Archive for June, 2015

My PhD Tree

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on June 23, 2015 by telescoper

Last week I discovered that somebody has kindly constructed my PhD Tree. I later discovered that similar things have been constructed for quite a few other scientists of my acquaintance. Perhaps even yours?

Anyway, here is my academic lineage. As you can see, I have some distinguished ancestors. In particular, my great-grandfather (academically speaking) was Paul Dirac

PhD Tree

Incidentally, you might like to see Dirac’s hand-written notes for his PhD Thesis, which you can find here. It dates from 1926. As far as I am aware this is the first PhD thesis ever written on the subject of Quantum Mechanics. It’s also worth mentioning the tremendous contribution to British science made by R.H. Fowler. Fifteen Fellows of the Royal Society and three Nobel Laureates (Chandrasekhar, Dirac, and Mott) were supervised by Fowler in Cambridge between 1922 and 1939.

Religion is a Diversity Issue

Posted in Education with tags , , on June 22, 2015 by telescoper

Equality and Diversity issues in Higher Education  have been very prominent in the media recently, though usually in the context of gender. A recent article in the Times Higher urges academics to include religion as a diversity issue, which prompted me to make a few comments here. Then my attention was drawn to the following Code of Conduct for lecturers at the forthcoming STFC Summer School for new Astronomy PhD students. I’m one of the invited speakers, actually:

Code of Conduct

I gather that there are some who find the inclusion of “religion” to be somehow inappropriate…

Before I go on I should declare that I am an atheist and a secularist. I’m a paid-up member of the National Secular Society, in fact. That means that I’m in favour of the removal of religious privilege from all aspects of the government of this country. What it does not mean is that I think I know all the answers. I may be an atheis, but I am not a fundamentalist like Richard Dawkins. In fact, I think Dawkins does more harm than good to secularism.

People far cleverer than me – including many of my colleagues in astrophysics and cosmology – are deeply religious and I don’t respect them any the less for that. I may not understand their beliefs, but I respect their right to hold them. I don’t delude myself into thinking that everything that I think do or say is perfectly rational, so I don’t judge people whose beliefs I find hard to comprehend.

Sir Isaac Newton was a great scientist, but he was also a deeply religious man who also dabbled in alchemy and other forms of magic. Science may have displaced some of the more esoteric parts of Newton’s belief-system, but it hasn’t banished the magic of our Universe. It just describes it better.

I believe in free speech. As a consequence, I do not believe that it should be illegal or unlawful to say things that insult a religion. I have myself made jokes about religion, e.g. on Twitter, that some have found offensive. I have also mocked the bigotry and hypocrisy which seems to me all too frequently associated with certain types of religious belief. And those who use religion as a pretext for racism, homophobia or gender discrimination. But that’s not the same as poking fun at someone just because they have a religious beleief.

Although I don’t think such things should ever be made unlawful – there is too much law about this already – there are circumstances in which such things should not be said. This seems to be an aspect of free speech that people get very wound up about. If you don’t say what you’re thinking then surely that’s cowardly “self-censorship”? No. In everyday life there are countless situations in which things are better left unsaid. We make such decisions all the time. That’s not about cowardice, unless you hold your tongue just because you’re frightened of making waves. There can be many reasons for discretion including, and these certainly apply in the context of the Summer School, professionalism and respect for your audience. Just because you can say something doesn’t always mean you should.

So I think it’s perfectly appropriate to have a Code of Conduct to remind speakers that they should refrain from making “offensive verbal comments” related to religion (or the other things listed). I welcome it, in fact. Religion is a diversity issue, in science as it is everywhere else.

The Sunlight on the Garden

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on June 21, 2015 by telescoper

The sunlight on the garden
Hardens and grows cold,
We cannot cage the minute
Within its nets of gold;
When all is told
We cannot beg for pardon.

Our freedom as free lances
Advances towards its end;
The earth compels, upon it
Sonnets and birds descend;
And soon, my friend,
We shall have no time for dances.

The sky was good for flying
Defying the church bells
And every evil iron
Siren and what it tells:
The earth compels,
We are dying, Egypt, dying

And not expecting pardon,
Hardened in heart anew,
But glad to have sat under
Thunder and rain with you,
And grateful too
For sunlight on the garden.

by Louis MacNeice (1907-1963)

Admissions to Degrees

Posted in Biographical with tags , , on June 20, 2015 by telescoper

My trip to Cambridge earlier this week along with talk of other anniversaries made me a bit nostalgic this morning so I dug out the papers I kept about my own graduation.


It turns out I graduated on Saturday 22nd June 1985. You can see my name on the list of graduands at the top left of this montage.

I don’t remember much about the actual ceremony nor the rest of the day, perhaps because I was hungover from the night before..

On the right you see details of the Graduation Dinner held on Friday 21st June. When that ended, a large crowd went to the Pickerel where I remember singing all the verses of the Blaydon Races although I don’t remember why..

(Almost) Fifty Years of Astronomy at Sussex

Posted in Education, History with tags , on June 19, 2015 by telescoper

I came across this booklet earlier this morning, whereupon I realised that Thirty is about to turn into Fifty…


The date on the front of the booklet is November 1996, but inside it explains that the content is based on a seminar given at Sussex about a year earlier. In fact the first MSc students in Astronomy started in October 1965. However, they were all part-time students (they were all staff at the Royal Greenwich Observatory which at that time was in Herstmonceux, Sussex) and none graduated until 1967. The 40th anniversary of that graduation was recognized with an event in 2007. The first full-time staff astronomer arrived in 1966, along with the first full-time MSc students. The first MSc students to graduate did so in 1967.

In fact I joined the Astronomy Centre at Sussex as a DPhil student in October 1985, 20 years after the arrival of the first cohort.

It’s interesting to note that originally astronomy existed at Sussex only as a postgraduate course. The attitude in most Universities in those days was that students should learn all the necessary physics before applying it to astronomy. Over the years this has changed, and most departments offer some astronomy right from Year 1. I think this change has been for the better because I think the astronomical setting provides a very exciting context to learn physics. If you want to understand, say, the structure of the Sun you have to include atomic physics, nuclear physics, gravity, thermodynamics, radiative transfer and hydrostatics all at the same time. This sort of thing makes astrophysics a good subject for developing synthetic skills while more traditional physics teaching focusses almost exclusively on analytical skills.

Anyway, I’m now left with a quandary. Should Fifty Years of Astronomy at Sussex be celebrated in 2015, 2016 or 2017?

Answers on a postcard please….

Network Launch

Posted in Biographical, LGBT with tags , on June 19, 2015 by telescoper

As promised, last night saw the launch of the new Sussex University staff LGBT network. I was quite nervous ahead of the event, unsure of how it would go.


In the end most of the people who said they would come did so,  25 people or thereabouts. The mailing list is over 50, but this is a busy time of year so there were quite a few who couldn’t come last night. In fact if there had been many more people it might have made it more difficult for people to have their opinions heard.

At least most of the food and drink was consumed…


Anyway, we had a nice discussion of the things we might do and a few people stepped up to volunteer their time to help organize various events. Now for some serious work over the summer to get things really moving and plan a programme for next academic year…



Back to Brighton Beach

Posted in Biographical, Brighton with tags , , on June 18, 2015 by telescoper

Well, back from Cambridge to Brighton for a very busy working day at the University of Sussex during which I probably won’t have time to post, so I thought I’d just share a picture.This was the view from the seafront as I walked to the bus stop on my way to work this morning…

Beard Week 2015: Pogonophobe of the Year poll

Posted in Beards with tags on June 17, 2015 by telescoper

I have been remiss in not passing on this important poll, but there’s still plenty of time to vote for Katie Hopkins..

Kmflett's Blog

Beard Liberation Front

Press release 9th June contact Keith Flett 07803 167266

Beard Week seeks Pogonophobe of the Year

The Beard Liberation Front, the informal network of beard wearers, has said that it is searching for the Pogonophobe of the Year as Beard Week 2015, a celebration of hirsuteness, starts on 29th June.

In 2014 Nigel Farage, arguably the epitome of the clean shaven white man in a suit, was awarded the title.

In 2015 the BLF is running a poll to determine who should be in the frame as the beard hater of the year. Of those on the shortlist only former England rugby coach Clive Woodward and inevitably Katie Hopkins have made openly pogonophobic comments, but the others are believed to be some way from pogonophilia, the love of beards

BLF Organiser Keith Flett said, of course pogonophobia is a generally acceptable prejudice. Our aim is to make it a bit…

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A Cambridge Guest

Posted in Beards, Biographical with tags on June 16, 2015 by telescoper

So here I am in a palatial guest room in Christ’s College, Cambridge.  I’m here because I am one of the (two) External Examiners for Physics. I spent yesterday afternoon at the Cavendish Laboratory preparing for today’s Part 2 Examination Board; tomorrow we have Part 3. The role of the External Examiner is basically to oversee the whole process including the classification of the honours degrees, to try as far as possible that candidates are treated fairly, and to ensure that academic standards are upheld.

Last night there were long queues of students here and there, all dolled up in their finest. It being June, of course, it is time for May Week (which, obviously, lasts a fortnight) and the inevitable May Balls. There were fireworks all over the city last night as things kicked off in a number of locations. My own evening was spent in more modest but in its own way very agreeable style, with an excellent curry up Castle Hill and a pint in the Pickerel.

Obviously I can’t blog about the actual business of the Exam Board. In fact I can’t blog about very much at all as  a college breakfast beckons. I will however just note that it does feel a little spooky being here as a guest at this time of year for this specific reason.

Exactly 30 years ago, I was a Finalist at Cambridge enjoying all the end-of-year activities and waiting for my own degree result for Part 2 Physics. Now I am on the other side of the fence in a way I could never have imagined back in 1985. It’s a strange kind of cyclic universe sometimes.

Anyway, must get on. Long day ahead. Need that Full English.

The Meaning of Magna Carta

Posted in History, Television with tags , , on June 15, 2015 by telescoper

Today (15th June 2015) is the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta. To mark the occasion here is a short educational video explaining the meaning and significance of this important historical event: