Wednesday, 17 February 2010

My Time In Japan: Physics is my business...and business is good

Ok, so I've been meaning for a long time to set up some sort of blog to keep track of what I've been up to, so here it is! For those of you who don't know, my name is Adam. I'm a Nuclear Physicist by day, a rock and heavy metal fanatic by night, and a big Sonic the Hedgehog fan...well, most of the time.

Over the past few years my passport has rapidly accumulated the stamps of many countries, and I have been fortunate enough to have the time, money and occupation to fully appreciate these journies across the globe. Although the work is pretty time-consuming (there are never enough hours in the day for a Physicist), I still manage to get the opportunity to do some exploring while I'm about. I've also had the fortune of having some fellow loonies to enjoy these experiences with - namely Oli, my work colleague, who has been on several experiments with me and enjoys a good walk, as well as Svend, Lewis and Jo, fellow "Sonicites" who were company during my first trip to Japan...which brings me to the subject of most of this, my first blog entry.

They say lightning doesn't strike twice, but I was given another opportunity to visit Japan not nine months after my first excursion, and like anyone with half a brain I grabbed it. The trip was in conjunction with a programme run at Tokyo Institute of Technology, who also have quite a large Nuclear Physics group. The United Kingdom as a whole have few connections to our colleagues in Japan, so I saw this as not only a chance to benefit myself, but to start building some bridges as well. Few of you will know of the STFC cuts this year to the Nuclear Physics budget in the UK - it's huge, and somewhere on the order of about fifty percent of what it was. This concerns me on a personal level, as I feel this may have the effect of closing a few doors on job opportunities in my future particularly in the field at home, but it also concerns me that researchers will become yet another import, and the rapidly decaying shell of what used to be a great country will rely on outside support with consultation. UK researchers are not stupid, and they will go abroad, and I would not be surprised to see the dimise of Nuclear Physics research altogether in the UK within my lifetime. If we could reinforce our bonds abroad however, we might just keep some elements alive. Japan invests something around fifty times the amount of funding into this research than the UK does, and the effects are obvious - particularly with facilities like RIKEN, a research campus just north of the center of Tokyo. This will become one of the best places to conduct the research we would like to do in the coming years as each of the new beamlines comes online.

So, what a great double-barrelled opportunity this was. I've been to Tokyo before, so I quickly navigated my way to O-Okayama where Tokyo Tech's main campus lies, and I was greated by my host student, Kawada-san. Kawada-san is far from the typical Japanese stereotype - he's about as tall as me, and very softly spoken. We soon realised that neither my Japanese or his English were up to scratch for a full deep conversation, so I guess we've developed some bizarre Anglo-Nippon language in which to communicate. In turn I think I came as a huge shock to all of the other students I share a lab with; to be fair I am a 6" 2' bearded, pony-tailed, tattooed Viking decendant, and I've been told I come off as quite threatening on first appearances. Anyway, it took about a week for people to begin to talk to me, and this was, also down to the fact, people had guessed my age at being around 30-something, and had thus assumed I would have been a fully-fledged Doctor. Some still refuse to talk to me unless I engage them directly, however a handful do greet me in the hallways, and some have been kind enough to show me their research on a one-to-one basis.

I also find the inter-personal communication different, in that some days group members will go the duration without speaking once. Now for me, someone who likes to talk, this was very awkward initially. Fair enough, the conversation in my office at York usually centers around today's XKCD strip, or rapidly descends into "that episode of Family Guy", but a lot of the time we discuss Physics; not neccisarily specific to the work we are doing, but just in general. Sometimes there is a problem someone has with debugging code, or marking undergraduate scripts - we even have postgraduate courses and journal clubs that look at the full spectrum of past work, theory, experiment, equipment etc... I feel this experience keeps my mind in check, along with teaching UG's and gives me a broad feel across many subjects - Nuclear Astrophysics, Exotic Nuclei, Shape co-existance...even refreshers in basic maths. I feel this helps me become a more "rounded" physicist (spherical, not prolate). This seems to happen little here, or if it does, it must happen in the corridors, or outside of the ten-hour days I seem to average here, and I feel this is a little sad. Physicists are generally a shy breed (again, not the case for many I know, but making a sweeping generalisation), and I think this is further amplified in the Japanese culture. I have tried to inject some of the Western way while I've been here - asking students questions after seminars, light conversation at lunch, but the success of this has been limited. I don't think this is a language barrier problem either, as a lot of them have a firm grasp on English.

Another from the group in York (where I work) is that everyone seems to be doing quite similar research. The group specialises in research, looking at Halo nuclei,an exotic form of nuclear existance where some constituents of what would be the core - neutrons in this case - exhibit properties as if they were in slightly detached orbits or halos, hence the name (...sorry, poor layman's description!). Now while their expertise in this niché really does excel, it seems that the education in the broader field becomes extremely specialised extremely quickly. Whether or not this is to an advantage or disadvantage is still unclear to me.

On the other end of the scale we have the conferences and symposiums I have attended, which have involved lots of International participants. Again I enjoy such experiences, as I get a change of scenery from my own work, as well as practice my own presentation skills. Again, I have utmost admiration for a lot of the students here who all presented in English, and as much as I hate to say it I'm a little ashamed I do not know a foreign language to the level others have. The research is interesting, and my understanding of neutron detection methods as well as missing mass methods has increased substantially. I've also had one or two opportunities to visit RIKEN itself, and am greatful for an opportunity to see assembly of detectors, as well as to have received tour of the facility from Dr. Steppenbeck (who actually grew up not so far from me...small world).

I'd like to finish where I started, on the note of company. The big difference this time around has been the fact this endevour was my own, and I came here alone. In one way it has felt a little solitary in some senses, which has been a little odd considering I'm not a person who desires company constantly. Don't get me wrong here, it hasn't depressed me (because I'm not someone who gets depressed), it's just been a little sad seeing things and thinking "Damn, Oli would have loved this" or "Haha, I bet Kelly would find this shop name amusing too", and I guess that's hit home a little. If anything I have new-found appreciation for my friends. I hope that the members of this group will stay in contact (I have a feeling Kawada-san will do, as well as my host Nakamura-san) and hopefully our working relationships can develop into one of friendship also.

Two people I will definitely been staying in contact with; Adrien, my French colleague in the lab. A fellow "Gai-jin" (foreigner), I think we've found a lot of things in common with our perception of Japan, and it has been great to talk about other things such as animé, which he also has an interest in. The other is Sunny, a Nigerian bartender in Odaiba. We met randomly (well, being the only man in the restaurant wearing a Stetson makes me stand out a lot), and hit it off. Again, I think it was another moment of "happy to speak English for a bit", and I think he was more impressed I came back to visit him again before I left, and that my promise of return wasn't a hollow one.

So yeah, this was the business end of the stick...I will tell you of my further exploration another day!


1 comment:

  1. Adam-san, you make a very good point with regard to the creation and cultivation of research ties. There's a reason that "it's not what you know, it's who you know" has become such a worn-out platitude! Especially in a country like the UK, where funding for basic research is slowly being sucked from the budget, developing connections with scientists and facilities in other places is essential, and I commend you for being so keen as to pick that up.
    I feel you've done an excellent job so far of being a spheroid (not prolate or oblate!) physicist. If that wasn't the case, how could you make such terrible jokes? ;-)
    And I'm sure I would have laughed at the shop name.