Archive for October, 2012

Will University Swapping Work?

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , on October 21, 2012 by telescoper

Yesterday’s crossword having been more straightforward than usual, I found myself with time to peruse the Independent newspaper at my leisure. While doing so I came across a little item describing a plan suggested by Lord Rees that students from “disadvantaged backgrounds” should be allowed to swap universities after two years of a three-year degree and transfer to a Russell group institution. Apparently this idea is based on a scheme that runs “successfully” in the University of California.

The purported aim of this is to give “a second chance” to students who didn’t do well enough at A-level to get into an “elite” university – which is laudable – but it doesn’t deal with the underlying problem, namely that our pre-university education system is a mess, for two reasons.  First, students can have the misfortune to attend a school where certain subjects are taught badly or not at all. This is a particular problem in my own field, physics. Second, the A-level examinations on which most institutions base their entry criteria do not provide a reasonable assessment of a candidate’s suitability for university study.

Because of these problems many students either don’t apply to top universities or fail to make the grades required. Such universities are reluctant to drop their grades to make special allowance because they would then get penalised in the league tables –  a high entry requirement at A-level is perceived to be a mark of quality. I’m convinced that this is a major flaw in the system. Some of the very best students I’ve had the pleasure to work with at Cardiff, for example, came in at a time when our recruitment team was struggling to meet its quota,  with modest A-level scores that would not normally have been high enough to get in. I worry a great deal about how many more talented young people there are out there who lacked that bit of luck and missed out entirely.

Lord Rees is correct in saying that it will take a very long time to fix the pre-university education system, and his proposal is an attempt to provide a sticking-plaster solution later on. If you like, it’s an admission of defeat. Elite universities will be allowed to carry on using inappropriate criteria to reject talented students applying to join the first year of a degree, but will be allowed to cherry-pick the best performers from other institutions into Year 3.

Although I think this proposal contains some good ingredients, there are several things about it that worry me. I don’t know how many students will want to move after two years in the first place. They will have made friends, formed relationships, and generally settled in at their original university and to up sticks in order to travel to another university for their final year would be very disruptive. Steps would have to be taken to ensure continuity of curriculum too. And what about the financial and other implications for the original institution, which would have to be prepared to lose an indeterminate number of its best students at the end of Year 2, with consequent impact on the quality of its graduating class?

I don’t think it’s fair for the so-called “elite” to exploit the hard work put in by other departments and institutions in order to mask its own failure to recruit appropriately. The only fair solution is to fix the university admission system, which means fixing our  broken A-levels.

And another thing. I’m shortly moving from Cardiff (which is a member of the Russell group) to Sussex (which isn’t).  Look at the league tables for Physics and tell me which one should be regarded as “elite”. Should students choose their University on the basis of which one provides the best education, or on the basis that it provides membership of a prestigious club?

On balance, I don’t think this scheme is workable in the way suggested. There is a variant, however, which I think is more promising. I think we should scrap the current confused system of 4-year undergraduate degrees (MPhys, MSci, etc) and adopt a standard system of 3-year Bachelors degrees. The next level of degree should be standalone postgraduate Masters. I’d prefer these to be two years, actually, but that’s not essential to this argument. Students could then transfer after their Bachelors’ degree into an “elite” university for their Masters if they so wish.


Philosophy of Science Poll

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on October 20, 2012 by telescoper

I’m told the following quotation from esteemed theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking is very profound:

Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing.

Huh? I can’t make sense of it at all. Is it just me that finds it entirely devoid of either logic or  meaning?

Please tell Mr Polldaddy what you think….

You might even try to explain it to me via the comments box, but be patient because I’m thick.

And death is now my neighbour

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on October 20, 2012 by telescoper

I find myself in a very strange mood this morning after the horrendous events that unfolded in Cardiff late yesterday afternoon during the Friday rush hour. I didn’t know anything about them at the time, and even several hours later the picture was extremely confused. Stories were flying around that many people had been killed by a man in a white van who had been driving around deliberately running over pedestrians in Ely, which is to the west of Cardiff city centre.

This morning a slightly clearer picture has emerged. One person was killed but fourteen were injured, some of them critically. Five children are among those injured, the youngest just 23 months old. The University Hospital at Cardiff has this morning appealed for emergency blood donations as supplies are running short.  Grim.

The driver of the white van has been taken into custody on suspicion of murder, but his motives remain (for now) a mystery. It seems he went berserk after an incident at or near the Asda supermarket in Leckwith and went on the rampage, deliberately trying to run over pedestrians (including women and children) until stopped.

Here is a map of the area:

If you look at the top right-hand corner of the map you can see the cricket ground at Sophia Gardens; my house is to the North-West of that, near the slight kink in the main road (Cathedral Road) that runs by the stadium.  The Cardiff City football ground can be seen near the caption marked “Sloper Road”. That’s about 20 minutes’ walk from where I live.

I was several miles away at the time, so was never in any danger, but even from a such a distance it’s very disturbing when familiar “safe” places become sites of violence and destruction. Most of the time life seems so secure, but things like this show how fragile it can be. I can’t even begin to imagine what people must be feeling who experienced those events first hand.

It’s been a lovely sunny morning this morning, but there’s a palpable sense of shock around the neighbourhood. I think it’s the incomprehensibility more than anything. Why would someone do such things? What on Earth was going through his mind? Perhaps the Police investigation will provide answers. In the meantime  all I can do is post my sincerest condolences to the loved ones of the person who was killed, and wish a speedy and complete recovery for all those injured or traumatised by what they saw.

A Particle Physics Job at Sussex

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , on October 19, 2012 by telescoper

Following hard on the heels of Tuesday’s news, and the subsequent advert for astronomy jobshere is an announcement of a permanent job in theoretical particle physics at the University of Sussex. I quote from the advertisement:

Candidates are expected to hold a doctorate in theoretical physics and have a strong track record of internationally recognised research in the areas of collider phenomenology, physics beyond the Standard Model, flavour physics, and/or precision tests. The successful applicant will be expected to teach at both the undergraduate and postgraduate level.

Sussex has in recent years invested in SM and BSM phenomenology through faculty appointments both in theoretical and experimental physics. We seek an individual suited and committed to further strengthening and developing this effort.

The group’s wider research interests include model-building, quantum field theory, quantum gravity, and early universe cosmology. It benefits from a close relationship with the Sussex Experimental Particle Physics group, currently expanding its ATLAS effort, an STFC-funded research consortium with Royal Holloway, University of London, and membership of the NExT Institute. The University of Sussex is part of the South East Physics Network (SEPnet).

I’ll be interested to see how many people apply as a result of seeing this here announcement, so if you do fill in an application form  be sure to answer the question “Where did you see this post advertised” with “In the Dark”!


Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on October 19, 2012 by telescoper

And now, with Christmas only several months away, it’s time for a commercial break to advertise the new board game Elemensus, which is a bit like Scrabble, but involves making words out of the symbols for the chemical elements.

I recently played the adults-only version of the game – which was fairly hilarious but not for publication on a family blog (you’d be surprised what sort of words you can make out of chemical symbols) – so here’s a video of how it’s meant to be played by sensible people.

You can purchase Elemensus for yourself or your loved ones here.

I don’t get paid for this, you know..

Three Astronomy Jobs at Sussex

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on October 18, 2012 by telescoper

Following hard on the heels of Tuesday’s news, here is an announcement of three (new, permanent) jobs in Astronomy at the University of Sussex. Full details are in the above link, but the gist is that applications are invited for 3 permanent, full-time faculty positions within the Astronomy Centre.

The 8 existing faculty have research interests that span the observation, modelling/simulation and theory of extragalactic astronomy and cosmology.  We are seeking talented and ambitious colleagues whose research interests complement and extend our current activity.

This advertisement will in due course appear elsewhere, e.g. in the November AAS Jobs Register.

I’ll be interested to see how many people apply as a result of seeing this here announcement, so if you do fill in an application form  be sure to answer the question “Where did you see this post advertised” with “In the Dark”!

The Academy of St Martin in the Fields

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , on October 18, 2012 by telescoper

Just a very quick post this morning about a concert I went to last night at St David’s Hall.

It was a last-minute decision to go and hear The Academy of St Martin in the Fields as I’ve been too busy these days to do much forward planning of non-work activities. However, when I saw that Beethoven’s First Symphony was on the menu I decided to go for it and even persuaded a couple of friends, Ed and Haley, to come along.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1  was the work that opened the concert, in fact, with music director  Joshua Bell conducting from a seated position and playing violin at the same time; at times the expansive gestures he made with his bow threatened to put someone’s eye out.

Perhaps the orchestra hadn’t really warmed up but I found the performance of Beethoven’s First Symphony rather flat. It’s a piece I really love – especially the last movement, which has all the ebullience of a young man making his way in a world that’s rich in possibilities, as well as paying affectionate homage to his predecessors (especially in this case Haydn and Mozart). In last night’s concert, however, I thought the wind instruments (especially the horns) lacked bite and focus and a great deal of the exuberant energy of the last movement was lost.

Next piece up was new to me, the Scottish Fantasy by Max Bruch. For this, Joshua Bell stood centre stage while he played the violin role (beautifully, in fact). Based on a series of Scottish folk songs, this work is pretty (in a slightly mushy way). Not really my cup of tea but I did enjoy Joshua Bell’s poised and expressive violin playing. The orchestra, with a beefed up brass section,  played this one better too.

After the interval we had Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 (“Scottish”), with Joshua Bell back in eye-threatening mode, in place among the first violins. I’ve always had a soft spot for Mendelssohn because his music always seems so beautifully crafted. Some find him a bit twee and cosy, but the Scottish Symphony is a fine work that takes the listener on a long and dramatic journey through a varied musical landscape. I thought last night’s performance was very fine indeed. When I leave Cardiff I’ll certainly miss having so many opportunities to hear world-class music live!

When we emerged from St David’s Hall, it was bucketing down so we made for a local restaurant for a late supper, a glass or two of wine, and a large amount of departmental gossip. By the time we’d finished chatting and drinking, the rain had gone and I had a pleasant walk home without getting drenched. I’ll miss the Cardiff rain too. Sort of.