Archive for January, 2010

The F-word

Posted in Biographical with tags , , , , , , , on January 31, 2010 by telescoper

Once upon a time, a young man was walking home, alone, from a nightclub on Brighton’s seafront towards the house he shared with some friends. It was a warm summer night or, rather, morning, as it was about 3am. As he crossed King’s Road and began to walk up Preston Street, a group of four youths appeared from the direction of the West Pier, ran across the road and attacked him. He fought back, hitting one of them on the nose and drawing blood, but was soon overpowered and fell to the ground under a rain of fists. He was repeatedly kicked while he lay on the road, and soon lapsed into unconsciousness while the onslaught continued.

To this day he can’t remember how long this went on for, nor can he remember anything at all about the people who eventually came to his assistance. But he can remember the word that was being shouted continually as he was systematically beaten. The word was FAGGOT.

This was 1989, and the young man was me. At the time I was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Sussex, and I had just spent the evening at the Zap Club (now sadly defunct). On wednesdays, this establishment played host to  Club Shame, a gay one-nighter that was extremely popular and well-known around the town. Unfortunately, this made people leaving it in the early hours of the morning easy targets for the many queerbashers who got their kicks beating up gay men for no other reason than that they were gay.

I was actually one of the lucky ones. Apparently, shortly after I fell to the ground and passed out, a group of passers-by chased off the youths who had attacked me, helped me to my feet, and helped me get home.  The commotion when I arrived woke up a couple of my friends who cleaned me up, and gave me a glass of whisky. I was rattled, angry at the gratuitous violence visited on me by complete strangers, and frustrated by the clear demonstration of my own inability to defend myself.   I had a black eye, a fat lip and a lot of bruises but there turned out to be no lasting physical damage. Although I don’t like to admit it, I do think I have a few psychological scars. I don’t even tell many  people about this episode because my weakness embarrasses me – it’s a slur on my manhood, such as it is. Still, at least I didn’t end up dead, like poor Jody Dobrowski.

Neither I nor any of the friends (also gay) who helped me ever even thought about reporting the incident to the Police. The Brighton police at that time were notorious for dismissing complaints of gay-bashing despite the fact it was an endemic problem. People I knew who had reported such incidents usually found themselves being investigated rather than their assailants. In those days the law did not recognize homophobic offences as hate crimes. Far from it, in fact. Attacking a gay person was, if anything, considered to be a mitigating circumstance. This attitude was fuelled by a number of high-profile cases (including a number of murders) where gay-bashers had been acquitted or charged with lesser offences after claiming their victim had provoked them.

Now fast-forward about 20 years. Attitudes have definitely changed, and so has the law. Certain types of criminal offence are now officially recognized as hate crimes: the list treats sexual orientation as equivalent to race, gender, religious belief and disability in such matters. The Police are now obliged to treat these with due seriousness, and penalties for those found guilty of crimes exacerbated by homophobia are consequently more severe. All Police forces now have special units for dealing with them; here is an example.

These changes are mirrored in other aspects of life too. For example, employment law relating to discrimination or harassment in the workplace now puts sexual orientation on the same footing as race, gender, disability and religious belief. In many universities in the UK, staff have been required to attend training in Equality and Diversity matters not only to raise awareness of the legal framework under which we all have to work, but also to promote a sensitivity to these issues in order to improve the working environment for both staff and students.

This training isn’t about over-zealous busybodies. Under the law, employers have a vicarious liability for the conduct of their staff with regard to harassment and discrimination. This means that a University can be sued if, for example, one of its employees commits harassment, and it can be shown that it did not make appropriate efforts to ensure its staff did not engage in such activities.

Of course not everyone approves of these changes. Some staff  have refused point-blank to attend Equality and Diversity training, even though it’s compulsory. Others attend grudgingly, muttering about “political correctness gone mad”. You may think all this is a bit heavy handed, but I can tell you it makes a real difference to the lives of people who, without this legal protection, would be victimised, harassed or discriminated against.  It is, also, the law.

I think the efforts that have been made to improve the legal situation have been (at least partly) responsible for the changes in society’s attitudes over the last twenty years, which have been extremely positive. I’m old enough to remember very different times. That’s not to say that there’s no bigotry any more. Even in this day and age, violent crimes against gay men are still disturbingly common and Police attitudes not always helpful.

Somewhat closer to home, a recent story in the Times Higher pointed out that relatively few universities have made it onto the list of gay-friendly employers compiled by the campaigning organisation Stonewall. My experience generally, having worked in a number of UK universities (Sussex, Queen Mary, Nottingham and Cardiff), is that they are  friendly and comfortable places for an openly gay person to work. So much so, in fact, that there’s no real need to make a big deal of one’s sexual identity. It doesn’t really have much to do with the way you do your work – certainly not if it’s astrophysics – and work-related social events are, as a rule, very inclusive.

However, even in the supposedly enlightened environment of a University there do remain islands of bigotry, and not just about gay and lesbian staff.  Sexism is a major problem, at least in science subjects, and will probably remain so until the gender balance improves, which it slowly doing, despite the actions of certain professors who actively block attempts to encourage more female applicants to permanent positions.

I also agree with the main point made by the Times Higher article which is that, despite what the law says, universities still do not seem to me to treat sexual orientation with the same seriousness as, say, race or gender discrimination. Fairly predictably, the online version of the article attracted some nasty comments of a homophobic nature which were subsequently removed according to the terms and conditions of the website.

Recent experiences of my own (relating to this blog) seemed relevant so I passed them onto the Times Higher after reading this story. I didn’t think they would consider it important enough to publish, as in the grand scheme of things it involved a relatively minor offence, so I was a bit surprised to find a full story in this week’s edition. It caught me on the hop a bit because I wasn’t even told they were going to run it at all, let alone straight away and I didn’t get the chance to see the final copy. Thankfully, it’s quite accurate, matter-of-fact, and avoids sensationalism.

I’m not going to put all the details here, because as far as I’m concerned it’s all over and there’s nothing to be gained by going over it again. The relevance to the earlier Times Higher story is clear, however. In a nutshell, I made a complaint about a comment on this blog, involving offensively homophobic language, to the University of Nottingham, the employer of the person who made it. I was not asked to give evidence to the subsequent “investigation”, was not told how it was conducted or how it arrived at its decision, and was not even informed of its outcome for months after it had been completed, and only then after I made repeated requests. My subsequent requests for information about the conduct of the investigation were refused. The University of Nottingham also refused to confirm whether the culprit had ever attended Equality and Diversity training.

What was it I had objected to? It was the F-word – FAGGOT, universally recognized as grossly offensive and, as I’ve explained, one about which my I also have my own particular reasons for objecting to. I was appalled that a former colleague could use that word in a manner that seemed (and still seems) to me to have been calculated to be offensive, subsequent “apologies” notwithstanding. The “investigation”, however, disagreed and accepted the defence that it was meant as a joke. I wonder what they would have decided if I’d been black and had been called a “n****r”?

At the time, I asked for advice on what to do about this. Stonewall encouraged me to report it to the Police, on grounds of criminal harassment. This seemed to me to be excessive, since it had resulted in no physical harm or loss by me and would use up a lot of police time to little effect and a lot of embarassment to others at Nottingham that this had (and has) nothing to do with. A gay-friendly solicitor in Cardiff explained how I could pursue a civil case against the individual and/or employer but that it would be very expensive and damages, if awarded at all, would probably be very small. In the end, therefore, I decided to take the advice of our Equality and Diversity Officer in Cardiff  and reported it instead to the University of Nottingham to deal with internally. What a waste of time that was.

I’m sure there will be some readers of this post who think I over-reacted to the comment in question, and that I’ve blown this matter out of all proportion; this indeed seems to be the prevailing view among the comments on the Times Higher thread. You’re all entitled to your opinion, of course. I fully admit that, for reasons that should now be obvious, I am unable to respond particularly rationally to being called a faggot. But then I don’t see why, in this day and age,  I should be expected to. Things are supposed to have moved on, in case you didn’t know. Anyway, I  don’t think I over-reacted and, in this case, I happen to think it’s my opinion that counts. That’s what the law says too, as a matter of fact.

I’m not claiming to be whiter than white. I am fully aware that I’ve made comments on this blog that have offended some people of whom I am very fond. I’m very sorry that I’ve caused offence in this way. I also admit some of my jokes are a bit off-colour. I tend to be direct in my criticism of those I think deserve it. I think I know how to take a joke too; growing up as  gay teenager in 1970s Newcastle gave me quite a thick skin. I can take forthright criticism too – I should; I’ve had plenty of practice! But I will not accept being called a faggot. Everyone has their limits, and that is mine.

If you don’t like it then, frankly, you can F-off.

Astronomy Look-alikes, No. 12

Posted in Astronomy Lookalikes with tags , , on January 30, 2010 by telescoper

I’m struck by the remarkable similarity between the depiction below of WALL-E, an absurdly comical fantasy robot that exists only in the realm of  Science Fiction, and the European Space Agency’s Exomars Rover. I wonder if by any chance they might be related?

P.S. Thanks to Rigsby Matt Griffin for this one!

Stormy Weather

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on January 29, 2010 by telescoper

Tough day, for various reasons. Perhaps more about that tomorrow. However, I thought I’d end it with  a flashbackto my youth. I went to see Derek Jarman‘s brilliant screen adaptation of The Tempest by William Shakespeare when it came out around 30 years ago, roughly the same time that I did. Critics were divided, especially about the ending, although I loved it all, especially the ending. The cast of the film included Christopher Biggins and Toyah Wilcox, so it was never going to be a straightforward Shakespeare adaptation but even if you don’t like it you have to admit that it’s beautifully photographed. Jarman decided to change the usual ending of the play, which is Prospero’s Epilogue:

Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own,
Which is most faint: now, ’tis true,
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardon’d the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands:
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As youth from crimes would pardon’d be,
Let your indulgence set me free .

Instead the sublime Elizabeth Welch (who was 75 at the time, and died in 2003 at the age of 99) sings the wonderful song Stormy Weather, to a bevy of handsome sailors. A bit camp? Yes. But I think it’s sheer genius. In fact, I think  it’s one of the most fabulous-est endings to a film ever.

The World

Posted in Poetry, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on January 28, 2010 by telescoper

The  poet Henry Vaughan was born in Trenewydd (Newton), near Brecon, in Wales, in 1622 and lived most of his life not far from there in the small village of Llansantffraed, where he also practised as a physician. He died in 1695. His twin brother Thomas Vaughan was a noted philosopher (and alchemist), so theirs was clearly an interesting family! Henry Vaughan followed in the footsteps of another famous Welsh metaphysical poet, George Herbert, although literary experts seem to argue about their relative merits, as literary experts are wont to do…

I’ve recently developed a bit of a thing for English (and Welsh) metaphysical poets and have included a few examples on here, partly because they are totally new to me and might therefore be new to people reading this blog, and partly because they often deal with grand themes about the Universe which gives me an excuse to include them on what I sometimes pretend is a science blog.

Like many of his ilk (including Thomas Traherne, who I’ve blogged about before) Henry Vaughan wasn’t particularly celebrated in his lifetime but he was increasingly appreciated after his death;  William Wordsworth acknowledged him as a major influence, for example. Recurring themes in Vaughan’s poems – like those of Wordsworth – are the loss of childhood innocence and a love for Nature. I’ve picked one of his most famous works as an example. It doesn’t have as strong an astronomical connection as some others, but the opening lines are so beautiful I hope you won’t mind!

The World

I saw Eternity the other night
Like a great Ring of pure and endless light
All calm as it was bright;
And round beneath it, Time, in hours, days, years,
Driven by the spheres,
Like a vast shadow moved, in which the world
And all her train were hurled.
The doting Lover in his quaintest strain
Did there complain;
Near him, his lute, his fancy, and his flights,
Wit’s sour delights;
With gloves and knots, the silly snares of pleasure;
Yet his dear treasure
All scattered lay, while he his eyes did pour
Upon a flower.

The darksome Statesman hung with weights and woe,
Like a thick midnight fog, moved there so slow
He did nor stay nor go;
Condemning thoughts, like sad eclipses, scowl
Upon his soul,
And clouds of crying witnesses without
Pursued him with one shout.
Yet digged the mole, and, lest his ways be found,
Worked under ground,
Where he did clutch his prey; but One did see
That policy.
Churches and altars fed him, perjuries
Were gnats and flies;
It rained about him blood and tears, but he
Drank them as free.

The fearful Miser on a heap of rust
Sat pining all his life there, did scarce trust
His own hands with the dust;
Yet would not place one piece above, but lives
In fear of thieves.
Thousands there were as frantic as himself,
And hugged each one his pelf.
The downright Epicure placed heaven in sense
And scorned pretence;
While others, slipped into a wide excess,
Said little less;
The weaker sort, slight, trivial wares enslave,
Who think them brave;
And poor despisèd Truth sat counting by
Their victory.

Yet some, who all this while did weep and sing,
And sing and weep, soared up into the Ring;
But most would use no wing.
‘Oh, fools,’ said I, ‘thus to prefer dark night
Before true light,
To live in grots and caves, and hate the day
Because it shows the way,
The way which from this dead and dark abode
Leaps up to God,
A way where you might tread the sun, and be
More bright than he.’
But as I did their madness so discuss,
One whispered thus,
This Ring the Bridegroom did for none provide
But for his Bride.

The Seven Year Itch

Posted in Bad Statistics, Cosmic Anomalies, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on January 27, 2010 by telescoper

I was just thinking last night that it’s been a while since I posted anything in the file marked cosmic anomalies, and this morning I woke up to find a blizzard of papers on the arXiv from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) team. These relate to an analysis of the latest data accumulated now over seven years of operation; a full list of the papers is given here.

I haven’t had time to read all of them yet, but I thought it was worth drawing attention to the particular one that relates to the issue of cosmic anomalies. I’ve taken the liberty of including the abstract here:

A simple six-parameter LCDM model provides a successful fit to WMAP data, both when the data are analyzed alone and in combination with other cosmological data. Even so, it is appropriate to search for any hints of deviations from the now standard model of cosmology, which includes inflation, dark energy, dark matter, baryons, and neutrinos. The cosmological community has subjected the WMAP data to extensive and varied analyses. While there is widespread agreement as to the overall success of the six-parameter LCDM model, various “anomalies” have been reported relative to that model. In this paper we examine potential anomalies and present analyses and assessments of their significance. In most cases we find that claimed anomalies depend on posterior selection of some aspect or subset of the data. Compared with sky simulations based on the best fit model, one can select for low probability features of the WMAP data. Low probability features are expected, but it is not usually straightforward to determine whether any particular low probability feature is the result of the a posteriori selection or of non-standard cosmology. We examine in detail the properties of the power spectrum with respect to the LCDM model. We examine several potential or previously claimed anomalies in the sky maps and power spectra, including cold spots, low quadrupole power, quadropole-octupole alignment, hemispherical or dipole power asymmetry, and quadrupole power asymmetry. We conclude that there is no compelling evidence for deviations from the LCDM model, which is generally an acceptable statistical fit to WMAP and other cosmological data.

Since I’m one of those annoying people who have been sniffing around the WMAP data for signs of departures from the standard model, I thought I’d comment on this issue.

As the abstract says, the  LCDM model does indeed provide a good fit to the data, and the fact that it does so with only 6 free parameters is particularly impressive. On the other hand, this modelling process involves the compression of an enormous amount of data into just six numbers. If we always filter everything through the standard model analysis pipeline then it is possible that some vital information about departures from this framework might be lost. My point has always been that every now and again it is worth looking in the wastebasket to see if there’s any evidence that something interesting might have been discarded.

Various potential anomalies – mentioned in the above abstract – have been identified in this way, but usually there has turned out to be less to them than meets the eye. There are two reasons not to get too carried away.

The first reason is that no experiment – not even one as brilliant as WMAP – is entirely free from systematic artefacts. Before we get too excited and start abandoning our standard model for more exotic cosmologies, we need to be absolutely sure that we’re not just seeing residual foregrounds, instrument errors, beam asymmetries or some other effect that isn’t anything to do with cosmology. Because it has performed so well, WMAP has been able to do much more science than was originally envisaged, but every experiment is ultimately limited by its own systematics and WMAP is no different. There is some (circumstantial) evidence that some of the reported anomalies may be at least partly accounted for by  glitches of this sort.

The second point relates to basic statistical theory. Generally speaking, an anomaly A (some property of the data) is flagged as such because it is deemed to be improbable given a model M (in this case the LCDM). In other words the conditional probability P(A|M) is a small number. As I’ve repeatedly ranted about in my bad statistics posts, this does not necessarily mean that P(M|A)- the probability of the model being right – is small. If you look at 1000 different properties of the data, you have a good chance of finding something that happens with a probability of 1 in a thousand. This is what the abstract means by a posteriori reasoning: it’s not the same as talking out of your posterior, but is sometimes close to it.

In order to decide how seriously to take an anomaly, you need to work out P(M|A), the probability of the model given the anomaly, which requires that  you not only take into account all the other properties of the data that are explained by the model (i.e. those that aren’t anomalous), but also specify an alternative model that explains the anomaly better than the standard model. If you do this, without introducing too many free parameters, then this may be taken as compelling evidence for an alternative model. No such model exists -at least for the time being – so the message of the paper is rightly skeptical.

So, to summarize, I think what the WMAP team say is basically sensible, although I maintain that rummaging around in the trash is a good thing to do. Models are there to be tested and surely the best way to test them is to focus on things that look odd rather than simply congratulating oneself about the things that fit? It is extremely impressive that such intense scrutiny over the last seven years has revealed so few oddities, but that just means that we should look even harder..

Before too long, data from Planck will provide an even sterner test of the standard framework. We really do need an independent experiment to see whether there is something out there that WMAP might have missed. But we’ll have to wait a few years for that.

So far it’s WMAP 7 Planck 0, but there’s plenty of time for an upset. Unless they close us all down.

Astronomy Look-alikes, No. 11

Posted in Astronomy Lookalikes with tags , on January 26, 2010 by telescoper

I’m sure I’m not alone in being alarmed by the similarity between distinguished astronomical historian Dr Allan Chapman and fictional serial killer Dr Hannibal Lecter. And to think he’s a member of the RAS Dining Club …

Letter to Lord Drayson from George Efstathiou

Posted in Finance, Science Politics with tags , , on January 25, 2010 by telescoper

I just had a note from George Efstathiou, Director of the Kavli Institute for Cosmology at the University of Cambridge, about a letter he wrote to Lord Drayson about the STFC crisis. It’s  very much in line with what I was saying a few days ago. It’s good to see someone with some clout stepping into the ring, taking the gloves off, and not pulling his punches (That’s enough boxing metaphors, Ed.)

With George’s permission, I’m including the full text of his letter below; the added links are mine.

-0-

25 January 2010

Lord Drayson
Department for Business, Innovation and Skills
Castle View House
East Lane
Runcorn, WA72GJ

Dear Lord Drayson,

I would like to make a few comments concerning your structural review of STFC. I was a member of the Astronomy and Planetary Sciences Board of SERC (1991‐1993) and a member of PPARC Council (2001‐2004) and so I have some experience of previous funding systems.

Overall, I support the proposals put forward by the Royal Astronomical Society Forum and the Institute of Physics. It is extremely important that research grants remain in a reorganized Council rather than transferred to EPSRC. A transfer of the grants line to EPSRC, particularly at a severely reduced level following the STFC prioritization exercise, would recreate the difficulties experienced in the days of SRC/SERC that PPARC was designed to solve. (Namely, the long‐term nature of Particle Physics and Astronomy projects and their reliance on large international organizations).

In analysing the nature of a restructured Council, it is worthwhile reviewing some of the reasons for the difficulties at STFC, and the role of the Chief Executive in exacerbating those difficulties.

Firstly, Keith Mason has openly pursued a policy of transferring funds into areas with potential for short term economic impact at the expense of grant funding to Universities. STFC funds have therefore gone into facilities, innovation campuses and initiatives such as the Aurora programme. Together with a sympathetic Chairman and a Council that included three members of the Executive, this policy went (largely) unchallenged for the first two years of STFCs existence, though I know of not a single research scientist who agreed with it. Financial mismanagement of this policy finally caught up with STFC last year, leading to savage cuts of more than 35% in the grants line (the only `flexible’ part of the STFC budget). These cuts are more savage than the deepest cuts experienced during the Thatcher years. Mason’s attempt to downplay these cuts by referring to previous low points in grant funding is, frankly, risible. Government should be indignant at Mason’s attempt to write‐off the investment in science between the years 2002‐‐2007, which was intended (and succeeded) in improving the volume and quality of research in Universities.

As an example of the tension between economic impact and scientific excellence, BNSC published the Space Exploration Review recommending an increase in funding of £150m per annum and highlighting the MoonLITE bilateral mission. A few days later, the STFC prioritization exercise ranked MoonLITE `below alpha’. Any restructuring must tackle the difficulties of tensioning projects which may have economic benefits but little scientific merit against academic excellence. In my view, academic excellence should be the priority for any restructured Research Council.

Secondly, Mason has held the view (most recently expressed at the Astronomy Forum meeting earlier this month) that the UK has too many scientists involved in exploiting facilities in comparison to the number engaged in developing, building and operating facilities. Again, I know of not a single research scientist who agrees with this view. The science budget has increased significantly over the last decade. The expansion of astronomy and particle physics in UK Universities has been a rational response to the increased availability of funding. As a member of the 2008 RAE Physics panel I was able to see at first hand how this investment has translated into research of the highest international quality. The deep STFC cuts to the grants line will inevitably weaken the research base in UK Universities and may even threaten the viability of some Physics departments. The shock wave following these cuts will eventually be felt across the entire UK science base. Any restructured Research Council must sustain an acceptable balance between support of UK Universities and investment in facilities.

STFC has not given high enough priority to scientific excellence. This is the primary cause of the problems over the last three years. It is why scientific excellence will suffer following the STFC prioritization exercise. This unfortunate outcome has been achieved during a period of increased funding to STFC and despite the allocation of financial bailouts.

Any restructured Research Council must have academic excellence at its core. It must also have a Chief Executive who recognises and values academic excellence.

Yours sincerely

George Efstathiou

cc Professor Michael Sterling, Chairman STFC
Phil Willis, Chair, House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee

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