Archive for Cardiff University

Revisionist (Thermal) History of the Universe

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on May 10, 2018 by telescoper

Well, today saw my last teaching session on my Cardiff University module Physics of the Early Universe. It was actually an optional revision lecture, during which I went through questions on last year’s examination paper, some matters arising therefrom and some general tips on `examination technique’. The latter included advice that seems obvious – such as `read the question carefully’ and `check your numerical answers’ – but that surprisingly many students seem not to have heard before or, if they have, choose not to follow!

Anyway, I hope the students who came today found it useful and I hope that they (and indeed everyone else taking examinations over the next few weeks) do themselves proper justice and get the results they need for whatever comes next in their plans.

The Physics of the Early Universe paper is a couple of weeks ago so no doubt I’ll get a few more queries to deal with before then.

I thought I’d give an idea of the stuff I’ve been teaching here by including one of the questions from last year’s paper. I thought this was quite an easy one, actually, but the students seemed to find it tricky while they mostly coped well with the other questions, which I thought were harder. One of the challenges of teaching is that it’s often hard to see what other people find difficult! See what you think. You don’t really need to know much cosmology to do this:

Anyway, today was not only the last teaching session for this particular module – it’s also the last teaching session I’ll ever conduct in the UK university system. Best wishes to whoever it is that teaches this module next year when I’m in Ireland.

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In Praise of Research Software Engineers

Posted in Cardiff with tags , , , on May 1, 2018 by telescoper

Yesterday in the Data Innovation Research Institute we held a special event, our first ever Conference for Research Software Engineers. Sadly I was too busy yesterday to attend in person, but I did turn up at the end for the drinks reception at the end.

In case you weren’t aware, the term Research Software Engineer (RSE) is applied to the growing number of people in universities and other research organisations who combine expertise in programming with an intricate understanding of research. Although this combination of skills is extremely valuable, these people lack a formal place in the academic system. Without a name, it is difficult for people to rally around a cause, hence the creation of the term Research Software Engineer and the Research Software Engineer Association.

We have quite a few RSEs associated with the Data Innovation Research Institute in Cardiff – as you can see here. These are quite different from system administrators or other computing support staff as they are involved directly in research, working in teams alongside academics and other specialists.

One of the biggest problems facing RSEs in the UK university system is there isn’t a well-established promotions route for them. For researchers in an academic environment, performance is usually judged through publications, PhD students supervised, grants awarded and so so. Although RSEs play a vital role, especially (but not exclusively) in large collaborations, they do not usually end up as lead authors on papers and generally do not apply for grants in their own name. That means that if they are judged by these criteria they struggle to get promotion and often leave academia to work for higher pay and better terms and conditions elsewhere.

In my opinion, one of the important things that must be done to improve the lot of Research Software Engineers is to construct a career structure in parallel with the academic route  and other grades (such as laboratory technician) but judged by more appropriate criteria tailored to the reality of the job. Writing the necessary grade profiles and getting them agreed by the relevant university committees will take some time, but I think it will pay dividends in terms of better retention and job satisfaction for these highly talented people.

I hope Cardiff can take some sort of a lead in defining the role of an RSE, but this is really a national need. There are pretty uniform grade descriptions for academic and research staff across the United Kingdom so I don’t see any reason why this can’t be the case for Research Software Engineers. They are vital to many research fields already, and their importance can only grow in the future.

 

Ariel to Fly

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on March 23, 2018 by telescoper

All hail, great master! Grave sir, hail! I come
To answer thy best pleasure. Be ‘t to fly,
To swim, to dive into the fire, to ride
On the curled clouds, to thy strong bidding task
Ariel and all his quality.

The Tempest, Act I, Scene 2.

It’s nice to be able to pass on a bit of good news for the good folk of the Astronomy Instrumentation Group here in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University.

The ARIEL mission has been given the green light by the European Space Agency and will launch sometime around 2028. It will produce the first ever large-scale survey of the atmospheric chemistry of planets outside our solar system. Ariel will extract the chemical fingerprints of the gases in the atmospheres of over 1000 exoplanets, as well as capturing information about the temperatures and pressures in their atmospheres and the presence of clouds.

Whenever I read of exciting news from the field of exoplanet research – which happens quite frequently nowadays – it reminds me that when I started my graduate studies (in 1985) the field didn’t really exist. Now it’s one of the biggest and most active areas of astronomy! Another thing that makes me feel a bit of a dinosaur is that when Ariel actually launches I’ll be 65…

As with all such missions, a large international collaboration will be involved in Ariel, and much of the detail of who will do what is yet to be worked out, but Cardiff scientists will be providing detailed computer simulations of the Ariel satellite and its instruments, ensuring that the scientific observations can be carefully planned and the resulting data can be analysed correctly. The team will also be involved in the ground segment after launch, interpreting the data from the observations to characterise the atmospheres of the exoplanets. The Principal Investigator of the whole mission is Professor Giovanna Tinetti of University College, London, who I see regularly at dinner with the RAS Club.

Head Irishman of the School, Matt Griffin, who will himself is quoted in the news item as saying

The decision to select the Ariel mission demonstrates the scientific vision and ambition of ESA, and it’s the start of a great adventure for everyone involved. This is a mission that will hugely advance our understanding of the nature of planets and of our place in the Universe, and at Cardiff we are very much looking forward to our participation in the project.

The launch date of 2028 is some way off but space missions are exceedingly complicated things and there’s a lot to do in the next decade or so until Ariel finally flies. Hopefully neither swimming, nor diving into fire nor riding on the curled clouds will be involved, but the scientific quality is something of which we can be very confident.

Congratulations to everyone involved in getting this mission selected and best wishes to all those involved in Cardiff and elsewhere!

A Rambling Post

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth with tags , , , , on March 15, 2018 by telescoper

Thursdays are busy days for me, starting with a 9am lecture on Computational Physics in Physics Hall, followed in the afternoon by a two-hour laboratory session on the same subject. Today we did exercises root-finding and numerical integration, but didn’t get through as many examples as I had hoped. In between I had a number of jobs to do, including a lunchtime meeting off campus with my landlord to pay the rent (which he collects in person). I was a bit late back for the lab and, after apologizing, complained that I was too old for all this running around. One of the students kindly said that `age is only a number’. I replied `I know, but unfortunately in my case it’s a rather large one..’

I now have a big of a break from teaching in Maynooth. There is no teaching next week as it is `Study Week’ and Monday 19th March is a public holiday (for St Patrick’s Day, 17th March, which this year falls on a Saturday). Study week is followed by a week’s holiday because of Easter. Teaching resumes here on Tuesday April 3rd. Somewhat surprisingly the Easter break here is shorter than in the UK.

The four-week batch of strikes in UK universities over pensions in which I have been participating ends tomorrow, which means that I will be lecturing in Cardiff again next Tuesday (20th March). This lecture will be Lecture 8 of 11, with lectures 5, 6 and 7 missing in action (industrial action, to be precise). Cardiff students are then on vacation for three weeks for the Easter break, with lectures resuming on 16th April. All of this means that for the next three weeks I won’t have to do the mid-week trip from Cardiff to Maynooth (which I am beginning to find rather tedious). I plan to stay all next week in Wales and return to Ireland the following week, as I have been invited to give a seminar then at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (which I have never visited before).

Anyway, all that rambling just serves to illustrate that it’s a complicated business being in a superposition of jobs. I’m looking forward to the summer, when my wavefunction will collapse onto Ireland (if I haven’t collapsed from exhaustion before that).

To end on a very sad note, I heard today that Emeritus Professor David Bailin passed away yesterday. I knew David from both times I was at Sussex (as a graduate student and postdoc in the 1980s, and as Head of School of Mathematical and Physics Sciences from 2013 to 2016). He was a very fine theoretical physicist and a very nice man who was held in a very high regard by all who worked with him. Condolences to his family, friends and colleagues.

Why I’m taking part in the UCU Strike Action

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , , , , on February 21, 2018 by telescoper

In case you weren’t aware, from tomorrow (22nd February) the University and College Union (UCU) is taking industrial action over proposed drastic cuts to staff pensions funded by the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). You can find some background to the pensions dispute here (and in related articles). A clear explanation of why the employers’ justification for these cuts is little more than fraudulent is given here and here you can find an example of the effect of the proposed changes on a real person’s pension (ie a cut of almost 50%). I also blogged about this a few weeks ago. There’s no doubt whose side the Financial Times is on, either.

I am not a member of UCU – I left its forerunner organisation the Association of University Teachers (AUT) as a result of its behaviour when I was at the University of Nottingham – but I will be participating in the industrial action, which takes place over four weeks as follows:

  • Week one – Thursday 22 and Friday 23 February (two days)
  • Week two – Monday 26, Tuesday 27 and Wednesday 28 February (three days)
  • Week three – Monday 5, Tuesday 6, Wednesday 7 and Thursday 8 March (four days)
  • Week four – Monday 12, Tuesday 13, Wednesday 14, Thursday 15 and Friday 16 March (five days)

This is a bit complicated for me because I only work half-time at Cardiff University (usually Mondays, Tuesdays and half of Wednesdays) and at Maynooth University the rest of the time. The USS only covers UK universities, and the dispute does not apply in the Republic of Ireland (though it does affect higher education institutions in Northern Ireland) so I won’t be on strike when I’m working for Maynooth University, which includes the first two strike days (tomorrow and Friday). I will be participating in industrial action next week, however, and have today sent an announcement to my students they hear from me that the strike has been called off there will be no lectures on 27th February, 6th March or 13th March.

All staff will be docked pay for days not worked owing to strike action, of course, but that will be far less than the amount to be lost in these pension cuts. In my case I will be docked the equivalent of three weeks’ pay as 2.5 days a week I work are all strike days in Weeks 2-4. Moreover, I shall be leaving the UK for Ireland this summer and the pension cuts will not affect my pension anyway – any changes will not be made until after I’ve left the USS scheme. Nevertheless, this is an important issue and I feel it is right to take a stand.

One final comment. Last week Cardiff University sent an email to staff including a link to a website that stated:

If staff refuse to cross a picket line and they are not a member of UCU they will be in breach of their contract of employment with the University.

In fact, any strike action (even by a union member) is a breach of contract. The law however prevents employers dismissing staff who participate in industrial action, provided that it is lawful (i.e. following a ballot, and with due notice given to the employer, etc). The government website makes it clear that non-union members have exactly the same protection as union members in this regard. The Cardiff website has now been changed, but I’m very unhappy that this extremely misleading communication was sent out in the first place.

I sincerely hope that there is a negotiated settlement to this issue. Nobody wants to go on strike, especially when it has the potential to damage students’ learning. But there comes a point where you have to draw a line in the sand, and we have reached that point. I hope I’m proved wrong, but I think this could be a very prolonged and very unpleasant dispute.

Learning Technology

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , , , , , on February 20, 2018 by telescoper

I’m just taking a tea break in the Data Innovation Research Institute. Today has been a very day as I have to finish off a lot of things by tomorrow, for reasons that I’ll make clear in my next post…

It struck me when I was putting on the brew how much more technology we use for teaching now than when I was a student. I think many of my colleagues make far more effective use of the available technology than I do, but I do my best to overcome my Luddite tendencies. Reflecting on today’s teaching makes me feel just a little less like a dinosaur.

This morning I gave a two-hour lecture on my Cardiff module Physics of the Early Universe which, as usual, I recorded using our Panopto system. Although there was a problem with some of the University’s central file storage this morning, which made me a bit nervous about whether the lecture recording would work, it did. Predictably I couldn’t access the network drives from the PC in the lecture theatre, but I had anticipated that and took everything I needed on a memory stick.

After a short break for lunch I checked the lecture recording and made it available for registered students via the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), known to its friends as Learning Central. I use this as a sort of repository of stuff connected with the module: notes, list of textbooks, problem sets, model answers, instructions and, of course, recorded lectures. The students also submit their coursework assignment (an essay) through this system, through the plagiarism detection software Turnitin.

This afternoon the students on my Computational Physics course in Maynooth University had a lab test, the first of four such tests, this one consisting of a short coding exercise. There are two lab sessions per week for this class, one on Thursdays (when I am normally in Maynooth to help supervise) and another on Tuesdays (when I am normally in Cardiff). I have a number of exercises, which are similar in scope but different in detail (to prevent copying) and the Tuesday lab has a completely different set of exercises from the Thursday one. In each exercise the students have to write a simple Python script to plot graphs of a function and its derivative (computed numerically) using matplotlib. The students upload their script and pictures of the plot to the VLE used in Maynooth, which is called Moodle.

In the manner of a TV chef announcing `here’s one I did earlier’, this a sample output produced by my `model’ code:

I wonder if you can guess of what function this is the derivative? By the way in this context `model’ does not mean `a standard of excellence’ but `an imitation of something’ (me being an imitation of a computational physicist). Anyway, students will get marks for producing plots that look right, but also for presenting a nice (commented!) bit of code

This afternoon I’m on Cardiff time but I was able to keep an eye on the submissions coming in to Moodle in case something went wrong. It seemed to work out OK, but the main problem now is that I’ve got 20-odd bits of code to mark! That will have to wait until I’m properly on Maynooth time!

Now, back to the grind…

The Future is Unpredictable

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Maynooth with tags , , on January 31, 2018 by telescoper

I decided to take the early morning flight from Cardiff to Dublin today as I have quite a few things to prepare before my first lecture at Maynooth, which is at 9am. I actually got up at 4am and took the 5.10am bus to the airport so that I would arrive in time to have a coffee and a bacon sandwich before the 6.55am flight. Everything went to plan apart from the inclement weather, which resulted in me getting soaked on the way to the bus stop. The plane struggled against a strong headwind, taking 70 minutes to get to Dublin instead of the usual 40, and there was quite a lot of turbulence en route but we arrived on time in Dublin in time for my bus to Maynooth. It was freezing cold this morning, and as I arrived in Maynooth it started snowing but has now stopped.

While waiting in the airport I checked Facebook, which reminded me that it was exactly five years ago today that I left Cardiff to take up the job of Head of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex. One of my last acts was to sign the work of art I left on the whiteboard in my old office.

The initial term of my appointment at the University of Sussex was 5 years, which would have been finishing today had I stayed there. If somebody had told me then that within five years I would have left Sussex, returned to Cardiff temporarily, and be about to move permanently to Ireland it would have seemed most implausible. More importantly, way back then I had no plans to grow a beard!

It just goes to show that Niels Bohr was right when he stated that `Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future’….

..on the other hand, when I got back to Maynooth I found that my new Public Services Card had arrived, which seems to make a definite prediction of the date of my ultimate demise: