Second Semester

By John Charlton ( McGill University, Canada)

A new semester is well underway, and I begin part two of my study abroad period. Physics students usually take a year rather than a semester abroad as matching courses is key to continue studies in fourth year. I felt that last semester my courses matched very well to those back home, and even those topics I had already learnt were shown in a different way. The new semester courses seem to follow on well and I look forward to the topics.

The winter here stays at a comfortable -20°, and snow piles on every day. Commuting is no problem as roads and pavements are kept immaculately clear of snow. Also, the underground city connects most of the downtown area by heated commercial tunnels, as well as a metro line to get further out. Though there is little snow where people walk, the displaced snow is piled up on the edge of paths and the corner of buildings sometimes a few meters high.

Adorable, sociable squirrels frolicking around in the snow
Adorable, sociable squirrels frolicking around in the snow.

Taking advantage of the Canadian winter, I have been on a ski trip. It was with the McGill International Students Association, with whom I’ve been on trips to Toronto and New York. It took place over a weekend including Friday. We arrived during the evening and after collecting gear went for night skiing. The mountain had floodlit paths that allowed for skiing while the sun was down, leaving incredible views of the nearby towns. During the days even greater views could be had. I had not skied for a few years, but after a couple of warm-up falls I was back on form. The accommodation was at the foot of the mountain where we could watch the skiers while eating dinner next to a toasty fire.

The academics of studying here are, in contrast to what I expected, quite similar to that in Manchester. The workload is the same, but here a bit more emphasis is placed on assignments and the midterm, whereas Manchester would put more on the final exam. Still, I feel the amount of work and pressure of the different sections is still the same, as is the teaching style. The department here is smaller, my classes consisting of between ten people to forty, compared to 200. The classes with only a handful of people in are those I find most interesting, as the learning is more informal and discussions can break out between the lecturer and students. I find these make it much easier to understand topics and gain a greater understanding, as they become more personalized.

Art display of moving prisms casting intriguing colors on the snow
Art display of moving prisms casting intriguing colors on the snow.

I returned home over the Christmas holidays to catch up with family and friends. For the first time in my memory I did not have exams in January looming over the holidays, and it felt good! It is definitely preferable to get exams done before the holidays as it gave time to relax and gloat to friends who do have such exams.

Returning to Canada from England did not bring about the highs and lows of when I first moved here. I feel I have settled down in Canada, and I look forward to what the rest of the semester brings!

McGill 101

By John Charlton (McGill University, Montreal, Canada)

Montreal, to me it is a city with something always going on. Walking the streets one can come across underground art galleries at 11pm, the infamous Tam-Tams weekly festival. There is a fantastic blog about Montreal which informs of events both quirky and mainstream, ranging from foam and body paint parties to cat cafes to pubs centered on board games to socialize. By engaging and immersing with people the opportunity for other possibilities arises, leading on from one another in a progressive story of satisfaction and adventure in a new city.

The view from Mont Royal, which the city is names after
The view from Mont Royal, which the city is named after.
A nighttime illumination of the Chinese botanical gardens
A nighttime illumination of the Chinese botanical gardens

My adventure started with frosh week, another freshers week. It was a week of all-day and all-night activities. During the day it introduced me to the student areas and attractions. At night the downtown area turned into an inebriated party as everyone on the street made their way to clubs and parties. The whole week carried a feeling of crisp excitement in the air.

Soon after this, lectures kicked off. I am only doing four modules each semester, compared to six back home. This leaves me worried which courses to focus on. It would need a careful balance between topics that would teach a lot, but would not be too challenging. I realised that the best choice is to go with the ones that seemed most sensible. Similar to Manchester, the courses I took involve some third year courses, as well as some fourth year topics. The undergraduate degree in McGill is only three years, meaning that one graduate tutor I have assisting a course is also a fellow student in another!

The lecture populations range from thirty people to twelve, which creates a more personal lecture compared to Manchester classes of over a hundred people. The opportunity to question and discuss topics is more possible, though some courses have so much information to cover that there is not much time during lectures, although all professors have open office hours to ask them questions as well. I was expecting a large change from Manchester in regards to assessments, (here they have continuous marking with less emphasis on the final exam) which is somewhat true due to how much they weigh the weekly homeworks, coming to about 20% of the overall mark, as well as a midterm of about 20%. The biggest change I feel (and by far the better way of doing this) is that the exam season is from early to mid-December. It cost a couple of weeks from the summer holiday, but pays off as the Christmas season can be enjoyed without the worry of exams looming overhead. This of course means that my exams are in three weeks and lectures are finishing in two weeks.

Unveiling the worlds largest Brownie, made by McGill staff. Weighing 2 tonnes and feeding about 20,000 people!
Unveiling the worlds largest brownie, made by McGill staff. Weighing two tonnes and feeding about 20,000 people!

One thing looming just beyond the horizon is the inevitable snow. Already it has snowed what I would consider a nice amount, giving the untrodden paths a layer of white. However, this is to Montreal what one small raincloud is to Manchester, and I look forward to the next semester where winter will last until April time. Montreal is equipped to survive this time with an underground “city” connecting much of downtown shops and attractions with warm cosy pathways.

It has been a thoroughly enjoyable time here so far. There are many interesting and diverse people, innumerable activities and events, and it is with great excitement that I continue onwards.

A Brief Study Abroad in France

By John Charlton (McGill University, Canada)

During my summer I spent four weeks in France, at the Institut Laue-Langevin (ILL) and European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) learning about neutron and photon science, with 17 other students from across the world. It provided a taste of what a year of study abroad was like: the cultural, social and work changes involved.

All 18 of us were in the same boat, meaning we quickly formed a close bond between each other. One aspect that stood out to me was that many of our conversations were around cultural diversities between the different countries we were from. What seems tedious and ordinary to one was diverse and fascinating to another, meaning we managed to have a full discussion about what the word for legumes meant in the various languages.


My work involved helping a PhD student on his thesis. The project was about protein dynamics. I’ve long been a lover of physics, but when it comes to other hard sciences I’m somewhat disinterested. It came with grudging unwillingness that I picked up a bit of basic A level biology and chemistry which I had, until then, contentedly avoided. Contrary to my expectations, it was a highly stimulating topic and one which has amophized an interest in soft matter.

A highlight of the month was celebrating Bastille Day. Free wine was given to everyone (there were thousands of us), a concert, and a fireworks display that is comparable to London’s New Year celebration. It was a fantastic time, meeting people briefly yet nevertheless sharing many memorable moments with. A callout to any physicists looking for a summer experience next year: be sure to check out the ESRF summer school programme! pic2