Archive for School of Physics & Astronomy

Lectured Out

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , , on July 10, 2013 by telescoper

Just time for a quick post today because I’m quite knackered. Both my lectures for the Summer School I’m attending were this morning, and each was 90 minutes long – though there was a 30 minute coffee break between the two. The students therefore had to out up with me droning on most of the morning so were probably sick of the sight of me by lunchtime although they were quite polite about it. MOst of the participants went off on an excursion after lunch, but I decided to stay behind and take a siesta. I’m definitely too old for hiking in this heat.

The conference organizers told me that ninety minute lectures are apparently quite normal in Germany. I’m not sure why. I don’t think students can concentrate for that length of time, and it’s a definite strain on the lecturer too. I find even an hour lecture quite tiring, actually, but that’s more the effect of expending nervous energy walking backwards and forwards trying frantically to tell if anyone is understanding what I’m talking about. I usually enjoy lecturing actually, but it’s definitely stressful at the time. Now that I’m Head of School I won’t get to do as much teaching in the future as I did in the past. I suppose I’ll miss that “contact” with students, but I don’t think their education will suffer at all as a consequence of not being taught by me!

This is graduation week at the University of Sussex; finalists from the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences actually graduate tomorrow. In normal circumstances I would be there to read out the names as the graduands parade across the stage, but I committed to attend this Summer School long before I’d even been appointed to my job as Head of MPS so felt I shouldn’t leave the organizers in the lurch. The Deputy Head of School will therefore do the honours at tomorrow’s ceremony. I haven’t been there long enough to get to know the graduating class very well, so it’s quite fitting that he’s looking after them on the big day. In other words, I don’t think I’ll be missed. I also see that final year students from the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University will be graduating next Monday (15th July). I’ve known some of them for almost four years so feel a bit sad that I left before they finished, but I’m sure I won’t be missed on that occasion either. I bet most of them have already forgotten I was ever there!

Anyway, on the off chance that any graduating students from either Sussex or Cardiff happen to read this, I hope you enjoy the graduation ceremony and associated celebrations and wish you well as you embark on the next stage of life’s journey.

The Planck Rumour Mill

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on December 28, 2012 by telescoper

I gather the internet is crawling with people searching for rumours about the Planck mission. It would obviously be entirely inappropriate for me to direct my readers to any website where they might obtain access to confidential information about this experiment, the results from which are embargoed until well into the New Year. So naturally that’s what I’m going to do. Well, blog traffic doesn’t generate itself does it?

As a Telescoper exclusive I am able to offer you a sneak preview of the top secret Planck data well in advance of official release. If you want to see what Planck scientists have been looking since Planck was launched in 2009, just click here.

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.

Open for Clearing in Physics and Astronomy

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , , , , on August 16, 2012 by telescoper

It being A-level results day, I thought I’d try a little experiment and use this blog to broadcast an unofficial announcement that, owing to additional government funding for high-achieving subjects, the School of Physics and Astronomy at Cardiff University is able to offer extra places on all undergraduate courses starting this September for suitably qualified students.

An institutional review of intake numbers by HEFCW (Higher Education Funding Council for Wales) resulted in the award of extra funded places for undergraduate entry in 2012. Of particular benefit are those STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects seen as strategically important by the UK government. Therefore, the School of Physics and Astronomy is pleased to announce acceptance of late UCAS applications from those candidates expected to achieve our entrance requirements.

Those current applicants who have already applied through the standard UCAS procedure and who have been offered places need not be concerned as these new places are IN ADDITION to those we were expecting to fill.

Applications can be made through Clearing on UCAS after discussions with the Admissions Team.

Course codes (for information)

BSc Physics (F300) and BSc Astrophysics (F511)

MPhys Physics (F303) and MPhys Astrophysics (F510)

BSc Physics with professional placement (F302)

BSc Theoretical and Computational Physics (F340)

BSc Physics with Medical Physics (F350)

Course enquiries can be made to Dr Carole Tucker, Undergraduate Admissions Tutor, via email to Physics-ug@cardiff.ac.uk or call the admissions teams on 029 2087 4144 / 6457.

Good luck!

Teaching (about) Physics

Posted in Education with tags , , , on June 10, 2012 by telescoper

So the academic year nears its end. This week we have the dreaded meetings of the Examination Boards, complete with External Examiners, ordeal by viva voce for selected students, and finally the lists go up announcing success (or otherwise) for this year’s finalists. It’s all a lot of work – and I’m sure also extremely stressful for the students waiting for their results.

If it’s any consolation for any students reading this post, I can assure you that there’s no lack of stress on this side of the fence either. I always feel a sense of dread opening the packets of examination scripts, and this year was no different. Have I set the exam too hard? Will the marks be a fair reflection of the students’ ability? Have they learned anything at all from the hours I spent droning on? These questions are all the more apt for a third-year class, since these are the papers that really count in determining the final outcome of their course. When the lists go up later this week, one’s delight at the sight of happy (or relieved) faces is always tempered by sadness when things have obviously gone wrong.

Coincidentally, I noticed the other day that a former student from the School of Physics and Astronomy at Cardiff University posted an item on her blog giving her view of her degree. It’s a very frank assessment of her own opinion of the course she took, including a list of her  three favourite courses. None of the ones I lectured are amongst them, by the way, in case you think I’m mentioning it for egocentric reasons. Indeed, I’m pretty confident that I’m one of the lecturers she didn’t like at all!

The main thing is that, for better or worse, our course involves an enormous amount of contact time with academic staff.  In the new fee regime students will pay the same £9K for a science course as they would for the Arts and Humanities:

See, doing a Physics and Astronomy degree, I had about 20 contact hours. With lab time. so in one month I had out stripped the BA people for an entire academic year. So in the 12 weeks of one semester, I have had more contact time than they will get in their entire degree. Worth it?

As for whether we make the best use of the time we devote to teaching, that’s a different matter. We have in fact recently overhauled the entire curriculum so we’ll see whether that has the desired effect. One can’t please all of the people all of the time, so we’ve tried to introduce new teaching methods – e.g. fewer lectures, more problems classes – to try to engage better with more students. Only time will tell whether it works.

Anyway, although it’s not one of the topics of her post, Harriet’s blog brought something from the back of my mind where it usually lurks ready to trouble me when I start to think about teaching physics. The point is that most of us involved in teaching physics at University level think that what we should be doing is training people to be professional physicists. That means teaching them to do physics the way it is actually done by people who do research. That means that, especially in Astronomy, students have to grapple with strange unit systems, peculiar terminology and quite a lot of maths. Those aren’t put into our courses in order to torment students – they’re there in the curriculum because they’re there in the world of (astro)physics research. It would be dishonest for us to pretend we were training physicists if we made out that it was all easier than it actually is.

What I mean to say is that I don’t think it should be our job to present physics in a way that’s different from (specifically easier than) the way it is  done at the coalface, in the world of scientific research.  What we should be doing is giving students the skills and confidence to solve the difficult problems a scientist can expect to confront in that situation. To be honest I don’t think we do that particularly well either, but that’s the aim. And that’s why our courses are mainly taught by people who actually do physics and why we claim our teaching is research-led.

That’s an oversimplification, of course. Especially in earlier years, much of the undergraduate curriculum – Newtonian Mechanics, Electromagnetism, Quantum Mechanics, etc  - is not “frontier” stuff so probably doesn’t require an active researcher to teach it. On the other hand, none of that is exactly easy so anyone who is going to teach it competently needs to have mastered it themselves. And in later years, the more specialist material and projects certainly require an active research environment.

Anyway, the point is that  in the new fee regime science courses will attract the same level of funding as courses in, e.g. English Literature. But a course in Physics requires physicists to teach it, while a course in literature does not require a team of successful novelists. Given the fact that the way we teach physics is more expensive by a very large margin, should we be rethinking our approach to the basic physics degree, and leave all the fancy research-led stuff to Masters courses?

Should we really be trying to teach all our students how to do physics? Or should we just be teaching them about physics?

Planck Exclusive!

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on January 25, 2012 by telescoper

I forgot to mention on this blog some important news about the Planck mission which many people here in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University are heavily involved in.

Here is the official announcement from The Planck Science Team home page:

The High Frequency Instrument (HFI) on ESA’s Planck mission has completed its survey of the remnant light from the Big Bang. The sensor ran out of coolant on January 14 2012 as expected, ending its ability to detect this faint energy. Planck was launched in May 2009, and the minimum requirement for success was for the spacecraft to complete two whole surveys of the sky. In the end, Planck worked perfectly for 30 months, about twice the span originally required, and completed five full-sky surveys with both instruments. Able to work at slightly higher temperatures than HFI, the Low Frequency Instrument (LFI) will continue surveying the sky for a large part of 2012, providing even more data to improve the Planck final results.

For more details, see here. Basically, the HFI instrument consists of bolometers contained in a cryogenic system to keep them cool and thus suppress thermal noise in order to enable them to detect the very weak signals coming from the cosmic microwave background radiation. The helium required to maintain the low temperature is gradually lost as Planck operates, and has now run out. The HFI bolometers consequently warmed up, which makes them useless for cosmological work, so the instrument has been switched off. I’m sure you all understand how uncomfortable it is when your bolometers get too hot…

You can find a host of public information about Planck here but the scientific work is under strict embargo until early next year. However, as a Telescoper exclusive I am able to offer you a sneak preview of the top secret Planck data well in advance of official release. If you want to see what Planck scientists have been looking at for the last couple of years, just click here.

A Healthy Increase

Posted in Education with tags , , , on August 25, 2011 by telescoper

Up early again this morning, I thought I’d do a quick post because I just remembered that there’s a bit of a loose end I’ve left dangling for a week or so owing to my recent indisposition.

I posted about 10 days ago about my week as “responsible person” for the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University owing to the absence of all the really responsible people on their respective vacations. By sheer coincidence my week in charge spanned the day that A-level results were announced and therefore the period during which we finalised this year’s UCAS admissions process. I had thought this might be quite a stressful time because rather late in the day we were given a significant increase in funded student numbers by the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) which made it necessary for us to enter the clearing system to find the extra students.

As it turned out however the prospective students to whom we’d made offers paid back our confidence in them and a large fraction got the necessary grades. We did go into clearing, but only briefly, to pick up a relatively small number of unattached applicants who matched our criteria. I’m happy to report, therefore, that we’ve got a very healthy intake of 120 students this year, up by about 30 on last year. That’s exactly the increase we had planned for and we can cope with it without making drastic changes, such as increasing the size of tutorial groups, that would remove the personal touch that makes this such a pleasant School to work and, I hope, study in.

The hard work done all year round by admissions teams in University departments tends to be drastically undervalued, so I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Carole Tucker for doing such a great job for the School of Physics & Astronomy, ably supported by Nicola Hunt. Where we’d be without them I don’t know.

Modesty forbids me, of course, from pointing out who was acting Head of School while this all came to fruition, and who therefore really deserves the credit….

The Curious Case of the Twisted Ring

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on July 21, 2011 by telescoper

Just time for a quickie this morning, prompted by the appearance of our own Professor Matt Griffin on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 earlier on talking about newly published results from the Herschel Space Observatory. I didn’t hear it live as I’m strictly a Radio 3 person, but it must have made a pleasant change from stories about the imminent collapse of the euro and continuing extraordinay revelations about widespread corruption involving the British media, police force and political establishment. Among all this doom and gloom it’s nice to hear news of something that’s actually successful.

Anyway, the news from Herschel is that it has unveiled a ring structure in the centre of our Milky Way galaxy. The ribbon of gas and dust is more than 600 light years across and appears to be twisted, for reasons which have yet to be explained. The origin of the ring could yield important clues about the history of the Milky Way.

Warmer gas and dust from the Centre of our Galaxy is shown in blue in the  image below, while the colder material appears red. The ring, in yellow, is made of gas and dust at a temperature of just 15 degrees above absolute zero. The bright regions are denser, and include some of the most massive and active sites of star formation in our Galaxy.

and here it is with the curious ring drawn on with crayons:

The central region of our Galaxy is dominated by an elongated structure, rather like a bar, which stirs up the material in the outer galaxy as it rotates over millions of years and is probably connected with the spiral structure seen in the disk of the Milky Way. The ring seen by Herschel lies right in the middle of this bar, encircling the region which harbours a super-massive black hole at the centre of our galaxy. The ring of gas is twisted, so we see two loops which appear to meet in the middle. These are seen in yellow in the image above, tilted slightly such that they run from top-left to bottom-right. Secondly, it seems to be slightly offset from the very centre of our Galaxy. The reason for the ring’s twist and offset are unknown, but understanding their origin may help explain the origin of the ring itself. Computer simulations indicate that bars and rings such as those we see in the centre of our Galaxy can be formed by gravitational interactions, either within the Milky Way itself or between it and the nearby Andromeda galaxy, M31.

For the experts, and others interested, the scientific paper containing these results can be found here.

Class of ’11

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , on July 19, 2011 by telescoper

Just a quick note to mark today’s graduation ceremony for students in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University, which took place at 10 o’clock this morning in St David’s Hall. I took part in the staff procession this year – as I have done on several previous occasions – so was there bright and early, all togged up in academic drag, ready for the kick-off. You can see a replay of the whole thing here so I don’t need to describe it in detail; I’m seated towards the left hand side of the stage so am fortunately out of shot for most of the video.

I admit to having had a bit of a hangover this morning because yesterday evening I attended a posh (black tie) graduation dinner at the invitation of the Vice-Chancellor. The splendid dinner was preceded by a drinks reception that lasted a full hour – at which much champagne was quaffed – and then followed by some lengthy and rather uninspiring speeches, during which I sought solace in the form of port. When proceedings were over, a few of us decanted ourselves into a local bar for a bit more to drink. I only realised how much I must have drunk when Columbo woke me up by jumping on my bed at 5am at which point I felt distinctly sub-optimal.

After the graduation ceremony there was a reception for graduates, parents, partners and assorted hangers-on back at the School of Physics & Astronomy followed by the obligatory pictures with the Head of School, Walter Gear, and Director of Undergraduate Studies, Bernard Richardson, including several attempts at the old “mortar-boards-in-the-air” shot…

..of which my attempt with a phone camera came out surprisingly well!

The MPhys students graduating this year are the first such group that I’ve seen go all the way from first year to graduation, as I moved to Cardiff University in 2007.  Graduation is always a bittersweet occasion, with joy  at the students’ success, but also sadness that we have to say goodbye.   Some will be staying to do PhDs and some will remain in Cardiff for a host of other reasons, but there’s a  number of students in this group that I will miss a lot.

 

Loose Ends

Posted in Biographical, Education, Finance with tags , , , , , on April 2, 2011 by telescoper

Just a brief post today, I think, in order to tie up a few loose ends from this week.

For reasons that I really don’t understand my blog suddenly became very popular on Thursday (31st March), attracting nearly 5000 hits in a day. That’s nearly four times my current daily average and a couple of thousand more than my previous busiest day. So this week I had my busiest day, last week was my busiest week, and last month was my busiest month. I guess it’s all downhill from here.

I couldn’t figure out what happened to cause all this interest, as not all the hits were on any specific article and no particular search terms were used to find this blog, at least not that I could figure out. I presume that it was my sarcastic take on Wonders of the Universe that was behind it. At any rate that was the post that generated the deluge of abusive comments that my spam filter caught.

Anyway, other items of relevant news are that two new members of Staff joined the School of Physics & Astronomy yesterday (April 1st; no, seriously…) and there are a couple more expected to join soon. It’s nice to have a few new faces around the place, and I’m sure they’ll all be bringing new ideas about research and teaching to the physics side of the School.

A week or so ago I passed on some pretty disappointing news about the funding climate here in Welsh universities. More details emerged this week about what this means for individual institutions; you can find the full list of allocations here (PDF). The figures don’t tally with those in the newspaper article I referred to in the previous post which was presumably inaccurate.

The picture isn’t as bad as I feared but, with a total cut of about 5% (in cash terms) across the sector it could hardly be described as good, especially when inflation is running about 5% on top of that. My employer, Cardiff University, has done slightly better than average, with a cut of only 3% in cash.

However – and it’s really delightful to be able to pass on some good news for once – the School of Physics & Astronomy has just been awarded a pretty large increase in its quota of undergraduate students. This is excellent, as I’ve previously reported that we have had a huge surge in applications this year. We’ll have to work hard to squeeze the extra bodies into laboratories, tutorials and even lecture theatres, but the income they will generate should help us carry out the strategic plans we have developed, perhaps bringing in even more new members of staff.

I’m still a bit grumpy, though, as our teaching terms has another two weeks to run, while some lucky bastards have finished already and are now on their Easter holidays…


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