Friday, 7 September 2012

Bosons for free, and the golden 30.

A couple of interesting open-access things came to my attention in the last couple of days.  Firstly, and tangentially, a tweet that I saw retweeted pointed out that the articles that appeared on the preprint servers recently announcing the discover of the Higgs boson (or at least of a boson consistent with the Higgs) have now been published, free for all to read in Physics Letters B.  Of course, it was known at the time of the preprint appearance where they had been submitted, but it's certainly a win for the publishers and the proponents of "gold" open access that such a high-profile series of papers has gone this route.  According to the journal website, it costs $3000 of taxpayer gold for gold open access for each article.  I wouldn't be surprised if Elsevier subbed this one, though, given how cited these articles are going to become, but likewise I would not be surprised if CERN (i.e. CERN-subscribing governments) paid.  Anyway, the edition of Physics Letters B with the articles is here, and unlike most other issues, you can read some of the articles for free (and you can note the charges for the non-LHC articles in the same issue).

The other thing, and probably more consequential, is the announcement that the funding councils in the UK have top-sliced £10,000,000 of gold from their budgets and decided to give it to 30 particular universities in the UK so that they can give it to publishers to publish their research as gold open-access.  This was sort-of inevitable, given the Finch report.  From my point of view, this is somewhat problematic.  I am in one of the UK's 1994 group universities, but not one that made the 30 university shortlist.  It has the biggest theoretical nuclear physics group in the country, and is the obvious place for me to work.  It's a good place and has a good Physics Department (along with many other good departments).  It seems perverse to me, though of course I have a vested interest, to cut off funding like this on an institutional basis, irrespective of size of institution and so on.  A fermi function at absolute zero, where the energy levels are universities is not a sensible profile making use of any kind of logic.  Lazy expediency, perhaps.  To paraphrase a recent post on impact factors, distributing money in this way is mathematically illiterate.  Us little people, apparently, will be able to apply for money later, with some hoops the 30 golden boys can ignore.

Anyway,  none of this news should be surprising to anyone.  The HE sector is very innovation-shy from a management point of view.  Perhaps management is always small-c conservative.  The Finch report is quite a "no-one ever got fired for choosing Microsoft" outcome, where the solution is to give money to established successful (by some measure) business, rather than seek innovative solutions. And on the preferred 30, the funding councils (EPSRC more so than STFC, where I sit) have been moving to a preferred university status for a while.

Anyway, I don't suppose either of these things will affect me greatly.  I continue to submit work to the open-access arXiv before sending them off to journals. If you fancy reading it, my last one appeared yesterday.  It's open access :-)

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Brazil and Moseley, Mostly

The beach at Maresias
The view from the hotel
I have the pleasure of being at a conference in Brazil.  It's at a lovely location on the coast, by a nice beach, which is something of a surfers' haven.  I've never tried surfing, and I'm not about to start, at least not given the size of the waves here.  It's nice just being by the sea, though, and winter in Brazil is not a bad sort of climate to spend a few days in.  I attach an obligatory picture of the sea, taken a few steps from my hotel room.

As well as giving a talk, I've learnt about much of the nuclear physics research that goes on in Brazil, spanning experimental work, partly carried out at the São Paulo Pelletron, to theoretical stuff, to quite a lot of applied areas, like environmental radiation monitoring and cancer therapy.  All interesting stuff, but I just want to mention one interesting fact that I learned in a talk by Navin, a physicist working at GANIL in France, this morning.  He was talking about Moseley's Law, an empirical relation between the frequencies of X-rays emitted from atoms and the nuclear atomic number.  It did much to cement the Rutherford model of the atom in the earliest days of nuclear physics.  Moseley was British, and worked at Oxford and Manchester in the years preceeding the First World War.  If I remember rightly, there was a plaque dedicated to him outside of one of the lecture theatres in the Clarendon Lab at Oxford.

I already knew about Moseley's Law, but one thing that Navin mentioned in his talk was news to me.  I did know that Henry Moseley signed up to fight in World War One, and was killed by a sniper in Gallipoli.  The death of anyone is, of course, a personal tragedy to friends and family, but Moseley's death was also a loss to the physics community.  He was a first-class scientist, who would most likely have been considered very seriously for a Nobel prize in the years shortly after his death (they are never awarded posthumously).  What I didn't know was that, apparently, Moseley's death caused the British government to stop sending leading or promising scientists to the front line in wars.  I did not know that this was a policy and that it was caused by this single event.  I wonder if the rule still applies now and how they judge who is sufficiently good not to be conscripted (or even allowed to volunteer).

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Summer in Academia

Sometimes, when I tell people that I work at a University, they assume that I must have an enormous summer holiday, with no real work to do.  It is not the case at all, and I thought I would post about some of the things that have been occupying my time over summer.
  • A holiday, or two: University staff (in the UK at least) are contracted to work throughout the summer, but we do get to take leave, of course.  Given that we have a lot of teaching commitments in semester time, taking some of our leave in summer is a pretty normal thing to do.  As I've already mentioned, I was in Ayrshire for a week, and I took another week off to have a holiday in Spain, with my partner, daughter and mum.  The picture on this post is the beach at Dénia, where we were staying.  My body now looks strange, with a "tan", to which I am pretty unaccustomed

  • Teaching: The so-called academic year runs from October to June, roughly.  That's when we teach undergraduate degree courses.  Many universities, certainly including mine, have a large number of taught postgraduate courses.  Though my involvement on them is less than many of my colleagues, I do supervise dissertation projects, and they take place over the summer, which the MSc students do not have as vacation.  This year, I had a student working on a project using neural networks for pattern recognition in automated diagnosis of cancer.  That was quite fun, and I learned quite a bit along the way.

  • Research:  There are essentially three things that academic staff do:  Teaching, Research and Administration.  They all take place throughout the year, but during the summer, we get more time to spend on research.  Part of this is through supervision of PhD students (which takes place all year), and I've been spending time doing that.  I've also been writing up some papers that have been in a part-written state for various periods of time, and finished some of those.  I've been to conferences to talk about my and my students' research work, as well as to a science festival.

  • Administration:  I am the chairman of our department's Board of Studies.  As a result, I look after the discussion and implementation of new ideas in teaching and in the overall provision and structure of our degrees, as well as responding to new dictats from above on how we should teach.  Quite a bit of my summer has been taken with preparing a new joint degree in Mathematics and Physics.  The University requires a pretty rigorous validation procedure to be followed to start new courses and that took some time to write, and be reviewed.  The good news is that the course is running as of the coming year, and we will have a few students to teach on it.  They will be able to take different topics from across both departments, and hopefully will enjoy it.  I'm also acting head of the nuclear theory group, with the real head on sabbatical.  There have been a few things to deal with in that capacity, from managing research funding, to dealing with where new people are going to sit when they arrive in October.  Administration also covers all sorts of other paperwork related to teaching or research,  such as booking travel to conferences, and claiming back expenses afterwards.   We don't have personal assistants, alas.

  • Preparation for the new semester: I have a couple of new courses to teach this coming academic year.  One called "High Energy Physics" which is a combination of particle physics and special relativity.  I've been teaching an identically-named, but smaller module on particle physics alone, so this was relatively (ho) straightforward to prepare for.  The other is a final year course on advanced computational techniques - fancy algorithms and parallel processing and that sort of thing, all with a bit of physics context.

  • Other things:  I will probably fail to mention all the things that I've done over summer, but I organise a series of evening lectures at the University, under the aegis of the Institute of Physics.  I've been sorting that out over the summer, and have a sparkling line-up planned, hopefully kicking off with Jonathan Butterworth talking about LHC, and then featuring a splendid line-up of other speakers.  I attended a graduation ceremony, I visited a student on sandwich placement, I've attended student transfer reports for their PhD studies... 
Now, it's a Saturday, and I'm in my office getting some things together.  This evening I fly to Brazil to talk at a conference there.  The hotel I'm staying in looks pretty nice.  I'll try to blog a bit while I am there.  Despedida!