Archive for University of Sussex

Thirty Years as a Doctor!

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on July 11, 2019 by telescoper

A chance discovery while rummaging around in my filing cabinet reminded me that today is the anniversary of a momentous event. What I found was this:

It’s the programme of the summer Graduation Ceremony in 1989 at which I formally received my DPhil (Doctor of Philosophy). As you will see that was precisely thirty years ago today!

I actually submitted my thesis the previous summer (either at the end of August or start of September 1988) but had to wait a few months for the examination, which I think was in December.  By the time I had done my corrections (mainly typographical errors) the next available date for the degree to be formally conferred was in July 1989 so that’s when I officially got doctored. I was actually still in Brighton at the time, as had started work as a postdoctoral researcher soon after I had submitted my thesis.

Here’s my thesis:

In those days they actually printed the thesis title in the programme, alongside the graduand’s name in the case of DPhil degrees.

It’s normal practice for people to assume the title of Doctor as soon as they have passed the viva voce examination but although I’ve never objected to that,  I’ve always been a bit unsure of the legality. Probably one doesn’t actually have a doctorate until it is conferred (either at a ceremony or in absentia).

Anyway, here is a picture of me (aged 26!)  emerging from the Brighton Centre wearing the old-style Sussex doctoral gown just after I received my DPhil:

Graduation

Unfortunately the University of Sussex decided a while ago to change the style of its academic dress recently to something a bit more conventional and as far as I know it’s not possible to obtain the old-style gowns any more. They also changed the title DPhil to PhD because it confused potential students, especially those not from the UK.

My first degree came from Cambridge so I had to participate in an even more archaic ceremony for that institution. The whole thing is done in Latin there (or was when I graduated) and involves each graduand holding a finger held out by their College’s Praelector and then kneeling down in front of the presiding dignitary, who is either the Vice-Chancellor ot the Chancellor. I can’t remember which. It’s also worth mentioning that although I did Natural Sciences (specialising in Theoretical Physics), the degree I got was Bachelor of Arts. Other than that, and the fact that the graduands had to walk to the Senate House from their College through the streets of Cambridge,  I don’t remember much about the actual ceremony.

I was very nervous for that first graduation. The reason was that my parents had divorced some years before and my Mum had re-married. My Dad wouldn’t speak to her or her second husband. Immediately after the ceremony there was a garden party at my college, Magdalene, at which the two parts of my family occupied positions at opposite corners of the lawn and I scuttled between them trying to keep everyone happy. It was like that for the rest of the day and I have to say it was very stressful. A few years later I got my doctorate from the University of Sussex, at the Brighton Centre on the seafront. It was pretty much the same deal again with the warring family factions, but I enjoyed the whole day a lot more that time. And I got to wear the funny gown.

The Signs of Age

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on October 23, 2018 by telescoper

I was feeling very tired yesterday evening and in my vegetative state I suddenly realised that last month I missed a significant personal anniversary. In September 1988, now over thirty years ago I submitted my DPhil thesis at the University of Sussex. Here it is..

It was to be another couple of months until I had my viva (an experience I’d definitely rather forget) so I didn’t get to receive the postgraduate degree formally until the following summer, but at least I finished and submitted within the three years my funding allowed. Incidentally, mine was one of the first generation of theses at the University of Sussex to be typeset in LaTeX. At least I avoided the hassle of having carbon copies made!

The field of cosmology has changed so much in the three intervening decades that I’m sure current graduate students would find my thesis as incredibly simple-minded as I do. There weren’t any measurements of CMB temperature patterns in those days (the COBE results were not announced not until 1992) so I had to generate simulated observations, for example. Still, a few of the things in my thesis have stood the test of time, in the form of papers that still get cited to this day. I was lucky that my research  was in an area that was about to take off, rather than one that was already in decline, and that there will still problems around that were easy enough for me to tackle!

The way of working was very different too: the fact that my generation didn’t have computers on our desks makes younger graduate students wonder how we managed to do anything at all! I still amuse my colleagues with my habit of writing out bits of code in longhand on paper  and `desk-checking’ them before typing them in.

The fact that I now have over 30 years’ postdoctoral experience definitely adds to the feeling of getting very old, along with the all-pervading fatigue, the random aches and pains that afflict me from time to time, failing eyesight, and the tendency of Facebook to send me advertisements about stairlifts, hearing aids, and (worst of all) golf equipment.

The start of University term in late September brings with it a new intake of students that always looks even  younger than the last. That produces a strange alternation of feelings. On the one hand, working in a University means that you’re always surrounded by bright young students which is a good thing when you’re getting on a bit in that it reminds you that you were once like that. On the other, the proliferation of young persons around does force you to face up to how old you actually are.

I remember some years ago I was teaching a module on astrophysics as part of which I did a lecture on supernovae. In the middle of that I said to my class: “of course, you will all remember SN 1987A” (which was detected while I was a PhD student). Blank faces. I then realized that none of them had even been born in 1987. Nowadays it is the case that I was already a Professor when all my undergraduate students were born.

But these signs of age are as nothing compared to the shock I underwent when a few months ago I discovered that I’m older than Nigel Farage.

A Rambling Post

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth with tags , , , , on March 15, 2018 by telescoper

Thursdays are busy days for me, starting with a 9am lecture on Computational Physics in Physics Hall, followed in the afternoon by a two-hour laboratory session on the same subject. Today we did exercises on root-finding and numerical integration, but didn’t get through as many examples as I had hoped. In between I had a number of jobs to do, including a lunchtime meeting off campus with my landlord to pay the rent (which he collects in person). I was a bit late back for the lab and, after apologizing, complained that I was too old for all this running around. One of the students kindly said that `age is only a number’. I replied `I know, but unfortunately in my case it’s a rather large one..’

I now have a bit of a break from teaching in Maynooth. There is no teaching next week as it is `Study Week’ and Monday 19th March is a public holiday (for St Patrick’s Day, 17th March, which this year falls on a Saturday). Study week is followed by a week’s holiday because of Easter. Teaching resumes here on Tuesday April 3rd. Somewhat surprisingly the Easter break here is shorter than in the UK.

The four-week batch of strikes in UK universities over pensions in which I have been participating ends tomorrow, which means that I will be lecturing in Cardiff again next Tuesday (20th March). This lecture will be Lecture 8 of 11, with lectures 5, 6 and 7 missing in action (industrial action, to be precise). Cardiff students are then on vacation for three weeks for the Easter break, with lectures resuming on 16th April. All of this means that for the next three weeks I won’t have to do the mid-week trip from Cardiff to Maynooth (which I am beginning to find rather tedious). I plan to stay all next week in Wales and return to Ireland the following week, as I have been invited to give a seminar then at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (which I have never visited before).

Anyway, all that rambling just serves to illustrate that it’s a complicated business being in a superposition of jobs. I’m looking forward to the summer, when my wavefunction will collapse onto Ireland (if I haven’t collapsed from exhaustion before that).

To end on a very sad note, I heard today that Emeritus Professor David Bailin passed away yesterday. I knew David from both times I was at Sussex (as a graduate student and postdoc in the 1980s, and as Head of School of Mathematical and Physical  Sciences from 2013 to 2016). He was a very fine theoretical physicist and a very nice man who was held in a very high regard by all who worked with him. Condolences to his family, friends and colleagues.

The Future is Unpredictable

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Maynooth with tags , , on January 31, 2018 by telescoper

I decided to take the early morning flight from Cardiff to Dublin today as I have quite a few things to prepare before my first lecture at Maynooth, which is at 9am. I actually got up at 4am and took the 5.10am bus to the airport so that I would arrive in time to have a coffee and a bacon sandwich before the 6.55am flight. Everything went to plan apart from the inclement weather, which resulted in me getting soaked on the way to the bus stop. The plane struggled against a strong headwind, taking 70 minutes to get to Dublin instead of the usual 40, and there was quite a lot of turbulence en route but we arrived on time in Dublin in time for my bus to Maynooth. It was freezing cold this morning, and as I arrived in Maynooth it started snowing but has now stopped.

While waiting in the airport I checked Facebook, which reminded me that it was exactly five years ago today that I left Cardiff to take up the job of Head of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex. One of my last acts was to sign the work of art I left on the whiteboard in my old office.

The initial term of my appointment at the University of Sussex was 5 years, which would have been finishing today had I stayed there. If somebody had told me then that within five years I would have left Sussex, returned to Cardiff temporarily, and be about to move permanently to Ireland it would have seemed most implausible. More importantly, way back then I had no plans to grow a beard!

It just goes to show that Niels Bohr was right when he stated that `Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future’….

..on the other hand, when I got back to Maynooth I found that my new Public Services Card had arrived, which seems to make a definite prediction of the date of my ultimate demise:

Hic Sunt Leones

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on November 15, 2017 by telescoper

Just time for a very quick post, as today I travelled to Brighton to attend an inaugural lecture by Professor Antonella De Santo at the University of Sussex.

Antonella was the first female Professor of Physics at the University of Sussex and I’m glad to say she was promoted to a Chair during my watch as Head of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences, at Sussex. That was about four years ago, so it has taken a while to arrange her inaugural lecture, but it was worth the wait to be able to celebrate Antonella’s many achievements.

The lecture was about the search for physics beyond the standard model using the ATLAS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider, with a focus on supersymmetry and possibly candidates for dark matter. It was a very nice lecture that told a complex story through pictures and avoiding any difficult mathematics, followed by a drinks reception during which I got to have a gossip with some former colleagues.

The title, by the way, stems from the practice among mediaeval cartographers of marking terra incognita with `Here be lions’ or `Here be dragons‘. I hasten to add that no lions were harmed during the talk.

Anyway, it was nice to have an excuse to visit Brighton again. The last time I was here was over a year ago. It was nice to see some familiar faces, especially in the inestimable Miss Lemon, with whom I enjoyed a very nice curry after the talk!

Now for a sleep and the long journey back to Cardiff tomorrow morning!

R.I.P Leon Mestel (1927-2017)

Posted in Biographical with tags , , on September 18, 2017 by telescoper

Leon Mestel FRS, photographed by Lucinda Douglas-Menzies

I heard this weekend the very sad news that on Friday 15th September 2017, we lost one of our great astrophysicists. Professor Leon Mestel FRS, pictured abvove, passsed away, peacefully in his sleep, at Addenbrooke’s Hospital. He was 90 years old.

Leon Mestel was a scientist of the highest distinction. Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1977, his research interests were very broad, encompassing, but not restricted to, the areas of star formation and structure, especially stellar magnetism and astrophysical magnetohydrodynamics. Among his contributions in other areas were important papers on gravitational collapse and equilibrium in the context of galaxy dynamics, of which the classic `Mestel Disk’ is just one example. He has been awarded both the Eddington Medal (1993) and the Gold Medal (2002) of the Royal Astronomical Society. He had great physical insight which was backed up with prodigious mathematical skill and an encyclopedic knowledge of astrophysics. He also had great powers of concentration and the determination to tackle the kind of extremely challenging problems that scared off lesser intellects. Leon  was an ‘old school’ theoretical astrophysicist who was held in very high regard across the astrophysics community, and he will be greatly missed.

Others more expert than me will be able to pay proper tribute to his scientific work, so I’ll restrict myself here to a few personal reminiscences.

Leon Mestel was Professor in the Astronomy Centre at the University of Sussex when I joined it to start my DPhil in 1985. We new postgraduate research research students were required to take four courses on various aspects of astronomy, and pass oral examinations on them, before being allowed to progress beyond the first year. One of these courses was a course on Stellar Structure, taught by Leon Mestel. His lectures were pretty intense – and, I have to say, not made any easier to understand by his truly terrible handwriting on the blackboard! – but I learned a huge amount from them. I still have the lecture notes I took, in fact.

I had a root around in my old files this morning and found this evidence that I once knew something about stars!


All of us found Leon very scary to start with. He was intellectually quite intimidating and seemed to be a rather fierce and irascible character. That opinion changed when, a few weeks into term, he invited us to his house in Lewes for a social evening. We were all a bit nervous on the way there, unsure of what to expect, but as it turns out Leon was a marvellously entertaining and avuncular host. He had a wicked sense of humour and a seemingly inexhaustible stream of jokes, across a spectrum from groan-worthy puns to very risqué stories, including a  liberal measure of archetypal Jewish humour.  Leon’s father was a Rabbi, actually.  That evening broke the ice and we all realised that the was one of the good guys. That he came across as grumpy sometimes was because he was concentrating very hard, but it was rather easy to make him laugh and bring that twinkle to his eye that we will all remember.

His sharp brain and very broad knowledge meant that Leon could spot bullshit at a  considerable distance and, while he often seemed to be snoozing through  our weekly seminar,  he invariably woke up at the end and asked a penetrating question. Since one of his main interests was the role of magnetic fields in astrophysics, a subject that sends many astrophysicists screaming from the room, he would often choose something about magnetism as a question. When I was there his main focus was on the fiendishly difficult problem of building a self-consistent model of the pulsar magnetosphere. He was, however, genuinely interested in all branches of astrophysics and always recognised good work when he saw it, especially from younger scientists.

During my time as a PhD student I had some problems that required me to take quite a lot of time off. Leon was extremely kind and supportive during this period, and he even bent the rules a bit to avoid putting me through the formal process of interrupting my studies. When I was back at work and just about finishing my thesis in 1988 it was Leon who came to see me in person, with a big smile on his face, and offered me a postdoctoral position at Sussex to follow my graduate studies. I nearly fell off my chair with surprise and gratitude.

After I joined the staff later in 1988, it became a bit of a ritual for us to visit the Senior Common Room (which was situated in what is now Bramber House) for lunch, followed by coffee. It turned out that Leon liked to do the Times crossword with his post-lunch coffee. He wasn’t at all averse to a collaborative effort on tricky research problems, and it was thus with crosswords too. We both preferred the Guardian puzzle, actually, but he saved that one for after work and did the Times one because the paper was provided free in the SCR. There was also a Chambers dictionary.

I left Sussex in 1990 and Leon retired in 1992. I didn’t see as much of him after that, except for the occasion when he and my former DPhil supervisor John Barrow organized a meeting in 2004 about Eddington at which I was honoured to be asked to give a talk about the 1919 eclipse expeditions. That was a very nice occasion at which Leon was in sparkling form. Thereafter I saw him occasionally at the RAS Club, but in recent years he didn’t come so often as he found it increasingly difficult to get around.

Leon Mestel was not only a great astrophysicist but also a great character.  I’m so very sorry I can’t attend his funeral (which is being held tomorrow), but I send heartfelt condolences to his family, friends and colleagues.

Rest in Peace Leon Mestel FRS (1917-2017)

 

A Blueprint for a Quantum Computer

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on February 16, 2017 by telescoper

I’m a little bit late blogging about this topic, as it relates to a paper published on 1st February 2017, but it’s a pleasure to be able to draw your attention to an important paper by a group led by a former colleague of mine from the University of Sussex, Prof. Winfried Hensinger, known to his friends as “Winni”. In essence they have constructed a practical way to build a working quantum computer.

Here is the abstract of the latest paper which explains the significance of the work:

The availability of a universal quantum computer may have a fundamental impact on a vast number of research fields and on society as a whole. An increasingly large scientific and industrial community is working toward the realization of such a device. An arbitrarily large quantum computer may best be constructed using a modular approach. We present a blueprint for a trapped ion–based scalable quantum computer module, making it possible to create a scalable quantum computer architecture based on long-wavelength radiation quantum gates. The modules control all operations as stand-alone units, are constructed using silicon microfabrication techniques, and are within reach of current technology. To perform the required quantum computations, the modules make use of long-wavelength radiation–based quantum gate technology. To scale this microwave quantum computer architecture to a large size, we present a fully scalable design that makes use of ion transport between different modules, thereby allowing arbitrarily many modules to be connected to construct a large-scale device. A high error–threshold surface error correction code can be implemented in the proposed architecture to execute fault-tolerant operations. With appropriate adjustments, the proposed modules are also suitable for alternative trapped ion quantum computer architectures, such as schemes using photonic interconnects.

Here’s a short video explaining the setup

This result has generated a lot of good publicity for the group at Sussex, including a piece in the Financial Times and a personal appearance by Winni himself on Sky News.

It’s great to see the  Ion Quantum Technology group continuing to do really well and I’m sure the investments made in physics research at the University of Sussex over the last few years will bring even more exciting developments in the near future!

 

A New Head for the Old School

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

Just a brief post to pass on the news (which I just heard this morning) that the University of Sussex has now formally announced that Professor Philip Harris will be taking over as Head of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex, the position I held until this summer.

I worked a lot with Philip during the time I was at Sussex as he was Head of the Department of Physics & Astronomy for part of that period. I’m sure he’ll do a great job and I wish him – and indeed the whole School – all the very best for the future!

Incidentally, the news item announcing Philip’s appointment contains the following snippet:

Both departments are ranked first in the UK for graduate prospects in the Times and Sunday Times University Guide 2017 (Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education Survey, 2015-16), with 100% of Mathematics BSc students being in work or further study within six months.

I wasn’t aware of this interesting news before today, and I’m sure it will provide a boost to the School’s efforts in the currently rather challenging student recruitment market. Of course Philip Harris can now take credit for anything good that happens to the School, whereas if anything goes wrong he can always blame it on the old Head of School!

 

Three Cheers for Three Chairs!

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on November 2, 2016 by telescoper

Just a quick post to say public congratulations to three of my former colleagues in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Sussex.

My spies tell me that the following have recently been promoted to Professorial positions:

  • Kathy Romer (now Professor of Astrophysics) – Kathy is principal investigator of the XMM Cluster Survey collaboration and is coordinating cluster research for the Dark Energy Survey project.
  • Antony Lewis (now Professor of Cosmology) – Antony works on theoretical models of the early universe, as well as comparing observations with cosmological models, and is part of the core team analysing data from the Planck satellite.
  • Jacob Dunningham (now Professor of Physics)  – Jacob is Head of the Atomic Molecular & Optical (AMO) Physics group at Sussex  and works on quantum mechanical entanglement spans the fields of quantum information, quantum optics, Bose-Einstein condensation, and metrology.

As former  Head of School  I knew these were in the system but I left before the somewhat laborious promotions process was completed, so it’s very nice to receive confirmation that they all went through.

P.S. Extra-special congratulations to Kathy, because she was born on Tyneside (i.e. not in the Midlands).

 

50 Years of the Astronomy Centre at the University of Sussex

Posted in Biographical, Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on October 18, 2016 by telescoper

On Saturday (15th October) I was back in Brighton for the first time since I left my job there at the end of July. The occasion was a very nice lunch party to celebrate 50 years of the Astronomy Centre at the University of Sussex, which started properly in 1966. It was a pleasant occasion, and great to have the chance to catch up with some people I haven’t seen for far too long. I had two stints in the Astronomy Centre: once as a student then postdoc from 1985 to 1990, and the other from 2013 to 2016 when I was Head of the School of which the Astronomy Centre is part. I had a lot more time to do research in the first incarnation than in the second!

Quite a few people present hadn’t realised I was no longer working at Sussex, which led to one or two slightly awkward conversations, but I was thankfully very far from being the centre of attention.

After the lunch itself we had short speeches from various alumni of the Astronomy Centre: esteemed science writer John Gribbbin (who was one of its first MSc students in 1966); Lord Martin Rees (who was briefly a Professor at Sussex, before he returned to Cambridge to take up the Plumian Professorship); John Barrow (who was my supervisor while I was there); Carlos Frenk (who was a postdoctoral researcher when I arrived in September 1985, but who left to take up a lectureship in Durham at the end of that year so we overlapped only for a short time); Andrew Liddle (who arrived near the end of my stay and was there for 22 years altogether, leaving at the end of 2012 to take up a post in Edinburgh); and Peter Thomas (current Director of the Astronomy Centre).

When I arrived in 1985 there were only four permanent faculty in the Astronomy Centre itself – Roger Tayler, Leon Mestel, John Barrow and Robert Smith – but research there was thriving and it was a great environment to work in. I count myself very lucky at having made such a good choice of a place to do my PhD DPhil. Leon and Robert both worked on stellar astrophysics, but after Leon’s retirement the centre increasingly focussed on cosmology and extragalactic astrophysics, which remains the case today. Roger Tayler sadly passed away in 1997, but Leon is still around: he is 89 years old and now lives in Cambridge.

Those present at the lunch were given a booklet featuring around 50 academic papers or other research “highlights”(e.g. the launch of Planck), approximately one for each year of the Astronomy Centre, chosen to be the “best” of that year. Each page was also shown as a slide during the lunch. I was thrilled to see that two of my papers (from 1987 and 1991 respectively) made it into the collection. The second one was published after I’d left Sussex, but I definitely did the work on it and submitted it while an employee of the Astronomy Centre. Andrew Liddle and John Barrow have the largest number of “greatest hits”, but the most famous paper is probably the classic “DEFW” which won Carlos Frenk and his collaborators the Gruber Prize about five years ago.

The book also contains various bits of interesting bibliometric information, such as this, which shows that the variation in the productivity of the Astronomy Centre over time.

us-astronomy-50-powerpoint

Anyway, for those who are interested, the whole collection of slides can be viewed here:

Thanks to Seb Oliver and the rest of the Astronomy Centre for organizing this very enjoyable event – and for sending me the slides! Here’s to the next 50 years of Astronomy at the University of Sussex!