Archive for University of Nottingham

A Sussex Alumna

Posted in Biographical, Television, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on August 9, 2013 by telescoper

I had a very nice meeting this morning with Sir Harry Kroto, who is back in the UK for the summer. We chatted about a number of exciting things going on at Sussex University and beyond, in the middle of which I remembered a film featuring my former  PhD Student from Nottingham days, Emma King. The film was part of a series about young scientists made by the Vega Science Trust (which Harry set up) and it was originally broadcast on BBC 2 as part of The Learning Zone.

Emma is a graduate of the Department of Physics & Astronomy at Sussex University. As an undergraduate at the University of Sussex she made history when she became the first woman to win the top prize at the Science, Engineering and Technology Student of the Year award despite tests at school which showed that Emma was not only slightly dyslexic, but that also had very poor arithmetic skills and she says “a nearly non-existent visual memory.” None of that stopped her completing her PhD thesis (on magnetic fields in cosmology) in 2006.

p.s. After completing her PhD, Emma changed career and now runs this outdoor event venue.

Neutrino Physics in a Small Universe

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on April 23, 2013 by telescoper

I’ve only just got time for a quick lunchtime post before I head off to attend an afternoon of Mathematics presentations, but it’s a one of those nice bits of news that I like to mention on here from time to time.

It is my pleasure to pass on the wonderful news that one of my colleagues in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences here at the University of Sussex,  Dr Jeff Hartnell,. has been awarded  the High Energy Particle Physics prize of the Institute of Physics, which means that his name has now been added to the illustrious list of previous winners. The prize is awarded annually by the HEPP Group, a subject group in the Nuclear and Particle Physics Division of the IOP, to a researcher in the UK who has made an outstanding contribution to their field of study early in their career (within 12 years of being awarded their first degree).

There’s a very nice piece about this award here which reveals, amongst other things, that many moons ago at Nottingham I was Jeff’s undergraduate tutor! In fact Jeff also attended a third-year course on Theoretical Elementary Particle Physics I taught in those days. That he survived those experience and went on to be a world-leading physicist speaks volumes! Not only that, it’s also evidence that the world of physics is smaller than we sometimes suppose. I’ve crossed paths with a number of my new colleagues at various times in the past, but it’s particularly rewarding to see someone you taught as an undergraduate go on to a highly successful career as a scientist. Jeff was awarded a prestigious ERC grant this year too!

Jeff is currently in the USA helping to set up the largest-ever experiment in neutrinos to be built there, called NOvA. You can click on the preceding links for more technical details, and I also found this interesting video showing the NOvA detector being assembled. Particle physics experiments are never small, are they?

p.s. Why do they insist on writing “metric ton” instead of “tonne”?

The Hawking Paradox on BBC iPlayer

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on August 17, 2011 by telescoper

I just heard at lunchtime that a TV programme I was in was recently repeated on BBC4 and is consequently now available on BBC i Player, so I thought I’d advertise it on here.  I didn’t see the broadcast myself, because I scarcely watch TV these days.

The programme was originally made for the BBC TV series Horizon and first broadcast in the UK in 2005. You’ll find yours truly in a couple of places, when I was working at the University of Nottingham and had more hair. In fact I got quite a bit of stick, from some people at a certain University I used to attend, for being insufficiently reverential in my comments about Stephen Hawking but, for what it’s worth, I stand by everything I said. I do admire him enormously as a physicist, but I think his very genuine contributions are sometimes lost in the cult that has developed around him.

Anyway, I thought the programme turned out relatively well but you can watch it yourself by clicking here and form your own opinion!

The Hawking Paradox

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on July 3, 2010 by telescoper

I found this on Youtube. The programme was made for the BBC TV series Horizon and first broadcast in the UK in 2005. You’ll find yours truly in a couple of places, when I was working at the University of Nottingham and had more hair. In fact got a bit of stick, from some people at a certain University I used to attend, for being insufficiently reverential in my comments about Stephen Hawking but, for what it’s worth, I stand by everything I said. I do admire him enormously as a physicist, but I think his very genuine contributions are sometimes lost in the cult that has developed around him.

Anyway, I thought the programme turned out relatively well. Horizon has gone steadily downhill since 2005, obviously because I haven’t been involved…

It’s in 5 parts so if you want to watch all of it, you will need to click through to the next at the end of each segment.

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.

Oratorio

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on July 16, 2009 by telescoper

T.D.1.jpg_copyBlogging about graduation ceremonies yesterday, I was reminded that a few years ago I had to deliver an oration on behalf of a very famous physicist who was awarded an honorary doctorate at the University of Nottingham. The recipient was TD Lee (shown left) who, together with CN Yang, won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1957 for his work on parity violation. I thought you might find it interesting to  read the text of the oration, which I just found on my laptop this morning:

PROFESSOR TSUNG-DAO LEE

ORATION DELIVERED BY PROFESSOR PETER COLES

ON MONDAY 17 JULY 2006

Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, Ladies and Gentlemen, it is both a pleasure and a privilege to present Professor Tsung-Dao Lee for the award of an honorary degree.  Professor Lee is a distinguished theoretical physicist whose work over many years has been characterized, in the words of Dr J Robert Oppenheimer, by “a remarkable freshness, versatility and style.”

Tsung-Dao Lee was born in Shanghai and educated at Suzhou University Middle School in Shanghai.  Fleeing the Japanese invasion, he left Shanghai in 1941.  His education was interrupted by war.  In 1945 he entered the National Southwest University in Kunming as a sophomore.  He was soon recognized as an outstanding young scientist and in 1946 was awarded a Chinese Government Scholarship enabling him to start a PhD in Physics under Professor Enrico Fermi at the University of Chicago.  He gained his doctorate in physics in 1950 with a thesis on the Hydrogen Content of White Dwarf Stars, and subsequently served as a research associate at the Yerkes Astronomical Observatory of the University of Chicago in Williams Bay, Wisconsin.

Astronomy is a science that concerns the very large, but it was in the physics of the very small that Professor Lee was to do his most famous work.  After one year as a research associate and lecturer at the University of California in Berkeley, he became a fellow of the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton and, in 1953, he accepted an assistant professorship position at Columbia University in New York.  Two and a half years later, he became the youngest full professor in the history of Columbia University.  During this time he often collaborated with Chen Ning Yang whom he had known as a fellow student in Chicago.  In 1956 they co-authored a paper whose impact was both immediate and profound.  Only a year later, Lee and Yang were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics.  Professor Lee was thirty-one at the time and was the second youngest scientist ever to receive this distinction.  (The youngest was Sir Lawrence Bragg who shared the Physics Prize with his father in 1915, at the age of twenty-five.)

It is usually difficult to explain the ideas of theoretical physics to non-experts.  The mathematical language is inaccessible to those without specialist training.  But some of the greatest achievements in this field are so bold and so original that they appear, at least with hindsight, to be astonishingly simple.  The work of Lee and Yang on parity violation in elementary particle interactions is an outstanding example.

Subatomic particles interact with each other in very complicated ways.  In high energy collisions, particles can be scattered, destroyed or transformed into other particles.  But governing these changes are universal rules involving things that never change.  The existence of these conservation laws is a manifestation of the symmetries possessed by the mathematical theory of particle interactions.

Lee and Yang focussed on a particular attribute called parity, which relates to the “handedness” of a particle and symmetry with respect to mirror reflections.  Physicists had previously assumed that the laws of nature do not distinguish between left- and right-handed states: a left-handed object when seen in a mirror should be indistinguishable from a right-handed one.  This symmetry suggests that parity should be conserved in particle interactions, as it is in many other physical processes.  Unfortunately this chain of thought led to a puzzling deadlock in our understanding of the so-called weak nuclear interaction.  Lee and Yang made the revolutionary suggestion that parity is not conserved in weak interactions and consequently that the laws of nature must have a built-in handedness.  A year later their theory was tested experimentally and found to be correct.  Their penetrating insight led to a radical overhaul of the theory of weak interactions and to many further discoveries.  Physicists around the world said “Of course!  Why didn’t I think of that?”

This classic “Eureka moment” happened half a century ago, but Professor Lee has since made a host of equally distinguished contributions to fields as diverse as astrophysics, statistical mechanics, field theory and turbulence.  He was made Enrico Fermi Professor at Columbia in 1964 and University Professor there in 1984.  With typical energy and enthusiasm he took up the post of director of the RIKEN Research Center at Brookhaven National Laboratories in 1998.  He has played a prominent role in the advancement of science in China, including roles as director of physics institutes in Beijing and Zhejiang.

Professor Lee has received numerous awards and honours from around the world, including the Albert Einstein Award in Science, the Bude Medal, the Galileo Galilei Medal, the Order of Merit, Grande Ufficiale of Italy, the Science for Peace Prize, the China National-International Cooperation Award, the New York City Science Award, the Pope Joannes Paulis Medal, Il Ministero dell’Interno Medal of the Government of Italy and the New York Academy of Sciences Award.  His recognition even extends beyond this world, for in 1997 Small Planet 3443 was named in his honour.

Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, to you and to the whole congregation I present Professor Tsung-Dao Lee as eminently worthy to receive the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa.

Graduandi Graduati

Posted in Biographical with tags , , , on July 15, 2009 by telescoper

Today was the day of the graduation ceremony for Cardiff  University‘s School of Physics & Astronomy, which took place in the fine surroundings of St David’s Hall. It’s a proud day for the students and their parents so, before anything else, let me offer my congratulations to all those who graduated today. Congratulations and well done to you all!

I put on my robes in the Green Room and was in the academic staff procession at the beginning and end of the ceremony. I also sat on stage during the conferment of degrees and the speech by the University’s President, Lord Kinnock. Some of the proceedings were conducted in Welsh – including the actual degree award – but it was comprehensible enough for all foreigners (even the English) to follow what was going on.

Graduation ceremonies are funny things. With all their costumes and weird traditions, they do seem a bit absurd. On the other hand, even in these modern times, we live with all kinds of  rituals and I don’t see why we shouldn’t celebrate academic achievement in this way.

Graduation is a grammatical phenomenon too. The word “graduation” is derived from the latin word gradus meaning a step, from which was eventually made the mediaeval latin verb graduare, meaning to take a degree. The past participle  of this is formed via the supine graduatus, hence the English noun “graduate” (i.e. one who has taken a degree). The word graduand, on the other hand, which is used before and during the ceremony to describe those about to graduate is from the  gerundive form graduandus meaning “to be graduated”. What really happens, therefore, is that students swap their gerundives for participles, although I suspect most participants don’t think of it in quite those terms…

The academic procession is quite colourful because staff wear the gown appropriate to their highest degree. Colours and styles vary greatly from one University to another even within the United Kingdom, and there are even more variations on show when schools contain staff who got their degrees abroad. Since I got my doctorate from the University of Sussex, which was created in the 1960s, the academic garb I have to wear on these occasions  is actually quite modern-looking. With its raised collar, red ribbons and capped shoulders it’s also more than a little bit camp. It often brings  a few comments when I’m in the procession, but I usually reply by saying I bought the outfit at Ann Summers.

Graduation of course isn’t just about education. It’s also a rite of passage on the way to adulthood and independence, so the presence of the parents at the ceremony adds another emotional dimension to the goings-on. Although everyone is rightly proud of the achievement – either their own in the case of the graduands or that of others in the case of the guests – there’s also a bit of sadness to go with the goodbyes. The new graduates were invited back to the School for a reception after this morning’s ceremony, along with parents and friends. That provided a more informal opportunity to say goodbye. Some, of course, are continuing their studies either at Cardiff or elsewhere so I’ll be seeing at least some of them again.

Although this was my first attendance at the Cardiff University graduation, I’ve been to  graduation ceremonies at several universities as a staff member. They differ in detail but largely follow the same basic format. Compared to others I’ve been at, the Cardiff version is very friendly and rather informal. For one thing, the Vice-Chancellor actually shakes hands with all the graduands as they cross the stage. At Nottingham University, for example, where I was before moving here, the V-C just sat there reading a book and occasionally nodded as they trooped across in front of him.

The venue for Cardiff’s graduation is also right in the city centre, so all day you can find students in their regalia wandering through the town (sometimes with their doting parents in tow). I like this a lot because it gives the University a much greater sense of belonging to the city than is the case when everything happens on a campus miles out of town.

The most remarkable thing  I noticed in the ceremony was not to do with Physics & Astronomy, but with Cardiff’s School of Psychology which is much larger and in which at least 90% of the graduates were female. In our School the proportions aren’t exactly reversed but are about 75% male to 25% female.

I’ve also been through two graduations on the other side of the fence, as it were. My first degree came from Cambridge so I had to participate in the even more archaic ceremony for that institution. The whole thing is done in Latin there (or was when I graduated) and involves each graduand holding a finger held out by their College’s Praelector and then kneeling down in front of the presiding dignitary, who is either the Vice-Chancellor ot the Chancellor. I can’t remember which. It’s also worth mentioning that although I did Natural Sciences (specialising in Theoretical Physics), the degree I got was Bachelor of Arts. Other than that, and the fact that the graduands walk to the Senate House from their College through the streets of Cambridge,  I don’t remember much about actual ceremony.

I was very nervous for my first graduation. The reason was that my parents had divorced some years before and my Mum had re-married. My Dad wouldn’t speak to her or her second husband. Immediately after the ceremony there was a garden party at my college, Magdalene, at which the two parts of my family occupied positions at opposite corners of the lawn and I scuttled between them trying to keep everyone happy. It was like that for the rest of the day and I have to say it was very stressful.

A few years later I got my doctorate (actually DPhil) from the University of Sussex. The ceremony in that case was in the Brighton Centre on the seafront. It was pretty much the same deal again with the warring factions, but I enjoyed the whole day a lot more that time. And I got the gown.

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