Archive for June, 2012

Reffing Madness

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 30, 2012 by telescoper

I’m motivated to make a quick post in order to direct you to a blog post by David Colquhoun that describes the horrendous behaviour of the management at Queen Mary, University of London in response to the Research Excellence Framework. It seems that wholesale sackings are in the pipeline there as a result of a management strategy to improve the institution’s standing in the league tables by “restructuring” some departments.

To call this strategy “flawed” would be the understatement of the year. Idiotic is a far better word.  The main problem being that the criteria being applied to retain or dismiss staff bear no obvious relation to those adopted by the REF panels. To make matters worse, Queen Mary has charged two of its own academics with “gross misconduct” for having the temerity to point out the stupidity of its management’s behaviour. Read on here for more details.

With the deadline for REF submissions fast approaching, it’s probably the case that many UK universities are going into panic mode, attempting to boost their REF score by shedding staff perceived to be insufficiently excellent in research and/or  luring  in research “stars” from elsewhere. Draconian though the QMUL approach may seem, I fear it will be repeated across the sector.  Clueless university managers are trying to guess what the REF panels will think of their submissions by staging mock assessments involving external experts. The problem is that nobody knows what the actual REF panels will do, except that if the last Research Assessment Exercise is anything to go by, what they do will be nothing like what they said they would do.

Nowhere is the situation more absurd than here in Wales. The purported aim of the REF is to allocated the so-called “QR” research funding to universities. However, it is an open secret that in Wales there simply isn’t going to be any QR money at all. Leighton Andrews has stripped the Higher Education budget bare in order to pay for his policy of encouraging Welsh students to study in England by paying their fees there.

So here we have to enter the game, do the mock assessments, write our meaningless “impact” cases, and jump through all manner of pointless hoops, with the inevitable result that even if we do well we’ll get absolutely no QR money at the end of it. The only strategy that makes sense for Welsh HEIs such as Cardiff University, where I work, is to submit only those researchers guaranteed to score highly. That way at least we’ll do better in the league tables. It won’t matter how many staff actually get submitted, as the multiplier is zero.

There’s no logical argument why Welsh universities should be in the REF at all, given that there’s no reward at the end. But we’re told we have to by the powers that be. Everyone’s playing games in which nobody knows the rules but in which the stakes are people’s careers. It’s madness.

I can’t put it better than this quote:

These managers worry me. Too many are modest achievers, retired from their own studies, intoxicated with jargon, delusional about corporate status and forever banging the metrics gong. Crucially, they don’t lead by example.

Any reader of this blog who works in a university will recognize the sentiments expressed there. But let’s not blame it all on the managers. They’re doing stupid things because the government has set up a stupid framework. There isn’t a single politician in either England or Wales with the courage to do the right thing, i.e. to admit the error and call the whole thing off.

Stravinsky, Dutilleux and Beethoven at RWCMD

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , on June 30, 2012 by telescoper

I’m a bit ashamed to admit that, although I’ve lived in Cardiff for almost five years now, last night was the first time I’ve ever been inside the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, which is situated by the side of Bute Park. The occasion that took me there was a concert in the fine Dora Stoutzker Hall by the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera  under the baton of Lothar Koenigs. When I arrived for a quick glass of wine before the concert there was some nice jazz playing in the lobby which made me which I’d got there sooner, but that wouldn’t have been possible because there was a leaving do had to attend beforehand. I didn’t catch the names of the musicians but I guess they were students from the College.

Anyway, the first half of the programme for the evening consisted of a short piece called Ragtime by Igor Stravinsky and a longer suite called Mystère de l’instant by Henri Dutilleux. The first item was played by a small subset of the Orchestra and involved only 11 instruments, including a cymbalom. Written around 1918, Ragtime is Stravinsky’s personal reaction to his experience of American popular music. It’s a quirky and entertaining piece, clearly influenced by ragtime and jazz, especially in Stravinsky’s deployment of  lots of interesting rhythmic devices, whilst remaining quintessentially Stravinsky.

After a bit of reorganization of the stage a larger section of the orchestra, still including the cimbalom, returned to play the Dutilleux piece.  This was another work that was new to me. I found it absolutely gripping. It consists of a series 10 relatively short pieces played without interruption, each of which has its own distinct identity. Overall, this work put my in mind of a gallery full  abstract paintings, each having it’s own palette and texture, and the whole effect being rather cryptic and undefinable. You can actually hear a performance on Youtube here, which I heartily recommend if you’ve never heard this work in full before.

The hall at RWCMD is much smaller that at St David’s and with a seat just a few rows back from the stage I had no difficulty reading the music the violinists were playing. It’s clearly a very demanding work, pushing the limits of not only the string instruments but also the rest of orchestra. When the interval arrived I nipped to the gents for some much-needed micturition and found two of the musicians doing the same thing. I asked if the piece was as difficult to play as it looked from the music. He said “yes”…

One of the excellent things about Lothar Koenig’s choice of programme for the Orchestra of WNO is that he’s very good at choosing contrasting pieces that work very well together. After the interval we returned to a much more familiar work, the Symphony No. 4 in B flat Op. 60 by Ludwig van Beethoven. This piece is much better known than the others we heard last night but it’s worth saying a couple of things about it. The first is that Beethoven wrote it extremely quickly, over a few months in 1806. I find that pretty astonishing in itself for such a beautifully crafted piece. The other thing is that its opening – an elegaic Adagio passage – would have seemed very unconventional at the time it was written, even more so because it suddenly leaps into a jaunty Allegro for the rest of the first movement. There’s a tranquil Adagio second movement, but the rest of the symphony is filled with that sense of purposeful exuberance in which Beethoven was something of a specialist.

The 4th Symphony isn’t as well known as the 3rd and the 5th, perhaps because it’s a bit less fiery, but the full Orchestra of Welsh National Opera gave it the  vigorous and characterful performance it deserves, while the rest of the programme reminded us that classical music didn’t end with Beethoven!

And that was the end of a very enjoyable evening. Leaving the RWCMD I discovered that the gate into Bute Park was still open – the gates usually close at twilight – so I was able to take the short cut home to Pontcanna.

Book Signing Caption Competition

Posted in Biographical, Books, Talks and Reviews on June 29, 2012 by telescoper

Having had a bit of fun recently at Ant Whitworth’s expense, I think it’s only fair I should let you have a go at me. Here’s a picture of me taken at a book signing a while ago….

Please feel free to suggest a caption through the comments box…

Astronomy Grant Outcomes

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , on June 28, 2012 by telescoper

While this is by no means an official outlet for news from the Science and Technology Facilities Council nor the Astronomy Grants Panel (AGP) thereof, but I am on the AGP so I thought I’d take the opportunity to pass on a bit of news to the UK community, or at least those members that read this blog.

An email  by Colin Vincent of STFC  was circulated this evening via the ASTROCOMMUNITY email list, which includes the following:

As part of the process for improving the feedback to the community of outcomes we have just published a more detailed listing of the recommendations for all projects. This can be found at

We hope that the community will find this helpful. This information supplements what is already available in STFC’s ‘Grants on the Web’ pages.

The link included there takes you to a page that includes a general description of how the AGP works and what it tries to do, and also for the first time (as far as I’m aware) a link to a document that contains a ranked list of all the projects rated fundable, whether funded or unfunded.

Speaking personally, i.e. not in my capacity as an AGP member, I think making this amount of detail public is an extremely good move, as I think it makes the process much more transparent. There’s just a chance, however, that the actual list might ruffle a few feathers here and there, and probably in other places too.

As always, please feel free to comment through the box below, but if you do so please remember that this is a personal blog and I’m passing this on as a community service. I can’t respond on behalf of the AGP, so please don’t ask me to!

UPDATE:  29th June 2012. The document containing the AGP outcomes has been removed from the STFC website. Don’t ask me why…

Pictures in the Park

Posted in Bute Park, Cricket with tags , , , on June 28, 2012 by telescoper

We’re  approaching  the end of June, and the weather is for the most part typical for a British summer. Rain.

Yesterday evening, however, as I walked home through Bute Park, the weather was sufficiently clement to allow cricket on Pontcanna Fields, which lie on the west side of Bute Park, across the Taff from the city centre.

I stopped and watched for a while, taking in about ten overs. I don’t think there have been many occasions in the last month or so when play has been possible either here or in the nearby SWALEC stadium where Glamorgan play. Or try to;  they’re having a lousy season even when it’s not raining.

The pitches here are notoriously lively – the ball bouncing and darting all over the place makes them very difficult to bat on – and in the game I watched I saw three consecutive deliveries resulting in dropped catches. Let’s just say the fielders must have been out of practice…

Anyway it’s a lovely sight to see people out in the open air enjoying recreational activities in this part of the Park. It’s what a Park is for.

It’s a pity about the park on the other side of the river. Coopers Fields seem to be regarded by the Council as a lorry park and storage area for heavy equipment rather than a place of recreation.

…with the damage caused by all this traffic never repaired. Grass does eventually re-grow if it is given time, but sadly this doesn’t happen in Bute Park. No sooner has one set of temporary buildings been dismantled when another is set up. Indeed, preparations are already under way  for another “event” on this park, with trucks already churning it up again and fencing being deployed to deprive the public of access to it.

Sometimes I wonder  why they don’t just tarmac it all over and be done with it.

R.I.P. Prof. John G. Taylor

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on June 27, 2012 by telescoper

I just received an email from Ian Ridpath pointing out that Professor John G. Taylor had died back in March 2012. The news had passed me by, and I’m quite surprised that there’s very little about this news on the internet with the exception of a brief announcement from the Department of Mathematics at King’s College London:

The Department is very sorry to announce the death of Professor John G. Taylor (JGT) on 10th March. John Taylor was appointed to the established Chair in Applied Mathematics at King’s College London in 1971. His research interests were wide, ranging over high energy physics, superstrings, quantum field theory and quantum gravity, neural computation, neural bases of behaviour and mathematical modelling in neurobiology. He was formidably energetic and remained actively engaged in research until his death.

His name came up on a post of mine a while ago of which the following is an excerpt.

In the 1970s, when Uri Geller was at the height of his popularity,  Professor Taylor took great interest in him and the things that he appeared to be able to do. Professor of applied mathematics at King’s College, London, Taylor was (and remains) a very distinguished scientist and was the first to take the paranormal phenomena displayed by Geller seriously. When Uri Geller visited Britain in 1974, Taylor conducted scientific tests of Geller’s feats of metal bending using all the paraphernalia of modern science, including a Geiger counter. Taylor also experimented with some of the children and adults who claimed to manifest psychic abilities after seeing Uri Geller’s appearances on British television programs. Taylor’s interest in such phenomena was not only in its scientific validation, but also in investigation of the way in which such phenomena take place and the nature of the forces involved. He suggested the phenomena may be some low-frequency electromagnetic effect generated by human beings.

Through the 1970s Taylor was regarded as fully endorsing the paranormal metal bending of Uri Geller, but gradually has made more guarded statements; then in 1980 he largely retracted his support for Geller’s paranormal talents. In 1974 he wrote

The Geller effect—of metal-bending—is clearly not brought about by fraud. It is so exceptional it presents a crucial challenge to modern science and could even destroy the latter if no explanation became available.

Taylor then spent three years of careful investigation of such phenomena as psychokinesis, metal bending, and dowsing, but could not discover any reasonable scientific explanation or validation that satisfied him. He was particularly concerned to establish whether there is an electromagnetic basis for such phenomena. After failing to find this he did not believe that there was any other explanation that would suffice. Most of his experiments under laboratory conditions were negative; this left him in a skeptical position regarding the validity of claimed phenomena.

In contrast to the endorsement in his first book, Superminds, he published a paper expressing his doubts in a paper in Nature (November 2, 1978) titled “Can Electromagnetism Account for Extra-sensory Phenomena?” He followed this with his book Science and the Supernatural (1980) in which he expressed complete skepticism about every aspect of the paranormal. In his final chapter he stated:

We have searched for the supernatural and not found it. In the main, only poor experimentation [including his own], shoddy theory, and human gullibility have been encountered.

Taylor’s investigation of the Geller effect is interesting because it shows that physics doesn’t have all the answers all the time, particularly not when the phenomena in question involve people. Physics research proceeds by assuming that Nature is not playing tricks, and that what can be measured must represent some sort of truth. This faith can be easily exploited by a charlatan. James Randi always argued that scientists aren’t the right people to detect tricks performed by people. This is best left to tricksters. There’s no reason to believe that a theoretical physicist – no matter how brilliant – can spot the way a clever deception is carried out. The best person to see that is a magician, someone like James Randi. Set a thief to catch a thief, and all that.

More Order-of-Magnitude Physics

Posted in Cute Problems, Education with tags , , , on June 27, 2012 by telescoper

A very busy day today so I thought I’d just do a quick post to give you a chance to test your brains with some more order-of-magnitude physics problems. I like using these in classes because they get people thinking about the physics behind problems without getting too bogged down in or turned off by complicated mathematics. If there’s any information missing that you need to solve the problem, make an order-of-magnitude estimate!

Give  order of magnitude answers to the following questions:

  1. What is the tension in a violin string?
  2. By how much would the temperature of the Earth increase if all its rotational energy were converted to heat?
  3. What fraction of the Earth’s water is in its atmosphere?
  4. How much brighter is sunlight than moonlight?
  5. What is the mass of water in a soap bubble?

There’s no prize involved, but feel free to post answers through the comments box. It would be helpful if you explained a  bit about how you arrived at your answer!