Archive for April, 2014

A Note to the Physics REF Panel

Posted in Education, Finance, Science Politics with tags , , , on April 23, 2014 by telescoper

I’ve just been skimming through an interesting report about the strength of UK physics research. One of the conclusions of said document is that UK physics research is the best in the world in terms of quality.

I couldn’t resist a brief post to point this out to any members of the Physics panel involved in the 2014 Research Excellence Framework. My motivation for doing this is that the Physics panel of the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise evidently came to the conclusion that UK physics research wasn’t very good at all, awarding a very much lower fraction of 4* (world-leading) grades than many other disciplines, including chemistry. I’ve never understood why the Panel arrived at such a low opinion of its own discipline, but there you go..

Physics departments across the country have fought very hard to recover from the financial and reputational damage inflicted by the 2008 RAE panel’s judgement. Let’s just hope there isn’t another unwarranted slap in the face in store when the 2014 results are announced later this year…

 

UPDATE: I’m grateful to Paul Crowther for pointing out a surprising fact based on a talk given by the Chairman of the Physics RAE Panel in 2008, Sir John Pendry. Here are the slides in full, but the pertinent fact is the distribution of 4*, 3* and 2* grades across disciplines shown in this table:

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You can see that they are in fact broadly, similar across disciplines. However, what is clear is that the highest scoring departments in Chemistry did much better than the highest-scoring in Physics; for example top of the table for Physics was Lancaster with 25% of its outputs graded 4* while top in Chemistry was Cambridge with 40%. Is it really justifiable that the top physics departments were so much worse than the top chemistry departments? Suspicion remains that the Physics scores were downgraded systematically to produce the uncannily similar profiles shown in the table. Since all the RAE documents have been shredded, we’ll never know whether that happened or not…

Sonnet No. 30

Posted in Poetry on April 23, 2014 by telescoper

The exact date of Shakespeare’s birth is not known but, by tradition, it is celebrated on 23rd April, St George’s Day. Today therefore marks the 450th anniversary of his birth.

This sonnet is clearly closely related to the one preceding it, No. 29, and is thought to have been written to the Earl of Southampton. I picked it for today not just because it’s beautiful, but also because it provides an example of how deeply embedded in our language certain phrases from Shakespeare have become; the standard English translation of Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu is entitled The Remembrance of Things Past, though I have never felt it was a very apt rendering. English oneupmanship, perhaps?

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancelled woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanished sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoanèd moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end.

by William Shakespeare (1564-1616).

Yeh Yeh

Posted in Music, Television with tags , on April 22, 2014 by telescoper

By way of celebrating the end of my holiday I thought I’d post this bit of musical entertainment by the legendary Bob Downe singing a medley of the Georgie Fame hit, Yeh Yeh. If only all Australian men were as butch as Bob Downe…

 

The Stifling Effect of REF Impact

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , on April 22, 2014 by telescoper

Well, I’m back to civilization (more or less) and with my plan to watch a day of cricket at Sophia Gardens thwarted by the rain I decided to pop into an internet café and do a quick post about one of the rants that has been simmering on the back burner while I’ve been taking a break.

Just before the Easter vacation I had lunch with some colleagues from the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Sussex. One of the things that came up was the changing fortunes of the department. After years of under-investment from the University administration,  it was at one time at such a low ebb  that it was in real danger of being closed down (despite its undoubted strengths in research and teaching).  Fortunately help came in the form of SEPnet, which provided funds to support new initiatives in Physics not only in Sussex but across the South East. Moreover, the University administration had belatedly realized that a huge part of the institutional standing in tables of international research rankings was being generated by the Department of Physics & Astronomy. In the nick of time, the necessary resources were invested and the tide was turned and there has been steady growth in staff and student numbers since.

As Head of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences I have had to deal with the budget for the Department of Physics & Astronomy. Just a decade ago very few physics departments in the UK were  financially solvent and most had to rely on generous subsidies from University funds to stay open. Those that did not receive such support were closed down, a fate which Sussex narrowly avoided but which befell, for example, the physics departments at Reading and Newcastle.

As I blogged about previously, the renaissance of Sussex physics seems not to be unique. Admissions to physics departments across the country are growing at a healthy rate, to the extent that new departments are being formed at, e.g. Lincoln and Portsmouth. None of this could have been imagined just ten years ago.

So will this new-found optimism be reflected in the founding of even more new physics departments? One would hope so, as I think it’s a scandal that there are only around 40 UK universities with physics departments. Call me old-fashioned but I think a university without a physics department is not a university at all. Thinking about this over the weekend however I realized that any new physics department is going to have grave problems under the system of allocating research funding known as the Research Excellence Framework.

A large slice (20%) of the funding allocated by the 2014 REF will be based on “Impact” which, roughly speaking, means the effect the research can be demonstrated to have had outside the world of academic research. This isn’t the largest component – 65% is allocated on the basic of the quality of “Outputs” (research papers etc) – but is a big chunk and will probably be very important in determining league table positions. It is probably going to be even larger in future versions of the REF.

Now here’s the rub. When an academic changes institution (as I have recently done, for example) he/she can take his/her outputs to the new institution. Thus, papers I wrote while at Cardiff could be submitted to the REF from Sussex. This is not the case with “impact”. The official guidance on submissions states:

Impact: The sub-panels will assess the ‘reach and significance’ of impacts on the economy, society and/or culture that were underpinned by excellent research conducted in the submitted unit, as well as the submitted unit’s approach to enabling impact from its research. This element will carry a weighting of 20 per cent.

The emphasis is mine.

The period during which the underpinning research must have been published is quite generous in length: 1 January 1993 to 31 December 2013. This is clearly intended to recognize the fact that some research take a long time to generate measurable impact. The problem is that the underpinning research must have been done within the submitting unit; it can’t be brought in from elsewhere. If the unit is new and did not exist for most of this period,then it is much harder to generate impact no matter how brilliant the staff it recruits. Any new departments in physics, or any other subject for that matter, will have to focus on research that can generate impact very rapidly indeed if it is to compete in the next REF, expected in 2018 or thereabouts. That is a powerful disincentive for universities to invest in research that may take many years to come to fruition. Five years is a particularly short time in experimental physics.

 

 

Interlude

Posted in Uncategorized on April 16, 2014 by telescoper

I’m taking a  short holiday over the Easter break and probably won’t be blogging until I get back, primarily because I won’t have an internet connection where I’m going. That’s a deliberate decision, by the way. So, as the saying goes, there will now follow a short intermission….

 

 

Magnetic River

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on April 15, 2014 by telescoper

I stumbled across this yesterday as a result of an email from a friend who shall remain nameless (i.e. Anton). I remember seeing Prof. Eric Laithwaite on the television quite a few times when I was a kid. What I found so interesting about watching this so many years later is that it’s still so watchable and compelling. No frills, no gimmicks, just very clear explanation and demonstrations, reinforced by an aura of authoritativeness that makes you want to listen to him. If only more modern science communication were as direct as this.  I suppose part of the appeal is that he speaks with an immediately identifiable no-nonsense accent, from the part of the Midlands known as Lancashire….

 

 

Bearded Bishop Brentwood welcomed but too late for Beard of Spring poll

Posted in Beards, Biographical, Football, Politics on April 15, 2014 by telescoper

I’m still way behind John Brayford (who he?), but there’s definitely signs of a bounce! The Deadline is 19th April. Vote for me!

 

Kmflett's Blog

Beard Liberation Front
PRESS RELEASE 14th April
Contact Keith Flett 07803 167266
Bearded Bishop Brentwood welcomed but too late for Spring Beard poll

The Beard Liberation Front, the informal network of beard wearers that campaigns against beardism, has welcomed the news that the Pope on Monday appointed Fr Alan Williams FM as the Bishop of Brentwood but say that his appointment is too late for inclusion on the Beard of Spring 2014 poll which concludes on Friday.

The campaigners say that they are certain that the distinguished Bishop will feature in future

The big issue in the days left for voting is whether current leader Sheffield United footballer John Brayford did enough in his team’s defeat to Hull in Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final to take the title or whether challengers such as cosmologist Peter Coles and Editor of the I Paper Olly Duff can catch him

The Beard of Spring…

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White in the moon the long road lies

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on April 14, 2014 by telescoper

White in the moon the long road lies,
The moon stands blank above;
White in the moon the long road lies
That leads me from my love.

Still hangs the hedge without a gust,
Still, still the shadows stay:
My feet upon the moonlit dust
Pursue the ceaseless way.

The world is round, so travellers tell,
And straight though reach the track,
Trudge on, trudge on, ’twill all be well,
The way will guide one back.

But ere the circle homeward hies
Far, far must it remove:
White in the moon the long road lies
That leads me from my love.

by A.E. Housman (1859-1936)

 

Matzo Balls

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , on April 14, 2014 by telescoper

This evening sees the start of the Jewish Festival of the Passover (Pesach) which made me think of posting this piece of inspired silliness by the legendary Slim Gaillard to wish you all a Chag Sameach.

Slim Gaillard was a talented musician in his own right, but also a wonderful comedian and storyteller. He’s most famous for the novelty jazz acts he formed with musicians such as Slam Stewart and, later, Bam Brown; their stream of consciousness vocals ranged far afield from the original lyrics along with wild interpolations of nonsense syllables such as MacVoutie and O-reeney; one such performance figures in the 1957 novel On the Road by Jack Kerouac.

In later life Slim Gaillard travelled a lot in Europe – he could speak 8 languages in addition to English – and spent long periods living in London. He died there, in fact, in 1991, aged 75. I saw him a few times myself when I used to go regularly to Ronnie Scott’s Club. A tall, gangly man with a straggly white beard and wonderful gleam in his eye, he cut an unmistakeable figure in the bars and streets of Soho. He rarely had to buy himself a drink as he was so well known and such an entertaining fellow that a group always formed around him  in order to enjoy his company whenever he went into a pub. You never quite knew what he was going to do next, in fact. I once saw him sit down and play a piano with his palms facing upwards, striking the notes with the backs of his fingers. Other random things worth mentioning are that Slim Gaillard’s daughter was married to Marvin Gaye and it is generally accepted that the word “groovy” was coined by him (Slim). I know it’s a cliché, but he really was a larger-than-life character and a truly remarkable human being.

They don’t make ’em like Slim any more, but you can get a good idea of what a blast he was by listening to this record, which is bound to bring a smile even to the  most crabbed of faces….

 

 

 

 

 

Awards and Rewards

Posted in Beards, Biographical, Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on April 14, 2014 by telescoper

A surge in the polls for footballer John Brayford of Sheffield United (in the Midlands) has left my dreams of the coveted title of Beard of Spring in ruins. I’m still in second place, but with the leader on 83.7% I think I’ll shortly be writing my concession speech…

Fortunately, however my disappointment at fading into oblivion in one competition has been more than adequately offset by joy at being awarded a Prize by students from the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Sussex. You could have knocked me down with a feather (had I not been seated) when they announced my name as winner of the award for Best Expressed Research. Here’s the trophy:

award

I’m assuming that it’s solid gold, although it’s surprisingly light to carry. I’m not sure where I should store it until next year when presumably it will be handed onto someone else. It did occur to me to send it up to Newcastle United. At least that way they will have something to put in their trophy cabinet…

DSCN1446

Anyway, I’d like to thank everyone who voted for me, although I’m still not at all sure what “Best Expressed Research” actually means nor do I know what I did in particular to deserve the award. Not that any of that really matters. It’s honour enough to be working in a Department that’s part of a School where there’s such a wonderful friendly and cooperative atmosphere between staff and students. I’ve worked in some good physics departments in my time, but the Department of Sussex is completely unique both for the level of support it offers students and the fact that so many of the undergraduates are so highly motivated. Maybe that’s at least partly because there is such a close link between our teaching and research across the Department. Some people think – and some universities would have them think – that research-led teaching only happens in Russell Group institutions. In reality there’s plenty of evidence that, at least in Physics, Sussex does research-led teaching better than any of the Russell group.

Amid all the administrative jobs I have to do these days the opportunity to do a bit of teaching every now and then is the only chance I have of staying even approximately sane. I’m not sure how many other Heads of School at Sussex University do teaching – I’m told my predecessor in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences didn’t do any – but the day I have to stop teaching is the day I’ll retire. Teaching students who want to learn is much more than mere waged labour – it’s one of the most rewarding ways there is of spending your time.