The Signs of Age

I was feeling very tired yesterday evening and in my vegetative state I suddenly realised that last month I missed a significant personal anniversary. In September 1988, now over thirty years ago I submitted my DPhil thesis at the University of Sussex. Here it is..

It was to be another couple of months until I had my viva (an experience I’d definitely rather forget) so I didn’t get to receive the postgraduate degree formally until the following summer, but at least I finished and submitted within the three years my funding allowed. Incidentally, mine was one of the first generation of theses at the University of Sussex to be typeset in LaTeX. At least I avoided the hassle of having carbon copies made!

The field of cosmology has changed so much in the three intervening decades that I’m sure current graduate students would find my thesis as incredibly simple-minded as I do. There weren’t any measurements of CMB temperature patterns in those days (the COBE results were not announced not until 1992) so I had to generate simulated observations, for example. Still, a few of the things in my thesis have stood the test of time, in the form of papers that still get cited to this day. I was lucky that my research  was in an area that was about to take off, rather than one that was already in decline, and that there will still problems around that were easy enough for me to tackle!

The way of working was very different too: the fact that my generation didn’t have computers on our desks makes younger graduate students wonder how we managed to do anything at all! I still amuse my colleagues with my habit of writing out bits of code in longhand on paper  and `desk-checking’ them before typing them in.

The fact that I now have over 30 years’ postdoctoral experience definitely adds to the feeling of getting very old, along with the all-pervading fatigue, the random aches and pains that afflict me from time to time, failing eyesight, and the tendency of Facebook to send me advertisements about stairlifts, hearing aids, and (worst of all) golf equipment.

The start of University term in late September brings with it a new intake of students that always looks even  younger than the last. That produces a strange alternation of feelings. On the one hand, working in a University means that you’re always surrounded by bright young students which is a good thing when you’re getting on a bit in that it reminds you that you were once like that. On the other, the proliferation of young persons around does force you to face up to how old you actually are.

I remember some years ago I was teaching a module on astrophysics as part of which I did a lecture on supernovae. In the middle of that I said to my class: “of course, you will all remember SN 1987A” (which was detected while I was a PhD student). Blank faces. I then realized that none of them had even been born in 1987. Nowadays it is the case that I was already a Professor when all my undergraduate students were born.

But these signs of age are as nothing compared to the shock I underwent when a few months ago I discovered that I’m older than Nigel Farage.

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7 Responses to “The Signs of Age”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    Not only that Peter, but you have always been older than him!

    Eyes are a priority, indeed. We theoreticians (plus radioastronomers) don’t even have the excuse that we spent our best years peering through telescopes.

    I was living in Australia in 1987 and was able to see SN 1987A with my bare eyes.

  2. Peter: You should put a scanned pdf copy of your thesis on the web.
    Or if you have the source code (as it was in latex), put a modern pdf copy on the web.

  3. Were you required to produce and distribute a certain number of copies? Paper or microfilm?

    You could probably process the LaTeX code today and make a PDF. Why not?

    The Principia is online, so there is a precedent.

    • telescoper Says:

      If I recall correctly, I had to make three (bound copies) one for the library and one for each of the examiners. I got one of them back – I have it now.

      I don’t have the LaTeX files.

  4. Simon Kemp Says:

    It’s not so easy to compile a pdf of theses so old as in those days we used to leave gaps for the figures and then paste them in later. Graphics figures could be printed out and cut to fit (or photocopied to fit) and images were photographed by mounting a camera in front of the image display screens and then developing the photographs and cutting them to fit! This means that we didn’t necesarily have the figures in the same directory and the LaTeX files, so any backup may not be complete (and any images may be lost as they were never files, thoguh I expect Peter would only have graphics files, if any). Of course it can be scanned if you find a volunteer to scan a few hundred pages.
    I don’t have any LaTeX or figure files of my PhD thesis (Manchester 1992), as of course they tend to be lost while finishing it quickly and rushing to a postdoc somewhere else (in the days before easy data storage). But I am thinking of scanning mine as there are only two copies in existence!

    • telescoper Says:

      I don’t have the LaTeX files and, as Simon pointed out, the diagrams were just pasted into gaps left with a \vspace as there was no way to embed figures in those days.

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