Archive for University of Cambridge

Eddington at the `Del-Squared V Club’

Posted in History, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on May 15, 2019 by telescoper

I’m up to my eyeballs in matters Eddingtonian these days preparing for the big centenary, so I thought I’d share this which I was reminded about this morning. The official results of the 1919 Eclipse Expeditions were announced at a joint meeting of the Royal Society and Royal Astronomical Society on November 6 1919. Members of a certain physics graduate student society at Cambridge, however, were treated to a sneak preview in October of that year, to which the minutes of the 83rd Meeting of the `Del-Squared V Club’ attest:

Arthur Stanley Eddington gave a talk at that meeting, a brief note of which appears on the right-hand page of the minute book shown above. You can see the Newtonian value for the expected deflection of 0.87 seconds at the bottom of the page. There’s also a nice reference to `The Weight of Light’. I had no idea Eddington was a lightweight speaker, but there you are.

I don’t think the Del-Squared V Club exists* any more, so I won’t make the joke that if you want to phone them up you have to go through the operator

*I’m reliably informed that it has been defunct since 1970.

 

R.I.P. James Stirling (1953-2018)

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on November 12, 2018 by telescoper

I’m sorry that this blog is once again the bearer of bad news, but it is my sad duty to pass on the news that distinguished particle physicist James Stirling (pictured above) passed away yesterday at the age of 65.

Professor James Stirling was one of the leading lights of the Institute for Particle Physics Phenomenology in Durham (of which he was the first Director) and subsequently became Jacksonian Professor of Natural Philosophy and Head of the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge. More recently he was Provost of Imperial College, a post from which he stepped down earlier this year. He was elected to a Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1999, and awarded a CBE in the New Years Honours List in 2006.

As well as being an eminent physicist, with over 300 publications to his name including fundamental contributions to the field of hadronic interactions and perturbative QCD, Professor Stirling also gave great service to the research community, by serving on numerous important committees, including the Science Board of the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC).

Not being a particle physicist myself I didn’t know James as a close colleague, but I met him on several occasions during visits to Durham. Most recently, he was the external member of the appointment panel when I was interviewed for the post of Head of School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex. It says a lot for his personality that what I expected to be a fierce grilling when he led the questions on my research, turned out to he a friendly (yet challenging) discussion of some of my publications which he had clearly read extremely carefully.

James Stirling was held in extremely high regard by the scientific community and he’ll be greatly missed.I send my deepest condolences to his family, friends and colleagues.

R.I.P. Professor James Stirling (1953-2018)

R.I.P. John M Stewart (1943-2016)

Posted in Biographical, Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on November 23, 2016 by telescoper

john-stewartI was very sad this morning to hear of the death of distinguished mathematical physicist Dr John M. Stewart (left). Apart from a few years in Munich in the 1970s John Stewart spent most of his working life in Cambridge, having studied there as an undergraduate and postgraduate and then returning from his spell at the Max Planck Institute to the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics for forty years.

John’s research mostly concerned relativistic fluid dynamics. Indeed, he was one of the pioneers of numerical relativity in the United Kingdom, and he applied his knowledge to a number of problems in early Universe cosmology and structure formation. I think it is fair to say that he wasn’t the most prolific researcher in terms of publications, which is perhaps why he only got promoted to Senior Lecturer in 2000 and never made it to a Chair, retiring as Reader in Gravitational Physics in 2010. However, his work was always of a very high technical standard and presented with great clarity and he was held in a very high regard by those who knew him and worked with him.

The tributes paid to John Stewart by King’s College (of which he was a Life Fellow) here and his colleagues in the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology here give a detailed account of his research achievements, so I refer you to them for more information about that aspect of his career.

I just wanted to add a personal note not about John Stewart’s research, but about something else mentioned in the obituaries linked to above: his teaching. I was fortunate enough to have him as a lecturer when I was studying Natural Sciences at Cambridge during the early 1980s. In the second year (Part IB) I specialised in Physics and Mathematics, and John taught part of the Mathematics syllabus. He was an absolutely superb teacher. For a start he was superbly well organized and had clearly thought very deeply about how best to present some quite difficult material. But it wasn’t just that. He projected a very engaging personality, with nice touches of humour, that made him easy to listen. His lectures were also very well paced for taking notes. In fact he was one of the few lecturers I had whose material I didn’t have to transcribe into a neat form from rough notes.

I have kept all the notes from that course for over thirty years. Here are a couple of pages as an example:

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Anyone who has ever seen my handwriting will know that this is about as neat as I ever get!

When I was called upon to teach similar material at Cardiff and Sussex I drew on them heavily, so anyone who has learned anything from me about complex analysis, contour integration, Green’s functions and a host of other things actually owes a huge debt to John Stewart. Anything they didn’t understand was of course my fault, not his..

I also remember that John came to Queen Mary to give a seminar when I worked there in the early 90s as a postdoc. I was still a bit in awe of him because of my experience of him in Cambridge. His talk was about a method for handling the evolution of cosmological matter perturbations based on an approach based on the Hamilton-Jacobi formalism. His visit was timely, as I’d been struggling to understand the papers that had been coming out at the time on this topic. In the bar after his talk I plucked up the courage to explain to him what it was that I was struggling to understand. He saw immediately where I was going wrong and put me right on my misconceptions straight away, plucking a simple illustrative example apparently out of thin air. I was deeply impressed, not only by his ability to identify the issue but also with his friendly and helpful demeanour.

Rest in Peace, Dr John M. Stewart (1943-2016).

To Cambridge Again

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , on June 13, 2016 by telescoper

The annual cycle of academic life brings me once again to my duties as External Examiner for Physics at the famous Midlands University called Cambridge, so I’m getting ready to take the train there. Here’s a picture of the Cavendish laboratory where I’ll be working for the next three days:

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It hasn’t changed much since I was an undergraduate there (I graduated 31 years ago), but the area around it has certainly been heavily developed in the intervening years.

Anyway, I’d better be going. Toodle-pip!

In Praise of Natural Sciences

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , on April 24, 2016 by telescoper

The other day I was chatting with some students in the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Sussex. One thing that came up was the fact that I’m basing the material for my Second Year Theoretical Physics module on the notes I took when I was a second-year undergraduate student at Cambridge over thirty years ago. I mentioned that to counter suggestions that are often made that the physics curriculum has been excessively “dumbed down” over the years. It may have been elsewhere, of course, but not on my watch. In fact, despite the misfortune of having me as a lecturer, many of the students in my class are picking up things far faster than I did when I was their age!

Anyway, that led to a general discussion of the changing nature of university education. One point was that in my day there weren’t any four-year “Integrated Masters” degrees, just plain three-year Bachelors. Teaching was therefore a bit more compressed than it is now, especially at Cambridge with its shorter teaching terms. We teach in two 12-week blocks here at Sussex. Week 11 of the Spring Term is about to start so we’re nearing the finishing line for this academic year and soon the examinations will be upon us.

The other thing that proved an interesting point of discussion was that the degree programme that I took was the Natural Sciences Tripos That meant that I did a very general first year comprising four different elements that could be chosen flexibly. I quickly settled on Physics, Chemistry and  Mathematics for Natural Sciences to reflect my A-level results but was struggling for the fourth. In the end I picked the one that seemed most like Physics, a course called Crystalline Materials. I didn’t like that at all, and wish I’d done some Biology instead – Biology of Cells and Biology of Organisms were both options – or even Geology, but I stuck with it for the first year.

Having to do such a wide range of subjects was very challenging. The timetable was densely packed and the pace was considerable. In the second year, however, I was able to focus on Mathematics and Physics and although it was still intense it was a bit more focussed. I ended up doing Theoretical Physics in my final year, including a theory project.

My best teacher at School, Dr Geoeff Swinden,  was a chemist (he had a doctorate in organic chemistry from Oxford University) and when I went to Cambridge I fully expected to specialise in Chemistry rather tha Physics. I loved the curly arrows and all that. But two things changed. One was that I found the Physics content of the first year far more interesting – and the lecturers and tutors far more inspiring – than Chemistry, and the other was that my considerable ineptitude at practical work made me doubt that I had a future in a chemistry laboratory. And so it came to pass that I switched allegiance to Physics, a decision I am very glad I made. It was only towards the end of my degree that I started to take Astrophysics seriously as a possible specialism, but that’s another story.

As we are now approaching examination season I’ve been dealing with some matters in my role as External Examiner for Natural Sciences (Physics) at Cambridge, a position I have held since last year. It’s certaintly extremely interesting to see things from the other side of the fence, thirty years on since my finals. In particular I was struck last year by how many senior physicists there are at Cambridge who actually came as undergraduates expecting, like I did, to do Chemistry but also then switched. No doubt some moved in the opposite direction too, but the point is that the system not only allowed this but positively encouraged it.

Looking back, I think  there were great educational advantages in delaying  the choice of speciality the way a Natural Sciences degree did. New students usually have very little idea how different the subject is at university compared to A-level, so it seems unfair to lock them into a programme from Year 1. Moreover – and this struck me particularly talking to current students last week – a Natural Sciences programme might well prove a way of addressing the gender imbalance in physics by allowing female students (who might have been put off Physics at school) to gravitate towards it. Only 20% of the students who take Physics A-level are female, and that’s roughly the same mix that we find in the undergraduate population. How many more might opt for Physics after taking a general first year?

Another advantage of this kind of degree is that it gives scientists a good grounding in  a range of subjects. In the long run this could encourage greater levels of interdisciplinary thinking. This is important, since some of the most exciting areas of physics research lie at the interfaces with, e.g. chemistry and biology. Unfortunately, adminstrative structures often create barriers that deter such cross-disciplinary activities.

 

 

Admissions to Degrees

Posted in Biographical with tags , , on June 20, 2015 by telescoper

My trip to Cambridge earlier this week along with talk of other anniversaries made me a bit nostalgic this morning so I dug out the papers I kept about my own graduation.

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It turns out I graduated on Saturday 22nd June 1985. You can see my name on the list of graduands at the top left of this montage.

I don’t remember much about the actual ceremony nor the rest of the day, perhaps because I was hungover from the night before..

On the right you see details of the Graduation Dinner held on Friday 21st June. When that ended, a large crowd went to the Pickerel where I remember singing all the verses of the Blaydon Races although I don’t remember why..

R.I.P. Sir Sam Edwards

Posted in Biographical, Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on May 12, 2015 by telescoper

I’ve only found out this morning that Professor Sir Sam Edwards passed away last week, on 7th May 2015 at the age of 87. Although I didn’t really know him at all on a personal level, I did come across him when I was an undergraduate student at the University of Cambridge in the 1980s, so I thought I would post a brief item to mark his passing and to pay my respects.

Sam Edwards taught a second-year course at Cambridge to Physics students,entitled Analytical Dynamics as a component of Part IB Advanced Physics. It would have been in 1984 that I took it. If memory serves, which is admittedly rather unlikely, this lecture course was optional and intended for those of us who intended to follow theoretical physics Part II, i.e. in the third year.
I have to admit that Sam Edwards was far from the best lecturer I’ve ever had, and I know I’m not alone in that opinion. In fact, not to put too fine a point on it, his lectures were largely incomprehensible and attendance at them fell sharply after the first few. They were, however, based on an excellent set of typewritten notes from which I learned a lot. It wasn’t at all usual for lecturers to hand out printed lecture notes in those days, but I am glad he did. In fact, I still have them now. Here is the first page:

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It’s quite heavy stuff, but enormously useful. I have drawn on a few of the examples contained in his handout for my own lectures on related concepts in theoretical physics, so in a sense my students are gaining some benefit from his legacy.

At the time I was an undergraduate student I didn’t know much about the research interests of the lecturers, but I was fascinated to read in his Guardian obituary how much he contributed to the theoretical development of the field of soft condensed matter, which includes the physics of polymers. In those days – I was at Cambridge from 1982 to 1985 – this was a relatively small part of the activity in the Cavendish laboratory but it has grown substantially over the years.

I feel a bit guilty that I didn’t appreciate more at the time what a distinguished physicist he was, but he undoubtedly played a significant part in the environment at Cambridge that gave me such a good start in my own scientific career and was held in enormously high regard by friends and colleagues at Cambridge and beyond.

Rest in peace, Sir Sam Edwards (1928-2015).