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, esa.org.

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, nasa.gov.

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…