Archive for October, 2012

Ode to the West Wind

Posted in Poetry with tags , on October 26, 2012 by telescoper


O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou,
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed

The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave, until
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow

Her clarion o’er the dreaming earth, and fill
(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)
With living hues and odors plain and hill:

Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh, hear!


Thou on whose stream, ‘mid the steep sky’s commotion,
Loose clouds like earth’s decaying leaves are shed,
Shook from the tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean,

Angels of rain and lightning: there are spread
On the blue surface of thine aery surge,
Like the bright hair uplifted from the head

Of some fierce Maenad, even from the dim verge
Of the horizon to the zenith’s height,
The locks of the approaching storm. Thou dirge

Of the dying year, to which this closing night
Will be the dome of a vast sepulchre,
Vaulted with all thy congregated might

Of vapors, from whose solid atmosphere
Black rain, and fire, and hail will burst: oh, hear!


Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams
The blue Mediterranean, where he lay,
Lulled by the coil of his crystalline streams,

Beside a pumice isle in Baiae’s bay,
And saw in sleep old palaces and towers
Quivering within the wave’s intenser day,

All overgrown with azure moss and flowers
So sweet, the sense faints picturing them! Thou
For whose path the Atlantic’s level powers

Cleave themselves into chasms, while far below
The sea-blooms and the oozy woods which wear
The sapless foliage of the ocean, know

Thy voice, and suddenly grow gray with fear,
And tremble and despoil themselves: oh, hear!


If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;
If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;
A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share

The impulse of thy strength, only less free
Than thou, O uncontrollable! If even
I were as in my boyhood, and could be

The comrade of thy wanderings over Heaven,
As then, when to outstrip thy skiey speed
Scarce seemed a vision; I would ne’er have striven

As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.
Oh, lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!

A heavy weight of hours has chained and bowed
One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.


Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawakened earth

The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822).

Posted on the occasion of my garden umbrella being blown into next door’s garden and smashing a pane of glass in their greenhouse and causing me to have to pay for the repairs and nearly being late for work.


Rubbishing the Viva

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , on October 25, 2012 by telescoper

There’s a strange article today in the Times Higher that claims that the UK’s system of examining PhD students is “a scandal” and that it is “way behind the rest of the world”. These comments are from a chap called Ron Barnett (an emeritus professor at the Institute for Education, who explains

“Students can spend five years doing their PhD, present their thesis and come up against the maverick view of an independent examiner and in effect be rubbished,” he commented.

“I’ve seen it happen far too many times,” he told a Westminster Higher Education Forum seminar on the future of postgraduate education, held in London on 17 October.

I have to say I find it hard to reconcile such remarks with the business of examining PhDs as I’ve observed it, in Physics and Astronomy. And I’ve done quite a few over the years; see, e.g., here. For a start, it’s extremely rare for a student to spend five years doing a PhD in my field – the Research Councils put extremely strong pressure on departments to ensure that students submit within four years, and most research students take less time than this to produce their thesis.

But it’s the idea that a maverick external examiner can sabotage a PhD that I find hardest to recognize. If that looks like happening the internal examiner should stand up for the candidate. In fact, here in Cardiff we have an additional safeguard against this sort of eventuality: each viva has a Chair as well as the two examiners. The Chair is just there to ensure fair play and that proper procedure is followed, but is rarely (if ever) called upon to intervene in practice.

I can’t speak for other fields, of course, and it may indeed be more of a problem in other disciplines. Curiously, Prof. Barnett says that he has seen it happen “far too many times”. I wonder how? As internal examiner? In which case he should have stepped in to stop it? If not as internal then in what capacity was he privy to the conduct of a PhD viva? I’m confused.

Anyway, in a couple of weeks I’ll be participating in a PhD examination in another country (Denmark). There the defence is public, and it involves two external “opponents”, but I don’t know whether it is easier or harder for the candidate than the British system so I won’t comment on whether it’s fairer or more rigorous than what we have in the UK. I’m very much looking forward to seeing how it works, actually.

In my opinion, if there is a “scandal” in the system of UK PhD examinations, at least in science disciplines, it’s not the one Prof. Barnett describes. It’s that we produce far too many low-quality PhDs based on dull, incremental research and that, if anything, externals are not tough enough.

There, I’ve said it. No doubt you’ll have a go at me through the comments box!

In a Sentimental Mood

Posted in Biographical, Jazz with tags , , on October 24, 2012 by telescoper

A late post this evening, as I’m just back from a short visit to Brighton. I travelled down there yesterday evening and stayed with an old friend in a house I lived in for a time about 25 years ago. I spent most of today meeting some of my future colleagues at the University of Sussex, who made me feel very welcome, and also catching up on some important things to be dealt with when I take over there in the new year. It’s all part of a gradual process of acclimatisation which I’ll need to do so I don’t take ages getting up to speed when I officially start. I didn’t get much time to wander about the town, but many Brighton memories have flooded back over the last couple of days. Cue an old favourite track that I listened to this evening on the train on the way home. It’s from a lovely album recorded by the unlikely combination of John Coltrane and Duke Ellington. They were men of different musical generations, but they admired each other enormously. It’s clear from the relaxed nature of this collaboration that neither felt he had any points to prove; each adapts his style to suit the other, with gorgeous results.

The Tremors from L’Aquila

Posted in Bad Statistics, Open Access, Science Politics with tags , , , on October 23, 2012 by telescoper

I can’t resist a comment on news which broke yesterday that an Italian court has found six scientists and a former government official guilty of manslaughter in connection with the L’Aquila Earthquake of 2009. Scientific colleagues of mine are shocked by their conviction and by the severity of the sentences (six years’ imprisonment), the assumption being that they were convicted for having failed to predict the earthquake. However, as Nature News pointed out long before the trial when the scientists were indicted:

The view from L’Aquila, however, is quite different. Prosecutors and the families of victims alike say that the trial has nothing to do with the ability to predict earthquakes, and everything to do with the failure of government-appointed scientists serving on an advisory panel to adequately evaluate, and then communicate, the potential risk to the local population. The charges, detailed in a 224-page document filed by Picuti, allege that members of the National Commission for Forecasting and Predicting Great Risks, who held a special meeting in L’Aquila the week before the earthquake, provided “incomplete, imprecise, and contradictory information” to a public that had been unnerved by months of persistent, low-level tremors. Picuti says that the commission was more interested in pacifying the local population than in giving clear advice about earthquake preparedness.

“I’m not crazy,” Picuti says. “I know they can’t predict earthquakes. The basis of the charges is not that they didn’t predict the earthquake. As functionaries of the state, they had certain duties imposed by law: to evaluate and characterize the risks that were present in L’Aquila.” Part of that risk assessment, he says, should have included the density of the urban population and the known fragility of many ancient buildings in the city centre. “They were obligated to evaluate the degree of risk given all these factors,” he says, “and they did not.”

Many of my colleagues have interpreted the conviction of these scientists as an attack on science, but the above statement actually looks to me more like a demand that the scientists involved should have been more scientific. By that I mean not giving a simple “yes” or “no” answer (which in this case was “no”) but by give a proper scientific analysis of the probabilities involved. This comment goes straight to two issues that I feel very strongly about. One is the vital importance of probabilistic reasoning – in this case in connection with a risk assessment – and the other is the need for openness in science.

I thought I’d take this opportunity to repeat the reasons I think statistics and statistical reasoning are so important. Of course they are important in science. In fact, I think they lie at the very core of the scientific method, although I am still surprised how few practising scientists are comfortable even with statistical language. A more important problem is the popular impression that science is about facts and absolute truths. It isn’t. It’s a process. In order to advance, it has to question itself.

Statistical reasoning also applies outside science to many facets of everyday life, including business, commerce, transport, the media, and politics. It is a feature of everyday life that science and technology are deeply embedded in every aspect of what we do each day. Science has given us greater levels of comfort, better health care, and a plethora of labour-saving devices. It has also given us unprecedented ability to destroy the environment and each other, whether through accident or design. Probability even plays a role in personal relationships, though mostly at a subconscious level.

Civilized societies face severe challenges in this century. We must confront the threat of climate change and forthcoming energy crises. We must find better ways of resolving conflicts peacefully lest nuclear or conventional weapons lead us to global catastrophe. We must stop large-scale pollution or systematic destruction of the biosphere that nurtures us. And we must do all of these things without abandoning the many positive things that science has brought us. Abandoning science and rationality by retreating into religious or political fundamentalism would be a catastrophe for humanity.

Unfortunately, recent decades have seen a wholesale breakdown of trust between scientists and the public at large; the conviction of the scientists in the L’Aquila case is just one example. This breakdown is due partly to the deliberate abuse of science for immoral purposes, and partly to the sheer carelessness with which various agencies have exploited scientific discoveries without proper evaluation of the risks involved. The abuse of statistical arguments have undoubtedly contributed to the suspicion with which many individuals view science.

There is an increasing alienation between scientists and the general public. Many fewer students enrol for courses in physics and chemistry than a a few decades ago. Fewer graduates mean fewer qualified science teachers in schools. This is a vicious cycle that threatens our future. It must be broken.

The danger is that the decreasing level of understanding of science in society means that knowledge (as well as its consequent power) becomes concentrated in the minds of a few individuals. This could have dire consequences for the future of our democracy. Even as things stand now, very few Members of Parliament are scientifically literate. How can we expect to control the application of science when the necessary understanding rests with an unelected “priesthood” that is hardly understood by, or represented in, our democratic institutions?

Very few journalists or television producers know enough about science to report sensibly on the latest discoveries or controversies. As a result, important matters that the public needs to know about do not appear at all in the media, or if they do it is in such a garbled fashion that they do more harm than good.

Years ago I used to listen to radio interviews with scientists on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4. I even did such an interview once. It is a deeply frustrating experience. The scientist usually starts by explaining what the discovery is about in the way a scientist should, with careful statements of what is assumed, how the data is interpreted, and what other possible interpretations might be and the likely sources of error. The interviewer then loses patience and asks for a yes or no answer. The scientist tries to continue, but is badgered. Either the interview ends as a row, or the scientist ends up stating a grossly oversimplified version of the story.

Some scientists offer the oversimplified version at the outset, of course, and these are the ones that contribute to the image of scientists as priests. Such individuals often believe in their theories in exactly the same way that some people believe religiously. Not with the conditional and possibly temporary belief that characterizes the scientific method, but with the unquestioning fervour of an unthinking zealot. This approach may pay off for the individual in the short term, in popular esteem and media recognition – but when it goes wrong it is science as a whole that suffers. When a result that has been proclaimed certain is later shown to be false, the result is widespread disillusionment. And the more secretive the behaviour of the scientific community, the less reason the public has to trust its pronouncements.

I don’t have any easy answers to the question of how to cure this malaise, but do have a few suggestions. It would be easy for a scientist such as myself to blame everything on the media and the education system, but in fact I think the responsibility lies mainly with ourselves. We are usually so obsessed with our own research, and the need to publish specialist papers by the lorry-load in order to advance our own careers that we usually spend very little time explaining what we do to the public or why we do it.

I think every working scientist in the country should be required to spend at least 10% of their time working in schools or with the general media on “outreach”, including writing blogs like this. People in my field – astronomers and cosmologists – do this quite a lot, but these are areas where the public has some empathy with what we do. If only biologists, chemists, nuclear physicists and the rest were viewed in such a friendly light. Doing this sort of thing is not easy, especially when it comes to saying something on the radio that the interviewer does not want to hear. Media training for scientists has been a welcome recent innovation for some branches of science, but most of my colleagues have never had any help at all in this direction.

The second thing that must be done is to improve the dire state of science education in schools. Over the last two decades the national curriculum for British schools has been dumbed down to the point of absurdity. Pupils that leave school at 18 having taken “Advanced Level” physics do so with no useful knowledge of physics at all, even if they have obtained the highest grade. I do not at all blame the students for this; they can only do what they are asked to do. It’s all the fault of the educationalists, who have done the best they can for a long time to convince our young people that science is too hard for them. Science can be difficult, of course, and not everyone will be able to make a career out of it. But that doesn’t mean that it should not be taught properly to those that can take it in. If some students find it is not for them, then so be it. I always wanted to be a musician, but never had the talent for it.

The third thing that has to be done is for scientists to be far more open. Publicly-funded scientists have a duty not only to publish their conclusions in such a way that the public can access them freely, but also to publish their data, their methodology and the intermediate steps. Most members of the public will struggle to make sense of the information, but at least there will be able to see that nothing is being deliberately concealed.

Everyone knows that earthquake prediction is practically impossible to do accurately. The danger of the judgement in the L’Aquila Earthquake trial (apart from discouraging scientists from ever becoming seismologists) is that the alarm will be sounded every time there is the smallest tremor. The potential for panic is enormous. But the science in this field,as in any other, does not actually tell one how to act on evidence of risk, merely to assess it. It’s up to others to decide whether and when to act, when the threshold of danger has been crossed. There is no scientific answer to the question “how risky is too risky?”.

So instead of bland reassurances or needless panic-mongering, the scientific community should refrain from public statements about what will happen and what won’t and instead busy itself with the collection, analysis and interpretation of data and publish its studies as openly as possible. The public will find it very difficult to handle this information overload, but so they should. Difficult questions don’t have simple answers. Scientists aren’t priests.

Brighton Rock

Posted in Film with tags , , , , on October 23, 2012 by telescoper

Last night I watched the classic 1947 film of Graham Greene‘s novel Brighton Rock. Well, I thought I should get into practice for my tough guy role as Head of School when I move down to the South coast next year. Anyway, this great film is worth watching for many reasons, including a superb performance by Richard Attenborough as the young gangster, Pinkie. But what struck me watching it last night is that this is a rare example of an authentic British Film Noir, not only in terms of the nihilistic central character but also because of the expressionistic use of lighting, deep shadows, and strangely disorienting camera angles, as exemplified in this scene.

One Hundred Years of Pierrot Lunaire

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , on October 22, 2012 by telescoper

I’m a bit annoyed with myself for having forgotten to mark the centenary of the first performance of Arnold Schönberg’s extraordinary work Pierrot Lunaire, which took place on October 16th 1912, in Berlin. Here’s a hasty reworking of an old post to make up for my lapse.

It’s hard to know exactly what to call Pierrot Lunaire. It’s basically a musical setting of a series of poems (by Albert Giraud, but translated into German) so you might be tempted to call it a song cycle. However, it’s not quite that because the words are not exactly sung, but performed in a half-singing half-spoken style called Sprechstimme. Moreover, they’re not really performed in the usual kind of recital, but in a semi-staged setting rather like a cabaret. It’s not really an opera, either, because there’s only one character and it doesn’t really have the element of music drama.

The whole thing only lasts about 40 minutes so the 21 individual pirces are quite short, and they’re arranged as three groups of seven with the narrator Pierrot dealing with different themes in each group. The work was written in 1912 and is his Opus 21, so it’s a relatively early example of  Schönberg’s atonal music but before he turned towards full-blown serialism. Atonalism isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it can (and does in this case) allow a hugely varied musical landscape to be constructed by a small group of instruments.

I’ve heard this work before, on the radio, and found it very intriguing but then I saw a youtube clip of the film version made in 1997 with Christine Schäfer as Pierrot. This is not a film of a concert or a recital, but an extraordinary visual response to the remarkable music and words. The director, Oliver Hermann, creates a grotesque dreamlike urban setting through which Pierrot wanders like a ghost, with emotions alternating between desperate alienation and amused reflection. I think music and film together create a wonderful work of art, which has gone right to the top of my list of favourite music DVDs.

Atonal music is very good for communicating a sense of disorientation and loneliness, course. The lack of tonal centre (or key) means that the listener is denied the usual points of harmonic reference. Hum doh-ray-me-fah-soh-la-ti and you’re drawn very powerfully back to the tonic doh. Deny this framework and the listener feels discomforted, but also, at least in my case, gripped.

Miles Davis’ classic album Kind of Blue – arguably the greatest jazz record of all time – was the first record I heard in which jazz musicians experimented with atonalism, and it has the same effect on most listeners: a spreading sense of melancholia and introspection. Perhaps not great for party music, but, in its own way, extremely beautiful.

Here’s the clip I saw on youtube that started me off on this. It’s the eighth item of Pierrot Lunaire (or, more accurately, the first of the second group of seven; Schönberg was quite obsessed with the number 7, apparently). It’s quite short, so hopefully won’t upset those who can’t stand atonal music for more than a few seconds, but it nicely exemplifies the extraordinary surreal imagery conjured up by the director as a response to the equally extraordinary music. Fantastic.

Value Added?

Posted in Bad Statistics, Education with tags , , , , , on October 22, 2012 by telescoper

Busy busy busy. Only a few minutes for a lunchtime post today. I’ve a feeling I’m going to be writing that rather a lot over the next few weeks. Anyway, I thought I’d use the opportunity to enlist the help of the blogosphere to try to solve a problem for me.

Yesterday I drew attention to the Guardian University league tables for Physics (purely for the purposes of pointing out that excellent departments exist outside the Russell Group). One thing I’ve never understood about these legal tables is the column marked “value added”. Here is the (brief) explanation offered:

The value-added score compares students’ individual degree results with their entry qualifications, to show how effective the teaching is. It is given as a rating out of 10.

If you look at the scores you will find the top department, Oxford, has a score of 6 for “value added”;  in deference to my alma matter, I’ll note that Cambridge doesn’t appear in these tables.  Sussex scores 9 on value-added, while  Cardiff only scores 2. What seems peculiar is that the “typical UCAS scores” for students in these departments are 621, 409 and 420 respectively. To convert these into A-level scores, see here. These should represent the typical entry qualifications of students at the respective institutions.

The point is that Oxford only takes students with very high A-level grades, yet still manages to score a creditable 6/10 on “value added”.  Sussex and Cardiff have very similar scores for entry tariff, significantly lower than Oxford, but differ enormously in “value added” (9 versus 2).

The only interpretation of the latter two points that makes sense to me would be if Sussex turned out many more first-class degrees given its entry qualifications than Cardiff (since their tariff levels are similar, 409 versus 420). But this doesn’t seem to be the case;  the fraction of first-class degrees awarded by Cardiff Physics & Astronomy is broadly in line with the rest of the sector and certainly doesn’t differ by a factor of several compared to Sussex!

These aren’t the only anomalous cases. Elsewhere in the table you can find Exeter and Leeds, which have identical UCAS tariffs (435) but value added scores that differ by a wide margin (9 versus 4, respectively).

And if Oxford only accepts students with the highest A-level scores, how can it score higher on “value added” than a department like Cardiff which takes in many students with lower A-levels and turns at least some of them into first-class graduates? Shouldn’t the Oxford “value added” score be very low indeed, if any Oxford students at all fail to get first class degrees?

I think there’s a rabbit off. Can anyone explain the paradox to me?

Answers on a postcard please. Or, better, through the comments box.