Archive for Science

In Praise of Omnibus Science

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on April 16, 2019 by telescoper

I’m taking a few days off at the moment so this morning I had a bit of time to catch up on various things. One news item I stumbled across points out that first-choice applications to study at Maynooth University are the highest ever. Within the overall increase of about 7% there is a growth of 17% in Science subjects, which is very good news for the Department of Theoretical Physics as well as the other Departments in the Faculty of Science and Engineering.

Anyway, this spurred me to comment on what I think is one of the strengths of Maynooth University: the Omnibus Science programme.

Currently, most students doing Science subjects here enter on the Omnibus programme, a four-year science course that involves doing four subjects in the first year, but becoming increasingly specialised thereafter. That’s not unlike the Natural Sciences course I did at Cambridge, except that students at Maynooth can do both Theoretical Physics and Experimental Physics in the first year as separate choices. Other possibilities include Chemistry, Computer Science, Biology, etc.

In Year 1 students do four subjects (one of which is Mathematics). That is narrowed down to three in Year 2 and two in Year 3. In their final year, students can stick with two subjects for a Joint Honours degree, or specialise in one, for Single Honours.

I like this programme because it does not force the students to choose a specialism before they have had a taste of the subject, and that it is flexible enough to accommodate Joint Honours qualifications in, e.g., Theoretical Physics and Mathematics. It also allows us to enrol students onto Physics degrees who have not done Physics as part of the Leaving Certificate.

I think it’s a strength that students take such a broad first year rather than locking themselves into one discipline from the start. Part of the reason is that I went to do my own degree at Cambridge expecting to end up specialising in Chemistry, but enjoyed the physics far more, eventually specialising in Theoretical Physics. I’m sure there were others who went the other way too!

One problem with the Omnibus Science programme is that the range of possible final qualifications is perhaps not as clearly advertised as it could be, so some clearer signposting would do no harm.


Sustainability and Irish Science

Posted in Politics, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on December 19, 2018 by telescoper

There’s an interesting news item in the Education section of the Irish times about the appointment of Prof Séamus Davis to positions at both the University of Oxford and University College Cork, under a Science Foundation Ireland scheme intended to capitalize on Brexit (and the imminent loss of EU funding it implies) and the unhappy situation for science in the USA. This is the first appointment to one of the new Research Professorships, which allow the holders to be paid up to €250K.

While I support any investment in Irish science, and wish Prof. Davis every success in his new role, my reaction to the SFI scheme is very similar to my view of the Sêr Cymru (“Star Wales”) project which began a few years ago when I was working in Cardiff, with the aim of attracting `research leaders’ to Wales.

I am very skeptical about the likely success of `top-down’ moves like this. What Ireland really needs (and currently does not have) is a sustainable research base, so at very least I’d like to complementary  `bottom-up’ projects nurturing  researchers at PhD and PDRA level, perhaps through a greatly expanded system of national fellowships.  The trouble in Ireland is that there are so few opportunities for early career researchers that many have to go abroad to further their careers. There’s nothing wrong with Irish researchers choosing to work in another country, of course, but in an ideal world they would choose rather than be forced to do so by lack of opportunity and their loss would be offset by a other nationals choosing to come into Ireland. Unless this problem is fixed Ireland might end up with some leaders but nobody around to follow them.

The question I ask myself is, if one had to choose, what would be better in the long run for Irish science, one Professor on a salary of €250,000 or eight new postdoctoral fellowships (at roughly the same cost)?

Of course the idea of bringing in `research leaders’ is that they will manage to bring in funds from elsewhere, especially the European Union. This may indeed happen and indeed some may already have money in the bag when they move in. The problem with the strategy, though,  is that it’s not very easy to persuade such leaders to leave their current institutions, especially in experimental sciences, if they’ve already spend years acquiring the funding needed to equip their laboratories. This is not just a question of moving people, which is relatively easy, but can involve trying to replace lots of expensive and delicate equipment. The financial inducements needed to fund the relocation of a major research group and fight off counter-offers from its present host are likely to be so expensive that the benefit gained from doing this takes years to accrue, even they succeed. And EU grants are exceptionally competitive..

It’s a big shame that Ireland does not take research funding as seriously as it should, especially in fundamental science. Brexit could well turn out to be very damaging for the Irish economy, but science is one area where in which there are enormous opportunities if only there was the political will to seize them.



Fourier, Hamilton and Ptolemy

Posted in History, Poetry, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on December 17, 2018 by telescoper

As we stagger into the last week of term I find myself with just two lectures to give in my second-year module on Vector Calculus and Fourier Series. I didn’t want to present the two topics mentioned in the title as disconnected, so I linked them in a lecture in which I used the divergence theorem of vector calculus to derive the heat equation, the solution of which led Joseph Fourier to devise his series in Mémoire sur la propagation de la chaleur dans les corps solides (1807), a truly remarkable work for its time that inspired so many subsequent developments.

Fourier’s work was so influential and widely admired that it inspired a famous Irish mathematician William Rowan Hamilton to write the following poem:

Hamilton-for Fourier

The serious thing that strikes me is not the quality of the verse, but how many scientists of the 19th Century, Hamilton included, saw their scientific interrogation of Nature as a manifestation of the human condition just as the romantic poets saw their artistic contemplation and how many poets of the time were also interested in science.

Anyway I was looking for nice demonstrations of Fourier series to help my class get to grips with them when I remembered this little video recommended to me some time ago by esteemed Professor George Ellis. It’s a nice illustration of the principles of Fourier series, by which any periodic function can be decomposed into a series of sine and cosine functions.

This reminds me of a point I’ve made a few times in popular talks about Astronomy. It’s a common view that Kepler’s laws of planetary motion according to which which the planets move in elliptical motion around the Sun, is a completely different formulation from the previous Ptolemaic system which involved epicycles and deferents and which is generally held to have been much more complicated.

The video demonstrates however that epicycles and deferents can be viewed as the elements used in the construction of a Fourier series. Since elliptical orbits are periodic, it is perfectly valid to present them in the form a Fourier series. Therefore, in a sense, there’s nothing so very wrong with epicycles. I admit, however, that a closed-form expression for such an orbit is considerably more compact and elegant than a Fourier representation, and also encapsulates a deeper level of physical understanding.

The Strumia Affair

Posted in Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on October 3, 2018 by telescoper

I’m very late to this story as it broke over the weekend when I was preoccupied with many things, but it has triggered quite a reaction in the media (including here in Ireland). The story involves a physicist by the name of Alessandro Strumia who works at the University of Pisa in Italy. This person used the opportunity provided by a Conference on Theory and Gender to deliver a talk that contained highly inflammatory comments about gender and physics ability.

As a service to the community I’ve uploaded the slides for Strumia’s talk to Slideshare so you can read them here if you’re interested in his argument:

There are detailed discussions of Strumia’s talk by fellow bloggers Philip Moriarty here and Jon Butterworth here. Between them they cover most of what I’d say on the topic if I had time so I’ll direct you to them rather than repeat the arguments here. There are a host of other reaction pieces elsewhere, and I won’t attempt to summarize them either. Suffice to say that the old argument that `women are intrinsically not as good at physics as men’ has been refuted many times using solid empirical evidence; see the above post by Philip. It’s no wonder, though, that women get put off doing physics, when there are people like Alessandro Strumia in the field and potentially responsible for evaluating the performance of female staff.

What I will do add is that, for someone who purports to be a scientist, Strumia’s use of evidence is shockingly unscientific. His argument is riddled with non sequitur, unjustified assumptions and formulaic prejudice. Apart from everything else I think this is symptomatic of a malaise that is a widespread affliction in the field theoretical physics nowadays, which is worst among string theorists (which Strumia is not), namely a lack of basic understanding of, or even interest in, the proper application of scientific method.

Breakthrough Prize for Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on September 6, 2018 by telescoper

I awoke this morning to find my Twitter feed full of news about the award of a special Breakthrough Prize to Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell. To quote the press release:

The Selection Committee of the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics today announced a Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics recognizing the British astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell for her discovery of pulsars – a detection first announced in February 1968 – and her inspiring scientific leadership over the last five decades.

Bell Burnell receives the Prize “for fundamental contributions to the discovery of pulsars, and a lifetime of inspiring leadership in the scientific community.” Pulsars are a highly magnetized, rapidly spinning form of the super-dense stars known as neutron stars. Their discovery was one of the biggest surprises in the history of astronomy, transforming neutron stars from science fiction to reality in a most dramatic way. Among many later consequences, it led to several powerful tests of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, and to a new understanding of the origin of the heavy elements in the universe.

For the full citation and background information, see here.

The prize is not only prestigious but also substantial in cash terms: $3M no less. Jocelyn has made it clear however that she intends to use the money to set up a fund to encourage greater diversity in physics, through the Institute of Physics. That is a wonderful gesture, but if you know Jocelyn at all then you will not be at all surprised by it, as she is a person of enormous integrity who has for many years demonstrated a huge commitment to the cause of increasing diversity. I look forward to hearing more about how this initiative works out.

In an interview with the Guardian, Jocelyn said “Increasing the diversity in physics could lead to all sorts of good things.” I agree, and not just because an open and inclusive environment is a good thing in itself (which it is) but also because the fewer barriers there are to entry for a particular field, the broader the pool of talent from which it can recruit.

P.S. What would you do if you won a prize of $3M?

P. P. S. If I had $3M to spend, I think I’d spend it on whatever would most annoy all the miserable twerps complaining on Twitter about what Jocelyn Bell Burnell is doing with her Breakthrough Prize money.

Blog Endings

Posted in Biographical with tags , , on August 1, 2018 by telescoper

I was surprised and disappointed to learn via Twitter that the Guardian is to shut down its science blog network.

I have no idea why the powers that be at the Grauniad took this decision and I’m not sure any of the blog authors know why, either. Does anyone out there know the reason?

Whatever the grounds it’s a shame, because the various blogs on the network have generated a lot of interesting posts and related discussion over the years.

I toyed with the idea of applying to join the Guardian Science Blog Network way back in the summer of 2012, but nothing came of it so I just carried on here. The one real attraction of doing a Guardian blog was that I would have made a bit of money out of blogging, but the downside would probably have been feeling obliged to concentrate on science topics rather than whatever random stuff comes into my mind, which is what I do now. Anyway, whatever the reason I don’t regret keeping In The Dark going as an independent blog even if I have never made a penny out of it.

Next month (September 2018) will see the tenth anniversary of the first post on In The Dark. They say that all good things come to an end, on which basis this blog should probably carry on forever, but maybe a decade is long enough. On the hand it’s become a habit now, and I’m not sure I could stop even if I wanted to!

Metrics for `Academic Reputation’

Posted in Bad Statistics, Science Politics with tags , , , on April 9, 2018 by telescoper

This weekend I came across a provocative paper on the arXiv with the title Measuring the academic reputation through citation records via PageRank. Here is the abstract:

The objective assessment of the prestige of an academic institution is a difficult and hotly debated task. In the last few years, different types of University Rankings have been proposed to quantify the excellence of different research institutions in the world. Albeit met with criticism in some cases, the relevance of university rankings is being increasingly acknowledged: indeed, rankings are having a major impact on the design of research policies, both at the institutional and governmental level. Yet, the debate on what rankings are  exactly measuring is enduring. Here, we address the issue by measuring a quantitative and reliable proxy of the academic reputation of a given institution and by evaluating its correlation with different university rankings. Specifically, we study citation patterns among universities in five different Web of Science Subject Categories and use the PageRank algorithm on the five resulting citation networks. The rationale behind our work is that scientific citations are driven by the reputation of the reference so that the PageRank algorithm is expected to yield a rank which reflects the reputation of an academic institution in a specific field. Our results allow to quantifying the prestige of a set of institutions in a certain research field based only on hard bibliometric data. Given the volume of the data analysed, our findings are statistically robust and less prone to bias, at odds with ad hoc surveys often employed by ranking bodies in order to attain similar results. Because our findings are found to correlate extremely well with the ARWU Subject rankings, the approach we propose in our paper may open the door to new, Academic Ranking methodologies that go beyond current methods by reconciling the qualitative evaluation of Academic Prestige with its quantitative measurements via publication impact.

(The link to the description of the PageRank algorithm was added by me; I also corrected a few spelling mistakes in the abstract). You can find the full paper here (PDF).

For what it’s worth, I think the paper contains some interesting ideas (e.g. treating citations as a `tree’ rather than a simple `list’) but the authors make some assumptions that I find deeply questionable (e.g. that being cited among a short reference listed is somehow of higher value than in a long list). The danger is that using such information in a metric could form an incentive to further bad behaviour (such as citation cartels).

I have blogged quite a few times about the uses and abuses of citations (see tag here) , and I won’t rehearse these arguments here. I will say, however, that I do agree with the idea of sharing citations among the authors of the paper rather than giving each and every author credit for the total. Many astronomers disagree with this point of view, but surely it is perverse to argue that the 100th author of a paper with 51 citations deserves more credit than the sole author of paper with 49?

Above all, though, the problem with constructing a metric for `Academic Reputation’ is that the concept is so difficult to define in the first place…