Archive for University of Sussex

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!

 

Rank Nonsense

Posted in Bad Statistics, Education, Politics with tags , , , , , on September 8, 2016 by telescoper

It’s that time of year when international league tables (also known as “World Rankings”)  appear. We’ve already had the QS World University Rankings and the Shanghai (ARWU) World University Rankings. These will soon be joined by the Times Higher World Rankings, due out on 21st September.

A lot of people who should know a lot better give these league tables far too much attention. As far as I’m concerned they are all constructed using extremely suspect methodologies whose main function is to amplify small statistical variations into something that looks significant enough to justify constructing  a narrative about it. The resulting press coverage usually better reflects a preconceived idea in a journalist’s head than any sensible reading of the tables themselves.

A particularly egregious example of this kind of nonsense can be found in this week’s Guardian. The offending article is entitled “UK universities tumble in world rankings amid Brexit concerns”. Now I make no secret of the fact that I voted “Remain” and that I do think BrExit (if it actually happens) will damage UK universities (as well as everything else in the UK). However, linking the changes in the QS rankings to BrExit is evidently ridiculous: all the data were collected before the referendum on 23rd June anyway! In my opinion there are enough good arguments against BrExit without trying to concoct daft ones.

In any case these tables do not come with any estimate of the likely statistical variation from year to year in the metrics used to construct them, which makes changes impossible to interpret. If only the compilers of these tables would put error bars on the results! Interestingly, my former employer, the University of Sussex, has held its place exactly in the QS rankings between 2015 and 2016: it was ranked 187th in the world in both years. However, the actual score corresponding to these two years was 55.6 in 2015 and 48.4 in 2016. Moreover, Cambridge University fell from 3rd to 4th place this year but its score only changed from 98.6 to 97.2. I very much doubt that is significant at all, but it’s mentioned prominently in the subheading of the Guardian piece:

Uncertainty over research funding and immigration rules blamed for decline, as Cambridge slips out of top three for first time.

Actually, looking closer, I find that Cambridge was joint 3rd in 2015 and is 4th this year. Over-interpretation, or what?

To end with, I can’t resist mentioning that the University of Sussex is in the top 150 in the Shanghai Rankings for Natural and Mathematical Sciences this year, having not been in the top 200 last year. This stunning improvement happened while I was Head of School for Mathematical and Physical Sciences so it clearly can not be any kind of statistical fluke but is entirely attributable to excellent leadership. Thank you for your applause.

 

 

Universities must do more to stop violence

Posted in Education, Uncategorized with tags , on August 15, 2016 by telescoper

I’ve thought very hard over the last couple of days about whether to comment on the shocking case reported by the Independent last week of a (male) senior lecturer (Dr Lee Salter) at Sussex University who beat up a (female) student with whom he had been having an affair. In the end I decided that I had to comment, as the case raises some very important questions.

I didn’t know anything about this until last week so I have nothing to add to the account of the events and subsequent criminal conviction given in the newspaper and suggest you read the details there. I will restrict my comments to the wider issues.

On Friday 12th August, shortly after the news broke of Lee Salter’s conviction, the University released a statement which I thought raised more questions than it answered. It  subsequently updated the statement to say that Dr Salter was no longer an employee of the University. Whether that means he was dismissed or that he resigned is not clear.

Among the statements made by the University in its press release is the following:

The University does not tolerate violence of any kind. However, in cases involving criminal charges, it is important that such matters are dealt with by the police and the courts, which take precedence over employment procedures. Pending the outcome of the criminal proceedings, the University kept the situation under review and monitored and assessed any risk to its students.

In my role as a Head of School at Sussex (a job I left just a couple of weeks ago), I had to deal with some disciplinary matters  so I’m very familiar with the content of the relevant procedures. In fact I did more of these than you’d probably imagine, though I can’t write about the details because they are bound by confidentiality.

It is indeed the case that if a disciplinary case involves criminal elements then the established practice is to let the courts decide first before continuing with the disciplinary investigation. For one thing, a conviction in a criminal case usually makes the subsequent internal investigation simpler.

Acquittal in a criminal case does not mean dropping the disciplinary, however, as the standard of proof in a criminal case (“beyond reasonable doubt”) is stronger than that of an internal investigation which is that of a civil court (“on the balance of the evidence”). It is quite possible for the latter standard to be met when the former is not. So it was reasonable for the University to wait for the outcome of the criminal trial before proceeding.

However, the University of Sussex’s own disciplinary procedure also states:

“The University will take disciplinary action in accordance with its procedures against anyone who behaves in a violent manner including, should it be necessary, the immediate exclusion of the perpetrator from the campus.

Based on the account given in the Independent I find it difficult to understand why the University did not take this course of action in this case.

Of course a suspect is innocent until proven guilty, but suspension (paid) and exclusion from campus would not, in my view, have been unnecessarily prejudicial given the seriousness of the charges. Salter would not have been able to do teaching, but could have carried on research from home. The University’s failure to take this step is extremely worrying as in my view it gives inadequate consideration to the effect on the victim of the continued presence of the perpetrator.

For the record I should state that I have very good reasons for having zero tolerance to any form of violence, whether committed by staff or students or political protestors or security guards. You can read why here.

I’ve blogged before about the difficulties surrounding confidentiality and other issues disciplinary procedures in the context of sexual harassment. In that piece – which was actually about science departments – I tried to stress the importance of sticking to proper procedure, but I also explained that dealing with such matters after the fact is never going to provide a fully satisfactory remedy. What is needed is to change campus culture to ensure that abusive harassing and violent behaviour doesn’t happen in the first place. But applying procedures properly would at least be a start…

 

 

 

 

The Rising Stars of Sussex Physics

Posted in Bad Statistics, Biographical, Education with tags , , , , on July 28, 2016 by telescoper

This is my penultimate day in the office in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex, and a bit of news has arrived that seems a nice way to round off my stint as Head of School.

It seems that Physics & Astronomy research at the University of Sussex has been ranked as 13th in western Europe and 7th in the UK by leading academic publishers, Nature Research, and has been profiled as one of its top-25 “rising stars” worldwide.

I was tempted to describe this rise as ‘meteoric’ but in my experience meteors generally fall down rather than rise up.

Anyway, as regular readers of this blog will know, I’m generally very sceptical of the value of league tables and there’s no reason to treat this one as qualitatively any different. Here is an explanation of the (rather curious) methodology from the University of Sussex news item:

The Nature Index 2016 Rising Stars supplement identifies the countries and institutions showing the most significant growth in high-quality research publications, using the Nature Index, which tracks the research of more than 8,000 global institutions – described as “players to watch”.

The top 100 most improved institutions in the index between 2012 and 2015 are ranked by the increase in their contribution to 68 high-quality journals. From this top 100, the supplement profiles 25 rising stars – one of which is Sussex – that are already making their mark, and have the potential to shine in coming decades.

The institutions and countries examined have increased their contribution to a selection of top natural science journals — a metric known as weighted fractional count (WFC) — from 2012 to 2015.

Mainly thanks to a quadrupling of its physical sciences score, Sussex reached 351 in the Global 500 in 2015. That represents an 83.9% rise in its contribution to index papers since 2012 — the biggest jump of any UK research organisation in the top 100 most improved institutions.

It’s certainly a strange choice of metric, as it only involves publications in “high quality” journals, presumably selected by Journal Impact Factor or some other arbitrary statistical abominatio,  then taking the difference in this measure between 2012 and 2015  and expressing the change as a percentage. I noticed one institution in the list has improved by over 4600%, which makes Sussex’s change of 83.9% seem rather insignificant…

But at least this table provides some sort of evidence that the investment made in Physics & Astronomy over the last few years has made a significant (and positive) difference. The number of research faculty in Physics & Astronomy has increased by more than 60%  since 2012 so one would have been surprised not to have seen an increase in publication output over the same period. On the other hand, it seems likely that many of the high-impact papers published since 2012 were written by researchers who arrived well before then because Physics research is often a slow burner. The full impact of the most recent investments has probably not yet been felt. I’m therefore confident that Physics at Sussex has a very exciting future in store as its rising stars look set to rise still further! It’s nice to be going out on a high note!

 

 

Graduation and Beyond

Posted in Biographical with tags , on July 21, 2016 by telescoper

I’ve found a few pictures of this week’s  graduation ceremony for the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex, at which I had the pleasure of presenting the graduands. These are taken without permission from facebook posts!

Graduation ceremonies are funny things. With all their costumes and weird traditions, they even seem a bit absurd. On the other hand, even in these modern times, we live with all kinds of  rituals and I don’t see why we shouldn’t celebrate academic achievement in this way. I love graduation ceremonies, actually. As the graduands go across the stage you realize that every one of them has a unique story to tell and a whole universe of possibilities in front of them. How their lives will unfold no-one can tell, but it’s a privilege to be there for one important milestone on their journey. Getting to read their names out is quite stressful – it may not seem like it, but I do spend quite a lot of time fretting about the correct pronunciation of the names.  It’s also a bit strange in some cases finally to put a name to a face that I’ve seen around the place regularly, just before they leave the University for good. I always find this a bittersweet occasion. There’s joy and celebration, of course, but tempered by the realisation that many of the young people who you’ve seen around for three or for years, and whose faces you have grown accustomed to, will disappear into the big wide world never to be seen again. On the other hand, this year a large number of MPS graduates are going on to do PhDs – including two who are moving to Cardiff! – so they won’t all vanish without trace!

Grad_1

Grad_3

That’s me in the front row just to the left of the Mayor, in case you didn’t realise. It was very hot with all that graduation clobber on – in fact it was over 30 degrees. Waiting for the official photographs outside in the gardens was a rather sweaty experience.

Grad_2

Graduation of course isn’t just about dressing up. Nor is it only about recognising academic achievement. It’s also a rite of passage on the way to adulthood and independence, so the presence of the parents at the ceremony adds another emotional dimension to the goings-on. Although everyone is rightly proud of the achievement – either their own in the case of the graduands or that of others in the case of the guests – there’s also a bit of sadness to go with the goodbyes. It always seems that as a lecturer you are only just getting to know students by the time they graduate, but that’s enough to miss them when they go.

Anyway, all this is a roundabout way of saying congratulations once more to everyone who graduated on Tuesday, and I wish you all the very best for the future!

Leaving Party

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , , on July 20, 2016 by telescoper

As regular readers of this blog (Sid and Doris Bonkers) will know, I’m about to leave my current job as Head of School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex. Although I don’t actually finish here until the end of the month, there was a small gathering in the School this afternoon to celebrate the fact that I am leaving. Here is the cake:

Cake_leave

This was accompanied by Prosecco, opened in dangerously explosive fashion by Philip Harris, who will be taking over as Acting Head of School after my departure. As such he will be responsible for Health and Safety in the School. I hope he fills in a risk assessment before attempting to open any further bottles of bubbly! I got a lovely gift of a pair of champagne flutes, although I haven’t managed to play any music on them yet.

I’ve also been inundated with gifts by Dorothy Lamb, my Head of Schools Coordinator. Dorothy arranged a special treat for me this morning, in the form of a private screening (in the Attenborough Centre) of my favourite film, The Maltese Falcon. I’ve seen this film dozens of times on TV or on DVD but never in the cinema, so this was a very nice thought. Here’s a still from the movie, which reminds me for some reason of the Senior Management Group:

Maltese-Falcon-Tell-the-Truth-1941

At this afternoon’s cake and wine party, Dorothy also read out a poem what she wrote, which I reproduce here (including a preamble) in the hope that literary agents and talent-spotters might be reading this blog:

Those of you who read Peter’s blog will know that he regularly posts poems by Stevie Smith, Emily Dickinson, Wordsworth and others, plus occasionally his own work. The last time I wrote a poem was when I was about 8 years old and it was published in ‘The Brownie’ so I thought it fitting that, frighteningly, almost half a century on, I should pen another.

To Peter Coles, aged 53 and almost one sixth
Known for a passion for the cryptic,
Let’s hope his departure is not apocalyptic.
A northern gent in whom we trust,
An honest man, some say robust;
A wealth of knowledge, awesome talent
And, as a boss, sublime, transparent.
With Coltrane, Cohen and Humphrey Bogart
He is not backward in going forward.
With diphthongs, datives, gerunds and such
Though untrepanned, he’ll give the heads up.
A Newcastle lad up at Cambridge
Prosecco chilling in the fridge,
He truly does explain things clearly
Though I’m still ignorant of quantum theory.
He always seems to stay clear sighted
Except when it comes to Newcastle United.
A crossword never left unsolved,
An over never left unbowled,
The poems of the good and great,
The Miss Lemon drizzle cake he ate;
And every due respect he paid
To his trusted Midlands maid.
And so we say farewell to Peter,
Though this poem has the strangest meter,
Whilst lexicons fill every space,
An emptiness will take his place,
A smile of sadness on my face.

 

 

Examination Time Yet Again

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , , on May 12, 2016 by telescoper

Once again the return of glorious weather heralds the return of the  examination season at the University of Sussex, so here’s a lazy rehash of my previous offerings on the subject that I’ve posted around this time each year since I started blogging.

My feelings about examinations agree pretty much with those of  William Wordsworth, who studied at the same University as me, as expressed in this quotation from The Prelude:

Of College labours, of the Lecturer’s room
All studded round, as thick as chairs could stand,
With loyal students, faithful to their books,
Half-and-half idlers, hardy recusants,
And honest dunces–of important days,
Examinations, when the man was weighed
As in a balance! of excessive hopes,
Tremblings withal and commendable fears,
Small jealousies, and triumphs good or bad–
Let others that know more speak as they know.
Such glory was but little sought by me,
And little won.

It seems to me a great a pity that our system of education – both at School and University – places such a great emphasis on examination and assessment to the detriment of real learning. On previous occasions, before I moved to the University of Sussex, I’ve bemoaned the role that modularisation has played in this process, especially in my own discipline of physics.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not opposed to modularisation in principle. I just think the way modules are used in many British universities fails to develop any understanding of the interconnection between different aspects of the subject. That’s an educational disaster because what is most exciting and compelling about physics is its essential unity. Splitting it into little boxes, taught on their own with no relationship to the other boxes, provides us with no scope to nurture the kind of lateral thinking that is key to the way physicists attempt to solve problems. The small size of many module makes the syllabus very “bitty” and fragmented. No sooner have you started to explore something at a proper level than the module is over. More advanced modules, following perhaps the following year, have to recap a large fraction of the earlier modules so there isn’t time to go as deep as one would like even over the whole curriculum.

In most UK universities (including Sussex), tudents take 120 “credits” in a year, split into two semesters. In many institutions, these are split into 10-credit modules with an examination at the end of each semester; there are two semesters per year. Laboratories, projects, and other continuously-assessed work do not involve a written examination, so the system means that a typical  student will have 5 written examination papers in January and another 5 in May. Each paper is usually of two hours’ duration.

Such an arrangement means a heavy ratio of assessment to education, one that has risen sharply over the last decades,  with the undeniable result that academic standards in physics have fallen across the sector. The system encourages students to think of modules as little bit-sized bits of education to be consumed and then forgotten. Instead of learning to rely on their brains to solve problems, students tend to approach learning by memorising chunks of their notes and regurgitating them in the exam. I find it very sad when students ask me what derivations they should memorize to prepare for examinations. A brain is so much more than a memory device. What we should be doing is giving students the confidence to think for themselves and use their intellect to its full potential rather than encouraging rote learning.

You can contrast this diet of examinations with the regime when I was an undergraduate. My entire degree result was based on six three-hour written examinations taken at the end of my final year, rather than something like 30 examinations taken over 3 years. Moreover, my finals were all in a three-day period. Morning and afternoon exams for three consecutive days is an ordeal I wouldn’t wish on anyone so I’m not saying the old days were better, but I do think we’ve gone far too far to the opposite extreme. The one good thing about the system I went through was that there was no possibility of passing examinations on memory alone. Since they were so close together there was no way of mugging up anything in between them. I only got through  by figuring things out in the exam room.

I think the system we have here at the University of Sussex is much better than I’ve experienced elsewhere. For a start the basic module size is 15 credits. This means that students are usually only doing four things in parallel, and they consequently have fewer examinations, especially since they also take laboratory classes and other modules which don’t have a set examination at the end. There’s also a sizeable continuously assessed component (30%) for most modules so it doesn’t all rest on one paper. Although in my view there’s still too much emphasis on assessment and too little on the joy of finding things out, it’s much less pronounced than elsewhere. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why the Department of Physics & Astronomy does so consistently well in the National Student Survey?

We also have modules called Skills in Physics which focus on developing the problem-solving skills I mentioned above; these are taught through a mixture of lectures and small-group tutorials. I don’t know what the students think of these sessions, but I always enjoy them because the problems set for each session are generally a bit wacky, some of them being very testing. In fact I’d say that I’m very impressed at the technical level of the modules in the Department of Physics & Astronomy generally. I’ve been teaching Green’s Functions, Conformal Transformations and the Calculus of Variations to second-year students this semester. Those topics weren’t on the syllabus at all in my previous institution!

Anyway, my Theoretical Physics paper is next week (on 19th May) so I’ll find out if the students managed to learn anything despite having such a lousy lecturer. Which reminds me, I must remember to post some worked examples online to help them with their revision.

50 Years of the Astronomy Centre at the University of Sussex

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on May 3, 2016 by telescoper

It is my pleasure to share here the announcement that there will be a  special celebration for the 50th Anniversary of the Astronomy Centre at the University of Sussex whose first students began their studies here in 1966.

Lord Martin Rees – Astronomer Royal, Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, Past President of the Royal Society and Sussex Honorary – will be joining alumni and other former faculty for the celebratory lunch and has kindly agreed to deliver a short speech as part of the event.

Organised by the Astronomy Centre and the Development and Alumni Office, and supported by the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences , this celebration is open to all former students and their partners. Please make a note of the date and time:

Date: Saturday 15th October 2016
Venue: 3rd Floor, Bramber House, University of Sussex
Time: 12 – 3pm
Cost:  £20 per person, to include lunch and refreshments

You can book online here to secure your place(s).

We are very much looking forward to welcoming you back to campus to share in the celebrations. If you are in touch with other alumni or faculty from Sussex who have connections with the Astronomy Centre, please let them know!

R.I.P. Harry Kroto (1939-2016)

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on May 1, 2016 by telescoper

image

I heard earlier this afternoon of the death at the age of 76 of the distinguished chemist Sir Harry Kroto.

Along with Robert Curl and Richard Smalley,  Harry Kroto was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1996 for the discovery of the C60 structure that became known as Buckminsterfullerene (or the “Buckyball” for short).

Harry had a long association with the University of Sussex and was a regular visitor to the Falmer campus even after he moved to the USA.

I remember first meeting him in the 1988 when, as a new postdoc fresh out of my PhD, I had just taken over organising the Friday seminars for the Astronomy Centre. One speaker called off his talk just an hour before it was due to start so I asked if anyone could suggest someone on campus who might stand in. Someone suggested Harry, whose office was  nearby in the School of Molecular Sciences (now the Chichester Building). I was very nervous as I knocked on his door – Harry was already famous then – and held out very little hope that such a busy man would agree to give a talk with less than an hour’s notice. In fact he accepted immediately and with good grace gave a fine impromptu talk about the possibility that C60 might be a major component of interstellar dust. If only all distinguished people were so approachable and helpful!

I met him in campus more recently a couple of years ago when we met to talk about some work he had been doing on a range of things to do with widening participation in STEM subjects. I remember I had booked  an hour in my calendar but we talked for at least three. He was brimming with ideas and energy then. It’s hard to believe he is no more.

Harry Kroto was a man of very strong views  and he was not shy in expressing them. He cared passionately about science and was a powerful advocate for it. He will be greatly missed.

Rest in peace, Harry Kroto (1939-2016)