Archive for Graduation

Physics Graduation, according to Private Eye

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on August 11, 2015 by telescoper

Very busy day today, what with one thing and another (and another, and another…) so in lieu of a proper post I thought I’d just post this rather excellent cartoon I saw in last week’s Private Eye

Physics Graduation

Gowns, Grammar and Graduation

Posted in Biographical with tags , on July 19, 2015 by telescoper

After yesterday’s post about the fascinating story of the recipient of an honorary degree, I thought I’d add a few personal comments about last week’s graduation ceremony for the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex, at which I had the pleasure of presenting the graduands. Graduation ceremonies are funny things. With all their costumes and weird traditions, they do seem a bit absurd. On the other hand, even in these modern times, we live with all kinds of  rituals and I don’t see why we shouldn’t celebrate academic achievement in this way. I love graduation ceremonies, actually. As the graduands go across the stage you realize that every one of them has a unique story to tell and a whole universe of possibilities in front of them. How their lives will unfold no-one can tell, but it’s a privilege to be there for one important milestone on their journey. Getting to read their names out is quite stressful – it may not seem like it, but I do spend quite a lot of time fretting about the correct pronunciation of the names.  It’s also a bit strange in some cases finally to put a name to a face that I’ve seen around the place regularly, just before they leave the University for good.

Anyway, here are the obligatory “mortar boards in the air” pictures of graduates and academic staff from  Physics & Astronomy and Mathematics, respectively, taken just outside the Brighton Dome shortly after the ceremony. I am actually in both of these pictures. Somewhere. I also got hit on the head twice by descending hats.


Graduation is a grammatical phenomenon too. The word “graduation” is derived from the latin word gradus meaning a step, from which was eventually made the mediaeval latin verb graduare, meaning “to take a degree”. The past participle  of this is formed via the supine graduatus, hence the English noun “graduate” (i.e. one who has taken a degree). The word graduand, on the other hand, which is used before and during the ceremony to describe those about to graduate, is from the  gerundive form graduandus meaning “to be graduated”. What really happens grammatically speaking, therefore, is that students swap their gerundives for participles, although I suspect most participants don’t think of it in quite those terms.

Graduation ceremonies are quite colourful because staff wear the gown appropriate to their highest degree. Colours and styles vary greatly from one University to another even within the United Kingdom, and there are even more variations on show when schools contain staff who got their degrees abroad. Since I got my doctorate from the University of Sussex, which was created in the 1960s, the academic garb I used to wear on these occasions  is actually quite modern-looking. With its raised collar, red ribbons and capped shoulders it’s also more than a little bit camp. It often brought  a few comments when I participated in the academic procession prior to graduation, but I usually replied by saying I bought the outfit at Ann Summers. Here is a picture of me wearing the old-style Sussex doctoral gown just after I received my DPhil in 1989 at a ceremony at the Brighton Centre:


Unfortunately the University decided to change the style recently to something a bit more standard, as demonstrated in this picture from yesterday’s post:

John Francis receiving his Honorary Doctorate from the Chancellor, Sanjeev Bhaskar.

John Francis receiving his Honorary Doctorate from the Chancellor, Sanjeev Bhaskar.

That’s me on the far left, in case you didn’t realise. I still feel a bit uncomfortable wearing academic dress that’s different from what I wore for my graduation. I did mention this once to the Vice Chancellor and he said that it would be perfectly alright if I wore the old style instead. The problem is that I never actually bought the gown and Ede & Ravescroft, who supply the gear for such occasions, no longer provide it. Perhaps I should try to find a second-hand one somewhere?

Graduation of course isn’t just about dressing up. Nor is it only about recognising academic achievement. It’s also a rite of passage on the way to adulthood and independence, so the presence of the parents at the ceremony adds another emotional dimension to the goings-on. Although everyone is rightly proud of the achievement – either their own in the case of the graduands or that of others in the case of the guests – there’s also a bit of sadness to go with the goodbyes. It always seems that as a lecturer you are only just getting to know students by the time they graduate, but that’s enough to miss them when they go.

I’ve also been through two graduations on the other side of the fence, as it were. My first degree came from Cambridge so I had to participate in the even more archaic ceremony for that institution. The whole thing is done in Latin there (or was when I graduated) and involves each graduand holding a finger held out by their College’s Praelector and then kneeling down in front of the presiding dignitary, who is either the Vice-Chancellor ot the Chancellor. I can’t remember which. It’s also worth mentioning that although I did Natural Sciences (specialising in Theoretical Physics), the degree I got was Bachelor of Arts. Other than that, and the fact that the graduands walk to the Senate House from their College through the streets of Cambridge,  I don’t remember much about the actual ceremony.

I was very nervous for that first graduation. The reason was that my parents had divorced some years before and my Mum had re-married. My Dad wouldn’t speak to her or her second husband. Immediately after the ceremony there was a garden party at my college, Magdalene, at which the two parts of my family occupied positions at opposite corners of the lawn and I scuttled between them trying to keep everyone happy. It was like that for the rest of the day and I have to say it was very stressful. A few years later I got my doctorate (actually DPhil) from the University of Sussex, at the Brighton Centre on the seafront. It was pretty much the same deal again with the warring family factions, but I enjoyed the whole day a lot more that time. And I got to wear the funny gown.

Anyway, apologies for going all biographical. My main purpose for writing this post was to thank Thursday’s graduands graduates for the many kind comments and to offer my heartiest congratulations to those I didn’t get to talk to in person. If you are a recent graduate from the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences then please do stay in touch and let us know how you get on in the big wide world!

Pluto and the Pavilion

Posted in Biographical, Football, History with tags , , , , , on July 14, 2015 by telescoper

This is a busy week in many ways and for many reasons, but the main activity revolves around Graduation at the University of Sussex; the ceremony for graduates from my School (Mathematical and Physical Sciences) takes place on Thursday which gives me a couple of days to practice the pronunciation of the names I have to read out!

Anyway, last night there was a very Commemoration Dinner in the Dining Room of Brighton Pavilion:


The decor is a little understated for my tastes, and in any case I was among a group of about 40 guests who were seated elsewhere owing to the popularity of the event. In fact I was in the Red Drawing Room, which as its name suggests is, er, red:


Anyway, the dinner itself was splendid with particularly fine wine to boot. One of the topics of conversation was the forthcoming flypast of Pluto by the NASA New Horizons spacecraft. As the token astrophysicist on my table I tried my best to answer questions about this event. In fact the closest approach to Pluto takes place about 12.50 pm today (BST) but it will take some time for the images to be downloaded and processed; data transmission rates from the outer edge of the Solar System are rather limited! After passing Pluto, the spacecraft will carry on out of the Solar System into interstellar space. One thing I didn’t know until this morning was that the discoverer of Pluto, Clyde Tombaugh, expressed a wish that when he died his ashes should be sent into space. In fact, they are on New Horizons,  being carried past the planet object he found just 85 years ago. I find that very moving, but it’s also so inspiring that such a short time after Pluto was discovered a spacecraft is arriving there to study it. We humans can do great things if we put our minds to them. Science provides us with constant reminders of this inspirational fact. Unfortunately, politics tends to do the opposite…

I hope to provide a few updates with images from New Horizons if I get time. Here to whet your appetite is today’s stunning Astronomy Picture of the Day, showing Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, in the same frame:


Here’s a close-up of Pluto from yesterday:


And if that isn’t enough, click here for a simulation of the detail we expect to see when New Horizons reaches its closest approach to Pluto.

Admissions to Degrees

Posted in Biographical with tags , , on June 20, 2015 by telescoper

My trip to Cambridge earlier this week along with talk of other anniversaries made me a bit nostalgic this morning so I dug out the papers I kept about my own graduation.


It turns out I graduated on Saturday 22nd June 1985. You can see my name on the list of graduands at the top left of this montage.

I don’t remember much about the actual ceremony nor the rest of the day, perhaps because I was hungover from the night before..

On the right you see details of the Graduation Dinner held on Friday 21st June. When that ended, a large crowd went to the Pickerel where I remember singing all the verses of the Blaydon Races although I don’t remember why..

Graduation Engagement

Posted in Education with tags , , on January 23, 2015 by telescoper

Yesterday I took part in the Winter Graduation ceremony for students in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS) at the University of Sussex; as Head of School it was my very pleasant duty to read out the names of the graduands as they passed across the stage at the Brighton Dome, where the ceremony takes place.

Let me first of all congratulate again all those who graduated yesterday!

The Winter ceremony is largely devoted to students graduating from postgraduate programmes, either taught (MSc or MA)  or research-based (PhD). We don’t have huge numbers of such students in MPS so I had relatively few names to read out yesterday. Most of our students graduate in the summer ceremony. Sharing the ceremony with us this time was the School of Business, Management and Economics which, by contrast, has huge taught postgraduate programmes so the acting Head of School for BMEC (as it is called) had a lot of work to do!

It was nice to have Sanjeev Bhaskar back in place as Chancellor (he was absent on filming duty for last year’s summer ceremonies), who is charming and friendly as well as frequently hilarious.

Anyway, getting to the point, graduation is a special moment for all students involved, but there was an extra extra special moment for two students in particular yesterday.

I was sitting in the front of the platform party very near Sanjeev when a male student from BMEC graduated. As well as shaking the Chancellor’s hand he had a fairly long discussion with him and slipped him what appeared to be a small box in such a way that the audience couldn’t see it. Then, after walking across the stage, the student waited at the far side instead of returning to the auditorium by going down the stairs.

Funny, I thought, but at that point I had no idea what was going on.

The next graduand was a female student. When she got to Sanjeev he shook her hand as usual but then called back the previous one, still standing on the stage, and gave the box back to him. Of course it contained an engagement ring. And so it came to pass that Jing Liu (kneeling) proposed to Qin Me (standing).


It was a wonderful moment, although it struck me as a high-risk strategy and it wasn’t at all obvious at first sight how it would turn out. She doesn’t look that sure in the picture, actually! She did, however, say “yes” and the couple are now engaged to be married. I wish them every happiness. I’m sure I speak for everyone at the ceremony when I say that it brought an extra dimension of joy to what was already a wonderfully joyous occasion.

Our lives seem to revolve around rituals of one sort or another. Graduation is one, marriage is another. This is definitely the first time I’ve seen this particular combination.

I love graduation ceremonies. As the graduands go across the stage you realize that every one of them has a unique story to tell and a whole universe of possibilities in front of them. How their lives will unfold no-one can tell, but it’s a privilege to be there for one important milestone on their journey.

UPDATE: Here’s a video of the ceremony. The big event happens about from 44:48…


Posted in Biographical, Football, History with tags , , , , , , on July 9, 2014 by telescoper

This is a busy week in many ways and for many reasons, but the main activity revolves around Graduation at the University of Sussex. There are 7 ceremonies this week altogether; my School (Mathematical and Physical Sciences) is No. 4, which takes place tomorrow morning (Thursday).

Things are going to be a bit different this year. The Chancellor of the University, Sanjeev Bhaskar, is unable to preside owing to prior commitments (filming episodes of Doctor Who in Cardiff). This is sad because his informality and sense of humour usually brings an enormous amount to such occasions. After much discussion and debate it was eventually decided (on Monday) that the normal order of ceremonies would be changed so that the Head of the graduating School would stand in the centre of the platform, where the Chancellor would normally be situated, in order to shake hands with (and generally congratulate) the graduands as their names are read out and they cross the stage. Normally the Head of School simply reads out the list of names from a podium at one side, so it will be nice to be a bit more involved, although doubt that there will be as many students wanting to take selfies with me as there would have been had Sanjeev been there!

I also have the honour to present an honorary graduate at the ceremony, but I’ll probably say more about that in a future post.

This is a special graduation week for another reason too. It’s now fifty years since the first University of Sussex graduation ceremony in 1964. The University only received its Royal Charter in 1961 and there were only 38 graduates at the first ceremony. This week about 3000 will cross the stage.

Anyway, last night there was a special Commemoration Dinner to mark the 50th Anniversary in the Dining Room of Brighton Pavilion:


The decor is a little understated for my tastes, but apart from that it was a splendid occasion. We didn’t sit at the central table, which is covered with period crockery and cutlery, and was roped off; we sat at smaller tables situated in the space around it. Owing to some sort of administrative error I was accidentally seated at a Table 1, along with a host of important people and the Vice-Chancellor. This turned out well for me as I was seated near Asa Briggs (now Lord Briggs) a famous historian who was the second Vice-Chancellor of the University. He’s now 93 years young and a bit frail but wonderfully interesting conversation ensued. The opportunity to talk to a true Sussex legend added to the fine food and wine to make for a wonderful evening.

There’s another point worth commemorating in the light of the forthcoming centenary of the start of the First World War. One thing I didn’t know before this week was that during World War 1, Brighton Pavilion was commandeered for use as a hospital for wounded soldiers, many of them from India. In fact, the first ever recipient of the Victoria Cross from the British Indian Army, Khudadad Khan, recovered there from wounds sustained in action in Belgium in 1914:

In October 1914, the Germans launched a major offensive in northern Belgium, in order to capture the vital ports of Boulogne in France and Nieuport in Belgium. In what came to be known as the First Battle of Ypres, the newly arrived 129th Baluchis were rushed to the frontline to support the hard-pressed British troops. On 31 October, two companies of the Baluchis bore the brunt of the main German attack near the village of Gheluvelt in Hollebeke Sector. The out-numbered Baluchis fought gallantly but were overwhelmed after suffering heavy casualties. Sepoy Khudadad Khan’s machine-gun team, along with one other, kept their guns in action throughout the day; preventing the Germans from making the final breakthrough. The other gun was disabled by a shell and eventually Khudadad Khan’s own team was overrun. All the men were killed by bullets or bayonets except Khudadad Khan, who despite being badly wounded, had continued working his gun. He was left for dead by the enemy but despite his wounds, he managed to crawl back to his regiment during the night. Thanks to his bravery, and that of his fellow Baluchis, the Germans were held up just long enough for Indian and British reinforcements to arrive. They strengthened the line, and prevented the German Army from reaching the vital ports. For his matchless feat of courage and gallantry, Sepoy Khudadad Khan was awarded the Victoria Cross.

We were honoured last night by the presence at dinner of Sergeant Johnson Beharry who, in 2005, became the first recipient of the Victoria Cross for over thirty years for acts of extreme courage when serving as Lance Corporal in Iraq.

On 1 May 2004, Beharry was driving a Warrior tracked armoured vehicle that had been called to the assistance of a foot patrol caught in a series of ambushes. The Warrior was hit by multiple rocket propelled grenades, causing damage and resulting in the loss of radio communications. The platoon commander, the vehicle’s gunner and a number of other soldiers in the vehicle were injured. Due to damage to his periscope optics, Pte. Beharry was forced to open his hatch to steer his vehicle, exposing his face and head to withering small arms fire. Beharry drove the crippled Warrior through the ambush, taking his own crew and leading five other Warriors to safety. He then extracted his wounded comrades from the vehicle, all the time exposed to further enemy fire. He was cited on this occasion for “valour of the highest order”.

While back on duty on 11 June 2004, Beharry was again driving the lead Warrior of his platoon through Al Amarah when his vehicle was ambushed. A rocket propelled grenade hit the vehicle six inches from Beharry’s head, and he received serious shrapnel injuries to his face and brain. Other rockets then hit the vehicle, incapacitating his commander and injuring several of the crew. Despite his life-threatening injuries, Beharry retained control of his vehicle and drove it out of the ambush area before losing consciousness. He required brain surgery for his head injuries, and he was still recovering in March 2005 when he was awarded the Victoria Cross.

It’s humbling to be in the presence of such a courageous fellow. I only wish our mendacious politicians hadn’t engineered the conflict that made his actions necessary in the first place.  Resplendent in his dress uniform, I’m glad to say that Sergeant Beharry seems fully recovered from his injuries.

I had forgotten to take my Blackberry with me when I left my flat to walk to the dinner so was unable to keep up with the World Cup semi-final. This came up in the conversation at the table. Lord Briggs concurred with my prediction that Germany would win comfortably. It was only when I left the Pavilion and walked past a pub on the way to the bus-stop that I saw the scale of the thrashing that Germany had administered. It was 7-0 when I stopped to look at the screen just in time to see Brazil score. I wouldn’t even describe it as a consolation goal. This amazing result will now be forever linked in my mind with the other events of the evening.

Anyway, must finish now. I have to write my speech for tomorrow’s ceremony!


Rites of Passage

Posted in Brighton, Education with tags , , , on January 28, 2014 by telescoper

Just back home from the drinks reception that followed today’s Winter Graduation Ceremony at the University of Sussex at the Dome, in Brighton. And a very nice event it was too!

The Winter Graduation ceremony is primarily taken up with postgraduate degrees, and within School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences the largest proportion of those are in Mathematics, especially in the MSc courses in Financial Mathematics and Corporate and Financial Risk Management on which we have a large number of overseas students, e.g. From China. My first graduation ceremony as Head of School therefore presented me with some pronunciation challenges as I read out the names of the graduands. I was a bit nervous beforehand, not because I’m afraid of making a fool of myself but because these days everything is captured on video for posterity and I didn’t want to ruin anyone’s record of their Big Day. I practised quite a lot actually, and think it was OK.

I am always impressed at students who have the courage to travel halfway around the world to study in a foreign land. Graduation is a rite of passage for all students, but it must be of even greater significance for students from abroad.

I’ve attended graduation ceremonies at a number of other universities, and the big difference with Sussex is how much less formal it is. A great deal of credit for that must go to the Chancellor, the brilliantly funny and approachable Sanjeev Bhaskar, who ran the show in inimitable style. He also has a lovely head of hair.

Sanjeev always had a word with the graduands as they crossed the stage, often a hug, and very allowed them to take a selfie, once sitting in the Chancellor’s chair! I found it all very amusing, which helped me relax before my turn at the podium with the list of names. I’ve sat through a large number of dull and stuffy graduation ceremonies in my time, and much prefer the Sussex style!

Also graduating with top marks in our MSc in Cosmology was Mateja Gosenca, who is now my PhD student. Here we are at the drinks party after the graduation ceremony; Mateja is looking very happy holding her certificate as winner of the Sir William McCrea Prize for the best student on the MSc programme!

That one was taken with my Blackberry; here’s a much nicer version taken with a proper camera:



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