Archive for January, 2009

The Physics Overview

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on January 17, 2009 by telescoper

I found out by accident the other day that the Panels conducting the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise have now published their subject overviews, in which they comment trends within each discipline.

Heading straight for the overview produced by the panel for Physics (which is available together with two other panels here),I found some interesting points, some of which relate to comments posted on my previous items about the RAE results (here and here) until I terminated the discussion.

One issue that concerns many physicists is how the research profiles produced by the RAE panel will translate into funding. I’ve taken the liberty of extracting a couple of paragraphs from the report to show what they think. (For those of you not up with the jargon, UoA19 is the Unit of Assessment 19, which is Physics).

The sub-panel is pleased with how much of the research fell into the 4* category and that this excellence is widely spread so that many smaller departments have their share of work assessed at the highest grade. Every submitted department to UoA19 had at least 70% of their overall quality profile at 2* or above, i.e. internationally recognised or above.

Sub-panel 19 takes the view that the research agenda of any group, or of any individual for that matter, is interspersed with fallow periods during which the next phase of the research is planned and during which outputs may be relatively incremental, even if of high scientific quality. In the normal course of events successful departments with a long term view will have a number of outputs at the 3* and 2* level indicating that the groundwork is being laid for the next set of 4* work. This is most obviously true for those teams involved with very major experiments in the big sciences, but also applies to some degree in small science. Thus the quality profile is a dynamic entity and even among groups of very high international standing there is likely to be cyclic variation in the relative amounts of 3* and 4* work according to the rhythm of their research programmes. Most departments have what we would consider a healthy balance between the perceived quality levels. The subpanel strongly believes that the entire overall profile should be considered when measuring the quality of a department, rather than focussing on the 4* component only.

I think this is very sensible, but for more reasons than are stated. For a start the judgement of what is 4* or 3* must be to some extent subjective and it would be crazy to allocate funding entirely according to the fraction of 4* work. I’ve heard informally that the error in any of the percentages for any assessment is plus or minus 10%, which also argues for a conservative formula. However one might argue about the outcome, the panels clearly spent a lot of time and effort determining the profiles so it would seem to make sense to use all the information they provide rather than just a part.

Curiously, though, the panel made no comment about why it is that physics came out so much worse than chemistry in the 2008 exercise (about one-third of the chemistry departments in the country had a profile-weighted quality mark higher than or equal to the highest-rated physics department). Perhaps they just think UK chemistry is a lot better than UK physics.

Anyway, as I said, the issue most of us are worrying about is how this will translate into cash. I suspect HEFCE hasn’t worked this out at all yet either. The panel clearly thinks that money shouldn’t just follow the 4* research, but the HEFCE managers might differ. If they do wish to follow a drastically selective policy they’ve got a very big problem: most physics departments are rated very close together in score. Any attempt to separate them using the entire profile would be hard to achieve and even harder to justify.

The panel also made a specific comment about Wales and Scotland, which is particularly interesting for me (being here in Cardiff):

Sub-panel 19 regards the Scottish Universities Physics Alliance collaboration between Scottish departments as a highly positive development enhancing the quality of research in Scotland. South of the border other collaborations have also been formed with similar objectives. On the other hand we note with concern the performance of three Welsh departments where strategic management did not seem to have been as effective as elsewhere.

I’m not sure whether the dig about Welsh physics departments is aimed at the Welsh funding agency HEFCW or the individual university groups; SUPA was set up with the strong involvement of SFC and various other physics groupings in England (such as the Midlands Physics Alliance) were actively encouraged by HEFCE. It is true, though, that the 3 active physics departments in Wales (Cardiff, Swansea and Aberystwyth) all did quite poorly in the RAE. In the last RAE, HEFCW did not apply as selective a funding formula as its English counterpart HEFCE with the result that Cardiff didn’t get as much research funding as it would if it had been in England. One might argue that this affected the performance this time around, but I’m not sure about this as it’s not clear how any extra funding coming into Cardiff would have been spent. I doubt if HEFCW will do any different this time either. Welsh politics has a strong North-South issue going on, so HEFCW will probably feel it has to maintain a department in the North. It therefore can’t penalise Aberystwyth too badly for its poor RAE showing. The other two departments are larger and had very similar profiles (Swansea better than Cardiff, in fact) so there’s very little justification for being too selective there either.

The panel remarked on the success of SUPA which received a substantial injection of cash from the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) and which has led to new appointments in strategic areas in several Scottish universities. I’m a little bit skeptical about the long-term benefits of this because the universities themselves will have to pick up the tab for these positions when the initial funding dries up. Although it will have bought them extra points on the RAE score the continuing financial viability of physics departments is far from guaranteed because nobody yet knows whether they will gain as much cash from the outcome as they spent to achieve it. The same goes for other universities, particularly Nottingham, who have massively increased their research activity with cash from various sources and consequently done very well in the RAE. But will they get back as much as they have put in? It remains to be seen.

What I would say about SUPA is that it has definitely given Scottish physics a higher profile, largely from the appointment of Ian Halliday to front it. He is an astute political strategist and respected scientist who performed impressively as Chief Executive of the now-defunct Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council and is also President of the European Science Foundation. Having such a prominent figurehead gives the alliance more muscle than a group of departmental heads would ever hope to have.

So should there be a Welsh version of SUPA? Perhaps WUPA?

Well, Swansea and Cardiff certainly share some research interests in the area of condensed-matter physics but their largest activities (Astronomy in Cardiff, Particle Physics in Swansea) are pretty independent. It seems to me to be to be well worth thinking of some sort of initiative to pool resources and try to make Welsh physics a bit less parochial, but the question is how to do it. At coffee the other day, I suggested an initiative in the area of astroparticle physics could bring in genuinely high quality researchers as well as establishing synergy between Swansea and Cardiff, which are only an hour apart by train. The idea went down like a lead balloon, but I still think it’s a good one. Whether HEFCW has either the resources or the inclination to do something like it is another matter, even if the departments themselves were to come round.

Anyway, I’m sure there will be quite a lot more discussion about our post-RAE strategy if and when we learn more about the funding implications. I personally think we could do with a radical re-think of the way physics in Wales is organized and could do with a champion who has the clout of Scotland’s SUPA-man.

The mystery as far as I am concerned remains why Cardiff did so badly in the ratings. I think the first quote may offer part of the explanation because we have large groups in Astronomical Instrumentation and Gravitational Physics, both of which have very long lead periods. However, I am surprised and saddened by the fact that the fraction rated at 4* is so very low. We need to find out why. Urgently.


Crimes and Misdemeanours

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on January 16, 2009 by telescoper

I’m indebted to Frazer Pearce for sending me a very interesting item about Susan Crawford, a former judge who served in a legal capacity for the US Army. She recently went on record to state without equivocation that the treatment meted out to detainee Mohammed al-Qahtani at Guantanamo Bay was “torture”. Not “coercive interrogation”. Not “enhanced interrogation”. Not any other “nontorturous form of interrogation”. Just plain torture.

The implications of this conclusion could be very profound. I would like to think that every single member of the Bush administration who sanctioned this should now be prosecuted under international law. I would also prosecute anyone who knew about it but failed to stop it, as their behaviour means that they were still party to a conspiracy to commit torture. It would, however, take someone with extraordinary courage (and financial backing) to force such an action through the legal system.

I’m not holding my breath.

Coincidentally, another George was in the news today although this one was O’Dowd rather than Bush. `Boy George’ was today sentenced to 15 months in jail for “falsely imprisoning” a male escort at his London flat. I’ll spare my delicate readers the more salacious details of the offence, but it seems the 47-year old former Culture Club singer was buzzing with cocaine at the time and suffering from paranoid delusions that his paid guest had tampered with his computer. He therefore tied him up and assaulted him. Having been found guilty by the jury he was sentenced today.

Initially I thought 15 months sounded very harsh, but then I didn’t know the extent of what had happened until I read the account in today’s newspaper. The violent and degrading treatment he inflicted on the 29-year old escort clearly merited a stern response so, on reflection, I’m glad in many respects that the judge was severe. Whatever you may think of the morality of the escort business, workers in that trade (whether straight or gay) are still human beings and deserve to be treated with respect.

I say “in some respects” because I’m very pessimistic about the criminal justice system generally. We lock up a staggering number of people in jail, many more than any other Western European country. The police spend their time trying to catch offenders, some of them get sent to jail and they see their job done. But I’ve yet to see any evidence of anything good coming out the other end of this depressing pipeline. I’m not convinced a jail sentence is going to cure Boy George of the drug problems that clearly led to this situation.

On the other hand, I’m by no means arguing that celebrities should be treated differently from others. I’m just saying that there has to be a better way, if only someone could think of it. Until they do, I think Boy George should do his time. At least he won’t have to pay for male company.

But isn’t it ironic that the other George – the one guilty of mass murder as well as torture – will probably get away scot free?

The Fall Before

Posted in Poetry with tags on January 15, 2009 by telescoper

Browsing the BBC website for any evidence of at all of good news amid the continuing fiasco that is the British banking system, the murderous onslaught in Gaza, and the defeat of Newcastle United in last night’s FA Cup replay, I happened upon a quite interesting little item from which I picked out the following:

The use of the word ‘fall’ or ‘the fall’ to mean autumn is commonly assumed to be an Americanism, but in fact it is found in the works of Michael Drayton (1563-1631), Thomas Middleton (1580-1627) and Sir Walter Ralegh (1554-1618).

There is also a quotation from John Dryden (1631-1700) to back this up:

What crowds of patients the town doctor kills, Or how, last fall, he raised the weekly bills.

This is more appropriate for the USA than the UK nowadays as over here we now have the wonderful National Health System.

While contributing to a discussion on the e-astronomer, which subsequently evolved into an extended exercise in pedantry here, it struck me that many words we British think of as being Americanisms were in fact in common use over here in the 16th and 17th Centuries. This period marks the birth of American English as the language used by the colonials evolved fairly independently thereafter until films and television re-established contact in the 20th Century and set up a feedback loop. “Fall” seems to be another example of a word which carried on being used in mainstream American usage but was replaced over here by “autumn”.

Another example that strikes me is “gotten” which is commonplace in the USA but rarely used in England except in phrases like “ill-gotten gains”. It is used in Scotland and in other dialects, but in mainstream English is considered to be archaic, and the form “got” is generally used instead. As the past participle of the verb “to get”, however, it is by no means grammatically incorrect and it was a standard form in English during the 16th century and abounds in Shakespeare, such as in the phrase “He was gotten in drink” from The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Conversely and curiously we still use the form “forgotten” for the past participle of “forget” and the form “forgot” (as a participle) is considered archaic or poetic. The phrase “I have forgot much, Cynara! Gone with the wind” occurs in Ernest Dowson’s famous poem Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae, but it wouldn’t be considered correct in modern English prose.

There’s no real logic to all this, which is what makes it interesting…

Although hearing or reading the word “gotten” in contributions from the other side of the pond no longer jars, and I’ve always found the word “fall” to be rather poetic anyway, there are still some divergences that I can’t cope with. Once on a trip to the States I was alarmed when informed that the plane would be landing momentarily.

Job Advertisement

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on January 14, 2009 by telescoper

This may not be a conventional use for a blog, but I thought I’d give it a go.

After receiving the news a while ago that I had a new research grant, I subsequently got official approval to advertise for a new postdoc and the advert has now been submitted to various places. I thought I might as well put the advertisement on here as well as the usual outlets. It will be on the AAS Jobs Register next month.

Research Associate
Cardiff School of Physics and Astronomy

Applications are invited for a position as Research Associate in Theoretical Cosmology in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University. You will undertake research into departures from the standard “concordance” cosmological model and methods for extracting relevant evidence from observations of the cosmic microwave background and large-scale structure in the galaxy distribution. This position is funded by a grant from the Science & Technology Facilities Council.

You will have (or expect to obtain very soon) a PhD or have equivalent research experience in astronomy, astrophysics, cosmology or a closely related subject. A strong theoretical background and experience in the analysis of cosmological data are essential.

The School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University hosts a broad and stimulating research program in astrophysics, cosmology and gravitational physics, encompassing theory, observation and instrumentation. In particular, it is involved in a large number of important cosmological experiments, including Planck, Quad and Clover.

See for more information.

This post is fixed-term for 3 years.

Salary: £29704 – £35469 per annum.

Informal enquiries can be made to Professor Coles (

For an application pack and details of all Cardiff vacancies, visit alternatively email or telephone +44 (0) 29 2087 4017 quoting vacancy number 2009/034.

For specific information on this particular vacancy, please go here.

Closing date: Monday, 02 March 2009.

I’ll take this post offline after the deadline passes.

Not the Square Kilometre Array

Posted in Music with tags , , , , on January 13, 2009 by telescoper

Searching the net for material about one of the world’s leading astronomy projects The Square Kilometre Array, I inadvertently used the well-known abbreviation SKA in Google and was inundated with sites about Ska, the Jamaican music genre that paved the way to Reggae and also fuelled the 2 Tone movement which swept the UK music scene in 1979.

When I was still in School, I was never a big fan of Punk (which immediately preceded Ska in popularity), but absolutely loved bands like The Specials, The Beat and especially Selecter. I adored the music, but also loved their inclusive multi-racial philosophy. Being a bit of an anorak I actually managed to get hold of some of the very rare original Ska recordings, principally by the superb Skatalites who are still going almost 50 years after they were founded. This wonderful band specialised in irreverent and highly eccentric cover versions of movie film tunes from the 1960s including Doctor Zhivago and James Bond, plus the classic Guns of Navarone.

Ska was usually played (at least nominally) in 4-4 time, but each beat was really a cluster of sub-beats forming a triplet. Usually the drummer put a heavy bass accent (and usually a side stick or rim shot on the snare) on the 3rd component of each triplet, and there would be guitar chops, other percussion, and/or brass riffs on the “off” beats. It is said that this structure was inherited, at least in part, from the marching bands that played in Jamaica and it does give a kind of strutting feel to the overall pulse. But wherever it came from the beat gives the music an infectious lilting rythm that gives anyone dancing to it an irresistible urge to jump up and down, especially on up-tempo numbers. The tripletty structure also gives those with no sense of rythm a greater probability of moving in time with at least one relevant beat. Ska also spawned Reggae which inherited its curious rythmic figure, but added a bass accent on the 1st and 3rd beats of the bar (the “on” beats”) and was generally played much slower.

In need of a bit of cheering up I abandoned my quest for astronomical learning and went on yet another trip down memory lane via Youtube, which I enjoyed enormously, so I decided to put up here a piece full of nostalgia for me which I hope at least some of you might enjoy.

Here are The Specials, recorded on British TV in 1979 (a programme which I think I actually watched at the time). They are playing the theme from The Guns of Navarone as a direct tribute to the Skatalites, whose wonderful original version you can also find on Youtube here (although it is really just audio).

Sad News

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on January 13, 2009 by telescoper

You may recall a previous blog item of mine about Operation Skyphoto, which was an attempt to raise funds for a new medical treatment for Alexander Thatte, the young son of two Oxford physicists, by selling old sky survey plates.

I was reading through some items on the e-astronomer this morning, and found a comment by Steve Warren conveying the sad news that Alexander lost his battle against leucaemia and passed away on January 4th 2009.

Vitae Summa Brevis Spem Nos Vetat Incohare Longam.

Maps, Territories and Landscapes

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , on January 10, 2009 by telescoper

I was looking through recent posts on cosmic variance and came across an interesting item featuring a map from another blog (run by Samuel Arbesman) which portrays the Milky Way in the style of  a public transport map:


This is just a bit of fun, of course, but I think maps like this are quite fascinating, not just as practical guides to navigating a transport system but also because they often stand up very well as works of art. It’s also interesting how they evolve with time  because of changes to the network and also changing ideas about stylistic matters.

A familiar example is the London Underground or Tube map. There is a fascinating website depicting the evolutionary history of this famous piece of graphic design. Early versions simply portrayed the railway lines inset into a normal geographical map which made them rather complicated, as the real layout of the lines is far from regular. A geographically accurate depiction of the modern tube network is shown here which makes the point:


A revolution occurred in 1933 when Harry Beck compiled the first “modern” version of the map. His great idea was to simplify the representation of the network around a single unifying feature. To this end he turned the Central Line (in red) into a straight line travelling left to right across the centre of the page, only changing direction at the extremities. All other lines were also distorted to run basically either North-South or East-West and produce a much more regular pattern, abandoning any attempt to represent the “real” geometry of the system but preserving its topology (i.e. its connectivity).  Here is an early version of his beautiful construction:

Note that although this a “modern” map in terms of how it represents the layout, it does look rather dated in terms of other design elements such as the border and typefaces used. We tend not to notice how much we surround the essential things with embellishments that date very quickly.

More modern versions of this map that you can get at tube stations and the like rather spoil the idea by introducing a kink in the central line to accommodate the complexity of the interchange between Bank and Monument stations as well as generally buggering about with the predominantly  rectilinear arrangement of the previous design:

I quite often use this map when I’m giving popular talks about physics. I think it illustrates quite nicely some of the philosophical issues related with theoretical representations of nature. I think of theories as being like maps, i.e. as attempts to make a useful representation of some  aspects of external reality. By useful, I mean the things we can use to make tests. However, there is a persistent tendency for some scientists to confuse the theory and the reality it is supposed to describe, especially a tendency to assert there is a one-to-one relationship between all elements of reality and the corresponding elements in the theoretical picture. This confusion was stated most succintly by the Polish scientist Alfred Korzybski in his memorable aphorism :

The map is not the territory.

I see this problem written particularly large with those physicists who persistently identify the landscape of string-theoretical possibilities with a multiverse of physically existing domains in which all these are realised. Of course, the Universe might be like that but it’s by no means clear to me that it has to be. I think we just don’t know what we’re doing well enough to know as much as we like to think we do.

A theory is also surrounded by a penumbra of non-testable elements, including those concepts that we use to translate the mathematical language of physics into everday words. We shouldn’t forget that many equations of physics have survived for a long time, but their interpretation has changed radically over the years.

The inevitable gap that lies between theory and reality does not mean that physics is a useless waste of time, it just means that its scope is limited. The Tube  map is not complete or accurate in all respects, but it’s excellent for what it was made for. Physics goes down the tubes when it loses sight of its key requirement: to be testable.

In any case, an attempt to make a grand unified theory of the London Underground system would no doubt produce a monstrous thing so unwieldly that it would be useless in practice. I think there’s a lesson there for string theorists too…

Now, anyone for a game of Mornington Crescent?