Archive for the Education Category

Mathematics at Sussex – The Video!

Posted in Education with tags , on July 29, 2015 by telescoper

Here’s a nice little promotional video about the Department of Mathematics at the University of Sussex, featuring some of our lovely staff and students along with some nice views of the campus and the city of Brighton. Above all, I think it captures what a friendly place this is to work and study. Enjoy!

The Renewed Threat to STEM

Posted in Education, Finance, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , on July 26, 2015 by telescoper

A couple of years ago, soon after taking over as Head of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS) at the University of Sussex, I wrote a blog post called The Threat to STEM from HEFCE’s Funding Policies about how the funding policies of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) were extremely biased against STEM disciplines. The main complaint I raised then was that the income per student for science subjects does not adequately reflect the huge expense of teaching these subjects compared to disciplines in the arts and humanities. The point is that universities now charge the same tuition fee for all subjects (usually £9K per annum) while the cost varies hugely across disciplines: science disciplines can cost as much as £16K per annum per student whereas arts subjects can cost as little as £6K. HEFCE makes a small gesture towards addressing this imbalance by providing an additional grant for “high cost” subjects, but that is only just over £1K per annum per student, not enough to make such courses financially viable on their own. And even that paltry contribution has been steadily dwindling.  In effect, fees paid by arts students are heavily subsidising the sciences across the Higher Education sector.

The situation was bad enough before last week’s announcement of an immediate £150M cut in HEFCE’s budget. Once again the axe has fallen hardest on STEM disciplines. Worst of all, a large part of the savings will be made retrospectively, i.e. by clawing back money that had already been allocated and which institutions had assumed in order to plan their budgets. To be fair, HEFCE had warned institutions that cuts were coming in 2015/16:

This means that any subsequent changes to the funding available to us from Government for 2015-16, or that we have assumed for 2016-17, are likely to affect the funding we are able to distribute to institutions in the 2015-16 academic year. This may include revising allocations after they have already been announced. Accordingly, institutions should plan their budgets prudently.

However, this warning does not mention the possibility of cuts to the current year (i.e. 2014-15). No amount of prudent planning of budgets will help when funding is taken away retrospectively, as it is now to the case. I should perhaps explain that funding allocations are made by HEFCE in a lagged fashion, based on actual student numbers, so that income for the academic year 2014-15 is received by institutions during 15/16. In fact my institution, in common with most others, operates a financial year that runs from August 1st to July 31st and I’ve just been through a lengthy process of setting the budget from August 1st 2015 onward; budgets are what I do most of the time these days, if I’m honest. I thought I had finished that job for the time being, but look:

In October 2015, we will notify institutions of changes to the adjusted 2014-15 teaching grants we announced in March 20158. These revised grant tables will incorporate the pro rata reduction of 2.4 per cent. This reduction, and any other changes for individual institutions to 2014-15 grant, will be implemented through our grant payments from November 2015. We do not intend to reissue 2014-15 grant tables to institutions before October 2015, but institutions will need to reflect any changes relating to 2014-15 in their accounts for that year (i.e. the current academic year). Any cash repayments due will be confirmed as part of the October announcements.

On top of this, any extra students recruited as as  result of the government scrapping student number controls won’t attract any support at all from HEFCE, so we wll only get the tuition fee.And the government says it wants the number of STEM students to increase? Someone tell me how that makes sense.

What a mess! It’s going to be back to the drawing board for me and my budget. And if a 2.4 per cent cut doesn’t sound much to you then you need to understand it in terms of how University budgets work. It is my job – as the budget holder for MPS – to ensure that the funding that comes in to my School is spent as efficiently and effectively on what the School is meant to do, i.e. teaching and research. To that end I have to match income and expenditure as closely as possible. It is emphatically not the job of the School to make a profit: the target I am given is to return a small surplus (actually 4 per cent of our turnover) to contribute to longer-term investments. I’ve set a budget that does this, but now I’ll have to wait until October to find out how much I have to find in terms of savings to absorb the grant cut. It’s exasperating when people keep moving the goalposts like this. One would almost think the government doesn’t care about the consequences of its decisions, as long as it satisfies its fixation with cuts.

And it’s not only teaching that is going to suffer. Another big slice of savings (£52M) is coming from scrapping the so-called “transitional relief” for STEM departments who lost out as a result of the last Research Excellence Framework. This again is a policy that singles out STEM disciplines for cuts. You can find the previous allocations of transitional relief in an excel spreadsheet here. The cash cuts are largest in large universities with big activities in STEM disciplines – e.g. Imperial College will lose £10.9M previous allocated, UCL about £4.3M, and Cambridge about £4M. These are quite wealthy institutions of course, and they will no doubt cope, but that doesn’t make it any more acceptable for HEFCE to break a promise.

This cut in fact won’t alter my School’s budget either. Although we were disappointed with the REF outcome in terms of league table position, we actually increased our QR income. As an institution the University of Sussex only attracted £237,174 in transitional relief so this cut is small potatoes for us, but that doesn’t make this clawback any more palatable from the point of view of the general state of health of STEM disciplines in the United Kingdom.

These cuts are also directly contrary to the claim that the UK research budget is “ring-fenced”. It clearly isn’t, and with a Comprehensive Spending Review coming up many of us are nervous that these cuts are just a foretaste of much worse things to come. Research Councils are being asked to come up with plans based on a 40% cut in cash.

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Exciting Opportunity in Experimental Physics at the University of Sussex!

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on July 23, 2015 by telescoper

Just a quick update on the news that Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Sussex has an exciting opportunity in the form of a brand new Chair position in Experimental Physics. The advertisement appeared on the University of Sussex website somedays ago. But it has now appeared on Nature Jobs and the Times Higher websites. It is also in today’s print edition of the Times Higher. At least I think it is. I couldn’t find a copy in W.H. Smith’s when I went there today. Obviously it has sold out because word has got out about this job!

I’m taking the liberty of reposting a description of the new position here, but for fuller details please visit the formal advertisement.

–0–

The School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences seeks to appoint a Professor in Experimental Physics in the Department of Physics & Astronomy to lead the next phase of expansion and diversification of the research portfolio within the School by establishing an entirely new research activity in laboratory-based physics.

Sufficient resources will be made available to the selected candidate to establish a new group at Sussex in their field of experimental physics including, for example, condensed matter (interpreted widely), materials science, nanophysics or biophysics. Applicants in research areas with scope for interdisciplinary collaborations with other Schools at the University of Sussex (e.g. Life Sciences, Engineering & Informatics or Brighton and Sussex Medical School) are encouraged, especially  those in areas with potential for generating research impact, as defined in the context of the UK Research Excellence Framework.

The successful applicant will have a proven track-record of success in obtaining substantial external funding through research grants and/or industrial sponsorship.

The appointee will be supported with substantial (seven-figure) sum for start-up funding and an extensive newly-refurbished laboratory space. The financial package on offer will also support the appointment of at least two further experimental lectureships; the appointed professor is expected to be strongly involved in recruitment to these positions.

Informal (and confidential) enquiries may be addressed in the first instance to the Head of School, Professor Peter Coles (P.Coles@sussex.ac.uk).

Software Use in Astronomy

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on July 21, 2015 by telescoper

I just saw an interesting paper which hit the arXiv last week and thought I would share it here. It’s called Software Use in Astronomy: An Informal Survey and the abstract is here:

softwareA couple of things are worth remarking upon. One concerns Python. Although I’m not surprised that Python is Top of the Pops amongst astronomers – like many Physics & Astronomy departments we actually teach it to undergraduates here at the University of Sussex – it is notable that its popularity is a relatively recent phenomenon and it’s quite impressive how rapidly it has caught on.

Another interesting thingis the continuing quite heavy use of Fortran. Most computer scientists would consider this to be an obsolete language, and is presumably mainly used because of inertia: some important and well established codes are written in it and presumably it’s too much effort to rewrite them from scratch in something more modern. I would have thought that Fortran would have been used primarily by older academics, i.e. old dogs who can’t learn new programming tricks. However, that doesn’t really seem to be the case based on the last sentence of the abstract.

Finally, it’s quite surprising that over 40% of astronomers claim to have had no training in software development. We do try to embed that particular skill in graduate programmes nowadays, but it seems that doesn’t always work!

Anyway, do read the paper yourself. It’s very interesting. Any further comments through the box below please, but please ensure they compile before submitting them…

 

Astronomy: One of the Seven Liberal Arts

Posted in Art, Education, History, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on July 20, 2015 by telescoper

This morning I came across this picture (via @hist_astro on Twitter):

Seven Liberal ArtsIt is by Giovanni dal Ponte and was painted in or around 1435; the original is in the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid. It depicts the Seven Liberal Arts which, in antiquity were considered the essential elements of the education system. The Arts concerned are: Grammar, Rhetoric, Dialectic, Astronomy, Arithmetic, Geometry and Music. Appropriately enough, Astronomy is in the middle.

I suspect some of you may have noticed that there are more than seven figures in the painting. That’s because each of the Liberal Arts is itself represented by a (female) figure, presumably a Goddess, and also a famous character associated with the particular discipline. Second from the right, for example, you can see Arithmetic accompanied by Pythagoras, who seems to be trying to copy from her notebook. Astronomy. In the centre, kneeling at the feet of Urania (the muse of Astronomy) is Ptolemy..

It’s quite interesting to look at the structure of a Liberal Arts education as it would be in classical antiquity. The first three subjects (Grammar, Rhetoric and Dialectics) formed the Trivium (from which we get the English word “trivial”). “Grammar” means the science of the correct usage of language, knowledge and understanding of which helps a person to speak and write correctly; “Dialectic” basically means “logic”, the science of rational thinking as a means of arriving at the truth; and “Rhetoric” the science of expression, especially persuasion, which includes ways of organizing and presenting an argument so that people will understand and hopefully believe it. These may have been considered trivial in ancient times, but I can’t help thinking that we could do with a lot more emphasis on such fundamental skills in the modern curriculum.

After the Trivium came the Quadrivium: Arithmetic, Geometry, Astronomy and Music all of which were considered to be disciplines connected with Mathematics. Presumably these are the non-trivial subjects. We might nowadays consider Astronomy to be a mathematical subject – indeed in the United Kingdom astronomy was until relatively recently generally taught in mathematics departments, even after the rise of astrophysics in the 19th Century. On the other hand, fewer would nowadays would recognize music as being essentially mathematical in nature. Historically, however the connections between music, mathematics and natural philosophy were many and profound.

Of course there are now many other disciplines and it would be impossible for any education to encompass all fields of study, but I do think that it’s a shame that modern education systems are so lacking in breadth, as they tend to emphasize the differences between subjects rather than what they all have in common.

Physics is more than applied mathematics

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on July 15, 2015 by telescoper

telescoper:

I thought rather hard before reblogging this, as I do not wish to cause any conflict between the different parts of my School – the Department of Mathematics and the Department of Physics and Astronomy!

I don’t think I really agree that Physics is “more” than Applied Mathematics, or at least I would put it rather differently. Physics and Mathematics intersect, but there are parts of mathematics that are not physical and parts of physics that are not mathematical.

Discuss.

Originally posted on Protons for Breakfast Blog:

A problem set for potential applicants in the foyer of the Cavendish Laboratory. Despite appearances - this is not physics! A problem set for potential applicants in the foyer of the Physics department of a premier UK university. It looks like physics, but it is in fact maths. The reason is that in the context of this problem, the string cannot pull a particle along at all unless it stretches slightly. Click the image for a larger diagram.

While accompanying my son on an Open Day in the Physics Department of a premier UK university, I was surprised and appalled to be told that Physics ‘was applied mathematics‘.

I would just like to state here for the record that Physics is notapplied mathematics.

So what’s the difference exactly?

I think there are two linked, but subtly distinct, differences.

1. Physics is a science and mathematics is not.

This means that physics has an experimental aspect. In physics, it is possible to disprove a hypothesis by experiment: this cannot be done in maths.

2. Physics is about…

View original 256 more words

An Exciting Opportunity in Experimental Physics at the University of Sussex!

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on July 14, 2015 by telescoper

After much planning and preparatory work, I’m pleased that I am now in a position to announce that the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Sussex has an exciting opportunity in the form of a brand new Chair position in Experimental Physics. The advertisement will shortly appear in both Nature and the Times Higher but it has already appeared on the University of Sussex website. I’m taking the liberty of posting a description of the new position here, but for fuller details please visit the formal advertisement.

–0–

The School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences seeks to appoint a Professor in Experimental Physics in the Department of Physics & Astronomy to lead the next phase of expansion and diversification of the research portfolio within the School by establishing an entirely new research activity in laboratory-based physics.

Sufficient resources will be made available to the selected candidate to establish a new group at Sussex in their field of experimental physics including, for example, condensed matter (interpreted widely), materials science, nanophysics or biophysics. Applicants in research areas with scope for interdisciplinary collaborations with other Schools at the University of Sussex (e.g. Life Sciences, Engineering & Informatics or Brighton and Sussex Medical School) are encouraged, especially  those in areas with potential for generating research impact, as defined in the context of the UK Research Excellence Framework.

The successful applicant will have a proven track-record of success in obtaining substantial external funding through research grants and/or industrial sponsorship.

The appointee will be supported with substantial (seven-figure) sum for start-up funding and an extensive newly-refurbished laboratory space. The financial package on offer will also support the appointment of at least two further experimental lectureships; the appointed professor is expected to be strongly involved in recruitment to these positions.

Informal (and confidential) enquiries may be addressed in the first instance to the Head of School, Professor Peter Coles (P.Coles@sussex.ac.uk).

 

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