Archive for July 15, 2009

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.

For the Cosmonauts

Posted in Poetry, The Universe and Stuff with tags , on July 15, 2009 by telescoper

Last week I bought a copy of Moonrise, a collection of poems by Meirion Jordan. He was born in Swansea and read Mathematics at Somerville College, Oxford. His poems, which often deal with themes inspired by science, are sometimes witty or satirical and sometimes simply a bit wild.  They’re also beautifully composed, with a very natural structure and playful use of language.

I wanted to give his book a bit of a plug so here he is on Youtube reading For the Cosmonauts, which one of two pieces comprising the Epilogue to his book.  This is the text

I, Yuri Gagarin, having not seen God,
wake now to the scrollwork of a body,
to my own white fibres leafing into the bone:
know that beyond this dome of rain there is
only the nothing where the soul sweers
out its parallax like a distant star and truth
brightens to X, to gamma, through a metal sail.

So I return to you, cramming your pockets
with the atmosphere and the evening news,
fumbling for gardens in the moon’s shadow,
in its waterfalls of silence. I wish for you
familiar towns, their piers and amusement arcades
unpeopled at dusk, the unicorn tumbling by
on china hooves behind the high walls
of parks, among congregating lamps.

May you find Earth rising there, between
your steepled hands. May your voyages
end. May you have a cold unfurling
of limbs each morning, when I am fallen
out of the world.

Here is the poet himself reading it

You can order the book directly from the publisher by clicking on the link above.


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