Archive for the Biographical Category

On the Importance of School Experiments

Posted in Biographical, Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on February 27, 2017 by telescoper

Twitter drew my attention this afternoon to a series of videos produced by the Royal Society designed to give teachers in schools some additional resources to encourage their pupils to do science experiments. They star the ubiquitous Professor Brian Cox, and they cover a wide range of science. You can see the whole playlist on Youtube here (although it is unfortunately back-to-front):

Although I ended up doing primarily theoretical work in my scientific career, there’s no question that ‘hands-on’ experiments played a big part in the development of my understanding of, especially, physics and chemistry. I remember vividly when I was about 12 years old doing a simple series of experiments in which we weighed out samples of chemical material of various types, then burned it somehow (usually over a bunsen burner) and weighed what was left. Commonsense based on experience with burning stuff like wood and paper is that the process reduces the amount of material so I expected the mass remaining at the end to be less than the initial mass. The first stuff that I did was a few grains of calcium. I couldn’t believe it when the residue turned out to weigh more than the stuff I started with. I was sure I was wrong and got quite upset for failing such an elementary practical exercise, but the same thing happened every time whatever the material.

Of course, the explanation is that the process going on was oxidation, and the calcium was actually combining with oxygen from the air to form an oxide. It did look as if some kind of destruction had happened, but the oxygen taken from the atmosphere had bonded to the calcium atoms and this increased the mass of the residue.

The teacher could have talked about this and explained it, but it wouldn’t have had anything like the impact on my understanding of discovering it for myself.

That’s a personal story of course, but I think it’s probably a widespread educational experience. These days few students seem to have the chance to do their own experience, either because of shortage of facilities or the dreaded ‘Health and Safety’ so I think any effort to encourage more teachers to allow their students to do more experiments is thoroughly worthwhile!

To Lincoln via Storm Doris

Posted in Biographical, Talks and Reviews, The Universe and Stuff with tags , on February 23, 2017 by telescoper

What a day!

This morning I set out from Cardiff to travel here to Lincoln for my public lecture. I took the 9.45 train via Birmingham which, after a change of trains in Nottingham, should have got me into Lincoln at 14.23, with plenty of time to have a look around and chat to people before the scheduled start of my talk at 18.00 hours.

That was the plan, but it omitted an important factor: Storm Doris. Fallen trees, broken down trains and general disorganisation meant that it took nine hours to get to Lincoln, even including getting a taxi from Nottingham because I missed my connection.

The strangest thing was that I never actually saw any particularly bad weather. In fact there was quite a lot of sunshine en route. All the chaos was caused elsewhere, apparently.

Anyway I finally turned up almost an hour late for my talk, but thankfully the audience had waited patiently so we went ahead with the lecture. I can’t say I was entirely unflustered after the journey but I hope at least some people found something of interest. There  certainly were some very nice and interesting questions at the end.

So now after a pleasant dinner with my host Andrei, I am safely installed in a charming guest house right beside Lincoln Cathedral. I certainly think I’ll sleep well tonight! 

Let’s hope my journey back to Cardiff is a bit less eventful. 

Not the Six Nations

Posted in Biographical, Rugby with tags , , , , on February 18, 2017 by telescoper

After a misty morning it has turned into a lovely Spring-like afternoon here in Cardiff. I’ve been in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University this morning, helping out with a UCAS visit day by interviewing some prospective students and then having lunch and chatting with parents and others.

As well as the weather and the admissions season, another indication of the passage of the seasons is the Six Nations rugby. Our Saturday UCAS visit days have to be arranged with the RBS Six Nations fixture list in mind because Cardiff gets incredibly busy when Wales are playing at home. The capacity of the Millennium Principality Stadium is well over 80,000 which, for a City with a population of just over 300,000 represents a huge perturbation. 

Not only is there a lot of traffic and a very crowded city centre, but it’s also very difficult to find hotel accommodation at a reasonable price on match weekends.  Given that we start in the morning, quite a few prospective students and their families do stay overnight beforehand so this is quite an important consideration. There are no fixtures in the RBS Six Nations this weekend. Today two of my interviewees had travelled quite a long way to get to Cardiff – one from Richmond in North Yorkshire and another from Falmouth in Cornwall – and both families stayed over last night.

Anyway, while I’m not talking about the Six Nations I can’t resist mentioning last week’s match here in Cardiff between Wales and England. I didn’t have a ticket. I’ve ever really figured out how to get tickets for these matches. They always seem to be completely sold out as soon as they go on sale.

Before the match, I thought it was going to be a close game but Wales always have tremendous home advantage at Cardiff and I thought they might just sneak it. It was a rather dour struggle to be honest, but with less than ten minutes to go Wales were leading 16-14 and my suspicions seemed about to be confirmed. However, as is often the case with close matches, it was an error that produced the decisive moment.

About five metres out, Wales turned possession over and then rucked successfully, the ball eventually going to Jonathan Davies behind his own try line. With half of his team trying to disentangle themselves from the completed ruck, it was essential for him to clear his lines by kicking into touch. Unfortunately, he kicked straight down the field where his kick was collected by George Ford. England’s counter-attack was swift and lethal: Ford to Farrell and then to Elliott Daly on the wing, who went over for the try to the sound of groans all round Cardiff. After the conversion it was Wales 16 England 21, which is how the game ended a few minutes later.

The results of the other games so far mean that the only team capable of winning a grand slam is England, as each of the other teams has lost at least one game. There’s still a long way to go, however, and England still face challenging matches against Ireland and a much-improved Scotland.

Anyway, all this UCAS malarkey means that I’m way behind on Saturday crossword duties, so I’m going home. Toodle-pip.

Signs of the Data Innovation Institute

Posted in Biographical with tags on February 13, 2017 by telescoper

I’ve only been in my new office in the Data Innovation Research Institute for 5 months so it came as a big surprise to see that they’ve already started putting up the signs telling people where we are. In fact a couple of chaps came this  morning to do the necessary, and now we look very professional. It’s hard to tell that this used to be a chip shop.

dii_out

Please don’t tell the Health & Safety people about the power cable trailing through the window!

And here’s me answering the door to strangers…

dii_2

Thanks to Dan Read for taking that second one.

Four Years On…

Posted in Biographical with tags , , on January 31, 2017 by telescoper

After the annual last-minute rush to file my tax return by the  deadline (which is midnight today, 31st January),  I can now relax not only because the job is finished, but also because it confirms that I am due a rebate (as indeed I was last year).

Anyway, thinking about the 31st January deadline made me remember that it was precisely four years ago, on 31st January 2013, that I left Cardiff University to take up a post at the University of Sussex. On that occasion I had to rush to finish marking a big stack of exams and finish packing the books in my office before signing the work of art I had left on my whiteboard and heading off.

I started at Sussex the following day.

I didn’t think then that in four years I would be back in Cardiff, but then I didn’t think a lot of things would happen that have happened in that time. I don’t regret my decision to resign, but I do find myself from time to time wondering how things are going back at Sussex and how things might be now had I decided to stay there. I’ve been so busy I’ve only been back once to Brighton since I left last summer. I must put that right. Perhaps I’ll have a holiday there in the spring.

The Trump Protest in Cardiff

Posted in Biographical, Politics with tags , , , , on January 31, 2017 by telescoper

Last night I joined in a protest in Cardiff against Donald Trump’s executive order curtailing the US refugee programme and suspending the right of entry to the USA to people with perfectly valid documentation who were born in Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. In effect, it’s a Muslim Ban. Coincidentally, the Muslim countries exempted from the order include Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates are all places where Trump has business interests.

This unconscionable and unconstitutional order has led to detentions and forced deportations in clear violation of the Geneva convention. There’s a Nature piece giving some examples of scientists it has affected, to illustrate the damage done already. I find it a disgrace that our government has failed to voice its disapproval of this order, and I’m apparently not alone. Despite just a day’s notice, thousands turned out for protests across the United Kingdom, including Cardiff, where we assembled at about 6.30pm near the statue of Aneurin Bevan on Queen Street.

queen-street

Despite the pouring rain the numbers built up impressively until the street became very crowded. It wasn’t very easy to count the people there but I’m very confident that they numbered well over a thousand. That’s not as large as the demonstration in London that happened at the same time, but it’s a start.

There were some speeches and chanting and lots of witty signs and we marched up and down Queen Street making an enjoyable noise. It was all very good-humoured, but behind it all was a deep sense of alarm that the President of the United States of America has revealed himself to be nothing but a fascist. Yes, I mean a fascist -that’s precisely what he is. More and more people are going to come to that conclusion over the next few weeks and months and if and when he ever does come to the United Kingdom on a State Visit, there’ll be demonstrations against him. Our political masters may be prepared to sell this country to Trump, but I don’t think ordinary people will stand for it.

Working for the Yankee Dollar

Posted in Biographical, Music with tags , on January 27, 2017 by telescoper

While bracing myself to endure the nauseating spectacle of a British Prime Minister grovelling to the abominable Donald Trump in a desperate attempt to interest him in a trade deal, and sacrifice the National Health Service in the process, I suddenly had two flashbacks to the days of my youth (specifically 1979).

The first was to the TV series Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Near the end, Bill Haydon, who has been revealed as a Russian “mole” and traitor to his country laments his country’s abject willingness to prostitute itself on behalf of the United States of America and explains that he decided to become a Soviet agent when he realised that “Britain had become America’s streetwalker”.

Coincidentally (?), this record by Scottish punk band The Skids was was also released in 1979:

Given the recent antics of the UK government I feel more confident than ever that Scottish independence will be a reality very soon.