Archive for September 27, 2020

R.I.P. John D Barrow (1952-2020)

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags on September 27, 2020 by telescoper

My heart is filled with sorrow as I find myself having to pass on some very sad news. I have just heard of the death, yesterday, at the age of 67, of esteemed physicist, mathematician, author and polymath John Barrow. With his passing, one of cosmology’s brightest lights has gone out.

John Barrow was my thesis supervisor. Words can’t express how much I owe him for his advice and encouragement not only during my graduate studies but also throughout the 35 years that have elapsed since I started my career, as a research student at Sussex University.

John had an extraordinary mind that combined immense mathematical gifts with an encyclopedic knowledge of all kinds of literature and a wonderful flair for writing. He wrote dozens of books and a theatre play as well as hundreds of scientific articles. He was a whirlwind of ideas who had an uncanny knack of finding clever ways to crack previously unsolved problems. That he was happy to share these ideas with his students is a credit to his intellectual generosity. He inspired dozens of researchers early in their careers and continued to inspire them when they became not so young.

On a personal level, John was rather reserved and, despite his being a talented and confident public speaker, I always felt he was a rather shy person. He was a committed Christian and a regular churchgoer though he didn’t talk much about his private religious beliefs in the Department.

It is also interesting that, despite writing a number of superb popular books, giving public lectures and being a regular guest on radio programmes he steadfastly refused to appear on television. He just didn’t want to become a TV celebrity, though I suspect that if he did he would have been rather good at it.

Although I didn’t see as much of him in recent years as I would have liked, John was a member of the RAS Club which gave me the opportunity to see and talk to him fairly frequently. I always found him a very agreeable dining companion. We usually discussed sport on such occasions rather than science, actually. John was a talented middle-distance runner in his younger days and he gave me a lot of advice about training, etc, when I started running marathons. We also shared an interest in football – at which he was rather good, having had a trial for Chelsea Juniors – and we played together quite a few times in Sussex days. I remember him as a quality midfielder with a terrific engine, though he was not a natural goalscorer.

John also had a very dry and sometimes lugubrious sense of humour. I remember sending him a congratulatory email in 2003 when I found out he had been made a Fellow of the Royal Society. He replied thanking me but pointing out his joy at having been elected was tempered by the fact that the first official communication he got from Carlton House was a rather substantial bill for the subscription and a form on which to enter details to be used in an obituary.

It was through the RAS Club that I first heard, about a year ago that John was suffering from cancer. For a time he responded well to treatment but a few weeks ago I heard that his condition had deteriorated to the extent that only palliative care was possible. That news came as a shock as he always seemed so healthy and ageless that one imagined him to be indestructible. Today’s news was not unexpected but still distressing. The end came more quickly than we imagined but at least he was at home among his loved ones when he passed away.

I send heartfelt condolences to Elisabeth and the rest of John’s family, and friends and colleagues at Cambridge and elsewhere.

UPDATE: An obituary of John, written by Michael Rown-Robinson, is now available online on the Guardian website.

Rest in peace, Professor John D Barrow FRS (1952-2020).

On the Exploitation of Postgraduates

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on September 27, 2020 by telescoper

Thinking through the implications of Friday’s announcement for teaching I saw the following advice sent out to students from Maynooth University

For the next few weeks most lectures will move online. You will be invited on-campus for practical classes, tutorials and for the teaching which requires a lot of interaction.

I can’t see significant numbers of students travelling to campus for a tutorial when they have no other teaching sessions but thinking about this yesterday I was struck by the decision that tutorials should go ahead while lectures shouldn’t. Tutorials are largely given by postgraduate students and it seems extremely unfair to me that they should be required to run the risk and incur the expense of travelling to campus in order to carry out in-person teaching, when full-time staff can minimize their chances of infection by staying at home and teaching remotely.

I’ll therefore be instructing all postgraduate tutors in my Department that they are not expected to run their tutorials on campus.

Yesterday I moaned about university staff being taken for granted but the situation is even worse for postgraduate tutors, who make an invaluable and essential contribution to teaching but are often treated horrendously badly by universities.

Take for example the scandalous situation at NUI Galway, where postgraduate students are being required to undertake 120 hours of unpaid teaching duties per year. The University’s justification for this is the following

Contributing to teaching is an integral part of the training of a research Master’s or PhD student. Teaching assists you in the acquisition of generic and transferable skills, and is an important element in the formation of a research graduate.

This may well be true but it does not constitute an argument why such work should be unpaid. I would argue that an even more “important element in the formation of a research graduate” is learning not to allow oneself to be exploited.

One of the very few things I can say I achieved in my time at Sussex was to abolish the use so-called Graduate Teaching Assistantships in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences that required postgraduates to do unpaid teaching and make all such work voluntary and paid.

I am well aware of the reason why Galway is trying this on – it’s the chronic underfunding of Ireland’s universities and colleges exacerbated by rampant managerialism – but that’s no excuse for institutionalised exploitation. I wholeheartedly support the postgraduates at Galway refusing to carry out unpaid teaching duties and hope the University will withdraw this unjustified and iniquitous policy.