Archive for the Cardiff Category

Out of the REF

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Maynooth with tags , , , , on November 25, 2020 by telescoper

I was talking over Zoom with some former colleagues from the United Kingdom last week, and was surprised to learn that, despite the Covid-19 pandemic, the 2021 Research Excellence Framework is ploughing ahead next year, only slightly delayed. There’s no stopping bureaucratic juggernauts once they get going…

One of the major plusses of being in Ireland is that, outside the UK academic system, there is no REF. One can avoid the enormous workload and stress generated by this exercise in bean-counting My memories of the last REF in 2014 when I was Head of School at Sussex are quite painful, as it went badly for us then. I hope that the long-term investments we made then will pay off, though, and I hope things turn out better for Sussex this time especially for the Department of Physics & Astronomy for which the impact and environment components of the assessment dragged the overall score down.

The census period for the new REF is 1st August 2013 to 31st July 2020. Not being involved personally in the REF this time round I haven’t really paid much attention to the changes that have been adopted since 2014. One I knew about is that the rules make it harder for institutions to leave staff out of their REF return. Some universities played the system in 2014 by being very selective about whom they put in. Only staff with papers considered likely to be rated top-notch were submitted.

Having a quick glance at the documents I see two other significant differences.

One is that in 2014, with very few exceptions, all staff had to submit four research outputs (i.e. papers) to be graded. in 2021 the system is more flexible: the total number of outputs must equal 2.5 times the summed FTE (full-time equivalent) of the unit’s submitted staff, with no individual submitting more than 5 and none fewer than 1 (except in special cases related to Covid-19). Overall, then there will be fewer outputs than before, the multiplier of FTE being 2.5 (2021) instead of 4 (2014). There will still be a lot, of course, so the panels will have a great deal of reading to do. If that’s what they do with the papers. They’ll probably just look up citations…

The other difference relates to staff who have left an institution during the census period. In 2014 the institution to which a researcher moved got all the credit for the publications, while the institution they left got nothing. In 2021, institutions “may return the outputs of staff previously employed as eligible where the output was first made publicly available during the period of eligible employment, within the set number of outputs required.” I suppose this is to prevent the departure of a staff member causing too much damage to the institution they left.

I was wondering about this last point when chatting with friends the other day. I moved institutions twice during the relevant census period, from Sussex to Cardiff and then from Cardiff to Maynooth. In principle, therefore, both former employees could submit my outputs I published while I was there to the 2021 REF. I only published a dozen or so papers while I was at Sussex – the impact of being Head of School on my research productivity was considerable – and none of them are particularly highly cited so I don’t think that Sussex will want to submit any of them, but they could if they wanted to. They don’t have to ask my permission!

I doubt if Cardiff will be worried about my papers. Among other things they have a stack of gravitational wave papers that should all be 4*.

Anyway, thinking about the REF an amusing thought occurred to me about Research Assessment. My idea was to set up a sort of anti-REF (perhaps the Research Inferiority Framework) based not on the best outputs produced by an institutions researchers but on the worst. The institutions producing the highest number of inferior papers could receive financial penalties and get relegated in the league tables for encouraging staff to write too many papers that nobody ever reads or are just plain wrong. My guess is that papers published in Nature might figure even more prominently in this

Diversity in Physics – LGBTQ+ STEMDay

Posted in Biographical, Books, Talks and Reviews, Cardiff, LGBT with tags , , , , on November 14, 2020 by telescoper

The nice people involved with Physics at Cardiff University, Prism Exeter and the GW4 group generally have organized a (virtual) event to celebrate Diversity and Inclusion for LGBTQ+ STEM Day 2020 which is to take place on November 18th (that’s next Wednesday). I’m very honoured to have been invited to give a keynote talk at this event, the poster for which is below, and am looking forward to it.

There’s a blog post here that gives more information about the event, including how to register in order to receive the Zoom connection.

I won’t be able to stay for the whole event as I am teaching later that day. I’d have been particularly interested in the session on Open Science…

Astronomy Look-alikes No. 100

Posted in Astronomy Lookalikes, Cardiff, Television with tags , , , on September 16, 2020 by telescoper

I haven’t done any of these for a while, but last night I was surprised to see Professor Jane Greaves of Cardiff University on television for the second time in a week so I couldn’t resist. I wonder how while discovering phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus she finds the time to play Detective Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope in the popular detective series Vera?

Today’s Big Astronomy Announcement

Posted in Astrohype, Cardiff, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on September 14, 2020 by telescoper

Rumours have been circulating for a few days about a big astronomical discovery. Here is a video of the announcement:

Sorry, that’s the wrong video.

The actual announcement will take place live at 4pm BST here:

Until a few minutes ago I didn’t have a clue what this was about, but now I do…

Phone ship surprisingly detected in atmosphere of Venus (9)

If you would like to read more about this discovery then you can read the paper in Nature here. Several of the authors are former Cardiff colleagues, including first author Jane Greaves, as well as Annabel Cartwright and my former office mate Emily Drabek-Maunder. Congratulations to them on an exciting result!

P.S. Emily reminded me last night that I was present at the discussion with Jane that started this project, over four years ago. I remember them talking about phosphine but had no idea that it would lead to this!

Eddington in Cardiff 100 years ago today: the first proposal that stars are powered by fusion

Posted in Cardiff, History, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on August 24, 2020 by telescoper

Here’s a fascinating bit of astrophysics history by former Cardiff colleague Bernard Schutz: one hundred years ago today, Arthur Stanley Eddington gave a talk in Cardiff in which he, with great prescience, proposed the idea that stars might be powered by nuclear fusion.

The Rumbling Universe

One hundred years ago today, on 24 August 1920, with over 1000 people gathered in Cardiff for the annual meeting of the British Association, Arthur Eddington gave his address as the incoming president of the physical and mathematical sciences section. He elected to speak on the subject of the “Internal Constitution of the Stars”. When I first came across the text of the address last year (published in Nature in 1920), I was amazed to find as early as this such an insightful proposal that stars are powered by the synthesis of helium from hydrogen. But what really brought me up short was this sentence:

If, indeed, the sub-atomic energy in the stars is being freely used to maintain their great furnaces, it seems to bring a little nearer to fulfilment our dream of controlling this latent power for the well-being of the human race – or for…

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Weekend Weather and Travel Updates

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff with tags , , , on February 16, 2020 by telescoper

I got back from London to Dublin last night, rather later than planned courtesy of Storm Dennis. I made my way to Heathrow more in hope than expectation, as there seemed to be a significant probability that my flight would be cancelled (as several were), but in the end it was only delayed by about an hour. It was a bit wobbly coming in to land, but the weather in Dublin wasn’t all that bad last night so there wasn’t the level of drama I expected. I did miss the last Hopper bus, though, and had to take a taxi to Maynooth.

There was another bit of disruption earlier in the day when I discovered that there were no Piccadilly or District line trains between Hyde Park Corner and Acton Town (in either direction), which makes it impossible to get to Heathrow directly by Tube. That gave me an opportunity to explore the London Underground to find a way through. I had plenty of time so I thought it would be fun. In the end I chose the Central Line to Ealing Broadway then a quick couple of stops on the District Line to Acton Town where there were trains to Mornington Crescent Heathrow Airport.

Dublin is to leeward when bad weather comes in from the Atlantic, so doesn’t get the worst of it. This seems to have been the case for Storm Dennis. Wales hasn’t been so lucky and I’ve spent the morning following messages on social media from friends and former colleagues about flooding along the Rover Taff. At one point there were 85 active flood warnings in Wales:

When I bought my house in Pontcanna I signed up for Flood Alerts, and I got one of them too. Here are some pictures of the area taken this morning:

This grim scene is not far from my house, but it’s not as scary as it looks. The River Taff is flanked by steep embankments as it passes into Cardiff and these provide strong flood defences. There is also a tidal barrage across Cardiff Bay which prevents tidewater coming up the River Taff while floodwater is trying to come down it, which is the usual recipe for a flood. The whole system is designed so that before these are breached, water floods out further North over Pontcanna Fields (a wide flat area that is part of the natural flood plain of the Taff that doesn’t have houses on it). A huge amount of water can be `parked’ in this area until the spate subsides. This happened before when I lived in Cardiff in 2009 and it’s nothing to worry too much about. It’s not good for people wanting to play rugby on the playing fields though!

After the terrible floods of 1979 Cardiff built very strong flood defences, but the same is not true for smaller towns up in the Welsh valleys. It seems that Pontypridd has been particularly badly hit this time. There seems to be no political will to spend money protecting such places, which in my view would be far more worthwhile than building HS2.

This all reminds me of the time when I first moved in to my house in Pontcanna over a decade ago. Late one rainy evening the phone rang and it was an automated flood warning. I responded by doing everything the message told me not to do: I put on my coat and went to the river to see what was happening. It’s only a ten minute walk from my house to the embankment. When I got there, I found a crowd of about a dozen people watching. The river was only about a metre below the level of the embankment as it roared its way down to Cardiff Bay carrying along tree trunks, car tyres and various other items of rubbish. It was quite impressive, but I didn’t watch for long as it was very cold and wet.

I’m told that the worst part of the 1979 flood was not the surface water, but the fact that the drainage system couldn’t cope and sewage backed up into the houses and streets. That must have been horrible as well as causing a serious health hazard.

Update: I heard last night that the level of the Taff on Sunday was 80cm higher than it was during the 1979 floods.

Anyway, I was glad I did get back last night as today I am giving a talk at the Joint Congress of University Astronomical Societies. I’d better get on and write it!

Arrival of Storm Atiyah

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff with tags , , on December 8, 2019 by telescoper

I was a bit alarmed when I saw this weather forecast map on Friday. At first I thought it meant that Ireland was about to be swallowed by a black hole but when I realised it was Storm Atiyah I had the lesser but still significant concern that my flight home from Cardiff would be disrupted.

As it happened the flight was on time, though the blustery winds at Dublin Airport ahead of the storm made for a more than slightly bumpy landing.

I was in one of these:

It’s a Bombardier Dash-8 Q400 operated by FlyBe. I had a window seat on the right hand side so had a good view as we bobbled around on the way in to land. The wings being above the level of the cabin and my seat being next to the starboard engine I could see the right undercarriage come down as we approached. We weren’t quite level when we reached the runway though and I felt and heard the left set of wheels touch down while the ones on the right I could see were still in the air. I could also see weren’t moving exactly parallel to the runway but slightly crosswise. We travelled for quite a few seconds on one set of wheels before we had both feet on the ground, so to speak. During that time I thought we might go off the side of the runway. When the right set of wheels did touch down, however, causing a big splash of water, only a slight correction was needed to point us in the right direction and all was well.

Pilots are if course trained to cope with windy conditions and I’m sure everything was always under control but I bet pilots do have to concentrate hard on such occasions.

Postal Voting Par Avion

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Politics on December 7, 2019 by telescoper

After giving the matter much thought, some weeks ago I decided to apply for a postal vote so I could vote in the general election in the constituency of Cardiff West where I still (for the time being) have a house. I couldn’t vote in person owing to work commitments in Ireland on Thursday 12th December. Teaching term doesn’t end in Maynooth until 20th.

The postal ballot paper was sent to my address in Cardiff because I wasn’t confident in the post between the UK and Ireland. (It takes over a month for my copy of Physics World to reach Ireland. Last night I flew from Dublin to complete it and this morning I put it in the mail, so it should arrive in time to be counted.

In case you’re interested, I voted for Kevin Brennan (Welsh Labour).

I fear this will turn out to be a futile gesture, and that this election will put liar and charlatan Boris Johnson in Downing Street with a significant majority. The prospect of a government headed by this creature appals me, as does the thought that so many people don’t care that he’s so demonstrably dishonest and untrustworthy. As far as I see it, anyone who votes for the modern Conservative Party must be either a simpleton or a sociopath. Or possibly both.

Update: relevant advice from today’s Financial Times:

(It’s actually about dealing with cold callers, but is in my opinion more widely applicable..)

Cardiff Pride!

Posted in Cardiff, LGBT with tags , on August 24, 2019 by telescoper

I got up early this morning to fly back to Cardiff in time for Cardiff Pride, this being the twentieth such event in Cardiff. I was a bit worried I wouldn’t make here before the start of the Parade but I did, with time to spare. St Mary’s Street was quite a sight with all the rainbow flags.

The parade gathered on North Road this year before it got moving and it extended all the way from the castle to the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama:

This is the reflection in one of the windows of the RWCMD building..

Not being in the parade myself, when it got going I moved to St Mary Street to watch it go by. It took so long for the front to arrive I started to worry something had happened, but eventually it appeared..

I watched a while enjoying the colourful sights and fun sounds before walking to Pontcanna for lunch.

It’s a lovely warm and sunny day for the carnival and concerts that take place this afternoon and evening so I’m sure everyone there will have a great time!

Me? I’m obviously too old for that sort of thing and will celebrate the occasion with appropriate indoor activities (if you know what I mean) but the least I can do is wish Cardiff Pride a very happy 20th birthday!

Moving On..

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff with tags , , , , on August 22, 2019 by telescoper

After attending my second Repeat Examination Board of the week (this one in the Department of Engineering) it’s now time to begin the task of moving the contents of my office into the new one I’ll be in as Head of Department. Roughly simultaneously, the current Head of Department, Jonivar Skullerud, will be moving his clobber from the Head of Department’s office into my current office. Some coordination may be necessary to avoid collisions and/or other confusion, but I’m confident of a successful outcome…

While I’m on the subject of moving to a new job, though in my case remaining at the same institution, this very afternoon my wonderful former colleague from the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex, Dorothy Lamb, is having a leaving do. She will soon be moving to a position at the University of Birmingham (in the Midlands). I’m very sad that I couldn’t be there for her farewell party, but the least I can do is wish Dorothy (aka Miss Lemon) all the best in her new job, and hope that her move from Brighton to Birmingham, after (I think) 25 years, goes as smoothly and as free from stress as possible.

UPDATE: You can read Dorothy’s farewell edition of the MPS Newslettter here.

Dorothy isn’t the only former colleague to be moving on to pastures new. I heard this morning that Ian Harvey and Unai Lopez from the Data Innovation Research Institute at Cardiff University are leaving soon. Unai is taking up a Lectureship at the University of the Basque Country in Bilbao so Bon Voyage Unai!