Archive for January 18, 2014

The Falling Sky

Posted in Literature with tags , on January 18, 2014 by telescoper

thCAFHTTOSMy recent travels have at last given me the chance to finish reading the novel The Falling Sky by Pippa Goldschmidt. I actually started reading this some time ago, but absent-mindedly left the book in Cardiff during one of my occasional visits back to my Welsh residence. I remembered it when I was there over the New Year break and I brought it with me to Japan. I was indisposed with a tummy bug this morning so decided not to chance a trip to Kyoto, especially as I’m flying home tomorrow, but at least I got the chance to finish reading it.

Pippa Goldschmidt is now a professional writer, but she did a PhD in Astronomy and subsequently worked for some time as an astronomical researcher in London, in Imperial College to be precise, when I was working at the (then) Queen Mary & Westfield College. I remember her well from that time, although I hadn’t see her for ages until last year when we met in Edinburgh when I was visiting for a PhD examination.

Here’s the jacket blurb for The Falling Sky, which was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize:

Jeanette is a young, solitary post-doctoral researcher who has dedicated her life to studying astronomy. Struggling to compete in a prestigious university department dominated by egos and incompetents, and caught in a cycle of brief and unsatisfying affairs, she travels to a mountaintop observatory in Chile to focus on her research. There Jeanette stumbles upon evidence that will challenge the fundamentals of the universe, drawing her into conflict with her colleagues and the scientific establishment, but also casting her back to the tragic loss that defined her childhood. As the implications of her discovery gather momentum, and her relationships spiral out of control, Jeanette’s own grip on reality is threatened, finally forcing her to confront the hidden past. This bittersweet debut novel blends black comedy, heartbreaking tragedy, and fascinatingly accessible science, in an intricate and beautiful examination of one woman’s disintegration and journey to redemption.

As the above description suggests, the plot weaves together two strands in the life and thoughts of the principal character, Jeanette. The initial reaction of most readers will be to find one strand immediately familiar and intelligible and the other obscure and difficult to understand. The first, more accessible, level of course comprises the straightforward world of cosmology and extragalactic astronomy, science politics and academic rivalry; the other concerns such unfamiliar and outlandish ideas as “emotions”, “sex” and “relationships”. Goldschmidt largely describes these latter concepts in language accessible to non-specialists such as myself, but I did tend to get lost when she touches upon female genitalia; those passages aren’t really in my comfort zone, and rather impenetrable to me for reasons that I’ve never been able to my finger on. Perhaps some form of glossary, or even a diagram, might be a useful addition to a future edition?

But, seriously, it’s really a very good novel with an interesting narrative structure involving flashbacks and other ingenious literary devices. It also offers many glimpses of a dark and rather quirky sense of humour. Amongst many other things it makes the point – that quite a few scientists themselves seem to deny – that science is something done by human beings, and the way we do our science is consequently greatly affected by our inner life (and vice-versa).

One of the games astronomers will play – and I know quite a few who have played it already – is to try to spot the real astronomers on whom some of the characters are based. I couldn’t possible comment myself, but I’ll offer the possibility below for others to offer suggestions…

Mental Health Bloggers Widen Their Support Systems on

Posted in Mental Health on January 18, 2014 by telescoper

Lots of interesting suggestions here on how to use blogging to help deal with mental health issues…

The Blog

When we start a blog instead of simply keeping a private diary, it’s because we want to connect with others. When you start to blog, you join a community.

It comes as no surprise that many bloggers are drawn to online communities as a place to work through challenges — to heal and process, find others with similar experiences, and seek (or offer) support. There are lots of supportive communities around women dealing with breast cancer, people managing diabetes, parents of children with unique needs, and many, many more. Throughout January, we’ll be zooming in on how bloggers use to support their health and wellness.

Today, on the heels of the Blog for Mental Health 2014 kick-off, we’re focusing on mental health. Read on for a look at the many ways bloggers use their sites to improve their own lives, and the lives of others who have…

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Qualification Matters

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , on January 18, 2014 by telescoper

Yesterday evening I had a very enjoyable dinner with a seminar speaker and group of students from the Kobayashi-Maskawa Institute at Nagoya University. On the way back to the guest house I’m staying in, at about 9.30pm, we passed a group of young kids in uniform apparently returning from school. I was told that they were students from a Junior High School (chūgaku) who had been studying late in preparation for an entrance examination to the (selective) Senior High Schools (kōtōgakkō). I was a bit surprised to see young teenagers putting in such long hours, but such behaviour seems quite normal here in Japan.

One of the things I have to get to grips with when I get back to the School of Mathematical Sciences at the University of Sussex on Monday is the annual admissions cycle. I have meetings in my calendar for next week about this, and we are hosting an applicant visit day on Saturday 25th January; we have of course already made offers to a large number of students based on their predicted grades at GCE A-level. This process is fraught with difficulties, not least because there some schools seem to over-predict the grades that their pupils achieve in order to maximise the chance of them getting into University. Predicted grades being rather unreliable, it would of course be fairer on all concerned to use actual grades, i.e. to defer university applications until after the A-level results come out, but that would be far too sensible so obviously will not happen in the United Kingdom. I’m actually quite sceptical of the usefulness of A-levels for preparing students for University in general, but that’s another matter.

Anyway, the mini-rant above isn’t main point of this post, which is instead to issue a warning to those  students taking A-levels later this year. It is  based on anecdotal evidence, but quite a lot thereof. The point is that universities will often reduce their usual offer at A-level when they find an applicant with very high predicted grades, sometimes even making an unconditional offer (actually the minimum is two E grades) to high-fliers. This happened a lot in the old days when I was applying for a place at university. Though it is less common nowadays the government’s policy of lifting controls on universities’ ability to recruit students with three A-level grades at ABB or better is bound to increase the amount of game-playing as competition between recruiters intensifies.

This creates a number of issues, but the one I want to pick out arises when a student is predicted to get three As at A-level, but his/her first-choice university gives them an unconditional offer. Their first reaction will obviously be “whoopee! I’ll accept that offer and, what’s more, I don’t need to fret too much about my summer examinations..”.

In fact I’ve known plenty of students who came into university with quite modest A-level grades, but did brilliantly well at their studies and ended up with first-class degrees. There can be many explanations behind such cases quite apart from the relaxation effect. Some schools don’t have good specialist science teachers, for example; this can mean that a student’s interest is really only ignited once they get into university.

The problem is, though, that A-levels results are not just for university entry, they’re for life. A student may graduate with a good degree, even a First,  but so do many others. When selecting for postgraduate jobs, or even postgraduate study, recruiters often have a large number of people with excellent degrees; that’s an obvious consequence of the expansion of the Higher Education sector in recent years. What happens, therefore, is that employers and PG admissions tutors have to look at other factors; naturally, that includes A-level results but also even GCSEs. You might be surprised to learn that even if you get a first-class degree, your chances of getting a PhD place at a top institution depends on your performance at School but they definitely do. I’m not saying that this should, be the case, just that it in practice it is.

I recall hearing recently from one former student who had a first-class degree in Physics and a PhD from an excellent University, and who was applying for a job in a research institute (not in the university sector). The application form he received asked him to list not only his A-levels but also his GCSE results!

I hope I’ve made my point to any prospective students, but I’ll summarize it in case I haven’t. If you get a generous offer from your chosen university then that’s a good thing, because it means that they want you. You should be happy. But don’t ease off on your studies because if you end up getting poorer A-levels than you deserve, they may one day come back to haunt you.