PsiStar Wars: Return of the Students

Late afternoon June 9th, Mile End Park’s sun-baked astroturf would be the scene of another fierce battle between student and teacher. After a tough season in the 7-a-side league a battle hardened PsiStar Belgrade were out for revenge having lost to the staff on penalties in the winter and looked to have their heads in the game (go wildcats.)

The scorched earth coliseum of Mile End Park
The scorched earth coliseum of Mile End Park

Okay, enough of that ‘gritty’ sports writing, basically we played the staff at football again! It was actually a really good game, PsiStar ended up winning 5-1 (I got a goal and an assist!) and it was a fun day had by all! Some spectators came down with some drinks, posted up in the shade and spurred on their respective team as well which was a welcome addition as they brought orange slices for half time!

Official incineration ceremony adjudicated by referee Stephen Gurney

Now you’re probably thinking “what’s the point of all this?” In short, we’re doing the Ashes. After three matches, we’ve decided to make this into an ongoing series playing for a beaker full of ashes (each game’s team sheet’s ashes to be precise) and the losing team is burdened with looking after them until the next game in 6 month’s time. It’s very reflective of the School of Physics and Astronomy as a whole actually, how connected the students are to the staff and the level of respect both groups have for each other. We’re constantly interacting with each other throughout the day during term time, sharing social spaces with them, forming relationships with them and in my opinion at least, this lets the students know that this isn’t just 6th form again, the lecturers are more than just teachers and it is important to have a working relationship with them to succeed.

This link between students and staff makes Queen Mary stand out as a university. Talking to my friends who go to other universities has given me some perspective on this interaction with lecturers that I had taken for granted before these games. It’s rare for this level of interaction to take place between students and lecturers especially across the department like it is at Queen Mary and it has been incredibly helpful to my degree and a right laugh at these events.

Hopefully the staff will come back fighting in the summer with their midfield maestro Dr Ramgoolam back on the field and maybe then they won’t lose so badly!

Post game drinks with both teams
Post game drinks with both teams – “Better luck next time!”

Trying to Stay Calm and Focused in Exam Time.

Regent's canal, which runs through Victoria Park near the campus
Regent’s canal, which runs through Victoria Park near the campus

Here we are, currently in the midst of exams and it is definitely one of the most stressful times of the year. You’re going a little mad, your friends are going a little mad and even your lecturers or teachers are also kind of going a bit bonkers. Among all this tension, it can be quite hard to try and not get caught up in it and you start to let the stress affect you leading to you not being able to focus. So, it is very important during revision to do things that can help you de-stress and keep yourself focused.

How I revise can vary quite a lot. Some days I’ll be able to focus for a few hours at a time and others I can only focus for about half an hour and then need a small break. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, you just need to adjust from day to day. When I can’t concentrate for a long while, I tend to take short 15 minute breaks where I usually go talk to some friends for a bit to see how they’re doing and what they’re revising, keeping it quite brief if they’re not on a break. Otherwise, I’ll go outside for a little while and either sit down in the fresh air or go and get some good brain food.

Then on days where I have my head down for a few hours, I like to reward myself with a long break. I find that I shouldn’t stay in one place for too long or I won’t be able to focus properly, so a walk in a completely different environment (compared to the usual desk piled with paper) can do a world of good. For quite a few days during this exam season, the weather has been beautiful! Lots of sun, perfect weather to be outside and this kind of weather you can’t let go to waste, especially in Britain. So, in my long breaks, I like to go for a walk to Victoria Park along the canal that runs by Queen Mary. I often go on these walks with friends. We often decide early on in the day that we will be going for a walk at a certain time after doing a fair amount of revision. For me, doing this means I’m giving myself a goal to work towards and if I get a lot of work done, then it becomes more rewarding. Although sometimes you just want to keep working and not stop until you know everything, you need to reward yourself for the good work you’ve put in, otherwise you’ll end up exhausting yourself.

Something that my friends and I do, particularly after an exam, is to go for a meal somewhere. We allow ourselves to just sit and talk for a while, to get the exam out of our minds and to not think of physics, which is certainly a rarity. Even if you have another exam coming up soon, it’s important to let yourself relax after an exam so you can recover from those intense few hours of writing everything you know down on to paper.

It can be very difficult not to succumb to stress. In fact, for anyone who knows me, they know that stress is a speciality of mine. But what I’ve found is that you must allow yourself to have a bit of time to relax every day. If you try to revise constantly, it won’t do you any good. If you feel your mind is wandering, then it’s important to take a break and do something enjoyable. You will find when you come back to revision, you are more likely to get focused and stay focused.

Good luck with exams!

Semester Three

One of the bigger contrasts between university and school/college is the contact hours. Like school, you have three terms (semesters), with exams concluding your third term in the summer. However, at Queen Mary, in your third semester you have nothing timetabled before the exams in May/June, so when teaching ends in late March, you are left with enough time to prepare for exams.

In semester three, you must become a sponge. You have up to eight modules’ worth of physics to absorb in around five weeks before the exams start. There is generally a series of revision lectures just before exams kick in, but until then you are left to your own devices. This is the real test of independence if you have left home – can you wake at a reasonable time, cook yourself more than tea and biscuits, do your laundry and make sure you get some work done?!

I have an iPad full of all the homeworks, tutorials & lecture notes (I use the Evernote app to keep everything together and find it much easier to keep everything organised virtually than with paper), and each day I work through problems, creating flashcards as I go so I can go back over everything efficiently when I need to. It’s actually quite therapeutic at times, figuring out solutions to problems and making pretty colourful cards (that definitely does not constitute procrastination because of course that many glittery gel pens is absolutely vital to my understanding of thermodynamics). That is, until you remember just how much you need to learn and how little time you have to learn it all… anyway…

Use bright colours & pretty diagrams to distract yourself from the pain and misery of exams!
Use bright colours & pretty diagrams to distract yourself from the pain and misery of exams!

Personally, I prefer this semester. Being on the canal provides me with a peaceful environment in which to study and always having my dog by my side does wonders for my stress levels. It also makes a vast difference to me to be able to work at my own pace – I have a short attention span and like the odd nap (okay yes I’m pretty much a toddler), so I tend to put aside the whole day, every day, to just work in short bursts with various little distractions in between. This ensures that when I am having my short (but frequent) periods of productivity, my brain-sponge is truly absorbent and I don’t have to keep going over the same things.

On a nice day, Picasso sits like this outside while I study inside. Quite possibly the least intimidating guard dog you've ever seen.
On a nice day, Picasso sits like this outside while I study inside. Quite possibly the least intimidating guard dog you’ve ever seen.

This works for me but I don’t really have a social life during this period. I enjoy studying and like to just put my head down and engage hermit mode, especially knowing it will be worthwhile in the end. Some of my colleagues have greater self-control, working certain hours each day and then having their evenings free (for example), so it’s manageable to balance social or work commitments if you need to. It’s also an option to actually combine being social with their studies – going over problems with friends can be a great way to get your head around difficult topics and can really reinforce what you learn. University remains open throughout the year offering both silent & social study areas. Everyone revises differently and it’s so important to not feel pressured by what others are doing!

Cosmology to Climate Change: Choosing an MSc Project

So in my previous post I banged on about my love of high energy physics – and all the fundamental questions that it poses – being the primary motivation for my studies, and it was, until now.
As a EuroMasters student the yearlong project comprises half of the course and often segues to further study or career paths, so making the right choice is imperative.  If you’d asked me a year ago – so what you gonna do your project on? There would have been no question, “STRINGS!” But now, in March 2016, on the other side of eight modules in quantum field theory, cosmology and strings – and the news that February was the hottest month in recorded history bringing my long held ecological concerns to the fore; I’ve had something of an existential crisis! What am I for? Sod the fundamental questions; can I use what I have learnt to help save the world?
Cosmic background radio map from the Planck satellite. The map shows tiny fluctuations in density in the early universe that are thought to have seeded the complex structure we see in the universe and provide a testing ground for aspects of theoretical cosmology. i.e. "the big questions"!
Cosmic background radio map from the Planck satellite. The map shows tiny fluctuations in density in the early universe that are thought to have seeded the complex structure we see in the universe and provide a testing ground for aspects of theoretical cosmology. i.e. “the big questions”! image courtesy of ESA,

There didn’t really seem to be any sound solution to my quandary, so I went and met with academics in the strings group and discussed various potential projects in areas such as stringy cosmology and brane worlds, but my inner eco-warrior was still nagging at me. And then, lo, with a little digging around, looking at some of the research interests of members of the other departments, the answer came in the form of topological fluid dynamics.

Well, sort of. This esoteric branch of fluid dynamics isn’t going to be solving the big geophysical problems of the day any time soon, but topological methods provide a powerful way of dealing with stuff like chaotic dynamical systems…like the processes present in climate systems? OK, so it’s a bit tenuous but a step in the right direction.

Besides the potential geophysical applications, the subject is of particular interest as not only do fluid equations pop up everywhere (the Schrödinger equation can be derived from the Navier-Stokes equation for example) but this topological flavour of fluid dynamics shares a lot of the same deep mathematics that I have been utilising to deal with quantum fields and strings – ah, the unity of physics.

The Navier-Stokes equations describe the motion of fluids and are involved in the formulation of climate models.
The Navier-Stokes equations describe the motion of fluids and are involved in the formulation of climate models. Image courtesy of NASA,

The precise form of the project is as yet to take shape, as this is a pretty involved subject I have a relaxing summer ahead, reacquainting myself with fluid dynamics and becoming fluent in the languages of differential geometry, manifolds and group theory before I can look for applications. I will keep you posted…

Phemale Physics

When I first expressed an interest in Physics in secondary school, I was repeatedly told that it was a boy’s subject and that I was very brave to consider it. Out of a year group of about 70 girls, there were only 2 of us who took it for A Level.
I am now in the second year of my Physics BSc with hopes of becoming a secondary school physics teacher.
I have just attended the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP UK) at the University of Oxford where I along with 100 other female physics students from all over the UK had the opportunity to meet and hear from various successful women in Physics.

CUWiP UK 2016... The future of Physics!
CUWiP UK 2016… The future of Physics!

I’d like to share some of the lessons I’ve learnt, the messages I’ve taken away and some personal thoughts on the subject of women in Physics.
Currently, only about 25% of physics students in the UK are women (the percentage is even smaller for postgraduates and researchers), a figure that has gone unchanged for the past 15 years. Why is this? What can be done to change it? And what is it like being part of that 25%?
I think that this imbalance is caused by gender bias introduced very early on in girls’ lives when girls are told that they are more suited to the sociable, softer and more vocational subjects. As a teenager, I remember thinking about careers that would be flexible and fit in with being a wife and a mother.
Another issue, which is actually a bit of a catch 22, is that in order to encourage more women to go into Physics, there needs to be more women in Physics in the first place, both as role models and as employers who can relate to the applicants.
There are plenty of male figures in popular science such as Brian Cox, David Attenborough and Stephen Hawking. But where are the female scientists? Even when a female scientist is occasionally featured on TV or in the news it is often said that they are making science “sexy” as opposed to being recognised for their work as their male counterparts are.
It’s not enough to just highlight the problems: how can we change all of this?
One possible solution is introducing enforced quotas, but I and many others feel that this will only lead to positive discrimination: women being told or feeling themselves that they are only in a job because they are women and not on the basis of their merits.
Another idea is changing the way Physics is portrayed in media, whether by featuring more prominent female scientists, or by changing fictional depictions of the field. A friend of mine pointed out to me that amongst the main characters in the show “The Big Bang Theory” all the ‘hardcore’ physicists were men and the women were biologists (very stereotypical roles), until a fuss was made and a female physicist was introduced as a main character.

I also think it’s important to present Physics differently to school students through outreach and teaching.
So, what’s it like being one of this rare and elusive species: a woman in physics?
An issue which was discussed during the conference is the ‘confidence gap’ between men and women. It is common to suffer from ‘imposter syndrome’ at some point during one’s studies and career regardless of gender, but women seem to be significantly less confident about their abilities than men. Whether or not this is down to society’s prejudiced perception of women’s abilities, it is a serious problem and one that definitely affects me and so many others.
As women we are less likely to answer questions unless we are 100% sure that we know the answer, and even then will preface it with “This is probably wrong, but…”.
At the conference, we had a very inspiring talk by Dr Amanda Cooper-Sankar who told us that we need to start being able to say “I am very clever!” – something that most of us wouldn’t dream of saying because we simply don’t believe it, even when faced with concrete evidence of success.
I think that as women we need to start having more self-confidence otherwise no one will have confidence in us. We need to start saying “I am really clever!” as opposed to saying “Well, I’ve been very lucky…”. We need to stop thinking that we aren’t as clever or as talented as our colleagues and start believing in our own merits.
From a personal perspective, being a woman in Physics is mostly fantastic! I get to study the wonders of the universe every day, help to change people’s perceptions and perhaps one day leave my small, pink footprint on this men’s club.
When I am a teacher, I hope to inspire all of my students to be confident in themselves and to follow their dreams and interests regardless of what the world thinks.

“The woman who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd. The woman who walks alone is likely to find herself in places no one has ever been before.” – Albert Einstein

Astronomer Photographer of the Year at Greenwich Observatory

I’ve had a fleeting interest in photography for a while now. I did a GCSE in it (I got a B, hold the applause) and its been pretty fascinating to me ever since. I still find it amazing that with a bit of curved glass you can create all these peculiar effects, adding extra detail and emphasising things that the ordinary eye wouldn’t have picked out. It’s this interest that had me wandering out to Greenwich to go see the Astronomy Photographer of the Year exhibit at the Royal Observatory. Having been to Photographer of the Year exhibits before, I had an idea of what was going on at the Royal Observatory but it’s essentially a small pop up art gallery below the observatory.

The view from outside Greenwich Observatory
The view from outside Greenwich Observatory – (Sorry for the quality, it’s only my phone’s camera!)

Having marched up the side of a hill I wandered into the observatory just looking for somewhere to have a rest and accidentally found the exhibit straight away. It was quite a small room with the lights dimmed (to emphasise the actual pictures I presume) and small screens littered about with a video telling you about some of the stories of how the pictures were taken. Compared to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibit this one seemed a bit pokey and tucked away, as if they didn’t particularly want it to be found. Once I started to actually look about the room, I couldn’t understand why! Every picture was astonishing in it’s own right, each with a different subject varying from far away nebulas to our own sun and even the northern lights. All the photographers had written little tales of how they’d come to take the picture (even the children’s category, which was suspiciously eloquent for something written for 7-11 year olds… I feel some parental “supervision” may have occurred, but that’s neither here nor there.) Some of these paragraphs spoke of long nights in Norway’s blistering cold, waiting for the perfect that never came until upon surrender, the night’s sky presented them with all they had wanted and so much more.

What caught me off guard was the lack of experience of some of these astrophotographers. Pictures that had been given honourable mentions in the competition or even won were taken by first timers with pretty basic cameras (iPads, phones and one that was a 6-month exposure of a home made pinhole camera!) This gave the exhibit a feeling that anyone could make it into the exhibit, making it all the more exciting knowing that even I could capture such overwhelming beauty on my phone (providing I know where to look, of course!) Of course, the more professional pictures were much more detailed using deep field images and solar flares as subject matter, taking the pictures with specifically designed home made instruments (one mosaic creator went and wrote some code to help organise and line up the vast amount of pictures he had taken of a nebula to create one fluid and highly detailed image.)

When I left the exhibit I felt like I had a greater understanding of scale in the universe. One of the pictures had shown the Moon and ISS “overlapping” each other, the space station taking up a tiny tiny tiny proportion of the Moon’s area in the picture (barely covering the smallest of visible craters in the picture.) Knowing how close the ISS is to Earth compared to the Moon, you suddenly realise just how tiny people are. Diagrams you see in school are obviously not drawn to scale but you still think that there’s probably some degree of accuracy to it. You’re shown the cliché pictures of the planets next to the Sun, the Sun next to other stars and so on but your head can’t quite grasp the actual meaning of this scale difference. Seeing exactly how small you are right in front of you in a real picture is quite different, almost unnerving in fact. It really cements in you just how large space is in comparison to your regular life.

The statue of Yuri Gagarin in the courtyard of the observatory was a welcome surprise. It reminded me of the effort people went to such a short time ago to take pictures that nowadays 7 year olds can on an iPad and how far we’ve come since then. When I walked out, I was greeted with a fantastic panorama of London’s skyline and felt compelled to take a picture. Not because it was something I don’t see often or because it was a pretty picture, but because I wanted a reminder that I’m not in space every day, I don’t come across these giant rocks on my way to Mile End every day before lectures and that there’s plenty down here on pokey little Earth to keep me busy for now.

Your friend and mine - its Yuri Gagarin!
Your friend and mine – its Yuri Gagarin!

Boating, biking and banging on about my dog: My spare time in London.

You may think studying physics at university will finally give you a valid excuse to avoid social interaction and public spaces. Unfortunately however, being at a busy inner London university with a dedicated students’ union makes this difficult for even the most reluctant of hermits. Within the university, there are over 200 societies, sports clubs, student bars, cafes and an extensive sports and fitness centre. If that’s not enough, you’re in London and anything else – from cat cafes to adult bouncy castles – is on your doorstep.

Many people come to London for its vibrant nightlife. There’s a huge variety of clubs, pubs and bars to choose from and when I first moved here I would go to them all, and even worked as a club photographer in high end Mayfair venues as well as somewhat less desirable bars in South London. It’s definitely worth experiencing nights out here and they will be some of the best nights you have, I did however soon realise that every night (and next morning) ends up the same if you’re prone to drinking too much and I now rarely drink at all, with my spare time mostly taken up elsewhere:


My fixed wheel built by my boyfriend, on London's South Bank
My fixed wheel built by my boyfriend, on London’s South Bank

I’m a keen cyclist and I’ll use this to illustrate what London and the university can offer in terms of having a hobby, but replace bicycles with your own interests and you’ll find it works the same. I bought a bike in my first year as it seemed to be the best way to get around the city’s packed streets cheaply and quickly. London’s roads appeared daunting and while a free bike proficiency lesson from TfL was a great help (would recommend!), I wanted to find like-minded people who could join me for rides and help me get comfortable. A quick search on the Students’ Union webpage brought me to Queen Mary Cycling Society, and within a few days I had other cyclists to meet and group rides to join. We went to Critical Mass; a huge group ride that reclaims the roads in big cities nationwide every month, consisting of friendly people, music and maybe a little alcohol. The friends I made through the society actually got me a job in a bike shop, and going to Critical Mass allowed me to meet my bike mechanic (very useful) boyfriend. I now ride hundreds of miles a month, visiting the London Olympic VeloPark every week (two miles away from QM) and taking advantage of the countryside surrounding London. London traffic no longer phases me, in fact I love the buzz – I’m a champion weaver and hold top spots on Strava (a social cycling app) segments, and there’s only been one minor accident so far! (London does seem to have a high concentration of terrible driving, but if you do need some reassurance, I’m your girl).

We went on a cycling holiday over Christmas. This isn't London
We went on a cycling holiday over Christmas. This isn’t London

Despite studying something so strictly academic, the university has also allowed me to follow more creative pursuits. I work as a photographer for the university, capturing everything from outreach events with kids to conferences and prospectus photos. This is enjoyable work I can easily balance with my studies, and lets me play with the kit I thought would end up gathering dust. As with cycling, I got involved with the photography society here, which introduced me to other like-minded individuals and had me attending exhibitions, socials and even getting additional work. One really great thing I have found with London is that if you are short on cash, there are plenty of opportunities to earn here and there if you look.

The rest of my time outside of studying is spent on the upkeep of my home; 50ft narrowboat Laika (named after the first dog in space). Living on a boat is a job in itself and moving aboard was not a decision I took lightly; aside from the constant (slightly, but unfortunately not completely, irrational) fear of sinking, maintenance and cruising consumes any leisure time I get. I do not have a permanent mooring; instead my license requires me to move to a new spot every two weeks and I must cover a certain distance annually. It’s sometimes hard to keep on top of, but it’s a really beautiful alternative to renting that shows me the prettier side to London, and also means I don’t have a landlord banning me from having a dog!

Boat interior, now with a desk and a fair bit messier
Boat interior when I first bought her
My dog, Picasso, on top of my boyfriend's boat
My dog, Picasso, on top of my boyfriend’s boat

How I came to start a Euromaster’s MSc in Theoretical Physics

A few years ago, as an art student, I happened to see an exhibition by Conrad Shawcross, Loop System Quintet, that dealt with the (very) basic concepts of string theory. This moment was the catalyst that would ultimately see me pursuing physics academically. I began reading all the popular science books and magazines that I could get my hands on, watching hours of documentaries and learned that string theory, in part, hopes to reconcile the two great theories of 20th Century physics: quantum mechanics and general relativity. So to understand these theories, with a view to one day being a part of the effort to resolve their incompatibility, has always been the primary motivation behind my studies.

IMG_1394 copyI have since completed my BSc in Theoretical Physics – also at Queen Mary – and am currently a first year EuroMasters student. I decided to apply for the masters course whilst working on my dissertation on the thermodynamics of black holes, during which I had a very brief introduction to stuff like quantum field theory and AdS/CFT correspondence. This taster of working with some of the deeper concepts within contemporary physics left me with no doubts that I wanted to continue my studies. The fulfilment I gained from working on the project also informed my decision to choose the EuroMasters, with its greater emphasis on research, over the MSc.

Having been an undergrad at Queen Mary, I chose to stay here, primarily because the School’s research interests correlate strongly with my own. I also like that it is a fairly small department which means that there is a lot of access to support; if you’re stuck on something you can usually speak with an academic or PhD student who will help clarify any tricky concepts. University isn’t solely about academia, however, and Queen Mary’s location means access to the plethora of experiences that London has to offer; I have been fortunate to attend many exhibitions, plays and concerts that I would not have had the chance to elsewhere in the country – some here on campus.

Cosmonauts Exhibition!!

I’ve always been interested in space. When I was five, most of the few videos I’d watch were the old Star Wars films so you can see why I’d be interested about going to an exhibit about the Soviet space program at the Science Museum. Having lived in London all my life, I’m quite often at the museums in Kensington (Science, Natural History and V&A) because there’s usually something to do there and if there’s not, it’s always fun to look at the dinosaurs! This time though I saw the Science museum had an exhibit on the Soviet space program called “Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age” so I got some friends to come along and ended up having a sort of school trip.IMG_1323

I’m not sure what I was expecting from this, usually you can gage what’s on the inside of an exhibit just from having a vague interest in the subject matter but this was different. This whole venture happened during the golden age of secrecy and misinformation so I didn’t know much about the Soviet side of the space race. Turns out, they got a lot done!


The exhibit is littered with oddly endearing bits of trivia and unheard tales of badassery by the Soviet cosmonauts like the first woman in space (yes, the Soviets did that 20 years before the US) just happening to notice that she was off course to the point where if left unaltered she would have escaped Earth’s gravity, letting ground control know and then deciding to fix the problem on her own anyway. The Soviets also sent dogs into space to test the rockets and actually brought most of them back! Unfortunately, the first dog, Laika, was incinerated on re-entry into the atmosphere, so that’s a bummer but they all got to go to the park before going to space so there’s that!IMG_1295

The sad thing is that all these pioneers are overshadowed by NASA’s achievement of landing on the moon first. It’s even more upsetting when you realise that the
US only funded NASA when it became politically relevant during the Cold War as an attempt to bankrupt the Soviet Union (who were on such a tight budget they were melting cutlery to build their rockets.) In the end this tactic worked with Reagan’s “Star Wars” initiative but it all started with Kennedy’s gauntlet of reaching the Moon before the end of the 60’s.IMG_1310

This exhibit honours those courageous people who strapped themselves to knives and forks and flew about faster than sound! I’d really recommend going before it closes in March (March 13th is the last day), even if you’re not particularly interested in space, just to see some of the crazy things that went on in the Soviet Union.