Archive for May, 2010

Now the Great Bear and Pleiades

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , on May 31, 2010 by telescoper

This Bank Holiday Monday I’ve been resolutely doing nothing at all, and very nice it’s been. I’m going to be similarly lazy about blogging today too, and just put up a piece of music. Some of you may know that BBC Radio 3 have recently been searching for the Nation’s Favourite Aria. Nominations are  accepted by email to but the closing date is tomorrow (1st June). A list of the ten most popular nominations will be published on 2nd June and listeners are then invited to vote on the one they like best.

They’ve been playing the nominations as they come in and, as you’d expect, there seems to be a strong tendency to Puccini and Verdi. Nothing wrong with that, of course. You can always rely on them for a great tune.  If you have a favourite, why not send it in? I’ll just point out that it has to be a solo aria, no duos, trios, quartets or even choruses allowed! I’m interested to see the top ten is, but I’ll bet Nessun Dorma is in there.

Anyway, I’ve already emailed my suggestion in. I don’t know whether it will make the final list but I think it provides one of the greatest passages in one of the greatest of all operas, Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten. Most people I know who have seen Peter Grimes think it is a masterpiece, and I’m interested to see another physics blog has already discussed this aria. Still, I don’t think Britten is sufficiently appreciated even in the land of his birth. There aren’t that many operas written in English so perhaps we feel a little uncomfortable when we can actually understand what’s going on without reading the surtitles?

I’ve often heard Peter Grimes described as one of the great operas written in English. Well, as far as I’m concerned you can drop “written in English” from that sentence and it’s still true. It’s certainly in my mind fit to put up alongside anything by Verdi, Puccini, Wagner and even Mozart.

In this aria it’s not just the extraordinary vocal line, beginning way up among the “head notes” beyond a tenor’s usual range, that makes it such a  powerful piece of music,  but also the tragic poetry in the words. The main character of Peter Grimes is neither hero nor villain, but  a man trapped in his own destiny. It’s a tragedy in the truest sense of the word:

Now the great Bear and Pleiades
where earth moves
Are drawing up the clouds
of human grief
Breathing solemnity in the deep night.
Who can decipher
In storm or starlight
The written character
of a friendly fate
As the sky turns, the world for us to change?
But if the horoscope’s
Like a flashing turmoil
of a shoal of herring,
Who can turn skies back and begin again?

The part of Peter Grimes was actually written by Britten specifically to suit the voice of his partner, Peter Pears, who performed the role first. The classic recording of that performance is wonderful, but I’ve picked a later version starring Jon Vickers which is different but also excellent. For its combination of musical expressiveness and dramatic intensity, this music really does take some beating even if you listen to it on its own outside the context of the opera.

Turning the Tables

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , on May 30, 2010 by telescoper

In Andy Fabian‘s Presidential Address to the Royal Astronomical Society (published in the June 2010 issue of Astronomy and Geophysics) he discusses the impact of UK astronomy both on academic research and wider society. It’s a very interesting article that makes a number of good points, not the least of which is how difficult it is to measure “impact” for a fundamental science such as astronomy. I encourage you all to read the piece.

One of the fascinating things contained in that article is the following table, which shows the number of papers published in Space Sciences (including astronomy) in the period 1999-2009 (2nd column) with their citation counts (3rd Column) and citations per paper (4th column):

USA 53561 961779 17.96
UK(not NI) 18288 330311 18.06
Germany 16905 279586 16.54
England 15376 270290 17.58
France 13519 187830 13.89
Italy  11485 172642 15.03
Japan 8423 107886 12.81
Canada 5469 102326 18.71
Netherlands 5604 100220 17.88
Spain 6709 88979 13.26
Australia 4786 83264 17.40
Chile 3188 57732 18.11
Scotland 2219 48429 21.82
Switzerland 2821 46973 16.65
Poland 2563 32362 12.63
Sweden 2065 30374 14.71
Israel 1510 29335 19.43
Denmark 1448 26156 18.06
Hungary 761 16925 22.24
Portugal  780 13258 17.00
Wales 693 11592 16.73

I’m not sure why Northern Ireland isn’t included, but I suspect it’s because the original compilation (from the dreaded ISI Thompson database) lists England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland separately and the latter didn’t make it into the top twenty; the entry for the United Kingdom is presumably constructed from the numbers for the other three. Of course many highly-cited papers involve international collaborations, so some of the papers will be in common to more than one country.

Based on citation counts alone you can see that the UK is comfortably in second place, with a similar count per paper to the USA.  However, the number that really caught my eye is Scotland’s citations per paper which, at 21.82, is significantly higher than most. In fact, if you sort by this figure rather than by the overall citation count then the table looks very different:


Hungary 761 16925 22.24
Scotland 2219 48429 21.82
Israel 1510 29335 19.43
Canada 5469 102326 18.71
Chile 3188 57732 18.11
UK (not NI) 18288 330311 18.06
Denmark 1448 26156 18.06
USA 53561 961779 17.96
Netherlands 5604 100220 17.88
England 15376 270290 17.58
Australia 4786 83264 17.40
Portugal  780 13258 17.00
Wales 693 11592 16.73
Switzerland 2821 46973 16.65
Germany 16905 279586 16.54
Italy  11485 172642 15.03
Sweden 2065 30374 14.71
France 13519 187830 13.89
Spain 6709 88979 13.26
Japan 8423 107886 12.81
Poland 2563 32362 12.63

Wales climbs to a creditable 13th place while the UK as a whole falls to 6th. Scotland is second only to Hungary. Hang on. Hungary? Why does Hungary have an average of  22.24 citations per paper? I’d love to know.  The overall number of papers is quite low so there must be some citation monsters among them. Any ideas?

Notice how some of the big spenders in this area – Japan, Germany, France and Italy – slide down the table when this metric is used. I think this just shows the limitations of trying to use a single figure of merit. It would be interesting to know – although extremely difficult to find out – how these counts relate to the number of people working in space sciences in each country. The UK, for example, is involved in about a third as many publications as the USA but the number of astronomers in the UK must be much less than a third of the corresponding figure for America. It would be interesting to see a proper comparison of all these countries’ investment in this area, both in terms of people and in money…

..which brings me to Andy Lawrence’s recent blog post which reports that the Italian Government is seriously considering closing down the INAF (Italy’s National Institute for Astrophysics). What this means for astronomy and astrophysics funding in Italy I don’t know. INAF has only existed since 2002 anyway, so it could just mean an expensive bureaucracy will be dismantled and things will go back to the way they were before then. On the other hand, it could be far worse than that and since Berlusconi is involved it probably will be.

Those in control of the astronomy budget in this country have also made it clear that they think there are too many astronomers in the UK, although the basis for this decision escapes me.  Recent deep cuts in grant funding have already convinced some British astronomers to go abroad. With more cuts probably on the way, this exodus is bound to accelerate. I suspect those that leave  won’t be going to Italy, but I agree with Andy Fabian that it’s very difficult to see how the UK will be able to hold  its excellent position in the world rankings for much longer.

Astronomy Look-alikes, No. 28

Posted in Astronomy Lookalikes with tags , , on May 29, 2010 by telescoper

Am I alone in thinking that Professor Paul Shellard of Cambridge University looks a bit like Dick Dastardly from the Wacky Races? Failing that, there’s always Terry-Thomas…


Posted in Opera with tags , , , on May 29, 2010 by telescoper

Tonight’s the night of the dreadful Eurovision Song Contest, which I won’t be watching, but I thought I’d take the opportunity to post a reminder of the days when Eurovision was, at least occasionally, much classier. Here’s a live Eurovision broadcast from 1957, featuring Maria Callas. The aria is Casta Diva, from Norma by Vincenzo Bellini, a masterpiece of Italian Bel Canto opera. Gorgeous.

Astronomy Look-alikes, No. 27

Posted in Astronomy Lookalikes with tags , , on May 28, 2010 by telescoper

A few years ago Professor Nick Kaiser mentioned to me that people said he reminded them of Austin Powers. More recently, however, I’ve noticed that Nick looks less like the International Man of Mystery and more like his arch-rival, Dr Evil. He must have been spending too much time using a Mac.

Professor Kaiser

Doctor Evil

Clustering in the Deep

Posted in Bad Statistics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on May 27, 2010 by telescoper

I couldn’t resist a quick lunchtime post about the results that have come out concerning the clustering of galaxies found by the HerMES collaboration using the Herschel Telescope. There’s quite a lengthy press release accompanying the new results, and there’s not much point in repeating the details here, so I’ll just show a wonderful image showing thousands of galaxies and their far-infrared colours.

Image Credit: European Space Agency, SPIRE and HERMES consortia

According to the press release, this looks “like grains of sand”. I wonder if whoever wrote the text was deliberately referring to Genesis 22:17?

.. they shall multiply as the stars of the heaven, and as the grains of sand upon the sea shore.

However, let me take issue a little with the following excerpt from said press release:

While at a first glance the galaxies look to be scattered randomly over the image, in fact they are not. A closer look will reveals that there are regions which have more galaxies in, and regions that have fewer.

A while ago I posted an item asking what “scattered randomly” is meant to mean. It included this picture

This is what a randomly-scattered set of points actually looks like. You’ll see that it also has some regions with more galaxies in them than others. Coincidentally, I showed the same  picture again this morning in one of my postgraduate lectures on statistics and a majority of the class – as I’m sure do many of you seeing it for the first time –  thought it showed a clustered pattern. Whatever “randomness” means precisely, the word certainly implies some sort of variation whereas the press release implies the opposite. I think a little re-wording might be in order.

What galaxy clustering statistics reveal is that the variation in density from place-to-place is greater than that expected in a random distribution like that shown. This has been known since the 1960s, so it’s not  the result that these sources are clustered that’s so important. In fact, The preliminary clustering results from the HerMES surveys – described in a little more detail in a short paper available on the arXIv – are especially  interesting because they show that some of the galaxies seen in this deep field are extremely bright (in the far-infrared), extremely distant, high-redshift objects which exhibit strong spatial correlations. The statistical form of this clustering provides very useful input for theorists trying to model the processes of galaxy formation and evolution.In particular, the brightest objects at high redshift have a propensity to appear preferentially in dense concentrations, making them even more strongly clustered than rank-and-file galaxies. This fact probably contains important information about the environmental factors responsible for driving their enormous luminosities.

The results are still preliminary, but we’re starting to see concrete evidence of the impact Herschel is going to have on extragalactic astrophysics.


Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on May 26, 2010 by telescoper

I try my best to get on with my fellow human beings. I’m a sociable sort of chap, within reason. I’m pretty tolerant of other peoples’ opinions. I don’t expect other people to be interested in everything I am, and it doesn’t worry me too much if they turn out to be fascinated by things that I find bizarre or simply unininteresting. And since I’ve never been one to go with the crowd just for the sake of it, it doesn’t get me down if I’m left out when others enjoy something I find boring.

But there are a few things that sometimes make me feel like I was born on a different planet. Nothing drives home this feeling of alienation more than listening to people talk about Apple products, especially the dreaded Mac computers. Stephen Fry is the worst culprit, publically slavering over his Macs – I believe he owns several – to an extent that severely jeopardises his status as English National Treasure.

The Apple fraternity is particularly prominent in Astronomy. Go to an astronomy conference and you’re likely to find gaggles of them drooling over each other’s laptops and notebooks. You’re also likely to be sitting in the audience twiddling your thumbs for ages while one of the speakers fiddles about trying to get their computer to work with the data projector. If that happens, you can bet your bottom dollar that it’s a Mac that’s to blame.

Macs are brilliant, you hear their owners say. Well, perhaps they are almost as good as real computers, except you need to bring special adaptors to connect them to anything at all, you won’t be able to use the internet, the software isn’t compatible with this that and the other, they’re roughly twice the price of a PC with equivalent (or better) capabilities, and the hard disk is almost certain to seize after about a year. But so what if they don’t work as well as a proper machine? If you have one, you have a passport to Nerd Nirvana. In the kingdom of the geeks, it’s the geek with a Mac that is king.

I hope you’ll forgive me for not jumping aboard the Mac Bandwagon (Applecart?). I just don’t get it. Otherwise intelligent people have tried to convert me and succeeded only in scaring me. It’s the glazed eyes and puerile obsessiveness that does it. A Mac must come with some sort of brainwashing device that makes owners blind to its obvious limitations. I hope there’s a cure, otherwise the MacZombies will take over the world.

It’s not just Macs, of course, but all the gadgets prefixed by the dreaded “i”: iPod, iPhone, iPad, iNeedaweewee and iDunnowhat.

I do have an iPod, in fact. It’s fine. No better and no worse than an ordinary MP3 player, of course, but perfectly OK for its purpose. Apart from the earphones,  which are deliberately manufactured to be entirely useless so you have to go and buy proper ones straight away.

Incidentally, I never never got around to filing a patent for my invention, the uPod. This is a similar device to an iPod, but the wearer of the earphones experiences perfect silence while the uPod broadcasts an annoying tinny racket to everyone within a 10-metre radius. It  is designed for use in the quiet coach on a train.

The software you have to use with an iPod  is quite another thing. I’m thoroughly sick of iTunes, which I believe to be controlled by aliens with the intention of destroying the Earth. It keeps taking over my computer and insisting that it is it and nothing else that should control all my media files. Moreover, update your iTunes with care. You can’t undo the upgrade and the likelihood is your new software won’t be compatible with your old iPod. An evil trick to make you buy new hardware. Shame on you, Apple.

A Crapple Device

On the other hand, I don’t have an iPhone and have no intention of getting one. I know people who have them and show me all the “apps” they have on it. Fine. I hope there’s an app for finding a job after you get sacked for playing with your iPhone all the time instead  of doing your work. Give me my  Blackberry over your  iPhone, anytime.

And as for the iPad, there are only two problems with it. It’s too small for a doorstop and too big for a paperweight.

You’re probably wondering what caused me to vent my spleen about the evil empire of Crapple. Up until today I’ve kept quiet about my feelings lest I appear a bit weird. Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m the very epitome of normality. But today I read something that has put me in touch with my inner Luddite and given me the  inner strength to stand up and speak out against the obvious threat to our civilisation caused by these Apple gizmos and the people they control.

Today’s excellent new issue of Private Eye has a new cartoon strip – called iBores – which takes a brave stand against the Menace of the Mac. It’s a must-read for all Mac addicts, and just may save the human race from Apple oblivion. The fightback starts today.

Water and Energy

Posted in Biographical, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on May 25, 2010 by telescoper

I’ve refrained from blogging about the fraught history of my attempts to have a new  gas boiler installed in my house. Today, however, at last I have finally succeed in getting a state-of-the-art high-efficiency condensing contraption fit for the 21st Century, which will hopefully save me a few bob in gas bills over the winter but, more importantly, actually produce hot water for more than a minute or so without switching itself off.

The chaps that did the job for me actually had to test all the radiators too, which meant switching them all up to maximum. It wasn’t quite as hot today as it was yesterday but nevertheless the inside of the house was like a Turkish bath for a while. I therefore sat outside in the Sun for a bit waiting for them to get finished and tidy everything up.

While I was sitting there I got thinking about sustainable energy and so on, and was reminded of a comment Martin Rees made in his Reith Lecture not long ago. Wanting to sound positive about renewable energy he referred to the prospect of generating significant tidal power using a Severn Barrage. Given the local relevance to Cardiff – one of the main ideas is a barrage right across the Severn Estuary from Cardiff to Weston-super-Mare -so he presumably thought he was on safe ground mentioning it. In fact there was a lot of uneasy shuffling in seats at that point and the question session at the end generated some tersely sceptical comments. Many locals are not at all happy about the possible environmental impact of the Severn Barrage. That, and the cost – probably in excess of £20 billion – has to be set against the fact that such a barrage could in principle generate 2GW average power from an entirely renewable source. This would reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and increase our energy security too. The resources probably aren’t available right now given the parlous state of the public finances, but I’m glad that the Welsh Assembly Government is backing serious study of the various options. It may be that it won’t be long before we’re forced to think about it anyway. The Wikipedia page on the various proposals for a Severn Barrage is very comprehensive, so I won’t rehearse the arguments here. In any case, I’m no engineer and can’t comment on the specifics of the technology required to construct, e.g., a tidal-stream generator. However, I have to say that I find the idea pretty compelling, provided ways can be found to mitigate its environmental impact.

For a start it’s instructive to look at turbine-generated power. Wind turbines  are cropping up around the British isles, either individually or in wind farms. A  typical wind turbine can generate about 1MW in favourable weather conditions, but it needs an awful lot of them to produce anything like the power of a conventional power station. They’re also relatively unpredictable so can’t be relied upon on their own for continuous power generation. The power P available from a wind turbine is given roughly by

P \simeq \frac{1}{2} \epsilon \rho A v^3

where v is the wind speed, A is the area of the turbine, \rho is the density of air, which is about 1.2 kg per cubic metre, and \epsilon is the efficiency with which the turbine converts the kinetic energy of the air into useable electricity.

The same formula would apply to a turbine placed in water, immediately showing the advantage of tidal power.  For comparable efficiencies and sizes the ratio of power generated in a tidal-stream turbine to a wind turbine would be

\frac{P_{t}}{P_{w}}\simeq \frac{\rho_{t}}{\rho_{w}} \left( \frac{v_{t}}{v_{w}}\right)^{3}

The speed of the water in a tidal stream can be comparable to the airspeed in a moderate wind, in which case the term in brackets doesn’t matter and it’s just the ratio of the densities of water and air that counts, and that’s a large number! Of course wind speed can sometimes be larger than the fastest tidal current, but wind turbines don’t work efficiently in such conditions and in any case it isn’t the v which provides the killer factor. The density of sea water is about 1025 kg per cubic metre, a thousand times greater than that of air. To get the same energy output from air as from a tidal stream you would need to have winds blowing steadily ten times the velocity of the stream, which would be about 80 knots for the Severn. More than breezy!

Not all proposals for the Severn Barrage involve tidal stream turbines. Some exploit the gravitational potential energy rather than the kinetic energy of the water by exploiting the vertical rise and fall during a tidal cycle rather than the horizontal flow. The energy to be exploited in, for example, a tidal basin of area A  would go as

E \simeq \frac{1}{2} \epsilon A\rho gh^{2}

where h is the vertical tidal range, about 8 metres for the Severn Estuary, and g is the acceleration due to gravity. The average power generated would be found by dividing this amount of energy by 12 hours, the time between successive high tides. It remains to be seen whether tidal basin or lagoon based on this principle emerges as competitive.

Another thing that struck me doodling these things on the back of an envelope in the garden is that this sort of thing is what we should be getting physics students to think about. I’m quite ashamed to admit that we don’t…

Cricket in the Park

Posted in Biographical, Bute Park, Cricket with tags , , , on May 24, 2010 by telescoper

I was walking home a couple of weeks ago and noticed that there were several cricket matches going on in the Park, just over the road from my house in Cardiff. I stopped to watch a few overs, taking one or two experimental pictures with my phone, and was quite impressed at the standard of play. Two distinctly lively quick bowlers were causing the batsmen quite a few problems, though they were not just blocking  but also taking every available opportunity to score. It was attritional, but absorbing stuff.

The use of these fields for cricket was interrupted in 2008 when the National Eisteddfod was held here in Cardiff, on this very spot. It tipped down with rain for the entire week and the fields turned to mud. It has taken the best part of two years for Cardiff City Council to repair the damage and get everything back to working order so that the many local clubs that use the fields here could resume their sporting activities. Of course they had nowhere to play for all that time, thanks to the fools at the Council who totally underestimated the time it would take, not to mention the amount it would cost. You can see in the foreground that some of the grass is still in need of attention.

Just a few hundred yards to the South (right in the picture) lies Sophia Gardens, and the SWALEC stadium home to Glamorgan Cricket Club, currently at the top of the Second Division of the County Championship. I hope the good weather stays with us long enough that I can actually get to see a decent amount of cricket once term finally finishes.

Incidentally, the view is roughly eastwards.  The River Taff flows from left to right, concealed by the trees which are part of the landscaping performed by Capability Brown. They don’t show up too well in the photo, but they were clearly carefully chosen to provide a variety of colour and texture, especially in the changing light of the spring sunshine.  Also hidden  is a weir (Blackweir), where the Dock Feeder Canal is taken off the river to supply water to the docks at Cardiff Bay, and a small bridge. On the far side of the river is Bute Park and, further South, Cardiff Castle.

I may not have a very big garden, but it’s lovely having this beautiful park just a short walk from the house. I hope the Council learn their lesson and stop buggering about with it.

The Graveyard of Ambition?

Posted in Education, Finance, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , , on May 23, 2010 by telescoper

The news today is full of speculation about the nature and extent of impending public spending cuts expected to be announced in the Queen’s Speech next Tuesday. Among the more specific figures being bandied about is a £700 million cut to the budget Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) which encompasses both scientific research and the university sector. It’s impossibly to say precisely where the axe will fall, but it’s very likely that university-based science groups in England will face a double-whammy, losing income both from HEFCE and from the Research Councils. The prospect looks particular dire for Physics & Astronomy, which rely for their research grants on the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) which savagely cut back science research even before the credit crunch arrived. If STFC gets cut any further  then the result will be even worse carnage un universities than we’ve experienced over the last year or two, especially since it looks like there will be no changes in its Executive.

Here in Wales the situation is even more complicated, as is explained in a long article in this week’s Times Higher. Cuts to the Research Councils will, of course, affect university research groups in the Principality as their remit covers the whole of the United Kingdom. However, responsibility for Higher Education in Wales is devolved to the Welsh Assembly Government. This means that any cuts to the University budget announced next week will not apply here (nor indeed in Scotland or Northern Ireland).

However, as I’ve blogged about before, it’s not obvious that this is good news for fundamental science in Wales. The Welsh Assembly Government’s blueprint for the shape of Higher Education in Wales, For Our Future, signals what could be dramatic changes in the way university funding is allocated here. There’s a lot of nervousness about how things will pan out.

Currently, most university funding in Wales comes through HEFCW in the form of recurrent grants. However the WAG has recently set up a Strategic Implementation Fund which in future supply 80% of all university funding. The new(ish) Minister responsible for Higher Education, Leighton Andrews (who will be giving a public lecture in Cardiff about the changes next week) seems to be determined to take control of the sector. It’s good to have a Minister who shows some interest in Higher Education, but I’m wary of politicians with Big Ideas.

We’ll have to wait and see what happens over the next year or so, but I think there’s an opportunity for Wales to do something truly radical and break away from systems that simply copy those in place in England with a much lower level of resource. Given that HEFCW has already been told how 80% of its funding should be administered, why bother with HEFCW at all? Scrapping this quango will remove a buffer between the universities and the WAG, which might be a dangerous thing to do, but will also save money that could be spent on higher education rather than bureaucracy. And while we’re at it, why doesn’t the WAG take Welsh universities out of the Research Excellence Framework? In the new era why should Welsh universities be judged according to English priorities?

On the teaching side, the WAG wants to see more flexible study options, more part-time degrees (including PhDs), more lifelong learning, and so on. I think that’s a reasonable thing to aim for given the particular socio-economic circumstances that pertain in Wales, but I can’t really see scope for significant numbers of part-time degrees in physics, especially at the doctoral level.

A crucial issue that has to be addressed is the proliferation of small universities in Wales. England has a population of 49.1 million, and has  91 universities (a number that many consider to be way too high in any case). The population of Wales is just 2.98 million but has 12 universities which is about twice as many per capita as in England. I for one think this situation is unsustainable, but I’m not sure to what extent mergers would be politically acceptable.

The WAG also wants to focus funding on “priority areas” that it perceives to be important to future development of industry in Wales, including health and biosciences, the digital economy, low-carbon technologies, and advanced engineering and manufacturing.  Fair enough, I say, as long as “focus on” doesn’t mean “scrap everything else but”.  The big worry for me is that research doesn’t feature very strongly at all in the WAG’s document, and it isn’t in good shape in any case. According to the last Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), only around 14% of Welsh research is of world-leading quality and most of that (90%)  is concentrated in just four institutions (Aberystwyth, Bangor, Cardiff and Swansea).

Physics in Wales did particularly poorly in the RAE and in any case only involves three universities, Bangor having closed its Physics department many years ago. Indeed the RAE panel went out of its way to make unfavourable comments about the lack of coordination in Welsh  physics – comments, I might add, that went entirely beyond the panel’s remit and should have attracted censure. Physics is also an expensive subject so if we are to do better in future we need additional investment. Cardiff University is doing its best bring this about, but I think we should explore closer ties with Swansea and explicit encouragement from the WAG.

STEM areas are woefully under-represented in Wales. Some think the WAG should seize the chance to boost this area of activity, but others think it’s already too late. According to the Times Higher,

Julie Lydon, vice-chancellor of the University of Glamorgan and the first female head of a university in Wales, says expertise in STEM will have to be developed in “distinct areas”. Given its small size, Wales must be careful to set itself realistic aims, she says.

The country faces a complex challenge, Lydon adds. “We don’t have anywhere near the range and extent of research (that we should) for our size. We’ve got to move it up a gear, and we’ve got to raise aspirations. We’ll do that in niche areas, and we’ll do that by partnership, not on our own.

“We haven’t the scope and scale; Wales isn’t a large enough sector to be able to do that across the board, but it’s an agenda that is slightly wider than the narrow view of STEM.”

A focus on STEM would neglect some areas in which Wales is strong, Lydon says. Thanks to investment from major employers such the BBC, disciplines such as media are growth areas and critical to the economy, but they are not strictly defined as STEM subjects.

No, media studies isn’t a STEM subject. Nor do I think Wales can continue to rely on its economy being propped up by public bodies such as the BBC. The expected round of wider public spending cuts I mentioned at the start of this piece will effectively scupper that argument and I’m sure privatisation of the BBC is on the new government’s agenda anyway. The future requires more ambition than this kind of thinking exemplifies. Sadly, however, ambition doesn’t seem to be something that the Welsh are particularly good at.  Dylan Thomas’s phrase “The Graveyard of Ambition” was specifically aimed at his home town of Swansea, but it does sum up an attitude you can find throughout the country: a  resolute determination to be mediocre.

 Wales is indeed a small country. So is Scotland (population about 5 million), but the Scots have for a long time placed a much higher premium on science and university education generally than the Welsh (and even the English) and they have a thriving university sector that’s the envy of other nations (including England). I think it’s time for a change of mentality.