## Lincoln – Green Shoots for Maths and Physics?

Posted in Education with tags , , , , on March 3, 2014 by telescoper

I noticed over the weekend that there’s a job being advertised at the University of Lincoln designated Founding Head of the School of Mathematics and Physics. It seems the powers that be at Lincoln University (which is in the Midlands) have decided to set up an entire new activity in Mathematics and Physics. I’m pointing this out not because of any personal connection with the position, but because it’s refreshing to see a new(ish) Higher Education Institute apparently willing to take the plunge and invest in a new venture, particularly because it includes Physics. It wasn’t at all long ago that UK Physics departments were being closed down – the University of Reading being a prominent example, in 2006. I think Reading is thinking of starting up Physics again, in fact. Perhaps these are the green shoots that presage a new spring for Physics in this country? I do hope so.

It won’t be an easy task to start up a new department from scratch in Lincoln: grant funding is tight and the competition for students among established institutions is already so intense that it will be very difficult for a brand new outfit to break through. Nevertheless, I think it’s a praiseworthy initiative and I wish it well.

## Athena Swan Cake Day

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags on March 2, 2014 by telescoper

I had such a busy day on Friday (28th February) that I didn’t get time to post about our monthly MPS afternoon cake event. This month’s extravaganza was in honour of Athena Swan, the Bronze Award of which the Department of Physics and Astronomy hopes to earn later this year.

The eleven “special” cakes shown in the picture, each of which is in the shape of a swan, represent the eleven female members of academic staff in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences (out of about 60 total), and were consumed by them too! There were plenty of other cakes for the rest of us, but since they all involved chocolate I didn’t eat any…

## Sussex University – the Place for Undergraduate Physics Research!

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on February 27, 2014 by telescoper

One of the courses we offer in the School of Physics & Astronomy here at the University of Sussex is the integrated Masters in Physics with a Research Placement. Aimed at high-flying students with ambitions to become research physicists, this programme includes a paid research placement as a Junior Research Associate each summer vacation for the duration of the course; that means between Years 1 & 2, Years 2 & 3 and Years 3 & 4 . This course has proved extremely attractive to a large number of very talented students and it exemplifies the way the Department of Physics & Astronomy integrates world-class research with its teaching in a uniquely successful and imaginative way.

Here’s a little video made by the University that features Sophie Williamson, who is currently in her second year (and who also in the class to whom I’m currently teaching a module on Theoretical Physics:

This week we had some very good news about another of our undergraduate researchers, Talitha Bromwich, who is now in the final year of her MPhys degree, and is pictured below with her supervisor Dr Simon Peeters:

Talitha spent last summer working on the DEAP3600 dark-matter detector after being selected for the University’s Junior Research Associate scheme. Her project won first prize at the University’s JRA poster exhibition last October, and she was then chosen to present her findings – alongside undergraduate researchers from 22 other universities – in Westminster yesterday as part of the annual Posters in Parliament exhibition, organized under the auspices of the British Conference of Undergraduate Research (BCUR).

A judging panel – consisting of Ben Wallace MP, Conservative MP for Wyre and Preston North; Sean Coughlan, Education Correspondent for the BBC; and Professor Julio Rivera, President of the US Council of Undergraduate Research; and Katherine Harrington of the Higher Education Academy – decided to award Talitha’s project First Prize in this extremely prestigious competition.

Congratulations to Talitha for her prizewinning project! I’m sure her outstanding success will inspire future generations of Sussex undergraduates too!

## How should mathematics be taught to non-mathematicians?

Posted in Education with tags , , , , on February 25, 2014 by telescoper

This post from the estimable “Gowers’s Weblog” passed me by when it was originally published in 2012, but I saw the link on Twitter and decided to repost it here because it’s still topical..

Originally posted on Gowers's Weblog:

Michael Gove, the UK’s Secretary of State for Education, has expressed a wish to see almost all school pupils studying mathematics in one form or another up to the age of 18 . An obvious question follows. At the moment, there are large numbers of people who give up mathematics after GCSE (the exam that is usually taken at the age of 16) with great relief and go through the rest of their lives saying, without any obvious regret, how bad they were at it. What should such people study if mathematics becomes virtually compulsory for two more years?

A couple of years ago there was an attempt to create a new mathematics A-level called Use of Mathematics. I criticized it heavily in a blog post, and stand by those criticisms, though interestingly it isn’t so much the syllabus that bothers me as the awful exam questions. One might think that a course called Use of Mathematics would teach you how to come up with mathematical models for real-life situations, but these questions did the opposite, and still do. They describe a real-life situation, then tell you that it “may be modelled” by some formula, and proceed to ask you questions that are purely mathematical, and extremely easy compared with A-level maths.

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## From Real Time to Imaginary Time

Posted in Brighton, Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 24, 2014 by telescoper

Yesterday, after yet another Sunday afternoon in my office on the University of Sussex campus, I once again encountered the baffling nature of the “real time boards” at the bus-stop at Falmer Station (just over the road from the University). These boards are meant to show the expected arrival times of buses; an example can be seen on the left of the picture below, taken at Churchill Square (in the City Centre).

The real-time board system works pretty well in central Brighton, but it’s a very different story at Falmer, especially for the Number 23 which is my preferred bus home. Yesterday provided a typical illustration of the problem: the time of the first bus on the list, a No. 23, was shown as “1 min” when I arrived at the stop. It then quickly moved to “due” (a word which I’ll comment about later). It then moved back to “2 mins” for about 5 minutes and then back to “due” again. It stayed like that for over 10 minutes at which point the bus that was second on the list (a No. 28 from Lewes) appeared. Rather than risk waiting any longer for the 23 I got on the 28 and had a slightly longer walk home from the stop at the other end. Just as well I did because the 23 vanished entirely from the screen as soon as I boarded the other bus. This apparent time-travel isn’t unusual at Falmer, although I’ve never really understood why.

By sheer coincidence when I got to the bus stop to catch a bus to campus this morning there was a chap from Brighton and Hove buses there. He was explaining what sometimes goes wrong with the real time boards to a lady, so I joined in the conversation and asked him if he knew why Falmer is so unreliable. He was happy to oblige. It turns out that the way the real-time boards work depends on each bus having a GPS system that communicates to a central computer via a radio link. If the radio link drops out for some reason – as it apparently does quite often up at Falmer (mobile phone connectivity is poor here also) – the system looks up the expected time of the bus after the one that it has lost contact with. Thus it is that a bus can apparently be “due” and then apparently go back in time. Also, if a bus has to divert from the route programmed into the GPS tracker then it is also removed from the real-time boards.

However, there is another system in operation alongside the GPS tracker. When a bus actually stops at a stop and opens its doors the onboard computer communicates this to the central system at the same time as the location signs inside the bus are updated. At this point the real-time boards are reset.

The unreliability I’ve observed at Falmer is in fact caused by two problems: (i) the patchy radio coverage as the bus wanders around the hilly environs of Falmer campus; and (ii) the No. 23 is on a new route around the back of campus which means that it vanishes from the system entirely when it wanders off the old route, as would happen if the bus were to break down.

Mystery solved then, in a sense, but it means there’s a systematic problem that isn’t going to be fixed in the short-term. Would it be better to switch off the boards than have them show inaccurate information? Perhaps, but only if it were always wrong. In fact the boards seem to work OK for the more frequent bus, the No. 25. My strategy is therefore never to rely on the information provided concerning the No. 23 and just get the first bus that comes. It’s not a problem anyway during the week because there’s a bus every few minutes, but on a Sunday evening it is quite irksome to see apparently random times on the screens.

All this talk about real-time boards reminds me of a question I was asked in a lecture last week. I was starting a new section of my Theoretical Physics module for 2nd Year students on Complex Analysis: the Cauchy-Riemann equations, Conformal Transformations, Contour Integrals and all that Jazz. To start the section I went on a bit of a ramble about the ubiquity of complex numbers in physics and whether this means that imaginary numbers are, in some sense, real. You can find an enjoyable polemic on this subject, given the answer “no” to the question here.

Anyway, I got the class to suggest examples of the use of complex numbers in physics. The things you’d expect came up such as circuit theory, wave propagation etc. Then somebody mentioned that somewhere they had heard of imaginary time. The context had probably been provided Stephen Hawking who mentioned this in his book A Brief History of Time. In fact the trick of introducing imaginary time is called a Wick Rotation and the basic idea is simple. In special relativity we deal with four-dimensional space-time intervals of the form

$ds^2 = -c^2dt^2 + dx^2 + dy^2 +dz^2$,

i.e. the metric describing Minkowski space. The minus sign in front of the time bit is essential to the causal structure of space-time but it causes quite a few mathematical difficulties. However if we make the substitution

$\tau \rightarrow i c t$

then the metric becomes

$ds^2 = d\tau^2 + dx^2 + dy^2 +dz^2$,

which corresponds to a four-dimensional Euclidean space which is in many situations much easier to handle mathematically.

Complex variables and complex functions provide the theoretical physicist with a host of extremely elegant techniques for solving tricky problems. But does that mean they are somehow “built in” to nature? I don’t think so. I don’t think the Brighton & Hove Bus company uses imaginary time on its display boards either, although it does sometimes seem that way.

POSTSCRIPT. I forgot to include my planned rant about the use of the word “due”. The boards displaying train times at railway stations usually give the destination and planned departure time of the train, e.g. “Brighton 11.15″. If things are running to schedule this information is supplemented by the phrase “On Time”. If not, which is sadly a more likely contingency in the UK, this changes to “due 11.37″ or some such. This really annoys me.: the train is due at 11.15. If it doesn’t come until after then, it’s overdue or, in other words, late.

Posted in Biographical, Brighton, Education with tags , , on February 22, 2014 by telescoper

Here’s a chance to relive (if you were there) or experience for the first time (if you weren’t)  the hilarity of my attempts to pronounce the names of all the graduands from the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the Winter Graduation Ceremony for the University of Sussex at the Dome, in Brighton, last month.  I blogged about this here and there are also some pictures here. My stint commences at about 1:35:30 and finishes about 1:48:00 so there’s not too much of me to put up with, and if you get bored with my voice there’s always the irrepressible Chancellor, Sanjeev Baskar, to keep you entertained…

## The National Student Survey: Feedback and Response

Posted in Education with tags , , , on February 21, 2014 by telescoper

So the 2014 National Student Survey is under way. The NSS is much maligned, largely because it seems to be regarded by the powers that be solely for the purpose of constructing meaningless league tables. In reality I think the NSS survey is actually rather valuable because it allows us to gather systematic feedback on things that we do well and things we do not so well so we can look to improve our teaching for future generations of students. This isn’t just a PR exercise, at least not here in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex. We really do listen. Here are our responses to last year’s survey in the Department of Physics & Astronomy:

and for the Department of Mathematics:

I hope the fact that we have responded to the feedback we’ve got will encourage more students to participate in this year’s National Student Survey, regardless of what they have to say; that way we can try to improve still further.

## Coming out as a scientist

Posted in Education, LGBT, The Universe and Stuff with tags , on February 14, 2014 by telescoper

So here I am sitting in the library at Burlington House, the Royal Astronomical Society Council meeting I was attending having just finished slightly ahead of schedule.

I only have time for a brief post, so I’ll take the opportunity to direct your attention to an interesting piece in the Grauniad by Tom Welton. Tom is Professor of Sustainable Chemistry at Imperial College. He was also a contemporary of mine in old Sussex days. He was doing a PhD in Chemistry in MOLS while I was doing mine in Astrophysics in MAPS. Come to think of it we both did DPhils actually.

Anyway, Tom’s piece is related to something I blogged about a while ago (being a gay scientist) but he turns it the other way round and writes about how the difficulties of coming out as a scientist to your gay friends..

## More Cuts to University Funding

Posted in Education, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , on February 11, 2014 by telescoper

Grim news arrived yesterday with the announcement by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills of further deep cuts in funding for Higher Education in England. This announcement has been delayed due to internal wrangling over the allocation of funds but in the end the grant letter to HEFCE makes little attempt to sugar the pill:

The settlement will mean reductions in HEFCE funding for higher education institutions in 2014-15 and again in 2015-16 beyond those accounted for by the switch to publicly funded tuition fees. The Government has asked HEFCE to deliver the reductions in ways which protect as far as possible high-cost subjects (including STEM), widening participation (which is funded via the HEFCE Student Opportunity allocation), and small and specialist institutions.

The science budget is, of course, “ring-fenced” which means that recurrent funding for that is maintained at £1,573 million, the same cash levels as 2013-14. This has, for example, translated into the expected flat cash settlement for the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC), although there has been some rejigging of the way this money is allocated within STFC, and an apparent increase in funds available for international subscriptions. At least this should unblock the numerous programmes in STFC and elsewhere in the Research Councils that have been on hold pending the final budget allocations.

That said, the overall picture looks very bleak for Higher Education. The really important figure for HEFCE is buried in Annex 2 of the latest grant letter, which reveals that, including the ring-fenced funds, HEFCE will have just £4,091 million to allocate in 2014/15. The corresponding figure for the current year, 2013/14, was £5,014 million. That’s a cut in cash terms of an eye-watering 18.4%.

The scale of the cuts makes it even more likely that if they continue there will be very little money available for HEFCE to allocate as a result of the 2014 Research Excellence Framework, in which case the vast expenditure across the sector preparing for that exercise may will have been wasted too.

For the time being, however, it seems that research has been spared the axe. The bulk of the cuts will therefore fall on teaching grants. HEFCE has been instructed to try to protect STEM subjects as it cuts expenditure on teaching, but will it be able to? The extra funds that have previously supplemented tuition fees have been steadily whittled away anyway, so expensive subjects like Physics only get about £1000 per year more than Arts subjects. There is already a strong incentive in the current funding model for universities to expand cheap subjects. That pressure will only increase with this new settlement.

The last paragraph of the grant letter says:

We recognise that our universities are one of our most valuable national assets. Higher education transforms people’s lives through excellent teaching and transforms society through research and the application of knowledge. The Government’s reforms have laid the foundations for a more securely funded, stronger, more confident and more responsive higher education sector. We will continue to work with the Council and the sector to communicate the enduring value of higher education to potential students and the wider world.

I’m sure readers of this blog will forgive me if I suggest that these words are rendered meaningless by the scale of the cuts announced in the grant letter. If the government really regarded our universities as “valuable national assets” it would be increasing investment in them, not cutting it. What worries me most is that these cuts will never be reversed, whatever the complexion of the next government as there seems to be more enthusiasm across the political spectrum for continued cuts than for investment in the future education of our young people. I’m increasingly ashamed of the legacy being left by my own generation.

## Breakfast with BIMM and Cake with MPS

Posted in Biographical, Education, Music with tags , on January 31, 2014 by telescoper

Another very busy day means I’ve almost reached the end of a very busy week. I spent this morning in a meeting with colleagues from the University of Sussex and representatives of the Brighton Institute for Modern Music (also known as BIMM), which focusses on courses intended to prepare students to work in some aspect of the popular music industry, including performing and songwriting as well as, e.g., management.

It’s one of the odd things about being a Head of School that you get invited to do strange things every now and again and this was one such occasion. The University of Sussex validates degree programmes for a number of education institutions, BIMM being one of them and it was my job to Chair a session this morning (at a location in central Brighton) that formed part of the validation process. We had some nice pastries for breakfast too.

Regular readers of this blog (both of them) will know that I’m not really up to date on popular beat combos so I wasn’t picked for this task for any music expertise; the idea was rather that being a complete ignoramus I could be an impartial Chair…

It was great to talk to have the chance to talk to some of the current BIMM students as well as the staff and one of the things that struck me was that although I work in a very different discipline, many of the educational challenges faced by the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences and BIMM are very similar. I can’t talk about the details we discussed, but it was a very friendly meeting and there was lots of constructive discussion.

That business concluded it was back up to Falmer for a quick lunch and a meeting about undergraduate admissions. And finally, because it’s the last Friday of the month it was time this afternoon for our monthly MPS cake event. This month’s cake had a vaguely mathematical theme and also raised the issue of the correct plural of the word conundrum:

I thought it was appropriate to invite the Head of the Department of Mathematics, Miro Chlebik, to solve this particular conundrum by cutting the cake:

The cake vanished pretty quickly thereafter.