Archive for the Biographical Category

MSc Opportunities in Data-Intensive Physics and Astrophysics

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , on June 22, 2017 by telescoper

Back to the office after external examining duties, I received an email this morning to say that the results have now been posted in Cambridge. I also had an email from Miss Lemon at Sussex that told me that their finalists’ results went up last Friday. We did ours in Cardiff last week. This provides me with a timely opportunity to congratulate all students at all three of these institutions – and indeed everywhere else – on their success!

It also occurred to me tha,t now that most students know how well they’ve done in their undergraduate degree, some may be thinking about further study, at postgraduate level. It seems a good opportunity to remind potential applicants about our two brand new MSc courses at Masters (MSc) level, called Data-Intensive Physics and Data-Intensive Astrophysics and they are both taught jointly by staff in the School of Physics and Astronomy and the School of Computer Science and Informatics in a kind of major/minor combination.

The aim of these courses is twofold.

One is to provide specialist postgraduate training for students wishing to go into academic research in a ‘data-intensive’ area of physics or astrophysics, by which I mean a field which involves the analysis and manipulation of very large or complex data sets and/or the use of high-performance computing for, e.g., simulation work. There is a shortage of postgraduates with the necessary combination of skills to undertake academic research in such areas, and we plan to try to fill the gap with these courses.

The other aim is to cater for students who may not have made up their mind whether to go into academic research, but wish to keep their options open while pursuing a postgraduate course. The unique combination of physics/astrophysics and computer science will give those with these qualifications the option of either continuing or going into another sphere of data-intensive research in the wider world of Big Data.

The motivation for these courses has been further strengthened recently by the announcement earlier this year of extra funding for PhD research in Data-Intensive Physics. We’ve been selecting students for this programme and making other preparations for the arrival of the first cohort in September. We’ve had many more applicants than we can accommodate this time, but this looks set to be a growth area for the future so anyone thinking of putting themselves in a good position for a PhD in Data-Intensive Physics or Astrophysics in the future might think about preparing by taking a Masters in Data-Intensive Physics or Astrophysics now!

I just checked on our admissions system and saw, as expected, conditional offers turning into firm acceptances now that the finals exam results are being published across the country but we have still got plenty of room on these courses so if you’re thinking about applying, please be assured that we’re still accepting new applications!


Cambridge Heat

Posted in Biographical on June 19, 2017 by telescoper

I’m in Cambridge, where it is very hot, for a few days on external examining duty for Part II and Part III of the Natural Sciences Tripos (Physics).

My trip here from Cardiff didn’t go entirely as planned. I had intended to catch the 10.26 from Cardiff to London Paddington, but the train that should have formed that service was so late that it was cancelled, or rather `retimed’ to be the 10.56. That train trundled through countryside getting later and later until it stopped entirely at Hayes, where it got stuck behind a stricken overhead power line. And at Hayes we sat for the best part of an hour. I had planned to arrive at Paddington at about 12.30, but actually got there at 2.30…

I didn’t arrive in Cambridge until after 4pm, and was not inconsiderably flustered. I hadn’t even had any lunch, though I was somewhat relieved to discover that the other external examiner had similar problems and was actually even later than me. Fortunately we were able to rearrange the meeting we had planned and managed to get through (by about 8pm) the preparations needed for the meeting of the Board of Examiners planned for tomorrow morning at 9.30am.

A couple of beers and burger later I’m now in my hotel room and feeling a little more mellow.

It’s a bit warmer than previous years I’ve been here at this time of year, but otherwise it’s the same: we passed crowds of young people in their glad rags queuing for various May Balls. No doubt we’ll meet the bedraggled remnants tomorrow morning on the way back to the Cavendish.

And now, if you’ll excuse me I’m going to have a cup of tea and relax. It’s been a long day…

Week Ending

Posted in Biographical on June 16, 2017 by telescoper

I’ve spent most of today involved in interviewing prospective PhD students for our new Centre for Doctoral Training in Data-Intensive Science run jointly between the universities of Bristol and Swansea which I advertised on here just a couple of months ago. I spent most of Monday in Bristol meeting representatives of industrial and other businesses, who are offering placement opportunities for PhD students on this new scheme. This activity is taking up quite a lot of my time these days and it’s not over yet as we haven’t yet finished the process of recruiting students which has to be done in connection with our academic and business partners.

I’ll be in Cambridge for the first half of next week, on external examining duties, and then the following week we have our little workshop on Random Fields. People generally think that, once our undergraduate lecture courses are finished and associated examinations are marked, we are free to do research until October. If only. There are many other things to be done.

Anyway that’s enough for this week. I’m off to the pub for a pint. Have a good weekend!



One Day in London

Posted in Biographical, Books, Talks and Reviews with tags , , on June 15, 2017 by telescoper

As it happens, I was in London yesterday to give an Astrophysics seminar at South Kensington Technical Imperial College. In due course I’ll post the slides as I normally do on such occasions.

It was an enjoyable day, with a train journey from Cardiff nice lunch followed by a question-and-answer session with students followed by the talk followed by a cup of tea, followed by a train ride home – all (for a change) running exactly to schedule. It was also extremely hot which meant the walk between Paddington and Imperial (across Hyde Park) left me rather sweaty. Better than getting rained on I suppose.

My hosts gave me an espresso cup, with an interesting motto on the back.

Usually when I go to Imperial or thereabouts I have a minor quandary about whether to walk or take the tube, with such factors as time, weight of baggage and weather taken into consideration before making a decision. This time, however, there was no decision to make because there were problems on the Underground in the area because of the terrible fire at Grenfell Towers, which has claimed the lives of at least 17 people (and possibly many more). The fire itself was near Latimer Road station, which is not on the line I would have taken, but there were apparently fears that the building might collapse near the line (which is overground at that point) so trains were suspended all the way from Hammersmith to Edgware Road, which disrupted the running of the Circle Line.

The venue for my talk was two or three miles away from Grenfell Towers, but in mid-afternoon you could still see smoke in the distance. It was a grim sight. I think I’ll remember yesterday afternoon very well, not because I gave a seminar, but because of the terrible events that happened earlier the same day.

There are many questions that urgently require answers. How did the fire start? Why did it spread so rapidly? Did the smoke alarms work (and if not why not)? Did the cladding on the outside of the building play a role? Did the fact that there was only a single stairwell – astonishing to my mind for a 20-storey residential building – cost lives?

I hope we’ll find the answers to these questions through a proper public inquiry. In the meantime all I can do is express my deepest condolences to those bereaved by this disaster, and wish a speedy recovery for those injured. They will need to understand what happened, urgently.

On the train home yesterday I looked at Twitter and saw this picture, of grim-faced and exhausted firefighters taking a break. I found it almost unbearably moving. We take these people for granted so much of the time, but they’re heroes – every single one of them:

A Tale of Two Cities 

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on June 5, 2017 by telescoper

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..”

As planned on Saturday evening I stayed at home,  cooked myself dinner, opened a bottle of wine, and watched an old film on DVD. Self-indulgent, I know, but a good way to  have a pleasant evening while avoiding  the crowds at the UEFA Champions League final.

Some time after 10pm  I checked Twitter to see what the score was (4-1 to Real Madrid), and just to check that nothing untoward had happened before or during the match.

It hadn’t, but that was exactly when news was coming in of another terrorist attack in London, this time on London Bridge and in the area of Borough Market. Stories were initially very confused, and I went to bed before a clear picture emerged.

I checked the news feeds again when I woke up and felt the saddest I’ve ever been on a birthday, but still determined to go to Der Rosenkavalier. The best way for us all to beat terrorism is to carry on regardless.

Likewise I didn’t think twice about coming to London today for the Euclid meeting this week. That said, I did arrive very late. Torrential rain overnight in Cardiff, combined with a blocked gutter, led to a flood in my kitchen. I had to call a useful person to fix it the problem, which delayed me by a few hours. Fortunately it was only rainwater in the leak, not nasty stuff backed up from the drain.

Now I’m in London where it is also tipping down, but at least I’m in a pleasant hotel and looking to get a good night’s sleep. The sound of rain can be restful, at least when it’s not flooding your kitchen.

I made my way to the hotel, which is in Bayswater, after a wine and nibbles reception at the workshop. I have never stayed here before and it took a while to find. I was a bit nervous too, as the place is remarkably cheap by London standards. Before correctly locating the hotel I wandered into another establishment on the same street with a similar name. It was quite obviously a brothel, and they politely directed me to the correct address. The hotel turned out to be fine, though obviously without any of the ‘extras’ that would have been available at the other place.

I can’t stay the whole week here as I have to get back to Cardiff to vote on Thursday, but it’s been nice to catch up with news of the Euclid mission and to meet some old friends. There are about 400 cosmologists here in London for this meeting, some of them familiar some of them less so. The mission won’t be launched until 2021 at the earliest, and it’s unlikely I’ll be involved very much, but it’s still exciting to see it all taking shape.

In case you were wondering….

Posted in Biographical, Politics with tags , , on June 3, 2017 by telescoper

Module Evaluation

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , on May 31, 2017 by telescoper

It’s always with a measure of trepidation that I look at the feedback that students give on a module that I’ve been teaching, and this nervousness is considerably enhanced when it’s the first time I’ve lectured that material. This morning I grasped the nettle and clicked on the link to take me to my questionnaire results for my module Physics of the Early Universe. I was relieved that it was all fairly positive.

In the old days these things were done on paper, which meant quite a big job collecting and collating the results. Nowadays it’s all done online, which means not receiving any drawings or other artistic contributions that some students were wont to scribble on the questionnaires. Past experience has been that the response rate is lower for on-line surveys, but the response rate I got this time was pretty high – over 80%. Perhaps students are getting more accustomed to doing everything on line?

I never find the numerical scores particularly useful as one has no idea how to calibrate them, but the textual comments made by students are often interesting and helpful. They’re all anonymous, of course, to encourage students to be frank.

One thing that clearly went down very well was the use of Cardiff’s new lecture-capture system (called Panopto), which allows the lecturer to record everything – powerpoint, data visualizer, whiteboard and live action – for posterity. I recorded all my lectures and exercise classes in toto and put them up on our Virtual Learning Environment (called Learning Central) for the students to view at their leisure. It’s a significantly more sophisticated and flexible lecture capture system than the one we used when I was at Sussex, and the questionnaire responses showed that the students really appreciated the availability of the recordings; a representative comment can be found below.

Not all my colleagues are keen on the idea of lecture capture, but I like it a lot and am very happy to do it with my own lectures. It does seem that some university staff are wary of this innovation, but opinion may be changing. Please let me know what you think via the poll thatr I’ve been running on this for a few years:

It’s always difficult when you give a new set of lectures judging the pace appropriately. I spent more time on introductory material than I should perhaps have done, and also – as a number of students made clear in the module evaluation – should have done some more worked examples. I’ll try do better next time, and I am very grateful to those who took the time to complete the survey pointing out how I might improve. I always take constructive criticism very seriously.

It is of course the negative comments that are the most helpful in a practical sense, but it is always nice to find comments like these:

The lecturer is very passionate about the subject and that really helps as you can ask any question and he’ll be able to answer it. Furthermore, his enthusiasm helps to keep you engaged. I also found it helpful that the lectures were recorded, so I could look over them while working on coursework.

Before you accuse me of doing so, I admit that I have cherry-picked one of the good ones to show myself in a good light.

I’m less sure how to interpret this one:

The lectures were incredible.

Anyway, the students on this module have now finished the exam and will be waiting for the results which come out in a couple of weeks. If any happen to be reading this blog then thanks for your comments and