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Summer school in Beijing provides excellent foundation in statistical physics

Main physics building, Chinese Academy of Science
Main physics building, Chinese Academy of Science

I’ve just returned from a wonderful two weeks in Beijing where I attended a summer school on non-equilibrium statistical physics and active matter systems at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, having attended with financial support from the IOP.

The purpose of the school was to bring together students from a range of backgrounds and from all across China, along with a few international students, to learn some of the fundamentals as well as some of the topics currently being researched within the fields of nonequilibrium statistical mechanics and active matter.

The level of participants was quite varied, from those who had just finished their undergraduate degrees to PhD students (probably the majority) as well as postdocs and even a couple of lecturers. I also met students who had studied a number of different subjects – chemistry, computer science, mechanical engineering, maths, and, of course, physics – so it was quite a diverse and interesting group of people. Nonetheless, I certainly got the feeling that almost everyone came away having had a great time and having learned a lot of new and useful things.

The first week was primarily focused on nonequilibrium statistical mechanics. Overall I thought it was great. The standard of lecturing was very high, and we were able to cover a lot of different and interesting subjects. With the three lectures on basic equilibrium statistical mechanics, I was familiar with the material, but the University of Cologne’s Professor Thomas Natterman presented it in a very different and more technical way than I was used to, and so I still got quite a lot out of these lectures. Interface growth, on which Professor Kazumasa Takeuchi of the University of Tokyo gave three lectures, was a subject that I knew very little about, and Takeuchi gave an excellent series of lectures, providing both a solid introduction to the material as well as a broad overview of the current state of the theoretical and experimental work that is being done.

The only slight criticism I would have was that I think some lectures on some of the more traditional approaches to nonequilibrium statistical mechanics (limited as these might be in their applicability) could have been useful to give some context as to why the progress in some of the topics (eg stochastic thermodynamics) is so exciting – but of course I understand that there was a limited amount of time.

The second week began with the two-day International Workshop on Stochastic Thermodynamics and Active Matter. This included all of the summer school students and lecturers as well as a number of other people from many different places came just to attend the workshop. All of the international PhD students and a few of the domestic students were invited to give short presentations about their current work, along with a number of international postdocs who had been invited as well. These two days were much more like a conference than the rest of the school, with an obvious emphasis on presenting new and ongoing research and it was great to be exposed to such a variety of speakers working on such a diverse range of topics.

The rest of the week was focused primarily on lectures about active matter. The final three lectures were given by Professor Yuhai Tu of the Thomas J Watson Research Center, New York, and were on a number of different topics, including biochemical networks, bacterial chemotaxis and some details about the mechanics of bacterial flagellar. These were quite different from the other lectures in that they were looking at systems in much more biological detail. This made them quite challenging for me personally as I haven’t studied any biology in quite some time. Nevertheless, they were very well presented and again I learned a lot as so much of the material was new to me.

Aside from the lectures, one of the aims of the summer school was to produce a book based on the material from the lectures. To do this, we were split into groups at the start of the school, assigned different lectures, and asked to try and write up the lectures into mini-chapters of the book. Part of this idea was that it would also be a good way for the students to communicate with each other and make sure they understood the material properly. There were a number of organisational difficulties involved with this, and certainly the chapters our group worked on still need a bit of work and editing at the time of writing this, but it was certainly an interesting experience and it was quite enjoyable working together as a group to try and get everything done. It’ll be fascinating to see how it eventually turns out.

Overall, it was an extremely enjoyable, interesting and useful two weeks in Beijing. Despite working in the field of active matter there were many areas of the subject that I really knew very little about, and this school provided an excellent foundation, such that I now feel it would be a lot easier to learn about these topics in more detail – which I now plan to do.

  • The Institute offers financial support for a variety of activities carried out internationally. For further information, see the IOP website.
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Henry Charlesworth

Henry Charlesworth

Henry Charlesworth is a PhD student based in the centre for complexity science at the University of Warwick, studying simple models of decision making processes within active matter systems.
Henry Charlesworth

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