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On Religion

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on February 3, 2016 by telescoper


Defining Sexual Harassment

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on January 25, 2016 by telescoper

Since I spent this morning at a training session about preventing bullying and harassment in the workplace, and after the latest high-profile sexual harassment case at Caltech I thought it might be useful to share my current employer’s definition of what may constitute sexual harassment in the workplace. In my earlier post on harassment I talked mainly about the processes that take place when it is alleged, but I didn’t include a clear statement of how sexual harassment is defined.

The following is taken from the University of Sussex’s Policy to Prevent Bullying and Harassment at Work (which is in the public domain):

Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination and involves unwanted and unwelcome attention of a sexual nature. This may be physical or verbal or involve the denigration of an individual on sexual grounds or by sexual means. Some examples of sexual harassment are:

  • indecent assault
  • deliberate physical contact to which the individual has not consented or had the opportunity to object to
  • offensive or derogatory language alluding to a person’s private life or sexual behaviour or orientation by innuendo, jokes or remarks
  •  provocative suggestions
  • pressing an individual to accept unwelcome invitations
  • the display of suggestive or pornographic material
  • unwelcome repeated telephone calls, letters or emails
These examples should not be seen as exhaustive: any unwelcome behaviour of a sexual nature which creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive environment for the recipient may be regarded as sexual harassment.

Statement on the Litvinenko Case

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on January 22, 2016 by telescoper

Yesterday while I was at the Winter Graduation ceremony, one of the esteemed  Emeritus Professors in the Department of Physics of Astronomy, Norman Dombey, recorded two TV interviews about the Alexander Litvinenko case. Professor Dombey was an expert witness who contributed evidence to an inquiry that concluded that Mr Litvinenko was deliberately poisoned with radioactive Polonium, and that his murder was probably explicitly authorised by Vladimir Putin.

One of the interviews took place outside the Department:


The other was filmed in my office while I was on graduation duty.

In case any KGB agents are in the habit of reading this blog, I wish to point out that the use of my office by Professor Dombey should not be taken as evidence that I endorse the conclusion that Vladimir Putin ordered the assassination of Mr Litvinenko. Even if that is probably the case.



Winter Graduation

Posted in Uncategorized on January 21, 2016 by telescoper


A very busy week found me on graduation duty today at the Brighton Dome for the Winter Graduation for the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex. In fact students from all the Science schools at Sussex graduated this morning, so it was quite a long ceremony but it was, as usual, made very enjoyable by the presence of the Chancellor, Sanjeev Bhaskar, who was at one point lifted clean off his feet by a strapping graduand. I’ve seen hugs, handshakes and selfish galore on the stage at The Dome. but I don’t think Ive ever seen the Chancellor get picked up before!

In the photograph above Sanjeev is presenting an honorary degree to a distinguished expert in the field of art conservation, Dr David Bomford. You can just see me on the far left.

Many congratulations to all those who graduated today!

How bad is Stormtrooper aim exactly?

Posted in Uncategorized on January 15, 2016 by telescoper

Here’s a tongue-in-cheek analysis of the inaccuracy of stormtroopers’ use of firearms in the Star Wars movies.

This is just one manifestation of a general phenomenon – bad guys are always terrible shots! At least in movies…

Delight Through Logical Misery

Stormtrooper_Gun A Stormtrooper gun. It’s possible they don’t know what these are for. Photo by Roy Kabanlit.

For some unknown reason, I’ve been thinking a lot about Star Wars recently. Going forward, I’ll assume you’ll be familiar with the events and characters of at least the first six films. If not, what have you been doing? Living in a recent, recent time in a galaxy that’s very close to here? Broadly speaking, this post inevitably contains minor spoilers for Episodes II−VI of the Star Wars films. If you haven’t seen them, inexplicably want to find out about Stormtrooper aim and don’t mind knowing some plot details, then feel free to read on.

There are some characteristics of characters or groups of characters within the Star Wars register that are widely held to be fact. This may be despite them not being explicitly stated within the films. Red lightsabers are for the…

View original post 1,641 more words

Should the ‘Roast beef of Old England’ be restored as the English anthem?

Posted in Uncategorized on January 15, 2016 by telescoper

Here’s an important (?) poll about what an English National Anthem should be, reblogged from Keith Flett’s blog..

I voted for Other (The Blaydon Races) …

Kmflett's Blog

Should the ‘Roast Beef of Old England’ be restored as English anthem


Chesterfield MP Toby Perkins may have a point in bringing  a bill to the Commons to replace God Save the Queen at sporting events where the England team plays with a specifically English anthem.

The national anthem, God Save the Queen or King, first became common in the 1790s when ‘Church and King’ mobs backed by sailors were keen to oppose radicals who supported the French Revolution.

The traditional English anthem had been the Roast Beef of Old England, and the playing of the new national anthem did not always go down well. A riot took place in Sheffield in 1812 when naval officers insisted it was played at a theatrical performance.

Mr Perkins, not to be confused with Harry Perkins in Chris Mullins a Very British Coup novel, is a supporter of hard right group Progress in…

View original post 73 more words

Harassment and Confidentiality

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on January 13, 2016 by telescoper

News of yet another sexual harassment scandal in Astronomy has broken, this time at Caltech. The individual concerned was not named by Caltech but has subsequently been identified as Christian Ott (whom I don’t know at all), who was investigated following complaints by two female PhD students. The complaints were upheld and Ott has been suspended.

This case would be difficult enough to comment on even without the complex backstory, some of which is in the public domain: two of the three protagonists appear in this article which dates from 2014. Clearly a lot has happened since then and it would be intrusive and unhelpful for me to speculate publicly about things know I nothing about.

What I will say, as clearly as I possibly can, that it is that due process has been followed and that there is no question the right decision was reached. My only surprise is that Dr Ott was not summarily dismissed.

In the interests of full disclosure I should make it clear that I do know one of the complainants in a professional capacity, Sarah Gossan, who was an undergraduate Astrophysics student at Cardiff while I was there and who started a PhD at Caltech in 2012.

Also for the record I should state that one of my duties as a Head of School here at the University of Sussex is to investigate and deal  with allegations of harassment or other misconduct by staff. I obviously can’t comment on individual cases I have dealt with, but will say that it is probably my least favourite job but someone has do it.

If such a complaint is upheld it can lead to summary dismissal (for very serious misconduct) or, at very least, a formal written warning. It’s worth also stating that the standard applied is that of a Civil rather than Criminal Court, i.e. the decision is based on the “balance of the evidence” rather than “beyond reasonable doubt”.

Concerning the Caltech/Ott case, according to this source:

The university investigation, which concluded in September, found that Ott violated the school’s harassment policies with both women. Ott, a 38-year-old rising star who had been granted tenure the year before, was placed on nine months of unpaid leave. During that time he is barred from campus, his communication with most of his postdoctoral fellows will be monitored, and, with the exception of a single graduate student, he is not allowed to have contact with any other students. Before returning, he must undergo what a school official calls “rehabilitative” training.

The first thing to say is that I find it very hard to believe that Ott will ever be able to return to his worksplace after the revelations of his behaviour even if he does attend “rehabilitative training”.  I very much doubt that the faculty or students would want him back. It surprises me that Caltech could even imagine that this is a realistic possibility.

Another feature worthy of comment is that Caltech itself did not name the perpetrator, although his name very rapidly appeared in the public domain. Disciplinary procedures of this type are also treated confidentially in all UK universities with which I am familiar (including the University of Sussex). I think there are good reasons for this, primarily to protect individuals from false or malicious allegations, but also to protect the complainant(s) from unwelcome publicity or other unwanted attention. However, it has to be said that this often also ends up protecting the culprit too. If  a person ends up getting the sack as as  result of sexual harassment then news will almost certainly leak out about why Dr Bloggs has left suddenly. However, if it leads to a warning then this outcome is generally not disclosed. In such a situation, Dr Bloggs could move to another institution and carry on where he left off.

They have been suggestions in the USA, discussed in this article, that legislation could be intoduced to force institutions to disclose information about harassment cases when an individual moves from one to another. I think this is an idea well worth thinking about, but I am not sure how workable it is in practice.

Failure to act strongly when such behaviour is proven just sends out the message that the institution doesn’t take sexual harassment seriously. In my view, confidentiality is needed during an investigation – to protect both sides and indeed the person doing the investigation – but if the conclusion is that misconduct has taken place, it should  be ackowledged publicly. Justice has to be seen to be done. Sexual assault, of course, is another matter entirely – that should go straight to the police to deal with.

I’ve talked about protocols and procedures, but these can only ever apply a sticking-plaster solution to a problem which is extremely deeply rooted in the culture of many science departments and research teams across the world. These tend to be very hierarchical, with power and influence concentrated in the hands of relatively few, usually male, individuals. A complaint about harassment generally has to go up through the management structure and therefore risks being blocked at a number of stages for a number of reasons. This sort of structure reinforces the idea that students and postdocs are at the bottom of the heap and discourages them from even attempting to pursue a case against someone at the top.

The unhealthy power structures I’ve discussed will not be easy to dismantle entirely, but there are simple things that can be done to make a start. “Flatter”, more democratic, structures not only mitigate this problem but are also probably more efficient by, for example, eliminating the single-point failures that plague hierarchical organisational arrangements.

We are very far indeed from eliminating harassment or the conditions that allow it to continue but although cases like this are painful, I think they at least demonstrate that we are beginning to acknowledge that there’s a problem.



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