Say no to the commercialization of education!

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , on September 12, 2014 by telescoper

There is much complaint these days about the alleged  commercialization of UK Higher Education, so I  wanted to take this opportunity to state Virgin Airlines that I will not be taking this as a Carling cue to introduce any form of commercial Coca Cola sponsorship of any Corby Trouser Press form into the School of Mathematical Macdonalds and Panasonic Physical Sciences, and certainly not into this Burger King blog.

This week I’ve been working hard preparing for the new Marks and Spencer term  and especially for the arrival of our new  Samsung students who will be starting their  Dixons degrees next week.  The Nokia preparations have gone pretty well  although I have had Betfair trouble cramming all the Sainsbury things I’ve had to do this BMW week, so I’ll be in Tesco tomorrow and Wonga Sunday to finish off a few Pizza Express jobs, but at least I’ll be able to attend the Vodafone Vice-Chancellor’s receptions for new students on the Carlsberg campus this Waitrose weekend.

In between these Ericsson events I hope to find some time to write a little more Morrisons of the second edition of my book on cosmology, including stuff about the Carphone Warhouse cosmic microwave background (CMB) which produces some of the noise on a Sony television screen, some of which  Classic FM signal came from the edge of the Next Universe.  The CMB plays an Emirates important role in TK Maxx cosmology as it is the Marlboro smoking gun of the Sainsbury Big Bang and established our Standard Life model of the L’Oreal Universe. The old British Airways edition is a bit out of Aviva date so I will be updating it with Starbucks references to  the Planck First Direct results, although I obviously haven’t decided yet what to say about Barclays BICEP2.  I think I’ll be adding a Goodfella’s Pizza paragraph or two referring to the House of Fraser Hubble Crown Paints  Ultra Deep Kentucky Fried Chicken Field as well.

Anyway, for now its  Thank God It’s Friday time to go HSBC home and drink several Dorothy Perkins glasses of Amazon wine.

Comet Sale Now On!


September Song – the Django Reinhardt version

Posted in Jazz with tags , , on September 11, 2014 by telescoper

Summer’s drawing to a close and preparing for the imminent arrival of new intake of students is taking up a lot of my time this week, so I thought I’d just put up something I’ve posted before, in the form of a piece of music that celebrates the genius of Django Reinhardt, the great Belgian-born gypsy guitarist who overcame the terrible  injuries he suffered as a child (in a fire in his caravan) to become one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time.  He had a unique style of playing the guitar he invented himself to get around the fact that the third and fourth digits on his left hand were so badly burned he could effectively only use two fingers. He also had an unparalleled gift for melodic improvisation that won him admirers all around the world and across all styles of music. Add him to your list of famous Belgians right away, for he was most certainly a musical genius.

Here he’s playing the beautifully poignant September Song, by Kurt Weill:

Oh, it’s a long, long while from May to December
But the days grow short when you reach September


As Summer into Autumn slips

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , on September 10, 2014 by telescoper

As Summer into Autumn slips
And yet we sooner say
“The Summer” than “the Autumn,” lest
We turn the sun away,

And almost count it an Affront
The presence to concede
Of one however lovely, not
The one that we have loved –

So we evade the charge of Years
On one attempting shy
The Circumvention of the Shaft
Of Life’s Declivity.

by Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

Scotland Should Decide…

Posted in Bad Statistics, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 9, 2014 by telescoper

There being less than two weeks to go before the forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence, a subject on which I have so far refrained from commenting, I thought I would write something on it from the point of view of an English academic. I was finally persuaded to take the plunge because of incoming traffic to this blog from  pro-independence pieces here and here and a piece in Nature News on similar matters.

I’ll say at the outset that this is an issue for the Scots themselves to decide. I’m a believer in democracy and think that the wishes of the Scottish people as expressed through a referendum should be respected. I’m not qualified to express an opinion on the wider financial and political implications so I’ll just comment on the implications for science research, which is directly relevant to at least some of the readers of this blog. What would happen to UK research if Scotland were to vote yes?

Before going on I’ll just point out that the latest opinion poll by Yougov puts the “Yes” (i.e. pro-independence) vote ahead of “No” at 51%-49%. As the sample size for this survey was only just over a thousand, it has a margin of error of ±3%. On that basis I’d call the race neck-and-neck to within the resolution of the survey statistics. It does annoy me that pollsters never bother to state their margin of error in press released. Nevertheless, the current picture is a lot closer than it looked just a month ago, which is interesting in itself, as it is not clear to me as an outsider why it has changed so dramatically and so quickly.

Anyway, according to a Guardian piece not long ago.

Scientists and academics in Scotland would lose access to billions of pounds in grants and the UK’s world-leading research programmes if it became independent, the Westminster government has warned.

David Willetts, the UK science minister, said Scottish universities were “thriving” because of the UK’s generous and highly integrated system for funding scientific research, winning far more funding per head than the UK average.

Unveiling a new UK government paper on the impact of independence on scientific research, Willetts said that despite its size the UK was second only to the United States for the quality of its research.

“We do great things as a single, integrated system and a single integrated brings with it great strengths,” he said.

Overall spending on scientific research and development in Scottish universities from government, charitable and industry sources was more than £950m in 2011, giving a per capita spend of £180 compared to just £112 per head across the UK as a whole.

It is indeed notable that Scottish universities outperform those in the rest of the United Kingdom when it comes to research, but it always struck me that using this as an argument against independence is difficult to sustain. In fact it’s rather similar to the argument that the UK does well out of European funding schemes so that is a good argument for remaining in the European Union. The point is that, whether or not a given country benefits from the funding system, it still has to do so by following an agenda that isn’t necessarily its own. Scotland benefits from UK Research Council funding, but their priorities are set by the Westminster government, just as the European Research Council sets (sometimes rather bizarre) policies for its schemes. Who’s to say that Scotland wouldn’t do even better than it does currently by taking control of its own research funding rather than forcing its institutions to pander to Whitehall?

It’s also interesting to look at the flipside of this argument. If Scotland were to become independent, would the “billions” of research funding it would lose (according to the statement by Willetts, who is no longer the Minister in charge) benefit science in what’s left of the United Kingdom? There are many in England and Wales who think the existing research budget is already spread far too thinly and who would welcome an increase south of the border. If this did happen you could argue that, from a very narrow perspective, Scottish independence would be good for science in the rest of what is now the United Kingdom, but that depends on how much the Westminster government sets the science budget.

This all depends on how research funding would be redistributed if and when Scotland secedes from the Union, which could be done in various ways. The simplest would be for Scotland to withdraw from RCUK entirely. Because of the greater effectiveness of Scottish universities at winning funding compared to the rest of the UK, Scotland would have to spend more per capita to maintain its current level of resource, which is why many Scottish academics will be voting “no”. On the other hand, it has been suggested (by the “yes” campaign) that Scotland could buy back from its own revenue into RCUK at the current effective per capita rate  and thus maintain its present infrastructure and research expenditure at no extra cost. This, to me, sounds like wanting to have your cake and eat it,  and it’s by no means obvious that Westminster could or should agree to such a deal. All the soundings I have taken suggest that an independent Scotland should expect no such generosity, and will get actually zilch from the RCUK.

If full separation is the way head, science in Scotland would be heading into uncharted waters. Among the questions that would need to be answered are:

  •  what will happen to RCUK funded facilities and staff currently situated in Scotland, such as those at the UKATC?
  •  would Scottish researchers lose access to facilities located in England, Wales or Northern Ireland?
  •  would Scotland have to pay its own subscriptions to CERN, ESA and ESO?

These are complicated issues to resolve and there’s no question that a lengthy process of negotiation would be needed to resolved them. In the meantime, why should RCUK risk investing further funds in programmes and facilities that may end up outside the UK (or what remains of it)? This is a recipe for planning blight on an enormous scale.

And then there’s the issue of EU membership. Would Scotland be allowed to join the EU immediately on independence? If not, what would happen to EU funded research?

I’m not saying these things will necessarily work out badly in the long run for Scotland, but they are certainly questions I’d want to have answered before I were convinced to vote “yes”. I don’t have a vote so my opinion shouldn’t count for very much, but I wonder if there are any readers of this blog from across the Border who feel like expressing an opinion?


A Brain Teaser from SWALEC

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on September 8, 2014 by telescoper

As I wend my way Brightonwards after a week in Wales, I thought I’d request your assistance in deciphering part of a letter I received from SWALEC, the company that supplies gas and electricity to my Cardiff residence.

If anyone out there can explain the logic that leads from a credit of £163.54 to an increase in my monthly payment – other than the obvious one that SWALEC are trying it on – I’d be most grateful!

Laniakea – Our Local Supercluster

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on September 6, 2014 by telescoper

My week of self-imposed isolation is almost over so I suppose I should try to re-acclimatize myself to the world (or at least the world of the internet)  by doing a quick post of a nice video. I remember Brent Tully talking at the conference I went to in Estonia earlier this summer about the work he has been doing with his collaborators on using the local peculiar velocity field to map structures in the galaxy distribution. Now the paper is out in the journal Nature. Laniakea is the name the group chose for the local supercluster which has been known about for some time, but this work provides a more detailed map. The name Laniakea means “immeasurable heaven” in Hawaiian, from “lani” for ‘heaven’ and “akea” for ‘spacious’ or ‘immeasurable’.  Rather disappointingly it has nothing to do with Ikea, so sheds little light on my own theory of the Universe.


Writer’s Block

Posted in Biographical, Books, Talks and Reviews on August 31, 2014 by telescoper

A few people have asked why I’ve had the sheer effrontery to take a week off and come to Cardiff. Well, it may surprise you to learn that even Heads of School have a holiday entitlement, and in the 18 months I’ve been in that position I’ve only managed to take a small fraction of mine!

But the real reason for this break is that I need some time without disturbance to finish off the long-awaited Second Edition of Cosmology: A Very Short Introduction. Dorothy made me a subtle sign for my office door, but it has proved largely ineffective at preventing distractions. So here I am, back in the Cardiff residence, blocking out as much as I can to get on with some writing.

I hope this clarifies the situation.


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