Having read a large number of personal statements from physics applicants to Dundee this year, it is clear that, much as it was for me, particle physics and the quest for the fundamental understanding of how the Universe works is something that really gets physics students fired up. For me this was undoubtedly true, and I suspect that my knowledge of the particle zoo was probably rather better as a teenager than it is now. The quest for the Higgs Boson has undoubtedly captured the public imagination over the past few years, and I very much hope it is helping to inspire the next generation of physics students.
But I have small confession – these days it all leaves me a bit cold (although oddly, I think neutrino oscillations are pretty cool). I am clearly a bad physicist, as isn’t this stuff supposed to inspire me too? As it happens I seek that inspiration, still, in the form of popular science books (and blogs), as the technical detail of the search for the Higgs and other particle physics is a long way from my comfort zone, but even though Ian Sample’s and Sean Carroll’s books about the search for the Higgs sit upon my bookshelf, every time I pull them down I find an excuse to read something else. But when I was given Jon Butterworth’s ‘Smashing Physics‘ for Father’s Day I figured that it was time to bite the bullet and get stuck in.
I think one of the key things that Smashing Physics has going for it is that is a personalised tale – full of asides – and the fact that author has a direct connection with the Higgs search (through the ATLAS experiment) makes everything very much more immediate. It also has mini-treatise on the need and justification for basic scientific research, and reads a little like a manifesto for particle physics at times. In this sense it is very much a reflection of the very positive message than the particle physics community has been able to present in recent years, and the effects of this are being felt, for example, in the new Scottish school Physics curriculum. I’m not completely sold by this argument [particle physics must be funded at all costs] – one counterpoint is that it’s really expensive to do these experiments and one could do lots of other interesting physics with the money. While politicians might prefer to see work funded that is more applied, that has, in the language of our times, more impact, my own view is that there is an high intrinsic value in doing basic research, but of course there is plenty of other fundamental research that one could do, other than look for Higgs Bosons, in areas such as condensed matter physics, photonics, quantum optics etc. I get the sense the particle physics community forgets this from time to time. I enjoyed these asides however as they give a really good overview of how science works, why it is important and the benefits it can bring both intellectually and at tangents to what you are actually doing.
The book itself is a compelling read, covers the ground in a straightforward way and has useful glossary sections to cover the background info you need to understand the more technical parts. It does, in my mind, make a reasonable assumption that you have some technical knowledge of the subject. As an example, as far as I can see, despite significant discussion of things like the electroweak symmetry breaking, there is no definition of what the weak force actually is – certainly not from the index entries. There are various other bits of technical jargon that seem to pop up from time to time with no real explanation, so I suspect an interested person having no physics knowledge at all might struggle at times, but perhaps an interested teenager who has read some other popular books in this area could get something from it. I have no huge issue with this technical level as I find it hard to trudge through books which start at the basics, and read like every other popular science book on ‘modern’ physics areas. Diving in at the deep(ish) end can be rewarding.
So I’d certainly recommend the book, and it might even make me get down some of these other Higgs search texts I’ve been shying away from. Smashing.
Yesterday I took an early flight down to London to attend an Institute of Physics (IoP) School Outreach Support Network meeting. I’m reasonably active in schools outreach work, and a little support never hurts. Overall the day was very positive, and I took home lots of little hints and tips that I might try and apply here, while it was also a chance to speak to range of academics that I might not normally come across. The slightly disappointing thing was that the flagship IoP activities in this area are funded in and for English schools exclusively. This ticks me off a little – a co-ordinated approach across the UK would seem appropriate, but I often find that people from ‘down South’ have difficultly dealing with a wholly different education system: there is a little of ‘I did A-levels, I understand them, the majority in the UK do them, so I need not concern myself further with anything else.’ This is disappointing, but it is a fact of life considering how eduction in the Uk is funded through devolved means – but I pay my membership fees to the IoP in London, and it’d be good to see maximum efficiency through shared schemes.
The main instrument the IoP is pushing is the ‘Stimulating Physics Network‘ which is designed to offer practical support and mentoring for physics teachers; pilot schemes are being set up with a range of partner schools who traditionally do not have much physics uptake at A level, with 35 support ‘coaches’ being available within the 420 partner schools to facilitate this. There is a great push to try and look and gender balance in physics (and through some of the schemes on offer, the wider school community) through direct work with girls, running workshops, offering peer mentoring support and senior pupil mentoring of junior pupils, increased STEM Ambassador support, highlighting gender aware pedagogy and the like. In general all positive and fairly sensible stuff, much of it on the back of previous IoP reports in this area: “It’s Different for Girls” and “Closing Doors“. The funding is there for 2-3 years and we’ll see how it all pans out. Additionally there is a scheme aimed at just London and surrounds funded by the Drayson Foundation. Physics does appear to have quite a big gender imbalance problem, and it’s good to see it being tackled head on on a number of fronts.
Other schemes currently include the ‘Your Life‘ initiative, which is led through private funding and is designed to promote better female participation in STEM subjects, aimed especially at 14-16 year olds. [Having just looked at their website, I am not quite sure what it's all about, but hopefully the industry input will be a positive step]. There is also the Researchers in Schools project which will pay a premium of £40k a year for trainee teachers in physics and maths (for two years I believe), although I think the target number for the scheme is very low. This is aimed at PhD students and postdocs. It sounds attractive, but I can’t help feel that it would be somewhat divisive in a staff room.
We also heard from Gareth Edwards from the Open University about a RCUK funded scheme , the Schools-University Partnership which at the OU is designed to look at a number of different activities to promote engagement – open lectures, open inquiry, open dialogues and open creativity. The study will then look at the evidence base for the success of such projects. Gareth’s talk and little activity session was designed to highlight how one might measure success in these areas. The example used was in the ‘Open creativity’ section where students received media training, just like staff at the OU would and then were going to make a video making use of an element of current OU research. I think we’ll need to wait a wee while to see the project outcomes (it runs to 2015).
We also heard from a few physics academics on their outreach projects, one from Phil Furneaux from Lancaster about making better use of PhD students for outreach and the types of things they need if you are training them for such events; another from Heather MacRae from Venture Thinking and Helen Mason from University of Cambridge who produced an excellent project engaging pupils from an East London school to produce an iBook about the sun, “A big ball of fire“. The students got to visit Cambridge, took in a special lecture and worked on the multimedia aspects of putting their book together. The researchers were surprised at the range of media they got back. The idea can be readily ported to almost any subject area, although a lecture in your University might not be quite as swanky as one at Cambridge.
In the final talk we learned about the University of Bradford’s Robotic Telescope Project. This allows schools access to the telescope, which is in Tenerife, and to take real data and interact with astronomers. The idea being to provide a cross curricula opportunity which will hopefully also inspire pupils to stay with STEM.
So all in all a pretty good day, aside from the delayed flight home which mean to bed after 1am, and I have a few new ideas to try and push here, should I get a spare few minutes.
We have been lucky enough to have been awarded two summer studentships through the Institute of Physics Top50 placement scheme this year. This has meant that we have had a large number of applications for summer studentships from outside the University, whereas normally, most of our summer students tend to be pretty local. We have had twenty eight applications for our posts and having read through them all it looks like it is going to be a tough decision.
This got me to thinking: what is the purpose of a summer studentship? If this were a PhD position, or postdoc, or permanent staff member I’d be looking for the very best applicant, who shows the most potential, but reading through the CVs made me wonder, if an 8-week studentship, which is clearly not a job in any sense, should be judged in the same way? It is clear from the CVs there there a bunch of talented, motivated and above all experienced undergraduate students out there – they have undertaken previous research projects and tick the boxes in terms of writing a decent CV; they have things to talk about. But equally there a bunch of students who I started to worry about – they are clearly bright, with good grades and I am sure would do a good job over the summer, but they have little experience. Some have little experience of anything with patchy evidence of summer jobs or part time jobs, others can show that they have worked in a shop, but little else. I worry that many of these students, when it comes to getting real jobs after graduation, will struggle, based on their CVs. I know some of this is self-imposed, but equally I know many students simply can’t either find, or can’t afford to do, shiny research placements. There are many restrictions on finding such roles. I also know that when I was in a similar position my CV was somewhat thin – I’ve always been fairly reserved and wasn’t so good at putting myself ‘out there’. Unfortunately, now more than ever, it’s what you do in your holidays that marks you out for employers, especially when there are so many graduates with 1sts and 2.1s.
And so I wonder – is the purpose of my summer studentships to offer the opportunity to students who have never had it, or to propel on even further their more experienced peers – do I want to help improve some of the those CVs, offer some training and mentoring and the chance for something different to those who might not have had it before, or just go for the best qualified? Bear in mind that the students are unlikely to do anything earth shattering in 8 weeks, so I can genuinely offer these placements without worrying if the student is going to be absolutely brilliant – I’m mainly looking for application and a genuine interest in the topic area of biophotonics. I could also look at getting the best students in with a view to PhD places next year – but the less experienced could be just as good as the experienced if given a chance. I am still mulling over how best to approach this task.
[Also, 29% of applicants are female, 71% male, so still a bit of a hill to climb to get to any sense of equality in the physical sciences. In fact this is a decent ratio compared to other application processes for more senior posts that I have seen].
Like many physicists, I suspect, I grew up gripped by the developments in quantum mechanics that happened at the start of the 20th century. This is often portrayed as the work of lone geniuses: Einstein, Bohr, Schrodinger, Heisenberg and the rest. That this work was carried out in isolation is to some extent true, but there was a surprising amount of collaboration and certainly discussion between the big hitters of the time. This work, and related studies in areas such as radioactivity, ultimately led to one of the biggest scientific collaborations that had ever existed – the Manhattan Project. This was an altogether different beast: one goal, build a bomb. Many of the brightest minds, engineers, physicists and chemists came together to work out how to achieve what they viewed as something that could help to win the war.
In modern times we have our own parallels of such large scale collaborations, CERN being the most obvious example. These mainly occur because of the huge scale and expense of the projects under consideration. I do often wonder though if we wouldn’t be much better placed to carried out nearly all scientific research through such large ‘crowdsourced’ efforts.
I have a small research group, too small to easily carry out the various ideas that I might have, too small to have the resources to fund all the experiments I’d like to try. It may be that I can persuade a funding council to give me money for these ideas, but the odds are against me. I can then wait and see if we can do them on the fly somehow, or find, depressingly, that someone beaten us to it, a few years after my original thought. I suspect nearly every scientist has similar thoughts about work that just never gets done.
But there are lots of groups out there, lots of talented people, lots of equipment going spare – lots of slack at certain times within any research group, big or small – why don’t I just publicly lists all my ideas and hope someone else runs with it and sees if it’ll work or not? It doesn’t work like that of course. We are precious with our ideas as they define our careers, the funding that we do get, which in turn allows us to build our groups and justify the continued need to employ us. Even collaborations, which are a way to help realise ideas that often we can’t do ourselves can be difficult, time consuming and often not quite what you need if you team up with the wrong group.
This does, I suspect, also have the problem of massively slowing down progress. We all want to win the prize, get the plaudits, get the pay rise, and this stems from doing the work and having your name in the right place on the author list. In this day and age of open access publishing, open data and near instantaneous access to all knowledge it does seem that if the end goal, the experiments, the finding things out is what we want to achieve , that our current way of ‘doing’ science seems increasingly outdated.
Could we do things differently? Would it be possible simply to fund research teams that can then respond to new ideas – take the very best ideas and see them through – have secure funding for staffing and equipment at certain Universities and then let academics the world over provide them with the ideas? This would provide much greater focus and possibly much greater efficiency in how we spend research money. An example would be, say, a centre for optical microscopy in the life sciences, based, for arguments sake at Dundee. We fill it with 100 staff and then throw open to the world the idea to present us with the most pressing problems in the area. It may be that these ideas receive some peer review to set priorities and then we task the centre with solving the problems. The originator of the idea gets appropriate credit, and the centre works collaboratively with the research community to help it make progress. We set up these little ‘Manhattan Projects’ with stability for staff, enhanced training for students, and better opportunities to exploit the research through critical mass. In a sense it centralises the experimental skills and distributes the ideas. It is a model that appears to work for very large scale experimental work, but would it be more efficient than our current massive distribution of experimental skills?
As it happens I am reading J. Craig Venter’s most recent book ‘Life at the speed of light‘ which in a way promotes this idea – a highly skilled, well funded lab pushing for a clear and ambitious research goal. Admittedly he was (and is) in competition with other groups, but if that funding was more concentrated and the initial thinking open and free for wider input and discussion to happen, could things have gone even more quickly? Do we want to see the results and the progress and quickly as we can or keep all the glory for ourselves?
The answer is that I am not sure – the model would seem to work in some cases, but clearly has problems, and would more than likely have to be globally accepted to work in the way I think it could. But with new paradigms appearing in the field of ‘open’ academia very rapidly, maybe there is a different way that we could do science, and actually see more of the collective ideas of the research community come to light and bear fruit.
I was very sad to hear this week about the death of my old high school physics teacher, Mr Livingston. I had him for five of my six years at school, and for all four years of my formal physics courses. It made me consider how important school and how especially important teachers are in getting us where to end up as adults, and it’s clear to me that without Mr Livingston’s influence there’s a good chance that I’d be (whisper it) a chemist…He was not the easiest teacher to get along with, being rather strict, and made of my classmates would probably say he turned them away from physics rather than on to it, but the fact that he really knew what he was talking about, and was able to communicate that understanding made him, in my eyes at least, one of the good ones. He was one of those teachers who was easily distracted. If he was asked the right sort of questions (often nothing to do with science) he would digress, often for a whole lesson, and it meant we often were very behind were we were meant to be. His stories about random things in physics stay with me even now, and I pass them on to my students and school kids in outreach events. The fact that cat fur used to be a mainstay in electrostatics experiments; the idea that you could learn which way German bombers were flying by listing to their engine noise; how to draw near perfect circles on a blackboard without any instruments; and of course the days when school kids were encouraged by teachers to bring in their fathers’ airguns for school experiments. I have lots of fond memories of classroom demos, and being closeted in his cupboard for my final year CSYS lessons. He was a great teacher, and I owe him a lot. May he rest in peace.
This week I have a “News and Views” article published in Nature, which is a discussion of a research paper published in Physical Review Letters outlining an experiment in which a a mirror made from colloidal particles was trapped using laser beams. The idea is that this could be extended to much larger scale devices suitable for making space mirrors, for things like telescopes. Interestingly this article that I wrote about in Nature was then picked up by Physics Today, in a sort of degrees of separation from the original work game. I’m not quite sure what this tells me, other than the media is a bit different from academia – it’s rather faster paced, it scavenges material from where it can, and that I have the utmost respect for media people who can write quality material over a vast range of subjects with rapid turnaround times. I like writing stuff, but quick and accurate is not always my strong point (note the length of time since my last blogpost), but the communication of what we, scientists, do is really important. I’m glad that it is not always down to those at the coalface do that communication.
Note if you have comments on my article you can leave them at the bottom of the Nature page.
The Academic Summer is an oft discussed thing. There are usually two camps, the outraged non-academic, moaning about taxpayers money going to fund four months of time off for lazy academics to swan about and not teach anybody anything, and the aghast academic bemoaning the fact that they work bloody hard thank you very much during the summer, and barely have time for a real holiday anyway.
I don’t think I fall in the latter camp – I have a 12 month job, some of which involves contact teaching while the undergraduates are about, but which also involves a myriad of other things, like for example, today I was attending graduation and a garden party. It’s a hard life. I also hope to get at least one grant submitted in the next couple of weeks and the list of things to do on my whiteboard seems to grow each day – writing a whole new lecture course for September being very high on the list. So, like most people, I work hard, and this is in large part due to the fact that I enjoy my job. But the reality is that it can be hard to find time to take off on holiday. This is compounded by the odd way in which academics often end up to all intents and purposes as their own boss – so if you are mainly having to justify time off to yourself, it can be hard to tell yourself you really deserve it, or can really afford to take it off.
This is interesting as I have just finished reading “Quantum” by Manjit Kumar (which is well worth reading – it gives an excellent overview of the development of quantum mechanics in that golden area before the second world war, but rather rushes later developments that came later). In the book it tells the story of scientists who once upon a time led very different lives to us – no internet, no email, telephony in its infancy – you could wait years to see papers in print. This meant that scientists worked in greater isolation, but nonetheless the cohort of scientists who worked developing quantum mechanics managed to do something perhaps that has never really been done since. And, what kept cropping up was that they took lots of holidays. Bohr, Heisenberg etc were always popping off on walking trips, skiing outings, sailing and even going on academic ‘tours’ which probably involved a fair bit of travelling. Perhaps if you are a bunch of geniuses you can get away with lots of holiday – but I do think it perhaps suggests that sometimes academia takes its self rather seriously. Breaks are needed by everyone, working all the time is simply not good for the majority of us. Holidays perhaps allow a bit of that much needed thinking time. Me? Well, I had planned to take a week away with the family during the school holidays. After reading ‘Quantum’ I’d really love to take three, but have convinced myself that I definitively have to take two full weeks to recharge. Then I can come back and get stuck into the new challenges that will be coming my way in the next year or so. If you are an overworked academic – just ask yourself, ‘what would Bohr do?’. He’d go walking.