Archive for February, 2015

The Fitful Alternations of the Rain

Posted in Poetry with tags , on February 20, 2015 by telescoper

The fitful alternations of the rain,
When the chill wind, languid as with pain
Of its own heavy moisture, here and there
Drives through the gray and beamless atmosphere.

by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)

 

Yes, science produces too many PhDs

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , , on February 19, 2015 by telescoper

I came across a blog post this morning entitled Does Science Produce Too Many PhDs? I think the answer is an obvious “yes” but I’ll use the question as an excuse to rehash an argument I have presented before, which is that most analyses of the problems facing yearly career researchers in science are looking at the issue from the wrong end. I think the crisis is essentially caused by the overproduction of PhDs in this field. To understand the magnitude of the problem, consider the following.

Assume that the number of permanent academic positions in a given field (e.g. astronomy) remains constant over time. If that is the case, each retirement (or other form of departure) from a permanent position will be replaced by one, presumably junior, scientist.

This means that over an academic career, on average, each academic will produce just one PhD who will get a permanent job in academia. This of course doesn’t count students coming in from abroad, or those getting faculty positions abroad, but in the case of the UK these are probably relatively small corrections.

Under the present supply of PhD studentships an academic can expect to get a PhD student at least once every three years or so. At a minimum, therefore, over a 30 year career one can expect to have ten PhD students. A great many supervisors have more PhD students than this, but this just makes the odds worse. The expectation is that only one of these will get a permanent job in the UK. The others (nine out of ten, according to my conservative estimate) above must either leave the field or the country to find permanent employment.

The arithmetic of this situation is a simple fact of life, but I’m not sure how many prospective PhD students are aware of it. There is still a reasonable chance of getting a first postdoctoral position, but thereafter the odds are stacked against them.

The upshot of this is we have a field of understandably disgruntled young people with PhDs but no realistic prospect of ever earning a settled living working in the field they have prepared for. This problem has worsened considerably in recent  years as the number of postdoctoral positions has almost halved since 2006. New PhDs have to battle it out with existing postdoctoral researchers for the meagre supply of suitable jobs. It’s a terrible situation.

Now the powers that be – in this case the Science and Technology Facilities Council – have consistently argued that the excess PhDs go out into the wider world and contribute to the economy with the skills they have learned. That may be true in a few cases. However, my argument is that the PhD is not the right way to do this because it is ridiculously inefficient.

What we should have is a system wherein we produce more and better trained Masters level students  and fewer PhDs. This is the system that exists throughout most of Europe, in fact, and the UK is actually committed to adopt it through the Bologna process.  Not that this commitment seems to mean anything, as precisely nothing has been done to harmonize UK higher education with the 3+2+3 Bachelors+Masters+Doctorate system Bologna advocates.

The training provided in a proper two-year Masters programme will improve the skills pool for the world outside academia, and also better prepare the minority of students who go on to take a PhD. The quality of the  PhD will also improve, as only the very best and most highly motivated researchers will take that path. This used to be what happened, of course, but I don’t think it is any longer the case.

The main problem with this suggestion is that it requires big changes to the way both research and teaching are funded. The research councils turned away from funding Masters training many years ago, so I doubt if they can be persuaded to to a U-turn now. Moreover, the Research Excellence Framework provides a strong incentive for departments to produce as many PhDs as they possibly can, as these are included in an algorithmic way as part of the score for “Research Environment”. The more PhDs a department produces, the higher it will climb in the league tables. One of my targets in my current position is to double the number of PhDs produced by my School over the period 2013-18. What happens to the people concerned seems not to be a matter worthy of consideration. They’re only “outputs”…

The Impact of Impact

Posted in Science Politics with tags , on February 18, 2015 by telescoper

Interesting analysis of the 2014 REF results by my colleague Seb Oliver. Among other things, it shows that Physics was the subject in which “Impact had the greatest impact”..

Seb Boyd

 The Impact of Impact

I wrote the following article to explore how Impact in the Research Excellence Framework 2014 (REF2014) affected the average scores of departments (and hence rankings). This produced a “league table” of how strongly impact affected different subjects. Some of the information in this article was used in a THE article by Paul Jump due to come out 00:00 on 19th Feb 2015.  I’ve now also produced ranking tables for each UoA using the standardised weighting I advocate below (see Standardised Rankings).

UoAUnit of AssessmentEffective Weight of GPA

ranking in each sub-profile as %

OutputsImpactEnvir.
9Physics37.938.623.5
23Sociology34.138.627.3
10Mathematical Sciences37.637.524.9
24Anthropology and Development Studies40.235.024.8
6Agriculture, Veterinary and Food Science42.033.025.0
31Classics43.332.624.0
16Architecture, Built Environment and Planning48.631.120.3

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50 Years of A Love Supreme

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , on February 17, 2015 by telescoper

A very busy day at work has just ended without time to do a blog post, so before I go home I’ll just do a quickie about the classic album A Love Supreme made by the John Coltrane quartet in late 1964 and released in February 1965. The 50th anniversary of the release of this record has been marked by an extremely interesting programme on BBC Radio 4, broadcast a few days ago but still available on the BBC iPlayer.

A Love Supreme is one of my favourite jazz albums, not only because it’s glorious music to listen to but also for its historical importance. Shortly after making this record Coltrane comprehensively changed his musical direction, abandoning many of the structures that underpinned his earlier work and adopting an approach heavily influenced by the free jazz of the likes of Ornette Coleman and, especially, Albert Ayler. Not everyone likes the music Coltrane made after he made that transition (in 1965) but having taken his earlier style to such a high peak as A Love Supreme he and the rest of the band no doubt felt they couldn’t go any further in that direction.

There are glimpses of the later freer approach in the third track, Pursuance, when the drum and saxophone interchanges between Elvin Jones and Coltrane threaten to break the regular tempo apart, and on this (the second) track Resolution, when McCoy Tyner abandons his usual single-note lines in favour of much more complex chordal improvisations. I think Coltrane’s solo on the last track, Psalm, is entirely improvised and , accompanied by Jones’ rising and falling drum rolls, it acquires a hauntingly solemn atmosphere which makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck every time I hear it. What a fantastic drummer Elvin Jones was.

But I haven’t got time to analyse the whole album – another’s words are in any case no substitute for listening to this masterpiece yourself – so I’ll just mention that Resolution is based on an 8-bar theme that’s very reminiscent of the theme Africa featured on Africa/Brass made a couple of years earlier. To me it sounds like Coltrane is just itching to cut loose on this track. His saxophone tone has a harder edge than usual for that period, giving the piece an anguished, pleading feel. Elvin Jones is also magnificent, his polyrhythmic accents spurring Coltrane to a climactic solo.

The intensity of Resolution ignites an even more dramatic onslaught on the next track, Pursuance, basically a blues taken at a very fast tempo, before the mood changes completely for the final part, Psalm. And all this builds from the opening track, Acknowledgement, which closes with the whole group chanting the words A Love Supreme in unison to a simple four-note figure stated at the opening of the piece.

Four tracks amounting to just over 30 minutes of music, but a masterpiece by any standards. If you’re thinking of starting a jazz collection, put it straight on your list! You could also listen to the whole thing via Youtube

A First Author Paper

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on February 16, 2015 by telescoper

I thought I’d take a few minutes to celebrate the fact that the first first-author paper by my PhD student here at the University of Sussex, Mateja Gosenca, has just hit the arXiv. The abstract reads:

We explore the dynamical behaviour of cosmological models involving a scalar field (with an exponential potential and a canonical kinetic term) and a matter fluid with spatial curvature included in the equations of motion. Using appropriately defined parameters to describe the evolution of the scalar field energy in this situation, we find that there are two extra fixed points that are not present in the case without curvature. We also analyse the evolution of the effective equation-of-state parameter for different initial values of the curvature.

There has been a lot of interest recently in treating cosmological models as dynamical systems, and the class of models we studied has been analysed before (see the references in the paper) but this paper addresses them in a different (and perhaps slightly more elegant) way and in the context of quintessence models for dark energy. It also contains some very pretty multi-dimensional phase portraits, like this:

Mateja

Of course these figures are self-explanatory, so I’ll say no more about them…

Left Bank Two, for Tony Hart

Posted in Music, Television with tags , , , on February 16, 2015 by telescoper

Yesterday Twitter was awash with comments about the sad death of the pioneering children TV’s presenter Tony Hart. The trouble is that he died six years ago, thus demonstrating what I suspected for some time, i.e. that most users of social media have a very short attention span.

Now, where was I?

Oh yes.

When he actually died The newspapers and television were filled with suitably glowing tributes to Tony Hart, because he was not only a superb presenter but also a warm and generous person. That’s quite a rare combination in the world of television, so I’m told. Anyway, I’m not at all sorry to have the excuse to play tribute to him again as he is still greatly missed.

I knew of him primarily through Vision On, a programme which I watched avidly as a child, and only found out much later on that it was intended to be for deaf children. The show involved comedy sketches and cartoons, as well as Tony Hart’s contributions which involved creating works of art live in front of the camera. He hardly ever spoke and used only the simplest of materials to create very beautiful things with the idea that this would inspire his audience to get in touch with their artistic side without making it look too much like a lesson. He did it brilliantly.

My favourite bit of the programme was The Gallery, accompanied by a piece of music which is almost as redolent with nostalgia for me as the theme from Doctor Who. The track concerned is called Left Bank Two and was performed by the Noveltones, just a trio of vibraphone, guitar and drums played with brushes, I think it’s a masterpiece of relaxed simplicity. Nobody got his collar wet playing it, that’s for sure. It’s the sort of music you might have expected to hear in a smart cocktail bar in the early 60s but is now inextricably linked to The Gallery.

Brighton Seafront in Wartime

Posted in Brighton, History with tags , , , on February 15, 2015 by telescoper

Yesterday I stumbled across a collection of old photographs of Brighton seafront. Most of the pictures are charming images of everyday life Brighton, made all the more fascinating by the fact that the city has changed relatively little and all the locations are immediately recognizable. However, in the middle of a sequence of such photographs I saw this:

Brighton_lawns_east

The view is from the Hove side of the city, with Hove lawns to the left and the West Pier in the distance. Notice that there’s a gap in the Pier. All piers along the south coast of England were cut during the Second World War to prevent them being used as landing  jetties by the enemy. I didn’t know that until I saw the gap in this picture and found out more.

There’s no date on the original, so I initially guessed that it must have been taken in 1940 when the threat of invasion during World War 2 was at its height. However, as Bryn Jones pointed out to me on Twitter, the presence of the white star on the vehicle in the foreground marks it out belonging to the US military. I did a little bit of research (via Google) and discovered that the plain white cross was only used by US troops exercising in Britain in 1942. The symbol was subsequently replaced by a white cross surrounded by a white circle, which is the marking used on all US vehicles in Normandy from 1944 onwards. The photograph must therefore have been taken some time in 1942, although the static defences were presumably put in place much earlier in the war. At a guess I’d say that it seems quite likely that US troops stationed in this area may well have used Brighton beach to train for the eventual Normandy landings

As it turns out, Brighton would have been in the front line had the Germans tried to invade England, as the following plan of Operation Sealion makes clear:

1024px-OperationSealion.svg

The shore defences in the photograph look pretty fierce, but the planned amphibious assault would have been preceded by parachute landings, so they  may have been seized and rendered ineffective by the time the landings began.

Here is a picture of the same general area looking to the West with Hove Lawns on the right:

Brighton_lawns_west

The beaches were out of bounds to the general public for most of the war, primarily because they were covered in mines, but in any case they would have been pretty inaccessible through all the barbed wire and other obstacles.

Although the immediate threat of invasion had receded by 1942, Brighton remained on high alert. Here is a picture I found elsewhere on the net, taken in 1943, showing a 40mm Bofors anti-aircraft gun stationed on the seafront not far from the Grand Hotel seen clearly in the background:

Brighton_bofors

The juxtaposition of the comfortingly familiar with the shockingly unfamiliar gives these images tremendous power. It’s hard to imagine what life must have been like under the constant threat of invasion and air raids, but these pictures at least give an idea of how grim it must have been to those of us who are fortunate enough to have never been forced to experience anything like it.

 

 

My Mathematical Valentines Message

Posted in Cute Problems with tags , on February 14, 2015 by telescoper

Here’s a little mathematical exercise with a Valentines theme:

Sketch the curve in the x-y plane described by the equation

\left(x^2 +y^2  + 2ay \right)^2 = 4a^2 \left( x^2 + y^2 \right)

for

x<3.

Geddit?

Answer: the equation is that of a cardioid:

cardioid-2

Is the 2015 General Election being rigged?

Posted in Brighton, Politics with tags , , , , on February 14, 2015 by telescoper

Just a few months ahead of the 2015 General Election (and some council elections, including here in Brighton) there’s something very worrying going on with the whole electoral process. For the 2014 European Parliament Elections last year I was on the electoral roll and used my vote as normal. However, last last year I discovered to my horror that I had been removed from the register here in Brighton. When I asked why, I was told by Brighton and Hove City Council (local councils oversee the election process) that I had to register afresh if I wanted to vote this May and that to do this I would have to supply personal details such as my National Insurance Number. This despite the fact that I have been resident at the same address in Brighton and have paid Council Tax at that address for two years.  I had received no communication from anyone to warn me that I was being removed from the elctoral roll and, as far as I’m aware, had I not asked I simply would not have been able to vote in the forthcoming elections.

I assumed that this was just some sort of administrative error, but I have since heard from many other people who have similarly been summarily kicked off the electoral roll for no obvious reason. One has to be wary of anecdotal evidence about things like this, but the issue seems to be a national one, related to a botched attempt to move to individual voter registration, as opposed to registration associated with a residential address. People move around much more than houses do, so there is much more information to track. The new system has been rushed through without the resources needed to support the vastly increased complexity of keeping track of individuals. For the 2015 elections over a million people who should be eligible to vote will will be absent from the electoral register, and this will mostly be the young and mobile (including students) and those in private rented accommodation in urban areas. The potential inlfluence of this effective disenfranchisement on the election result is obvious.

The more I read about this the more alarmed I have become. I am really starting to believe that this is a cynical attempt by vested interests to manipulate the outcome of the General Election, which will hinge on a relatively small number of key marginal seats where the votes of students and other young people could be crucial. It looks very sinister.

Anyone else had trouble getting on the Electoral Register? Please let me know through the Comments Box.

Yesterday

Posted in Music with tags , , on February 13, 2015 by telescoper

I’ve been running this blog for over six years now and although I’ve posted quite a lot of music in that time I’ve never included anything by the Beatles. I  decided to post it this morning just because I was listening to it last night and it struck me again how clever it is as a composition. Ostensibly in a major key (F Major) established by the opening chord, it almost immediately shifts into a minor tonality through a series of chord changes taking it to the relative minor (D Minor). The opening chord is therefore a bit of a decoy but it’s certainly a very effective hook to switch so rapidly from major to minor. It’s also (I think) the first Beatles track to be performed by Paul McCartney on his own (with strings on the original single). Paul McCartney actually wrote the tune and the lyrics. In my opinion it’s a true classic.