Archive for June, 2013

Strike Suspended

Posted in Brighton, Politics with tags , , on June 21, 2013 by telescoper

I worked quite late last night. When I finally got the bus home I checked up on Twitter, and found that CityClean workers who had been on strike had decided to suspend their strike action and return to work. It seems that Brighton and Hove Council made an offer which the GMB Union reps decided was worth putting to their membership. The strike is therefore suspended while a ballot takes place. There’s no guarantee that the offer will be accepted, of course, and the refuse collectors and the rest will presumably go back in strike if it isn’t, but in the meantime the CityClean staff will at least be working properly. This morning I saw signs of the cleanup starting. They seem to be concentrating on the main roads, so the residential streets are still an absolute nightmare, but at least it’s a start. It will probably take weeks to return to normal and “normal” for Brighton is in any case fairly grubby…

Relieved at the news I stopped off for a pint at my local in Kemptown. Most properties in this area are divided into flats (like mine) and there is therefore a very high density of occupation. Kemptown has consequently been hit particularly badly by the strike. Anyway, the offer made to CityClean operatives is covered by a confidentiality agreement so at this point the general public aren’t being told the terms. In the pub a rumour was going around that the offer that is now being put to a ballot has actually been on the table for some time, and that the Union is balloting on it now because public support for the strike has evaporated. I took that all with a pinch of salted peanuts, actually, but when there’s confidentiality it’s human nature that there should be rumour…

Anyway, at least there’s a light at the end of this very long and unpleasant tunnel. If the union does accept the offer made by the Council then hopefully the two sides can start to build a proper working relationship for the future without recrimination or triumphalism on either side.

To paraphrase the Book of Ecclesiastes: better is the end of a strike than the beginning thereof.

Anyway, before yesterday evening’s news I’d already decided to head out of Brighton for the weekend. Hopefully, the place will just a bit more inhabitable when I return to work on Monday.

When is a strike not a strike? When it’s a scam…

Posted in Brighton, Politics with tags , , on June 20, 2013 by telescoper

Well, as the Brighton Bin Strike rumbles on it is rapidly become clear that a public health disaster is imminent. Here are three examples I snapped on the way into work this morning:

IMG-20130620-00134 IMG-20130620-00135 IMG-20130620-00136

Officially the 5-day strike comes to an end today and the City clean workers are supposed to return to work tomorrow morning, but on a “work to rule” which means the backlog will not be cleared over the weekend.

For next week the strikers have made plans for what they call “strategic action”. There are basically three groups of workers involved in the dispute: (i) refuse truck drivers; (ii) refuse collectors; and (iii) street cleaners. The plan is that groups (ii) and (iii) will go back to work, but (i) will remain on strike. This means that groups (ii) & (iii) will turn up for work, and receive full pay, but will be unable to carry out any of their duties because of the absence of drivers to drive the trucks essential for their operation. In effect, the Council Tax payers of Brighton & Hove will be paying for two out of the three groups but not getting any work in return. Presumably future action will rotate these groups, with a similar result.

People can make up their own mind about this tactic, which is intended to ensure that CityClean workers do not lose their entire income while on strike. My view, for what it’s worth, is that it is both cynical and immoral. Effectively, the CityClean operatives are planning to help themselves to Council Tax payers’ money in order to fund the strike, while still expecting the general public to endure the stench and filth generated by their decision to withdraw their labour. I began with some sympathy for the strikers, but I’m afraid if they persist in this action that sympathy will disappear entirely.

A strike is a strike, but the plan for next week is not a strike. It’s a scam.

Meanwhile, the other party to the dispute, Brighton & Hove City Council, is doing exactly nothing to resolve it. The strikers action, however, is not hurting them, it’s hurting the ordinary people of the city. It’s just a question of time before someone is injured (e.g. by broken glass) or contracts a disease from the rotting garbage littering the streets. Hundreds of small businesses, already struggling with the recession, many of which are dependent on the tourist trade for their income, will be forced under. The selfishness and intransigence of both sides is unconscionable. Moreover, the Council has a statutory responsibility to provide a refuse collection service, which is is clearly unable and/or unwilling to do.

We’ve reached the point where the national Government should intervene. And quickly.

The Annunciation of Death

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , on June 19, 2013 by telescoper

It’s a lovely day so I thought I’d turn away to the doom and gloom of the ongoing bin strike towards a much cheerier subject: death. In the film about Stephen Hawking I saw last week there was a moving segment in which Hawking sought solace in music after being diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease and given just a few years to live. The specific piece of music he discussed was the Annunciation of Death by Richard Wagner. Not being a Wagner expert I wasn’t familiar with this piece so did a bit of research over the weekend to find out more about it. That turned out to be quite interesting.

The Annunciation of Death turns out to be a leitmotif  appearing in Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, often known as the Ring Cycle. Leitmotifs of various types occur throughout this epic series of four operas. Some are associated with individual characters, sometimes present on stage and sometimes absent but relevant to the drama. Other leitmotifs relate to specific emotional states, locations  or even inanimate objects (e.g. a sword).

The Annunciation of Death (in German: Todesverkundigen) makes its first appearance at the beginning of Act II Scene 4 of Die Walkürethe second Opera of the Ring Cycle, when Brünnhilde approaches to tell Siegmund of his impending death. You can see why Hawking thought of this when given his prognosis. This is the leitmotif

What’s interesting about this is that it is formed by the merger of two other leitmotifs, one relating to Erda, the Goddess of earth and the mother of the three Norns, who has the ability to see the future:

and another more generally associated with fate

Doom takes on a very specific manifestation for poor old Siegmund. Here is the leitmotif as it appears in the actual Opera, as part of the instrumental prelude to the glorious voice of the legendary Kirsten Flagstad as Brünnhilde singing Siegmund! Sieh’ auf mich!

I never expected to learn something new about Wagner by watching a film about Stephen Hawking, but there you go!

The South-East Physics Network – The Sequel

Posted in Education, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 18, 2013 by telescoper

Every now and again I’m at a loss for something to blog about when a nice press release comes to the rescue. This announcement has just gone live, and I make no apology for repeating it here!


UPDATE: You can now read the University of Sussex take on this announcement here.



New Investment in Physics Teaching and Research in South East England

The South East Physics network (SEPnet) and HEFCE are delighted to announce their plans to invest £13.1 million pounds to sustain physics undergraduate and postgraduate teaching provision, and world class research facilities, staff and doctoral training over the 5 years up to 2018. HEFCE will provide £2.75 million to maintain and expand the network, to establish a dedicated regional graduate training programme for physics postgraduate students and address physics specific issues of student participation and diversity. On top of the HEFCE contribution, each SEPnet partner will support and fund programmes of Outreach, Employability and Research.

The South East Physics Network (SEPnet) was formed after receiving a £12.5 million grant from HEFCE in 2008 as a network of six Physics departments in South East England at the Universities of Kent, Queen Mary University of London, Royal Holloway University of London, Southampton, Surrey and Sussex. The Science and Technology Facilities Council and Rutherford Appleton Laboratory provided additional funds and resources for collaborations in particle physics and astrophysics. The University of Portsmouth joined in 2010. The Open University and the University of Hertfordshire will join the network effective the 1st August 2013.

SEPnet Phase One has been tremendously successful for the partners in SEPnet and for physics in the region. The Outreach programme, regarded as an exemplar for collaborative outreach, uses the combined knowledge and resources of each partner to provide greater impact and reach and demonstrates that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It has succeeded in effectively exploiting the growing national interest in physics through its wide range of public engagement and schools activities. There has been a substantial increase in applications and intake for physics undergraduate courses and undergraduate numbers are now 90% higher in the SEPnet physics departments compared with 2007 and applications up approximately 115% – well above national trends.

Announcing the investment, SEPnet’s Independent Chair Professor Sir William Wakeham said “This is a major success for physics both in the region and nationally. HEFCE’s contribution via SEPnet has enabled the partners in the consortium to grow and develop their physics departments for the long term. Before SEPnet, physics departments had falling student numbers and lacked research diversity. Now they are robust and sustainable and the SEPnet consortium is an exemplar of collaboration in Higher Education.”

David Sweeney, Director of Research, Innovation and Skills, HEFCE said: “We are delighted to see the fruits of a very successful intervention to support what was once a vulnerable subject. HEFCE are pleased to provide funding for a new phase, particularly to address new challenges in the field of postgraduate training and widening participation. The expansion to include new physics departments is a testament to the success of the network and can only act to strengthen and diversify the collaboration.”

Sir Peter Knight, President of the Institute of Physics, expressed strong support for the government’s continued investments in the sciences generally and in physics specifically. “SEPnet has been an undoubted success in sustaining physics in the South East region and has strongly participated in contributing to its beneficial effects nationally. It is an exemplar of collaborative best practice in outreach, employability and research and we now look forward to collaborating in the critical areas of graduate training, public engagement and diversity.”

The specific programmes already being developed by the network include:

  1. a regional Graduate Network built on the strength of current SEPnet research collaborations and graduate training whose  primary objectives  will be to:
  • develop and deliver an exemplar programme of PhD transferable and leadership skills training delivered flexibly to create employment-ready physics doctoral graduates for the economic benefit of the UK;
  • increase employer engagement with HEIs including PhD internships,  industrially-sponsored  studentships and Knowledge Transfer fellowships;
  • enhance the impact  of SEPnet’s research via a clear, collaborative impact strategy;
  • enhance research environment diversity through engagement with Athena SWAN and the IoP’s Project Juno.
  1. Expansion of its employer engagement and internship programmes, widening the range of work experiences available to enhance undergraduate (UG) and postgraduate (PG) employability and progress to research degrees.
  2. Enhancement of its Outreach Programme  to deliver and disseminate  best practice in schools and public engagement and  increase diversity in  physics education.

The inclusion of new partners The Open University and University of Hertfordshire broadens the range of teaching and postgraduate research in the network. The University of Reading, about to introduce an undergraduate programme in Environmental Physics (Department of Meteorology), will join as an associate partner.

A key part of the contributions from each partner is the provision of “SEPnet PhD Studentships”, a programme to attract the brightest and best physics graduates to engage in a programme of collaborative research within the network, of joint supervision and with a broad technical and professional graduate training programme within the SEPnet Graduate Network.

The network will be led by the University of Southampton. Its Vice-Chancellor, Professor Don Nutbeam: “I am delighted that the University of Southampton, in partnership with nine other universities in the region, is able to build on the success of the SEPnet initiative to reinvigorate the university physics teaching and research and take it to a new level in the turbulent period ahead for the higher education sector. The SEPnet training programme brings novelty, quality and diversity to the regions physics postgraduates that we expect to be a model for other regions and subjects.”

My Old Man’s A Dustman

Posted in Music, Politics on June 17, 2013 by telescoper

Apologies for the frivolity during the strike, but what are we ordinary Council Tax payers to do when their City turns into an enormous rubbish dump? You have to laugh sometimes, otherwise you’ll die of cholera.

But seriously, I know the refuse collectors are having a raw deal but the strike is affecting the people of Brighton, not the managers at the Council who are responsible for the problem (and are still collecting their salaries just as we are still paying our Council Tax). A serious public health issue is developing as a result of the strike and, well, two wrongs don’t make a right…


Bunn on Bayes

Posted in Bad Statistics with tags , , , , on June 17, 2013 by telescoper

Just a quickie to advertise a nice blog post by Ted Bunn in which he takes down an article in Science by Bradley Efron, which is about frequentist statistics. I’ll leave it to you to read his piece, and the offending article, but couldn’t resist nicking his little graphic that sums up the matter for me:


The point is that as scientists we are interested in the probability of a model (or hypothesis)  given the evidence (or data) arising from an experiment (or observation). This requires inverse, or inductive, reasoning and it is therefore explicitly Bayesian. Frequentists focus on a different question, about the probability of the data given the model, which is not the same thing at all, and is not what scientists actually need. There are examples in which a frequentist method accidentally gives the correct (i.e. Bayesian) answer, but they are nevertheless still answering the wrong question.

I will make one further comment arising from the following excerpt from the Efron piece.

Bayes’ 1763 paper was an impeccable exercise in probability theory. The trouble and the subsequent busts came from overenthusiastic application of the theorem in the absence of genuine prior information, with Pierre-Simon Laplace as a prime violator.

I think this is completely wrong. There is always prior information, even if it is minimal, but the point is that frequentist methods always ignore it even if it is “genuine” (whatever that means). It’s not always easy to encode this information in a properly defined prior probability of course, but at least a Bayesian will not deliberately answer the wrong question in order to avoid thinking about it.

It is ironic that the pioneers of probability theory, such as Laplace, adopted a Bayesian rather than frequentist interpretation for his probabilities. Frequentism arose during the nineteenth century and held sway until recently. I recall giving a conference talk about Bayesian reasoning only to be heckled by the audience with comments about “new-fangled, trendy Bayesian methods”. Nothing could have been less apt. Probability theory pre-dates the rise of sampling theory and all the frequentist-inspired techniques that modern-day statisticians like to employ and which, in my opinion, have added nothing but confusion to the scientific analysis of statistical data.

Universality in Space Plasmas?

Posted in Astrohype, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , on June 16, 2013 by telescoper

It’s been a while since I posted anything reasonably technical, largely because I’ve been too busy, so I thought I’d spend a bit of time today on a paper (by Livadiotis & McComas in the journal Entropy) that provoked a Nature News item a couple of weeks ago and caused a mild flutter around the internet.

Here’s the abstract of the paper:

In plasmas, Debye screening structures the possible correlations between particles. We identify a phase space minimum h* in non-equilibrium space plasmas that connects the energy of particles in a Debye sphere to an equivalent wave frequency. In particular, while there is no a priori reason to expect a single value of h* across plasmas, we find a very similar value of h* ≈ (7.5 ± 2.4)×10−22 J·s using four independent methods: (1) Ulysses solar wind measurements, (2) space plasmas that typically reside in stationary states out of thermal equilibrium and spanning a broad range of physical properties, (3) an entropic limit emerging from statistical mechanics, (4) waiting-time distributions of explosive events in space plasmas. Finding a quasi-constant value for the phase space minimum in a variety of different plasmas, similar to the classical Planck constant but 12 orders of magnitude larger may be revealing a new type of quantization in many plasmas and correlated systems more generally.

It looks an interesting claim, so I thought I’d have a look at the paper in a little more detail to see whether it holds up, and perhaps to explain a little to others who haven’t got time to wade through it themselves. I will assume a basic background knowledge of plasma physics, though, so turn away now if that puts you off!

For a start it’s probably a good idea to explain what this mysterious h* is. The authors define it via ½h*ctc, where εc is defined to be “the smallest particle energy that can transfer information” and tc is “the correlation lifetime of Debye Sphere (i.e. volumes of radius the Debye Length for the plasma in question). The second of these can be straightforwardly defined in terms of the ratio between the Debye Length and the thermal sound speed; the authors argue that the first is given by εc=½(mi+me)u2, involving the electron and ion masses in the plasma and the information speed u which is taken to be the speed of a magnetosonic wave.

You might wonder why the authors decided to call their baby h*. Perhaps it’s because the definition looks a bit like the energy-time version of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, but I can’t be sure of that. In any case the resulting quantity has the same dimensions as Planck’s constant and is therefore measured in the same units (Js in the SI system).

Anyway, the claim is that h* is constant across a wide range of astrophysical plasmas. I’ve taken the liberty of copying the relevant Figure here:


I have to say at this point I had the distinct sense of damp squib going off. The panel on the right purports to show the constancy of h* (y-axis) for plasmas of a wide range of number-densities (x-axis). However, but are shown on logarithmic scales and have enormously large error bars. To be sure, the behaviour looks roughly constant but to use this as a basis for claims of universality is, in my opinion, rather unjustified, especially since there may also be some sort of selection effect arising from the specific observational data used.

One of the authors is quoted in the Nature piece:

“We went into this thinking we’d find one value in one plasma, and another value in another plasma,” says McComas. “We were shocked and slightly horrified to find the same value across all of them. This is really a major deal.”

Perhaps it will turn out to be a major deal. But I’d like to see a lot more evidence first.

Plasma (astro)physics is a fascinating but very difficult subject, not because the underlying requations governing plasmas are especially complicated, but because the resulting behaviour is so sensitively dependent on small details; plasma therefore provide an excellent exemplar of what we mean by a complex physical system. As is the case in other situations where we lack the ability to do detailed calculations at the microscopic level, we do have to rely on more coarse=grained descriptions, so looking for patterns like this is a good thing to do, but I think the Jury is out.

Finally, I have to say I don’t approve of the authors talking about this in terms of “quantization”. Plasma physics is confusing enough as classical physics without confusing it with quantum theory. Opening the door to that is a big mistake, in my view. Who knows what sort of new age crankery might result?

A Time for Honours

Posted in Education, Politics, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on June 15, 2013 by telescoper

The word “honour” provides a (tenuous) link between yesterday’s post and this one. After our recent preoccupation with the classification of honours for graduating students (i.e. first class, second class, and so on), today’s news included the Queen’s Birthday Honours List for 2013, which you can download in full here. To make up for the lack of recycling going on in Brighton these days because of the strike that started yesterday, I thought I’d recycle my thoughts from previous years.

The honours system must appear extremely curious to people from outside the United Kingdom. It certainly seems so to me. On the one hand, I am glad that the government has a mechanism for recognising the exceptional contributions made to society by certain individuals. Musicians, writers, sportsmen, entertainers and the like generally receive handsome financial rewards, of course, but that’s no reason to begrudge a medal or two in recognition of the special place they occupy in our cultural life.  It’s  good to see scientists recognized too, although they tend not to get noticed so much by the press.

The name that stood out for me in this year’s list is Professor Jim Hough, who gets an OBE. Jim is Professor of Experimental Physics at the University of Glasgow, and his speciality is in the detection of gravitational waves.  Gravitational waves haven’t actually been detected yet, of course, but the experimental techniques designed to find them have increased their sensitivity by many orders of magnitude in recent years, Jim having played a large part in those improvements. I imagine he will be absolutely thrilled in February 2016, when gravitational waves are finally detected. Jim is also Chief Executive of the Scottish University Physics Alliance, which does so much to nurture Physics and Astronomy North of the Border.

Although I’m of course more than happy to see recognition given to such people, as I did  a couple of years ago I can’t resist stating my objections to the honours system again. One is that the list of recipients  of certain categories of award is overwhelmingly dominated by career civil servants, for whom an “honour”  goes automatically with a given rank. If an honour is considered an entitlement in this way then it is no honour at all, and in fact devalues those awards that are  given on merit to people outside the Civil Service. Civil servants get paid for doing their job, so they should have no more expectation of an additional reward than anyone else. There’s much more honour in a  student who earns a First Class degree than for a career civil servant who gets a knighthood.

Honours have relatively little monetary value on their own, of course so this is not question of financial corruption. An honour does, however, confer status and prestige on the recipient so what we have is a much more subtle form of sleaze. One wonders how many names listed in the current roll of honours are there because of political donations, for example.

I wouldn’t accept an honour myself, but that’s easy to say because I’m sure I’ll never be nominated for one; hopefully this post will dissuade anyone from even thinking of nominating me for a gong. However, I imagine that even people like me who are against the whole system are probably still tempted to accept such awards when offered, as they generate good publicity for one’s field, institution and colleagues.It’s a very personal decision and I have no criticism to make of people who think differently from me about whether to accept an honour.

Brighton News

Posted in Brighton with tags , , , on June 15, 2013 by telescoper

As Brighton and Hove’s recycling, refuse and street-cleaning operatives begin their strike, the Evening Argus takes an unorthodox view of the dispute..


Congratulations, here and there..

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , on June 14, 2013 by telescoper

Well, the academic year has finally come to an end at the University of Sussex. This afternoon we had another marathon meeting of Senate to round off the week and today was also the last day of the examination period; final-year students had their last exams earlier in the assessment period so their papers could be marked and scrutinized in time for yesterday’s meeting of the Progression and Awards Board. Although we were operating under new regulations this year, so there was some nervousness about how it would go, it all went pretty well in the end. The recommendations of the PAB were checked by the University authorities yesterday as I went up to London for an event at the Royal Society and when I returned to work this morning it was my (very pleasant) job to sign off the pass lists and also sign the certificates relating to prizes for outstanding students.

When all was done, the pass list was put up in the foyer of Pevensey 2 at which point a scrum of anxious students formed around it to find out how they’d done. 


The vast majority of the faces I saw had very happy smiles on them, as I knew would be the case because I had seen the results beforehand and knew how well so many of them had done! Champagne corks popped and prizes were handed out. There then followed a celebratory BBQ outside the building, organized by staff and students. The weather didn’t look very promising, and it remained rather windy – threatening to blow smoke into the building and possibly set off the smoke alarms – but it was a nice occasion.


Unfortunately I had to leave in mid-party to attend a Senate briefing meeting, followed by Senate itself, which went on from 2pm until almost 6 during which time the Sun came out. The weather thus looked favourably on similar celebrations going on around campus, but not on those couped up in Bramber House for the Senate meeting.

Anyway, as Head of School I’d just like to say congratulations to all this year’s graduating class on their achievement and wish them well as today’s celebrations no doubt continue into the evening and perhaps beyond. I’d also like to all staff in the School for working so hard to get everything done so the students got their results in time and in good order; to the lecturers and examiners for getting their marks in on time; to the PAB members for their diligence in following the procedures; and, above all, to the wonderful staff in the MPS office for their huge contribution to the administration of the process. It’s the first time I’ve been involved in examinations here and the support staff did a fantastic job, sometimes under very difficult circumstances.

Meanwhile, back in Cardiff, similar events will have unfolded there. I don’t know how many of the graduating class from Cardiff University School of Physics & Astronomy are likely to read this blog nowadays. A few did in the past, but have probably stopped now that I’ve left. Just in case, however, I’d like to congratulate them all on their success and express regret that I didn’t see the same kind of smiles on their faces as I did on the Sussex students!

Well, that was the week that was always going to be very busy. Now I’m going to head home, put my feet up and tackle the latest Private Eye crossword. Oh, and maybe a glass or two of wine…