Archive for Stephen Fry

A Quite Interesting Approach to Refereeing

Posted in Television with tags , , , , , on January 4, 2012 by telescoper

Last night I was struggling to compose a clue for the latest Azed Crossword competition (No. 2065) so I gave up and switched on the TV. I ended up watching an episode of QI, a popular entertainment programme in the form of a panel game, hosted by Lord Stephen of Fry. The title stands, I think, for Quite Interesting, rather than the active principle found in chinese medicine, which is an extremely useful word to know in Scrabble if you have a Q and no U.

Anyway, one of the features of said television programme is that if guests answer a question not only incorrectly but also in a manner that’s predictable, stale or  hackneyed,  in such a way that it matches a pre-prepared list of such responses, then a claxon sounds and a penalty of ten points is applied. If you want to hear the claxon…

Press Here

These forfeits are so frequently applied that it is by no means uncommon for the winner of the quiz to have a net score which is negative.

Anyway, watching this it occurred to me that it suggests a quite interesting way of livening up the business of refereeing  grant applications, especially since in these difficult times a good outcome of an application to renew a  geant might well be minus two PDRAs!

It’s quite easy to come up with a list of tedious clichés that you’re likely to find in a cosmology application, e.g. “We have now entered an era of precision cosmology…”,  “Generic inflationary scenario”, “inspired by string theory”, “assuming a linear bias”, etc etc. From now on I’m going to press the buzzer every time I read such a phrase and subtract the resulting penalty from the score assigned to the proposal.

However, it would be unfair to apply this idea just to cosmology proposals. In order to make it more generally applicable, perhaps my loyal readers might suggest, through the Comments Box,  similarly worn out, trite or banal terms appropriate to their own specialism?


Nerth gwlad ei gwybodaeth

Posted in Education, Opera, Politics with tags , , , , , , on July 15, 2010 by telescoper

Once again the wheel of academic life has turned full circle. A year to the day since I blogged about the last graduation ceremony for the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University, here I am doing it again. Last night Cardiff experienced some of the heaviest rainfall I’ve seen for ages and I got a bit soggy on the way to St David’s Hall for this morning’s ceremony. Given that today is St Swithin’s Day this doesn’t bode well for the rest of the summer…

I confess it didn’t feel too comfortable sitting there on stage under the lights in a slightly damp suit, wearing a tie, and sporting mortarboard and gown but it went pretty well. Three Schools went through during the ceremony I attended: Earth & Ocean Sciences and Psychology as well as Physics & Astronomy.

We had by far the smallest group of graduands; the School of Psychology is particularly huge and is also notable for having such a small percentage of male graduates. In Physics & Astronomy we have about 20% female students whereas Psychology must be >95%. We often sit around at tea-time discussing how to persuade more girls to study Physics, but I wonder if anyone frets about how to get more boys to do Psychology?

It’s a very proud moment when the students you know receive their degrees. This year, in fact, produced the first set of BSc graduates that have completed their entire study period while I’ve been here since I only arrived three years ago.

It must be a nerve-wracking experience crossing the stage at St David’s Hall in front of your family and friends, especially in high heels as most of the girls did. I would have thought sensible shoes were a wiser option, but then what do I know?

If you want to see the ceremony you can do so by following this link. I’m in the front row on stage, to the right hand side, dressed in a blue gown and mortarboard but not visible on the cross-stage view.

The Honorary Fellowship presented during our ceremony was received by Professor Paul Harris, a distinguished psychologist. It’s worth mentioning that another such event earlier in the week saw the award of an Honorary Fellowship to Stephen Fry who has been involved in studies of bipolar disorder at the University. He tweeted regularly during his short visit to Cardiff, e.g.

Must say Cardiff is looking spankingly good in the late afternoon sunshine. Castle is gleaming, Town Hall glowing. Much to like here.

I’m sure the university press machine will make as much as they can of his comments. And why not? Cardiff does indeed have much to like. Even in the rain.

The ceremony ended on a high note or, in fact, on several.  Mary-Jean O’Doherty, a wonderful young Soprano from the Cardiff International Academy of Voice, gave us a fine rendition of the Queen of the Night’s  Act II aria from Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Die Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen is a tremendously difficult coloratura piece featuring a barrage of stratospheric high notes. I thought it was tremendously brave to take that on, coming into it completely cold, but she did it fantastically well and it fair brought the house down. I note that the opera from which this aria was taken is featured in Welsh National Opera’s forthcoming autumn season, where it is sure to prove popular.

I’m pretty sure not many people in the audience knew the Opera or could understand German, however, because although the music is wonderful the lyrics aren’t entirely appropriate. The first line translates as “The Rage of Hell is boiling in my heart….”. Perhaps that was a subliminal response to the fact that the  Cardiff International Academy of Voice is closing later this year.

Anyway it was then back to the School for a lunch party – which was very nicely done, I think – and a speech of farewell from the Head of School ending with the award of prizes for students who had performed exceptionally well in their studies. I’m fortunate that the prize-winning student of the MPhys (4-year) cohort is staying on in Cardiff to do a PhD under my supervision.

Just in case any of the new graduates are reading this, let me add my congratulations to those of the Head of School and also repeat his encouragement to you to stay in touch. It’s always a delight when former students drop in for a chat, but if you can’t do that please do keep in touch on Facebook or the like.

I know the graduate job market is tough at the moment, but don’t be discouraged if you haven’t got anything sorted out yet. In the long run what you’ve learned will benefit you.  I’m sure I speak on behalf of everyone who has had the pleasure of teaching you over the last three or four years when I say that we wish you all the very best in your future careers.

PS. The title of this post in in Welsh. It translates as “A nation’s strength is in its learning”.

Astronomy Look-alikes, No. 20

Posted in Astronomy Lookalikes with tags , on April 9, 2010 by telescoper

I wonder if anyone else has noticed that Gallic cosmologist extraordinaire and doyen of the French division of the Planck consortium, Francois Bouchet, looks a lot like English National Treasure and fount of all wisdom, Stephen Fry? Perhaps they could be related?

Stephen Fry

Francois Bouchet

Stephen Fry was right…

Posted in Biographical with tags , , on February 2, 2010 by telescoper

I’ve recently been reminded of a comment made by Britain’s only remaining National Treasure, Stephen Fry, in the Guardian a while ago.

“I don’t know about you but whenever I read a blog I do not let my eye drop below half the screen in case I accidentally hit the bit where the comments reside. Of all the stinking, sliding, scuttling, weird, entomological creatures that inhabit the floor of the internet those comments on blogs are the most unbearable, almost beyond imagining,”

There’s also a similar piece by David Mitchell that expresses the same sort of view.

Let me say straight away that I’m not referring to the comments posted on this blog recently. I always enjoy reading the threads on here, even if – or perhaps actually because – they fly off at unpredictable tangents from the main point of the original item. I would never have imagined that Bob Kirshner’s guest post would have led to an in-depth discussion of lavatory seats, for example. I disagree with quite a lot of the opinions expressed, but it’s actually quite nice to give people the opportunity to get something off their chest, as long as they remain civilised – which they usually do.

So please keep commenting on here, and please don’t be scared to look at the comments either. Some of them may indeed be weird, but they’re not going to disturb your piece of mind. Stephen Fry and David Mitchell were referring   to the sort of stuff you often see on higher-profile sites, especially newspapers, where the online comments are filled with  drivel so moronic that it’s actually depressing to think that there are people lurking out there capable of writing it. These guys (Mitchell and Fry) are in the public eye and so they attract a great deal of comment themselves, much of it staggering in its inanity and abusiveness.

One might have expected a bit better from the readership of the Times Higher, an organ which I thought was read by academics and university-based professionals who presumably must have received some sort of education themselves before gaining employment that involves attempting to educate others. However, the comments following the piece I blogged about recently contains, as well as  some sensible reactions (both for and against my actions),  a few that are just puerile and others that barely conceal the writer’s bigotry. Clearly not everyone who works in a university is either articulate or rational. But then I knew that already.

One particular commenter, the presumably pseudonymous John Fitzpatrick, states

As for Coles, what an effete and bitchy little man he has exposed himself as. How he can face his students and colleagues after that is simply amazing.

Amazing it may be, but I certainly can and do face my students and colleagues, although I usually refrain from exposing myself. I’m sure they don’t all agree with what I did, but my conscience is clear. I don’t have the luxury of anonymity anyway.

The Times Higher asked me to contact them if I felt any of the comments were defamatory or abusive so they could remove them, but I replied to say I thought it was better to leave them all there whatever they said. In their own way, they speak  eloquently  for the very point of view they are trying to oppose…