All posts by Ciaran Donnelly

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…

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.