Friday, 6 December 2013

Addendum & woo!

So, in my extensive recent post about the Royal Society Pairing Scheme, I totally forgot the most active talk of Tuesday, in which we had a speaker from RCUK.  Suffice to say, the assembled researchers were very interested in funding policy and there were some vociferous comments from the less applied end of the spectrum about the impact agenda.  From my part, I don't mind having to talk about my "impact", even if it is nebulous, but I do sort of worry that specialisation of funding (e.g. to particular applied areas, but the argument works in general) will lead to the UK abandoning swathes of research to concentrate on areas that prescient civil servants or ministers have predicted will be the key areas and we will therefore drive brilliant people away and go on a one way path to a second-class science nation.  As pointed out in the first talk on Tuesday, we are second in the world in several measures on science research.  I don't think we can or should make conscious decisions to abandon research areas given that. 

Anyway... I really wanted to post now to point out that a paper written by my PhD student combining results from his MPhys and PhD days has just been published.  The paper also includes another MPhys placement student, who is currently working out at Yale University in the USA.  The paper is "gold" open access, which I should probably blog about separately, but for now, enjoy the paper!

Royal Society Pairing Scheme Days 2 & 3

I posted about taking part in the Royal Society pairing scheme I'm taking part in after the first day on Monday.  The week continued with a day of talks and discussions on Tuesday, followed by some time shadowing my paired civil servant on Thursday.  Wednesday was, in principle, another shadowing day, but I'd had a long-standing funding panel meeting that day, which I wanted to keep.

While Monday's talks were more concerned with science in Parliament, Tuesday's were about science in Government - i.e. that section of parliament which is currently in power, along with the various departments (DECC, BIS, DfT and so on...).  Unfortunately I took notes on my laptop whose power supply has since died, and until I replace it the notes are only so many inaccessible magnetised domains.  However, my short-term memory has not yet entirely failed, and I'll attempt to recall what I can.

Tuesday kicked off with a talk by Jill Rutter, of the Institute for Government, which is a think tank promoting better government.  She is their programme director, and has much experience as a civil servant.  She started off commenting on the dearth of people with science backgrounds at the very top of the civil service, as highlighted on this slide.  She went on to discuss various structures in government in which science plays a role.  The theme was reiterated from yesterday that scientists should remember that in a democracy, non-scientific, non-evidence-based outcomes may prevail, and went on to give what to me was a rather extreme view - that the advice of scientists should be limited to their very narrow specialism and they shouldn't attempt to do anything but pass on this expertise with whatever context is necessary to enable decisions to be made.  What I found a bit much was her explicit suggestion that because they are experts in x, they don't know a thing about y.  I rather think people in general, and expertise in particular, is not so black and white.  We are always being told (correctly, I think) that physicists learn all sorts of transferable skills that they can apply to other situations.  The same is true of other disciplines.  Oh well.  I think she certainly did have a point that scientists should be a sort of honest broker, and do thier utmost not to deliberately steer the policy maker to the scientist's single favoured outcome.  There may be all sorts of partial solutions that would work in a compromise between competing sides.  We also learned about the Commons Science and Technology Committee, whose constitution is shown in the slide attached to this post.  I hadn't realised the suprise inclusion.

The second talk I think highlighted why should not ignore the opinions of people unless it is in their narrow area of expertise;  David MacKay gave a characteristically iconoclastic talk about his role as the Chief Scientific Advisor to DECC.  He highlighted some of the activities he's been involved in, his push to make data and processes completely open (with mixed results) and made lots of interesting comments.  The one that stuck with me was that, to turn the message of their being so few scientists in Westmister on its head, he pointed out that being one of the few scientists can give one disproportionate influence.  

The third talk was about Horizon Scanning (our usual world of academic jargon was replaced  by one of wonkese).  I'm not sure that I got too much out of that one, except to know that the government keeps its eye on potential long-term changes to the world in general that might require science input to think about what to do about them.

After lunch, we had a quick "top ten tips for academics" talk by Chris Fleming from GO-Science.  I wrote them all done on my currently dormant laptop, so can't reproduce them all  here.  But they're all sort of obvious things.  Perhaps one to highlight and record here is the one that (paraphrased) reads don't give up.  This is in the context of trying to give scientific input to a government process.  If you don't succeed in getting your voice heard, or if it is heard but ignored, don't let it stop you trying again.  Probably good advice, there.

There was then a gap of something over an hour before a scheduled all-group optional pub visit to mark the end of the activities we'd be doing all together.  I was going to go into the spectators' gallery of the house of commons, but the organisers, probably sensibly, just decided to move the pub visit forward.  So I went there, and enjoyed talking to some of the other participants in the pairing scheme.  That included another participant from my institution.  I didn't feel too bad about not recognising her since she only started a few weeks ago.

And so to supper and bed.

Wednesday found me taking part in a Nuclear Physics Grant Panel meeting for STFC from the comfort of my office, and some videoconferencing software, then going out with my other half, our daughter and my mum for my partner's birthday for lunch, then to buy a new (though old) car to replace the one that the garage said wasn't worth repairing, then to my partner's Dad's place for dinner, before I returned to mine to prepare for an early start.

That early start involved me getting a lift to the workplace of the civil servant I was paired with.  He works at the Centre for Applied Science and Technology near St Albans.  I got a pretty exhaustive tour of the activities they are involved with, which is basically anything that the police and Home Office need science input for.  Examples include police body armour, license place recognition, CCTV image processing and so on.  It was all interesting stuff, and I enjoyed talking to my pair and his colleagues.  On the other hand it is the sort of place I have visited many times when visiting our students out on placement, so I do feel I'd have learned a lot more if I had been paired with an MP.  Still, I think i got a lot out of the week in general.  

I attended the final talk of the week, at the Royal Society, which summarised some of the work the Royal Society do, particularly in linking with government.  I'm not sure I learned too much, being pretty familiar with the RS, but I think the event was more organised to get us all back together for an informal chat over coffee before the end of the week.  

So - that's it.  Probably too long a blog post, but I might bring up other things as they come to me in following posts.  There will certainly be more to write about when my paired civil servant makes his return visit to Surrey, and when I go to the wrap-up (followed by piss-up) session at the Royal Society in January

Monday, 2 December 2013

Royal Society Pairing Scheme Day 1

I set my alarm for 6 this morning to awake in the hotel in the Strand that the Royal Society was putting me up in to finish assembling and writing the paperwork for the Period Review of our physics programmes at the University of Surrey, sent it off and breathed a sigh of relief.  I headed downstairs to the pretty good breakfast buffet, where I had the habitual breakfast that I have when I'm in hotels, though I would rarely do so at home.  This one was good.  The stuff sitting in the hotplates seemed fresh.  There was fried bread and sautéed potatoes, though no veggie sausages.  There was a nice selection of fresh fruit, too.  The hotel also had a stash of newspapers for guests to take.  No Independent, but at least the Guardian.  

Still, I suppose the day was not about the breakfast.  In the hotel lobby I bumped into a bunch of the other participants and we went off together to the Palace of Westminster to begin our day with a guided tour.  It was fun.  I've been there before, to some receptions - mostly organised by the Institute of Physics together with MPs - but never to much of it, including the actual house of commons and house of lords chambers.  That was pretty neat.  They are much smaller than you'd expect.  Well, much smaller than I expected.  

When we were through with the tour, someone commented on how much I looked like Benedict Cumberbatch, and then it was time to go to Portcullis House (right next to the houses of parliament) to a series of events interspersed with coffee and lunch breaks. 

I more or less immediately found the civil servant I was paired with as part of the scheme.  Though I thought I hadn't heard of the branch of the civil service that he worked for (CAST), it turned out that I had. It used to be called the Police Scientific Development Branch (PSDB) and we have sent some students on placement there before.  I'm going to be shadowing him on Thursday, which will involve going to St Albans, but today, we both took part in the series of sessions which consisted of a series of talks with some panel sessions with questions from the audience.  I tried to make sure I asked questions, partly to find out the answers, but also to make sure I engaged... 

Well, there were lots of talks and corresponding panels.  It started with an overview of Parliament from a speaker from the Hansard Society.  I had never heard of the Hansard Society, only knowing of Hansard in the context of the records of parliament, but they exist to promote our variety of parliamentary democracy as a good thing.  It was interesting in the sense that part of the reason that I signed up to the scheme was to understand more about how parliament in general works.

This session was followed by one in which previous people taking part gave a talk about what they made of it and giving advice to us as to what to get out of it.  Clearly some of the previous participants got a lot out of it, and we started with an academic from Loughborough and her MP, Nicky Morgan (who made a point of recommending Mark Henderson's Geek Manifesto to read) who clearly developed a good relationship out of the scheme.  It did make me (and perhaps my shadowing partner, as we discussed later) feel that I was potentially missing out on the benefits of the scheme by not being paired with someone much actually linked with parliament.  Still, interesting talks, and gave me things to think about to make sure I do get the most out of the event.

The last session was a series of people talking about the role of science in parliament.  It was chaired by the director of POST - the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology.  This was a fine series of wonks, and I learned a lot about the role of science in parliament, limited as it is.

There were many interesting questions asked and answered afterwards, and one could have a long debate about many of them.  Perhaps Lord Winston provided most of the answers and opinions that would have provided most fodder for debate if there were really time.  I don't really have time tonight to explore things before going to bed and going back for more tomorrow, but I took the salutary lesson from some of the panelists that parliamentarians really have no obligation to take scientific evidence as the only or main basis for their deliberations.  Parliamentary democracy is not about doing what scientists say is right.  While we might wish to persuade people that a scientific way of looking at things is a good idea, it is not the default position.  In a democracy, if enough people prefer non-scientific ways of looking at things, we should engage with them on a basis of respect rather than look down at them.  Obvious, but salutary words.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Royal Society Pairing Scheme Day Zero

I'm in London, staying in the smallest room in the Strand Palace Hotel (see the picture, in which I think it's pretty clear that my room, highlighted in yellow, is the smallest one).  I'm here as a precursor to taking part in the Royal Society scheme in which scientists (me, included) get paired up with MPs or civil servants for the scientists to see what goes in in government.  The reverse swap takes place a bit later.

The formal start of the event is tomorrow, but to kick things off, the scientist participants had dinner together tonight at a restaurant on the Strand.  It got off to a bad start, when I found that there was some spilt milk on my chair, but only found out by sitting in it.  I didn't cry over it, but did spend the first minutes of the dinner sponging myself in the toilet.  Well, it all went okay after the milky countermanding.  I enjoyed chatting to the epidemiologist from Guy's Hospital who sat opposite me, and the electronic engineer from Manchester next to me.  We talked about all sorts of things, mostly about academic things like the funding situation in each of our areas, and had the sort of fun that only a slew of scientists can have in a chain Italian restaurant.  

Amusingly, I was asked if I had a brother who was an actor.  The answer, of course, is yes, but the questioner really just used the question as a way to introduce the fact that he thinks I look like a particular actor.  It's been a while... 

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Pairing scheme

I sort of like that my current teaching duties are such that they are condensed into one semester.  It's nice to do it all in a burst of condensed activity.  Or at least, so I tell myself - in reality, right now I seem most unfortunately busy, with various other things on top of the teaching taking up a lot of time.  This semester has also included the preparation of paperwork for re-accreditation of our degrees by the Institute of Physics, and we had a good visit from them last week, and also the analogous periodic review of courses from the University.  As chair of the Board of Studies, it's my job to prepare both these things.  It's no accident I'm writing about it late into Saturday night.

So, it's a crazily busy time for me, and I'm about to top this off by spending the next week away from the university to take part in the Royal Society Pairing Scheme, which aims to pair scientists up with MPs or Civil Servants to give us each an insight into the life of the other.  I'm really looking forward to it, though tomorrow, when I go up to London to take part, seems so infinitely far after the time at which I have to submit the periodic review.  No doubt, tomorrow will arrive soon and I'll be hobnobbing around the Houses of Parliament looking like an out-of-place physicist.  Plus ça change.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Films & A job in Liverpool

So, I didn't follow up my post from Saturday with a review of the rest of the films I watched.  If I'd have stayed to the end and watched Pandora's Promise, I might have done so, but the few films I watched after A is for Atom are probably not worth reviewing in any great detail, being biopics of a few individuals who feel (probably justifiably) aggrieved by the consequences of nuclear accidents, but with little scientific basis behind them.  Not that that makes them definitely incorrect, but still - a little hard to believe. 

In other news - while it's only been a month since I mentioned a job advertising a post in theoretical nuclear physics,  I note that a job in nuclear physics is being advertised at the University of Liverpool.  It all looked promising at first, with the opening line "We are seeking to recruit an outstanding individual in Nuclear Physics," but there turns out to a minor kind of category mistake by the author, as despite all the talk of nuclear physics, they go on to say "You should have a PhD in Nuclear Physics, an excellent research track record in experimental nuclear physics and an excellent publication record." (my underlining).

Too bad that they will not even consider applicants with excellent track records in theoretical nuclear physics - but not a surprise.  

Saturday, 16 November 2013

A is for Atom

Despite First Capital Connect's, and an unhelpful ticket office's best efforts, I made it only a little bit late to the nuclear docufest at the Brixton Ritzy.  I'm having some lunch now in an extremely posh pub that is completely empty in the centre of Brixton on a Saturday lunchtime except for me and several staff.  

The film I've seen so far is A is for Atom.  It reminded me a bit of the reasons that science documentaries are often not fun to watch for a science audience.  It was a strange mix of pointed scenes, and stereotyping of scientists, though I think ultimately it wanted to paint a correct picture of nuclear power as something that has a lot of hands in it, and in particular in the US, commercial interests trumped everything else - including safety.  There were some scientific inaccuracies - such as that a core might burn through the floor of a reactor and there would then be nothing to stop it tunnelling through to the other side of the world.  Fortunately gravity would stop that happening.

I loved all the old footage, including newsreels and corporate propaganda, and learned a few interesting things - like the fact that some Soviet scientists were able to publish a critique of the safety aspects of nuclear safety in a newspaper but US scientists did not seem confident enough to do so (hah!), and it was nice to see so many interviews with (now-dead) players in the key years of nuclear physics, but ultimately it was not aimed at the likes of me, and it showed.  

Right - expensive vegetarian sausages have arrived, and I shall eat.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Going out


I have been getting out the house a bit, lately.  On Sunday, I took my elder (6yo) daughter to the Guildford Spectrum to see an ice hockey match.  It was a first for both of us.  For an event with a considerable amount of sitting around, watching a sport that she didn't entirely understand, things went very well.  She was really excited, and though I was prepared to leave in one of the intervals, was determined to stay to the end.  She really loved chanting "Guildford! Guildford!" (which was done in a fairly genteel Surrey sort of way by all concerned) and was super-excited by the goals when Guildford scored them, and rather despondent when Swindon did.  Thankfully the Guildford Flames won 6-3.  It was pretty exciting, and for the money, beats paying the prices that football costs these days.  Guildford, having one of the handful of the UK's ice rinks also naturally has one of the handful of league ice hockey teams.

On Monday, I went with my fellow nuclear physicist Wilton Catford to Brighton, home of a University which performs leading nuclear physics research. There is also another University near Brighton, which I should mention for balance.  We were not there for anything physics-related, though.  Except that we talked about physics a bit on the journey there and back.  We were there to see Laura Veirs, a folky American singer that we both like.  I've been listening to her recent album in anticipation of the gig, and really liked her previous one.  The gig didn't disappoint.  She gives a great live performance, and has started her dylanesque judas period in which she picks up an electric guitar and rocks out.  I thoroughly approve, and enjoyed both the noisier and the folkier parts of her set.  It was good stuff.  Above is one of the more gentle songs from her previous album that I like.  It's set to a fan video which is kind of cool, but doesn't seem to fit the lyrics well.  

Tonight I am out gigging again.  This time to accompany my brother, whose birthday it is today, and we're going to see The Wave Pictures at the Jazz Café in London.  This is followed by a couple of days of respite, but then I'll be spending all day at the nuclear documentary film festival that I posted about recently

Saturday, 9 November 2013

On Mission Groups

The 1994 Group announced yesterday that it was shutting down operations.  It didn't make much news outside higher education circles, which is probably the real reason they shut down.  The press release states in very positive terms how a natural end point for the group has come, but I expect the more prosaic reason is that the 1994 Group failed to do what the Russell Group has successfully done:  To convince people that it means something to be in the group.

I think the closest analogy for these so-called Mission Groups is that they are like London Gentlemen's Clubs.  They are set up in the same way:  By a group of men who meet together in London and decide that they would like to form a club, for no other reason than to say "look - we're in a club because we belong together, and you're not in the club, because you don't belong"  Then, by making enough noise, and making people outside the club want to be in, a name is made for yourself.  By successful lobbying, the Russell Group has convinced potential students, parents, employers, journalists, perhaps even the government that they don't need to understand anything about higher education directly, they can just take the word of the Russell Group that they are the best Universities.  

To be a member of the Gentlemen's club, you need to be accepted by the existing members and convince them that you went to the right sort of school (or are the right sort of school).  Then you need to pay handsomely.  As the Times Higher Educational Supplement found out, the Universities who were recently allowed to join the club handed over a lot of student fee income for the privilege.  Now all the people who have been successfully convinced that the Russell Group means something will think more highly of these newly-joined universities.  They are probably right to join. 

So the poor 1994 Group, which started as a kind of reaction to the Russell Group, never made its way into the collective consciousness, and so had no real reason to exist any more.  My own institution was one of a number to jump ship in the last couple of years, and I guess the writing was on the wall for a little while.  

Thursday, 7 November 2013

A handy guide to nuclear funding

This is probably far too niche an item for a blog that anyone might want to read, but I note that the UK funding councils have issued a statement today about which of the funding councils fund which bits of nuclear science.  I don't think there are any surprises in there - nuclear power related stuff via EPSRC and nuclear physics related stuff via STFC.  But now we know.  Perhaps more relevant for people genuinely working on the boundaries.

Friday, 1 November 2013

The nuclear question - documentary film festival

In a rare example of a sensibly-targeted unsolicited email, I received earlier this week an email about an all-day documentary film even in Brixton on the subject of nuclear power.  It looks really interesting and I'm sorely tempted to go, though a whole day spent doing such things would be quite a luxury time-wise.  If you're interested, and free on 16th Nov, then details are here.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

The Independent heading off-topic

Just a quick post in a break in a grant panel meeting at STFC in Swindon.  In today's Independent, in their "10 best" section, they featured 10 astronomy-related smartphone apps.  Only, they got the headline a bit wrong.  I tweeted about it on the train on the way in this morning, and it's generated quite a few responses.  The twitter picture was pretty low resolution, so if you click on the one attached to this post, you can read the details of the apps, which is a bit hard in the twitter version.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Great South Run - done!

As advertised, today I went to Portsmouth and ran the 10 mile (16km) Great South Run.  My results are here.

I took a train from Guildford to Portsmouth, with only yesterday's Independent Magazine to keep me entertained, since I did not want to have too much baggage.  I got off at Fratton station and wandered down to the sea front.  I spent the time leading up to when I was supposed to start by trying to find somewhere to go to the toilet, finding the Mind tent, to say hi to the staff there.  We'd been in touch a bit in the run-up about money-raising and it was nice to see them - and I fed myself up with a banana, which is supposed to be what runners eat before going running (though was nothing to do with my usual running routine).

There was a worrying squall that passed just before the race was due to start, but fortunately the heavy rain stayed away for the run.  It was windy, though.  Presumably thanks to the coming storm which is dominating the news, there was a lot of wind.  It really made the last couple of miles difficult, when we were running against a 30mph wind.  It was all pretty hard work, but I'm pleased that I finished it without stopping, and raised some money for Mind.  I don't think I'll be doing it every year, but since I did it 5 years ago, maybe I should think about doing it again in 2018.  Maybe.  Thanks again to all those who sponsored me.  

Friday, 25 October 2013

Who is allowed to have a good pension?


As a UK university lecturer, I am enrolled in the USS pension scheme.  I pay in, knowing that I will need a pension one day, but find the whole thing a bit too abstract to worry about in terms of whether it will all work out in the end and pay up.  Perhaps I should be worried.  My dad was banjaxed by the failed Equitable Life scheme and such pension failures do happen.  So perhaps I ought to be worried today by the news that there is an apparent shortfall in my pension scheme.  It sounds like it might just be a bit of a scare story from a couple of journalists who had asked one person to look at the scheme, but as I say, I find the possibility of problems with my income in 30 years time a bit too abstract to take seriously.  

What did irk me about the whole news story, though, was the comment from David Willetts.  It is a repeat of a mantra that has been used by both sides of the coalition government (Nick Clegg more than anyone else) over the last few years.  According to the BBC news story above, he said "It would be wrong to expect students to bail out pension deficits to support pension schemes that are far more generous than students are likely to enjoy when they're older." On the face of it, it doesn't sound outrageous, but is it fair?

It is my recollection (though I don't have the links or evidence to hand - any relevant comments would be welcome, below) that there was a lot of such statements a few years ago from the new coalition when public sector pensions were taking quite a battering.  These were all pejoratively called "gold-plated" pensions, and it was considered unfair for the hardworking taxpayer to fund such schemes when many of them may not get such a good pension themselves.  I think that's a crass argument which is nothing more than a greedy and envious way of promoting a race to the bottom - at least for the dreaded public sector worker.  But let's say that public sector workers should have crappy pensions to ensure that no hardworking taxpayer is forced to fund a decent pension for someone else.  Does it apply to the private sector too?  Are people like David Willetts saying that the chief executive of Tesco shouldn't have a good pension because it wouldn't be fair of hardworking people who shop at Tesco to fund it?  Presumably in that case, the holy market saves the Conservative, so that they can say that people just shouldn't shop where they don't want to pay for pensions.  

Now, in the current era when the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have changed University education so that it is no-longer the taxpayer that pays, but the "customer" they still make the argument that it is not fair for students to fund good pensions for lecturers.  Surely now the customers can choose to go wherever they like.  You can't have it both ways, Willetts. You've forced a market on us, now leave you anti-public-sector spite out of it.  Am I missing something?

Aside from anything else, why is it pensions that are being targeted?   Why not just salary?  "It is unfair that a taxpayer should have to fund the salary of a doctor, which will be much more than most taxpayers will ever earn."  "It is unfair of someone, who is required to have a bank account, to fund the lifestyle of bankers" "It is unfair that taxpayers, who through no fault of their own have been born in the UK, and don't even live in Havant and haven't voted for him, should have to fund the top-few-percentile salary of David Willetts."  The whole argument just doesn't make sense.  It is nothing but the politics of envy.  There may be other reasons to attack particular pension schemes, but this is a crass one unworthy of anyone in public office.

Look! There's a job going in nuclear theory

Many years ago, when I was looking into possible PhD opportunities I spoke to quite a few people at the institution I studied in.  It has a huge physics department, with many areas of research being covered.  I spoke to people about what they thought the key future areas were, and spoke to people whose areas I had been enjoying as an undergraduate (my initial draw into physics - everything astro - was sidelined during my undergraduate degree because of my choice to study a joint Physics and Philosophy degree, and I couldn't take the first year optional astronomy course as a result).  

I was really keen to work with one of the professors who was working on statistical mechanics of neural networks, and I chatted to him, but he was about to go on sabbatical and wasn't taking any students that year.  I was taking the optional advanced nuclear and particle physics option in my undergrad course, and the particle physics lecturer tried to solicit me to apply to work in his area.  That was very kind of him - I think it happened because he set a kind of unofficial homework problem at the end of a class and I was intrigued by it and came back with the answer next class, for which I was handed a bottle of wine from the St John's College cellars... but I sort-of worried that working in particle physics would involve being a tiny cog in a very large machine and potentially a very unrewarding experience.  Yet I did like the world of the microscopic, with all the quantum physics that it entailed.

It therefore seemed like a good idea to work in nuclear physics - involving lower energy phenomena than particle physics, and correspondingly smaller research teams.  I don't really regret it.  Well, not too much.  There's lots of interesting stuff in nuclear physics, but what it lacks is jobs.  Especially in theoretical nuclear physics.  I'm one of something like 8 people in the country employed in a permanent nuclear theory position.  Jobs don't come up very often here.  Anyway - I'm lucky, I have a job.  Even if it is based in Guildford.  

I had an email this week advertising this rarest of things - a permanent (or at least tenure-track) job in theoretical nuclear physics.  It's at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.  It's a place I know well, since I did a post-doc there and spent lots of time out there while doing my PhD.  So - if you are one of the few people in the world looking for a permanent position in nuclear theory, Knoxville may well be your place.  Tell them I sent you - you can find the job advert here

The picture in the post  is of the Knoxville skyline.  The sunsphere is at the left.  It was built for the 1982 World's Fair, but as is well-known, it has more recently been used as a wig store.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Hinkley C go-ahead

The UK headlines today are full of the news that a new nuclear plant will be built at the site of the existing Hinkley Point power station in Somerset.  The news media seem largely to have concentrated on the joint political aspects of the fact that it is being built by the French state (via their EDF operation) with major investment from the Chinese state, and on the fact that the deal promises a minimum price that the National Grid will buy the energy at - which is around twice the current wholesale price. 

On the latter point, I don't really know if that is a good deal or not.  As I understand it, that price is not index-linked, so it is a long-term gamble on the side of both participants in the deal.  Presumably a UK civil servant, the Chinese government and someone at EDF all think it is a good enough deal to go ahead.

As for the fact that the contract has gone overseas - well, it has long been government nuclear policy, and no-one should be surprised.  Perhaps most worthy of recording is that on the Today program on Radio 4 this morning, the Energy Secretary Ed Davey said that with investment in UK nuclear education and training, the next nuclear build would be a UK design, not a French one.  I won't hold my breath on that, but it would be nice to see.

Frustratingly the government are proud of the fact that this is "the first time nuclear power stations in this country will be built without money from the British taxpayer."  That might be nice if it were not for the fact that it is the British taxpayer who will be paying for the electricity, with the profits going to the French and Chinese taxpayer.  Why is that something that a government minister should be crowing about?  Of course, the quote above was from Ed Davey, who is a Liberal Democrat.  If a Conservative were giving their opinion, the "British taxpayer" would have read "hardworking (sic) British taxpayer".

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Bear in Mind

A few posts ago I mentioned that I would be running in this year's Great South Run in Portsmouth, and a blog post soliciting sponsorship would appear in due course.  So, here it is.  I'm running to raise money for the mental health charity MIND.  Mental health problems have been a problem for both me personally and close family members and friends, as one might expect from a range of problems that directly afflict 1 in 4 people in any given year.  I'm not sure what the age profile is for prevalence of mental health problems, but as someone who works in a University in a role which has its pastoral aspects, I have seen plenty of students suffering over the years.  It seems that around the time of going to University can often be the time when mental health problems become overbearing for some,  and I like to think that my own experiences make me especially sympathetic to those students who have come for me as help.

From personal experience I am aware of some of the help that MIND provide, in the form of providing activities and support groups, and it is no small part to charities such as MIND that the long-standing stigma attached to mental health problems is being challenged, and changing for the better.

On more physical side of health, I was never much of an athlete at school.  I was always among the last to be picked in the playground when football teams were selected, and I'm not sure that I ever managed to run a whole circuit of the 300m racetrack in secondary school without stopping.  The annual cross-country race was a thing of terror for me.  As at many schools, across many areas, my lack of ability in this area led to a lack of interest from the teachers, and I was content to more or less minimise my athletic exposure.  Only much later did I attempt to redress this, and five years ago I practiced for, and then ran the 10 mile Great South Run.  I've kept up running a bit sporadically since then, though never for distances approaching 10 miles.  In preparation for next week I ran 7 miles this morning (see graphic attached to this post), and I have little doubt that I'll be able to do 10 miles next weekend.  The Archers omnibus will help me through much of it... So, I'm partly doing the run for myself, but I'm asking for sponsorship not for a sponsored nap, or beer-tasting session, but for something that will be no cakewalk for me.  I've paid the entrance fee, and any sponsorship you pass my way will go straight to MIND.  So... if the hard sell has convinced you, the page to go to for donations is here.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Welcome, Alba

It has, figuratively, been a very long day.  At 02:30 this morning I called the maternity ward of the local hospital to ask for advice on my partner's state, and the advice was to come in to hospital to check on the stage of her labour.  So we did.  The check revealed that things were good to go, and so after a few hours (of which I will skip the graphic details) our baby daughter was born.  She is doing well, as is her mother.  Unfortunately I missed the birth of my first daughter, and it was quite an experience to see the birth this time.  Quite amazing, as I'm sure anyone who has stood and watched without that difficult pushing role will attest.  At least daughter #1 did declare that today was "the most exciting day in my life so far".  

It was well that she was born today - induction would have begun tomorrow and despite my physicist's expertise with both mathematical and electromagnetic induction, I understand neither have much to do with the induction of labour, which is - well - more laborious than non-induced labour. Anyhow, there she is in the picture attached to this post.  She's called Alba, and I could write a separate (and more interesting) post about the dynamics of the discussions between my partner and me about baby names, but I will not turn this one into that.  Now I'm back at home while Alba and Natasha are staying overnight in the hospital.  As if there is some strange causal effect of being off work, I'm watching "The Karen Carpenter Story" on a TV channel called Movie Mix that I'd never even noticed on my freeview TV before.

I made sure I bought a copy of the newspaper today to file away as a momento.  I still have a copy of a paper from a few days after I was born containing an announcement of my birth.  It contains interestingly gender specific job adverts, such as "Slaughtermen required.  Piece rates, good wages and conditions," though "Butcheress counter assistants" and "Saleslady required for wholesale fancy goods warehouse" or "Retired Lady and Gentleman required to take care of toilets in a city discotheque." Since I don't really follow a local newspaper, I guess I'm not going to do the same about Alba, but hey, I'm writing a blog post all about her, albeit without the readership of the Glasgow Evening Times. 

Well, finally, I looked up birthdays of famous people born on this day, and so, for Alba, here's a rather morose sounding song with what appears to be a more upbeat and relevant message:



Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Chichester, Dorking and Complex Variables

Yesterday, I went to Fishbourne, a village on the south coast most famous for its Roman Palace.  I was a guest of the Chichester Science Group as a guest lecturer for the their 2013 programme.  I'd been there a few years ago, and they were kind enough to invite me back.  Thanks to their clever policy of sending invitations well over a year in advance, I agreed last April that I'd be available to speak in October 2013.  As often happens, the time gets closer and I think "why on earth did I think it'd be a good idea to take a few hours out of my day at this time of year?"  but actually, it was an enjoyable few hours that broke up the pattern of the first week of semester, on a beautiful day to go to the south coast.

Normally I would have taken the train, but with my partner a week overdue with a baby (obviously I didn't know about this a year and a half ago), I drove, that I might get back quickly if necessary.  The talk took place in the middle of the working day, the group consisting of retired folk.  I found my way to the Fishbourne Centre, where the talk was taking place quite easily, and wished I had a little more time to go down to the sea and enjoy what might well be the last warm day of the year.  

I gave my talk on applications of nuclear physics, which I usually call the somewhat US-English title of "Field guide to the isotopes" but I called "What has nuclear physics done for us?" based on the fact that this is what the file on my computer had on its first slide following the last time I gave it being to kids, and me wanting to avoid unknown words in the title..." I kicked off with a pun about the fact that the word "What" made all the difference to the title, and went through the usual bunch of applications to medicine, geology, extreme biology and climate change, as well as the more obvious nuclear applications.  It was a bit hard to know how to pitch the talk - and some of the questions afterwards indicated that the members of the audience had quite strong science backgrounds, and some less so.  Most fascinating for me was the guy who discussed his experiences in navy as someone taking part in the Christmas Island bomb tests. 

Anyway,  I was impressed to receive an email today from one of the audience who said she had been thinking about what I said about protons behaving like little magnets, and us making use of that in MRI scans to look inside the body.  She wondered if maybe birds might be able to use that fact to help in navigation.  Of course she is (approximately) right - and I was both impressed by that leap, and gratified that enough of what I said made sense for people to think about it further.

Today, instead of heading south, I headed east, to Dorking.  Following my pattern for the last several years, I've taken an OU course for an MSc in maths, for the fun of studying new things, with the discipline that having deadlines gives me.  I must confess that I went into this one more poorly prepared than I have for previous ones, but well enough to make a decent go of it.  I enjoyed the course, in Applied Complex Variables and it included enough stuff that I never formally studied before to be useful, illuminating and challenging at the same time.  Only one module remains now, and that's the dissertation.  The OU MSc maths course has just moved from a Jan-Oct delivery to a more standard academic year, so this time, there is no gap between finishing one module and starting the next.  Exam done, so time to start studying the next module!




Tuesday, 8 October 2013

2013 Nobel Prize

It's highly unlikely that anyone will learn the news from this blog, but the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics was announced this morning, and it has gone to François Englert and Peter Higgs, for "the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles, and which recently was confirmed through the discovery of the predicted fundamental particle, by the ATLAS and CMS experiments at CERN's Large Hadron Collider."  

There's lots of information at the Nobel Prize website, for those who want to find out more.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Modular Learning

Teaching and learning styles at University have changed somewhat over the years.  When I was an undergraduate, my entire degree classification was based on a series of around 24h worth of written exams, taken over a period of about a week.  These days an undergraduate physics degree is made up of a series of assessments - including written exams, and other sorts of coursework - which take place usually at the end of each semester (amounting to much more than 24h in total).  In the current way of doing things, each end-of-semester exam corresponds to the end of a module - the basic unit of educational material.

I don't think it's an easy question to decide which is the better method.  It is hard to say what "better" would even mean in this context - is it to get as many people out the door as possible with a suitable education to enable them to contribute to the economic life of the country, or is it to optimise the education of those who will carry on to be the physics professors of the future?  I don't particularly have an answer to the putative question, but I have an opinion and some observations.  

This post is partly prompted by some recent posts on the facebook page of the physics society at the university.  Some people are advertising textbooks for sale.  These books are no longer needed by current students because they are "for" modules they have already taken, and not for future courses.  This is something I find strange, and is, I think, a consequence of modularising a body of knowledge which is not modular.  It is already a bit too pigeon-holing to call anything physics, when the boundaries with other academic subjects are so blurry, but even ignoring this, physics can be taken as a way of thinking, as a set of intertwined areas, where there is so much interlinking between what we call the sub-fields that one in practice finds new insights into each area of physics by studying each other area.  The idea that one learns physics by learning a series of separate chunks as "modules" is anathema to me.  The idea that it's okay to sell your textbooks because you no longer need them for the second half of your study is bizarre - but the modular system leads to it, I suppose. 

It's unlikely we'll head back to the days of intensive final examinations,  but I don't think I would have done so well in the new scheme.  Only when I had seen enough of physics, made the links between the different areas, and got more experience of the right way of thinking, was I able to really synthesise things and realise - to the extent that I ever did, and do - that I understood the subject, and was able to tackle the final exams.  

The photo attached shows my chronic inability, or unwillingness, to get rid of any old textbooks.

Friday, 27 September 2013

Here comes semester

It seems that friends, family and colleagues at many universities are already back in the rhythm of semester time.  Here, however, today is that last day of "week minus one", the week that comes before freshers' week when the new students arrive and settle in, which is itself before teaching starts in earnest in the following week.  It's going to be an interesting time in the Physics Department.  We have a record intake of around 120 new starters, which is going to make things busier than before, but having a lot of people wanting to come here to study Physics is a good problem to have.  I'm sure there are lots of reasons why more people want to study physics, and more people want to come and study here.  It's certainly been a good year for the Uni in terms of league tables, and as much as I am equivocal about league tables, given they exist it is mainly a good thing to do well in them.

The transition to semester time will mean that I will spend a lot more time teaching undergraduate courses;  this semester I'm teaching courses in special relativity, some basic computer programming for first year students, and some more advanced computational techniques for final year students.  I do like teaching, and I like interacting with the students, but the change in tempo is quite daunting, and the responsibilities of research and administration do not alter when semester starts. 

The last weeks have featured a lot of grant preparation, some course validation document-writing, research collaborations, including finishing writing up one paper which I started writing a couple of years ago (thanks to the prompting from a visit from my old postdoc who has been here this week), writing up another paper on quantum biology (which I should be finishing up, rather than posting this), and contributing to a third substantial one which documents a code we have been using for some years and are preparing to publish.  

Aside from semester-time activities, I'm hopefully going to Italy in a few weeks to take part in a workshop organised by my colleague Arnau.  I say hopefully, because it depends a bit on the impending birth of my daughter.  Then in the not-very-much-longer term, I will (also hopefully) be running the 10 miles of the Great South Run in Portsmouth.  I had been slacking in the training for that, but yesterday morning hoiked myself out of bed early, and ran for about five miles.  The graphic associated with this post shows my run, and you should be able to see it in more detail by clicking on it.  I am also planning to raise some money, through sponsorship for the run, for the mental health charity MIND.  I'll make a separate (begging) post about that in due course.

Still, looking on an even shorter term than Monday of freshers' week, is this weekend.  As well as the day job, I am a warden on campus, meaning that I live here and provide a combination of pastoral care and disciplinary action within the campus residence.  It also means I'll be very busy greeting people arriving this weekend, helping to welcome our new arrivals no matter what course they are studying.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Visit to Virginia

I've been in Virginia for the last couple of days, visiting one of our MPhys students, who is spending his Research Year at Jefferson Lab, in Newport News, Virginia, in the US. 

The picture on the left shows the student, Alex, left, and his local supervisor on the project, Jerry, right.  The picture is obviously posed, in that I asked them both to pose for the picture, but it is  also perhaps misleadingly staged, in that I took it when Jerry took me and Alex on a tour of the experimental facilities.  JLab is undergoing an upgrade, so there are not experiments going on at the moment, and Alex is working on the development of software that will be used in analysing the forthcoming experiments.   It seemed a bit less mundane, though, to take the picture of him underground in the accelerator tunnel.  

Behind Alex and Jerry is the long straight part of the tunnel where electrons are accelerated as they go round in a kind of racetrack path, with the two straight accelerating sections joined by arcs at either end through which the electrons are bent. 

I walked round much of the tunnel, and into one of the experimental halls, known as Hall B (surprisingly situated between Hall A and Hall C).  It was possible to go into the hall because no experiment was running, and instead of a beam of high energy electrons going into the hall, there was a stream of highly skilled technicians, working on the upgrade of the detector.  The central part of the Hall was empty, though it would normally be filled with a vast detector, and it is the new version of that detector that Alex is working on the software for.  

The picture on the right shows part of the old detector, which will stay in place to be augmented by a more sophisticated detector.  If you click on the picture, you should be able to see an enlarged version, but even without enlarging, you might be able to see the guy standing on the floor to the left of the detector.  It gives a sense of the scale.  The thing is huge.  I took some more pictures, which you can see here.  At least I hope you can.  Social networks have made it harder to share URLs and know that you will see what I intend you to...

It's quite a flying visit to the US.  I arrived late on Sunday, landing at Richmond Airport at 23:45 local time on Sunday.  I spent yesterday visiting Alex and Jerry, and am flying back today.  Perhaps fortunately for me, though, is that the flight back doesn't leave until the afternoon, so I've spent some of the day at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art.  If you want to see the pictures I took of that, you can look at this facebook photo album.  I've made it publicly viewable, but who knows if that means "public-who-have-facebook-accounts" or not. 

I'll be home tomorrow morning, no doubt refreshed by my overnight flight in economy, ready for a full day of work, and then hosting this event in the evening.  Come along, if you're free and you've read until the end of the post.

Monday, 2 September 2013

But the days grow short when you reach September



Well, it's September already.  I've just got returned from a holiday to the Maghreb, and now it's solidly back to work.  It feels like summer's over, and indeed my daughter returns from our holiday to find school about to start up again.  

For me, it's not quite like that;  Undergraduate students don't come for another month yet, so it's still the summer for me at work.  I've got a busy month ahead, including, amongst other things, writing exam papers, visiting a student on placement in Virginia, finishing up a paper based on the work of a PhD student who left a couple of years ago, writing up proceedings from my conference in Bulgaria earlier in the summer, prepare for teaching in the forthcoming semester, supervising my postdoc and PhD student and hosting a visit from my ex-postdoc, who is now a visiting fellow here.  Oh, and depending on timing, maybe taking some paternity leave, though that may well fall in the first part of October. 

Still, coffee first.

Friday, 23 August 2013

The collected wisdom of UK academia

Following-up to my previous post about EThOS, one can find some interesting titles of PhD theses written in the UK.  Of course, some wilful misinterpretation regarding the double meaning of some words helps.

That's probably enough for now, and enough of a reading list for my holiday next week.  Adios!

The British Museum is Falling Down

As many institutions now do, we at the University of Surrey have a repository for our research outputs - papers, mostly.  This means that all the research work that comes out of the Uni should be able to be found in one place.  More importantly, it means that anyone can download and read our work for free, even if the papers are also published in subscription-only journals.  If you want to see it, the web-site is here.  I'm not sure I'd particularly recommend it, though.  I think it is a bit of a mess in terms of design and functionality.  Searching for my surname, for example, brings up as first hit a paper entitled Footprints of air pollution and changing environment on the sustainability of built infrastructure.  That's not by me, though my surname can be found in the references at the end of the document.  Fortunately google has indexed the site, and available papers from our institutional repository appear when searching Google Scholar.

Anyway, I was looking there to see about making sure my most recent student's thesis got submitted so that it would forever be available.  I haven't quite figured out how to do this or whether there is already a default policy of publishing all theses, but I did follow a link to EThOS, the British Library database of all UK theses. It seems rather good, and has details of many theses - including my own.  Unsurprisingly, it doesn't have a digitised copy of mine, but one could be ordered.  In that case the British Library would get in touch with the University of Oxford, and arrange for them to take the paper copy of my thesis from the stacks deep in the bowels of the city, scan it in, and send it back to the British Library.  It would then forever be available via the EThOS service.  That first request would cost the requestor some money.

Seeing that they don't have an electronic copy, and I do - the original at that, and not a scanned-in copy - I thought I'd offer it to them.  Sadly, they had to decline, as they can only accept theses directly from the awarding institution.  I can understand why, but it's too bad.  I wouldn't recommend anyone read my thesis, particularly, but for now, it's only available from my own website.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Trouble in Egypt.

The news from Egypt has been frightening lately, and my sympathies go out to anyone suffering through the situation there.  Egypt has, perhaps indirectly, had a prominent role in worldwide nuclear issues, thanks to the tenure of Mohamed ElBaradei as Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).  I don't know him, and he's not a nuclear physicist by training (he's a lawyer), but I was nevertheless a bit shocked to see that he will stand trial for resigning from the Egyptian government following the recent bloody crackdown on protesters.  It seems from the story that the charges are not really very serious, and are due to a kind of private prosecution, but still - to have to attend court as a result of resigning from a government can't be a good thing.  Some of our politicians won't even resign without that threat hanging over them.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Moving house

I think it's widely established, at least amongst first world problems that moving house ranks pretty poorly in the list of fun things to do.  So I found it yesterday, when I moved from a flat on the University campus, which I occupied as part of a second job to provide pastoral care to students in the evening, to a nearby house on campus, for the same reason.  With the accumulated possessions of a forty-year-old with a lot of books, and a partner who is quite sure there is always room to fit just one more bit of furniture in, we knew we wouldn't be in for a fun day.  

Thankfully, my partner, being much more organised than me, managed to arrange for a redoubtable crew of friends to come and help shift things.  The result is that all our things were moved yesterday and I got up early today, aching, to spend a couple of hours cleaning the old flat.  I handed the keys over, and am now at Heathrow, waiting to go to Glasgow for a meeting that I mentioned before.  I'll post more about that as and when it happens over the next couple of days.  For now, thanks to those who helped:  Annika, Julian, Chris, Emma, Ant, Rich, Paul and Linda (and this is where I fear I've forgotten someone).  The picture attached is part of the measly reward for these great friends for helping out.


Postscript: Here's an appropriate song to go with the post:

Monday, 12 August 2013

Victor Safronov

I haven't posted much music lately.  Here's a song whose link to physics I don't quite understand, except that it is about, or at least named after an astronomer called Victor Safranov.  It's by a band from Reading called Saloon.  In pre-apocalyptic times, Reading had a University with a physics department,


Friday, 2 August 2013

A holiday in Scotland

Ayr Beach
I've been on holiday for the last week, in Ayr in Scotland, staying with my cousin and her family.  We've been going there to stay every summer for the last few years, now, and it's always enjoyable, and relaxing, and nice for my daughter to have the company of a household full of kids.  Of course, there is not much to report about nuclear physics during such a time, but not quite literally nothing.  

One evening while in Ayr, we (me, my partner and my parents) met up with an old family friend - a guy a little older than me who is the son of an old friend of my Dad's from his schooldays.  He'd moved up to Ayr some time ago, but hails from the town my parents live in (Bishop's Stortford), and I lived in for the latter half of my childhood.  Aside from these links, we probably don't have too much in common, but that's not to stop us enjoying a chat and a couple of beers in a pub.  When it came to finding out what each other did for a living, his response to me being a nuclear physicist was on the extreme end of things.  He immediately responded with "F*** me!"  Perhaps it is just his usual turn of phrase.  I'm used this kind of response, but not quite at that extreme.  I can't actually remember how I phrased what I did by way of employment, or whether it was actually me (and not, say, my mum) who said it.  Usually I wouldn't come straight out with nuclear physicist, but something like "I teach at a University".  This is what I said to the guy in the sports shop in Silverburn shopping centre, where my partner was buying me some running shoes as a birthday present (and as an encouragement to go running more often).  He then asked what I taught, and I said physics to which he replied that he never did understand physics at school.  That's the other response I commonly get.  "Wow" or "I never understood / hated physics I school" cover probably 90% of responses.

On the train journey home from Scotland, we were not the only people with a youngish child wanting entertainment to pass the time.  Perhaps lamely I let my daughter watch a lot of TV programs on my laptop and play games on my phone.  Not so a woman travelling with her young son.  He seemed to be a bit obsessed with submarines, and had a book about them.  His mum answered his questions for a long time, patiently and actually rather diligently.  She talked about the workings of the nuclear reactors aboard nuclear submarines really very well.  

The other vaguely on-topic thing (not that everything here needs to be on-topic) was this story in the Independent that I read on the train journey home.  It relates a bit to the sampling error that I didn't elaborate very clearly in this post.  The very fact that a student can take two ostensibly identical exams (in the sense that they are examining the same material at the same level) and get two different scores is part of the measurement error that is routinely ignored.  It also highlights some of the unfortunate side-effects of use of league tables.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

How many physicists does it take to change a lightbulb?

A little while ago, the BBC solicited scientists to tell jokes on the TV as part of series.  Each episode was supposed to consist of a particular group of people, connected only in some non-comedic way, telling jokes.  It started with old jews and seems to have passed through vicars, and has now reached scientists.  Only, with scientists, the BBC went for the pejorative boffins instead.

The boffins show is on tomorrow night, at 10pm on BBC4.  Unless they've cut me out, I'll be in there.  The preview, below, starts with my colleague Paddy Regan:

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Physics & Astronomy at Surrey

I spent much of Thursday this week in a meeting to defend the proposal of the Physics Department at my University to start a degree course in Physics with Astronomy to the University accreditation committee. The word "defend" sounds a bit, well, defensive.  Really, it was not like that, but more that there are a lot of checks to me made, regarding things like syllabus coverage, reasonable methods of teaching and examining, and conforming to University and national expectations, that a panel is always convened to check that we are acting in a sensible way in proposing our new degree.  This is rather a British way of doing things, and depending on where you are in the world, you may find the "professionalisation" of degree specifications surprising or not.

Our Physics and Astronomy programme is new, because we have just appointed a new, and pretty large, astro group.  The external examiners included members from the University of Sussex, who have a more established astro programme.  Historically, we have often been confused for Sussex, perhaps since our names both match the S - U - double consonant - E - consonant at the end of the alphabet pattern.   Hopefully our move into astronomy won't make matters worse.

Anyway, the panel were impressed with our degree, and we'll therefore be teaching it from this October onwards.  It'll be pretty exciting, I think, having a larger and more general group of both staff and students, and I look forward to seeing our new telescope on top of the management school building.  I wonder what the inhabitants of that building will make of it.

The picture attached to this post is from the research website of our new group.  Take a look here to find out more.


Saturday, 13 July 2013

Do I use two-by-two matrices when I write papers?

I received an email today, with a subject, "Do you use two-by-two matrices when you write papers?"

It seems like a rather strange question, and it comes as part of an email soliciting papers for a new open access journal that I haven't heard of.  They are running a special issue on "Physics based on two-by-two matrices".  Now, these objects crop up all over the place; in rotations, for example.  In any two-level mixing problem.  Or they can be used to describe quantum mechanical particles with an intrinsic "spin" angular momentum, such as protons, neutrons and electrons, so yes - very applicable to my work in nuclear physics.  

The question sounds so generic.  "Do you use numbers?" might be as apt, yet it is also so specific - particularly concerning itself with matrices of a particular size.  I can't help but think that it is a rather contrived way to promote interest in a new journal that charges a minimum of 500CHF (about £350) to authors to publish each paper.  Perhaps I am being unduly sceptical and when the special issue comes out, I will discover that there are a slew of article showing profound links between diverse areas of physics.  That is, if I even notice the issue be released amongst the huge number of very general new journals out there.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Marking Errors

In a recent post, I mentioned the need to deal better with errors and statistical analysis amongst theoreticians and modellers in nuclear physics than we habitually do at present.  Apart from the fact that I'm co-oraganising a workshop on the topic, my post was spurred by a conversation I had at a workshop in Poland.  One of the comments in the recent post, about assumptions in methodology, made me think of something that I usually think about at this time of year, namely: How accurately can we measure student achievement?

We (and I mean teachers and academics in general, rather than my department at my University) set a lot of different kind of assignments for students and generally give them a numerical score for each assignment.  To make the case simple to discuss, let's restrict it to my field of Physics, where most assignments have pre-determined mark schemes, that can be very detailed and prescriptive, written at the time of setting the assignment.  I have little doubt that we can mark (quite) faithfully according to the mark scheme, and therefore give a "precise" mark (in the usual language distinguishing precision from accuracy).  On the other hand, I'm not so sure that marks are so accurate.

For example, let's say one student takes one final year module, examined by me, and another takes a different optional module examined by my fictional colleague Dr Cruel.  We have both followed the guidelines to the best of our ability in terms of matching up our assessment to learning outcomes and level descriptors, and all the other sorts of things that the educationalists have made us think about, yet the mark a student gets in my course is much higher than in Dr Cruel's course.  The student put in the same amount of work in both courses.  Is it just that they revised the wrong thing in my course?  That they found the material differently difficult?  That I am a kinder marker?  

There are probably many reasons, and to some extent, they are all just part of the system, and students (and everyone else) must accept this.  And accept that there are factors like the luck of the style of the 2013 exam being one that a certain student was hoping for and another not, or vice versa.  Still, I certainly find it hard to argue that a student having a mark of 59.2% means that a lower second degree is absolutely the obvious outcome, whereas one with 60.1% absolutely has an upper second.  Actually - I guess I don't find that hard - they are rules which are set down, but I get really frustrated by people who are adamant that we mark to an accuracy of anything below a few percent.