Archive for August, 2010

The Sketch Process

Posted in Art, Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 25, 2010 by telescoper

It’s pouring with rain so, rather than set off home and get drenched, I thought I’d spend a few minutes on the blog and hope that the deluge dies down before I leave. Knowing my luck it will probably get worse.

Anyway, I thought I’d put together a short item on the theme of sketching. This is quite a strange subject for me to pick because drawing is something I’m completely useless at, but I hope you’ll bear with me and hopefully it will make some sense in the end.

What  spurred me on to think about it was the exhibit I’ve been involved with for the forthcoming Architecture Biennale in Venice as part of a project called Beyond Entropy organized by the Architectural Association School of Architecture. Unfortunately, although I’d originally planned to attend I can’t be there for the opening Symposium, but I hope it turns out to be as successful event as it promises to be!

Anyway, in the course of this project I came across this image of the Moon as drawn by Galileo

This led to an interesting discussion about the role of drawings like this in science. Of course  the use of sketches for the scientific representation of images has been superseded by photographic techniques, initially using film and more recently by digital techniques. The advantage of these methods is that they are quicker and also more “objective”. However, there are still many amateur astronomers who make drawings of the Moon as well as objects such as Jupiter and Saturn (which Galileo also drew). Moreover there are other fields in which experienced practioners continue to use pencil drawings in preference to photographic techniques. Archaeology provides many good examples, e.g.

The reason sketching still has a role in such fields is not that it can compete with photography for accuracy or objectivity but that there’s something about the process of sketching that engages the sketcher’s brain in a  way that’s very different from taking a photograph. The connection between eye, brain and hand seems to involve a cognitive element that is extremely useful in interpreting notes at a later date. In fact it’s probably their very subjectivity that makes them useful.  A thicker stroke of the pencil, or deliberately enhanced shading, or leaving out seemingly irrelevant detail, can help pick out  features that seem to the observer to be of particular significance. Months later when you’re trying to write up what you saw from your notes, those deliberate interventions against objectivity will take you back to what you  saw with your mind, not just with your eyes.

It doesn’t even matter whether or not you can draw well. The point isn’t so much to explain to other people what you’ve seen, but to record your own interaction with the object you’ve sketched in a way that allows you to preserve something more than a surface recollection.

You might think this is an unscientific thing to do, but I don’t think it is. The scientific process involves an interplay between objective reality and theoretical interpretation and drawing can be a useful part of this discourse. It’s as if the pencil allows the observer to interact with what is observed, forming a closer bond and probably a deeper level of understanding patterns and textures. I’m not saying it replaces a purely passive recording method like photography, but it can definitely help it.

I have not a shred of psychological evidence to back this up, but I’d also assert that sketching is very good for the learning process too.  Nowadays we tend to give out handouts of diagrams involved in physics, whether they relate to the design of apparatus or the geometrical configuration of a physical system. There’s a reason for doing this – they take a long time to draw and there’s a likelihood students will make mistakes copying them down. However, I’ve always  found that the only way to really take in what a diagram is saying is to try to draw it again myself. Even if the level of draftsmanship is worse, the level of understanding is undoubtedly better.Merely looking at someone else’s representation of something won’t give your brain as a good a feeling for what it is trying to say  as you would get if you tried to draw it yourself.

Perhaps what happens is that simply looking at a diagram only involves the connection between eye and brain. Drawing a copy requires also the connection between brain and hand. Maybe  this additional connection brings in additional levels of brain functionality. Sketching iinvolves your brain in an interaction that is different from merely looking.

The problem with excessive use of handouts – and this applies not only to figures  but also to lecture notes – is that they turn teaching into a very passive process. Taking notes in your own hand, and supplementing them with your own sketches – however scribbly and incomprehensible they may appear to other people – is  a much more active way to learn than collecting a stack of printed notes and meticulously accurate diagrams. And if it was good enough for Galileo, it should good enough for most of us!

Now it’s stopped raining so I’m off home!


Facing the Music

Posted in Music with tags , on August 24, 2010 by telescoper

Just by way of a change I thought I’d put up these two classic videos featuring very different singers. One connection between them is that both of them are records that I bought when they came out. The other is that both videos essentially consist of nothing but close-ups of the artiste’s face. The first is Private Life, by Grace Jones

and the second was a big hit for Sinead O’Connor in 1990:

Incidentally I once saw Sinead O’Connor in person at the Zap Club in Brighton when I literally bumped into her trying to get to the bar. When she turned around I was staggered to see such a beautiful face looking at me, although to be honest I did for a moment assume she was a boy…

Anyway, that wasn’t the point of this post. In fact I was wondering if anyone can think of any other pop videos done like this, entirely in close-up? Answers through the comments box please!

Publish or be Damned

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 23, 2010 by telescoper

For tonight’s post I thought I’d compose a commentary on a couple of connected controversies suggested by an interestingly provocative piece by Nigel Hawkes in the Independent this weekend entitled Peer Review journals aren’t worth the paper they’re written on. Here is an excerpt:

The truth is that peer review is largely hokum. What happens if a peer-reviewed journal rejects a paper? It gets sent to another peer-reviewed journal a bit further down the pecking order, which is happy to publish it. Peer review seldom detects fraud, or even mistakes. It is biased against women and against less famous institutions. Its benefits are statistically insignificant and its risks – academic log-rolling, suppression of unfashionable ideas, and the irresistible opportunity to put a spoke in a rival’s wheel – are seldom examined.

In contrast to many of my academic colleagues I largely agree with Nigel Hawkes, but I urge you to read the piece yourself to see whether you are convinced by his argument.

I’m not actually convinced that peer review is as biased as Hawkes asserts. I rather think that the strongest argument against  the scientific journal establishment  is the ruthless racketeering of the academic publishers that profit from it.  Still, I do think he has a point. Scientists who garner esteem and influence in the public domain through their work should be required to defend it our in the open to both scientists and non-scientists alike. I’m not saying that’s easy to do in the face of ill-informed or even illiterate criticism, but it is in my view a necessary price to pay, especially when the research is funded by the taxpayer.

It’s not that I think many scientists are involved in sinister activities, manipulating their data and fiddling their results behind closed doors, but that as long as there is an aura of secrecy it will always fuel the conspiracy theories on which the enemies of reason thrive. We often hear the accusation that scientists behave as if they are priests. I don’t think they do, but there are certainly aspects of scientific practice that make it appear that way, and the closed world of academic publishing is one of the things that desperately needs to be opened up.

For a start, I think we scientists should forget academic journals and peer review, and publish our results directly in open access repositories. In the old days journals were necessary to communicate scientific work. Peer review guaranteed a certain level of quality. But nowadays it is unnecessary. Good work will achieve visibility through the attention others give it. Likewise open scrutiny will be a far more effective way of identifying errors than the existing referee process. Some steps will have to be taken to prevent abuse of the access to databases and even then I suspect a great deal of crank papers will make it through. But in the long run, I strongly believe this is the only way that science can develop in the age of digital democracy.

But scrapping the journals is only part of the story. I’d also argue that all scientists undertaking publically funded research should be required to put their raw data in the public domain too. I would allow a short proprietary period after the experiments, observations or whatever form of data collection is involved. I can also see that ethical issues may require certain data to be witheld, such as the names of subjects in medical trials. Issues will also arise when research is funded commercially rather than by the taxpaper. However, I still maintain that full disclosure of all raw data should be the rule rather than the exception. After all, if it’s research that’s funded by the public, it is really the public that owns the data anyway.

In astronomy this is pretty much the way things operate nowadays, in fact. Maybe stargazers have a more romantic way of thinking about scientific progress than their more earthly counterparts, but it is quite normal – even obligatory for certain publically funded projects – for surveys to release all their data. I used to think that it was enough just to publish the final results, but I’ve become so distrustful of the abuse of statistics throughout the field that I think it is necessary for independent scientists to check every step of the analysis of every major result. In the past it was simply too difficult to publish large catalogues in a form that anyone could use, but nowadays that is simply no longer the case. Astronomers have embraced this reality, and it is liberated them.

To give a good example of the benefits of this approach, take the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) which released full data sets after one, three, five and seven years of operation. Scores of groups around the world have done their best to find glitches in the data and errors in the analysis without turning up anything particularly significant. The standing of the WMAP team is all the higher for having done this, although I don’t know whether they would have chosen to had they not been required to do so under the terms of their funding!

In the world of astronomy research it’s not at all unusual to find data for the object or set of objects you’re interested in from a public database, or by politely asking another team if they wouldn’t mind sharing their results. And if you happen to come across a puzzling result you suspect might be erroneous and want to check the calculations, you just ask the author for the numbers and, generally speaking, they send the numbers to you. A disagreement may ensue about who is right and who is wrong, but that’s the way science is supposed to work.  Everything must be open to question. It’s often a chaotic process, but it’s a process all the same, and it is one that has servedus incredibly well.

I was quite surprised recently to learn that this isn’t the way other scientific disciplines operate at all. When I challenged the statistical analysis in a paper on neuroscience recently, my request to have a look at the data myself was greeted with a frosty refusal. The authors seemed to take it as a personal affront that anyone might have the nerve to question their study. I had no alternative but to go public with my doubts, and my concerns have never been satisfactorily answered. How many other examples are there wherein application of the scientific method has come to a grinding halt because of compulsive secrecy? Nobody likes to have their failings exposed in public, and I’m sure no scientists likes see an error pointed out, but surely it’s better to be seen to have made an error than to maintain a front that perpetuates the suspicion of malpractice?

Another, more topical, example concerns the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit which was involved in the Climategate scandal and which has apparently now decided that it wants to share its data. Fine, but I find it absolutely amazing that such centres have been able to get away with being so secretive in the past. Their behaviour was guaranteed to lead to suspicions that they had something to hide. The public debate about climate change may be noisy and generally ill-informed but it’s a debate we must have out in the open.

I’m not going to get all sanctimonious about `pure’ science nor am I going to question the motives of  individuals working in disciplines I know very little about. I would, however, say that from the outside it certainly appears that there is often a lot more going on in the world of academic research than the simple quest for knowledge.

Of course there are risks in opening up the operation of science in the way I’m suggesting. Cranks will probably proliferate, but we’ll no doubt get used to them- I’m a cosmologist and I’m pretty much used to them already! Some good work may find it a bit harder to be recognized. Lack of peer review may mean more erroneous results see the light of day. Empire-builders won’t like it much either, as a truly open system of publication will be a great leveller of reputations. But in the final analysis, the risk of sticking to our arcane practices is far higher. Public distrust will grow and centuries of progress may be swept aside on a wave of irrationality. If the price for avoiding that is to change our attitude to who owns our data, then it’s a price well worth paying.


Dingbats, surface readings, and literally what it says

Posted in Crosswords with tags , , , , , , , on August 22, 2010 by telescoper

It’s been a long time since I posted anything in the box marked crosswords, so I thought I’d remedy that today.

As I’ve explained before, I’m a regular entrant in the monthly Azed competition in the Observer. There’s actually an Azed cryptic crossword every week, but every four weeks there’s a special one  in which contestants have not only to complete the (usually quite tricky) puzzle, but also to supply a clue for a word for which only a definition was given. There are prizes for the best clues each time, as judged by Azed himself, and a league table is built up over the year.

I don’t mind admitting that I much prefer solving the puzzles to setting clues of my own. Perhaps that’s consistent with the fact that I don’t enjoy setting examination questions much! However, I do enter the clue-writing competition every time it comes up. I’ve never won it, but I’ve had several VHC (Very Highly Commended) which count in the honours table. I’ve gradually improved my ranking year on year, and perhaps one day I’ll actually win the  coveted Azed bookplate. However, I’ve got a long way to go before I can produce clues of the ingenuity and subtlety of the regular winners.

Last year, I started brightly and was for a long time neck-and-neck with the novelist Colin Dexter in the league table. However, over the last few months my clues didn’t find favour with Mr Azed while his were much better. He finished in 8th place, while I languished in joint 40th; the complete table is here.

My best clue last year (I think) was in Azed 1967 for the word SUBORDINATELY:

In the manner of an inferior sandwich, prepared ‘to a New York deli recipe’ (13)

It’s a fairly straightforward one, as these things go, consisting of two parts, a definition and a cryptic allusion to the word being clued.  “In the manner of an inferior..” is the definition, meaning “subordinately”. The cryptic allusion in this case is the word “SUB” (meaning an American-style sandwich) followed by an anagram of the collection of letters indicated by what’s inside the quotes, i.e. to+a+NY+deli+r, the NY and r being standard abbreviations. “Prepared” is an anagram indicator.

The clue also has a nice surface reading, I think, which is an aspect many setters don’t seem to bother with. The surface reading is just how the clue reads when you don’t try to interpret it as a cryptic clue. I much prefer clues that read like something that  as could be written or said in a different context to a crossword, as well as making grammatical and syntactical sense.

The winning clue for this word was by D.F. Manley, who is one of the setters for the Times, with an &lit clue:

As in ‘B-role’ duty possibly (13)

This type of clue is regarded by many setters as the cleverest kind, but I have to admit that I have a love-hate relationship with them. Here the definition and cryptic allusions are supplied not by two different parts of the clue, but by two different readings of the whole thing. The cryptic allusion in this case is an anagram indicated by the word “possibly”, i.e. SUBORDINATELY is an anagram of AS IN B ROLE DUTY. The definition is “&lit”, i.e. “and literally what it says”. This is where I think setters push the boundaries a bit too far. I don’t think “As in B-role duty possibly” is really a very fair definition of SUBORDINATELY, and this clue has a very clumsy surface reading too. It’s undoubtedly clever, but I don’t like it as much as some of the others. In general I think these kind of clues are more appreciated by setters, who know how hard they are to concoct, than by solvers.

Anyway, today saw the announcement of the results of the first round of the current Azed competition, and I got another VHC for the slightly obscure word FOULARD (a kind of scarf or handkerchief). My clue was

A square covering La Dame’s head? (7)

This is an “&lit” too, but the cryptic allusion isn’t an anagram. FOUR is a perfect square so “A square covering La” is FOU(LA)R, and Dame’s Head is D (first letter of “Dame”), hence FOULARD. The whole clue also serves as a fair definition, I think, because a “square” can be a scarf (the wikipedia example of a foulard shows the typical way of wearing it, around the head); it also suggests a French word. Anyway, I’m off quickly out of the blocks again with a VHC, and am currently in 4th place in the table! That might be the highest I’ve ever been. I doubt it will last, though.

I also do the Guardian Prize crossword puzzle every week, which has many potential setters some of whom seem to bend the rules beyond breaking point. Last week’s Guardian competition puzzle (No. 25089) by Paul contained a number of clues that I didn’t like at all. They weren’t particularly difficult but had neither a  fair definition nor a good surface reading. Take, for example,

Dr Castier? (5,2,3,5)


M – give it ten? (5,2,5)

The question marks are a conventional way of indicating that something funny is going on, but they’re not sufficient to give   fair indications of the solutions in this case. These are, in fact, reverse clues of a form sometimes known as a dingbat or a rebus. The first one gives THROW IN THE TOWEL, which is clued thus: DR(CAST)IER,  with DRIER defining TOWEL and CAST defining THROW. In similar vein the second one is HAND IN GLOVE, via M(GIVE)ITTEN, with GIVE=HAND and MITTEN=GLOVE. Clever, but neither clue has any definition whatsoever of the answer phrase nor any surface reading other than gibberish. I might have forgiven Dr Castier? were it a familiar name from history or literature, but it isn’t. It was just made up for this puzzle. A very poor show, in my view. Anyone can make a clue by flinging random letters together.

There were several other clues of this type in the puzzle, so once you have one of them the others are quite easy.  However, in my opinion, they’re all pretty dismal clues on their own. I only ever buy the Guardian these days on Saturdays, largely for the weekend Prize crossword. If they carry on using puzzles as feeble as that one I’ll ditch it altogther. However, this week we were back to good old Araucaria, which restored my faith. My favourite  clue was

The wrong way to be (4)

The solution is left as an exercise.

Open Admissions

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , , , on August 21, 2010 by telescoper

As I predicted  last week, the A-level results announced on Thursday showed another increase in pass rates and in the number of top grades awarded, although I had forgotten that this year saw the introduction of the new A* grade. Overall, about 27% of students got an A or an A*, although the number getting an A* varied enormously from one course to another. In Further Maths, for example, 30% of the candidates who took the examination achieved an A* grade.

Although I have grave misgivings about the rigour of the assessment used in A-level science subjects, I do nevertheless heartily congratulate all those who have done well. In no way were my criticisms of the examinations system intended to be criticisms of the students who take them and they thoroughly deserve to celebrate their success.

Another interesting fact worth mentioning is that the number of pupils taking A-level physics rose again this year, by just over 5%, to a total of just over 30,000. After many years of decline in the popularity of physics as an A-level choice, it has now grown steadily over the past three years. Of course not everyone who does physics at A-level goes on to do it at university, but this is nevertheless a good sign for the future health of the subject.

There was a whopping 11.5% growth in the number of students taking Further Mathematics too, and this seems to be part of a general trend for more students to be doing science and technology subjects.

The newspapers have also been full of  tales of a frantic rush during the clearing process and the likelihood that many well-qualified aspiring students might miss out on university places altogether. Part of the reason for this is that the government recently put the brake on the expansion of university places, but it’s not all down to government cuts. It’s also at least partly because of the steady increase in the performance of students at A-level. More students are making their offers than before, so the options available for those who did slightly less well than they had hoped very much more limited.

In fact if you analyse the figures from UCAS you will see that as of Thursday 19th August 2010, 383,230 students had been secured a place at university. That’s actually about 10,000 more than at the corresponding stage last year. There were about 50,000 more students eligible to go into clearing this year (183,000 versus 135,000 in 2009), but at least part of this is due to people trying again who didn’t succeed last year. Clearly they won’t all find a place, so there’ll be a number of very disappointed school-leavers around, but they also can try again next year. So although it’s been a tough week for quite a few prospective students, it’s not really the catastrophe that some of the tabloids have been screaming about.

I’m not directly involved in the undergraduate admissions process for the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University, where I work, but try to keep up with what’s going on. It’s an extremely strange system and I think it’s fair to say that if we could design an admissions process from scratch we wouldn’t end up with the one we have now. Each year our School is given a target number of students to recruit; this year around 85. On the basis of the applications we receive we make a number of offers (e.g.  AAB for three A-levels, including Mathematics and Physics, for the MPhys programme). However, we have to operate a bit like an airline and make more offers than there are places. This is because (a) not all the people we make offers to will take up their offer and (b) not everyone who takes up an offer will make the grades.

In fact students usually apply to 5 universities and are allowed to accept one firm offer (CF) and one insurance choice (CI), in case they missed the grades for their firm choice. If they miss the grades for their CI they go into clearing. This year, as well as a healthy bunch of CFs, we had a huge number of CI acceptances, meaning we were the backup choice for many students whose ideal choice lay elsewhere. We usually don’t end up recruiting all that many students as CIs – most students do make the grades they need for their CF, but if they miss by a whisker the university they put first often takes them anyway. However, this year many of our CIs held CFs with universities we knew were going  to be pretty full, and in England at any rate, institutions are going to be fined if they exceed their quotas. It therefore looked possible that we might go over quota because of an unexpected influx of CIs caused by other universities applying their criteria more rigorously than they had in the past. We are, of course, obliged to honour all offers made as part of this process. Here in Wales we don’t actually get fined for overshooting the quota, but it would have been tough fitting excess numbers into the labs and organizing tutorials for them all.

Fortunately, our admissions team (led by Helen Hunt Carole Tucker) is very experienced at reading the lie of the land. As it turned out, the feared influx of CIs didn’t materialise, and we even had a dip into the clearing system to  recruit one or two good quality applicants who had fallen through the cracks elsewhere.  We seem to have turned out all right again this year, so it’s business as usual in October. In case you’re wondering, Cardiff University is now officially full up for 2010.

There’s a lot of guesswork involved in this system which seems to me to make it unnecessarily fraught for us, and obviously also for the students too! It would make more sense for students to apply after they’ve got their results not before, but this would require wholesale changes to the academic year. It’s been suggested before, but never got anywhere. One thing we do very well in the Higher Education sector is inertia!

I thought I’d end with another “news” item from the Guardian that claims that the Russell Group of universities – to which Cardiff belongs – operates a blacklist of A-level subjects that it considers inappropriate:

The country’s top universities have been called on to come clean about an unofficial list or lists of “banned” A-level subjects that may have prevented tens of thousands of state school pupils getting on to degree courses.

Teachers suspect the Russell Group of universities – which includes Oxford and Cambridge – of rejecting outright pupils who take A-level subjects that appear on the unpublished lists.

The lists are said to contain subjects such as law, art and design, business studies, drama and theatre studies – non-traditional A-level subjects predominantly offered by comprehensives, rather than private schools.

Of course when we’re selecting students for Physics programmes we request Physics and Mathematics A-level rather than Art and Design, simply because the latter do not provide an adequate preparation for what is quite a demanding course.  Other Schools no doubt make offers on a similar basis. It’s got nothing to do with  a bias against state schools, simply an attempt to select students who can cope with the course they have applied to do.

Moreover, speaking as a physicist I’d like to turn this whole thing around. Why is it that so many state schools do teach these subjects instead of  “traditional” subjects, including sciences such as physics?  Why is that so many comprehensive schools are allowed to operate as state-funded schools without offering adequate provision for science education? To my mind that’s a real, and far more insidious, form of blacklisting than what is alleged by the Guardian.

Death and Strawberries

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , , on August 20, 2010 by telescoper

This week in August 2010 has taken on quite a melancholy mood. Only a few days ago there was the death of physicist Nicola Cabibbo. Yesterday I heard that the great Russian mathematician Vladimir Igorevich Arnold, who did a lot of work of interest to physicists, had also passed away aged 72. And then this morning I was saddened to hear of the death of the wonderful Scottish poet Edwin Morgan, of pneumonia, at the age of 90.

It’s always sad when someone who has contributed so much to their field – whether it’s artistic or scientific – passes away, but the consolation is that each of them in their own way has left a wonderful legacy that remains to be treasured and will also inspire future generations.

Anyway, I thought I’d mark the passing of Edwin Morgan with my favourite poem of his, called Strawberries.

There were never strawberries
like the ones we had
that sultry afternoon
sitting on the step
of the open french window
facing each other
your knees held in mine
the blue plates in our laps
the strawberries glistening
in the hot sunlight
we dipped them in sugar
looking at each other
not hurrying the feast
for one to come
the empty plates
laid on the stone together
with the two forks crossed
and I bent towards you
sweet in that air

in my arms
abandoned like a child
from your eager mouth
the taste of strawberries
in my memory
lean back again
let me love you

let the sun beat
on our forgetfulness
one hour of all
the heat intense
and summer lightning
on the Kilpatrick hills

let the storm wash the plates

It may surprise you to learn that this poem is not written by a man to a woman, but from one man to another. A similar reaction is sometimes provoked by certain of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. It came as a shock to quite a few people when it was finally revealed, in fact, because Edwin Morgan kept to himself for a very long time who this was written about. Actually, it wasn’t until he was 70 that the poet stepped out of the closet, announced that he was gay, and explained that the poem was written about an experience he shared with another man. He maintained that at least part of the reason for him not being open publically was that he didn’t want to be branded as a “gay” poet, and that his poems were intended to be universal, which (in my view) they are but then that depends on what kind of universe you live in.

Paperback Writer

Posted in Books, Talks and Reviews with tags , on August 19, 2010 by telescoper

I’ve had a bit too much on my plate over the last couple of days to be able to find the time to post anything, but I thought break silence and get into the swing of things with a bit of gratuitous self-promotion.

My little book From Cosmos to Chaos is today officially published in paperback. I’m glad the new edition has come out because it gave me a chance to correct quite a large number of typographical errors in the original edition – some of them very embarrassing!  I had spotted many of them before publication, but unfortunately there was a breakdown in the proof correcting process and the changes I’d requested were not made to the version that got printed. Fortunately the publishers, Oxford University Press, gave me the chance to do proper corrections to the text for the paperback version so hopefully it has many fewer bugs in it than the original hardcover version.

Anyway, I would like to take this opportunity to thank those people who contacted me to point out some of the egregious errors. Of course I  really put them there deliberately to check that the readers were paying attention..