Archive for the Brighton Category

My Time Out in Astrophysics

Posted in Biographical, Brighton, LGBT, Mental Health with tags , , , , , on July 13, 2018 by telescoper

Last week I did a little talk in Cardiff for LGBT Stem Day, which was similar to another I gave earlier this year at the IOP in London at the launch of the LGBT Physical Sciences Climate Survey. I intended to post a summary of the earlier presentation but somehow never got round to it. Doing the more recent one reminded me that I’d forgotten to write up my notes, so here goes.

What I was trying to do in these talks was to explain why I thought (a) the Climate Survey and (b) LGBT STEM day were so important, from the perspective of someone who has been `out’ for over thirty years while pursuing a career in astrophysics. I thought it might be useful to include some personal reminiscences along the way as in both cases most of the audience members were too young to remember what things were like over thirty years ago.

Although I knew I was gay when I was an undergraduate at Cambridge, I wasn’t very open about it except to my closest friends. I also didn’t do much about it either, apart from developing a number of crushes that were doomed to be unrequited. In my final year I decided that I would try to get a place to do a PhD (or, as it turned out, a DPhil). I applied to a few places around the country, and was very happy to get an offer from Sussex and started my postgraduate studies there in 1985. The reputation of Brighton as being a very `gay’ place to live was definitely part of that decision although it was really the topic of my research project that was the decisive factor.

One of the first things I did during `Freshers Week’ at Sussex was join the GaySoc (as it was called) and I gradually became more involved in it as time went on. Initially, though, I kept that part of my life separate from my academic life and wasn’t really all that open in the Department in which I worked. My decision to change that was largely because of things going on in the outside world that convinced me that there was a need to stand up and be counted.

One of these was the AIDS `panic’ exacerbated by the Thatcher Government’s awful advertising campaign, an example of which you can see above. It was a very frightening time to be gay, not only because of the fear of contracting AIDS oneself  but also because of the hostility that arose as a reaction to the `gay plague’.

Although I wasn’t really sexually active as an undergraduate at Cambridge, I had been while I was at school in Newcastle up until 1982. At this time gay sex was illegal with a person under the age of 21, but I had no difficulty finding partners when I was a teenager. I assumed that, as a result of this period of my life,  I would be found HIV+. When I eventually did have a test in 1986 I was quite shocked to find I was negative, so much so that I had another test to make sure. I was lucky, countless others were not.

The second thing that made me want to come out was the Local Government Act (1988), which included the now infamous Section 28 (above). This was the subject of the first political demonstrations I ever attended, but we failed to stop it becoming law.

Anyway, I just got fed up of hearing people making ill-informed generalisations during this time. Rather than make a big public statement about being gay, I just resolved to not let such comments pass. I think it only took a few intercessions in the tea room or Falmer Bar for it to become widely known in the Department that I was gay. That was how I came out in astrophysics, and thereafter almost everyone just seemed to know.

I have to say that for quite a long time in this period my general presumption was that a majority of heterosexual people were actively hostile to LGBT+ people, and that would always remain the case. There were quite a few gay people in Brighton who felt the same and their reaction was to become separatists. The logic was that straight people were always going to be horrible, so to hell with them. You could drink in gay bars, eat in gay restaurants, live in a gay part of the town, etc, and thereby minimise interaction with the hostile majority. This seemed an attractive lifestyle to me for some time, but I gradually began to feel that if there was ever going to be a chance of things changing for the better, LGBT+ people had to engage and form alliances. That strategy seems to have worked for the wider community, and I applaud the many straight people who have become allies.

It hadn’t been fear that my sexuality would have a negative impact on my academic career that had held me back – I never really thought I was going to have an academic career until near the end of my time as a research student – it was more fear of confrontation with colleagues who would be hostile. That never really happened. Over the past thirty-odd years, the vast majority of people I’ve known through astrophysics have been friendly and welcoming. There have been exceptions of course, but I won’t waste my time on them here.

Now fast forward to 2018. Not only has Section 28 gone (it was repealed first in Scotland in 2000,  and then nin England & Wales in 2003), but since 2003 the Age of Consent is now equal for everyone and more recently we now have Equal Marriage. If you had asked me back in 1985 whether I thought there was any chance of this happening even on a thirty year timescale, I would have laughed at you.

But although many things have changed for the better, the fact remains that LGBT+ people still face widespread hostility and violence. Bullying is rife in schools, many people are still afraid to come out in their workplace, and in many situations there is still a threat of violence. I know what impact the latter can have, as I have experienced it myself and is has caused me mental health problems throughout my life. In fact, I have found it much harder to be open about my mental health problems than I ever did about being gay!

There are increasing signs of a backlash against LGBT+ people, most obviously in Trump’s America. The rights we have won over the years could so easily be taken away and my fear is that if we are complacent and pretend that everything is fixed because we have equal marriage then we will soon see those rights being eroded. We have to remain active and visible, and keep pushing against all forms of discrimination, harassment and bullying wherever it happens. And the first step in doing that is to raise awareness among everyone that it is still a problem.

Now to some specific points about working in STEM.

First, my own experiences caused me not to perceive science being a difficult environment to be gay, but I am aware that many people have quite different perceptions, often with good reasons. One thing that feeds negative perceptions is simply the lack of positive statements. I remember, over a decade ago, being asked by representative of a major STEM organisation if I could think of anything they could do to make them appear more inclusive to LGBT+ people. I looked at the `equal opportunities’ bit on their website and found that it mentioned gender, race, disability, etc but entirely omitted sexual orientation. What message does that send to an LGBT+ person? The omission was not deliberate, but the perception might well be otherwise. Many institutions display posters about LGBT+ matters, and some staff (either LGBT+ or `allies’) wear rainbow lanyards to carry their ID cards. But what if you’re a student who sees these everywhere else other than your own department? Has nobody bothered to put posters up, or has some arsehole torn them all down?

Another important issue is visibility. Students and early career researchers may be deterred from continuing a career in STEM simply because they don’t see other LGBT+ people doing likewise. I know of at least one student who was on the verge of dropping out of a physics degree because `there are no gay people in physics’. Fortunately he said that to a member of staff who knew he was wrong, as her office was next door to mine, but this does illustrate another problem of perception in STEM fields. In Arts and Humanities subjects it’s much easier to be visible as LGBT+ through your work. You even research matters related to gender or sexuality in literature, for example. It’s rather harder when you do theoretical astrophysics. But what’s wrong with having a rainbow icon on your powerpoint?

When giving my talk at the IOP I got into a discussion about `role models’. I am horrified at the thought that anyone would think of me as a `role model’. I don’t like using that term because it seems to me to imply some sort of ideal to which others should aspire, which seems to me rather arrogant. What I do think is important is for as imany LGBT+ people as possible to say `I’m LGBT+ and I’m in STEM: if I can do it and be like me, warts and all, then you can do it and be like you!’

A comment that I’ve heard about LGBT+ people in STEM goes along the lines of `We don’t need all this political stuff in science. You should just concentrate on your research’. Another version I heard from a senior scientist recently was effectively `I’m not prejudiced at all. I don’t care about your sexuality. I’m only interested in your research!’. I think this kind of stance is not uncommon, actually, but I couldn’t disagree more with it.

Science is, above all, a human activity. It’s not done by robots or calculating machines. It’s done by people. And I don’t think you will get the best science out of your research time unless you create a working environment in which everyone feels comfortable and happy being themselves. Just a few small gestures can go a long way towards creating a department or research group that’s genuinely inclusive for all the people in it.

Of course some STEM subjects have other diversity and inclusivity issues to address. For example, there is a persistent gender imbalance in UK Physics that has resisted many initiatives to encourage more women to enter the field. I’m not arguing that LGBT+ matters more than this or indeed more than race or disability or anything else. It is, however, my firm belief that taking measures to make workplace as inclusive as possible actually benefits everyone  in it. That’s partly because it’s the way to build the best team, and partly the way to get the best out of the team once you have assembled it, but it’s also a good thing to do for its own sake.

Another comment I got on Twitter a few weeks ago `When is it Straight STEM Day?’ Well, perhaps when 69% of heterosexual people feel uncomfortable in the workplace because of their sexuality, or when students are bullied at school for being straight, then perhaps there’ll be a need for it. In the meantime, you just need to recognise that despite the undeniable progress there has been over the past decades, there still isn’t anything like full symmetry between straight and gay.

Finally, and I think this brings me more-or-less back to where I started, events like the LGBT+ STEM Day and initiatives like the LGBT+ Climate Survey are vital because they acknowledge that we’re involved in a  process, not a fixed state and we have to recognise that this process could easily be pushed into reverse. All that’s needed for that to happen is for people to assume that everything is fine now and close their eyes to the overwhelming evidence that it really isn’t.

POSTSCRIPT: A thought that occurred to me while I was writing this relates to inclusivity within the LGBT+ community itself. When I arrived at Sussex in 1985, I joined `GaySoc’. A few years later that became `Lesbian & Gay Soc’. It took a lot longer for Bisexuals to be acknowledged, and even longer for Trans people. Only last week the annual Gay Pride March in London was disrupted by anti-transgender campaigners. Some of us still have a lot to learn about what it means to be inclusive.

 

Advertisements

A Blast from a Past Texas Symposium 

Posted in Biographical, Brighton, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on December 7, 2017 by telescoper

I got into my office in Maynooth a little late this morning as I was moving some things into my new flat, the keys to which I duly received yesterday. I didn’t move in last night as I had already paid for last night’s accommodation in St Patrick’s College, as well as breakfast, so thought it was silly to waste my last night there.

It turned out to be a good decision. Breakfast is served in Putin Pugin Hall and on Thursdays the seminarians get a cooked breakfast. Normally guests are only entitled to a continental breakfast but since this was my last morning the friendly lady in charge said I could help myself to the full Irish. I have to say that the staff at St Patrick’s have been absolutely lovely – very friendly and helpful – so I was a little sad leaving, but it will be nice to settle into my own place.

Anyway, duly checked out, I came into the Department of Theoretical Physics and made myself a cup of tea. While I was waiting for the kettle I looked in the pile of books in the staff room and found this:

This is the proceedings of the 15th Texas Symposium on Relativistic Astrophysics, which was held in Brighton in December 1990 (just after I had left Sussex University for Queen Mary, London).  I did go back to Brighton from London for this, but actually don’t remember that much about it!  Twenty seven years is a long time!

Anyway, these meetings  are held every other year, sometimes in association with other meetings, e.g. the CERN-ESO Symposium in the case above, and there’s one going on right now, the 29th Texas Symposium in Cape Town, South Africa.

 

 

Brighton Up!

Posted in Brighton, Football on April 17, 2017 by telescoper

Just a quick note this Bank Holiday Monday to observe that by beating Wigan Athletic 2-1, Brighton and Hove Albion have secured promotion to the Premiership next season.

Huddersfield Town had to beat Derby County in their game to prevent Brighton finishing in the top two automatic promotion places, but having led most of the match they let in a late equaliser and the score finished 1-1.

My team, Newcastle United, are still in second place but their form seems to have deserted them and they may well end up having to endure the playoffs.

But that’s for the future to decide. For now I’d just like to congratulate Brighton and Hove Albion on their achievement, an outcome which will gladden the hearts of many friends and former colleagues at Sussex University.

When I was previously involved with undergraduate admissions, it was widely agreed that having a Premiership side in the locality was a significant factor in attracting students to a University. Today’s results may therefore provide a boost in more ways than one!

 In that light I’m sure that locals will happily put up with even worse traffic congestion in the Falmer area on Match days next year. After all, it’s only for one season….;)

Happy Retirement, Sally Church!

Posted in Biographical, Brighton with tags , , on April 28, 2016 by telescoper

Today marks the end of an era for the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Sussex. Sally Church, pictured below, is retiring today after over 27 years in the Department (and almost 29 in the University). No doubt there are many readers of this blog who have passed through Sussex at one time or another and met Sally. In fact, she arrived in the Department when I was here in a previous incarnation as a PhD student in the late Eighties and was still here when I returned in 2013 as Head of School. She recently received a long service award from the University in recognition of her loyalty and hard work.

Sally Church

Sally has been our Course Coordinator for Physics and Astronomy and, as such, has been a key member of our office team, providing administrative support for a huge range of teaching and other activities. She will be extremely hard to replace as her understanding of the University’s systems and procedures is second to none, but she’s definitely earned a rest and on behalf of everyone in the Department, the School and the University as a whole I wish her a very happy retirement!

P.S. Shortly, at 2.30pm, there’s going to be a farewell gathering, with speeches and gifts, at which I hope to take a few pictures which I’ll post here later.

P.P.S. I only had time to take one picture, but here is Sally opening some of her gifts among the remains of the cakes and scones…

image

The 2016 Brighton Marathon

Posted in Biographical, Brighton with tags , , on April 17, 2016 by telescoper

Normally when I’m in Brighton on a Sunday I spent most of the day in my office in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex trying to keep the backlog of work under control. However, this morning buses to and from Falmer were disrupted by the 2016 Brighton Marathon so I decided to have a lie in, catch a bit of the action, and postpone coming up to campus until lunchtime.

I didn’t leave my flat until almost noon, and felt a bit guilty as I put a load of empty wine bottles into the communal recycling bin as runners laboured past on Marine Parade, the main road along the seafront on the eastern side of Brighton, where I live. Runners pass along Marine Parade at the end of my street twice, once at 6 miles heading East and then again at about 13 miles heading West. By the time I got there there were only people on the return part, and given the time these were mainly charity and fun runners:

Brighton Marathon_2

At thirteen miles the expression on quite a few faces was one of “Oh shit, I’m only halfway!”. Still, the weather was good for running: sunny but not too hot, and an occasional cooling breeze. I’d guess it never got hotter than about 10 degrees.

The marathon route is quite a strange one that doubles back on itself quite a few times:

marathon Course map 2016 AW 600

Anyway, proceeding in a westerly direction I found myself looking down from a point on Marine Parade near the finish line; the finish itself is at sea level. The elite race had finished by the time I got there but I saw quite a few runners chasing a sub-three hour time, some successfully and some not.

At bout three hours and fifteen minutes, when I took this picture, the frequency of arrivals had started to pick up and the crowd of spectators was increasing steadily.

Brighton Marathon

After about 3 hours and 30 minutes we were into the pack of less experienced runners, some of whom were definitely struggling at the end. I saw one chap whose legs had completely gone about 200 yards from the line. The crowd were giving as much vocal encouragement as they could, but he was out on his feet. Fortunately a steward realised he was in severe difficulty and helped him to the line. There was a huge cheer when he reached the finish, and medical assistance was promptly delivered.

I have run a few marathons in my life. I wish I could have carried on doing them, but my old knees won’t let me. There’s a great camaraderie amongst the runners and lots of support from the crowd, not to mention the huge amount of money raised for charity.

I’m writing this at 2.15pm, which is five hours from the start, and there’s probably quite a few still running. Congratulations to all those who finish. It’s a great experience running a marathon, but it feels even better when you stop!

Big Science Sunday in Brighton

Posted in Books, Talks and Reviews, Brighton, Uncategorized with tags , , on February 24, 2016 by telescoper

Just time for a spot of self-publicity. This Sunday, 28th February, is going to be Big Science Sunday at the Brighton Science Festival. This event is part of Big Science Weekend. The other part is called Big Science Saturday. On Big Science Saturday I’ll actually be working on campus at the University of Sussex for an Applicant Visit Day for prospective students, so the only part of Big Science Weekend I can participate in will be Big Science Sunday. I hope that clarifies the situation with respect to Big Science Saturday, Big Science Sunday and indeed Big Science Weekend as a whole… (Get On With It, Ed)

Anyway the reason for mentioning all this is that I will be taking part (on Big Science Sunday) in an event called Speaker’s Corner, which has been organized in collaboration with Oxford University Press, who no doubt hope that it will lead to some flogging of books. Here’s the blurb from the website:

SpeakersCorner

(Actually it will start at 2pm, in the Sallis Benney Theatre on Grand Parade so make sure you get the time right if you want to be sure that you  miss my contribution).

The theme that unites the contributors to this strange event is that they have all written books in the OUP series of Very Short Introductions. I wrote Cosmology: A Very Short Introduction. I will be preceded by John Haigh who wrote Probability: A Very Short Introduction . John Gribbin wrote Galaxies: A Very Short Introduction, but I understand he can’t come on Sunday…

John and I settled the batting order in an appropriate fashion, via the tossing of a coin, and have agreed that we will both do our turns without any fancy graphics or computer malarky, in the manner of a couple of ageing buskers. I hope people attending this event will feel free to ask questions as we go along to make it as informal and interactive as possible.

So if you’re in the Brighton area on Big Science Sunday as opposed to Big Science Saturday do come along!

P.S. A new edition of Cosmology: A Very Short Introduction will be out later this year so we’ll be flogging off copies of the old edition at a heavily discounted price…

 

Hit and Run in Brighton

Posted in Brighton with tags , , on January 27, 2016 by telescoper

I was having a drink with friends on campus last night and the subject came up of a terrible hit-and-run incident in Kemptown on 14th July. I hadn’t heard about it until then. The location of this incident was Montague Place in Kemptown, which is due a couple of hundred yards from my flat . The police issued a video obtained from CCTV cameras and appealed for witnesses. Apparently this bore fruit and two people were arrested yesterday. Rumours are circulating that the car involved was stolen.

I’m including the horrific video here. The man who was hit suffered serious head injuries, but is apparently recovering well. He’s extremely lucky to have survived. If you watch the video I’m sure you will agree that he is very fortunate. Please be aware that this is extremely shocking to watch so don’t click it you’re squeamish. I’m showing it here because it’s a graphic illustration of what a speeding car can do to a human being. Cars frequently travel at ridiculous speeds around Kemptown. This is what can happen when people drive like maniacs.

If the persons arrested are guilty I hope they get very severe punishment.