Archive for the Biographical Category

Equinoctial Molehills

Posted in Biographical, Bute Park, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on March 20, 2018 by telescoper

Very busy today, what with a return to lecturing in Cardiff and so on, so I’ve just got time for a quick post to mark the fact that the Vernal Equinox in the Northern Hemisphere took place today, Tuesday 20th March 2018, at 16.15 UTC (which is 16.15 GMT). This means that the Sun has just crossed the celestial equator on its journey Northward. Some people regard this as the first day of spring, which is fair enough as it does correspond fairly well to the end of the Six Nations rugby.

It wasn’t exactly spring weather when I walked into work this morning, as there are still bits of snow around in Bute Park.

More significantly, a huge number of molehills have appeared. Not quite a mole of molehills, but still quite a few. I’m not sure of the reason for all this molar activity. Perhaps moles have special rituals for marking the Vernal Equinox?

Incidentally I was dismayed to see that my Royal Astronomical Society diary gives the time of the 2018 Vernal Equinox as 16.16 GMT while the wikipedia page I linked to above gives 16.15 GMT. I find a discrepancy of this magnitude extremely unnerving. Or am I making a mountain out of a molehill?


Back to work in Cardiff..

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , on March 19, 2018 by telescoper

So here I am, then. Back in the offices of the Data Innovation Research Institute in Cardiff for the first time in almost a fortnight. The four-week batch of strikes over pensions has come to an end so I have returned to work. No agreement has been reached so it seems likely there will be further industrial action, but for the time being normal services are being resumed. In fact it’s not exactly back to normal because there’s a large backlog of things to be done (including marking coursework and setting examinations), but I mean at least that lectures resume and will be delivered on the normal timetable. In my Physics of the Early Universe module I have only given four (two-hour) lectures and have missed three. I return to the fray tomorrow morning to give Lecture 8. Frustratingly, that’s the only lecture I have before the Easter break which starts on Friday and lasts for three weeks. Assuming there are no further strikes I’ll be giving lectures 9-12 (the last a revision lecture) after the holiday.

I now have to figure out how to cope with the six hours of lectures missed because of industrial action. That will be tricky, but I’ll do my level best to ensure that I cover everything needed for the examination. I spent most of this morning trying to figure out how to reorganise the remaining material, and I think I can do it as long as we don’t lose any more teaching time. At any rate I have made the decision not to give additional lectures to cover what I’ve missed. Owing to the timing of the strikes (and the fact that only work half the time here in Cardiff) I have been on strike for all the days I would have been working for three weeks. That means I will lose three full weeks pay. Even if it were logistically possible to fit in 6 hours of extra lectures after Easter, I don’t think it’s reasonable for me to do that for free.

While I was on strike a group of my students emailed the Vice-Chancellor of Cardiff University (copying me in) to point out how much teaching they were missing and request some form of compensation. I have a lot of sympathy for their situation and in no way do I want to damage their education. I will do what I can to mitigate the effect of the strike but won’t take any action that reduces the effectiveness of the industrial action. It remains to be seen if any compensation will be offered by the University management, but I think their best policy would be pressure Universities UK to stop pratting about and find a speedy settlement of the dispute.

Anyway, today is a bank holiday in Maynooth – St Patrick’s Day fell on a Saturday this year – and the rest of the week is `Study Week’, so there are no lectures or laboratory sessions. I’ll therefore be staying in Cardiff all week, which gives me the chance to go to a concert on Friday at St David’s Hall – the first for quite a while.

Now, time to get back to writing tomorrow’s lecture…

Anyone for Cricket?

Posted in Biographical, Cricket with tags , on March 18, 2018 by telescoper

Going through the mail that arrived during the ten days or so I’ve been in Ireland, and with the snow steadily descending outside my window, I find the handy booklet containing this year’s fixtures for Glamorgan County Cricket Club has arrived at last.

Glamorgan’s first County Championship match starts on April 20th, just a month away, but their first home game isn’t until May (against Kent) . Hopefully the snow will have melted by then!

I now have a bit of planning to do in order to fit in as much cricket as I can this summer in between trips to and from Ireland as well as conferences and other things…

A Rambling Post

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth with tags , , , , on March 15, 2018 by telescoper

Thursdays are busy days for me, starting with a 9am lecture on Computational Physics in Physics Hall, followed in the afternoon by a two-hour laboratory session on the same subject. Today we did exercises root-finding and numerical integration, but didn’t get through as many examples as I had hoped. In between I had a number of jobs to do, including a lunchtime meeting off campus with my landlord to pay the rent (which he collects in person). I was a bit late back for the lab and, after apologizing, complained that I was too old for all this running around. One of the students kindly said that `age is only a number’. I replied `I know, but unfortunately in my case it’s a rather large one..’

I now have a big of a break from teaching in Maynooth. There is no teaching next week as it is `Study Week’ and Monday 19th March is a public holiday (for St Patrick’s Day, 17th March, which this year falls on a Saturday). Study week is followed by a week’s holiday because of Easter. Teaching resumes here on Tuesday April 3rd. Somewhat surprisingly the Easter break here is shorter than in the UK.

The four-week batch of strikes in UK universities over pensions in which I have been participating ends tomorrow, which means that I will be lecturing in Cardiff again next Tuesday (20th March). This lecture will be Lecture 8 of 11, with lectures 5, 6 and 7 missing in action (industrial action, to be precise). Cardiff students are then on vacation for three weeks for the Easter break, with lectures resuming on 16th April. All of this means that for the next three weeks I won’t have to do the mid-week trip from Cardiff to Maynooth (which I am beginning to find rather tedious). I plan to stay all next week in Wales and return to Ireland the following week, as I have been invited to give a seminar then at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (which I have never visited before).

Anyway, all that rambling just serves to illustrate that it’s a complicated business being in a superposition of jobs. I’m looking forward to the summer, when my wavefunction will collapse onto Ireland (if I haven’t collapsed from exhaustion before that).

To end on a very sad note, I heard today that Emeritus Professor David Bailin passed away yesterday. I knew David from both times I was at Sussex (as a graduate student and postdoc in the 1980s, and as Head of School of Mathematical and Physics Sciences from 2013 to 2016). He was a very fine theoretical physicist and a very nice man who was held in a very high regard by all who worked with him. Condolences to his family, friends and colleagues.

Back to Maynooth

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Maynooth with tags , , , on March 7, 2018 by telescoper

So here I am back in Maynooth. The University re-opened on Monday after being closed from Wednesday last week owing to the extremely bad weather. I’m told the snow was several feet deep and the town was virtually cut off until the weekend. There is still some snow lying here and there, but the thaw has begun and you can see the effect of the meltwater on the river (the Lyreen) that flows through town, which is usually no more than a little stream:

Picture Credit: Coyne’s Family Butcher, Maynooth

It’s not quite a raging torrent, but getting there!

At the moment there’s no sign of a resolution to the industrial action that’s affecting Cardiff University (as well as others in the UK) so I decided to travel to Ireland yesterday rather than my usual Wednesday. The flight over was virtually empty and so was Dublin Airport, so I got on the bus well ahead of schedule and made it back to my flat (which was cold, but otherwise all in order) in time to buy some groceries and make dinner. The panic-buying of bread had caused a shortage, but all seems to be back to normal again.

I had arranged for someone else to do last week’s Thursday lecture and Lab session so I could attend the event the IOP event I posted about, but as the campus was closed they were cancelled anyway and I now have to find a way to catch up. Do not worry, though, I have a cunning plan.

Unless there’s an announcement in the next couple of days that next week’s strike is off I plan to stay in Ireland over the weekend, which will give me the chance to explore Dublin a bit, something that my schedule has not so far allowed. Next week will be the fourth week of industrial action and the last of the current batch of strike days, this time a full week (having escalated from two, three and four days in the preceding weeks). If there is no resolution by then I don’t know what will happen, possibly an all-out indefinite strike. Nobody wants that, but there’s no doubt in my mind who is to blame for this dispute and it’s not the Universities and Colleges Union. However, there are some signs of movement, so let’s hope for a negotiated settlement. If not, I’m seriously thinking of trying to bring forward my full-time move to Maynooth. There’s little point continuing in my post in Cardiff if I’m going to be permanently on strike.

Anyway, I have a 9am lecture to give tomorrow so I think I’ll toddle off, get some tea and have an early night.

R.I.P. Trevor Baylis (1937-2018)

Posted in Biographical with tags , on March 6, 2018 by telescoper

I heard yesterday the sad news of the death of inventor Trevor Baylis, who was most famous for his wind-up radio device. This brought back memories of when we both appeared in a Tomorrow’s World Live event that took place 21 years ago. I didn’t get to know him very well, but seemed to me to be a nice man, and the very epitome of an old-school boffin complete with pipe and tweed jacket.

I was on the show to do an item on the Tomorrow’s World Live show – which was not broadcast but performed in front of an audience of a few hundred people in a temporary theatre. In fact there were four shows a day for the period of the event (19-23 March 1997). Each show was only about 30 minutes long, but it was quite hard work as there were many technical things to sort out in between performances.

My role was to do a little piece about the refurbished Hubble Space Telescope and then answer questions on astronomy and cosmology from the audience. I had no script for that bit, as it was impossible to know what would be asked. I answered with varying degrees of success.

Other items featured on the show, as well as Trevor’s clockwork radio, were an  electric sports car, and a device for scrambling an egg without breaking its shell. I couldn’t see the point of the last invention, as one would have to break the shell to eat the egg anyway.

The best bit about being involved in Tomorrow’s World Live was meeting so many of the presenters, all of them proper professionals (unlike me) who were very friendly and helpful although most of them seemed very nervous beforehand. I think they knew better than I did how many things might go wrong. Only two presenters were involved in each show,  and  each pair only did one or two shows, so over the five days I got to work with the whole set, including Craig Doyle, Philippa Forester, Howard Stableford, Vivienne Parry and Shahnaz Pakravan. I didn’t envy them as they had to work not only with amateurs like me, but also had to learn a detailed script and deal with the gadgets. I was relieved that I could basically just wing it.

My clearest memory of the whole event was the technical rehearsal early  in the morning before the very first show. Apart from the wind-up radio, nothing worked properly, and I was convinced that it was all going to be a complete disaster. Somehow, however, it all came together and there weren’t any major problems in any of the real shows.

Talent versus Luck

Posted in Biographical with tags , , on March 5, 2018 by telescoper

I’ve remarked quite a number of times on the blog that I think I’ve been exceptionally lucky in my scientific career, the latest example being the good fortune that the position at Maynooth University came up precisely when it did, enabling me to relocate to Ireland.

It struck me further the other day that the people who think that science is genuinely meritocratic, tend to be those who have done well in the system rather than those who haven’t. It’s rather like the way that very rich people tend to think that they have earned their wealth and that makes them better people than those who are less well off, even when that’s demonstrably not true.

Likewise, luck plays a definite role in winning grant funding. Having been on grants panels I’m away that many very good proposals are not funded. A scoring system is generally used that introduces some level of objectivity into the process, but the fact is that a lot of proposals come out with similar scores and the ranking of these is a bit arbitrary. A slightly different panel would produce slightly different scores, but perhaps a large difference in ranking would result.

Anyway, there’s a paper on the arXiv (by Pluchino et al) with the title Talent vs Luck: the role of randomness in success and failure that
discusses the role of good fortune in scientific careers. This is the abstract:

The largely dominant meritocratic paradigm of highly competitive Western cultures is rooted on the belief that success is due mainly, if not exclusively, to personal qualities such as talent, intelligence, skills, efforts or risk taking. Sometimes, we are willing to admit that a certain degree of luck could also play a role in achieving significant material success. But, as a matter of fact, it is rather common to underestimate the importance of external forces in individual successful stories. It is very well known that intelligence or talent exhibit a Gaussian distribution among the population, whereas the distribution of wealth – considered a proxy of success – follows typically a power law (Pareto law). Such a discrepancy between a Normal distribution of inputs, with a typical scale, and the scale invariant distribution of outputs, suggests that some hidden ingredient is at work behind the scenes. In this paper, with the help of a very simple agent-based model, we suggest that such an ingredient is just randomness. In particular, we show that, if it is true that some degree of talent is necessary to be successful in life, almost never the most talented people reach the highest peaks of success, being overtaken by mediocre but sensibly luckier individuals. As to our knowledge, this counterintuitive result – although implicitly suggested between the lines in a vast literature – is quantified here for the first time. It sheds new light on the effectiveness of assessing merit on the basis of the reached level of success and underlines the risks of distributing excessive honors or resources to people who, at the end of the day, could have been simply luckier than others. With the help of this model, several policy hypotheses are also addressed and compared to show the most efficient strategies for public funding of research in order to improve meritocracy, diversity and innovation.

Comments are, as always, welcome!