Last Rites

According to the WordPress stats, the old blog seems to have been unusually popular this week. I don’t really know why, as I don’t think I’ve posted anything of any great consequence. Perhaps it’s just a random fluctuation. Or maybe they’re calculating things differently. I don’t know. I always find it strange that so many people read my ramblings because I’ve no idea who most of them are, as only a small fraction leave a trace in the form of a comment. Anyway, it’s very flattering. Vanity is, of course, the only reason for writing a blog.

I’m not really in the mood to post very much today, but there have been a couple of things that I thought I’d mention, just for the record. At least occasionally, this blog serves as a sort of diary which might be useful in the future when I need to remember when certain things happened.

Yesterday I noticed that a new comment appeared on a post about my old cat Columbo who died nearly three months ago. That comment got me thinking about the old moggy and I finally plucked up courage to do something I’ve been putting off since he passed away. The vet had given me a yellow plastic “sharps” bucket to dispose of the hypodermic syringes that I used to inject him with insulin. These buckets have to be disposed of carefully, by the vet, as the used needles are contaminated with insulin and so can’t be just thrown out with the rubbish. However, the last time I went to the vet was sufficiently traumatic that I’ve not been able to take this article back there, until today.

It was a lovely morning, actually, as I re-traced Columbo’s last journey. The streets were full of saturday morning shoppers enjoying the fine weather. I walked to the vet in quite high spirits and handed over the container, thanking the staff once again for all they did for Columbo and apologizing for taking so long to return it. It was only when I was coming back home that I felt a bit emotional, remembering what it felt like  the last time I made the return journey, without Columbo.

So that’s one thing.  The other was a more upbeat event, but also a farewell of some sort. Yesterday I chaired a PhD examination in the School of Physics & Astronomy. We’re quite unusual in Cardiff in that a thesis examination here involves a Chair in addition to the Internal and External Examiners (and the candidate, of course). The Chair is there as a sort of referee, ensuring all proper procedures are followed and that the questioning of the candidate is done fairly. The Chair doesn’t usually get involved in the actual examination, but sometimes intervenes if things are getting bogged down. The candidate yesterday was Lorenzo Moncelsi and it all went off without a hitch.  The best bit about chairing  a viva voce examination is that you get to tell the candidate the result: “The Examiners have agreed to recommend that you be awarded the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy”. The formal decision to award the degree comes later, via some Registry Committee or other, but it’s a nice feeling to pass on good news like that. In fact, it’s the best part of being an academic, getting to congratulate people on their success whether undergraduate or postgraduate.

Lorenzo is off to Caltech next week to continue his research career with a postdoctoral position and will no doubt in the meantime be continuing the celebration he started last night. Congratulations to Lorenzo, and bon voyage buon viaggio!


UPDATE: Here is a picture taken just after the end of the viva, featuring Supervisor (Enzo Pascale), student, Examiners (Bruce Swinyard and Matt Griffin) and Chair!


9 Responses to “Last Rites”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    White smoke up the departmental chimney!

    Do the examiners pre-arrange with you that they will pick left or right nostril, at which point you inform the candidate?

    And has anybody ever replied “I spend three years doing physics and you give me a doctorate in philosophy? What did I get wrong?”

    More seriously, you also have unhappy news to break if it’s a failure.

    Finally and above all…
    Columbo RIP.

    • telescoper Says:

      PhD actually stands for Doctor of Photocopying.

      The ritual at the end of a viva always involves sending the candidate out of the room while the Examiners “deliberate”. Formally the Chair is supposed to get them to confirm a recommendation and sign some forms. Only then is the candidate re-admitted and told the outcome. It’s all a bit silly, and I’m sure agonising for the candidate, but there you go. We have to have our fun.

      Fortunately I’ve never had to tell anyone they’ve failed. A good supervisor should ensure that a candidate should not submit a thesis that isn’t up to scratch, but of course it’s down to the candidate to perform adequately in the viva. Sometimes nerves get the better of the student and it can be quite painful.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Phillip: fairly clearly the sending-out of the candidate is necessary whle the examiners relay their opinions to the Chair. Consider what would happen if the candidate remained present and one examiner was thinking “Pass” while the other was thinking “Fail”…

        Drummers keep fitter than than the rest of the band, provided they can navigate the hazards that claimed Moon and Bonham.

      • telescoper Says:

        Yes, the Chair has to ensure the final recommendation is agreed and the necessary forms signed before the candidate is re-admitted. In some cases the Examiners also have to agree on a list of corrections to be made, or if the thesis is deficient in some way they may recommend a resubmission.

      • I suspect that sometimes it is a bit silly and at times it is not. Sometimes the result is painfully clear (either way) and at other times there might be room for discussion.
        I guess it is better to be safe than sorry and to keep to the practice even if the chair (or any of the examiners) feels it is open and shut, just in case.

  2. Franziska Says:

    I am really happy for Lorenzo. It must be a dream come true.

  3. I realise you didn’t intend to try to out your anonymous readers but I’ve read your blog for the past 3 years and never felt tempted to leave a comment before.
    Actually when i think about it i realise that I’ve never left a comment on ANY website/blog EVER! And yet I almost always scroll down to look at what other people have said.
    Anyway, I think you write a great blog (although I have to admit that I skip any post about jazz!) and I was very moved by your post ‘Rest in Peace, Columbo’.
    So before I disappear back into the silent section of the webternet I’ll say thanks and keep it coming!

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Do you have a cat, Rich?

      This summer or autumn three friends of mine will have lost their cats (one cat is just hanging on with terminal cancer). Thankfully all have lived good and long lives. I’ve slept with them all (the cats, that is), and I will miss them all. Columbo was one.

      Leonardo da Vinci knew what he was talking about when he called the cat “nature’s masterpiece”.

      • No I don’t own a cat. I’m probably not what you’d call a pet person. But then that post was clearly about more than just a pet and so I was moved nonetheless.

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