Archive for Physics & Astronomy

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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