Archive for May, 2013

The More Loving One

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , on May 31, 2013 by telescoper

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.

Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.


by W.H. Auden (1907-1973).

The Curious Case of Weinstein’s Theory

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on May 29, 2013 by telescoper

I’m late onto this topic, but that’s probably no bad thing given how heated it seems to have been. Most of you have probably heard that, last week,  Marcus du Sautoy (who is the Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford), wrote a lengthy piece in the Grauniad about some work by a friend of his, Eric Weinstein. The Guardian piece was headed

Eric Weinstein may have found the answer to physics’ biggest problems
A physicist has formulated a mathematical theory that purports to explain why the universe works the way it does – and it feels like ‘the answer’

I’m not sure whether du Sautoy wrote this heading or whether it was added by staff at the newspaper, but Weinstein is not actually working as a physicist; he has a PhD from Harvard in Mathematical Physics, right enough, but has been working for some time as an economics consultant. Anyway, Weinstein also presented his work in a two-hour lecture at the Mathematics Department at Oxford University. Unfortunately, it appears that few (if any) of Oxford’s physicists received an invitation to attend the lecture which, together with the fact that there isn’t an actual paper (not even a draft, unrefereed one) laying out the details, led to some rather scathing responses from Twitterland and Blogshire. Andrew Pontzen’s New Scientist blog piece is fairly typical. This talk was followed by a retraction of an allegation that physicists were not invited to the talk; it turns out the invitation was sent, but not distributed as widely as it should.

Anyway, what are we to make of this spat? Well, I think it would be very unfortunate if this episode led to the perception that physicists feel that only established academics can make breakthroughs in their own field. There are plenty of historical examples of non-physicists having great ideas that have dramatically changed the landscape of physics; Einstein himself wasn’t an academic when he did his remarkable work in 1905. I think we should all give theoretical ideas a fair hearing wherever they come from. And although Marcus du Sautoy is also not a physicist, he no doubt knows enough about physics to know whether Weinstein’s work is flawed at a trivial level. And even if it is wrong (which, arguably, all theories are) then it may well be wrong in a way that’s interesting, possibly precisely because it does come from outside the current mainstream (which, in my opinion, is too obsessed with string theory for its own good).

That aside, I do have a serious issue with the way Marcus du Sautoy used his media connections to plug some work that hasn’t even been submitted to, let alone passed, the gold standard of peer review. I can’t comment on the work because I wasn’t at the talk and there is no paper for me to study and form my own conclusions. The accompanying blog post isn’t enough to make an informed decision either. It may or not be brilliant. I assure you I have an open mind on that, but I don’t think it’s apppropriate for a Professor of Public Understand of Science to indulge in such hype. It reminds me of a recent episode involving another famous Oxford mathematician, Roger Penrose. Perhaps he’ll get together with Eric Weinstein and look for evidence supporting the new theory in the cosmic microwave background?

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t at all object to Weinstein being given an opportunity to air his work at a departmental seminar or colloquium. Actually, I wish more departmental talks were of a speculative and challenging nature, rather than just being rehashes of already published work. The problem with talking about work in progress, though, is (as I know from experience) is that if you talk too openly about ideas then someone quicker and cleverer than yourself can work out the details faster than you can; while it’s a bit frustrating when that happens, in the long run it’s good for science. Or so I tell myself. Anyway, the problem is not with that: it’s with airing this in the wider media inappropriately early, i.e. before it has received proper scrutiny. This could give the impression to the public that science is just a free-for-fall and that anyone’s ideas, however half-baked, are equally valid. That is irresponsible.

Anyway, that’s my take on this strange business. I’d be interested to hear other opinions through the comments box. Please bear in mind, however, that the word “defamation” has been bandied about, so be careful, and note that this piece expresses my opinion. That’s all.

Bang Goes the Accelerator

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on May 28, 2013 by telescoper

243679No time to post anything energetic today, so I just thought I’d pass on a little snippet of information that not a lot of people know. The BBC TV series Bang Goes the Theory – or at least the part of it that isn’t done on location – is filmed in the building shown on the left, the Accelerator Building, located just behind Pevensey 2 at the University of Sussex, where the Department of Physics & Astronomy is based (and wherein my own office is located). It’s actually quite a large space, extending underneath a car park, which was (as its name suggests) built to house a linear accelerator (which is no longer there). The building is currently leased out to the BBC by the University, but perhaps before too long it might once again be used for physics…

Tuition Fee Caps

Posted in Education, Finance, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on May 27, 2013 by telescoper

I know it’s a Bank Holiday, but I’ve been thinking…

About a week ago I posted an item arguing that the current system of higher education funding is detrimental to the health of STEM disciplines (i.e. Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). The main reason for this is that present funding arrangements fail to address the real difference in cost of degree courses in various disciplines: the income to a University for a student doing Physics is about £10.5K whereas for a student doing, say, English it is £9K. I would  estimate the extra cost for the former corresponds to at least a factor two and probably more. That’s partly because Physics requires laboratory space and equipment (and related technical support) that English does not, but also because Physics students receive many more contact hours with academic staff.  The issue is just as much about arts students being ripped off (as they undoubtedly are being) as it is a strategic failure to protect the sciences.

The problem is that the Council responsible for distributing funding (HEFCE) is strapped for cash, so is unable to fund STEM disciplines at the higher level of resource that it used to.  Since the government has decided, in its  (finite) wisdom, to transfer most of the cost of higher education to the students, HEFCE can now exert very little influence on how universities plan their portfolio of courses. Since it is a lot cheaper and easier to expand capacity in Arts & Social Sciences faculties than in the more expensive STEM disciplines, this is an incentive for Universities to turn away from the Sciences. Given our economic predicament this policy is simply perverse. We need more scientists and engineers, not fewer.

This morning I read an article in the Times Higher about the present £9K tuition fee cap. Not surprisingly the Russell Group of self-styled “elite” Universities wants it lifted, presumably so its Vice-Chancellors can receive even bigger pay rises. But that’s not the point. The article made me think of a cunning (or perhaps daft) plan, which I’m floating here with the prediction that people will shoot it down through the comments box.

Now before I go on, I just want to make it clear that I’m not – and never have been – in favour of the present funding system. I don’t object to the principle that students who can afford to should contribute to the cost of higher education, but the arrangements we’re stuck with are indefensible and I don’t think they will last long into the next Parliament. It’s telling that, only a decade after introducing tuition fees, Germany is now scrapping them. I’d prefer a hybdrid system in which the taxpayer funds scholarships for STEM disciplines and other strategically important areas, while leaving universities to charge fees for other disciplines.

However, since we’ve been lumbered with a silly system, it’s worth exploring what might be achieved by working within it. There doesn’t seem to be much creative thinking going on in the coalition, and the Labour Party just says it would reduce the fee cap to £6K which would squeeze all academic disciplines equally, without doing anything about the anomalies mentioned above.

My  idea is quite simple. I propose that universities be entitled to lift their fee levels for STEM subjects by an amount X, provide that they reduce the fees for Arts and Social Sciences students by the same amount. The current fee level is £9K for all disciplines, so an example might be for STEM subjects to charge £12K while A&SS (if you pardon the abbreviation) get £6K. That would achieve the factor of two differential I mentioned above.

The advantages of this proposal are that it gives an incentive for universities to promote STEM disciplines and more properly reflects the difference in cost of the different subjects, without increasing the cost to the Treasury. In fact only about 25% of students study in STEM disciplines, at least for the moment, so the cost of fee loans will actually go down

The biggest potential flaw is  that increasing the cost to STEM students would put them off. There’s simply no data on which to base an argument as to whether this would be the case or not. I suspect however that a difference in price would be perceived by many as a difference in value.

Anyway, it’s just an idea. That’s what blogs are for. Thinking out loud as it were. Feel free to object..

IQ in different academic fields – Interesting? Quite!

Posted in Bad Statistics with tags , , , on May 26, 2013 by telescoper

You all know how much I detest league tables, especially those that are based on entirely arbitrary criteria but nevertheless promote a feeling of smug self-satisfaction for those who lucky enough to find themselves at the top. So when my attention was drawn to a blog post that shows (or purports to show) the variation of average IQ across different academic disciplines I decided to post the corresponding ranking with the usual health warning that IQ tests only measure a subject’s ability to do IQ tests. This isn’t even based on IQ test results per se, but on a conversion between the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) results and IQ which may be questionable. Moreover, the differences are really rather small and (as usual) no estimate of sampling uncertainty is provided.

Does this list mean that physicists are smarter than anyone else? You might say that. I couldn’t possibly comment…

  • 130.0 Physics
  • 129.0 Mathematics
  • 128.5 Computer Science
  • 128.0 Economics
  • 127.5 Chemical engineering
  • 127.0 Material science
  • 126.0 Electrical engineering
  • 125.5 Mechanical engineering
  • 125.0 Philosophy
  • 124.0 Chemistry
  • 123.0 Earth sciences
  • 122.0 Industrial engineering
  • 122.0 Civil engineering
  • 121.5 Biology
  • 120.1 English/literature
  • 120.0 Religion/theology
  • 119.8 Political science
  • 119.7 History
  • 118.0 Art history
  • 117.7 Anthropology/archeology
  • 116.5 Architecture
  • 116.0 Business
  • 115.0 Sociology
  • 114.0 Psychology
  • 114.0 Medicine
  • 112.0 Communication
  • 109.0 Education
  • 106.0 Public administration

The Thought Fox

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on May 25, 2013 by telescoper

I imagine this midnight moment’s forest:
Something else is alive
Besides the clock’s loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.

Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:

Cold, delicately as the dark snow,
A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now

Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come

Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Brilliantly, concentratedly,
Coming about its own business

Till, with sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.


by Ted Hughes (1930-1998)

Buildings of Sussex (University)

Posted in Architecture with tags , , , , , on May 24, 2013 by telescoper

Shamelessly ripped off from the University of Sussex Staff News comes an interest snippet. Nearly 50 years after it first came out, the revised Sussex edition of a renowned series of architectural guides is about to be published – with our own Falmer House on the front cover.

Falmer House

The news item goes on

The Sussex volume of Sir Nikolaus Pevsner’s comprehensive and authoritative 46-volume series was first published in 1965. It includes seven pages on the “uncompromising” 1960s Sussex architecture by Sir Basil Spence – the subject of an exhibition on campus in 2012.

“The campus has worn well,” writes Antram, who is sensitive to the original, listed Spence buildings and those of the later, evolving campus.

“There is a carefully controlled relationship between landscape and buildings, sometimes formal, sometimes informal, the established park and Downland setting omnipresent …

“The buildings are remarkably homogeneous, their leitmotifs being heavy, chunky slabs of in situ cast concrete vaults, often used as bands, contrasted against the red brick walls …

“Roman indeed seems the epic monumentality of the Sussex buildings with their rhythmic arches and grand exterior staircases, even if that formality is softened by the materials and the asymmetrical layout.”

The campus tour of individual buildings begins with Falmer House, the first 1960s building in the country to be given Grade I listed status by English Heritage.

Pevensey 1 is described as “high drama”, the Chichester Lecture Theatre as an “awesomely plain brick drum” and the Library as a “rather brooding presence”.

Swanborough, meanwhile, is “unassuming”, and East Slope consists of 13 “troglodytic blocks stepped up the hillside”.

In my experience, opinions are generally rather divided about the architectural quality of the buildings on the University of Sussex campus. Mine are too, actually. I think the overall plan is wonderful with its accurately aligned central axis visible in the jacket photograph. On the other hand, some of the buildings – especially the John Maynard Smith Building (when I was a student here  it was called BIOLS) is not very good at all and may well be demolished soon to make way for new Science Buildings. I agree that East Slope is dire. The building I am in – Pevensey (formerly MAPS) -is actually rather nice, and most staff seem to like it here. My favourite building on the campus, however, is the Library; largely because Sussex still has a “library” as opposed to a “Learning Resources Unit” or some such nonsense. In any case I don’t find it at all “brooding” so I’m  mystified by that comment.

Some have called it brutalist but I think the relationship between the campus buildings and the surrounding countryside has been managed very sensitively. It’s purely a matter of taste, of course, and no doubt some locals will want to express differing opinions through the comment box!