Archive for School of Physics & Astronomy

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…


A Tale of Two Balls

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , on March 26, 2011 by telescoper

This morning was definitely the one after the night before, as Friday was the occasion of the Annual Chaos Society Physics Ball. The Chaos Society organises a number of social events for both staff and students from the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University. This year’s ball was nearly a whole month earlier than last year’s, because we’re not having a term break before Easter this year as Easter is so late. There’s still another three weeks of teaching, in fact, whereas in most years we would stop now and resume after Easter.

Anyway, the do last night started off with a champagne reception at the Parc Thistle Hotel in central Cardiff, followed by dinner and dancing in the function room there. There was a fine band playing a sort of funky soul jazz mix at the start and end of dinner. There were a bit loud to make conversation possible at the beginning, but once the food arrived they took a break and resumed when coffee was served. Instead of attempting to make ourselves heard over the music, I decided to try to set the ball rolling by getting up and dancing with a lady called Tanys, who was a guest of the Head of School Walter Gear. Nobody else joined us, but it was fun anyway.

We then went “informal” so to speak. The DJ got going, but I didn’t reckon much to the music so went and mixed in the bar. Some final-year students celebrating having secured PhD places here and there, so congratulations to them, and there was a beautiful moment when Michael proposed to Matthew. They’re not allowed to be properly married here in the UK, and a proposal of “civil partnership” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, but it was one of the highlights of the evening. Matthew accepted, of course.

After that we adjourned to a boutique nightclub called Crystal, an exotic place with peculiar soft furnishings and a bevy of bare chested muscle men in attendance. Around 3am I was poured into a taxi and got home quarter of an hour or so later, reasonably intact. Bad hangover this morning, though.

I’d like to add my personal thanks to the organisers of what was a hugely enjoyable evening, the Chaos Society generally and especially Natasha who did sterling work persuading so many people to come along. This was the third of these bashes I’ve been to, and it was definitely the best.

I’ve worked in a number of universities so far in my career as a jobbing astrophysicist, but the students at Cardiff are by far the friendliest and the most fun of all the groups I’ve had the pleasure to teach. And, yes, it does mean an awful lot to me when people tell me to my face that they enjoy my lectures. Even if they are drunk when they do so!

Anyway, some pictures are floating around on facebook. Here’s a couple, and I may add some more as they emerge from various cameras and phones. Of course it must be some kind of optical defect that makes me look so old in these, or perhaps it’s just because I’m surrounded by people less than half my age?

You’ll notice that I got the old white DJ out. Strictly speaking, UK tradition dictates that these should only be worn when abroad but I like wearing one when the weather is nice as it was yesterday whether it’s consistent with etiquette or not. There were plenty more serious breaches going on last night anyway, chiefly involving gentlemen removing their jackets at the dining table which is extremely poor manners.

You’re probably wondering what the second ball  refers to in the title of this post. Well, it’s just to remark that today in Cardiff  Wales played England at Football  (the “Association” variety, with a round ball, which I believe in some backward countries is called “soccer”). It was good to have an excuse for avoiding the city centre, and I was in a sufficiently vegetative state not to venture out of the house at all until the match was over. England beat Wales comfortably, 2-0.

UPDATE: Here’s a few more pictures, starting with one of me and the lovely Matthew. Well, at least one of us is photogenic…

These two were snapped at the club later on…

Here’s a couple more, one of me and the gorgeous Flo…

..and one last one, which I suspect was taken very late in the proceedings


Harriet Presents…

Posted in Education with tags , on February 18, 2011 by telescoper

Now here’s a short video called a (presented by the legendary Harriet Parfitt) explaining the joys of studying  in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University. It’s somewhat spoiled by the appearance of yours truly (filmed during a recent first-year  Astrophysical Concepts lecture) but apart from that it’s really rather good!


Announcement of Opportunities

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on June 16, 2010 by telescoper

I mentioned this a while ago, but I thought it wouldn’t do any harm to repeat the official advertisement here. Cardiff is going large (or at least larger) in experimental physics, and the first deadline is approaching.. get cracking with your applications now!

Chair in Experimental Physics

Reader/Senior Lecturer/Lecturer in Experimental Physics

School of Physics and Astronomy

As the first stage of a major initiative to broaden its research activity the School of Physics and Astronomy at Cardiff University has some immediate vacancies for permanent faculty positions at either full Professor/Reader/Senior Lecturer/Lecturer level in any area of Experimental Physics, other than Astrophysics.

Applications are welcome in fields new to the School as well as those complementary to the existing strengths. Candidates working in interdisciplinary areas with a firm Physics base are also welcomed. You will be expected to have demonstrated an established programme of research, and will also be expected to teach Physics at undergraduate and postgraduate level.

The School of Physics and Astronomy at Cardiff University has strong research groups in Photons & Matter (theory and experimental), Gravitational Physics and Nanophysics, as well as a large Astrophysics programme.

You should have a PhD in Physics, Mathematics or closely-related subject.

A point on the Cardiff Professorial Salary Scale (Chair)
£45155 – £55535 per annum (Reader)
£37839 – £43840 per annum (Senior Lecturer)
£29853 – £35646 per annum (Lecturer)

Further information about the School may be found at

Informal enquiries regarding these positions may be made to Professor Walter Gear, Head of School, email

To work for an employer that values and promotes equality of opportunity, visit telephone + 44 (0) 29 2087 4017 or email for an application form quoting vacancy number 186 for the Chair position and 188 for the Reader/Senior Lecturer/Lecturer position.

Closing date: Friday, 23 July 2010.

Please note vacancies are for one Chair and three Senior Lecturer/Lecturer positions.