Life Cycles

This was a strange Saturday. Usually I don’t do very much on the weekend, except for a bit of shopping, tidying up, and of course the crosswords. Today, however, was one of our undergraduate Open Days wherein prospective students visit the department (usually with their adoring parents) in order to have a look around, learn about our research, and meet some of the staff that will be teaching them if and when they come here.  Our usual Open Days are Thursdays, but some people find it very difficult to get here on a weekday – parents working, school commitments, etc – so we have a few Saturdays too. Since I live within walking distance of the department I don’t mind taking part.

Bizarrely, my job today was to act as a tour guide around the experimental physics labs. I must be one of the least qualified people in the School to do that, as I’m a theoretical astrophysicist. As it happens, we had two groups to show around today and the other guide was Ant Whitworth, also a theoretical astrophysicist (though one who works on star formation, not cosmology like I do). Ours not to reason why. I got a free lunch out of it anyway, and also managed to find most of the places I was supposed to take the visitors to, most of which I’ve never seen before!

Anyway, it was nice to meet and chat with so many young people interested in physics. I hope to see at least some of them in October. Funding will be very tight this year for new undergraduates and although we’ve asked the University to increase our quota to take more students in, we haven’t so far been allowed to do so. I think that is the situation around much of England too, so I think some might not find a place at their chosen institution. I hope there aren’t too many disappointments when the A-level results come out.

The recruitment of undergraduates for next year is part of the cycle of academic life. We’re currently doing the same thing with postgraduates, although fewer people are involved in that case. The end of term comes up next week, then it’s the Easter break. Soon after that we’ll be back into examinations. Some will be graduating this year and we’ll have to say goodbye to them as they make their way into the big wide world. Others will leave for the summer and return to continue their studies next year.

The cycle of academic life is embedded within that of the seasons too. Today was a beautiful spring day in Cardiff. We’ve had sunny weather for a week or so already, but yesterday and today were the first days mild enough in temperature to be called spring. Yesterday evening as I walked home I noticed it wasn’t dark at 6pm, a sign that the days are getting longer. Soon I’ll be able to walk home through Bute Park,  which I can’t do at present because the gate on the east side is closed at sunset. I did, however, go back that way this afternoon after the Open Day activities were over.

There’s a lot of construction work going on, associated with Cardiff City Council’s plan to turn Bute Park into Bute Lorry Park, and one has to complete an obstacle course to get into it on foot these days. Still, once away from the affected areas the rest of the Park is shaping up again for spring and summer and there was quite a crowd there today, just quietly enjoying it for it’s own sake. You know, like a Park should be. I’m not looking forward to having to dodge juggernauts on the way, which is what is what the future seems to have in store.

Apart from the seasons and the cycle of academic life, I also thought on the way home about another cycle that is about to unfold. A General Election is due to be held this year. It seems like yesterday that I cast my vote in the last one, while I was living in Nottingham. Now the politicians are gearing up for the interminable months of electioneering that inevitably presage such events. I’m not at all sure at this point who I’m going to vote for. I’m disillusioned with the main parties and skeptical of the alternatives.

I heard last night on Twitter of a story that Lord Mandelson has promised that “The Science Budget will be spared from cuts”. That’s interesting because we’ve already suffered plenty. Perhaps the word “further” was accidentally omitted. Not that I believe him anyway. Why should I? It’s obviously just electioneering. Science Minister Lord Drayson also recently announced on Twitter that under the next Labour government, the UK will be the best place in the world to do science. I don’t believe that either, although I do have a little more faith in Drayson than I do in Mandelson.

I think the deep cuts already made to fundamental physics have in any case guaranteed the exodus of a huge number of talented scientists. And that’s emphatically not the result of the recession. It’s the result of deliberate government policy, sustained since 2007. I won’t believe New Labour’s claims about science until they own up and reverse the damage they have done, which I don’t think they’re going to do.

I have to admit that I am very fearful not just for the future of astronomy in the UK, but for the UK as a whole. Although people talk about the country being out of recession, the fact remains that we’re teetering on the brink of insolvency. I have a deep-seated feeling  that this election is critical. Very difficult decisions will have to be made over the next two to three years, and if we get them wrong, we could be propelled into a catastrophic decline. The trouble is, I don’t trust any political party to deliver a coherent plan for the recovery. The more I think about it, the more my optimism ebbs away. I hope I’m proved wrong.

Now after all that I haven’t done the Guardian crossword yet! Where’s my pen?

5 Responses to “Life Cycles”

  1. Perhaps the implementation of the Austrian school of thought on economics might help this country.

  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    If that is a reference to Hitler then economics was the thing he got right. It is a myth that he rebuilt the German economy on the back of defence spending. He would have made a good chancellor in the English sense of the word – but *never* in the German sense.

  3. Mr Physicist Says:

    You are right. Despite all the rhetoric, it is not at all clear which political party to vote for and what they will *really* do. Only thing to do is question all candidates closely over the specifics and get some commitments to policy.

  4. No reference to Hitler, see here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Austrian_School

    More conservative in relation to money. Actually have a currency and economy that is referenced against a standard such as gold, and not have a central bank which digitally adds a few zeros to an accounts sheet to reduce inflation. For people to live by their means and what they can afford and not expect that a certain lifestyle is deserved – no living off debt.

  5. Anton Garrett Says:

    Huw,

    Couldn’t agree more, although only really a development of Adam Smith’s ideas for the sociopolitical situation prevailing a century later.

    Anton

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