A blogomeme


Tommaso recently tagged me in a blog-meme. I’d like to play along, but unfortunately I don’t have much to contribute to the meme in it’s current form. Luckily, these things can evolve to such hostile environments… so I’ve taken the liberty to mutate the meme into a more amenable form.

Here’s what the American Physics Student in England genus of the meme now looks like:

  1. Link to the person who tagged you.
  2. List 7 random/weird things about your favorite historical figure currently on your mind.
  3. Tag seven more people at the end of your blog and link to theirs.
  4. Let the tagged people know by leaving a note on their site.

(Sorry, Tommaso, historical figures aren’t my strong suite!)

Without further ado… seven random thoughts:

  1. An excuse! I’ve been bogged down with work the past couple of weeks, so posting has been slow. This lets me type out a few quick thoughts without the pressure of fleshing them out into proper posts.
  2. Gauge Redundancy a la Arkani-Hamed. I highly recommend watching the video of N. Arkani-Hamed’s first SUSY lecture at the 2007 PI summer school. While the three other lectures in the series introduce low energy SUSY, the first talk makes some very insightful comments about the Standard Model as an effective field theory. His comments on gauge redundancy (rather than `symmetry’) are particularly understated typical QFT texts and should be mandatory viewing for students (and some lecturers) of gauge theories. A relevant problem set can be found from Professor Arkani-Hamed’s PiTP07 lectures.
  3. Great bedtime reading. My bed time reading has been consumed by two books recently. On the phenomenological side, QCD and Collider Physics is a fantastic monograph on everything I’ve ever wanted to know about QCD. Despite my predispositions against the subject, the book is surprisingly readable. It’s also `good for the soul’ what with the LHC cooling down. On the formal side, I’ve also been skimming Supersymmetry and String Theory. This is certainly not a text for beginners of either subject; don’t expect any detailed calculations or derivations. Instead, it’s a broad overview of a range of topics with many gems of wisdom interspersed (much in the spirit of Zee’s QFT in a Nutshell). I can usually manage a couple of sections before I doze of and start dreaming about the hierarchy problem.
  4. Moonlighting as a student. My adviser is away at the moment, and I’ve been disobeying his advice about not attending Durham’s lecture courses in favour of focusing on research. I’m usually obedient with research, but the courses are so good this term that it’s my moral obligation as a young physicist to attend. To make up for taking courses in the mornings, I’ve been putting in extra hours in the evenings. So far I think my research progress hasn’t slowed down (there’s only so much debugging one can do in a day) and I hope I can make it to the end of the term.
  5. On grad coursework. Like I said, the courses this term are fantastic, spanning many topics at TASI-esque breadth and depth. This, I think, should be the model of postgraduate coursework: PhD students should already be teaching themselves topics that are readily reviewed in the literature, while coursework should be focused on broadly guiding students’ studies and providing insight `between the lines.’ This allows the lecturer to provide more of his or her own insight in his/her field of expertise — something you won’t find in the standard literature and far more valuable — while also being available to answer questions from students. This is the difference between learning QFT from Peskin rather than from Peskin’s book. (Unfortunately I was too naive when I had the opportunity to take advantage of this.)
  6. On grad students taking courses. This, of course, puts a lot of responsibilty on postgraduate students. A common problem I’ve noticed in Cambridge and Durham is an unnatural reliance on copying notes from the chalkboard. There’s far more to effective pedagogy than what you jot down during lecture. If you want to learn something, then find the appropriate review literature and learn it. Then take advantage of lecture courses as a chance to interact: this is the last time in your academic life that someone else is responsible to you for answering your questions about a subject you’re learning. Further, don’t be afraid to use what you learn; discuss topics with other students and learn from how they understand (or don’t understand) a topic. Sure, your geek factor goes through the roof, but you’ll cultivate a much deeper understanding in the topic.
  7. Going clubbing. On that note, a group of students here have started up a neutrino/astroparticle journal club with one of the faculty. (Another activity that I’m keeping secret from my adviser.) The idea is that every two weeks we agree to discuss an interesting paper from the arXiv, with one member `taking the lead’ in reading the paper in some depth. Rather than being a presentation, the meetings are meant to be a discussion where we can pool our collective backgrounds to understand current research. I’ve never done anything like this, but it seems like it’ll be fun. Does anybody have any recommendations for papers?

I’m going to go ahead and tag a few friends to pass along the meme. I’m not sure if my particular genus will survive, but here goes:

I’ve left out a few blogs that I regularly read; either because they’ve already been tagged or because they’re far too important to be bothered by me. (Not that the above four three blogs aren’t very important themselves!)

8 Responses to “A blogomeme”

  1. maybe i am blind (and i am quite tired) but you just have 3 tags there not 4 i think …

    also, do you know for sure your advisor does not read your blog? i think your cover would be blown …



  2. I hope not. I don’t think my blog is interesting enough. Anyway, in case he *does* read my blog… I should point out an earlier post…


  3. 3 Horace

    Hi Flip Tomato,

    I’m one of those students that blindly copy things from the chalkboard.
    I don’t want to do this, but I find it difficult to listen to a lecture and, at the same time, think about what was said. I want to read ahead, but I find this difficult to do consistently for every class in every course when I also need to do assignments and study for tests. Do you have some advice?

    Also, what kinds of questions are best asked in class? What are the questions that the lecturer can answer and the standard literature can’t?


  4. Hi there Horace!

    I used to be the same as you, so I know that it’s not easy to transition into a more active role. Sometimes this can be even more difficult when a lecturer doesn’t actively encourage participation. Also, the American-system of having regular assessment (homework) can make it harder for students to spend time looking at the `forest’ rather than just focusing on individual `trees.’

    Some random thoughts:

    I think the goal from a student’s point of view is to understand lectures in real-time, even if only in some broad sense. At any point during the lecture, though, you should be able to stop yourself and explain (in your own words) what it is the lecturer is doing and how it relates to the previous lecture and the rest of the course. Usually this means that you need to be comfortable with the material of the past lectures.

    Try reviewing your lecture notes after class, or at least some time during the same day. Identify the main ideas and make a note of things that you don’t immediately understand. Go read a textbook to try to clear up these ideas. Even better, discuss the questions with a friend. This is a habit worth cultivating early in the term when everyone is on the same page. If you still have questions, try asking those at the beginning of the next lecture or during office hours.

    If you’re having trouble seeing the big picture, make it a point to attend office hours regularly to chat about the subject at large. Keep up with problem sets and don’t leave them to the last minute. You figure out what you really understand and don’t understand when you try to do problems. Think of them as a tool, rather than as a requirement. (This is one of the nice features of UK-style pedagogy.)

    Don’t worry about what kinds of questions you ask. Just don’t be afraid to stop the class so that you can make sure you’re still following. In fact, asking questions is the best way to get a lecturer to slow down so that you can catch up. (Try: “Sorry, could you explain that last bit again?”)

    Usually, when a lecturer says something I don’t immediately understand, I ask: “Is that obvious?” This way you don’t feel like you’re saying “sorry, I’m stupid,” but rather you’re asking for insight about how to understand a statement (which is what you’re really looking for).

    You can’t know a priori what a lecturer can say that the literature doesn’t. That’s the lecturer’s responsibility. Usually more advanced classes will focus more on the lecturer’s particular approach to a subject, while foundational courses will be taught according to “the party line.”

    What might be helpful is to read up on the subject from a more basic textbook in real-time, or in fact ahead of time. This way you get a feel for the ‘big picture’ of a subject, allowing you to be able to focus on fine details in the lectures. This gives you a kind of scaffolding on which to build your understanding.

  5. Interesting blog Sir Tomato. Much of what you reference is so over my head its humbling.

    As a graduate student myself, I’m intrigued to find blogs by other students and will add yours to my collection.

    Also, great suggestions to Horace (and any student for that matter). Staying engaged and participating in lectures is so valuable. With the growing prevalence of online education, I wonder how this dynamic will be affected.


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