Thursday, 22 February 2018

Striking to save our pension

Today is day one of a strike by members of the UCU trade union, of which I am a member, and therefore a striker. 

I don't think anyone much wants to undertake strike action, and the reasons behind it have to be pretty strong before they take this step.  

The collective group of our employers, Universities UK (UUK), have proposed to stop the defined benefit pension scheme, in which we will work towards a pension which is a guaranteed amount based on our salaries and length of service, and in which all the money paid in by all members is lumped together and used to pay out pensions of those retired.  They propose to change it to one in which we each build up our own individual pension pot, which we then treat like a private personal pension when we retire.   It may not sound utterly outrageous, but all estimates suggest that it will results in significantly decreased pensions for all staff -- particularly younger staff.  What's more, the modelling on which it is based is extreme and unrealistically pessimistic.  In fact, this modelling showed that even in the most extreme worst-case, that all universities were to close immediately, and all the current investments were immediately de-risked into low-yield gilts, then the scheme would still be in surplus with a high probability, but because of the uncertainties in modelling, there is a possibility that the pot would be in deficit, that we should right now slash all future benefits.

Perhaps unusually for a strike, many University Vice-Chancellors are calling for UUK to accept UCU's call to come back to the negotiating table and I can only hope that they do so.  I don't enjoy being on strike, and I'm sorry for the negative effect it has on students.  I also appreciate the support of many students for the action, and hope as much for their sake that it is successful in keeping academia as a (reasonably) attractive place to work.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Nuclear Data Community Pleased, as Punch-Card Format Superseded

Via my fellow nuclear physicist @tmertzi,  I read an interesting article (dating back to 2016) from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.  It's about the worldwide database of nuclear data -- covering things like the expected reaction products when neutrons are captured at different energies by different nuclei -- is hampered in part by the historic file format used, dating back to the days of punch cards.  Codes still in use expect the now-electronic files to still be in this rigid format, which is too constraining to store data in the form that nuclear scientists would like it, so we are finally moving to a more flexible format called GND (Generalized Nuclear Data).  Those interested can download supporting computer code for the new format here.

One thing that I learned from the article is that the old format traces itself back to the ENDL format, standing for Evaluated Nuclear Data Library.  According to the Livermore article, ENDL was developed by Britain's Atomic Weapons Establishment, based not too far from here.  Back then, they were known as AWRE;  Atomic Weapons Research Establishment.  They dropped the "Research" from their name in the 80s.

Thursday, 8 February 2018

Congratulations, Dr Barton

Yesterday my PhD student Matthew Barton successfully defended his PhD thesis on the self-consistent application of the time-dependent density-matrix method for nuclear ground state correlations and dynamics.  Good job, Matthew!  

Here is the obligatory image of Matthew, the examiners and supervisors:

L-R: Denis Lacroix (external examiner), Arnau Rios (supervisor), Matthew Barton (candidate), Paul Stevenson (supervisor), Dan Doherty (internal examiner)

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

RIP Mark E Smith

I've been known to post music on this blog for various reasons, including as tributes to artists who have recently died.  As one of the many fans of The Fall in the UK nuclear physics community, I feel I ought to mark the death The Fall's Mark E Smith last month with a song of theirs.

I was reminded of it the last time I attended the annual Institute of Physics Nuclear Physics Conference when it was in Birmingham.  The conference venue was the University of Birmingham's Business School

Incidentally, the external examiner for our physics degrees used to be one Mark E Smith, of the University of Warwick.  As I recall, he is well aware of his namesake. 

Friday, 2 February 2018

Fidel Castro Díaz-Balart 1949-2018

A few days ago I received the latest copy of Nuclear Physics News International, a quarterly magazine about nuclear physics and its applications, produced on behalf of NuPECC ("Nuclear Physics European Collaboration Committee").

One of the articles in the magazine was "On the Development of Nuclear Physics in Cuba".  It gives, as the name suggests, a description of nuclear physics research in Cuba; an academic activity that started after the 1976 construction of a nuclear power plant in concert with support from the USSR.  The activity included a lot of applications of nuclear and radiation research, such as production of medical isotopes, industrial profiling, dating of samples, environmental monitoring, as well as more pure physics studies.  I had the pleasure of attending one of the conferences organised by the nuclear physics researchers in Cuba some years ago (2005, if I remember correctly), and remember being impressed by the range of applications being worked on by the students.  

The article in Nuclear Physics News International was written by Fidel Castro Díaz-Balart, a member of the Academy of Sciences of Cuba, and key mover in the Cuban nuclear research programme.  He also happens to be a son of Fidel Castro, erstwhile Cuban leader, which has made him of interest to the news media.  Because of this, I was able to read of his death, alas, which was reported this morning.  He had been suffering from depression, and in the end he killed himself.  It's tragic to hear of a fellow human's suffering, whoever they are, but as a colleague in the international nuclear physics community, it's a reminder to me (as if I needed it) that mental health problems know no borders of nationality, of rich or poor, famous or unknown.  According to the reports (from Granma, the Cuban communist party's newspaper), Dr Castro had been suffering from some time, including spells in hospital.  At least, then, he was getting treatment.  Another reminder; mental health problems can be treated.  

I was put off reading the article in Nuclear Physics News because of the misaligned printing (see picture).  If you want to read it, follow the "latest copy" link in the first line of the blog post.

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Lecture Capture

I attended a meeting today which was a demonstration of the abilities of the lecture capture software we have at the University.  It's called Panopto, and it means that I now have the ability to record lectures, work-throughs of tutorial problems, or anything else I think of that can be re-played as a video and audio stream that would come in useful for teaching.

It seems like only a good idea to me, that I can let students review a lecture again, even make group annotations, comments and discussions of it.  I'd be interested to hear if any readers have done something similar and have useful feedback or suggestions.  Also I'd be interested to hear contrary views about it being a good idea. 

The picture shows a representative example of me standing in front of a whiteboard (about 15 years ago according to the datestamp of the file). 

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Nuclear Physics at 78ºN

I've been out of action lately;  off work on sick leave for the last few months of 2017.   Upon my return I notice that the next in the series of Nordic Meetings on Nuclear Physics is taking place in Longyearbyen, Norway.  This has to rank as one of the most exotic places for a nuclear physics conference to take place in.  It's about as far north in the world that one is able to get to using scheduled transport.  It's further north than anywhere in mainland Canada or Russia, and the northernmost place with civilian inhabitants.  While it is sorely tempting to go there given the opportunity, I have no good justification for using up travel budget on a relatively expensive location for a conference which, while interesting and relevant to me, is not vital to my research.

Although it was quite a while ago, I have actually been to Longyearbyen once before.  I was on a cruise as a companion of someone employed to play harp recitals on the ship.  My only task was to do a bit of harp-lugging, for which I got a free cruise from Newcastle, up the coast of Norway, stopping off at various points, and then up to Spitsbergen, where Longyearbyen is.

I don't have my photos of the trip to hand, so here's one that I found from google maps of the town of Longyearbyen.  My trip was in October, so there was snow on the ground as in the picture.