Archive for October, 2015


Posted in Uncategorized on October 29, 2015 by telescoper

It now behoves me to spend some time away from the office. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible but in the meantime there will be a short intermission…



1995 World Cup Memories

Posted in Biographical, Rugby with tags , , , , , , , , on October 28, 2015 by telescoper

So, the 2015 Rugby World Cup final takes place this weekend. It’s been an interesting tournament with some memorable games (and some notable disappointments). Anyway, I suddenly remembered that in 1995 I was in South Africa during the Rugby World Cup. In fact I was visiting George Ellis at the University of Cape Town to work on a book, which was published in 1997. The book is now rather out of date, but I think it turned out rather well and it was certainly a lot of fun working on it!

Was that really twenty years ago?

Of course it was a complete coincidence that I timed my trip to Cape Town exactly to cover the period of the Rugby Word Cup. Well, perhaps not a complete coincidence. In fact I was lucky enough to get a ticket for the semi-final of that tournament between England and New Zealand at Newlands, in Cape Town. I was in the stand at one end of the ground, and saw New Zealand – spearheaded by the incredible Jonah Lomu – score try after try in the distance at the far end during the first half. Here is the first, very soon after the kickoff when Andrew Mehrtens wrong-footed England by kicking to the other side of the field than where the forwards were lined up. The scrambling defence conceded a scrum which led to a ruck, from which this happened:

Even more impressively I had a very good view when Zinzan Brooke scored at the same end with a drop-goal off the back of a scrum. Not many No. 8 forwards have the skill to do that!

It was one-way traffic in the first half but in the second half England played much better, with the result that all the action was again at the far end of the pitch. However, right at the end of the match Jonah Lomu scored another try, this time at the end I was standing. I’ll never forget the sight of that enormous man sprinting towards me and am glad it wasn’t my job to try to stop him, especially have seen what happened to Underwood, Catt and Carling when they tried to bring him down.

Anyway, I hope it’s a good final on Saturday. For what it’s worth, I did pick the two finalists correctly before the tournament. I’m expecting the All Blacks to beat Australia comfortably, but am not going to bet on the result!

A Young Person’s Guide to Neutrino Physics

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on October 28, 2015 by telescoper

I couldn’t resist sharing this charming video about neutrino physics. I don’t know who this Samantha is, but I think she’s a star!

Commercially-driven research should be funded by loans, not grants

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , on October 27, 2015 by telescoper

I couldn’t resist a very quick comment on an item in yesterday’s Financial Times. The article may be behind a paywall, so here’s a short extract giving the essential point:

Ministers are considering proposals to replace research grants to industry with loans, in a move that business leaders fear would damage Britain’s ability to innovate.

The reason for mentioning this is that I suggested the very same idea on this blog about five years ago. My general point was the logical inconsistency in swapping grants for loans in the case of university students on the grounds that they are the beneficiaries of education and should be able to pay back the investment through earnings, when the same argument is not applied to businesses that profit from university-based research. I wonder if BIS have been reading this blog again?

For what it’s worth I’ll repeat here my personal opinion view that “commercially useful” research should not be funded by the taxpayer through research grants. If it’s going to pay off in the short term it should be funded by private investors or venture capitalists of some sort. Dragon’s Den, even. When the public purse is so heavily constrained, it should only be asked to fund those things that can’t in practice be funded any other way. That means long-term, speculative, curiosity driven, scientific research.

This is pretty much the opposite of what the Treasury seems to have been thinking for the last five years. It wants to concentrate public funds in projects that can demonstrate immediate commercial potential. Taxpayer’s money used in this way ends up in the pockets of entrepreneurs if the research succeeds and, if it doesn’t, the grant has effectively been wasted. My proposal, therefore, is to phase out research grants for groups (either in universities or in business) that want to concentrate on commercially motivated research and replace them with research loans. If the claims they make to secure the advance are justified they should have no problem repaying it from the profits they make from patent income or other forms of exploitation. If not, then they will have to pay back the loan from their own funds (as well as being exposed as bullshit merchants). In the current economic situation the loans could be made at very low interest rates and still save a huge amount of the current research budget for higher education. Indeed after a few years – suggest the loans should be repayable in 3-5 years, it would be self-financing. I think a large fraction of research in the Applied Sciences and Engineering should be funded in this way.

The money saved by replacing grants to commercially driven research groups with loans could be re-invested in those areas where public investment is really needed, such as pure science and medicine. Here grants are needed because the motivation for the research is different. Much of it does, in fact, lead to commercial spin-offs, but that is accidental and likely to appear only in the very long term. The real motivation of doing this kind of research is to enrich the knowledge base of the UK and the world in general. In other words, it’s for the public good. Remember that?

Most of you probably think that this is a crazy idea, but if you do I’ll ask you to now think about how the government funds teaching in universities and ask yourself why research is handled in such a different way.

Science is Vital at the Conway Hall

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , on October 27, 2015 by telescoper

Yesterday, as promised, I went up to London to attend the Science is Vital event at the Conway Hall.I was a bit worried that I might not make it in time for the 7 o’clock kick-off, but it turned out that a meeting I was attending finished earlier than expected and I got to the venue in good time.

It was a fun evening, but you don’t need to take my word for it. Here is a video of the whole thing, which is basically a recording of the live webstream.  I learned a lot, especially from Andrew Steele (who appears early on); check out his website here. Did you know for example that the average expenditure per person per year in the UK on alcohol is £600, while the average expenditure per person per year in the UK on cancer research is a paltry £2.80?

P.S. There’s a nice discussion of wider issues raised by the Science is Vital campaign in today’s Guardian.

R.I.P. Lisa Jardine

Posted in History with tags , on October 26, 2015 by telescoper


Lisa Jardine

As soon as I got home from Oxford yesterday I heard the very sad news of the death of writer, scholar and broadcaster Lisa Jardine, who has passed away at the age of 71.

Today’s newspapers are filled with tributes from people who are fair better qualified than me to discuss her career as a historian (e.g. here and here). I can’t leave her death unmarked, but I’ll restrict myself to some personal recollections. Lisa Jardine worked at Queen Mary College when I was employed there (from 1990-1998) . I won’t claim to have known her well but I did meet her quite a few times, usually in the Senior Common Room bar.  She seemed to me to be a rarity:  a historian who was genuinely interested in, and knowledgeable about,  science. In fact she knew an enormous amount about a huge range of different subjects, but was also extremely engaging and approachable, though she didn’t suffer fools gladly (if at all). She was a delight to talk to; conversations with Lisa were always both entertaining and educational.  What I’ll remember most, however, is her deliciously cheeky sense of humour and the  marvellous twinkle in her eye. It’s hard to believe that she has gone.

Rest in Peace, Lisa Jardine (1944-2015).

P.S. In case you weren’t aware, Lisa Jardine was the daughter of famous polymath Jacob Bronowski who was of Polish-Jewish origin. I mention that not to detract from Lisa’s own achievements as an academic, but to draw attention to yet another family of “migrants” that has enriched our nation’s culture.




The Open Journal cometh..

Posted in Biographical, Open Access on October 25, 2015 by telescoper

I have been at a meeting in Oxford with a group of conspirators this afternoon to plot the final downfall of the academic publishing industry..


All systems are go and we have agreed a schedule for the official launch of the long-awaited Open Journal of Astrophysics.

More details will come out over the next few weeks. Watch this space!