Friday, 20 November 2015

Surprising REF article

I came across, via a tweet by a colleague, an article in Times Higher Education written by someone who felt compelled to quit as a member of a REF panel.  Among the reasons given, is the following paragraph
But it became clear to me that, in spite of everyone’s best efforts, the system does not constitute peer review in any meaningful sense. There is simply too much material to assess with the care that would be rightly expected for reviews for research grants, publications or promotions.
The thing that really surprised me about the article is that there is anyone out there in academia who actually ever thought that it even could be possible that the REF could really do anything approaching decent peer review.  I think the quantity of material is a red herring, really.  The main point (which is also mentioned in the article) is that the subject matter is so specialised that the kind of numbers of people on a REF panel cannot judge across a discipline in a fair way.  I get sent papers by journals to referee, but they are absolutely lined up with my area of research.  I'm a nuclear physicist and there are papers in nuclear physics which a competent journal editor would not send me to referee, because I couldn't do a fair job of it.  Journal editors know this very well, and they understand peer review.  Whoever came up with the REF does not understand it.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

My talk at ISNET

My last day at the ISNET-3 workshop also featured my talk.  I was happy enough with how I presented what I presented, though I can't help feel that the audience would have been more interested in what I said if I had performed a more sophisticated analysis of my calculations... which I guess is the point of the workshop.  The lesson, I think, is that accepting invitations to too many workshops is not consistent with having time to do lots of calculations, especially if one does not have a large team of postdocs and students behind you.  On the other hand, I had three separate discussions which led to plans to collaborate on some different projects -- on on the link between fusion cross-sections and the nuclear equation of state, one on fission and another on giant resonances.  Now to do the necessary calculations.  

Here are some calculations I presented in my talk today.  They show a case in which varying model parameters can give different outcomes.  In this case, the parameters is the size of the space in which I perform my calculations, with all other physics input the same.  The result is that in one case we get fusion, and in another not.  That's sort of bad, in that we don't want things to depend on technical details of calculations, but usually we can't completely avoid it, and at least we should better map out where the are such issues.  

Monday, 16 November 2015

A bunch of posteriors

It's the end of the first day of the ISNET–3 workshop I mentioned yesterday.  There have been a number of interesting talks by people using sophisticated statistical methods to better understand what their theoretical calculations (mostly, though we've also had a couple of talks by experimentalists) are telling them.  At least, it seems sophisticated to me, since I think of a posterior (as a noun) as something to sit on.  I will not be able to hide just how unsophisticated I am for very long, as I'll be talking on Wednesday.  Hopefully at least my talk will prompt some useful comments from the audience.

The workshop is in a basement room with no windows (at least, none that are not covered up).  I suppose this is a deliberate plan to stop us from looking at the beautiful scenery, such as the picture attached here that I took during the lunch break.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

France, Lebanon, Italy

I am on my way to Italy, for a conference about Information and Statistics in Nuclear Experiment and Theory.  Of course, the news at the moment is more about France, and the terrible attacks against those enjoying their Friday night to go out and enjoy a meal, a football game, or a music concert.  

Less prominent in the UK news was a similar attack in Beirut on the same day with a loss of civilian life of the same magnitude, if not quite so high.  

I don't think I have anything especially sage to say, except that the right thing to do when making a point is to rise above the idea that killing people is an okay way to do it, even if you think that those you are against do it routinely.  Let's be nice to each other -- and take responsibility for taking the lead in it, even when we feel slighted.

As an unrelated picture, here's my youngest daughter, at the library, showing her delight in reading books.  Hopefully that is an indication of more hope for the future (though I suppose it depends what books she gets in to).

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

A new paper on fission and one of fusion (so all bases covered)

When PhD students leave and graduate and get jobs doing other things, they don't always (ever?) write up the things in their thesis for publication -- at least that's my experience in the UK where the funded PhD takes last for three years, and there is usually a race to get the actual thesis submitted in time.  

So, it is often the case that I sit on work by my PhD students that could usefully be disseminated in the form of publications that are a little more wieldy than the thesis itself, though these are now easy enough to make available electronically. 

Today, I submitted a paper drawing on work on nuclear fusion from one student, Emma, but with later contributions from another student (Matthew, who is a current student at Surrey), and another paper got published about nuclear fission in Physical Review C today based on part of the thesis of another student, Phil, who finished his PhD last year.  The fact that the latter paper has seen the light of the day relatively quickly is thanks to Phil's co-supervisor, Arnau, who did the lion's share of kicking the draft into shape.  

If you want to read these papers that have been published / submitted, then the go-to place is the arXiv, where physicists put versions of papers before submission, updating in light of referee comments, so that they are free to read to anyone.  These versions are here and here.  The picture accompanying the post is a figure from the paper published today, showing snapshots in a simulation of fission of a plutonium isotope.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015


In celebration of the fact that there are now three Universities in the UK that have theoretical nuclear physics activity (York now, to add to Surrey and Manchester), the nuclear theory community have got together to introduce ourselves to the new group & vice versa, and to generally chew the fat (though in my case, being a vegetarian, I'm more swooshing round some olive oil).  We've spent the time in a combination of giving short talks about what we each do, and then talking a bit about that and a bit about political things.  Day one has been nice.  Our meeting is in Manchester.  As soon as we arranged the dates, it was clear that for some reason hotels were really really expensive.  Chris, the PhD student from Surrey pointed out the reason -- that Manchester United were playing a home Champions League match against a Russian team.  Though it's not my own money, I still kinda resented paying three figures per night for a room in a standard hotel in Manchester, so I'm in The Diamond Lodge, which is in the suburb of Gorton, next to the dog track.  Not necessarily the most salubrious part of town, I've been led to believe, but it's a perfectly nice hotel, and there's an easy bus ride to (close to) the University.  Anyway, the only trouble I've had here was near the University, where I met my sister-in-law for lunch.  We were in a pub when a really drunk guy came in and started dancing and singing to the song on the jukebox, with a can of Stella in his hand.  He the wandered off to another part of the pub.  After a few minutes, he found cause to spray the Stella from his can over the pub -- aimed (inadvertently, as far as I can tell) at me.  That seemed to have followed some altercation and the staff were trying to throw him out.  He was making all kinds of threats (his girlfriend was going to come and do nasty things to the bar staff, apparently), whence he left, with a last act, as he went through the door, of throwing his half-full can of Stella back into the pub, narrowly missing me.  

Oh well.  I think that was something of a one-off. For dinner, the locals had organised us a dinner at a restaurant at the centre of town called Croma.  It was okay -- I can see how people like it, but it's not really a place that caters for vegetarians, though the Margherita pizza was fine.  I left a bit hungry, though, which seems to be unfortunate for a restaurant.  

I got the bus back for the long ride to Gorton from stop E0 on Piccadilly.  For those reading that are nuclear physics experts, you will no doubt smile at the amusement I felt, as someone interested in giant monopole resonances, that I had to use a stop named E0.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Sante Fe for a day

It's that part of the year when we make our second visits to our students on their MPhys Research Year placement.  I have two students I'm responsible for making a visit to -- one based in Tennessee and another in Indiana.  Where better to combine meeting both of them in one place than at the American Physical Society nuclear physics meeting in Sante Fe, New Mexico?

It's a part of the US I haven't visited before, and it's quite something -- huge open blue skies and breathtaking landscape.  The city itself is also rather pretty, with most of the houses built in adobe (or faux-adobe, really, but still rather distinctive).  There's a lot of public artwork in the city, and the picture attached shows one of our placement students, Abdellatif, standing in front of some fish statues poking out of the shingle.

Both of these placements are in nuclear physics -- one on developing algorithms for pulse shape analysis to help pinpoint where reactions take place in radiation detectors, and the other on improving theoretical calculations of neutron capture cross sections for stellar nucleosynthesis.  Both are getting on well, and have got a lot out of their research year.  Before too long, they will be back at Surrey to take their final semester of courses, and then on to the next thing.  I will back at Surrey on Monday!