Archive for August, 2011

It’s not a planet. It’s a white dwarf. (via Matt Burleigh’s Blog)

Posted in Astrohype, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on August 27, 2011 by telescoper

When is a planet made of diamond not a planet made of diamond?

Perhaps when it’s a White Dwarf?

Perhaps when there’s not a shred of evidence that it’s actually made of diamond?

Yesterday Science announced the amazing discovery of an incredibly dense object that appears to be made of a crystalline form of carbon: possibly, ultra-dense diamond (Bailes et al. 2011, Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.1208890). The object orbits a recently-discovered pulsar, PSR J1719-1438, every two hours and ten minutes. It has a slightly higher mass than Jupiter (technically, its minimum mass), but the lack of evidence for direct interaction w … Read More

via Matt Burleigh’s Blog


Results and explanation (via Gowers’s Weblog)

Posted in Education with tags , , on August 26, 2011 by telescoper

I thought I’d reblog this because it pertains to my earlier post from today…

I’ve had a healthy number of responses to my question from the previous post. In case you are reading this post without having read the previous one, I shall continue after the fold, because if you read on it will render you ineligible to participate in the little experiment I am conducting. Every year in Britain, at round about this time of the year, we have the same debate. The GCSE and A-level results come out (these are taken at the ages of 1 … Read More

via Gowers’s Weblog

Are exams getting easier?

Posted in Education with tags , , , on August 26, 2011 by telescoper

With the publication of this year’s GCSE results there’s been the usual clamour about “dumbing down” of educational standards. So are these examinations getting easier or not? I can’t answer that question because I’m far too old to have done GCSEs. The examinations I took at the equivalent stage of my school career were O-levels. But, being an inveterate hoarder of useless articles, I kept the exam papers that I took, so what I can do is put up and example the O-level papers I took (in 1979) and let you decide. I thought the Mathematics one might be of interest, so here it is or rather here they are, because there were two 2-hour written papers; there was no coursework component, so these counted 100% of the final grade.

If you’ve done GCSE mathematics recently, have a look and see what you think!

(You can click on the images to make them bigger if they’re difficult to read…)

I’d be interested in any comments you might have, especially if you’ve actually done GCSE Mathematics (recently or a long time ago). I suspect the most obvious difference is that in my day we did much more geometry…

I might put up the Physics papers if there’s enough interest!

A PC Joke

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on August 25, 2011 by telescoper

An Englishman, a Scotsman, an Irishman, a Welshman, a Ghurkha, a Latvian, a Turk, an Aussie, two Kiwis, a German, an American, an Egyptian, a Japanese, a Mexican, a Spaniard, a Russian, a Pole, a Lithuanian, a Swede, a Finn, an Israeli, a Dane, a Romanian, a Bulgarian, a Serb, a Swiss, a Greek, a Singaporean, an Italian, a Norwegian, a Libyan, a Muslim, a Hindu, a Buddhist and an Ethiopian went to a night club.

The bouncer said, “Sorry, I can’t let you in without a Thai.”

A Healthy Increase

Posted in Education with tags , , , on August 25, 2011 by telescoper

Up early again this morning, I thought I’d do a quick post because I just remembered that there’s a bit of a loose end I’ve left dangling for a week or so owing to my recent indisposition.

I posted about 10 days ago about my week as “responsible person” for the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University owing to the absence of all the really responsible people on their respective vacations. By sheer coincidence my week in charge spanned the day that A-level results were announced and therefore the period during which we finalised this year’s UCAS admissions process. I had thought this might be quite a stressful time because rather late in the day we were given a significant increase in funded student numbers by the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) which made it necessary for us to enter the clearing system to find the extra students.

As it turned out however the prospective students to whom we’d made offers paid back our confidence in them and a large fraction got the necessary grades. We did go into clearing, but only briefly, to pick up a relatively small number of unattached applicants who matched our criteria. I’m happy to report, therefore, that we’ve got a very healthy intake of 120 students this year, up by about 30 on last year. That’s exactly the increase we had planned for and we can cope with it without making drastic changes, such as increasing the size of tutorial groups, that would remove the personal touch that makes this such a pleasant School to work and, I hope, study in.

The hard work done all year round by admissions teams in University departments tends to be drastically undervalued, so I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Carole Tucker for doing such a great job for the School of Physics & Astronomy, ably supported by Nicola Hunt. Where we’d be without them I don’t know.

Modesty forbids me, of course, from pointing out who was acting Head of School while this all came to fruition, and who therefore really deserves the credit….

Stellar Research?

Posted in Education, Science Politics with tags , , , , on August 24, 2011 by telescoper

I heard today that  Chief Scientific Advisor to the Welsh Government, John Harries, has called for Welsh universities to be more “predatory” in attracting “star researchers” to Wales. At first sight I thought that sounded like good news for astronomy, but reading the article more closely I realise that’s not what he meant!

The point is that, according to the BBC article,  Welsh universities currently only attract about 3% of the UK’s research funding whereas the famous Barnett formula allocates Wales about 5% of the total in other areas of expenditure.  Nobody involved in research  would argue for funds to be allocated on any other basis than through quality, so there’s no clamour for having research funding allocated formulaically a là Barnett; the only way to improve the success rate is to improve the quality of applications. John Harries suggests that means poaching groups from elsewhere who’ve already got a big portfolio of research grants…

The problem with that strategy is that it’s not very easy to persuade such people to leave their current institutions, especially if they’ve already spend years acquiring the funding needed to equip their laboratories. It’s not just a question of moving people, which is relatively easy, but can involve trying to replace lots of expensive and delicate equipment. The  financial inducements needed to fund the relocation of a major research group and fight off counter-offers from its present host are likely to be so expensive that the benefit gained from doing this takes years to accrue, even they are successful.

I agree with Prof. Harries that Welsh universities need to raise their game in research, but I don’t think this “transfer market” approach is likely to provide a solution on its own. I think Wales needs a radical restructuring of research, especially in science, across the whole sector, which I think is unacceptably complacent about the challenges ahead.

For a start, much more needs to be done to identify and nurture  younger researchers, i.e. future research stars  rather than present ones.  Most football clubs nowadays have an “academy” dedicated to the development of promising youngsters, so why can’t we do a similar thing for research? Research groups in different Welsh universities also need to develop closer collaborations, and perhaps even full mergers, in order to compete with larger English institutions.

More controversially I’d say that the problem is not being helped by Welsh universities continuing to be burdened by the monstrous bureaucracy and bizarre practices of the Research Excellent Framework, which allocates “QR” research funds according to priorities set by HEFCE in a way that reflects the thinking of the Westminster parliament. The distribution of QR funding in Wales, which is meant to supplement competitive grant income from UK  funding bodies, should be decided by HEFCW in line with Welsh strategic priorities. Wales would be far better off withdrawing from the REF and doing its own thing under the auspices of the Welsh Assembly Government.

What I’m saying is that I’ve got nothing against Welsh universities trying to entice prominent research leaders here;  we’ve recently tried (unsuccessfully) to do it here in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University, in fact. But in the current funding climate it’s not easy to persuade their current institutions to let them go. In any case,  I don’t think parachuting in a few high-profile individuals will in itself solve the deep-rooted problems of the Welsh university system. A longer term strategy needs to be found.

Scotland already punches above its weight in terms of research income for its universities and there’s no reason why, in the long run, Wales can’t do likewise.


Posted in Jazz, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on August 24, 2011 by telescoper

I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to get around the posting this piece, but I suppose it’s better late than never. It’s by the brilliant trio led by Paul Motian (drums) and featuring Joe Lovano on tenor sax with Bill Frisell on guitar. The album it’s taken from is called Trioism,  which was recorded in 1993. I’ve picked this particular track to put up as a taster because it’s entitled Cosmology, which just happens to be my day job…