Archive for Cambridge University

Reflections on the Autumnal Equinox

Posted in Biographical with tags , , on September 23, 2012 by telescoper

So the autumnal equinox has been and gone again, reminding me that it is now just over four years since I started blogging; one of my very first posts was prompted by the Equinox in 2008. It’s also a reminder that the summer is now well and truly over, and teaching term is about to start. Some of my colleagues elsewhere have started teaching already but at Cardiff, lectures don’t start until 1st October. Next week, however, sees Freshers’ Week, and various other enrolment, registration and induction events. Many students have already arrived, if the crowds of young  bewildered people wandering around Tesco yesterday are anything to go by.

Tomorrow is our Board of Studies too, the first one I have to chair as Director of Teaching and Learning in the School of Physics and Astronomy. Most of the business is to do with tidying up loose ends of the last academic year and planning for the term to come. I’ll have to see whether I can chair it with sufficient ruthless efficiency that we don’t all end up missing lunch.

Anyway, this time of year always reminds me when I left home to go to University, as thousands of fledgling students are doing now. I did it thirty years ago, getting on a train at Newcastle Central station with my bags of books and clothes. I said goodbye to my parents there. There was never any question of them taking me in the car all the way to Cambridge. It wasn’t practical and I wouldn’t have wanted them to do it anyway. After changing from the Inter City at Peterborough onto a local train, me and my luggage trundled through the flatness of East Anglia until it reached Cambridge.

I don’t remember much about the actual journey, but I must have felt a mixture of fear and excitement. Nobody in my family had ever been to University before, let alone to Cambridge. Come to think of it, nobody from my family has done so since either. I was a bit worried about whether the course I would take in Natural Sciences would turn out to be very difficult, but I think my main concern was how I would fit in generally.

I had been working between leaving school and starting my undergraduate course, so I had some money in the bank and I was also to receive a full grant. I wasn’t really worried about cash. But I hadn’t come from a posh family and didn’t really know the form. I didn’t have much experience of life outside the North East either. I’d been to London only once before going to Cambridge, and had never been abroad.

I didn’t have any posh clothes, a deficiency I thought would mark me as an outsider. I had always been grateful for having to wear a school uniform (which was bought with vouchers from the Council) because it meant that I dressed the same as the other kids at School, most of whom came from much wealthier families. But this turned out not to matter at all. Regardless of their family background, students were generally a mixture of shabby and fashionable, like they are today. Physics students in particular didn’t even bother with the fashionable bit. Although I didn’t have a proper dinner jacket for the Matriculation Dinner, held for all the new undergraduates, nobody said anything about my dark suit which I was told would be acceptable as long as it was a “lounge suit”. Whatever that is.

Taking a taxi from Cambridge station, I finally arrived at Magdalene College. I waited outside, a bundle of nerves, before entering the Porter’s Lodge and starting my life as a student. My name was found and ticked off and a key issued for my room in the Lutyen’s building. It turned out to be a large room, with a kind of screen that could be pulled across to divide the room into two, although I never actually used this contraption. There was a single bed and a kind of cupboard containing a sink and a mirror in the bit that could be hidden by the screen. The rest of the room contained a sofa, a table, a desk, and various chairs, all of them quite old but solidly made. Outside my  room, on the landing, was the gyp room, a kind of small kitchen, where I was to make countless cups of tea over the following months, although I never actually cooked anything there.

I struggled in with my bags and sat on the bed. It wasn’t at all like I had imagined. I realised that no amount of imagining would ever really have prepared me for what was going to happen at University.

I  stared at my luggage. I suddenly felt like I had landed on a strange island where I didn’t know anyone, and couldn’t remember why I had gone there or what I was supposed to be doing.

After 30 years you get used to that feeling.

Smalltown Boy

Posted in Biographical, Music with tags , , , , on September 13, 2010 by telescoper

This time of year always fills me with nostalgia. All the talk of new students arriving, taking their first steps on a new life away from home, reminds me of the time many years ago when got on the train in Newcastle and made the long journey to Cambridge with most of my belongings in suitcases. No-one in my family had ever gone to university before I went to Cambridge – and  none have gone since, if truth be told!

I’d only been to Cambridge once before (for the interview). When I got there, after several hours’ travel, and sat down in the room in Magdalene College that had been allocated to me, I felt someone (possibly me) had made a terrible mistake and there was no way I would ever feel like I belonged there.

In fact, I’m now feeling second-order nostalgia, because one of my very first blog posts, almost two years ago, was about that trip. I remember sitting in the garden writing it just as I remember sitting in my new room in Cambridge all those years ago thinking “What on Earth am I doing here?”.

Having set  off on a sentimental journey, I might as well complete it with this  track from Bronski Beat which – for reasons which I hope are obvious – completes the sense of wistfulness. This was released in 1984, a  couple of years after I left home, but I’ve never been one to let mere chronology get in the way of self-indulgence.

This Sporting Life..

Posted in Football, Sport with tags , , , on April 3, 2010 by telescoper

Although it’s meant to be a holiday I’ve actually been in the department most of the day working on some research (or, rather, writing up some old research). Since I’ve been tapping away at the keys most of the day I haven’t got the energy to write much, and I’m looking forward to a drink and a spot of curry in a few minutes’ time followed by a crack at the jumbo-sized Guardian Easter crossword compiled  by my favourite setter, Araucaria.

However, for the purposes of my own record-keeping – this blog is, at least in part, some kind of a journal – I thought I’d make a quick note of the day’s sport. Usually as we near the end of the football season I get into a state of nervous anxiety wondering what sort of mess my own team, Newcastle United, are going to make of the run-in. However, today I’m pleased to say they followed up Monday’s win against Nottingham Forest with another victory, 3-2 away at Peterborough. Although their opponents are the bottom club of the division at the moment, I always thought this would be a tricky game and so it proved if the press reports are to be believed. Peterborough in fact took an early lead, and Newcastle didn’t equalise until stoppage time in the first half. They then went 3-1 up, only to have one goal pegged back by a determined home team.

That result might have sealed promotion to the Premiership for Newcastle, had Nottingham Forest done the decent thing and lost to Bristol City. They didn’t lose, but only managed a draw. The gap between Newcastle and Nottingham Forest is now 15 points with Forest having five games to play while Newcastle have six games left. It’s extremely improbable that Newcastle will lose all 6 of their games and Forest win all 5 of theirs, so I think we’re pretty much guaranteed to go up. We need just one point to turn that into mathematical certainty.

Today was a big game here in Cardiff too, between Cardiff City and fierce local rivals Swansea. Police helicopters were circling the town all day and there was a heavy presence of uniformed officers trying to ensure there wasn’t any trouble at the match. This too was a close-fought game. With the score at 1-1 until stoppage time at the end of the match, Michael Chopra popped up to score a winner for Cardiff. They’re now hard on the heels of Nottingham Forest in fourth place, with 68 points to Forest’s 71. Cardiff might still have to play Swansea in the playoffs. That could be interesting..

And finally, it’s worth noting that today was the day of the annual Oxford versus Cambridge Boat Race in London. I’m not going to pretend that I follow this sport particularly closely, but the occasions on which I’ve been to watch the spectacle have been very enjoyable (even though Oxford has beaten my own Alma Mater every time I’ve bothered to watch it). It’s usually more of an excuse to have a few drinks while watching other people busting a gut than a genuine interest in the sport. Still, I do have a residual loyalty to Cambridge University so I was delighted to find out that they won today. If I’d seen the pre-race odds, I might have had a bet as Oxford were clear favourites.

Not at all a bad day results-wise. I almost finished my paper too…

Death and Conkers

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on September 24, 2008 by telescoper

Strange connections. No sooner do I post a meandering item about the autumn weather bringing about flashbacks when I get two – quite different echoes – from today’s Guardian.

The first came from the obituary pages, where I read of the death on September 21st 2008 of Professor Sir Brian Pippard, aged 88.

I never knew him personally. In fact he retired from his post as Cavendish Professor of Physics in 1982, which was the year I started my undergraduate degree at Cambridge, so I was never taught by him. His research was predominantly in the area of superconductivity, which is far from my own speciality, so I never knew him through that route either.  But I did develop a kind of respect for him through a little book he compiled, called Cavendish Problems in Classical Physics.

This was on the list of required textbooks I got before I started my time as a student and I still have it today. As its name suggests, this contains all manner of problems about very mainstream topics in physics: electricity, magnetism, mechanics, and so on. Some of them are short, some long, but all have interesting little twists in them and each is instructive in its own way. 

I tried some of these problems on first year physics students at Cardiff last academic year and they turned out to be excessively challenging. In other words, the students couldn’t do them. I don’t want to go into a rant about declining standards of school science teaching, but it is a fact that A-level physics nowadays provides absolutely no preparation for tackling the likes of the  Cavendish Problems because it does not cultivate the kind of lateral thinking needed even to formulate these problems. Instead the students tend to be taken through standard exercises that they learn by rote and regurgitate in examinations. Anything different to what they’ve been led through completely throws them. I’m generalizing horribly, I know, but there’s a lot of truth in there.

It’s not so much that students can’t complete the Cavendish problems, but that they don’t even know how to start. It’s a shame that the art of genuine problem solving is so badly neglected in today’s schools, especially because its the bit that’s the most fun .  The brain can be so much more than a memory device, if only we could free up future generations of young minds by abandoning the obsession with modularised, factoid based teaching.

I think Brian Pippard would have agreed.

The other of today’s autumnal flashbacks was triggered by a short piece about the humble horse chestnut tree.  At this time of year the ground underneath these trees is covered with conkers which are collected by schoolboys and used in the game of the same name.  Or at least that’s what used to happen.

Apparently, for several years now horse chestnut trees have been struggling with adverse weather and attacks from moths. Now they have an even tougher enemy, a virulent disease called bleeding canker. This causes a sticky ooze to emanate from the trunk and branches of the trees, the leaves to die much earlier than usual and, worst of all,  the conkers to be very small or even non-existent. The bacterium that causes this disease  now infects about half the horse chestnut trees in the United Kingdom, and there is no known cure.

The death of high school physics is bad enough, but how can we ever cope without conkers?

Equinox

Posted in Biographical with tags , on September 22, 2008 by telescoper

Yesterday I sat in the garden doing the crosswords in the weekend papers. This was the first Sunday in my new home that I’ve been able to do that without getting drenched by the continuously pouring rain. Now the summer is officially over and the weather takes a perverse turn for the better. Although my house is quite close to a big road, it was very quiet all afternoon.

Columbo has really taken to the decking that occupies the far corner of the little garden. He lies on his back with his eyes closed, his big belly as white as my freshly pegged out laundry. Closing his eyes, he waves his paws around as he tries to catch butterflies or birds or whatever other imaginary creatures flutter through the dreamscape of a cat’s mind.

The weather is unsettling. It’s warm, but somehow the warmth doesn’t quite fill the air; somewhere inside it there’s a chill that reminds you that autumn is not far away.

I find this kind of weather a bit spooky because it always takes me back to the time when I left home to go to University, as thousands of fledgling students are about to do this year in their turn. I did it 26 years ago, getting on a train at Newcastle Central station with my bags of books and clothes. I said goodbye to my parents there. There was never any question of them taking me in the car all the way to Cambridge. It wasn’t practical and I wouldn’t have wanted them to do it. After changing from the Inter City at Peterborough onto a local train, we trundled through the flatness of East Anglia until it reached Cambridge. The weather, at least in my memory, was exactly like today.

I don’t remember much about the actual journey, but I must have felt a mixture of fear and excitement. Nobody in my family had ever been to University before, let alone to Cambridge. Come to think of it, nobody from my family has done so since either. I was a bit worried about whether the course I would take in Natural Sciences would turn out to be difficult, but I think my main concern was how I would fit in generally.

I had been working between leaving school and starting my undergraduate course, so I had some money in the bank and I was also to receive a full grant. I wasn’t really worried about cash. But I hadn’t come from a posh family and didn’t really know the form. I didn’t have much experience of life outside the North East either. I’d been to London only once before going to Cambridge, and had never been abroad.

I didn’t have any posh clothes, a deficiency I thought would mark me as an outsider. I had always been grateful for having to wear a school uniform (which was bought with vouchers from the Council) because it meant that I dressed the same as the other kids at School, most of whom came from much wealthier families. But this turned out not to matter at all. Regardless of their family background, students were generally a mixture of shabby and fashionable, like they are today. Physics students in particular didn’t even bother with the fashionable bit. Although I didn’t have a proper dinner jacket for the Matriculation Dinner, held for all the new undergraduates, nobody said anything about my dark suit which I was told would be acceptable as long as it was a “lounge suit”. Whatever that is.

Taking a taxi from the station, I finally arrived at Magdalene College. I waited outside, a bundle of nerves, before entering the Porter’s Lodge and starting my life as a student. My name was found and ticked off and a key issued for my room in the Lutyen’s building. It turned out to be a large room, with a kind of screen that could be pulled across to divide the room into two, although I never actually used this contraption. There was a single bed and a kind of cupboard containing a sink and a mirror in the bit that could be hidden by the screen. The rest of the room contained a sofa, a table, a desk, and various chairs, all of them quite old but solidly made. Outside my  room, on the landing, was the gyp room, a kind of small kitchen, where I was to make countless cups of tea over the following months, although I never actually cooked anything there.

I struggled in with my bags and sat on the bed. It wasn’t at all like I had imagined. I realised that no amount of imagining would ever really have prepared me for what was going to happen at University.

I  stared at my luggage. I suddenly felt like I had landed on a strange island where I didn’t know anyone, and couldn’t remember why I had gone there or what I was supposed to be doing.

After 26 years you get used to that feeling.

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