Archive for November, 2013

Six (very) bad things about the REF

Posted in Education, Science Politics with tags , , , , on November 22, 2013 by telescoper

I see that Jon Butterworth has written a piece on the Grauniad website, entitled Six good things about the REF, the REF in question not being a black-clad figure of questionable parentage and visual acuity responsible for supervising a game of association football, but the Research Excellence Framework.

I agree with some of Jon’s comments and do believe that past Research Assessment Exercises have generally raised the quality of research in UK universities. I do however think that there are some very bad things about the way the REF is being implemented, and that these far outweigh the positives Jon mentions. In the interest of balance, therefore, I thought I’d respond with a list of six (very) bad things about the REF, and particularly how it applies to physics. I’ll keep them brief because I’ve blogged about most of them before:

  1. The rules positively encouraged universities to play games with selectivity. This is absurd. All academic staff on teaching and research contracts should be submitted if a true indication of research quality is to be obtained.
  2. The criteria for what constitutes 3* or 4* publications are vague and subjective, leaving everything in the hands of the panels. Worse, all paperwork will be shredded after the panel’s deliberations leaving no possibility for appeal. This absolutely stinks.
  3. How QR funding will be allocated on the basis of the REF is not made clear in advance of the submission. Nobody knows how heavily the funding will be skewed towards 4* and 3* submissions. Having encouraged departments to play games, therefore, the REF refuses to disclose the rules. It’s not even clear there will be any QR funding.
  4. The panels will be unable to perform a detailed peer review of submissions simply because there will be too many papers. Each panel will be expected to make decisions on many hundreds of papers, leaving time only for a cursory reading of each.
  5. Limiting the physics submission to 4 papers per person is ridiculous. This corresponds to a tiny fraction of the outputs of a typical physics researcher. If someone has written ten 4* publications in the REF period, why should these not be counted?
  6. Impact counts for a sizable fraction (20%) of the funding, but the rules governing what counts as “impact” are absurdly restrictive and clearly encourage short-term commercially-oriented boilerplate stuff at the expense of genuine long-term “blue skies” research.


Well, I got to six in just a few minutes and could easily get to sixty, but that will do for now. Perhaps you’d like to contribute your own bad things through the comments box?

Astrophysics Made Simple

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags on November 21, 2013 by telescoper


Cartoon stolen without proper permission from Strange Matter.

Victor Borge at the Opera

Posted in Opera with tags , , , on November 20, 2013 by telescoper

No time for a proper post today as I’ve got a lot to do before this afternoon’s meeting of Senate. It’s such a cold and miserable day I thought it would be an idea to post this which I bookmarked some time ago but have never got round to posting. If you enjoy it half as much as I did then I enjoyed it twice as much as you…

Sussex Astronomy Research – The Videos!

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , on November 19, 2013 by telescoper

As autumn turns to winter the thoughts of many an undergraduate turn to the task of applying for PhDs. Nowadays this involves a lot of trawling through webpages looking for interesting projects and suitable funding opportunities.

In order to help prospective postgraduates this year, the Astronomy Centre at the University of Sussex has produced a number of videos to give some information about the available projects. To start with, here are four examples, covering topics in theoretical, computational and observational astrophysics:

For information, we’re expecting to offer at least six PhD studentships in Astronomy for September 2014 entry. Also there’s a University-wide postgraduate open day coming up on December 4th..

Autumn Leaves (Les Feuilles Mortes)

Posted in Music with tags , , on November 18, 2013 by telescoper

The Open Journal for Astrophysics is Open for Test Submissions!

Posted in Open Access with tags , , , on November 17, 2013 by telescoper

Just a quick announcement that we’re stepping up the testing phase of the Open Journal for Astrophysics and would really appreciate it if astrophysicists and cosmologists out there would help us out by submitting papers for us to run through our swish new refereeing system.

Just to remind you The Open Journal for Astrophysics is completely free both for submission and for access; there are no Author Processing Charges and no subscription payments. All papers will be fully peer-reviewed using a system which is, as far as I’m concerned, far better than any professional astrophysical journal currently offers. All this is provided free by members of the astrophysics community as a service to the astrophysics community.

I know that many will be nervous about submitting the results of their research to such a new venture, but I hope there will be plenty among you who agree with me that the only way we can rid ourselves of the enormous and unnecessary financial burdens placed on us by the academic publishing industry is by proving that we can do the job better by ourselves without their intervention.

The project has changed a little since I suggest the idea last year, but the submission procedure is basically that which I originally envisaged. All you have to do is submit your paper to the arXiv and let us know its reference when this has been accomplished. Our software will then pick up the arXiv posting automatically and put it into our refereeing pipeline.

In future we will have our own latex template to produce a distinctive style for papers, but this is not needed for the testing phase so feel free to use any latex style you wish for your submission.

For the time being the OJFA website and associated repositories are not publicly available, but that’s just so we can test it thoroughly before it goes fully live, probably early in the new year; at that point all the papers passing peer review during the test phase will be published. I’m really excited about the forthcoming launch which will, I hope, generate quite a lot of publicity about the whole issue of open access publishing.

If anyone has any questions about this please feel free to ask via the comments box. Also please pass this on via twitter, etc. The more, and the more varied, papers we get to handle over the next couple of months the quicker we can get on with the revolution! So what are you waiting for? Let’s have your papers!

A Dark Energy Mission

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

Here’s a challenge for cosmologists and aspiring science communicators out there. Most of you will know the standard cosmological model involves a thing, called Dark Energy, whose existence is inferred from observations that suggest that the expansion of the Universe appears to be accelerating.

That these observations require something a bit weird can be quickly seen by looking at the equation that governs the dynamics of the cosmic scale factor R for a simple model involving matter in the form of a perfect fluid:

\ddot{R}=-\frac{4\pi G}{3} \left( \rho + \frac{3p}{c^2}\right) R

The terms in brackets relate to the density and pressure of the fluid, respectively. If the pressure is negligible (as is the case for “dust”), then the expansion is always decelerating because the density of matter is always positive quantity; we don’t know of anything that has a negative mass.

The only way to make the expansion of such a universe actually accelerate is to fill it with some sort of stuff that has

\left( \rho + \frac{3p}{c^2} \right) < 0.

In the lingo this means that the strong energy condition must be violated; this is what the hypothetical dark energy component is introduced to do. Note that this requires the dark energy to exert negative pressure, ie it has to be, in some sense, in tension.

However, there’s something about this that seems very paradoxical. Pressure generates a force that pushes, tension corresponds to a force that pulls. In the cosmological setting, though, increasing positive pressure causes a greater deceleration while to make the universe accelerate requires tension. Why should a bigger pushing force cause the universe to slow down, while a pull causes it to speed up?

The lazy answer is to point at the equation and say “that’s what the mathematics says”, but that’s no use at all when you want to explain this to Joe Public.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to explain in language appropriate to a non-expert, why a pull seems to cause a push…

Your attempts through the comments box please!

Sunset over Falmer Campus

Posted in Brighton, Poetry with tags , , , on November 15, 2013 by telescoper


Ensanguining the skies
How heavily it dies
Into the west away;
Past touch and sight and sound
Not further to be found,
How hopeless under ground
Falls the remorseful day.

Guest Post

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on November 15, 2013 by telescoper

I don’t think I’ll have time to write anything today so until I get a spare moment here’s a guest post:

the 1st fence post in the ground



Gracias a la Vida

Posted in Music with tags , on November 14, 2013 by telescoper

Too busy for anything else, I’m going to post a piece of music I first heard only recently (on Radio 3) but which has been in my head ever since. It’s sung by Mercedes Sosa, an Argentinian singer with roots in the folk music of her native land but with an appeal through South America. This, Gracias a la Vida probably the most famous song she performed and when I first heard it on the radio it knocked me sideways; it’s so lyrical and so beautifully sung that it had me close to tears. I can’t really speak Spanish, but my schoolboy knowledge of Latin is enough to translate most of the words reasonably easily; the first line “Gracias a la Vida que me ha dado tanto” means “Thanks to life which has given me so much”.

The whole of the first verse is:

Gracias a la vida que me ha dado tanto
Me dio dos luceros que cuando los abro
Perfecto distingo lo negro del blanco
Y en el alto cielo su fondo estrellado
Y en las multitudes el hombre que yo amo

Hmm. Gorgeous. Latin languages have those lovely open vowels that make poetry seem so natural.

This isn’t just a song about counting your blessings, though. It’s the dark undertone of tragic irony which makes it so powerful. The song was actually written by Violeta Parra, a Chilean composer and songwriter, who took her own life in 1967.