Archive for September, 2009

Alarm Bells at STFC

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , on September 30, 2009 by telescoper

The  financial catastrophe engulfing the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) has suddenly reared its (very ugly) head again.

Here is a statement posted yesterday on their webpage.

STFC Council policy on grants

STFC Council examined progress of its current science and technology prioritisation exercise at a strategy session on 21 and 22 September. Without prejudging the outcome of the prioritisation, Council agreed that prudent financial management required a re-examination of upcoming grants.

Council therefore agreed that new grants will be issued only to October 2010 in the first instance. This temporary policy is in place pending the outcome of the prioritisation exercise, expected in the New Year.

According to the e-astronomer the  STFC  has written to all Vice-chancellors and Principals of UK universities to tell them about this move. I gather the intention is that this measure will be temporary, but it looks deeply ominous to me. Those of us whose rolling grant requests for  5 years from April 2010 are currently being assessed face the possibility of receiving grants for only 6 months of funding. On the other hand, I’m told that what is more likely is that our grant won’t be announced until January or February, after the hitlist prioritisation exercise has been completed in the New Year. Hardest hit will be the particle physicists whose rolling grants start on 1st October 2009 (tomorrow), which will have only a year’s funding on them…

It seems that STFC has finally realised the scale of its budgetary problems and payback time is looming. I honestly think we could be doomed…

Blue Horizon

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , on September 30, 2009 by telescoper

I just noticed that somebody put this on Youtube and I couldn’t resist putting it on here. This slow blues features an extended clarinet solo by the great Sidney Bechet. I’ve loved Blue Horizon ever since I was a kid, and think it has a good claim to be the finest instrumental blues ever recorded.  I also heard it more recently at the funeral of one of my Dad’s old jazz friends. Listening to it then it struck me that it’s not just one of the greatest blues, but must also be one of the greatest laments that has ever been produced in music of any kind. It’s absolutely pure sadness – there’s no bitterness, anger or resentment about it – and it develops through the stately choruses into a sense of great pride and even, ultimately, of triumph.

A few posts ago I blogged about the thrill of high-speed jazz. This perfomance is at the other end of the scale in terms of tempo, but you can still feel pull of the harmonic progression underlying the tune. In this case it’s  the chords of a standard 12-bar blues with that irresistible  cadence of perfect fourths leading back to the root at the end of each chorus. Bechet builds quite simply on this structure, but makes frequent telling use of searing  blue notes of heart-rending emotional power. If you don’t know what a blue note is then listen, from about 2.08 onwards, to a chorus that always makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.

I should also mention that the fine piano accompaniment on this all-time classic piece (recorded in December 1944) is provided by Art Hodes. Bechet’s raw power and very broad vibrato probably won’t suit scholars of the classical clarinet, but I think this is absolutely wonderful.

Index Rerum

Posted in Biographical, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 29, 2009 by telescoper

Following on from yesterday’s post about the forthcoming Research Excellence Framework that plans to use citations as a measure of research quality, I thought I would have a little rant on the subject of bibliometrics.

Recently one particular measure of scientific productivity has established itself as the norm for assessing job applications, grant proposals and for other related tasks. This is called the h-index, named after the physicist Jorge Hirsch, who introduced it in a paper in 2005. This is quite a simple index to define and to calculate (given an appropriately accurate bibliographic database). The definition  is that an individual has an h-index of  h if that individual has published h papers with at least h citations. If the author has published N papers in total then the other N-h must have no more than h citations. This is a bit like the Eddington number.  A citation, as if you didn’t know,  is basically an occurrence of that paper in the reference list of another paper.

To calculate it is easy. You just go to the appropriate database – such as the NASA ADS system – search for all papers with a given author and request the results to be returned sorted by decreasing citation count. You scan down the list until the number of citations falls below the position in the ordered list.

Incidentally, one of the issues here is whether to count only refereed journal publications or all articles (including books and conference proceedings). The argument in favour of the former is that the latter are often of lower quality. I think that is in illogical argument because good papers will get cited wherever they are published. Related to this is the fact that some people would like to count “high-impact” journals only, but if you’ve chosen citations as your measure of quality the choice of journal is irrelevant. Indeed a paper that is highly cited despite being in a lesser journal should if anything be given a higher weight than one with the same number of citations published  in, e.g., Nature. Of course it’s just a matter of time before the hideously overpriced academic journals run by the publishing mafia go out of business anyway so before long this question will simply vanish.

The h-index has some advantages over more obvious measures, such as the average number of citations, as it is not skewed by one or two publications with enormous numbers of hits. It also, at least to some extent, represents both quantity and quality in a single number. For whatever reasons in recent times h has undoubtedly become common currency (at least in physics and astronomy) as being a quick and easy measure of a person’s scientific oomph.

Incidentally, it has been claimed that this index can be fitted well by a formula h ~ sqrt(T)/2 where T is the total number of citations. This works in my case. If it works for everyone, doesn’t  it mean that h is actually of no more use than T in assessing research productivity?

Typical values of h vary enormously from field to field – even within each discipline – and vary a lot between observational and theoretical researchers. In extragalactic astronomy, for example, you might expect a good established observer to have an h-index around 40 or more whereas some other branches of astronomy have much lower citation rates. The top dogs in the field of cosmology are all theorists, though. People like Carlos Frenk, George Efstathiou, and Martin Rees all have very high h-indices.  At the extreme end of the scale, string theorist Ed Witten is in the citation stratosphere with an h-index well over a hundred.

I was tempted to put up examples of individuals’ h-numbers but decided instead just to illustrate things with my own. That way the only person to get embarrased is me. My own index value is modest – to say the least – at a meagre 27 (according to ADS).   Does that mean Ed Witten is four times the scientist I am? Of course not. He’s much better than that. So how exactly should one use h as an actual metric,  for allocating funds or prioritising job applications,  and what are the likely pitfalls? I don’t know the answer to the first one, but I have some suggestions for other metrics that avoid some of its shortcomings.

One of these addresses an obvious deficiency of h. Suppose we have an individual who writes one brilliant paper that gets 100 citations and another who is one author amongst 100 on another paper that has the same impact. In terms of total citations, both papers register the same value, but there’s no question in my mind that the first case deserves more credit. One remedy is to normalise the citations of each paper by the number of authors, essentially sharing citations equally between all those that contributed to the paper. This is quite easy to do on ADS also, and in my case it gives  a value of 19. Trying the same thing on various other astronomers, astrophysicists and cosmologists reveals that the h index of an observer is likely to reduce by a factor of 3-4 when calculated in this way – whereas theorists (who generally work in smaller groups) suffer less. I imagine Ed Witten’s index doesn’t change much when calculated on a normalized basis, although I haven’t calculated it myself.

Observers  complain that this normalized measure is unfair to them, but I’ve yet to hear a reasoned argument as to why this is so. I don’t see why 100 people should get the same credit for a single piece of work:  it seems  like obvious overcounting to me.

Another possibility – if you want to measure leadership too – is to calculate the h index using only those papers on which the individual concerned is the first author. This is  a bit more of a fiddle to do but mine comes out as 20 when done in this way.  This is considerably higher than most of my professorial colleagues even though my raw h value is smaller. Using first author papers only is also probably a good way of identifying lurkers: people who add themselves to any paper they can get their hands on but never take the lead. Mentioning no names of  course.  I propose using the ratio of  unnormalized to normalized h-indices as an appropriate lurker detector…

Finally in this list of bibliometrica is the so-called g-index. This is defined in a slightly more complicated way than h: given a set of articles ranked in decreasing order of citation numbers, g is defined to be the largest number such that the top g articles altogether received at least g2 citations. This is a bit like h but takes extra account of the average citations of the top papers. My own g-index is about 47. Obviously I like this one because my number looks bigger, but I’m pretty confident others go up even more than mine!

Of course you can play with these things to your heart’s content, combining ideas from each definition: the normalized g-factor, for example. The message is, though, that although h definitely contains some information, any attempt to condense such complicated information into a single number is never going to be entirely successful.

Comments, particularly with suggestions of alternative metrics are welcome via the box. Even from lurkers.


Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , on September 28, 2009 by telescoper

No sooner has the dust settled on the  2008 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) when the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) has tabled its proposals for a new system called the Research Excellence Framework (REF) in a 56-page consultation document that you can download and peruse at your leisure.

I won’t try to give a complete account of the new system except to say that apart from the change of acronym there won’t be much different. Many of us hoped that the new framework would involve a lighter touch than the RAE, so we could actually get on with research instead of filling in forms all our lives. Fat chance. You can call me cynical if you like, but I think it’s obvious that once you set up a monstrous bureaucratical nightmare like the RAE it is almost impossible to kill it off. Things like this gather their own momentum and become completely self-serving. The apparatus of research assessment no longer exists to fulfil a particular purpose. It exists because it exists.

It might be useful however to summarise the main changes:

  1. The number of Units of Assessment and sub-panels is to be reduced from 67 to 30 and the number of main assessment panels from 15 to 4. This move is bound to prove controversial as it will clearly reduce the number of specialists involved in the quality appraisal side of things. However, the last RAE produced clear anomalies in the assessment carried out by different panels: physics overall did very poorly compared to other disciplines, for example. Having fewer panels might make it easier to calibrate different subjects. Might.
  2. In REF the overall assessments are going to be based on three elements: research output (60%); impact (25%); and environment (15%). In the last RAE each panel was free to vary the relative contribution of different components to the overall score. Although the “research output” category is similar to the last RAE, it is now proposed to include citation measures in the overall assessment. Officially, that is. It’s an open secret that panel members did look at citations last time anyway.  Citation impact will however be used only for certain science and engineering subjects.  “Impact” is a new element and its introduction is  in line with the government’s agenda to pump research funds into things which will generate wealth, so this measure will probably shaft fundamental physics. “Environment” includes things like postgraduate numbers, research funding and the like; this is also similar to the RAE.
  3. A roughly similar number of experts will be involved as in RAE 2008 – so it will be similarly expensive to run.
  4. The consultation document asks whether the number of outputs submitted per person should be reduced from four to three, and also whether “substantive outputs” (whatever they are) should be “double-weighted”.
  5. The results will be presented in terms of “profiles” as in 2008, with the percentage of activity at each level being given.
  6. The consultation also suggests honing the description of “world-leading” (4*) and “internationally excellent” (3*) to achieve greater discrimination at the top end of the scale. This is deeply worrying, as well as completely absurd. The last RAE applied a steeply rising funding formula to the scores so that 4*:3*:2*:1* was weighted 7:3:1:0. However the fraction of  work in each category is subject to considerable uncertainty, amplified by the strong weighting.  If the categories are divided further then I can see an even steeper weighting emerging, with the likely outcome that small variations in the (subjective) assessment will lead to drastic variations in funding. Among the inevitable consequences of this will be that  some excellent research will lose out.

No doubt university administrators across the United Kingdom will already be plotting how best to play the new system. I think we need to remember, though, that deep cuts in public spending have been promised by both major political parties and there is a general election due next year. I can see the overall  budget for university research being slashed so we’ll be fighting for shares of a shrinking pot. Killing off the bureaucracy would save money, but somehow I doubt that will be on the agenda.

Madam Butterfly

Posted in Opera with tags , on September 27, 2009 by telescoper

Apparently the production of Giacomo Puccini‘s Madam Butterfly I saw last night is now over thirty years old , but the current revival by Welsh National Opera still managed to fill the Wales Millennium Centre. The critics might carp that a season of three operas that includes both this one and La Traviata isn’t exactly radical scheduling, but WNO has to cope with economic realities and they need to put bums on seats in order to survive. Recycling old productions like this is one way of maximising revenue that they can spend on future productions. Fortunately, although I have seen Butterfly several times, I haven’t seen this particular staging so have no reason to complain that it’s doing the rounds yet again.

The story must be familiar enough. Cio-Cio-San – the Madam Butterfly of the title – a 15 year old Geisha, is betrothed to Lieutenant BF Pinkerton of the United States Navy who has come to Japan with his ship. Pinkerton is contemptuous of all things Japanese, and shows his true nature by explaining that he has paid just 100 Yen  for his new wife via a marriage broker. She, however, is devoted to her new husband; so much so that she renounces her religion in favour of that of her man (although I doubt Pinkerton ever goes to church). Act I culminates with their wedding and a gorgeous love duet with the kind of ravishing music that only Puccini can supply.

Act II is set three years later. Pinkerton has gone back to the States, but Butterfly waits patiently for his return, singing the beautiful aria Un bel di vedremo, or One Fine Day as it is usually translated. Her maid Suzuki thinks that he will never come back – she never liked Pinkerton anyway – and points out that they’re running out of money, but Butterfly refuses to contemplate giving up on him and marrying again. She  has had a son by Pinkerton and intends to remain faithful. At the end of Scene 1 we find that Pinkerton’s ship has arrived and Butterfly waits all night to greet him. The exquisitely poignant cora a bocca chiusa (humming chorus) accompanies her vigil.

After this intermezzo, Scene 2 finds  us at dawn the following day. Butterfly is asleep. Pinkerton shows up, but he has brought with him a new American wife who offers to rescue Butterfly from poverty by adopting her son and taking him to America. Butterfly awakes, finds out what has happened. Pinkerton has left money for her but she refuses to take it, having already decided to kill herself.  She says goodbye to her son with the heartbreaking aria  Tu, tu piccolo iddio, binds his eyes so he can’t see, then kills herself. Pinkerton and his wife arrive to see her bloody corpse.

In this production the principals were Amanda Roocroft, an excellent singer and a fine actress but a bit miscast as Butterfly. Tenor Russell Thomas on the other hand was exactly right as Pinkerton: brash burly and arrogant but with a superb tenor voice. Pinkerton is a complete bastard, of course, but he has to have enough charisma for you to imagine that it’s possible Butterfly to fall for him. Their singing together at the end of Act I was rapturous, dispelling any doubts about the reality of the mutual desire.

The staging is quite simple: a traditional Japanese house with sliding screens surrounded by stylised trees and gardens. The costumes were less colourful than I had expected, dominated by browns and beiges rather than brightly coloured pattern silks. Thankfully they resisted the temptation to plaster on the make-up to try make the characters look Japanese; all that ever achieves is to make all concerned look ridiculous.

The original production of Madam Butterfly was staged in 1904 (although it took several revisions before the two-act version we saw last night emerged). It therefore dates from a time when Europeans (including Puccini) were quite ignorant about Japanese culture. Modern audiences probably find some of the stereotypes rather uncomfortable. I would say, however, that the only two characters in the Opera to show any moral integrity and nobility of spirit are the maid Suzuki and Butterfly herself. The rest are unpleasant in some way or other, especially Pinkerton who is completely odious. So the Opera is not nasty about Japan, although its attitudes are a bit dated.

Madam Butterfly is worth it for the music alone – call me a softy but I love Puccini’s music. The score was handled beautifully in this performance by Carlo Rizzi. He’s a master storyteller too and it’s a beautifully crafted piece of musical theatre.

Overall I’d probably give this production about 7/10: enjoyable and professionally done, but perhaps with just a hint that it is nearing the end of its shelf-life. Although at times it was wonderfully impassioned, at other times I had the feeling that the cast were just going through the motions.

I have been dithering about mentioning one unfortunate thing about the production, which did have people around us sniggering. Butterfly’s son is blond with blue eyes –  she sings about this,  in case there is any doubt. Russell Thomas (Pinkerton)  is an African-American. The plot involves a scene in which questions are asked about whether Pinkerton really is the boy’s father. That is not supposed to be funny, but it was glaringly obvious that the son of  black man and a Japanese woman is not going to have blond hair and blue eyes…

You always have to suspend your disbelief a bit in the opera theatre, but this was going a bit far. There’s no reason at all not to cast a black singer as Pinkerton, especially when he has such a fine voice. He looked the part as a naval officer, but surely something could have been done to avoid this obvious absurdity?

Anyway, I don’t want to end on a blemish so here’s a short clip of the humming chorus taken from a production with staging not dissimilar to what we saw last night, complete with authentic coughing from the audience.

The Cat in the Box

Posted in Columbo with tags , on September 25, 2009 by telescoper

Today my cat Columbo was due for a trip to the Vets. I have to take him every six months or so for a blood test to check on how his diabetes is progressing. He seemed to be doing fine through the summer so I didn’t anticipate any particular problems when I got up in good time to get him sorted for his 9.10 appointment.

However, the trip didn’t go quite according to plan. For a start, it was a lovely sunny day and, after breakfast, Columbo decided to go out into the garden. Ready to get going, I brought his travel box out after him so I could get him into it. He made it quite clear he’d rather be basking in the morning sunshine than clambering into the box and it took me quite a while to (a) catch him and (b) squeeze him into the necessary receptacle.

At first he growled and hissed with indignation but he seemed settle down once we were under way. Little did I know he was plotting revenge. When I got to the clinic, I realised that a terrible pong was emanating from the cat box. When I opened it up inside the consulting room I realised he’d done a very large and smelly poo.

Sending the box away to be cleaned up by an assistant, the vet prodded and poked the moggy and weighed him, pronouncing him drastically overweight. I do weigh his food out every day but he’s still put on about 500g over the summer. The vet recommended I cut his rations by half until he lost a bit of flab.

Anyway, when the assistant returned from shit-scraping duty she and the vet proceeded to try taking a blood sample. Normally this is done from the neck where the appropriate blood vessels are relatively easy to reach. Columbo has never enjoyed this, but is not normally too hard to handle. This time, however, he wasn’t having any of it. It was impossible for them to hold him still enough long enough to do the necessary so they beat a hasty retreat, regrouped and planned a counter-offensive.

Plan B involved taking the blood from his leg instead. After several attempts and, I have to say, considerable loss of blood on both sides, the vet managed to get a full sample. Columbo went back in the box and would have licked his wounds had both his forelegs not been covered in bandages.

But even that wasn’t the end of it. I went out into reception with the cat safely in his portable house. I waited to pay my bill. As I did so, a lady came in with a young, highly energetic and extremely inquisitive boxer puppy. This little dog had clearly never seen a cat before and went sniffing around Columbo’s box. Said cat sat there quietly until the puppy presented a large, wet and obviously very inviting nose against the front grille whereupon Columbo gave it a straight jab with full claw deployment sending the puppy yelping across the reception.

I apologized profusely to the vets and to the owner of the maimed puppy dog and left as quickly as I could after paying. When I got home Columbo went straight upstairs and under the bed in a sulk. I wonder how much worse he’ll get when he finds out he’s on a diet?

I think his grumpiness may stem from relationship difficulties. A week or so ago he caught a mouse in the garden and was playing with it on the lawn – it was dead by this point. The little lady cat that appears to have befriended Columbo came to investigate. She sat watching him for a while. Then he put the mouse down. Quick as a flash, she darted in, grabbed the mouse, and did off over the fence with it. I haven’t seen her since.

Maybe I should have warned him what women are like.

The Evidence

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on September 25, 2009 by telescoper

Further to my recent post about the evidence for a low-density Universe, I thought I’d embarrass all concerned with this image, taken in Leiden in 1995.

Various shady characters masquerading as “experts” were asked by the audience of graduate students at a summer school to give their favoured values for the cosmological parameters (from top to bottom: the Hubble constant, density parameter, cosmological constant, curvature parameter and age of the Universe).

From left to right we have Alain Blanchard (AB), Bernard Jones (BJ, standing), John Peacock (JP), me (yes, with a beard and a pony tail – the shame of it), Vincent Icke (VI), Rien van de Weygaert (RW) and Peter Katgert (PK, standing). You can see on the blackboard that the only one to get anywhere close to correctly predicting the parameters of what would become the standard cosmological model was, in fact, Rien van de Weygaert.