Archive for Physics & Astronomy

League Table Positions

Posted in Education, Football with tags , , , , , , , on May 26, 2015 by telescoper

Among the things I didn’t have time to blog about over a very busy Bank Holiday Weekend was the finish of the English Premiership season. I haven’t posted much about my own team, Newcastle United, this season because I haven’t been able to think of anything particularly positive to say. Since Alan Pardew quit in January to join Crystal Palace, Newcastle slumped to such an alarming extent that they went into their last game of the season (against West Ham) just two points above the drop zone. Had they lost their game, which did not seem unlikely on the basis of their recent form, and had Hull won against Manchester United, which did not seem unlikely on the grounds that Man Utd wwould finish in 4th place whatever happened in that game, then Newcastle would be relegated to the Championship. In the event, however, Newcastle won 2-0 which made them safe while Hull could only draw 0-0 which meant that Newcastle would have survived even if they had lost against West Ham. Moreover, Sunderland also lost their last game, which meant that the final Premier League Table looked like this:


(courtesy of the BBC Website). The important places are 15 and 16, obviously. The natural order of things has been restored….

Another League Table came out over the Bank Holiday. This was the annual Guardian University Guide. I’m deeply sceptical of the value of these league tables, but there’s no question that they’re very important to potential students so we have to take them seriously. This year was pretty good for Sussex as far as the Guardian Table is concerned: the University of Sussex rose to 19th place overall and the two departments of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences both improved: Physics & Astronomy is back in the top 10 (at number 9, up from 11th place last year) and Mathematics rose 22 places to take 21st place. Gratifyingly, both finished well above Sunderland.

While these results are good news in themselves, at least around my neck of the woods, as they will probably lead to increased applications to Sussex from students next year, it is important to look behind the simplistic narrative of “improvements”. Since last year there have been several substantial changes to the Guardian’s methodology. The weighting given to “spend-per-student” has been reduced from 15% to 10% of the overall score and the method of calculating “value added” has excluded specific predictions based on “non-tariff” students (i.e. those without UK entry qualifications, especially A-levels). What the Guardian consistently fails to do is explain the relative size of the effect of arbitrary methodological changes on its tables compared to actual changes in, e.g., cash spent per student.

Imagine the outrage there would be if football teams were not told until the end of a Premier League season how many points would be awarded for a win….

Combining Research and Teaching in Physics & Astronomy

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on August 7, 2014 by telescoper

Among the distinctive things we do here in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex are our degree programmes that involve a Research Placement (RP). Students on these courses take the normal lectures, laboratory classes and workshops during the academic year, but they spend the summer vacation doing (paid) work with research groups in the School to get an experience of what the world of research is really like. Various combinations of Physics and Astronomy with a Research Placement have been around for some time. These courses have been so popular and successful that we’ve extended the idea to Mathematics for 2015 entry. We have also started extending the RP scheme to include placements in laboratories elsewhere, either in industry or in a university abroad; we even have two students currently doing their placements in China.

Here are a couple of videos we’ve made featuring two RP students who have been working in the Department of Physics & Astronomy this summer.

This is Ross Callaghan:

And this is Nathaniel Wiesendanger Shaw:

Both these students are in between their 2nd and 3rd years of a 4-year MPhys programme. As it happens, both survived the experience of being in my Theoretical Physics class last term too!

It’s an ongoing frustration of mine that so many influential people think that teaching and research are separate functions of a university and should not be mixed. I believe that the two go hand-in-hand and that you can’t really claim to be getting a real university education if it’s not informed by the latest developments in research. Moreover, some also imply that research-led teaching only happens in the Russell Group, which is not the case at all. In fact, I think we provide a much better environment for this in Sussex than either of the Russell Group universities in which I’ve previously worked.

Many Departments talk about how important it is that their teaching is based on state-of-the-art research, but here at Sussex we don’t just talk about research to undergraduates – we let them do it!

The Busyness of Examination Time

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , , on June 12, 2014 by telescoper

Just time this evening for the briefest of brief posts. This is probably the busiest week of the year at the University of Sussex, and it’s not over yet. The main reason for this busyness is the business of examinations, assessment and degree classification.

This morning we had our meeting of the School Progression and Award Board for Years 3 and 4 at which, among other things, we sorted out the classification for honours of our graduating students. This involves distilling the marks gained over several years of assessments down to a final “Grand Mean”. It’s not a trivial process but I’m glad to say it went off very smoothly.

The pass lists have now gone to be officially signed off by the University administration. They will be posted tomorrow at noon, at which time we’ll have a celebratory drink or several ready for those getting their results.

One of my duties as Head of School is to chair this meeting, but I don’t take credit for the successful running of the meeting because all the hard work of preparation was done by our excellent office staff, especially Oonagh and Chrystelle.

That done there was time for a quick sandwich lunch before heading off to Stanmer House for a teaching “away afternoon” for the Department of Physics & Astronomy, at which we discussed ideas for improvements to the way we teach and assess students.


I’m actually in the group sitting under the parasol in the left foreground.

Stanmer House is set in beautiful parkland just a short walk from Sussex University. I took the more strenuous route over the hill, but am glad I did so because the view was so nice in the glorious sunshine and it made be realise I don’t make as much of the opportunity for walking around the campus as I should.

Tomorrow is going to be another busy day but, if you’ll excuse me, I’m now going to have a glass of chilled white wine and a bite to eat.

A Summer of Undergraduate Physics Research

Posted in Biographical, Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on January 14, 2014 by telescoper

I was compiling a bibliography for a new paper yesterday and noticed that a paper published in December 2013 cited one I wrote in 2005 with Andrew Stannard while I was working at the University of Nottingham; the rarity of anyone actually referring to any of my papers caught my attention. I include the abstract of the Stannard-Coles paper here for reference:

We investigate the properties of the (complex) coefficients obtained in a spherical harmonic representation of temperature maps of the cosmic microwave background (CMB). We study the effect of the coefficient phase only, as well as the combined effects of phase and amplitude. The method used to check for anomalies is to construct a `random walk’ trajectory in the complex plane where the step length and direction are given by the amplitude and phase (respectively) of the harmonic coefficient. If the fluctuations comprise a homogeneous and isotropic Gaussian random field on the sky, the path so obtained should be a classical `Rayleigh flight’ with very well known statistical properties. We illustrate the use of this random-walk representation by using the net walk length as a test statistic, and apply the method to the coefficients obtained from a Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) preliminary sky temperature map.

This seems like ancient history now, particularly with regard to the use of “preliminary” WMAP data, but it was only just over 8 years ago. I never imagined during the time that we were working on this paper that I’d be moving twice! By contrast, Andrew Stannard remained in Nottingham, doing a PhD there and is now employed as a Research Fellow, although he switched fields after the project and moved into nanoscience.

Anyway, I wasn’t posting this so I could take a trip down memory lane. I thought I’d post it in order to point out that this paper actually came about as an undergraduate research project that Andrew did under my supervision during the summer of 2005, funded by a Mary Cannell Summer Studentship. Mary Cannell was the author of a book about the life of George Green (the famous mathematician who came from Nottingham); she passed away in 2000 leaving some money to the School of Physics & Astronomy to fund summer research placements for undergraduates. If I recall correctly, we completed the analysis and wrote the paper during the summer of 2005, submitting it in August and having it accepted in September. If only it were always so straightforward! Since publication it has garnered 15 citations according to the ADS website; not exactly earth-shattering, but respectable enough, especially given the background. I think it may get a few more in the next few years because the quality of data from Planck may now be good enough to actually detect the features we were looking for all those years ago!

It’s worth mentioning that in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Sussex we have a degree programme in which students receive a stipend to cover living expenses during a summer vacation placement with one of the research groups each and every year of their studies. This is in addition to the usual lectures and laboratory work of the standard  course. This involves many more students than was the case back in Nottingham in 2005, but since I’ve only been at the University of Sussex for  a year I don’t know how many such placements have led to actual publications.

Does anyone know of any really important papers out there that came from undergraduate research projects? If so, please let me know through the comments box..

Meet the Panel …

Posted in Education, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , , on February 21, 2011 by telescoper

Just a quick post to pass on the news that the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) has announced the list of panel members for the forthcoming Research Excellence Framework (REF), a massive exercise in bean counting which will drag on until 2014.

Much as I enjoy ploughing through HEFCE’s fascinating documents, in this case I went straight to the Physics (& Astronomy) sub-panel, which is:

All estimable folk and a good selection of different expertise. There’s also a good geographical spread with members from the English regions, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and of course Wales. Oh, wait a minute. Not Wales. Apparently Wales doesn’t merit any representation on the Physics REF panel. Nor did it last time. Why am I thinking to myself “here we go again”?

To be perfectly honest, I don’t really understand why Welsh universities are being forced to take part in the REF anyway. Or those from Scotland and Northern Ireland for that matter. The REF is driven by an English agenda which is certainly at variance with Welsh priorities. Whereas in England, HEFCE is allocating funding using a formula involving an exceedingly steep weighting towards “internationally leading” research, here in Wales the equivalent body HEFCW is resisting the urge to concentrate research cash so heavily according to such a doubtful measure of research quality.

And don’t get me started on the so-called “impact” measures. All I can say about them is that Kafka would have been proud.

The Welsh Assembly Government has recently taken steps to protect Welsh students against the effects of Higher Education cuts imposed by Westminster. However, there will be substantial cuts in resource to Welsh universities in order to pay for this. At the same time as making “efficiency savings”, as is appropriate for the age of austerity, we’re also being forced to participate in a monstrously wasteful bureaucratic exercise of little relevance to the needs or aspirations of Welsh universities.

I think there’s a strong case for HEFCW to show a bit of real independence and withdraw from the REF altogether.



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