introductory text on the subject that would use a modern language (Dirac notation) but without burdening the students with large mathematical preliminaries at the start of the book. I received the copies from a company (not the publisher) describing themselves as a “book services” operation, with a bill enclosed and precise instructions to either adopt the texts, return the books within 30 days or else pay a hefty bill to retain the books for my personal use. Right, so that’s what they do there.

Basically, this company working from Milton Park offers outsourcing services to publishers. What they outsource is the provision of inspection copies to academics. But the standard at which this outsourced version of the service is provided is quite different, compared to what has been the norm in the academic publishing world. Normally, in my experience, academics are allowed to keep the book for free. Because I had to return it within 30 days, I had to make a hasty decision on whether to adopt the texts, without a chance to properly compare them to those offered by other publishers. Moreover, I had to re-package the books, etc. making me waste valuable time which could have been spent writing better lecture notes for my students or – Heavens! – even doing some research.

So, yes, I always suspected what they did at Milton Park was less cutting-edge than what we were doing at Harwell – but now I know at least one company there seems to be making a negative contribution to the progress of Science.

¿Estamos ante un golpe de estado? ¿Qué podemos hacer los europeos al respecto?

July 13, 2015

Artículo de Paul Krugman en el New York Times:

Killing the European Project –

Estoy absolutamente horrorizado por lo que está pasando en Bruselas. Mi europeísmo está siendo puesto a prueba. ¿Fue correcto permitir a Alemania acumular tanto poder dentro de la Unión?

Se habla mucho de países que están en la “periferia” de la Unión. Incluso se oyen llamadas a la secesión de esa periferia – a la formación de una Unión Europea de los países periféricos. Me atrevería a añadir (en un plano simbólico): ¿por qué el país que creó los ideales políticos, filosóficos y estéticos clásicos (Grecia), el país que llevó a cabo la primera unificación de Europa (Italia) y los que crearon los primeros imperios trans-oceánicos, que caracterizarían la historia del continente durante varios siglos (Portugal y España) tienen que asumir la etiqueta de “periféricos”?

Si ocurre una rebelión, es más probable que se produzca en el seno de las instituciones europeas. Como, por lo que tengo entendido, señalaba un político griego esta mañana en BBC Radio 4, el gobierno griego no tiene opciones porque están políticamente aislados, así que se están concentrando en sobrevivir a la espera de un cambio en el equilibrio de fuerzas (hay elecciones pendientes en otros países del Sur en breve). Ahora somos los ciudadanos de otros países europeos ños que tenemos que estar a la altura del heroísmo griego.


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