Sussex and the World Premier League of Physics

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on August 16, 2014 by telescoper

In the office again busy finishing off a few things before flying off for another conference (of which more anon).

Anyway, I thought I’d take a short break for a cup of tea and a go on the blog.

Today is the first day of the new Premiership season and , coincidentally, last week saw some good news about the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Sussex in a different kind of league table.

The latest (2014) Academic Rankings of World Universities (often called the “Shanghai Rankings”) are out so, as I suspect many of my colleagues also did, I drilled down to look at the rankings of Physics departments.

Not surprisingly the top six (Berkeley, Princeton, MIT, Harvard, Caltech, & Stanford) are all based in the USA. The top British university is, also not surprisingly, Cambridge in 9th place. That’s the only UK university in the top ten for Physics. The other leading UK physics departments are: Manchester (13th), Imperial (15th), Edinburgh (20th), Durham (28th), Oxford (39th) and UCL (47th). I don’t think there will be any surprise that these all made it into the top 50 departments worldwide.

Just outside the top 50 in joint 51st place in the world is the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Sussex. For a relatively small department in a relatively small university this is a truly outstanding result. It puts the Department  clear in 8th place in the UK, ahead of Birmingham, Bristol, Leicester, Queen Mary, Nottingham, Southampton,  St Andrews, Lancaster, Glasgow, Sheffield and Warwick, all of whom made the top 200 in the world.

Incidentally, two of the other departments tied in 51st place are at Nagoya University in Japan (where I visited in January) and Copenhagen University in Denmark (where I’m going next week).

Although I have deep reservations about the usefulness of league tables, I’m not at all averse to using them as an excuse for a celebration and to help raise the profile of Physics and Astronomy at Sussex generally.  I’d therefore like to take the opportunity to offer hearty congratulations to the wonderful staff of the Department of Physics & Astronomy on their achievement. 

With the recent investments we’ve had and further plans for growth I hope over the next few years we can move even further up the rankings. Unless of course the methodology changes or we’re subect to a “random” (ie downward) fluctuation…




Fiery Fred

Posted in Cricket with tags , , on August 15, 2014 by telescoper

Since there’s a Test Match going on right now at the Oval and I’ve got a few minutes before my next task, I thought I’d just do a brief post to mark the anniversary of a very special cricketing moment. On this day in 1964, also at the Oval, Sir Fred Trueman became the first bowler to take 300 wickets in test matches. In his test career overall he took 307 wickets at an astonishingly low average of 21.57. He twice bowled spells in Test matches in which he took five wickets without conceding a run.

Here’s a short video to remind us all of what a superb action Fiery Fred Trueman had:

p.s. Fred Trueman was born in Yorkshire which, as you all know, is part of the Midlands.

Do-It-Yourself Supernova Explosion

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on August 15, 2014 by telescoper

Visitors to the office of the Head of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex often remark upon the presence of these two objects and inquire as to their purpose:


Since I don’t play golf and am a bit long in the tooth to be a fan of Peppa Pig, most assume that it must be for some strange astrophysical reason. I tried asking on Twitter what people think I use them for, and the most common answer was to demonstrate the relative size of the Earth and Moon. As Roy Walker would have said, “That’s a good answer, but it’s wrong”.

In fact I use the objects concerned to demonstrate what goes on when a star goes supernova.

The point is that a supernova explosion begins with gravitational collapse of the progenitor star, so why does that manifest itself as an explosion? The point is that the outer layers are blown off while the core collapses into a compact object such as a neutron star or, perhaps, a black hole.

The way to demonstrate this is first to balance the golf ball (representing the outer layers) on top of the beach ball; the air hole in the latter is a useful place to do this. You then lift the conjoined objects to a reasonable height and drop them onto the table or bench provided for such a purpose in a lecture theatre. The objects fall together under gravity until the beach ball hits the surface. You will find that the beach ball (representing the core) stops still while the golf ball (representing the outer shells) shoots upwards as most of the kinetic energy of the system is transferred to it during the bounce.

I think this is quite an effective demonstration, but I’d encourage inexperienced lecturers to note that there is a Health and Safety Issue, so it is necessary to carry out a risk assessment before attempting it. When I first did this during a lecture many years ago, I used a ball bearing rather than a golf ball and a fully-inflated and much larger beach ball instead of the more manageable (and slightly deflated) Peppa Pig one I now use. I told the students in the audience to watch carefully what happened and then dropped them as described above…

What happened in that case was that the ball bearing rocketed up so fast that it reached the ceiling and smashed into the lights above the lecturer’s bench, whereupon there was a very loud bang and I was showered with broken glass and other debris. I have to say that got the loudest round of applause I’ve ever had while lecturing, but it wasn’t exactly the effect I’d been hoping for.

But the real reason for posting today is to wish a very happy 65th birthday to supernova expert extraordinaire and occasional reader of this blog, Robert Kirshner of Harvard University, who has celebrating along with a number of my astro-chums at a conference in Australia.

Many happy returns, Bob!

An American doctor experiences an NHS emergency room

Posted in Politics on August 14, 2014 by telescoper


Interesting perspective on our wonderful National Health Service…

Originally posted on Dr. Jen Gunter:

You know it’s going to be one of those days when one of the first tweets on vacation inquires about the closest hospital.

IMG_8896Victor, one of my 11-year-olds, had something in his eye courtesy of a big gust of wind outside of Westminster Abby. He was complaining enough to let me flip his eyelid and irrigate his eye on the square in front of Big Ben. (I’m sure several people thought I was torturing him).  Despite an extensive search and rinse mission no object or relief was to be found. I fretted about going to the hospital. It wasn’t the prospect of navigating a slightly foreign ER, but simply the prospect of the wait. While I am a staunch supporter of the British NHS in the back of my mind I envisioned a paralyzingly full emergency room and an agonizing 18 hour wait only to find he had nothing in his…

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Advice for Mathematics, Physics and Astronomy Students on Clearing!

Posted in Education with tags , , , , on August 14, 2014 by telescoper

Got your A-level results? Not made your first-choice University? My advice is:


We still some have places in the School of Mathematical & Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex. Whether you’re interested in Physics, Astrophysics, Astronomy or Mathematics (or even a combination of those subjects), why not just take a look at the University’s Clearing Page and give us a ring?

As a matter of fact, I’ll be around myself from 8am this morning to talk to interested students!

Click the relevant link for more information on our courses in Physics & Astronomy or for Mathematics!

Mathematics at Sussex: the videos!

Posted in Education on August 13, 2014 by telescoper

I recently posted a couple of videos illustrating some aspects of our undergraduate teaching in the Department of Physics & Astronomy here at the University of Sussex. Since I’m Head of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences, which encompasses Mathematics and Statistics as well as Physics & Astronomy, I thought I’d redress the balance with a couple of similar clips featuring mathematicians to give an idea of what students in the Department of Mathematics get up to.

First up is George Simpson, who graduated from Sussex this year with a (4-year) MMath and who is going to start a PhD here at the end of the summer:

And this is Hayley Wragg, a current MMath student, who is talking about her work as a Junior Research Associate in Mathematics:

Incidentally there is a vibrant and active Mathematics Society at Sussex, the University of Sussex Mathematics Society (SUMS). I’m not sure what the acronym is for Brighton University Mathematics Society…

O Captain! My Captain!

Posted in Film, Poetry with tags , , on August 12, 2014 by telescoper

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head!
It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

by Walt Whitman (1819-1892), posted in memoriam Robin Williams.


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