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After a long absence

It's been a long eight months or so since I began my Phd in what was originally meant to be Physics, but which over time has revealed itself to be mainly chemistry with some physics, some engineering and some fun social engineering at various conferences and events. It's exhausting, all-encompassing, challenging, exciting and infuriating, all wrapped up in one three-year parcel with a tag that says 'finish me'. I did one month in July with my sponsoring company, Wind Prospect, and then started the PhD work proper in September. I've learned in that time how to use Scanning Electron Microscopes, Tunnelling Electron Microscopes (light and dark field imaging, digital and film cameras), Raman Spectroscopy, X-ray Diffraction, electron field emission and thermionic emission, vacuum chambers and pumps, Pyrometers and thermocouples, electrospray deposition, spin coating, soldering and inkjet printing with silver and diamond. I've learned theory about thermionic emission, field emission, diamond structure and doping modelling, crystal structure, Richardson-Dushman equations and Fowler-Nordheim graphs, as well as writing hundreds of thousands of words about the solar industry as part of the market research proposal. I've taught four hours a week in undergraduate lab sessions, marked 15 formal reports and helped mentor 7 undergraduate final year projects. I've presented ideas on how to change the university to better research for smart energy, offered myself as a guinea pig for a new multidisciplinary doctoral research centre, presented posters of our work at two conferences as well as assisting in the writing of one scientific paper for publication and several drafts of grant proposals and quarterly reports.

Just reading all that makes me feel tired! It's nice to put it out there in writing - aside from Neil, my supervisor, Nat, my girlfriend and my parents, and a few understanding fellow PhDs, I don't feel like anyone in my life is aware just how much I've been doing in the last few months! It's been very hard juggling social expectations with the time and mind-space commitments a PhD requires, with 9-7 days not uncommon. More than anything the hardest thing is getting time to stop and think. I feel tugged at all points of me towards people's expectations, which I can't fulfil. Much of my previous social existence is running thin and some friendships may not survive the process, I fear. I'm having to be anti-social just to survive.

It hasn't been helped by my health, which has been steadily deteriorating through or perhaps because of this stress. I keep getting fevers and bowel problems. Initially I suspected it was Coeliac Disease but tests proved negative on that and a few other things. It may be IBS, or it may be something more scary like Crohns or Ulcerative Colitis. I'm getting more checks over the next few weeks so hopefully a solution will be found.

More than anything I feel I'm moving away from the person I was as an undergraduate and back towards the slower-paced, more introspective intellectual of my youth. I can't party any more (not that I was much good at it before!) and I am unlikely to be the most exciting person for many people who focus their lives around alcohol and big night's out. I want to move back to the things I really enjoy, the things that make me relax, like reading, writing, cooking, watching films and just generally taking life at a bit slower, more thoughtful pace. I want to talk about ideas and debate without bad feeling, the give and take of stimulating conversation, rather than the stilted discussions I frequently find myself in at the moment, full of game-playing, insecurities, gossip and an abundant lack of listening or compromise.

I mark this as a turning point. I am making changes to slow my life down so my work and health don't suffer. I've taken up Tai Chi and am reading more and even starting to dabble back into prose. Nat and I have decided to get a place together in the Spring where we can slow down in order to be closer to what's important to us. I want to devote time to the pursuits I enjoy (Science and Writing) and to do well in them. I want to enjoy good company of my lovely girlfriend and those friends who can accept my change of pace as something necessary to be who I need to be. I want to return to being me.


All done!

In the last year I have:

sold two stories to anthologies
was a semifinalist in WOTF 2007 Q3 and honourable mention 2008 Q2
wrote a month-long fictional journal for world without oil
wrote ~100 blog posts for Futurismic
wrote ~25 reviews for SFCrowsnest

Completed a master's research project and associated thesis
Learned C++, Unix, ROOT and CMSSW
Presented a 40 minute presentation on Astrophysics
Sat 7 exams in Condensed Matter, Relativistic Cosmology, Quantum Mechanics, Nanoscience, Particle Physics, Current Topics in Astrophysics and Current Topics in Particle Physics
Secured provisionally a funded PHD place at the university of Bristol to research Nanodiamond thermionic converters for Concentrated Solar Power Generation, in association with Wind Prospect and Bath Uni

Coordinated the National Student Film Festival
Changed the constitution of the film festival and the Union media board
Won Best Script at the university's media awards
damn near collapsed a bunch of times

And now... I'm done. I'm going to go get drunk now.


well that was nice

Revising for Relativistic Cosmology nearly killed me but damn did it pay off. I think at most I lost 12% on that exam and a lot of people seem to have done badly, so that shouldn't get moderated down too much. Which is awesome to know I've got that one in the bag.

Three more until my undergrad days are over and I'm free. All rather on top of each other. Condensed Matter Monday, Current Topics In Astrophysics tuesday and Current Topics In Particle Physics Thursday. I feel good about the current topics papers, they suit my style of revision very well. Just want it over....

On Relativistic Cosmology

3. Suppose that in a standard reference frame the tensor Qαβ has as its only non-zero compo-
nents Q00 = 1 and Qii= q for i = 1, 2, 3. Again with our usual notation, what would be its
components Q˜ α˜ β in a frame moving at velocity v in the x1 direction relative to the original frame?

bu-bu-bu Say what now?

Professor Phillips' Relativistic Cosmology (the expansion of the universe, now with added General Relativity bending your space and time!) exam is on friday. The three exams the week after I'm not too worried about, I should do well enough that at worst they shouldn't affect my average. This one, however... bleaugh. There are four past papers and three problems sheets and you could actually answer all of the questions they contain without using a single real word. Exams like this make me question what the hell i'm doing at the last week of a four year physics masters degree. I can do the maths, if I force it into my brain. But it's not intuitive like writing, it feels very painful and head-stretching to find the Christoffel Symbols for the radial 2D part of the Robertson Walker metric. What does that even mean? I think it's actually more disturbing that I have a general idea. Still, for Friday's exam I'm taking that as a good sign.

The promise of my PhD in alternative energy/nanoscience research is really keeping my spirits up. That and the prospect of a summer spent writing short stories and playing xbox (if i can afford one). Nearly there now... 5th June can't come soon enough.

A final note: if anyone ever invites you to look at anything involving tensor calculus? DON'T.

I Can Haz PhD?

So I applied for a PhD in nanoscience back in February but various paperwork things meant it disappeared into the ether for a few months. Stuck in the middle of my exams, I'd half-forgotten about it, half pushed it to the back of my mind where it lurked, asking me what exactly i'd do next year if not it?

Happily, thursday I got a lovely email from Neil Fox, the supervisor on the project, informing me that, providing my grades are ok, I've got the PhD. So all things being well, I have my next three years figured out. It's very exciting. The placement is a industry funded project working with nanocrystals of diamond, which act as a thermionic material at far lower temperatures than a normal thermionic (which converts heat to electricity). My role will be to study condensed solar power plants from around the world and design a plugin using this material, which could be as much as twice as efficient as water or photovoltaic based CSPs.

It's exciting to think that not only will I be studying in a field I find fascinating (and being paid for it), I'll also potentially be working on a technology that could make a real difference to society and our energy use. Now all I have to do is pass the six exams remaining of my undergraduate career, starting tomorrow and finishing on June 5th. The stakes are higher than ever before.

Drowning in a sea of... Physics

I've handed in my project report, finally, clocking in more or less exactly at the 10,000 word advised size, plus references(all 62 of them). It feels good to get it out of the way. All I have to do now is score ok in the six exams left before the end of my course on the 5th June. It's pretty tough going, doing 8 hours of revision most days to keep on top of it, with particle physics and relativistic cosmology really kicking my ass. I feel like I'm making some headway but I'll be underwater for the next three-four weeks.

So for that reason I apologise, for I know some of you are going through a lot of tough times right now. My thoughts go out to all of you. In a month's time I want to return my attention to the other things that matter in my life: my writing and my friends. Hoping to catch up properly very soon, as soon as I've defeated all this tensor calculus...

A nice surprise

So I went along to the University Of Bristol Arts and Media Awards tonight, because of my work with the national student film festival, Screentest. We didn't have awards as such as ours were presented in the festival in february. But I went along to show my support for the other media products, the newspaper, film and photography societies and the excellent newspaper and arts magazine.
I was surprised to be awarded best short film script by the filmmaking society for my short script Quarantine. It's a little trophy, but it's still my first writing award. Nice!

Pennsylvanian Friends

I hope you guys are heading out to vote today. The whole world is watching wishing they could be too.


A quick question that's been bothering me for as long as I can remember.

Why do so many people spell 'lose' as 'loose'? as in 'if obama looses pennsylvania it won't change the overall delegate count very much'? (to throw a little political edge into the post)

I've never really understood why this spelling mistake is found so much in people's writing that's otherwise error-free. It's almost as if a big chunk of textbooks had been teaching it wrong.

past 6000 words on the thesis.

one down, 6 plus thesis to go

Had my first exam of the year, Quantum Mechanics 4, on Friday. It went well, all things considering (I don't think i've ever said that about a quantum exam!) I can't see myself getting less than 65 unless everyone does stupendously well and it gets moderated down.

Which means for the time being, revision is put on the backburner. I have six exams left, between the 20th May and 5th March. Particle Physics 4, NanoPhysics, Relativistic Cosmology, Condensed Matter, Current Topics In Astrophysics, Current Topics in Particle Physics, in that order. Particle and Relativistic are easily the hardest (hello gauge theory and tensors!) which is good because they are the ones with gaps before them - just over a week for Relativistic. Both Current Topic modules are largely essay based which will suit my revision style. Nano and Condensed are third year courses so hopefully they won't stress me too much!

But revision for those will not start in earnest for two weeks as I have a much bigger fish to fry: my research project report (or thesis, dissertation, whatever you want to call it). The max word count is 10,000 words. I'm at 5679 at the moment, with big chunks of the theory and method done but still plenty to do. I'm going to try and get up near the limit this week and then spend a lot of time refining my message and scientific explanations/references next week. I should be able to make a good report but it'll take a lot of time and effort. At this point I feel like I do when I'm writing a first draft of fiction - get the damn thing done no matter how messy it is, then go over it with a fine tooth comb and do massive surgery.

And after June 5th, I'll have all the time in the world to do that with my writing too. 'Tremors' is off to Analog today.


About Me

I'm a twenty-something physicist and writer living in Bristol, England. I research lithium doped nanodiamond on a Great Western Research grant, which will hopefully lead to me receiving a PhD and the diamond successfully converting heat from solar power into electricity. I review for SFCrowsnest and my story 'A Shogun's Welcome' was published in the April 2006 issue of Aberrant Dreams. A sequel, 'the Shogun And The Scientist' was published online in Aberrant Dreams in January 2008 and will be in the anthology 'The Awakening'. I contributed a fictional journal miawithoutoil to the world without oil project. I have also blogged for

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