Tag: autobiography

A brief history of gadgets

This is a post about gadgets and my relationship with them, spurred by my purchase of the latest gadget: an HTC Desire smartphone aka “Shiny”.

I have a suspicious relationship with telephones, basically I consider talking to people at a distance a form of devilry and if you expect me to type messages in a 26 letter alphabet using a 12 key keyboard you’ve got another thing coming. Telephone use at SomeBeans Towers is simple: most nights Mrs SomeBeans rings her dad, once a week on Sunday my mum rings me, roughly once a month my dad rings me with a list of computer problems for solution and once every three weeks I ring Majestic to arrange wine delivery : “Simples”. All phone calls beyond this are a cause for chaos, consternation, confusion etc. I appreciate this makes us “anomalous” but I’m too old to care.

Mobile phone use is even more occasional, whilst skiing we sometimes arrange slope side meet-ups via mobile phone. Mrs SomeBeans was reduced to hysterics watching me typing a text message, moving my lips as I did it and eventually giving up because of cramp. When buying a house use of the devil’s mobile speech-horn is inevitable. At the start of the last house purchase I sat on the train with my mobile phone ringing from my pocket thinking: “Why isn’t that person answering their phone? It sounds an awful lot like mine (I think)”, on the previous house buying occasion I attempted to recharge my phone via it’s headphone socket, it died.

My last trip to the phone shop was rather embarrassing for all concerned, I bought a Samsung E250 slider phone. I completely missed the point of the “slider” bit and asked the phone-geek whether it was a touch screen phone: “No, sir”. I expressed a desire for a phone embedded in an SLR camera lens, at which point the phone-geek claimed that the picture from some phone was as good as an SLR, so I like to think I wasn’t the only one to come away from the experience looking like a complete idiot. The Shiny was bought over the internet to avoid embarrassment.

I did wonder about the touch screen aspects of the Shiny, I believe there a two types of people in the world: those that are happy to smear their horrible, greasy fingerprints across displays, and those that wish to kill them. I fall into the second group, so there was some risk I would have a touch-screen phone which I was psychologically incapable of touching. Fortunately this has turned out not to be the case, whilst transferring over numbers from the old Samsung I repeatedly tried to use the screen as a touch-screen, to the chagrin of all involved.

Why the HTC Desire? I do a bit of programming and the Android operating system on which it runs is relatively straightforward for me to program on (the iPhone requires you to use a Mac). Android has such magic software as Google Goggles which carries out picture based searching – it works too: it successfully recognised “Luncheon of the Boating Party” by Renoir on our wall, as well as a rather more obscure photo, and Tasty by Kelis (front or back cover). It has a radio too (you notice phone functionality is pretty much the last thing on my mind here). Chatting to friends of a more phone-friendly nature I got the impression that the Desire was the way to go. Blackberries looked a bit serious and business-like (and don’t have radios).

The predecessors of the Shiny are my Psion 5mx, a fabulous PDA with a lovely almost proper keyboard and built-in software which did not need to be supplemented, I gave it up after many years because the connector between screen an keyboard started to break regularly, I followed this with a Dell Axim x51v which I never really loved. My phone history is completely unmemorable, my first mobile phone looked like a toy bone for a dog, and made young people laugh. I’ve had two other phones since then but I scarcely used them. In other gadgets I got a bluetooth GPS to talk to my PDA so I could geotag my photos, then I got a Garmin GPS60 which did it rather more robustly.

I joined the digital camera revolution rather early with a Kodak DC210, this was a revelation to me since previously my photography experience was limited to taking a few shots on film in a weeks holiday, finally filling a film after 18 months having completely forgotten where I was or what technically I had done to achieve the effect I had. After the Kodak I got an Olympus C750UZ, in parallel I also had a Casio Exilim S20 for it’s extreme compactness, then I went SLR picking up a Canon 300D from my father-in-law on which I became completely hooked, upgrading to a 400D shortly thereafter. The reason for going to the SLR was that even with a reasonably good point-and-shoot I was finding there were photos I knew I just couldn’t take because I couldn’t control the camera. An SLR gets round this problem by having a decent set of real controls, like a focus ring on the lenses, rather than some buried menu options and octopus-friendly button pressing. The thing with an SLR is that the camera body serves the function of a gateway drug, your dealer makes the real money on the lenses*. There’s probably a business model in giving away SLR camera bodies and making your profit solely on lenses and accessories. I’ve subsequently got a second Casio Exilim S10 to fill my dinky camera needs, this camera will take photos when people smile and claims that it can recognise different people and prioritise snapping according to your preference. This seems like a new way of offending friends and family, is making your wife anything other than top smiling priority grounds for divorce?

Returning to the HTC Desire: it’s fantastic! It can replace phone, pda, GPS and dinky camera: all in a beautiful package. The interface is a joy to use, wave your finger around on it and you go skittering off to different parts as if you’re skimming across the surface of a large desk. My old PDA felt like you were peering into a tiny fixed porthole on it’s innards. Tapping buttons on the screen gives you a touch of vibration feedback. Even the internet is pretty usable, as is the 200 page PDF manual.

I have a bit of a mixed attitude to gadgets: things that are nice to use like the Psion, Canon 400D and Shiny, I really like. Things with crap interfaces, I can’t abide: programming video recorders and central heating systems I hate for their horribly kludgey 20 random keystrokes with no user feedback nastiness.

And now, if you don’t mind, I will return to fondling Shiny.

*For the camera fans I have the 10-22mm50mm f/1.8, 18-55mm kit, 28-135mm, 100mm macroEF 70-300mm lenses.

On being a fellow of Pembroke college

For a period in my life I knew that if I ever ended up in the news the item would have started “Cambridge don, Dr Ian Hopkinson…” because I was a fellow of Pembroke College, Cambridge.

Oxford and Cambridge universities in the UK, are structured somewhat differently from other universities. In addition to the normal university departments that you would find in any university there are the colleges. The colleges have their own independent, and in many cases, very long existence. They are responsible for the housing and pastoral care of students (and academics), as well as teaching involving small groups. In some subjects they employ full-time lecturers but this is not generally the case in the natural sciences. Each college has a mixture of fellows and students from all subjects, in some ways the parallel is with members of a club. Other universities have apparent equivalents in their Halls of Residence and ‘colleges’ although these things are actually quite different in character.

Clearly Pembroke is the best of the colleges by any rational evaluation! Whilst I was in Cambridge it celebrated its 650th anniversary, although little if any of the original physical structure remains. The college features a chapel designed by Christopher Wren, behind some panels in one of the parlours are the scribblings and sketches by the workmen involved in the building. The ceiling of the Old Library is a fabulous, intricate 17th century plaster construction, I spent many long college meetings admiring it. Alfred Waterhouse was involved in some substantial re-building of the college in the late 19th century demolishing, with dynamite, the pre-existing medieval main hall in the process.

The list of alumni is rich with comedians (Peter Cook, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Eric Idle, Bill Oddie) and writers (Clive James, Ted Hughes), a little light on scientists although it does feature George Gabriel Stokes, Ray Dolby (inventor of the Dolby noise-reduction system) and John Sulston (Nobel Prize winner). Historically, there’s William Pitt the Younger, and Nicholas Ridley (martyred by the old enemy in Oxford). The wiki page gives a summary of the history, and an extended list of alumni.

Pembroke college was somewhat different from anything I had experienced previously and it introduced me to a whole range of social gaffes. From my initial purchase of my MA gown, where I hastily thrust my arms down the sown-up sleeves rather than out through the exit slits; to confusing the Master of Pembroke, Sir Roger Tomkys, former High Commissioner to Kenya with my pointless statement that I had bought my cutlery from Argos (he thought I meant the Greek island); to turning up one summer evening in very crumpled linen for dinner only to discover that it was a celebratory meal for the Drapers’ Company and I was under-dressed by at least an order of magnitude. Fortunately, as a fellow, I was allowed to walk on the grass, the public aren’t. There are no signs to this effect, because senior fellows thought they looked untidy.

As a fellow I received little in the way of cash, I was employed by the university as an Assistant Director of Research* and paid by the college to do a few hours small group teaching each week. Pembroke mainly paid me in food, drink and company. A fairly elderly medieval scholar was the college wine buyer and did an excellent job. Dinners were particularly fine after college meetings, starting in the parlour, for pre-dinner drinks, five courses with a different wine with each course after which we returned to the parlour for port and so forth, Bath Oliver biscuits (Oliver was a former fellow) and fruit eaten with silver knives and forks.  Most junior fellows seconded to serve in the parlour.  For a long period I never drank port that was younger than I was and I got a taste for Sauternes which I can no longer support. Mrs SomeBeans has never forgiven them for the goat’s cheese profiteroles.

As part of my job as fellow I was engaged in admissions interviews: one nervous fellow (me) interviewed fifteen nervous potential students for the Natural Sciences course. I remember having wet feet for most the morning, since I’d cycled in to college in a downpour. All but a couple of the students were predicted at least four A grades at A level, ultimately we were to take one or possibly two of the group I interviewed.

The colleges go to some length to make the admission system fair in relation to the background of the student, but to be honest the problem starts well before application. A vignette: my flatmate at Bristol University went to Harrow he was one of very few in his year *not* to apply to Oxford or Cambridge (Oxbridge), to the displeasure of the masters. I, from my respectable state comprehensive, was one of a handful to apply to Oxbridge. For my school, entry to Oxbridge was not a key performance indicator, it didn’t really have the knowledge or background to support applicants.

In a way the debate on access to Oxbridge misses the point: it takes outstanding students, has excellent resources in terms of cash and people and it produces excellent output. What can you learn from this setup? As a measure of pre-university performance it’s not great, we depend on written record and a few brief interviews. A real challenge would have been to take average students and see what we could do with them.

The best thing about college was my fellow fellows: they were bright, passionate about their work, always keen to talk about it. We met for lunch: classicists, modern linguists, historians, computer scientists, chemists, physicists, biologists, naturalists, engineers, English scholars talking about our work, the world and the etymology of the swearing of the American students over for summer schools. And in the usual college way we could wine and dine in our departmental colleagues colleges where the circle widened. It’s an oddity of most modern universities that the scope for meeting colleagues from different departments is actually rather limited. The college system in Cambridge satisfies that need in some style.

Top image from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Pembroke_College_Cambridge.JPG
*The Assistant Director of Research is no where near as grand as it sounds, it is a position that lies between postdoctoral research assistant and lecturer and is filled in Cambridge by people who will be unrequited in their desire for a permanent position.

What kind of scientist am I? (audio version)

My earlier “What kind of scientist am I?” post is now available as a podcast: http://bit.ly/6EA17H – Posterous allows the easy posting of audio. I’m not sure I’ll do it again but it was fun to try. I used a basic Logitech headset microphone, Audacity to do the capture and editing with the Lame plugin for MP3 export.

What kind of scientist am I?

Following on from my earlier blog post on the tree of life, this post is about the taxonomy of my area of science: physics. I should point out now that I’m not too keen on the division science in this way. These divisions are relatively recent, as an example: the Cavendish Laboratory, the department of physics at Cambridge University, was only founded in 1874.

I am an experimental soft-matter physicist.

So taking the first word: experimental. This is one of the three great kingdoms of physics, the others being  computer simulation and the theory. “Experimental” means I spend a large part of my time trying to do actually experiments on objects in the real world, this may involve substantial computational work to process the output data and should generally involve some comparison to theory when published, although serious development of theory tends to end up in the hands of specialists. Computer simulation is distinct from from theory: simulation is like doing an experiment in a computer – give a set of entities some rules to live by and set them at it, measure results after some time. Theory on the other hand attempts to model the measurements without the fuss of explicitly modelling each entity in the collection.

Next to the physicist bit: In a sense theory is the essence of what physics is about: building an accurate model of the world. The important thing with physics is abstraction, to take an example I’m interested in granular materials; from a physics point of view this means I’m looking for a model that covers piles of ball bearings, avalanches, sand dunes, grain in silos, cereals in a box and possibly even mayonnaise all in a single framework.

And so to the final division: soft-matter. Physical Review Letters, which is the global house journal for physics, has the following subdivisions (in italics):

  • General Physics: Statistical and Quantum Mechanics, Quantum Information, etc; Domain of Schr√∂dingers cat, Alice and Bob exchanging secure messages, and Bose-Einstein condensates.
  • Gravitation and Astrophysics; Physicists go large. Stephen Hawking lives here – black holes, the big bang.
  • Elementary Particles and Fields; down to the bottom, with things very small studied by things very large (like the Large Hadron Collider at CERN). Here be Prof Brian Cox.
  • Nuclear Physics; The properties of the atomic nucleus, including radioactivity, fission and fusion. This is Jim Al-Khalili‘s field. 
  • Atomic, Molecular, and Optical Physics; Stuff where single atoms and molecules are important, things like spectroscopy, fluorescence and luminescence go here.
  • Nonlinear Dynamics, Fluid Dynamics, Classical Optics, etc; Pendulums attached to pendulums, splashes and invisibility cloaks!
  • Plasma and Beam Physics; Matter in extreme conditions of temperature: fusion power goes here.
  • Condensed Matter: Structure, etc; Condensed matter is stuff which isn’t a gas – i.e. liquids and solids, and is acting in a reasonable size lump. 
  • Condensed Matter: Electronic Properties, etc; This is where your semiconductors, from which computer chips are made, live. 
  • Soft Matter, Biological, and Interdisciplinary Physics; Soft-matter refers to various squishy things, plastics, big stringy molecules in solution (polymers), little particles (colloids, like emulsion paint or mayonnaise), liquid crystals, and also granular materials (gravel, grain, sand and so forth).

So there I am in the last division, studying squishy things.

Since I’ve provided a means to wind up most sorts of scientist in previous blog posts, I thought I could provide a few here for me. Theoreticians can wind me up by assuming that experiments, and the analysis of the resulting data, are trivially easy to do and if they don’t fit their theory then I need to try again. Simulators I have a bit more sympathy with, simulations are experiments on a computer, however when you’re writing a paper perhaps you should say in the title you ran a simulation, rather than did a  proper experiment like a real man ;-)

Update: I made this post into a podcast: http://bit.ly/6EA17H – it’s on Posterous because uploading of audio is easier. I used a basic Logitech headset microphone, Audacity to do the capture and editing with the Lame plugin for MP3 export.  I’m not sure I’ll do it again but it was fun to try!

Confocal microscopy

Back to stuff I should know, in theory, at least.

I had my first microscope as a child, it was a small one but I had a great time looking at little creatures that lived in dirty pond-water. I remember spending a long afternoon trying to see transparent single celled animals, and finally getting the lighting just right to see an amoeba. I also remember trying to immobilise a tiny worm with white spirit – it exploded, but I like to think it died happy.

This week I shall mostly be talking about ‘confocal microscopy’, this is a type of light microscopy (as opposed to electron, infra-red, x-ray, scanning tunnelling, or atomic force microscopy). The smallest thing you can see with a light microscopy is about 1 micron across, that’s a thousandth of a millimetre – a human hair is about 80 micron in diameter. A normal light microscope gives you a nice focused picture of a slice of you sample at the “focal plane”, but it also lets in loads of light from parts of your sample away from the focal plane which leaves you, overall, with a bit of a blurry picture. Microscopists get around this problem by slicing their samples up very thinly hence no bits to be blurry, but this is a fiddly procedure and leaves your sample very dead even if it started alive.

Confocal microscopy is a technique by which the slicing of the sample happens virtually, you can put a big fat sample in the microscope and by the use of cunning optics you only get an image from the focal plane which is lovely and sharp. You can build up a 3D picture of the sample by moving it up and down in front of the lens. Marvin Minsky was the original inventor of the confocal microscope in about 1955 but was somewhat held back by the lack of lasers, computers and stuff. Things picked up again in the 1980’s as these things became readily available. Oops, I think that might have been some cod history ;-)

An interesting feature of the confocal microscope is that if there’s nothing in the focal plane, you don’t see anything (unlike a conventional light microscope where you can always see a big bright something, even if it’s blurry) this can be disconcerting for the learner – you can’t find your sample!

Every microscopy needs a contrast mechanism, a way of separating one thing from another. In confocal microscopy by far the most popular contrast mechanism is to use fluorescence via the use of a fluorescent dye to label bits of your sample.  If you illuminate a fluorescent dye with light of one colour it emits light of another colour (making it stand out particularly well). If you ask an organism nicely (okay – genetically engineer), you can get it to make Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP) which is a protein that fluoresces green (duh!).  All that remains is to find a way of  sticking the fluorescent dye to the thing in which you’re interested.

In each post about science I like to add a little fact to help you wind up / avoid winding up practitioners in that field. So to wind up a microscopist: project an image onto a screen for a presentation and claim “x800” magnification (or whatever). The problem is: to what does “x800” magnification apply? Is it what the microscope told you when you looked through the eyepiece? Is it the magnification on the printed page, the computer screen or on the wall? We really doubt you know. It’s scale bars all the way.

For several years I was proud keeper of a confocal microscope. I, and my students, had great fun with the microscope and it had fun with us. The pointy end of the microscope is the objective lens, the bit closest to the sample. A fancy microscope like our Zeiss LSM 510 had 5 or more objectives mounted on a turret (see the image at the top of the post), each objective gives different magnification. The Zeiss LSM 510 was fully motorised, and too clever by half. It would assume that you wanted to stay focused on the same part of the sample when you changed objectives (or it changed them for you, with it’s motors). Now the problem is that for a x10 objective the focal plane is about 1cm from the front of the objective lens, and for a x40 objective lens it could be only a tenth of a millimetre. Now imagine I’ve just focused deeply inside my sample using an x10 objective, I switch to the x40 object on the computer….. and the microscope mashes the x40 objective lens into the sample, blithely ignoring the sound of ¬£6000 lens smashing glass coverslip and covering it in sticky sample!

In later posts I’ll show some of the results from the confocal microscope in non-mashy-lens-into-sample mode.

Here are some images, these are all slices through solid objects. I didn’t really think this through in terms of explaining what’s in these first three images, roughly they’re what you get if you add a small amount of salt-water to Fairy liquid (although I would prefer you to use Persil washing up liquid). First up is a cross-section through an “onion-type micelle”:

And these are the structures you see in a similar system but with a different concentration of water:

This is a false colour image, bit lurid – don’t know what I was thinking at the time. These are known as “myelin”:

Pollen-grains are always popular – I stole this one from here. Each of the images is a slice, and the inset bottom right is the result of adding all the slices together.