Archive for March, 2009

Clover and Out

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 31, 2009 by telescoper

One of the most exciting challenges facing the current generation of cosmologists is to locate in the pattern of fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background evidence for the primordial gravitational waves predicted by models of the Universe that involve inflation.

Looking only at the temperature variation across the sky, it is not possible to distinguish between tensor  (gravitational wave) and scalar (density wave) contributions  (both of which are predicted to be excited during the inflationary epoch).  However, scattering of photons off electrons is expected to leave the radiation slightly polarized (at the level of a few percent). This gives us additional information in the form of the  polarization angle at each point on the sky and this extra clue should, in principle, enable us to disentangle the tensor and scalar components.

The polarization signal can be decomposed into two basic types depending on whether the pattern has  odd or even parity, as shown in the nice diagram (from a paper by James Bartlett)

The top row shows the E-mode (which look the same when reflected in a mirror and can be produced by either scalar or tensor modes) and the bottom shows the B-mode (which have a definite handedness that changes when mirror-reflected and which can’t be generated by scalar modes because they can’t have odd parity).

The B-mode is therefore (in principle)  a clean diagnostic of the presence of gravitational waves in the early Universe. Unfortunately, however, the B-mode is predicted to be very small, about 100 times smaller than the E-mode, and foreground contamination is likely to be a very serious issue for any experiment trying to detect it.

An experiment called Clover (involving the Universities of  Cardiff, Oxford, Cambridge and Manchester) was designed to detect the primordial B-mode signal from its vantage point in Chile. You can read more about the way it works at the dedicated webpages here at Cardiff and at Oxford. I won’t describe it in more detail here, for reasons which will become obvious.

The chance to get involved in a high-profile cosmological experiment was one of the reasons I moved to Cardiff a couple of years ago, and I was looking forward to seeing the data arriving for analysis. Although I’m primarily a theorist, I have some experience in advanced statistical methods that might have been useful in analysing the output.  It would have been fun blogging about it too.

Unfortunately, however, none of that is ever going to happen. Because of its budget crisis, and despite the fact that it has spent a large amount (£4.5M) on it already,  STFC has just decided to withdraw the funding needed to complete it (£2.5M)  and cancel the Clover experiment.

Clover wasn’t the only B-mode experiment in the game. Its rivals include QUIET and SPIDER, both based in the States. It wasn’t clear that Clover would have won the race, but now that we know  it’s a non-runner  we can be sure it won’t.

**** Energy

Posted in Poetry, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on March 30, 2009 by telescoper

The phrase expletive deleted was made popular at the time of Watergate after the release of the expurgated tapes made by Richard Nixon in the Oval Office when he was President of the United States of America. These showed that, as well as been a complete crook, he was practically unable to speak a single sentence without including a swear word.

Nowadays the word expletive is generally taken to mean an oath or exclamation, particularly if it is obscene, but that’s not quite what it really means. Derived from the latin verb explere (“to fill out”) from which the past participle is expletus, the meaning of the word in the context of English grammar is  “something added to a phrase or sentence that isn’t strictly needed for the grammatical sense”.  An expletive is added either to fill a syntactical role or, in a poem, simply to make a line fit some metrical rule.

Examples of the former can be found in constructions like “It takes two to Tango” or “There is lots of crime in Nottingham”; neither  “it” nor “there” should really be needed but English likes to have something before the verb.

The second kind of use is illustrated wonderfully by Alexander Pope in his Essay on Criticism, which is a kind of guide to what to avoid in writing poetry. It’s a tour de force for its perceptiveness and humour. The following excerpt is pricelessly apt

These equal syllables alone require,
Tho’ oft the open vowels tire;
While expletives their feeble aid do join;
And ten low words oft creep in one dull line

Here the expletive is “do”,  and it is cleverly incorporated in the line talking about expletives, adding  the syllable needed to fit with a strict pentameter. Apparently, poets often used this construction before Pope attacked it but it quickly fell from favour afterwards.

His other prosodic targets are the “open vowels” which means initial vowels that produce an ugly glottal sound, such as in “oft” (especially ugly when following “Tho”). The last line is brilliant too, showing how using only monosyllabic “low” words makes for a line that plods along tediously just like it says.

It’s amazing how much Pope managed to fit into this poem, given the restrictions imposed by the closed couplet structure he adopted. Each idea is compressed into a unit of twenty syllables, two lines of ten syllables with a rhyme at the end of each. This is such an impressive exercise in word-play that it reminds me a lot of the skill showed by the best cryptic crossword setters. Needless to say I’m no more successful at writing poetry than I am at setting crossword clues.

After my talk in Dublin last Friday, somebody in the audience asked me what I thought about Dark Energy. There’s some discussion in the comments after my post on that too.

The Dark Energy is an ingredient added to the standard model of cosmology to reconcile  observations of a flat Universe with a matter density that seems too low to account for it.

Other than that it makes the  cosmological metric work out satisfactorily (geddit?), we don’t understand what Dark Energy means and would rather it wasn’t there.  Most people think the resulting model is inelegant or even ugly.

In other words, it’s an expletive…

Chelsea Bridge

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , , , on March 29, 2009 by telescoper

When the great American songwriter Billy Strayhorn saw the beautifully evocative painting (left) by James McNeill Whistler of one of the bridges over the River Thames, it inspired him to write an equally evocative song to be performed by his longstanding musical collaborator and friend Duke Ellington. The song was written in 1941, but it was only years later that he realized that he had named it after the wrong bridge.


The painting was of Battersea Bridge; but he had named the song  Chelsea Bridge, a much less romantic location. Nevertheless, the tune quickly became a standard, and a feature for the band’s star saxophonist, Ben Webster who carried on playing it after he left Duke Ellington’s orchestra in 1943.

By all accounts Ben Webster was a drunken brute of a man but when he played ballads like this he produced music of great warmth and delicacy. In fact, his technique on the tenor sax would probably be called “wrong” by a teacher: he didn’t use his tongue properly on the reed so his notes had to be produced by much more lung power than “normal” players use. Instead of a clean attack, each note is wafted in on a sort of phoohing sound. The breathiness of his tone  is a consequence of this and, although he produced a huge volume which was good for playing in front of a big band like Ellington’s, it also made him unable to play well at faster tempos. His playing on slow ballads, though, was often exquisitely beautiful. Who says everyone has to be a speed merchant?

Ben Webster moved to Copenhagen in 1964 along with several other great Jazz musicians, to escape the racism and consequent lack of opportunity for black artists in  his homeland. He was buried in the part of Copenhagen called Nørrebro when he died in 1973. 

I am a fairly frequent visitor to Copenhagen – I’m going there again in June, in fact – and I did visit his grave once. There’s also a restaurant named after him in the city centre.

Anyway, here he is in in 1964 playing Chelsea Bridge with the marvellous Stan Tracey on piano who featured in a previous post of mine.

The Art of Sheep

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on March 28, 2009 by telescoper

In case you’re wondering how people pass the time at the weekend here in Wales, get a load of this. It may be the strangest thing you’ve ever seen men do with sheep, but I think it’s wonderful. ..

Only in Wales!

Dublin Back

Posted in Art, Books, Talks and Reviews, Crosswords, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on March 28, 2009 by telescoper

I’m just back from a flying visit to Dublin, where I gave a talk yesterday at a meeting of the Astronomical Science Group of Ireland (ASGI), an organization which promotes scientific collaborations between individuals and institutions on both sides of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Eire. The venue for the twice-yearly meetings moves around both countries, but this time it was held in the splendid environment of Trinity College, Dublin.

It turned out to be an easy trip from Cardiff to Dublin and my first opportunity to try out Cardiff’s fine little airport. A small airline called Air Arann operates the route to Dublin from there, and it all went to schedule despite the plane having to struggle against a 70 mph head wind across the Irish sea. For our small propeller-driven plane, that made a signficant difference to the flying time.

Arriving in Dublin on Thursday I had time to have a nice dinner before settling in to my hotel in the Temple Bar region of the city. There’s a huge concentration of bars and nightclubs there and it’s a traditional area for Stag and Hen Parties. There was plenty of evidence of drunken debauchery going on into the early hours of the morning, which remind me of the way the Irish rugby fans carried on last weekend in Cardiff.

Anyway, the meeting itself was interesting with a wide range of talks most of which were given by PhD students. I enjoy meetings where the younger scientists are encouraged to speak; too many conferences involve the same people giving the same talk time after time. Solar Physics was particularly  well represented, and I learned quite a bit about about things that are far from my own province. 

There isn’t much actual cosmology done in Ireland (North or South) so my brief as invited speaker was to give an overview of the current state of the field for astronomers who are not  experts in cosmological matters. I therefore gave a summary of the concordance model which I’ve blogged about before and then made some comments about things that might point to a more complete theory of the Universe. I also mentioned some of the anomalies in the cosmic microwave background that I’ve also blogged about on here.

I usually use this piece of Hieronymus Bosch The Last Judgement to illustrate my feelings about the concordance model:



The top part represents the concordance cosmology. It clearly features an eminent cosmologist surrounded by postdoctoral researchers. Everything appears to be in heavenly harmony, surrounded by a radiant glow of self-satisfaction. The trumpets represent various forms of exaggerated press coverage.

But if you step back from it, and get the whole thing in a proper perspective, you realise that there’s an awful lot going on underneath that’s not so pleasant or easy to interptet. I don’t know what’s going down below there although the unfortunate figures slaving away in miserable conditions and suffering unimaginable torments are obviously supposed to represent graduate students.

The main point is that the concordance model is based on rather strange foundations: nobody understands what the dark matter and dark energy are, for example. Even more fundamentally, the whole thing is based on a shotgun marriage between general relativity and quantum field theory which is doomed to fail somewhere along the line.

Far from being a final theory of the Universe I think we should treat our standard model as a working hypothesis and actively look for departures from it. I’m not at all against the model. As models go, it’s very successful. It’s a good one, but it’s still just a model.

That reminds me of the school report I got after my first year at the Royal Grammar School. The summary at the bottom described me as a “model student”. I was so thrilled I went and looked up the word model in a dictionary and found it said “a small imitation of the real thing.”

Anyway, the talk went down pretty well (I think) and after a quick glass of Guinness (which definitely went down well) I was back to Dublin airport and home to Cardiff soon after that: Cardiff airport to my house was less than twenty minutes. I greatly enjoyed my short visit and was delighted to be asked to do a couple of seminars back there in the near future.

I was in a  good mood when I got home, which got even better when I found out that I won the latest Crossword competition in the Times Literary Supplement. And the prize isn’t even a dictionary. It’s cash!

Honoured amongst bloggers…

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on March 25, 2009 by telescoper

I only have time for a quickie today as I have to spend this evening getting things together for my forthcoming trip to the Irish Republic for a talk in Dublin (which I’ll no doubt ramble on about when I get back).

I hear dark rumblings about the STFC financial crisis turning into a full-scale disaster owing to inept management, but I’ll refrain from going into details until it all becomes official. Suffice to say for now that, if you thought things were bad already, just watch this space…

Anyway, at least today brought some news that flattered my ego. Ian Douglas at the Daily Telegraph has seen fit to put this blog on his list of five great physics blogs. He’s obviously a man of great taste. Quite cute too. I’ll have to revise my opinion of the Daily Telegraph.

But no.

They have boring crosswords.

The Eightsome Reels

Posted in Crosswords, Literature with tags , on March 24, 2009 by telescoper

As an ardent cruciverbalist, I couldn’t resist posting this week’s Observer Crossword just to show you one of the interesting variations that Azed comes up with from time to time:


It’s probably a bit small to read  the clues, or even the instructions, but the point to grasp is that the answers are all 8 letters long and they have to be fitted in the squares surrounding the corresponding number. The trouble is that you’re not told which square to start from, or whether the letters are to be entered clockwise or anticlockwise.


The only way I know to start one of these puzzles is to solve several adjacent clues before entering them in the diagram and then see if I can find a way to fit them together on a bit of scrap paper. The structure of the diagram guarantees many checked letters (i.e. overlaps) between neighbouring answers so once you have a few then the subsequent ones get easier to fit in. These puzzles are usually difficult to start though.

Fortunately, however, in this one  I managed to get four  answers quite quickly:

2. As seen in bill fluctuating energy’s prone to fuse?

This is “liquable”, from “qua” meaning “as” in anagram of “bill”+e for energy, meaning able to melt.

3. Army regulation, devious blague open to dispute

Is clearly “arguable” (army regulation=ar+anagram of blague, “open to dispute” is the definition).

8. Easily duped once returning ball is eclipsed by Murray’s `gold’?

A little harder, but the word “once” suggests an obsolete spelling so the answer is “gullable” (“ball” backwards in “gule”, a Scottish form of “gold”, hence the reference to Murray).

9. Libel law curiously subject to decree?

Is “willable” (anagram of “libel law”; “subject to decree” being the definition).

With those four answers to fit in the squares around 2,  3, 8 and 9 I had plenty of checked letters and could find only one way to make it work. The remaining clues fell into place eventually, although it took me well over an hour to finish it on Sunday afternoon.

Nice puzzle though.

In the ongoing Azed competition for budding crossword cluers, I’m not doing so well. I did pick up a “highly commended” for my last clue, in competition No. 1918,  for the word PALAMPORE (a kind of Nepalese bedcover, don’t you know), but From the dizzying heights of 28th place, I’ve slipped down the table to 33rd.  Still, the winning clue for PALAMPORE was a real beauty:

Spread – array of two pages or a meal?

This involves an anagram of “pp+or a meal” with two different definitions of spread in the cryptic part. Very ingenious, and certainly better than my attempt (which I’m ashamed to include). Esteem to D.F. Manley, who wrote this clue and who is heading the Azed Honours Table for this year after 9 competitions.

Social Physics and Astronomy

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on March 23, 2009 by telescoper

When I give popular talks about Cosmology,  I sometimes look for appropriate analogies or metaphors in television programmes about forensic science, such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation which I used to watch quite regularly (to the disdain of many of my colleagues and friends). Cosmology is methodologically similar to forensic science because it is generally necessary in both these fields to proceed by observation and inference, rather than experiment and deduction: cosmologists have only one Universe;  forensic scientists have only one scene of the crime. They can collect trace evidence, look for fingerprints, establish or falsify alibis, and so on. But they can’t do what a laboratory physicist or chemist would typically try to do: perform a series of similar experimental crimes under slightly different physical conditions. What we have to do in cosmology is the same as what detectives do when pursuing an investigation: make inferences and deductions within the framework of a hypothesis that we continually subject to empirical test. This process carries on until reasonable doubt is exhausted, if that ever happens.

Of course there is much more pressure on detectives to prove guilt than there is on cosmologists to establish the truth about our Cosmos. That’s just as well, because there is still a very great deal we do not know about how the Universe works.I have a feeling that I’ve stretched this analogy to breaking point but at least it provides some kind of excuse for writing about an interesting historical connection between astronomy and forensic science by way of the social sciences.

The gentleman shown in the picture on the left is Lambert Adolphe Jacques Quételet, a Belgian astronomer who lived from 1796 to 1874. His principal research interest was in the field of celestial mechanics. He was also an expert in statistics. In Quételet’s  time it was by no means unusual for astronomers to well-versed in statistics, but he  was exceptionally distinguished in that field. Indeed, Quételet has been called “the father of modern statistics”. and, amongst other things he was responsible for organizing the first ever international conference on statistics in Paris in 1853.


His fame as a statistician owed less to its applications to astronomy, however, than the fact that in 1835 he had written a very influential book which, in English, was titled A Treatise on Man but whose somewhat more verbose original French title included the phrase physique sociale (“social physics”).

Apparently the philosopher Auguste Comte was annoyed that Quételet appropriated the phrase “social physics” because he did not approve of the quantitative statistical-based  approach that it had come to represent. For that reason Comte  ditched the term from his own work and invented the subject of  sociology…

Quételet had been struck not only by the regular motions performed by the planets across the sky, but also by the existence of strong patterns in social phenomena, such as suicides and crime. If statistics was essential for understanding the former, should it not be deployed in the study of the latter? Quételet’s first book was an attempt to apply statistical methods to the development of man’s physical and intellectual faculties. His follow-up book Anthropometry, or the Measurement of Different Faculties in Man (1871) carried these ideas further, at the expense of a much clumsier title.

This foray into “social physics” was controversial at the time, for good reason. It also made Quételet extremely famous in his lifetime and his influence became widespread. For example, Francis Galton wrote about the deep impact Quételet had on a certain British lady:

Her statistics were more than a study, they were indeed her religion. For her Quételet was the hero as scientist, and the presentation copy of his “Social Physics” is annotated on every page. Florence Nightingale believed – and in all the actions of her life acted on that belief – that the administrator could only be successful if he were guided by statistical knowledge. The legislator – to say nothing of the politician – too often failed for want of this knowledge. Nay, she went further; she held that the universe – including human communities – was evolving in accordance with a divine plan; that it was man’s business to endeavour to understand this plan and guide his actions in sympathy with it. But to understand God’s thoughts, she held we must study statistics, for these are the measure of His purpose. Thus the study of statistics was for her a religious duty.

The name of the lady in question was Florence Nightingale. Not many people know that she was an adept statistician who was an early advocate of the use of pie charts to represent data graphically; she apparently found them useful when dealing with dim-witted army officers and dimmer-witted politicians.

The type of thinking described in the quote  also spawned a number of highly unsavoury developments in pseudoscience, such as the eugenics movement (in which Galton himself was involved), and some of the vile activities related to it that were carried out in Nazi Germany. But an idea is not responsible for the people who believe in it, and Quételet’s work did lead to many good things, such as the beginnings of forensic science.

A young medical student by the name of Louis-Adolphe Bertillon was excited by the whole idea of “social physics”, to the extent that he found himself imprisoned for his dangerous ideas during the revolution of 1848, along with one of his Professors, Achile Guillard, who later invented the subject of demography, the study of racial groups and regional populations. When they were both released, Bertillon became a close confidante of Guillard and eventually married his daughter Zoé. Their second son, Adolphe Bertillon, turned out to be a prodigy.

Young Adolphe was so inspired by Quételet’s work, which had no doubt been introduced to him by his father, that he hit upon a novel way to solve crimes. He would create a database of measured physical characteristics of convicted criminals. He chose 11 basic measurements, including length and width of head, right ear, forearm, middle and ring fingers, left foot, height, length of trunk, and so on. On their own none of these individual characteristics could be probative, but it ought to be possible to use a large number of different measurements to establish identity with a very high probability. Indeed, after two years’ study, Bertillon reckoned that the chances of two individuals having all 11 measurements in common were about four million to one. He further improved the system by adding photographs, in portrait and from the side, and a note of any special marks, like scars or moles.

Bertillonage, as this system became known, was rather cumbersome but proved highly successful in a number of high-profile criminal cases in Paris. By 1892, Bertillon was exceedingly famous but nowadays the word bertillonage only appears in places like the Observer’s Azed crossword.

The main reason why Bertillon’s fame subsided and his system fell into disuse was the development of an alternative and much simpler method of criminal identification: fingerprints. The first systematic use of fingerprints on a large scale was implemented in India in 1858 in an attempt to stamp out electoral fraud.

The name of the British civil servant who had the idea of using fingerprinting in this way was William Herschel, although I don’t think he was related to the astronomer of the same name.

That would be too much of a coincidence.


Posted in Biographical, Uncategorized with tags , , , , on March 22, 2009 by telescoper

I haven’t blogged for a few days largely because I’ve been too busy doing other things like teaching and writing grant applications. This is because we have a deadline for the Astronomy group‘s STFC rolling grant application coming up in early April. This is a complicated thing to put together and I’m glad I don’t have the responsibility to assemble the whole thing. I have been charged with the responsibility of putting together the section on cosmology, which should have been easier than it proved owing to the reluctance of some of my colleages to get their fingers out and provide their contributions.

We’re also reaching the end of the term, with the holidays starting on Friday 27th March. I can’t wait. This term seems to have gone on for ages. It’s certainly much longer than last year owing to the late arrival of Easter in 2009. For the second half of this semester I have to give some lectures on particle physics to the third years, which I enjoy doing, but preparing and delivering lectures does take up a lot of time and energy, even if it doesn’t appear that way to the students!

I don’t usually take holidays other than a few days here and there tacked onto the end of a conference, a long weekend here and there, or a few days off at home in the summer to do a spot of gardening. I don’t think I’ll go anywhere at Easter either but I’m definitely going to take some time off to do some things that need doing around the house.

Anyway, on Thursday night I have to fly to Ireland to give a talk on Friday at a meeting at Trinity College, Dublin, so my term finishes on Thursday afternoon. I can’t wait.

Speaking of Ireland, I must mention yesterday’s extraordinary scenes in Cardiff as the RBS Six Nations Rugby came to a close with a dramatic match between Ireland and Wales. Ireland had won all four of its previous matches against England, Scotland, France and Italy so was on the brink of a Grand Slam in this tournament for only the second time, the previous occasion being way back in 1948 when it was called the Five Nations; Italy joined in relatively recently (in 2000). Wales, on the other hand, had only lost one game this year (to France) so if they beat Ireland they stood a chance of winning the competition, although not with a Grand Slam of course. If two teams are level on the basis of games won, then the points tally is taken into consideration to decide the competition winner. Wales would have to beat Ireland by 13 clear points to take the Championship.

The importance of this sporting occasion, along with the glorious sunny weather, brought unbelievably huge crowds into Cardiff yesterday. The capacity of the magnificent Millennium Stadium is about 80,000 but I’m told that there were 3-4 Irish people without tickets for the match for every one that made it inside the ground. I think Dublin must have been a ghost town for the day. The streets of Cardiff were alive with red (Welsh) and green (Irish) colours, so much so that it was difficult to move around the City Centre all day yesterday, and well nigh impossible to get a drink in the heaving bars.

Because many Irish fans hadn’t booked hotels, there were rugby fans camping out on Pontcanna fields near my home, which is only about 15 minutes from the stadium. There’s a good number of pubs near where I live (no coincidence, I assure you) including one, The Half Way, which is a favourite haunt for sports fans. Yesterday it was packed out from 11am onwards, although the Wales-Ireland match didn’t start until 5.30pm.

After watching France thrash Italy in the first match of three on Saturday on my TV, I had been hoping to pop into the pub and have a pint while watching England play Scotland in the penultimate Six Nations match (for the Calcutta Cup) on the big screen, but there was no chance of getting a drink so I watched that one at home too. I don’t think a lone Englishman would have been a good thing to be in that crowd anyway! England managed to beat Scotland after putting in a good first-half performance, which meant that they would be second in the competition if Ireland won the Grand Slam. So then it was all set up nicely for the decider.

As it turned out, I think the pressure got to both sets of players and the match was a hectic scrappy affair riddled with errors by both teams. Unusually for rugby, half an hour passed before any points were scored as attack after attack ended with some form of breakdown, such as a knock-on or a penalty. By half time it was Wales who had inched ahead with two penalties to leave the score 6-0. However, after the break Ireland scored two converted tries in quick succession to make it 14-6. Then they seemed to lose their composure a bit and gave away a string of penalties, three of which were kicked for points by Welshman Stephen Jones. Suddenly Wales were ahead 15-14. With the clock running down, a quick drop goal from O’gara after smart work from the Irish pack left them in front 17-15.

But that wasn’t quite it. With no time left on the clock, Wales had a penalty in the centre of the field, so the last kick of the game could win it for them at 17-18. Stephen Jones, who had kicked all of Wales’ points in the game, gave it a big hoof but it was too far out and the ball fell short. Victory (17-15) and the Grand Slam went to Ireland.

The celebrating Irish fans flocked into Cardiff to enjoy their victory. Much drunkenness and out-of-tune singing followed up and down my street for the rest of the evening, but it had been a fine occasion and it was all in very good humour. The high spirits carried on until the early hours: I was woken up at 3.30am by the sound of a couple shagging on the bonnet of a car in front of my house. I peeped out through the blinds of my bedroom window to see what was going on. I can tell you it wasn’t a pretty sight, but it was certainly very funny. If I’d had a camcorder I would have posted the video..

Anyway, the end of the Six Nations together with the accompanying nocturnal fertility ritual, is yet another indication that Spring is here. The good weather has continued into today, but looks like we might be in for a bit of a change over the next few days.

It being Mothering Sunday (which is its proper name, not Mother’s Day) I was talking to my Mum (in Newcastle) on the phone today after her flowers arrived, and she told me that the weather there has already turned much colder.

We have now passed the Vernal Equinox, which actually happened on Friday 20th March this year. This makes it officially Spring, I guess, and the only remaining formality of this transition is that we switch to British Summer Time from Greenwich Mean Time next weekend.

Finally, in this embarrassingly rambling post, caused no doubt by the fact I didn’t sleep well last night owing to things going bump in the night, I remembered that one of my first blog posts was inspired by the Autumnal Equinox last September, which also happened during a period of clement weather.

This tale of two Equinoxes tells me I have now been blogging for over 6 months. I didn’t think I’d spend as much time doing this as has turned out to be the case, but I have to admit I’ve found it quite addictive. I also didn’t imagine when I started that I’d get so many readers.

So for the time being it’s cheerio, and thanks for all the hits!

Hard Cash

Posted in Science Politics, Uncategorized with tags , , on March 19, 2009 by telescoper

The Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) has finally announced its cash allocations for Welsh Universities over the period 2009-10. The settlement of English Universities (produced by HEFCE) has been public for quite a while already.

On the back of a poor showing in the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) by Cardiff University we were all braced for a cut in our recurrent grant, which has indeed turned out to be the case. Our total grant for teaching and research has been cut in cash terms by about 1.3% with most of the hit coming in the QR money that was allocated according to the RAE. This cut amounts to losing about £2M from the University’s budget and, including inflation, is more like a 3% cut in real terms.

That sounds bad enough (even the fact that there is a minus sign is pretty poor), but there are exacerbating factors on top. First, the National Pay Agreement has given University staff large pay rises over the past year or so. Given the large fraction of a University’s budget that goes on salaries, this means that a positive change in the grant would have been required to keep pace with the increased cost of staff wages. I’m ignoring other sources of income, of course, such as external research grants and endowments but the latter are less important to us in Cardiff than they are, for example, in Oxbridge. Moreover, the recent dire performance of the various University pension schemes has led to the proposal – virtually certain to be agreed – that the employers’ contributions should rise by 2%. This also has a big effect on the University’s budget.

The particular implications of all this for the School of Physics & Astronomy are yet to be worked out in detail, but a safe working assumption is an effective cut in our own budget of about 10%. Unless we can drastically increase our external income then some of our planned activity will have to be curtailed. With STFC having a budget crisis of its own, there seems little prospect of increasing our income from that source so it looks like we’re in for a challenging time.

There were winners in Wales, notably Swansea which has enjoyed a cash increase of about 10%, and some even bigger losers than Cardiff such as Lampeter, already a struggling institution, which has to endure a cut of 9% in its HEFCW grant.

The funding allocations for English Universities have been handled a bit differently to Wales, partly by the introduction of transitional relief to assuage the pain of some large Universities who would have suffered large drops in grant. HEFCE also ring-fenced funding for Science Technology and Medicine (STEM) subjects which helped out places like Imperial College, who would otherwise have had a cut; as it is, their allocation is up by 0.1% in cash. There was no attempt by HEFCW to implement this type of damage limitation, although it did put some extra money into STEM subjects from “other resources”.

It’s interesting to note that Cardiff’s share of the QR funds is actually steady at about 50% which is roughly where as a result of the previous exercise. Application of the English formula in 2001 would have given Cardiff 75% of the QR funding in Wales, which was decided to be politically unacceptable so it was capped at 50%. I think HEFCW used the English formula this time because it kept Cardiff at the level HEFCW wanted it at…

Furthermore the settlement for England as a whole is a tad more generous than Wales. The overall cash settlement for Welsh Universities is up by about 1.66% over last year, whereas that for England is up by 4.1%. The origin of the difference is in the QR funds which in England are up by 7.7% in cash terms but rise by a much lower amount in Wales. This isn’t HEFCW’s fault of course: it has to work with the funds allocated to it by the Welsh Assembly.

Among the English Universities to have done well overall are two that I used to work at. The University of Nottingham has a total grant that has increased by about 9.6% and Queen Mary has trumped that with 10.4%. However, another of my previous haunts, the University of Sussex is one of the few English institutions to have a cash cut like Cardiff’s. Their total grant is cut by 1.4%, which is a tough deal for them. I think the ring-fencing of STEM subjects probably hasn’t helped Sussex as much as some other institutions, as its traditional research strengths are in Arts and Humanities. The biggest loser in England is the troubled Thames Valley University, which has a cash cut of 11.7%. Ouch!

I think I’ve made it clear (here, here, here, here and here) that I think the RAE was a bit of a botch generally and that Physics was particularly badly done by. The outcome has certainly hit Cardiff School of Physics & Astronomy hard. I still can’t understand why our research was rated so poorly. Nature papers with over a thousand citations were not graded 4* by the panel, or at least not when submitted from Cardiff.

When I moved here, I had dreams of building up a nice little cosmology group but it looks like there’s not much chance of this happening, unless we find some way of getting some more money into Welsh physics. Welsh University Physics Alliance anyone?

But the cards have now been dealt. At least we know what sort of hand we’ve got. Now we have to get on playing it as best we can.