Saturday, 30 November 2013

Pairing scheme

I sort of like that my current teaching duties are such that they are condensed into one semester.  It's nice to do it all in a burst of condensed activity.  Or at least, so I tell myself - in reality, right now I seem most unfortunately busy, with various other things on top of the teaching taking up a lot of time.  This semester has also included the preparation of paperwork for re-accreditation of our degrees by the Institute of Physics, and we had a good visit from them last week, and also the analogous periodic review of courses from the University.  As chair of the Board of Studies, it's my job to prepare both these things.  It's no accident I'm writing about it late into Saturday night.

So, it's a crazily busy time for me, and I'm about to top this off by spending the next week away from the university to take part in the Royal Society Pairing Scheme, which aims to pair scientists up with MPs or Civil Servants to give us each an insight into the life of the other.  I'm really looking forward to it, though tomorrow, when I go up to London to take part, seems so infinitely far after the time at which I have to submit the periodic review.  No doubt, tomorrow will arrive soon and I'll be hobnobbing around the Houses of Parliament looking like an out-of-place physicist.  Plus ça change.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Films & A job in Liverpool

So, I didn't follow up my post from Saturday with a review of the rest of the films I watched.  If I'd have stayed to the end and watched Pandora's Promise, I might have done so, but the few films I watched after A is for Atom are probably not worth reviewing in any great detail, being biopics of a few individuals who feel (probably justifiably) aggrieved by the consequences of nuclear accidents, but with little scientific basis behind them.  Not that that makes them definitely incorrect, but still - a little hard to believe. 

In other news - while it's only been a month since I mentioned a job advertising a post in theoretical nuclear physics,  I note that a job in nuclear physics is being advertised at the University of Liverpool.  It all looked promising at first, with the opening line "We are seeking to recruit an outstanding individual in Nuclear Physics," but there turns out to a minor kind of category mistake by the author, as despite all the talk of nuclear physics, they go on to say "You should have a PhD in Nuclear Physics, an excellent research track record in experimental nuclear physics and an excellent publication record." (my underlining).

Too bad that they will not even consider applicants with excellent track records in theoretical nuclear physics - but not a surprise.  

Saturday, 16 November 2013

A is for Atom

Despite First Capital Connect's, and an unhelpful ticket office's best efforts, I made it only a little bit late to the nuclear docufest at the Brixton Ritzy.  I'm having some lunch now in an extremely posh pub that is completely empty in the centre of Brixton on a Saturday lunchtime except for me and several staff.  

The film I've seen so far is A is for Atom.  It reminded me a bit of the reasons that science documentaries are often not fun to watch for a science audience.  It was a strange mix of pointed scenes, and stereotyping of scientists, though I think ultimately it wanted to paint a correct picture of nuclear power as something that has a lot of hands in it, and in particular in the US, commercial interests trumped everything else - including safety.  There were some scientific inaccuracies - such as that a core might burn through the floor of a reactor and there would then be nothing to stop it tunnelling through to the other side of the world.  Fortunately gravity would stop that happening.

I loved all the old footage, including newsreels and corporate propaganda, and learned a few interesting things - like the fact that some Soviet scientists were able to publish a critique of the safety aspects of nuclear safety in a newspaper but US scientists did not seem confident enough to do so (hah!), and it was nice to see so many interviews with (now-dead) players in the key years of nuclear physics, but ultimately it was not aimed at the likes of me, and it showed.  

Right - expensive vegetarian sausages have arrived, and I shall eat.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Going out

I have been getting out the house a bit, lately.  On Sunday, I took my elder (6yo) daughter to the Guildford Spectrum to see an ice hockey match.  It was a first for both of us.  For an event with a considerable amount of sitting around, watching a sport that she didn't entirely understand, things went very well.  She was really excited, and though I was prepared to leave in one of the intervals, was determined to stay to the end.  She really loved chanting "Guildford! Guildford!" (which was done in a fairly genteel Surrey sort of way by all concerned) and was super-excited by the goals when Guildford scored them, and rather despondent when Swindon did.  Thankfully the Guildford Flames won 6-3.  It was pretty exciting, and for the money, beats paying the prices that football costs these days.  Guildford, having one of the handful of the UK's ice rinks also naturally has one of the handful of league ice hockey teams.

On Monday, I went with my fellow nuclear physicist Wilton Catford to Brighton, home of a University which performs leading nuclear physics research. There is also another University near Brighton, which I should mention for balance.  We were not there for anything physics-related, though.  Except that we talked about physics a bit on the journey there and back.  We were there to see Laura Veirs, a folky American singer that we both like.  I've been listening to her recent album in anticipation of the gig, and really liked her previous one.  The gig didn't disappoint.  She gives a great live performance, and has started her dylanesque judas period in which she picks up an electric guitar and rocks out.  I thoroughly approve, and enjoyed both the noisier and the folkier parts of her set.  It was good stuff.  Above is one of the more gentle songs from her previous album that I like.  It's set to a fan video which is kind of cool, but doesn't seem to fit the lyrics well.  

Tonight I am out gigging again.  This time to accompany my brother, whose birthday it is today, and we're going to see The Wave Pictures at the Jazz Café in London.  This is followed by a couple of days of respite, but then I'll be spending all day at the nuclear documentary film festival that I posted about recently

Saturday, 9 November 2013

On Mission Groups

The 1994 Group announced yesterday that it was shutting down operations.  It didn't make much news outside higher education circles, which is probably the real reason they shut down.  The press release states in very positive terms how a natural end point for the group has come, but I expect the more prosaic reason is that the 1994 Group failed to do what the Russell Group has successfully done:  To convince people that it means something to be in the group.

I think the closest analogy for these so-called Mission Groups is that they are like London Gentlemen's Clubs.  They are set up in the same way:  By a group of men who meet together in London and decide that they would like to form a club, for no other reason than to say "look - we're in a club because we belong together, and you're not in the club, because you don't belong"  Then, by making enough noise, and making people outside the club want to be in, a name is made for yourself.  By successful lobbying, the Russell Group has convinced potential students, parents, employers, journalists, perhaps even the government that they don't need to understand anything about higher education directly, they can just take the word of the Russell Group that they are the best Universities.  

To be a member of the Gentlemen's club, you need to be accepted by the existing members and convince them that you went to the right sort of school (or are the right sort of school).  Then you need to pay handsomely.  As the Times Higher Educational Supplement found out, the Universities who were recently allowed to join the club handed over a lot of student fee income for the privilege.  Now all the people who have been successfully convinced that the Russell Group means something will think more highly of these newly-joined universities.  They are probably right to join. 

So the poor 1994 Group, which started as a kind of reaction to the Russell Group, never made its way into the collective consciousness, and so had no real reason to exist any more.  My own institution was one of a number to jump ship in the last couple of years, and I guess the writing was on the wall for a little while.  

Thursday, 7 November 2013

A handy guide to nuclear funding

This is probably far too niche an item for a blog that anyone might want to read, but I note that the UK funding councils have issued a statement today about which of the funding councils fund which bits of nuclear science.  I don't think there are any surprises in there - nuclear power related stuff via EPSRC and nuclear physics related stuff via STFC.  But now we know.  Perhaps more relevant for people genuinely working on the boundaries.

Friday, 1 November 2013

The nuclear question - documentary film festival

In a rare example of a sensibly-targeted unsolicited email, I received earlier this week an email about an all-day documentary film even in Brixton on the subject of nuclear power.  It looks really interesting and I'm sorely tempted to go, though a whole day spent doing such things would be quite a luxury time-wise.  If you're interested, and free on 16th Nov, then details are here.