Archive for September, 2012

Credentialism and Overexamination

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , , , , , on September 30, 2012 by telescoper

Only time for a quick post this morning as I have to go into the department to get my things ready for tomorrow, when the Autumn Semester starts and I have to begin lecturing (at 9am on a Monday morning). Anyway, the text for today’s sermon is provided by Ed Smith’s Left Field column in the New Statesman, the latest issue of which I read yesterday. His topic is the rise of credentialism and the resulting excessive amount of examination in the British school system:

It is now widely accepted that British pupils are excessively over-examined. Teachers are so busy focussing on examinations that there is little time left for education. Exam-led cramming has become the year-round norm – like an election campaign that consumes the whole political cycle. Exams are obviously necessary. But there is an optimal amount of assessment and it has been far exceeded. Grade inflation – notwithstanding this year’s controversial “crackdown” – is simply accepted as a fact.

It’s well said, and it’s not just the school system that suffers from disproportionate emphasis on assessment over education. It’s rife throughout the university system too, starting with the reliance on A-level grades as criteria for assessing students’ suitability for university study, through the “modular” undergraduate degree programmes with examinations twice a year for three or four years.

We examine far too frequently and the effect of this has been to turn the entire education system into a meaningless exercise in box-ticking.

It is an unfortunate irony: in our age of credentialism, exams have never mattered more. And yet they have never been more unreliable as gauges of academic quality.

I’ve felt for some time that in my discipline, Physics (and Astronomy) A-levels are virtually useless as indicators of the suitability of a student for doing an undergraduate degree. Some of the very best students I’ve ever had the pleasure to teach came into my university with modest A-level scores; and some students who came in with perfect grades at school never adjusted to the different, more independent type of study required of an undergraduate.

As Ed Smith points out, the increased emphasis on examination grades hasn’t expanded opportunity either.  It may appear to be fairer to base university entrance or award jobs on examination results rather than, say, interviews, but this has just led to a system that can be easily gamed – private tutors, cramming, re-sits to improve grades, and so on. He rightly concludes that the “correlation between exam results and intelligence has been steadily weakening”.

So what’s the alternative? Smith mentions the admissions process at Harvard University, which famously ignores high-school grades and relies on its own interview system. Interviews can be very biased if carried out in an inappropriate way. Subjecting a young person to a 30-minute grilling  in a room with a complete stranger can be enormously stressful for applicants who are shy, and would also play into the hands of those whose educational background has involved specific training for such ordeals. But one thing I’ve found by talking to students face-to-face is that it doesn’t take very long to identify precisely those things that the examination system does not: imagination, enthusiasm for the subject,  and a flair for thinking on your feet:

One teacher told me with regret that she had to advise her most academic pupil not to display her full intellectual range: in order to secure all the ticks, first you have to stop thinking freely.

If you don’t believe this, take a look at this GCSE Science Examination. A truly intelligent student would struggle to find any correct answer for many of the questions on that paper!

This is why we still place so much emphasis on interviews in the postgraduate admissions system: we take it for granted that all applicants for PhD places will have good undergraduate degrees. What marks out an excellent candidate for a position as  research student, however, is not the ability to pass exams but a mixture of creative flair and almost obsessive determination to surmount the difficult challenges involved in independent research. The correlation between these characteristics and degree results is by no means strong.

The problem for a UK University in adopting the Harvard approach is that credentialism is now running the system. Students apply to universities largely on the basis of their predicted A-level grades, lowering their sights if their predicted grades would not be expected to get them into a more “presitigious” department. But departments that take in students with low A-level scores also get marked down in the league tables for taking in “weaker” students. We’re all aware that A-levels are basically useless, but both sides are  bound so tightly into the system that there seems to be no escape.

So what’s the answer? I don’t know if there is one, but I’d love to see what would happen if all universities abandoned A-levels and instead set their own entrance examinations and interviews. It would be a huge amount of work, but it would make a refreshing change if universities could gather useful information rather than relying on the uninformative guff produced by the national examination boards.

And here is Smith’s closing remark that rings very true to me for personal reasons,

There is a further dimension to the problem of credentialism. It encourages life’s winners to underestimate their good fortune and to over-rate the extent to which they deserve their success. Far from advancing talent over privilege, credentialism has strengthened the grip of people already at the top.

Giving up smoking…

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , on September 29, 2012 by telescoper

There’s not a Shakespeare sonnet 
Or a Beethoven quartet 
That’s easier to like than you 
Or harder to forget. 

You think that sounds extravagant? 
I haven’t finished yet – 
I like you more than I would like 
To have a cigarette. 

by Wendy Cope (b. 1945).

Cosmology Webcasts Coming Up…

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on September 29, 2012 by telescoper

Courtesy of freelance science writer Bruce Lieberman, whom I met briefly at the recent “Origin of the Expansion of the Universe” meeting in Flagstaff, AZ,  here’s a plug for two live webcasts on topical topics that are coming up in the next couple of weeks. On behalf of the Kavli Foundation, Bruce will be interviewing astronomers about the new Hubble XDF image (Oct. 4) and the new Dark Energy Survey camera, which just saw First Light (Oct. 11).

Live Q&A and Webcast: What Does Hubble’s Deepest Image of the Universe Reveal?

Click on the above heading for  direct link to webcast.

October 4, 11-11:30 am PDT (18-18:30 GMT; 19-19:30 BST)

Using data from the Hubble Space Telescope, a multi-national team of astronomers recently released our deepest-ever image of the
universe. Pascal Oesch, a Hubble Fellow at the University of California at Santa Cruz, and Michele Trenti, a researcher at the Kavli Institute for Cosmology, Cambridge at the University of Cambridge in the U.K., answer your questions about how the image was created and what it reveals about the early universe.

Viewers may submit questions to the two Hubble researchers via Twitter using #KavliAstro or email to

Live Q&A and Webcast: Can a New Camera Unravel the Nature of Dark Energy?

Click on the above heading for  direct link to webcast.

October 11, 9-9:30 am PDT (16-16:30 GMT; 17-17:30 BST)

Scientists have great expectations for the newly operational Dark Energy Camera, which may significantly advance our understanding of the mysterious force expanding the universe at an ever accelerating rate. Fermilab scientists Brenna Flaugher, project manager for the Dark Energy Camera, and Joshua Frieman, director of the Dark Energy Survey, answer your questions about the camera and what it’s expected to reveal.

Viewers may submit questions via Twitter using #KavliAstro or email to

Alternative London Underground Signs

Posted in Uncategorized on September 28, 2012 by telescoper

Some of these are pure genius 🙂

Joe Blogs

My friend Darren sent me a linkto these rather excellent alternative London Underground signs…

(click image above for link to original photographers blog)

Apparently they’ve been appearing for some time now, but like 99% of passengers, I’m sad to say I’ve missed them..

They’ve been done so well, that to a regular commuter, their utter familiarity as part of an accepted, everyday visual clutter, results in them becoming almost invisible, losing all meaning beyond their colour and shape..

Well it’s a lesson learnt for me. I usually pride myself on at least attempting to see beyond the day to day, and resist the automatic filters that city life can generate.

Rest assured, that I will certainly be keeping a much sharper lookout for these signs from now on… How I would’ve loved to have noticed Shepherd’s Pie, overground, Gas mark 4 on a journey into work, it would have…

View original post 3 more words

Extremely Deep Space

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

There’s been a lot of media coverage of this image, taken using the Hubble Space Telescope using an exposure time of 2 million seconds (aproximately 23 days), including a nice feature article on the BBC Website to which I refer you for more explanation, so I’ll keep this post brief. Suffice to say that the Hubble eXtreme Deep Field (XDF) is the deepest image of the sky ever obtained and it reveals the faintest and most distant galaxies ever seen, showing some galaxies as they were over 13 billion years ago. It’s also very very pretty…

And if the overwhelming scale of the Universe revealed by this picture makes you feel worthless and insignificant, just remember that things could have been much worse. You might have been Nick Clegg.

The Cruel Sea

Posted in Film with tags , , , on September 27, 2012 by telescoper

Taking a break from lecture preparations last night I decided to have a look through my collection of DVDs and found a box of old films made by Ealing Studios, among which was The Cruel Sea . The central character in the film is Lieutenant Commander George Ericson (played by Jack Hawkins), officer in command of the corvette HMS Compass Rose as it carries out its duties as a convoy escort vessel during World War II. Made in 1953, this is a war film, of course, but it stands out from many films of that genre because it is not only utterly convincing in its stark depiction of life on the Atlantic (and, later, Arctic) convoys during World War II but also extremely bleak in what it says about the dehumanising effect of the psychological and moral stresses that arise in armed conflict.

The outstanding sequence in the film is the following, in which HMS Compass Rose is attempting to hunt down a suspected U-boat. There’s a strong signal on the ASDIC (sonar) which convinces Sub-lieutenant Lockhart (played by a young Donald Sinden) that they have made contact with a U-boat. Ericson guides his ship towards the target, only to find that there are men in the water – survivors of a merchant vessel previously sunk by a U-boat’s torpedo – precisely where he must drop his depth charges. Does he attack, and kill the men in the water? Or does he spare them, and risk the U-boat killing hundreds more if it escapes? Such are the horrible decisions that have to be made in wartime, and the burden of having to make them must be intolerable.

I think what I admire most about this sequence is that it avoids giving a clear resolution. Was there actually a U-boat? Lockhart was convinced the signal represented a submarine, but ASDIC was known to produce false detections from, e.g. shoals of fish or even interfaces between regions of cold and warmer water.

Early in the war, escort vessels only had depth charges with which to attack submarines. That meant that they had to be directly above the target in order to strike and that, in turn, meant losing the ASDIC contact during the attack. The limited capability of the escorts to actually destroy submarines did not render them useless, as they could keep an individual U-boat submerged and occupied for hours on end. However, when U-boats became more numerous they began to attack in packs, outnumbering the escorts and causing carnage among the merchant vessels. Allied shipping losses reached disastrous levels, especially in 1943 when Britain was close to losing the war by strangulation of supply across the Atlantic.

Later on, the Royal Navy developed a forward throwing weapon (“The Hedgehog”) which allowed ships to attack U-boats while maintaining sonar contact and thus drastically improved their effectiveness during a deliberate attack. This together, with improvements in radar and provision of long range aircraft gradually turned the tide and disaster was averted.

Hunting a U-boat involved a great deal of guesswork and anticipation, hugely helped by knowing something about submarine tactics gained through intelligence work; at one level it was a relentless game of cat-and-mouse – absorbingly depicted in the film – but also of course no kind of “game” at all.

If there was indeed a U-boat in the scene shown above, it might have been destroyed (although one might expect oil and debris to rise to the surface in that case) or it might have escaped. This uncertainty adds another dimension to the moral dilemma of whether or not to attack: if you’re certain it’s a U-boat then you might attack, but what if it’s a probability of 90%? 50%? 10%? What form of calculus can be used in the seconds you have to make your decision?

Particle physics volunteers to be fleeced….

Posted in Open Access with tags , , , , on September 26, 2012 by telescoper

I heard the news yesterday that a body called the Sponsoring Consortium for Open Access Publishing in Particle Physics (SCOAP3) has arranged a deal whereby virtually all articles in particle physics will be available for free on journal websites. The deal will mean that authors will not have to pay thousands of dollars up-front in “article processing charges” in order to have their work available via Open Access media.

So far so good, you’re probably thinking. But read a little bit more about it and it becomes absolutely clear that SCOAP3 has walked straight into a trap laid by the academic publishers with whom it brokered the agreement. The principal deterrent to authors publishing via the “Gold” Open Access model has been that they would have to pay up-front fees, potentially around $2000 for each paper. Any sensible researcher would rather spend $2000 supporting their research than lining the profits of greedy publishers, so would probably opt for a “green” mode instead. Indeed many particle physicists already do this, putting their work on the arxiv where it is available for free anyway.

The publishing industry realises that most authors would simply bypass it and go for self-publication if they could, so it is naturally very keen on deals like this. What actually happens in the SCOAP3 agreement is that an author’s institution pays fees directly to the publisher. According to Nature News:

The consortium will pay the contracts from an annual budget of €10 million, which is funded not by authors or research grants, but by pledges from more than a thousand libraries, funding agencies and research consortia across the world. In effect, existing journal subscription fees are being repurposed to provide the open-access funds.

And there’s the rub. “Existing journal subscription fees” are already extortionately high, and out of all proportion to the actual cost of disseminating scientific knowledge. Authors may think that they’re not paying for Open Access under the new agreement, but in fact they are. It’s just a bit less direct. Their grants will continue to be top-sliced to pay for the SCOAP3 arrangement and, since science budgets are unlikely to rise for the foreseeable future, that means the cash available for actually doing research will fall. This agreement is very good for the publishers, but very bad for science.

The average cost for Open Access publication in Physics Review D. under the new scheme will be $1900 per paper. Ouch! And how does the publisher justify this cost? “To maintain revenue levels…”. I rest my case.

More of the  is going to happen in the UK, where £10M is being set aside from existing Research Council budgets, nominally to “pay for the transition to Open Access” but actually in order to maintain profit levels at the big academic publishing houses. Much of that £10M will no doubt disappear in deals like the one brokered by SCOAP3.  And that means continuing high profits for the publishers at the expense of falling levels of research funding. The whole thing stinks.

And if as an author you decide that you have a moral objection to being scammed in this way, under the SCOAP3 agreement you now have no way out. Even if you bypass the arrangement and just publish on the arXiv, the publishers will get their money directly anyway. You have to admit it’s a clever sting, but I’m still surprised the particle physics community has fallen for it.

This development convinced me even more that the research community has to take matters into its own hands, and organize its own publication strategy. Traditional journals are already virtually redundant and I confidently predict they will die a natural death in just a few years, but while they linger on their publishers will continue to fleece the academic community as long as they can. The sooner we put a stop to it the better.