Thursday, 31 October 2013

The Independent heading off-topic

Just a quick post in a break in a grant panel meeting at STFC in Swindon.  In today's Independent, in their "10 best" section, they featured 10 astronomy-related smartphone apps.  Only, they got the headline a bit wrong.  I tweeted about it on the train on the way in this morning, and it's generated quite a few responses.  The twitter picture was pretty low resolution, so if you click on the one attached to this post, you can read the details of the apps, which is a bit hard in the twitter version.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Great South Run - done!

As advertised, today I went to Portsmouth and ran the 10 mile (16km) Great South Run.  My results are here.

I took a train from Guildford to Portsmouth, with only yesterday's Independent Magazine to keep me entertained, since I did not want to have too much baggage.  I got off at Fratton station and wandered down to the sea front.  I spent the time leading up to when I was supposed to start by trying to find somewhere to go to the toilet, finding the Mind tent, to say hi to the staff there.  We'd been in touch a bit in the run-up about money-raising and it was nice to see them - and I fed myself up with a banana, which is supposed to be what runners eat before going running (though was nothing to do with my usual running routine).

There was a worrying squall that passed just before the race was due to start, but fortunately the heavy rain stayed away for the run.  It was windy, though.  Presumably thanks to the coming storm which is dominating the news, there was a lot of wind.  It really made the last couple of miles difficult, when we were running against a 30mph wind.  It was all pretty hard work, but I'm pleased that I finished it without stopping, and raised some money for Mind.  I don't think I'll be doing it every year, but since I did it 5 years ago, maybe I should think about doing it again in 2018.  Maybe.  Thanks again to all those who sponsored me.  

Friday, 25 October 2013

Who is allowed to have a good pension?

As a UK university lecturer, I am enrolled in the USS pension scheme.  I pay in, knowing that I will need a pension one day, but find the whole thing a bit too abstract to worry about in terms of whether it will all work out in the end and pay up.  Perhaps I should be worried.  My dad was banjaxed by the failed Equitable Life scheme and such pension failures do happen.  So perhaps I ought to be worried today by the news that there is an apparent shortfall in my pension scheme.  It sounds like it might just be a bit of a scare story from a couple of journalists who had asked one person to look at the scheme, but as I say, I find the possibility of problems with my income in 30 years time a bit too abstract to take seriously.  

What did irk me about the whole news story, though, was the comment from David Willetts.  It is a repeat of a mantra that has been used by both sides of the coalition government (Nick Clegg more than anyone else) over the last few years.  According to the BBC news story above, he said "It would be wrong to expect students to bail out pension deficits to support pension schemes that are far more generous than students are likely to enjoy when they're older." On the face of it, it doesn't sound outrageous, but is it fair?

It is my recollection (though I don't have the links or evidence to hand - any relevant comments would be welcome, below) that there was a lot of such statements a few years ago from the new coalition when public sector pensions were taking quite a battering.  These were all pejoratively called "gold-plated" pensions, and it was considered unfair for the hardworking taxpayer to fund such schemes when many of them may not get such a good pension themselves.  I think that's a crass argument which is nothing more than a greedy and envious way of promoting a race to the bottom - at least for the dreaded public sector worker.  But let's say that public sector workers should have crappy pensions to ensure that no hardworking taxpayer is forced to fund a decent pension for someone else.  Does it apply to the private sector too?  Are people like David Willetts saying that the chief executive of Tesco shouldn't have a good pension because it wouldn't be fair of hardworking people who shop at Tesco to fund it?  Presumably in that case, the holy market saves the Conservative, so that they can say that people just shouldn't shop where they don't want to pay for pensions.  

Now, in the current era when the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have changed University education so that it is no-longer the taxpayer that pays, but the "customer" they still make the argument that it is not fair for students to fund good pensions for lecturers.  Surely now the customers can choose to go wherever they like.  You can't have it both ways, Willetts. You've forced a market on us, now leave you anti-public-sector spite out of it.  Am I missing something?

Aside from anything else, why is it pensions that are being targeted?   Why not just salary?  "It is unfair that a taxpayer should have to fund the salary of a doctor, which will be much more than most taxpayers will ever earn."  "It is unfair of someone, who is required to have a bank account, to fund the lifestyle of bankers" "It is unfair that taxpayers, who through no fault of their own have been born in the UK, and don't even live in Havant and haven't voted for him, should have to fund the top-few-percentile salary of David Willetts."  The whole argument just doesn't make sense.  It is nothing but the politics of envy.  There may be other reasons to attack particular pension schemes, but this is a crass one unworthy of anyone in public office.

Look! There's a job going in nuclear theory

Many years ago, when I was looking into possible PhD opportunities I spoke to quite a few people at the institution I studied in.  It has a huge physics department, with many areas of research being covered.  I spoke to people about what they thought the key future areas were, and spoke to people whose areas I had been enjoying as an undergraduate (my initial draw into physics - everything astro - was sidelined during my undergraduate degree because of my choice to study a joint Physics and Philosophy degree, and I couldn't take the first year optional astronomy course as a result).  

I was really keen to work with one of the professors who was working on statistical mechanics of neural networks, and I chatted to him, but he was about to go on sabbatical and wasn't taking any students that year.  I was taking the optional advanced nuclear and particle physics option in my undergrad course, and the particle physics lecturer tried to solicit me to apply to work in his area.  That was very kind of him - I think it happened because he set a kind of unofficial homework problem at the end of a class and I was intrigued by it and came back with the answer next class, for which I was handed a bottle of wine from the St John's College cellars... but I sort-of worried that working in particle physics would involve being a tiny cog in a very large machine and potentially a very unrewarding experience.  Yet I did like the world of the microscopic, with all the quantum physics that it entailed.

It therefore seemed like a good idea to work in nuclear physics - involving lower energy phenomena than particle physics, and correspondingly smaller research teams.  I don't really regret it.  Well, not too much.  There's lots of interesting stuff in nuclear physics, but what it lacks is jobs.  Especially in theoretical nuclear physics.  I'm one of something like 8 people in the country employed in a permanent nuclear theory position.  Jobs don't come up very often here.  Anyway - I'm lucky, I have a job.  Even if it is based in Guildford.  

I had an email this week advertising this rarest of things - a permanent (or at least tenure-track) job in theoretical nuclear physics.  It's at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.  It's a place I know well, since I did a post-doc there and spent lots of time out there while doing my PhD.  So - if you are one of the few people in the world looking for a permanent position in nuclear theory, Knoxville may well be your place.  Tell them I sent you - you can find the job advert here

The picture in the post  is of the Knoxville skyline.  The sunsphere is at the left.  It was built for the 1982 World's Fair, but as is well-known, it has more recently been used as a wig store.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Hinkley C go-ahead

The UK headlines today are full of the news that a new nuclear plant will be built at the site of the existing Hinkley Point power station in Somerset.  The news media seem largely to have concentrated on the joint political aspects of the fact that it is being built by the French state (via their EDF operation) with major investment from the Chinese state, and on the fact that the deal promises a minimum price that the National Grid will buy the energy at - which is around twice the current wholesale price. 

On the latter point, I don't really know if that is a good deal or not.  As I understand it, that price is not index-linked, so it is a long-term gamble on the side of both participants in the deal.  Presumably a UK civil servant, the Chinese government and someone at EDF all think it is a good enough deal to go ahead.

As for the fact that the contract has gone overseas - well, it has long been government nuclear policy, and no-one should be surprised.  Perhaps most worthy of recording is that on the Today program on Radio 4 this morning, the Energy Secretary Ed Davey said that with investment in UK nuclear education and training, the next nuclear build would be a UK design, not a French one.  I won't hold my breath on that, but it would be nice to see.

Frustratingly the government are proud of the fact that this is "the first time nuclear power stations in this country will be built without money from the British taxpayer."  That might be nice if it were not for the fact that it is the British taxpayer who will be paying for the electricity, with the profits going to the French and Chinese taxpayer.  Why is that something that a government minister should be crowing about?  Of course, the quote above was from Ed Davey, who is a Liberal Democrat.  If a Conservative were giving their opinion, the "British taxpayer" would have read "hardworking (sic) British taxpayer".

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Bear in Mind

A few posts ago I mentioned that I would be running in this year's Great South Run in Portsmouth, and a blog post soliciting sponsorship would appear in due course.  So, here it is.  I'm running to raise money for the mental health charity MIND.  Mental health problems have been a problem for both me personally and close family members and friends, as one might expect from a range of problems that directly afflict 1 in 4 people in any given year.  I'm not sure what the age profile is for prevalence of mental health problems, but as someone who works in a University in a role which has its pastoral aspects, I have seen plenty of students suffering over the years.  It seems that around the time of going to University can often be the time when mental health problems become overbearing for some,  and I like to think that my own experiences make me especially sympathetic to those students who have come for me as help.

From personal experience I am aware of some of the help that MIND provide, in the form of providing activities and support groups, and it is no small part to charities such as MIND that the long-standing stigma attached to mental health problems is being challenged, and changing for the better.

On more physical side of health, I was never much of an athlete at school.  I was always among the last to be picked in the playground when football teams were selected, and I'm not sure that I ever managed to run a whole circuit of the 300m racetrack in secondary school without stopping.  The annual cross-country race was a thing of terror for me.  As at many schools, across many areas, my lack of ability in this area led to a lack of interest from the teachers, and I was content to more or less minimise my athletic exposure.  Only much later did I attempt to redress this, and five years ago I practiced for, and then ran the 10 mile Great South Run.  I've kept up running a bit sporadically since then, though never for distances approaching 10 miles.  In preparation for next week I ran 7 miles this morning (see graphic attached to this post), and I have little doubt that I'll be able to do 10 miles next weekend.  The Archers omnibus will help me through much of it... So, I'm partly doing the run for myself, but I'm asking for sponsorship not for a sponsored nap, or beer-tasting session, but for something that will be no cakewalk for me.  I've paid the entrance fee, and any sponsorship you pass my way will go straight to MIND.  So... if the hard sell has convinced you, the page to go to for donations is here.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Welcome, Alba

It has, figuratively, been a very long day.  At 02:30 this morning I called the maternity ward of the local hospital to ask for advice on my partner's state, and the advice was to come in to hospital to check on the stage of her labour.  So we did.  The check revealed that things were good to go, and so after a few hours (of which I will skip the graphic details) our baby daughter was born.  She is doing well, as is her mother.  Unfortunately I missed the birth of my first daughter, and it was quite an experience to see the birth this time.  Quite amazing, as I'm sure anyone who has stood and watched without that difficult pushing role will attest.  At least daughter #1 did declare that today was "the most exciting day in my life so far".  

It was well that she was born today - induction would have begun tomorrow and despite my physicist's expertise with both mathematical and electromagnetic induction, I understand neither have much to do with the induction of labour, which is - well - more laborious than non-induced labour. Anyhow, there she is in the picture attached to this post.  She's called Alba, and I could write a separate (and more interesting) post about the dynamics of the discussions between my partner and me about baby names, but I will not turn this one into that.  Now I'm back at home while Alba and Natasha are staying overnight in the hospital.  As if there is some strange causal effect of being off work, I'm watching "The Karen Carpenter Story" on a TV channel called Movie Mix that I'd never even noticed on my freeview TV before.

I made sure I bought a copy of the newspaper today to file away as a momento.  I still have a copy of a paper from a few days after I was born containing an announcement of my birth.  It contains interestingly gender specific job adverts, such as "Slaughtermen required.  Piece rates, good wages and conditions," though "Butcheress counter assistants" and "Saleslady required for wholesale fancy goods warehouse" or "Retired Lady and Gentleman required to take care of toilets in a city discotheque." Since I don't really follow a local newspaper, I guess I'm not going to do the same about Alba, but hey, I'm writing a blog post all about her, albeit without the readership of the Glasgow Evening Times. 

Well, finally, I looked up birthdays of famous people born on this day, and so, for Alba, here's a rather morose sounding song with what appears to be a more upbeat and relevant message:

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Chichester, Dorking and Complex Variables

Yesterday, I went to Fishbourne, a village on the south coast most famous for its Roman Palace.  I was a guest of the Chichester Science Group as a guest lecturer for the their 2013 programme.  I'd been there a few years ago, and they were kind enough to invite me back.  Thanks to their clever policy of sending invitations well over a year in advance, I agreed last April that I'd be available to speak in October 2013.  As often happens, the time gets closer and I think "why on earth did I think it'd be a good idea to take a few hours out of my day at this time of year?"  but actually, it was an enjoyable few hours that broke up the pattern of the first week of semester, on a beautiful day to go to the south coast.

Normally I would have taken the train, but with my partner a week overdue with a baby (obviously I didn't know about this a year and a half ago), I drove, that I might get back quickly if necessary.  The talk took place in the middle of the working day, the group consisting of retired folk.  I found my way to the Fishbourne Centre, where the talk was taking place quite easily, and wished I had a little more time to go down to the sea and enjoy what might well be the last warm day of the year.  

I gave my talk on applications of nuclear physics, which I usually call the somewhat US-English title of "Field guide to the isotopes" but I called "What has nuclear physics done for us?" based on the fact that this is what the file on my computer had on its first slide following the last time I gave it being to kids, and me wanting to avoid unknown words in the title..." I kicked off with a pun about the fact that the word "What" made all the difference to the title, and went through the usual bunch of applications to medicine, geology, extreme biology and climate change, as well as the more obvious nuclear applications.  It was a bit hard to know how to pitch the talk - and some of the questions afterwards indicated that the members of the audience had quite strong science backgrounds, and some less so.  Most fascinating for me was the guy who discussed his experiences in navy as someone taking part in the Christmas Island bomb tests. 

Anyway,  I was impressed to receive an email today from one of the audience who said she had been thinking about what I said about protons behaving like little magnets, and us making use of that in MRI scans to look inside the body.  She wondered if maybe birds might be able to use that fact to help in navigation.  Of course she is (approximately) right - and I was both impressed by that leap, and gratified that enough of what I said made sense for people to think about it further.

Today, instead of heading south, I headed east, to Dorking.  Following my pattern for the last several years, I've taken an OU course for an MSc in maths, for the fun of studying new things, with the discipline that having deadlines gives me.  I must confess that I went into this one more poorly prepared than I have for previous ones, but well enough to make a decent go of it.  I enjoyed the course, in Applied Complex Variables and it included enough stuff that I never formally studied before to be useful, illuminating and challenging at the same time.  Only one module remains now, and that's the dissertation.  The OU MSc maths course has just moved from a Jan-Oct delivery to a more standard academic year, so this time, there is no gap between finishing one module and starting the next.  Exam done, so time to start studying the next module!

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

2013 Nobel Prize

It's highly unlikely that anyone will learn the news from this blog, but the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics was announced this morning, and it has gone to Fran├žois Englert and Peter Higgs, for "the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles, and which recently was confirmed through the discovery of the predicted fundamental particle, by the ATLAS and CMS experiments at CERN's Large Hadron Collider."  

There's lots of information at the Nobel Prize website, for those who want to find out more.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Modular Learning

Teaching and learning styles at University have changed somewhat over the years.  When I was an undergraduate, my entire degree classification was based on a series of around 24h worth of written exams, taken over a period of about a week.  These days an undergraduate physics degree is made up of a series of assessments - including written exams, and other sorts of coursework - which take place usually at the end of each semester (amounting to much more than 24h in total).  In the current way of doing things, each end-of-semester exam corresponds to the end of a module - the basic unit of educational material.

I don't think it's an easy question to decide which is the better method.  It is hard to say what "better" would even mean in this context - is it to get as many people out the door as possible with a suitable education to enable them to contribute to the economic life of the country, or is it to optimise the education of those who will carry on to be the physics professors of the future?  I don't particularly have an answer to the putative question, but I have an opinion and some observations.  

This post is partly prompted by some recent posts on the facebook page of the physics society at the university.  Some people are advertising textbooks for sale.  These books are no longer needed by current students because they are "for" modules they have already taken, and not for future courses.  This is something I find strange, and is, I think, a consequence of modularising a body of knowledge which is not modular.  It is already a bit too pigeon-holing to call anything physics, when the boundaries with other academic subjects are so blurry, but even ignoring this, physics can be taken as a way of thinking, as a set of intertwined areas, where there is so much interlinking between what we call the sub-fields that one in practice finds new insights into each area of physics by studying each other area.  The idea that one learns physics by learning a series of separate chunks as "modules" is anathema to me.  The idea that it's okay to sell your textbooks because you no longer need them for the second half of your study is bizarre - but the modular system leads to it, I suppose. 

It's unlikely we'll head back to the days of intensive final examinations,  but I don't think I would have done so well in the new scheme.  Only when I had seen enough of physics, made the links between the different areas, and got more experience of the right way of thinking, was I able to really synthesise things and realise - to the extent that I ever did, and do - that I understood the subject, and was able to tackle the final exams.  

The photo attached shows my chronic inability, or unwillingness, to get rid of any old textbooks.