Archive for June, 2013

A Bit of Simon Fanshawe

Posted in Biographical, Brighton, Politics with tags , , , , on June 30, 2013 by telescoper

27On Friday I attended a very interesting event on the University of Sussex campus. This was arranged to mark the forthcoming end of the term of office of the current Chair of Council of the University of Sussex, Simon Fanshawe (left). Simon Fanshawe OBE is, of course,  a well-known radio and TV broadcaster, award-winning comedian and co-founder of the campaigning organization Stonewall. He also has an interesting taste in suits, and provided evidence of that in his outfit on Friday. But enough of matters sartorial. Simon has been Chair of Council for six years, and served as a member of Council for as many years before that, so really has contributed a huge amount to the University over that period. I think it’s safe to say that he has had a much higher profile in his role as Chair than most of his counterparts in other UK universities, so the idea of having a special event in his honour was thoroughly well justified.

First we had a series of three short lectures by Sussex on various issues relating to equality and diversity and how their relate to power and governance. More specifically these were talks about female islamic religious leaders, the nature of political corruption and attitudes to it in different countries, and a particularly fascinating talk by Robert Livingston that touched on many things, including how facial features seem to correlate with success in leadership positions.

After that there was a wine reception and a nice dinner with lots of stimulating conversation. For some reason a major topic on my table was bell-ringing, and why English church bells sound so different from those in continental Europe. I wrote some stuff about that years ago, while I was teaching probability, and may blog about it in future. Everyone else seemed to head home via taxi after dinner, but I wobbled off to the bus stop and got the trusty No. 23 back to Kemptown.

Anyway, I may post later on about some things that popped into my mind as a result of the talks and the subsequent discussion and conversation but for the time being I’ll just mention a very tenuous link with Simon Fanshawe that involves taking a little trip down memory lane. The picture below was taken in either 1988 or 1989 (I’m not very good at dates). It shows me and my partner at the time, Roger, preparing to act as volunteer waiters at a fund-raising dinner (somewhere in Lewes if I remember correctly) organized by the Communist Party of Great Britain:


I wasn’t involved very much in campus politics when I was a graduate student at Sussex (from 1985 to 1988) or a postdoctoral researcher (1988-90) because I found most of it depressingly puerile and short-sighted, that being especially true of the sizable lunatic fringe which also had a disagreeable taste for mindless vandalism. Sadly, times haven’t changed in that respect. I did, however, during that time become an avid reader of magazine called Marxism Today which I thought contained the most incisive political writing of the time and which therefore prompted me to join the CPGB, and eventually became Branch Secretary until I left for London in 1990. Incidentally the Cee-Pee-Gee-Bee decided to dissolve itself as a political party in 1991 and became a sort of leftist think-tank called Democratic Left.

Anyway, the point about that photograph is that the after-dinner speaker on that occasion was none other than Simon Fanshawe, although I doubt if he remembers!

I see the boys of summer

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on June 29, 2013 by telescoper


I see the boys of summer in their ruin
Lay the gold tithings barren,
Setting no store by harvest, freeze the soils;
There in their heat the winter floods
Of frozen loves they fetch their girls,
And drown the cargoed apples in their tides.

These boys of light are curdlers in their folly,
Sour the boiling honey;
The jacks of frost they finger in the hives;
There in the sun the frigid threads
Of doubt and dark they feed their nerves;
The signal moon is zero in their voids.

I see the summer children in their mothers
Split up the brawned womb’s weathers,
Divide the night and day with fairy thumbs;
There in the deep with quartered shades
Of sun and moon they paint their dams
As sunlight paints the shelling of their heads.

I see that from these boys shall men of nothing
Stature by seedy shifting,
Or lame the air with leaping from its heats;
There from their hearts the dogdayed pulse
Of love and light bursts in their throats.
O see the pulse of summer in the ice.


But seasons must be challenged or they totter
Into a chiming quarter
Where, punctual as death, we ring the stars;
There, in his night, the black-tongued bells
The sleepy man of winter pulls,
Nor blows back moon-and-midnight as she blows.

We are the dark deniers let us summon
Death from a summer woman,
A muscling life from lovers in their cramp
From the fair dead who flush the sea
The bright-eyed worm on Davy’s lamp
And from the planted womb the man of straw.

We summer boys in this four-winded spinning,
Green of the seaweeds’ iron,
Hold up the noisy sea and drop her birds,
Pick the world’s ball of wave and froth
To choke the deserts with her tides,
And comb the county gardens for a wreath.

In spring we cross our foreheads with the holly,
Heigh ho the blood and berry,
And nail the merry squires to the trees;
Here love’s damp muscle dries and dies
Here break a kiss in no love’s quarry,
O see the poles of promise in the boys.


I see you boys of summer in your ruin.
Man in his maggot’s barren.
And boys are full and foreign to the pouch.
I am the man your father was.
We are the sons of flint and pitch.
O see the poles are kissing as they cross.

by Dylan Thomas (1914-1953)

Punch and Judy meet Quantum Technology

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on June 28, 2013 by telescoper

It’s an Open Day here on campus, and there’s quite a crowd of potential students and parents gathering in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences here at the University of Sussex to find out a bit more about the School in advance of making decisions about where to apply next year.

I noticed the other day that quite a few of these have appeared on campus over the last few days:


Apparently they’re information points manned by various helpers to help visitors find their way around the place. When I first saw this one, I thought it was a Punch and Judy box, so assumed that there was some sort of conference of Punch and Judy performers going on. That wouldn’t be inappropriate for a University campus, actually, because the traditional name for a Punch & Judy puppeteer is a “Professor”. Not a lot of people know that.

Anyway, none of that is really relevant to what I wanted to post today. I stumbled across this video featuring Winfried Hensinger (one of my colleagues from the Department of Physics & Astronomy within the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences). I thought it would be fun to share it here, just to give an idea of some of the work that’s going on here outside my own speciality of astrophysics. I hope this will complement the real open day with a mini virtual open day on the blog.

Winfried is Reader in Quantum, Atomic and Optical Physics at the University of Sussex and he works in the group we generally call “AMO” (Atomic, Molecular and Optical). In this TEDX lecture he talks about the future of quantum computers and the role the team he is part of, at Sussex University, plays as they develop large scale quantum computers using ions cooled to extremely low temperatures using lasers. Enjoy!

Farewell, then, Leighton Andrews…

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

Although I no longer live in Wales I couldn’t resist commenting on the resignation, announced on Tuesday, of the Welsh Education Minister, Leighton Andrews. It seems that Mr Andrews was spotted holding a placard protesting against the planned closure of a school, a closure that results from his own policies. Personally, I think that it’s quite an imaginative move for a Minister to campaign against his own policies. It shows an open-mindedness absent in most politicians.

Leighton Andrews will probably be best remembered as the architect of the policy that students domiciled in Wales would be protected from having to pay large tuition fee rise by a system of grants, meaning that the Welsh Assembly will pick up the tab for Welsh students. They will still have to pay the “old”  fee level of £3290 per annum, but the WAG will pay the extra approx £6K charged by most Universities since the fee cap was raised. This is good news for the students of course, but the grants will be available to Welsh students not just for study in Welsh universities but wherever they choose to go. Since about 16,000 Welsh students are currently at university in England, this means that the WAG is handing over a great big chunk (up to 16,000 × £6000 = £96 million) of its hard-earned budget straight back to England. This has always seemed to me a very strange thing to do when the Welsh Government is constantly complaining that the Barnett formula doesn’t give them enough money in the first place.

What’s more, the Welsh Assembly grants for Welsh students are paid for by top-slicing the grants that HECFW makes to Welsh universities. So funding cuts for universities in Wales have been  imposed in order to subsidize English universities. This is hardly in the spirit of devolution either!

English students wanting to study in Wales will have to pay full whack, but will be paying to attend universities whose overall level of state funding is even lower than in England (at least for STEM subjects whose subsidy is protected in England). Currently about 25,000 English students study in Wales, compared with the 16,000 Welsh students who study in England, but I wonder how many of them realize that if they study England their £9K fee attracts an additional investment of £1.5K from HEFCE whereas there is no equivalent central resource supplied by HEFCW if they study in Wales? To put it another way, each £1 of tuition fee paid by a STEM student is worth £1.16 in England, but just £1 in Wales.

The other drastic implication of this policy is that HEFCW will have no money left to fund research via the QR mechanism that pertains in England (at least for the time being). I blogged about this a couple of days ago so won’t say any more today.

I don’t think any of my former colleagues in Cardiff are terribly upset to see Leighton Andrews go, but there is some nervousness about whether the replacement might be even worse. The new Education Minister is Huw Lewis. I wish him well in his new post, and hope he has the courage to question some of the decisions made by his predecessor that have had such a negative effect on education in Wales.

Anyway, in bidding farewell to Leighton Andrews I thought I’d show him all due respect, and do him the honour of presenting a look-alike. All reference to Muppets purely coincidental…


Can We Actually Even Tell if Humans Are Affecting the Climate? What if we did nothing at all?

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

Reblog of a post about the doctrine of falsifiablity and its relevance to Climate Change….following on from Monday’s post.

Watts Up With That?

Essay by Charlie Martin

We know, with great certainty, that the overall average temperature of the Earth has warmed by several degreees in the last 400 years, since the end of the Little Ice Age. Before that was a period called the Medieval Warm Period; before that was another cold period, and back at the time of the Romans there was a long period that was significantly warmer — Southern Britain was a wine-growing region. What we’re a lot less certain about is why?

Of course, the “why?” here has been, shall we say, pretty controversial. It’s worth wondering about the controversy and about the social mechanisms through which science is done — I wrote about them during the Climategate controversy as the “social contract of science” — but that’s not what I want to talk about today. Instead, let’s talk about how a scientist thinks about these sorts of…

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University Research Funding: Will the Axe Fall on QR?

Posted in Finance, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , on June 25, 2013 by telescoper

As we tremble in anticipation of this week’s Spending Review, which will determine the budgets for Science and Higher Education in 2015/16, there’s fairly strong evidence that Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne is looking to save about £11.5 billion of public spending. Given that funding for some Whitehall departments is ring-fenced there is considerable speculation that the axe will fall heavily on the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), which seems likely to have to make over £1 billion of savings.

But where will these savings in the BIS budget be made? The government has made noises that it will protect science funding (at least in cash terms) so big cuts in the larger research council budgets appear unlikely. However, Treasury officials have been rumoured as thinking that the Universities are now “awash with money” and should therefore be cut. On the other hand, incoming for University teaching now largely comes from fees so there’s very little of the HEFCE teaching budget to cut further.

Now here’s the rub. The part of HEFCE’s budget that deals with research amounts to about £1.6 billion per year. This, the so-called `QR’ funding, is currently being distributed to Higher Education Institutions according to the outcome of the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). This year we
are preparing submissions to a new system called the Research Excellence Framework (REF), which was always intended to be used to distribute QR funding from 2015/16 onwards. But what if the government decides that the only way to balance the books is to remove the QR funding stream entirely?

The 2012 funding letter from HEFCE states explains that it is distributing

£1,558 million for research. The ring-fenced settlement for science and research means that we will be able to maintain overall funding, in cash terms, until 2014-15.

But this does not include the period covered by the spending review, so it’s perfectly possible that the “ring fence” could be removed, or at least re-interpreted as a result of this spending review.

The government could argue that QR and Research Council grant income correlate so well that there’s no need to continue with the current dual funding system, by which the Research Councils provide grants for specific projects and programmes and the higher education funding bodies provide block grant funding to universities via the QR line. It could also argue that the high fees being charged mean that Universities will be able to cope with these cuts without undue hardship. There is a precedent in Wales, where HEFCW will not be awarding any QR funding after the 2013 REF, so why shouldn’t England do the same? They could also get away with the argument that this money isn’t part of the ring fence mentioned above.

The only problem is that so many institutions have spent so much time on preparations for the REF that cancelling the funding associated with it will mean all that effort is wasted. Indeed, the only remaining justification (if it can be called that) for Universities participating in the REF is for position in various league tables, which is rather a lot of expense for something of extremely debatable value.

Anyway, if I were a gambling man (which I am, actually) I don’t think I’d be betting against this outcome. Predictions are very difficult, especially about the future, but this one is mine. And I hope it’s proved wrong…

Evidence, Absence, and the Type II Monster

Posted in Bad Statistics with tags , , , , , , on June 24, 2013 by telescoper

I was just having a quick lunchtime shufty at Dave Steele‘s blog. His latest post is inspired by the quotation “Absence of Evidence isn’t Evidence of Absence” which can apparently be traced back to Carl Sagan. I never knew that. Anyway I was muchly enjoying the piece when I suddenly stumbled into this paragraph, which quote without permission because I’m too shy to ask:

In a scientific experiment, the null hypothesis refers to a general or default position that there is no relationship between two measured phenomena. For example a well thought out point in an article by James Delingpole. Rejecting or disproving the null hypothesis is the primary task in any scientific research. If an experiment rejects the null hypothesis, it concludes that there are grounds greater than chance for believing that there is a relationship between the two (or more) phenomena being observed. Again the null hypothesis itself can never be proven. If participants treated with a medication are compared with untreated participants and there is found no statistically significant difference between the two groups, it does not prove that there really is no difference. Or if we say there is a monster in a Loch but cannot find it. The experiment could only be said to show that the results were not sufficient to reject the null hypothesis.

I’m going to pick up the trusty sword of Bayesian probability and have yet another go at the dragon of frequentism, but before doing so I’ll just correct the first sentence. The “null hypothesis” in a frequentist hypothesis test is not necessarily of the form described here: it could be of virtually any form, possibly quite different from the stated one of no correlation between two variables. All that matters is that (a) it has to be well-defined in terms of a model and (b) you have to be content to accept it as true unless and until you find evidence to the contrary. It’s true to say that there’s nowt as well-specified as nowt so nulls are often of the form “there is no correlation” or something like that, but the point is that they don’t have to be.

I note that the wikipedia page on “null hypothesis” uses the same wording as in the first sentence of the quoted paragraph, but this is not what you’ll find in most statistics textbooks. In their compendious three-volume work The Advanced Theory of Statistics Kendall & Stuart even go as far to say that the word “null” is misleading precisely because the hypothesis under test might be quite complicated, e.g. of composite nature.

Anyway, whatever the null hypothesis happens to be, the way a frequentist would proceed would be to calculate what the distribution of measurements would be if it were true. If the actual measurement is deemed to be unlikely (say that it is so high that only 1% of measurements would turn out that big under the null hypothesis) then you reject the null, in this case with a “level of significance” of 1%. If you don’t reject it then you tacitly accept it unless and until another experiment does persuade you to shift your allegiance.

But the significance level merely specifies the probability that you would reject the null-hypothesis if it were correct. This is what you would call a Type I error. It says nothing at all about the probability that the null hypothesis is actually correct. To make that sort of statement you would need to specify an alternative distribution, calculate the distribution based on it, and hence determine the statistical power of the test, i.e. the probability that you would actually reject the null hypothesis when it is correct. To fail to reject the null hypothesis when it’s actually incorrect is to make a Type II error.

If all this stuff about significance, power and Type I and Type II errors seems a bit bizarre, I think that’s because it is. So is the notion, which stems from this frequentist formulation, that all a scientist can ever hope to do is refute their null hypothesis. You’ll find this view echoed in the philosophical approach of Karl Popper and it has heavily influenced the way many scientists see the scientific method, unfortunately.

The asymmetrical way that the null and alternative hypotheses are treated in the frequentist framework is not helpful, in my opinion. Far better to adopt a Bayesian framework in which probability represents the extent to which measurements or other data support a given theory. New statistical evidence can make two hypothesis either more or less probable relative to each other. The focus is not just on rejecting a specific model, but on comparing two or more models in a mutually consistent way. The key notion is not falsifiablity, but testability. Data that fail to reject a hypothesis can properly be interpreted as supporting it, i.e. by making it more probable, but such reasoning can only be done consistently within the Bayesian framework.

What remains true, however, is that the null hypothesis (or indeed any other hypothesis) can never be proven with certainty; that is true whenever probabilistic reasoning is true. Sometimes, though, the weight of supporting evidence is so strong that inductive logic compels us to regard our theory or model or hypothesis as virtually certain. That applies whether the evidence is actual measurement or non-detections; to a Bayesian, absence of evidence can (and indeed often is) evidence of absence. The sun rises every morning and sets every evening; it is silly to argue that this provides us with no grounds for arguing that it will do so tomorrow. Likewise, the sonar surveys and other investigations in Loch Ness provide us with evidence that supports the hypothesis that there isn’t a Monster over virtually every possible hypothetical Monster that has been suggested.

It is perfectly sensible to use this reasoning to infer that there is no Loch Ness Monster. Probably.