Category Archives: UC Berkeley


I filed my dissertation this morning; I am now Dr. Arcane Gazebo. (Well, technically the degree isn’t conferred until Thursday when the semester ends, but whatever.)
The main result of the entire thesis comes down to a single plot, shown below. This isn’t the “explain my thesis” post so I’ll just say that the plot shows our ability to control the coupling energy between two qubits by applying a bias current to our readout device, hence the thesis title Solid-State Qubits with Current-Controlled Coupling. The solid curves are calculations based on device parameters and the dashed curves are one-parameter fits.

Now these points of data make a beautiful line…
If anyone needs me this evening, I’ll be at Triple Rock.

Comics and Career Fairs

Webcomics continue to be too accurate with the latest sequence at PhD Comics. Of course, Jorge Cham’s humor has always ranged from “funny because close to home” to “not funny because too close to home”. This year the strips in the latter category have been especially well-timed: the series linked above, for example, comes not just when I’m in the same situation, but the week of Cal’s major Career Fair. (Identifying other examples is left as an exercise for the reader.)
Anyway, the career fair starts tomorrow; the fraction of recruiters looking for physics PhDs is indeed pretty low (as would be expected for a general campus career fair) but nonzero. (There’s an event specifically targeted at masters and PhDs next month.) I’ll be attending with copies of my resume in hand, hoping to get someone’s attention or, failing that, pick up some good swag. Any advice for this sort of thing?

Dusty physics history in the LeConte Hall attic

leconte attic, originally uploaded by arcanegazebo.

This was my Project 365 photo for Tuesday, but I wanted to do a blog post on it as well.

The attic of Berkeley’s main physics building resembles nothing so much as an inert and dusty version of the Jawa caravan in Star Wars. Filled with vintage ’70s/’80s (and older) electronics and cryogenic equipment, it contains the history of decades of cutting-edge research, now consigned to storage. Also, annoyingly elusive items that have to be accounted for in the annual lab inventory.

I was up here Tuesday afternoon looking for a particular frequency synthesizer that LBL’s records say we own. It turns out there is a frequency sythesizer up here, in among our group’s poorly-delineated junk pile, but it is a slightly different model (presumably with a bad motivator). I didn’t find the instrument I was looking for, but did take a few pictures, which all turned out blurry since there was hardly any light and the camera couldn’t acquire focus.

Perhaps the most unusual instrument is the one that’s musical rather than scientific: an old organ sitting in the corner, presumably for aspiring Phantoms of the Opera.

Protest Signs at Birge Hall

protest signs
Originally uploaded by arcanegazebo.

Both UCB Chancellor Birgeneau and and UC President Dynes are members of the physics department. This is perhaps good for departmental prestige but also draws protestors. Yesterday a rally for higher custodial wages made a stop at Birge Hall. (In fact, neither Dynes or Birgeneau are typically in the physics buildings–the only time I’ve seen Birgeneau in the department was the day Smoot won the Nobel.)
Not pictured: my office window, which is two windows to the right of the frame. I was down in the lab at the time, and missed it.

Berkeley Physicist wins Nobel

UCB cosmologist George Smoot won the Nobel Prize for Physics today, for his discovery of anisotropy in the cosmic microwave background. He shares the prize with John Mather of NASA Goddard. Here’s Berkeley’s press release, the Nobel press release, and the AP article.
UPDATE: This, of course, was the Science: It Works, Bitches measurement whose data appeared in xkcd.
UPDATE II: Other bloggers writing about the prize: Sean at Cosmic Variance, Chad at Uncertain Principles, Steinn at Dynamics of Cats, Stefan at Backreaction, Andrew Jaffe, Rob Knop at Galactic Interactions, Janet Stemwedel at Adventures in Ethics and Science (whose mother worked with COBE and shares some anecdotes).
Maybe I’ll try to get some pictures at the champagne reception later today…
UPDATE III: From the physics department reception, when Smoot is asked to make some remarks (this is paraphrased):
Smoot: I’ve been making statements all day… but now I can say what I’m really thinking, because there’s no press.
[Berkeley Chancellor] Birgeneau: There’s always press.
Smoot: Yeah, I’m worried about bloggers.
Wouldn’t want to disappoint… I did forget my camera, though.

Newsweek on the gender gap at Berkeley

Newsweek has an article on the gender gap in science, and looks at Berkeley’s physics department in particular:

To get a sense of how women have progressed in science, take a quick tour of the physics department at the University of California, Berkeley. This is a storied place, the site of some of the most important discoveries in modern science—starting with Ernest Lawrence’s invention of the cyclotron in 1931. A generation ago, female faces were rare and, even today, visitors walking through the first floor of LeConte Hall will see a full corridor of exhibits honoring the many distinguished physicists who made history here, virtually all of them white males.
But climb up to the third floor and you’ll see a different display. There, among the photos of current faculty members and students, are portraits of the current chair of the department, Marjorie Shapiro, and four other women whose research covers everything from the mechanics of the universe to the smallest particles of matter. A sixth woman was hired just two weeks ago. Although they’re still only about 10 percent of the physics faculty, women are clearly a presence here. And the real hope may be in the smaller photos to the right: graduate and undergraduate students, about 20 percent of them female. Every year Berkeley sends freshly minted female physics doctorates to the country’s top universities. That makes Shapiro optimistic, but also realistic. “I believe things are getting better,” she says, “but they’re not getting better as fast as I would like.”

Overall the description of Berkeley is positive; they highlight some of the female researchers here and mention policies that the campus is undertaking to improve the situation.

NAS Report on Women in Science

A National Academy of Sciences panel on women in science finds:

For 30 years, the report says, women have earned at least 30 percent of the nation’s doctorates in social and behavioral sciences, and at least 20 percent of the doctorates in life sciences. Yet they appear among full professors in those fields at less than half those levels. Women from minority groups are “virtually absent,” it adds.
The report also dismisses other commonly held beliefs — that women are uncompetitive or less productive, that they take too much time off for their families. Instead, it says, extensive previous research showed a pattern of unconscious but pervasive bias, “arbitrary and subjective” evaluation processes and a work environment in which “anyone lacking the work and family support traditionally provided by a ‘wife’ is at a serious disadvantage.”

(Via Bitch, Ph.D.) Although the conclusion is unsurprising to anyone who has followed this issue, it’s good to see the gender gap getting attention at high levels beyond Larry Summers dismissing it as due to “innate differences”. The NYT article is short on recommended reforms, but I don’t know whether that is also true of the original report.
The panel included UC Berkeley’s chancellor Robert Birgeneau, and the late UCSC chancellor Denice Denton, who committed suicide recently, had also been on the panel before her death.
Back in March we had a pretty good comment thread on this subject.

“Qual Season!” “Prelim Season!” “Qual Season!” “Prelim Season!”

Gordon Watts and Chad Orzel have some thoughts on qualifying exam season. This confused me until I realized that what other departments call the qual is what Berkeley’s physics department calls the preliminary exam. Incoming grad students take the written prelims as soon as they arrive: these are a pair of six-hour exams given on consecutive Saturdays, one on classical physics and one on modern physics. After passing the written exams, one then takes the oral prelims which are an additional two hours (again divided evenly between classical and modern). One must pass the whole fourteen-hour suite before joining a research group.
This is every bit as stressful as the links above describe; the grading is set up so that only about two-thirds of the students pass each round, and officially you only get three tries. (In fact, almost everyone passes by the third attempt.) I don’t really have any advice for the written portion, but for the orals I had my faculty mentor give me a practice run that was incredibly helpful (especially since I got asked many of the same questions in the actual exam).
We do have something called a qualifying exam; it’s a two-hour oral exam set up on an individual basis, and meant to be taken after two years in research. The first hour is a presentation by the student of a proposed topic for the dissertation, and the second hour is an exam on the subfield relevant to this research. As it happens, I will be taking the qual “soon”. Some of you may note that I have been doing research for four years, and have been about to take the qual for two years now. Indeed, it is quite common for students to put off the qual until just before writing the dissertation, where the “proposal” actually becomes a presentation of results. Most departments call this the “thesis defense”.
On the other hand, we don’t have a thesis defense, so it all evens out in the end.

Mathematical Fashions

While we toil away on our experiments in Birge Hall, the works of our mathematical colleagues in neighboring Evans become ever more mysterious.
The Sarong Theorem Archive: This page is an electronic archive of images of people proving theorems while wearing sarongs.
So what theorem would you choose when preparing a photo for this page? I would go with the proof of the error bound on Simpson’s Rule, but I should give Mason first dibs on that.
Via Bitch, Ph.D.