Oliver Brown

Delighted! Congratulations to everyone though, it was a strong zone and it's been a great event =)

Favourite Thing: Present my work, I just like talking about what I do! Last time my best friend came up to visit I gave him a 40-minute presentation on a whiteboard, I don’t think he was very impressed… Theoretical physics conference presentations can be very dry affairs, so I try to sneak a gag or two in — the audience usually appreciates it! (Usually…)



Glastonbury Thorn primary school (1996-1999), Two Mile Ash middle school (1999-2003), Denbigh secondary school (2003-2007), Denbigh 6th Form (2007-2009), Heriot-Watt University (2009-2013), Scottish Doctoral Training Centre in Condensed Matter Physics (2013-Present!)


MPhys in Physics

Work History:

GAME as a retail assistant, Heriot-Watt University Student’s Union and Underbelly as a venue/show technician, and occasional work as a gardener/removals man!

Current Job:

PhD Student


Heriot-Watt University

Me and my work

I ask my computer to tell me things about quantum physics, sometimes it does!

Hello! My name is Ollie, and I was born in Enfield, raised in Milton Keynes, and when I was 18 came here  to Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh. I did a four year undergraduate Master’s degree (MPhys), and enjoyed my dissertation project so much that I decided to stay on to do a PhD. I’m now in my second year, and really enjoying myself! I’ll try to explain a bit about my work below, but outside of work I enjoy being just about every kind of nerd — music, sci-fi tv, books, and comics, table-top games, board games, and shooting my flatmate with nerf guns!

I am a computational physicist working on ‘advanced numerical algorithms for dissipative many-body quantum theory’. Now that phrase probably deserves some explanation, so:

  • ‘advanced numerical algorithms’ —

Bossman: “This maths is too hard, please make your computer do it Ollie.”
Ollie: “The sun will explode before my computer can finish this maths.”
Bossman: “Not if you use this method.”
Ollie: “It is hard to write code that uses this method.”
Bossman: “Yes, that is why you get a PhD out of it.”

  • ‘dissipative’ — We physicists generally like to work with isolated systems, ‘in a frictionless vacuum’ and all that sort of thing. In my field we ask “but what if it’s not isolated?” All the maths gets harder, that’s what!
  • ‘many-body’ — More than about say, three. Seriously! This is probably one of the defining features of my work, so I’ll say a bit more below.
  • ‘quantum theory’ — “If I were a single particle, what would I do?” That is the question the quantum theorist must ask herself. And generally the answer is ‘not sure’, but we can make an educated guess. By ‘guess’ of course I actually mean ‘complex statistical model’, but the principle is sound!

The reason I say the ‘many-body’ part is probably a defining feature of my work is that the way we store information about particles on a computer is by putting numbers in boxes — we use vectors. The problem with working with lots of particles is that this scales really really badly. If you need 2 numbers to describe one of your particles, then you need 8 numbers to describe three particles. You need 1024 numbers to describe ten particles, and you need around 1000 billion billion billion (10^30) to describe one-hundred particles. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to type 1000 billion billion billion numbers in to a PC, but I don’t recommend it.

So the bad news is that getting a computer to model 100 particles is pretty hard. The good news is the fact that it’s pretty hard means I have a job!

If I’ve not explained myself well here, or you’re just interested in more detail about my work, please let me know!

My Typical Day

Wake up, drink coffee, write code, drink coffee, write code, play videogames, bed!

In general I rock a pretty solid 10-6 (or 9-5 if I’m able to get a lift to and from work with my flatmate) schedule. One of the benefits of being a PhD student, especially a theoretical one, is you get to set your own schedule for the most part.

I divide up my day based on what particular work I have to get done at the time. If I only had research to do then my day would go exactly as described above! In reality though I have meetings, lectures to attend, and teaching to do each week. This is definitely a good thing as keeping my schedule varied keeps me interested, I have quite a short attention span…

I try to keep my evenings and weekends free as much as possible for gaming sessions with my flatmates (also Physics PhD students)!

What I'd do with the money

LEGO WATT BALANCE. A device which can be used to calculate a fundamental constant — Planck’s constant — made out of Lego!

These awesome guys over at MIT, a top science and engineering university in Michigan in the States designed a Watt balance out of Lego! A Watt balance is a piece of experimental equipment that can be used to measure Planck’s constant. Planck’s constant is the ratio between the colour (frequency) of light and the amount of energy it contains, so it’s pretty fundamental! My plan would be to use the money to buy all the components to build my own Watt balance out of Lego, as well as a raspberry pi to store and analyse the data from the experiment, and then take it round to every science show and school that will have me! Planck’s constant is really important to the work that I do, and I really love Lego so it seems like a perfect fit.

My hope is that by including a raspberry pi in the build, I can get people to perform the experiment themselves, and with a few simple commands analyse the data and plot a graph of the results. It’s not strictly necessary to make the device out of Lego, but, Lego!

If any of your teacher’s are interested in the Lego Watt balance then they can find out all they might wish to know and more at the following link:

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Needs more coffee.

Who is your favourite singer or band?

Oh I hate this question — there are too many to choose from! Tonight I’m going to see Postmodern Jukebox who do like, vintage covers of pop songs, and in a couple of weeks I’m seeing Placebo. Last year I saw Rancid, Watsky, Coheed & Cambria, Our Man in the Bronze Age, and Jamie Lenman. When I was growing up I was all about Eminem, Good Charlotte, Green Day, Capdown, Rammstein…

What's your favourite food?


What is the most fun thing you've done?

Running sound for the open mic night at my student union. I love music, especially loud music, and this year’s hosts are a metal band =D I’m known for headbanging while stood at the sound desk…

What did you want to be after you left school?

First a policeman, then a forensic scientist, then I just decided to never leave school!

Were you ever in trouble at school?

Hmm.. let’s just say ‘yes’ =P

What was your favourite subject at school?

Food Technology, mmm….

What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

A quantum physics themed game jam in Finland!

What or who inspired you to become a scientist?

In my case nothing specifically inspired me, it just turned out to be what I like doing! I used to really like the BBC show ‘Waking the Dead’, so for a while I wanted to be a forensic scientist — but it turns out I’m rubbish at chemistry so that never happened. I like problem solving, and I like computers and programming, so everything just sort of fell in to line. I have to say I do especially enjoy the elegance of quantum theory and information theory, but I can see how it wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste.

If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?

Definitely a programmer! I love the puzzle-solving aspect of writing code, and I love technology.

If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!

Okay, so, wish one would be Bernard’s watch. If you never saw the CITV show Bernard’s watch then you missed out! The point is it’s a stop-watch that can stop time in a clean uncomplicated way, without having to worry too much about physics. If I had it I would be able to sleep a normal amount of time AND play videogames AND do research! Wish number two would be to win the lottery so I could pay off my mum’s mortgage, get myself a flat in Edinburgh, and clear some of my own student debt. Wish number three would be to have a perfect memory, because mine is pretty bad!

Tell us a joke.

There are 10 types of people in the world; those who understand binary, and those who don’t.

Other stuff

Work photos:

I moved office yesterday (2nd Feb)! Here’s my new desk:


Highlights include my coffee machine and Skyrim mug… [Update: It’s a couple of weeks later now, and this photo mostly serves as a painful reminder of how clean my desk could be. From now on you should imagine it has a lot more paper strewn across it, because it does…


SO, one thing I should say that’s pretty cool about being an academic is you get to travel quite a lot. Right now (22nd Feb) I’m in Würzburg in the middle of Germany for a conference. The conference is taking place in Würzburg Residenz which is a beautiful old palace in the middle of town! I’m a completely rubbish tourist so the only pictures I took so far today were of my hotel room (to show my mum) and of C&A and Woolworth’s because I didn’t think they existed any more, but apparently they do. I’ll try to remember to take a picture of the palace tomorrow morning, so I can show you guys!

As promised:
myimage3I should probably point out that it’s very rare for a Physics conference to be held somewhere so nice! Actually there’s a bit of a gag that if you want to find the Physics department you should always just look for the worst looking building on campus…

Because I hear selfies are what people do now. Did I selfie right?

It can be difficult when things don’t work, for instance here’s what I would like my code to do (artist’s rendition):


And here’s what it actually does right now…


*sigh* But I know I’ll get it working eventually! It just takes patience, and perseverance.



Although, I may have somewhat overstated my chances of getting a nobel prize here…