Old School

Yesterday was a busy day, involving me travelling to London in order to carry out my duties as external examiner for the MSc in Astrophysics in the School of Mathematical Sciences at Queen Mary, University of London. Every time I go to my old stomping ground on Mile End Road,  the East End something seems to have changed, whether in the college or in the environs. This time was no exception, as they’ve finally finished the new entrance to the Mathematical Sciences Building:

You can’t see it all that well, but it’s decorated with Penrose Tiling (although it’s not specified who did the grouting). Inside there’s a spacious new foyer area – devoid of any possible teaching use, but probably a nice area for students to gather informally. Inside has a sort of 1960s retro feel, with bright yellow plastic floors and modernist soft furnishings. Austin Powers would probably feel at home there. The large lecture theatre has also been comprehensively refurbished and looks very nice, although its capacity has been reduced. Less emphasis on teaching facilities, more on “the student experience” I suppose.

I used to work at Queen Mary, in the Astronomy Unit; in this very building, in fact. I can’t help being a bit cynical about the new front entrance. There are so many other things wrong with the building – grubby concrete exterior, badly fitting windows and lavatories that don’t work, to name but a few – that I can’t really understand what made someone decide that what it really needed was a new garish plastic foyer. It’s up to Queen Mary to decide where to spend its money, of course, but I think it’s strange.

Other, bigger, news about the Astronomy Unit which I learned yesterday is that this summer, at long last, it’s moving from the School of Mathematical Sciences to merge with the Physics department in order to form a new School of Physics & Astronomy. In fact, when I was there there were astronomers in Physics (mainly instrumental and observational) and in Mathematical Sciences (mainly theoretical, including myself). Some years ago most of the instrumentation people moved from the School of Physics here to Cardiff, where they are still. The remaining astronomers moved to Mathematical Sciences. Now they’re moving back to Physics along with those currently in Maths. Oh what a tangled web.

For the time being the Astronomy Unit will stay in their existing offices but will eventually move in with Physics once that building is refurbished. I guess the main thing that will change immediately is that various astronomers will have new letterheads and will have to start teaching physics courses instead of mathematics.

Feelings about the move among the staff appear to be rather mixed, but I wish them well in their new School and with their plans to build up Physics & Astronomy in the future.

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10 Responses to “Old School”

  1. The name “Queen Mary, University of London” seems a bit odd. Something like “Queen Mary(‘s) College, University of London” would seem to make more sense. Or am I missing something?

    • telescoper Says:

      It was Queen Mary College when I first moved there. After the merger with Westfield College was then Queen Mary & Westfield Collge and then it merged with the medical teaching parts of Barts and the Royal London at which point, after much consultation with corporate identity people and lots of £££, “Queen Mary, University of London”. Don’t ask me what was wrong with “Queen Mary College” because I don’t know.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      The Queen Mary is moored at Long Beach, not in the east end of London.

  2. It seems that many, if not most, observatories and other astronomy departments have now fused with the physics department at their (associated) university, although the details vary. Has there been a case where most of the people involved (on the astronomy side) think this was a good idea? My own experience in discussing such things with those involved is that the average opinion is, at best, mixed, with several people being quite negative and just a few thinking that it is a great idea.

  3. Wow, I start the MSc (part time) there in September. I guess that means you could be marking my papers next year.

  4. Bryn Jones Says:

    A long-standing problem with the Queen Mary Mathematical Sciences building was that it offered minimal space to undergraduate students outside of teaching. There was almost nowhere for students to sit, socialise or discuss academic issues amongst themselves. The new foyer should fill this void. The consequent loss of teaching space is a problem, and the reduction in capacity of the main mathematics lecture theatre is limiting, given the very large classes for many first-year mathematics courses.

    I have often argued that a little judicious redecoration of the Mathematical Sciences building would greatly improve its appearance. Bare concrete interiors that would once have had a 1960s modernist look, today look grubby. Plastering over these and painting would improve the appearance.

    I am concerned about the decision to move the Astronomy Unit to the Department of Physics. Senior Queen Mary management considered three options, I have been told. These were (1) to leave things as they were, with separate schools of Mathematical Sciences and Physics, and the Astronomy Unit in the School of Mathematical Sciences; (2) merge both schools into a super-department encompassing mathematics, physics, statistics and astronomy; (3) move the Astronomy Unit from Mathematical Sciences to Physics, but leave the schools otherwise unchanged. It is this last option that has been chosen.

    My view is that this option was the poorest of the three for astronomy at Queen Mary. Mathematics undergraduate degree schemes attract lots of applicants for places, in mathematics itself and also for degree schemes combining mathematics with subjects such as business studies or finance. The maths student numbers have expanded at Queen Mary over the past several years by diverting some student places from some other degree subjects that were having difficulty in filling student places. Therefore, mathematics teaching is healthy and economically strong, and members of the Astronomy Unit contribute to undergraduate mathematics teaching. In contrast, the physics department has had some difficulties filling student places over the past decade, and has been a little dependent on its very successful research funding stream for its economic health.

    The record of the Queen Mary physics department in relation to astronomy has not been good over the past decade: it had an active, successful astrophysics research group but that fell apart, with the departure of some members to another university as Peter wrote above, and the retirement of some others without replacement. Only one academic was left to transfer to the Astronomy Unit in the School of Mathematical Sciences when astronomy was rationalised in one place. This left the School of Physics with an astrophysics degree scheme but no astronomers to teach it. Physics considered closing its astrophysics degree scheme at one point, but has more recently committed to keeping it going. I hope that the Astronomy Unit is given the support it will need to flourish in the future.

    • telescoper Says:

      Bryn

      Another issue is that several members of the Astronomy Unit will be retiring over the next few years. It remains to be seen what the policy will be for replacing them in the new School of Physics & Astronomy.

      Their plan is to increase undergraduate student numbers in Physics, but it’s one thing to increase one’s quota and quite another to recruit the students to fill the places….

      Peter

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        Peter,

        Yes, deciding to replace staff who will retire will be a very important issue. It will determine whether the Astronomy Unit maintains its size or withers.

        My view is that university departments can get their acts together to recruit students better. I’ve seen it done (including in Physics and Astronomy in Cardiff). It requires a lot of effort, thought, planning and energy. It remains to be seen whether the Queen Mary physics department will manage that. Having astronomers there will help, but is not itself sufficient.

        Bryn.

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