Results matching “teaching”

Pre-launch blitz

With less than a week to go before its planned launch, The Planck Surveyor Satellite has been loaded into the fairing of its Ariane 5 rocket along with its sister satellite, Herschel. It is scheduled to be rolled out to the pad on May 13, and the launch window opens on May 14 at 13:12 GMT. Within three months, it will be at the Lagrange 2 (L2) point, from where it can watch the sky with the Sun, Earth and Moon all comfortably shielded from view.

Once there, Planck will scan the sky for at least 14 months. But don’t expect to see much out of the mouths (or blogs, or printers) of Planck scientists for a while: we’ve got a full year thereafter to analyze the data, followed by a year’s “proprietary period” during which we’ll do our best to extract the most exciting science. But until then — the first rule of Planck is: you do not talk about Planck. The second rule of Planck is: you DO NOT talk about Planck. (Luckily, Herschel expects to release its pictures of the infrared and submillimetre universe much more quickly.)

For now, the European Space Agency, the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council, and of course us Planck scientists ourselves have been gearing up both for the scientific data — and the press.

ESA has a Herschel and Planck launch campaign page with a nifty live countdown (which users of Apple’s Safari browser can make a dashboard widget out of). Last week, STFC held a pre-launch press event in London, which got us some coverage in The Independent, The Daily Mail, The Telegraph, The Times, as well as BBC Radio and TV news. (And Sky at Night will have coverage from the launch.) We’ve also been covered in New Scientist (complete with always-exciting quotes from me).

If this media saturation isn’t enough, you can check out the page dedicated to Planck in the UK, Follow Planck on Twitter (and Herschel too), read the Planck Mission Blog (there’s one for Herschel, too).

As for me, I’m taking a break from this term’s teaching — off to French Guiana next week for the launch (barring further delays). For those of you less lucky, it will be visible on satellite tv and streamed by ESA. I’ll do my best to keep up the twittering and blogging, probably cross-posting from here to the Planck Mission Blog. Wish us luck!

Teaching time

Just a quick apology for the lack of words appearing on the page here lately. In addition to planning for the upcoming launch of the Planck Satellite, I’ve been swamped with teaching my first-ever full-length undergraduate cosmology course. It’s lots of fun, but the biggest challenge is just systematizing this whole body of knowledge that I am supposed to already know so well. Like most scientists, I don’t quite want to take the information directly from someone else’s textbook (although there are quite a few good ones at the right level, notably Rowan-Robinson’s Cosmology and Liddle’s An Introduction to Modern Cosmology) so I am trying to put it all together in a way that fits my way of thinking about it (and, I hope, my students’). But probably, this is just my version of Blake’s “I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s” (of course I am purposefully ignoring his next line from Jerusalem, the very wrongheaded miscomprehension of science, “I will not reason and compare: my business is to create”).

P.S. If you’re a student, feel free to comment here (anonymously, if you’d prefer) or on our favorite e-learning system at Imperial).

Cold War Modern

I went to the excellent Cold War Modern exhibit at the V&A museum, a very specific take on what’s usually called in Britain the “postwar” period, concentrating on design and art from 1945 to 1970. Muscle-flexing propaganda from Moscow (and to a lesser extent from Washington), nuclear nightmares, the space race, the successful revolutions against the west in Cuba and Southeast Asia, the less successful ones against both sides of ‘68. Although there was plenty of work from America (Lever House, Dr Strangelove, Eames chairs), to me the more interesting were the Moscow apartment houses, the Czech glassworks, Le Corbusier’s avant-garde film made with Varèse and Xenakis.

But because of the remit of the show, literature and music — especially rock’n’roll — were largely missing. So I’ll use this opportunity to post these reminders to a couple of my favorite and still relevant cold war artifacts.

First, from William Faulkner’s 1949 Nobel Prize acceptance speech.:

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever….

Until he relearns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail.

On the other hand, less overtly life-affirming, we have the Sex Pistols’ Holidays in the Sun, Johnny Rotten trying to take a visit to East Germany in 1977.

Well they’re staring all night and
They’re staring all day
I had no reason to be here at all
But now I gotta reason it’s no real reason
And I’m waiting at the Berlin Wall

Gotta go over the Berlin Wall
I don’t understand it….
I gotta go over the wall
I don’t understand this bit at all….

Claustrophobia there’s too much paranoia
There’s too many closets so when will we fall

Gotta go over the Berlin Wall
I don’t understand it….
I gotta go over the wall
I don’t understand this bit at all…

Please don’t be waiting for me

But this doesn’t capture Rotten’s manic, fearful delivery, standing among and watching the end of man. Is it safe on either side of the wall? Who is it that might be waiting for him? When will I be blown up?

No respect

I gave the last lecture in my Fourier class today. I think the course started alright, but I seemed to be losing the students for the last few lectures (not helped by the fact that three of the ten hours of the course were 5-6pm on Fridays, but a good workman doesn’t blame his tools…). Trying to get some immediate feedback (although still too late to do this year’s cohort any good) I handed out sheets of paper and asked them to write down, anonymously, something they understood, something they didn’t understand (a request greeted with an uncomfortably loud giggle) and any other comments. Although I only got about a dozen responses, there were some commonalities: indeed the first half of the course (Fourier Series) seemed well-understood, and the second half (Fourier Transforms) much less so; I should try to include more examples of the use of the methods (which will require changing the syllabus a bit), and more explanation of what the mathematics mean.

But one remark stood out: “Your handwriting is really bad. And you smell. Sorry.” Further comments — perhaps from readers who might have some knowledge of the subject — welcome.


Too busy for much blogging for the next few weeks. In the meantime:

First, my grad students: Goodbye to one just finishing, hello to my new one, congratulations to the one who just transferred to official PhD-student status, and, finally, to the one staying on as a postdoc! I’m excited that I’m able to still work with all of them on various projects, all concentrating on understanding the state of the Universe at its very earliest moments.

Second, to the undergrads: I hope that my teaching is going better than last year.

Third, the new record from my homestate boy, Bruce Springsteen, is better than you might expect from a still-left-wing pro-Union old-fashioned rock’n’roller. And “Girls in Their Summer Clothes” sounds like it could have been written and performed by Stephen Merritt and his Magnetic Fields (this is intended as a huge compliment!).

Next time, an update on the odd combination of Philip Glass’s versions of Leonard Cohen’s poems. And maybe that 16-solar-mass Black Hole (technical paper here). Conversely, I am unlikely to usefully comment on race relations as seen through the eyes James Watson or Sasha Frere-Jones. But the rest of the blogosphere has those well in hand.

Summer Break

Well, Summer break is over, the days are surprisingly short already, the sky is rarely clear, and the students are back.

Warm-weather highlights ranged from the intellectual pleasures of my visits to Portugal and Chicago, to the rather more visceral ones of Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation at the Roundhouse, The Hold Steady at Shepherds Bush, and the diminutive Prince somehow filling up the massive O2 arena formerly known as The Dome. I also let my PhD Alma Mater pimp me to promote themselves, but I got lunch with the writer of Freakonomics out of it, and a surprisingly wonderful cocktail party at the residence of the used-car-salesman-cum-American Ambassador in London.

But now, back to real work. I’ve spent the day in front of my computer, more even than usual, dealing with the repercussions of our having decided to give the returning second-year students a test to get them to flex their mathematical muscles in preparation for the year — during which they’re liable to see lots of new mathematical and physical concepts for the very first time. We’ve decided to run the test through our online learning system, and, unfortunately, new technology almost always has its quirks: we had some fires to quench in the early hours of the day, but things seem to be running smoothly now. My proverbial and actual fingers are all crossed.

I’ll be covering quite a few of those new concepts in my second attempt at teaching our course on Fourier Methods; it didn’t go very well, last time, I must admit, and I’m hoping that the changes I’ve made in both the form and the content of the course — and the test they’re taking now — will make it better for the students. Feedback, positive, negative, or even ranting, is appreciated, from any present or past students.

Earning the description "hapless"

Normally I don’t talk about myself too much here, but I managed a very difficult feat today: I locked myself in my own house. I got up this morning, tried to leave for work, only to discover that the key turned, but the deadbolt didn’t budge — somehow, bolting the door last night, the inner workings of the lock finally crumbled. A couple of hours later, the locksmith had climbed in the window, broken the door open, and replaced the lock (and had a nice cuppa tea, naturally). Thanks to my colleagues for the emergency teaching substitution (and for not making too much fun of me).

More embarrassing than being locked out of your house, but much warmer.

Where I'm calling from

I know that nobody cares about the peregrinations of astrophysicists but there’s not much else to blog about when you’re on the road. So a quick explanation of my absence from the blogosphere:

Last week, I was in Taipei for the CoSPA meeting (at which website you can find a copy of my talk on Bayesian Analysis of CMB Data — although as I tell the students that I’m teaching about giving presentations, if you could get all the information from the slides, what we be the point of listening?). Aside from interesting talks on the early Universe, measurements of varying fundamental “constants”, and new experimental initiatives in Taiwan and elsewhere, the meeting was especially notable for a banquet which featured that venerable Taiwanese institution — the Beaujolais Nouveau!

After a 24-hour stopover back in London, this week I’m in Trieste at SISSA, where I’m giving a couple of talks, one on the analysis of Microwave Background data (highlighting work done with my students JZ and AN) and another one, later today, on gravitational waves from supermassive black hole binaries at the centers of galaxies, work largely done with another student, DD. (Of course when I say “work done with” a student, I really mean “work done by” that student — they deserve all of the credit!). I’ve also got to spend a few wonderful hours actually talking about science in front of a blackboard with collaborators and understand how gravitational waves evolve and propagate in the early Universe (at least that’s the idea).

Happy Thanksgiving!


I’ve just finished my lectures for the course in Fourier Series and Fourier Transforms that I’ve been teaching.

It was an intense, exhilarating and ultimately frustrating three-and-a-half week adventure —and I fear that it didn’t go very well. It’s tough material, probably the first stuff that these second-year students have seen in their undergraduate career that’s really brand new to them. And, of course, this was my first time teaching it so our combined inexperience didn’t exactly presage a “positive learning outcome”.

What did I learn, then?

  • Precision counts: I made my fair share of mistakes, mostly just typos, but those are easy for me to correct or even ignore, much harder for the 180 other people in the room who don’t already understand the material.
  • Organization counts: actually, my lectures were highly structured, but I don’t think that always came through as I spoke. Explicit (numbered sections, bullet points, real sentences) is better than implicit.
  • Preparation counts: In principle all of us lecturers know what the student have already learned, but just because something has been on on a syllabus doesn’t mean they really understand. Particularly with math, I think we often expect a level of facility that comes with years and years of practice doing integrals, solving equations, getting used to unfamiliar notation, that the students don’t yet have. (Needless to say, we’re usually convinced that things were better when we were in their place, but I’m not always so sure, as we look back with our rose-tinted shades.)
Still, I did some things right. The students may disagree, but I think I actually did a reasonable job at explaining the material in a way that isn’t just copying from the books. Perhaps that’s why my lecture notes seem to be more popular than the lectures themselves. And at least my loud Yankee voice carries to the back of the room.

Feedback is, of course, welcome.

p.s. On a more amusing note (purposely buried down here, free of links), it looks like Imperial Astrophysics is going to be getting a very special new (-ish) graduate student soon.

Today I started teaching my first real lecture course (as pointed out in the comments, the link is only accessible within the Imperal network).

I am teaching the second-year physics students mathematical techniques of Fourier Series and Fourier Transforms — this is the theorem that you can represent any function as a sum of so-called sinusoidal waves. That bit I think I explained all right. But then we had to start getting down into the mathematical details. Unfortunately, I think I lost them somewhere trying to make the analogy between vectors (i.e., arrows in space) and functions; you can describe a vector by giving its value in three perpendicular directions (x, y, z, for example), just like you can describe a function f(t) by giving its value at each value of t. A full set of these directions (x, y, z in the case of spatial vectors, or the individual values of t for the function) is called a basis. But we can rotate our vector to describe it any basis that is convenient.

The idea behind Fourier Series is that there is a specific basis made of sine and cosine waves — and expanding our function in this basis lets us understand things like sound and light in terms of frequency: light as a mixture of colors or sound as a mixture of pitches. For many problems in physics, these mixtures (with the somewhat more technical name of “linear superpositions”) are described by very simple formulae. Indeed, in addition to his laws of motion, Isaac Newton is famous for the first description of light this way (although he didn’t have the mathematical technology that Joseph Fourier would only develop in the 19th Century).

Indeed, there are some mathematical formulae behind all of this — not too complicated technically, but I’m not sure I was able to get the concepts behind them through to the students. It’s hard to calibrate to exactly what the students already know (which may not be the same as what they’ve already seen in their coursework!). Also, I worry that I may have drowned them in a sea of notation without actually explaining what I meant in quite enough words.

(In the unlikely event that any of Imperial’s second-year students are reading this, feel free to leave an anonymous comment and let me know what you thought!)

Job Satisfaction

Tom Lutz, “The Summer Next Time” - New York Times:

On paper, the academic life looks great. As many as 15 weeks off in the summer, four in the winter, one in the spring, and then, usually, only three days a week on campus the rest of the time. Anybody who tells you this wasn’t part of the lure of a job in higher education is lying. But one finds out right away in graduate school that in fact the typical professor logs an average of 60 hours a week, and the more successful professors work even more — including not just 14-hour days during the school year, but 10-hour days in the summer as well.

Why, then, does there continue to be a glut of fresh Ph.D.’s? It isn’t the pay scale, which, with a few lucky exceptions, offers the lowest years-of-education-to-income ratio possible. It isn’t really the work itself, either. Yes, teaching and research are rewarding, but we face as much drudgery as in any professional job. Once you’ve read 10,000 freshman essays, you’ve read them all.

But we academics do have something few others possess in this postindustrial world: control over our own time. All the surveys point to this as the most common factor in job satisfaction. The jobs in which decisions are made and the pace set by machines provide the least satisfaction, while those, like mine, that foster at least the illusion of control provide the most.

Eclipse sick day

Sorry I’ve been so quiet lately! The term is over, and our version of Spring Break has begun — more time for blog posts.

Without any pressing teaching engagements, I’m home sick from work today. Instead of doing what I ought (getting rest, or at least reading my students’ excellent PhD theses), I spent a bit of time this morning trying to photograph the solar eclipse, with a jerry-rigged pinhole camera to make the image. Despite my job title, I’ve never been any sort of observational astronomer, nor much of a photographer, so you’ll have to be content with this picture:

Pinhole 4

Here in the UK, it was naturally too cloudy to get a good view of the partial eclipse most of the time, so my pictures were all from the very end of its hour and a half of visibility.

Still it’s good to look up every now and then (or, in this case, look down) and remind myself why it is I do what I do (and why you, the taxpayers, pay me to do it).

(The Guardian has a nice animation on the eclipse.)

Management, Money, Media

Wednesday was a busy day of politicking and schmoozing (as opposed to research and teaching, which is what I actually get paid to do).

I spent the morning at a meeting reviewing the current status of developments for the Planck Surveyor satellite here in the UK (Planck will measure the temperature of the Cosmic Microwave Background, relic radiation from the Big Bang). Unfortunately, as is common in these ambitious and exciting projects, not everything is quite going according to plan. We need to cool parts of the satellite down to a mere four degrees above absolute zero. This has become relatively easy to do in a laboratory, but is still very difficult up in space, where you have stringent requirements on size, weight and power and, most importantly, where you can't fix anything once it's been launched. So this part of the project is over budget, late, and indeed faced with technological problems (like, how do you build it so it can survive shocks equivalent to 3000 times the acceleration due to gravity?!).

Part of the problem is that scientists, despite thinking that we know how to do everything, are generally bad (or at least untrained) managers, and even worse “managees” -- we don't like being told the way to do things (I can certainly speak for myself here on both counts, but at least understanding that I have these problems might be the first step towards solving them.)

The rest of the day was much more pleasant. First, I went to a short meeting debriefing those of us who participated in the Royal Society's “MP-Scientist” pairing scheme. It was great to see and talk with my cohorts from November, and then we all headed down watch the wonderful Faraday Lecture by Professor Fran Balkwill on Ovarian Cancer, which was neither dry nor depressing. The evening ended with the “Scientists Meet the Media” party hosted at the Royal Society by the Daily Telegraph and Novartis (who paid for the champagne, apparently). There were scientists from crusty old white-haired Fellows of the Royal Society on down to youngish faculty members like me and media types from TV, newspapers, magazines and science journals. Power couple Gia and Brian were there, as were Adam Hart-Davies in a frightening bright blue suit, Robert Winston in a tux, all presided over by astrophysicist Lord Martin Rees, new president of the Society. We scientists tried to keep up, but the journalists did their best to live up to their hard-drinking reputation, aided by the free-flowing wine and very scarce food. Usually the scientists are the ones with the privileged information, but on a night like this, the journalists seemed to be in control, we scientists in full media-slut mode, our not-so-secret desire for fame, or at least recognition, on show.

Update: Here's a report from the Telegraph, focusing on the celebrities at their party...

To Sir, With Love

Yesterday I had the privilege and the pleasure of teaching cosmology to some of the A-Level Physics students at the Maria Fidelis Convent School in London, where they are justly proud of their science curriculum.

Despite the weird (to me) habit of calling all the adults “Sir” or “Miss” and the very Catholic (but not catholic!) school motto, “Growing together though Christ with courage confidence and dignity” it was great to see a group of smart and motivated students who seemed more than happy to learn and to think. I admit to being chagrined to remember that, well, appearances can be deceiving: the two boys in the class rolled in late, having come from lessons a few blocks away, and gave a little stick to their teacher when she chided them for it. Uh oh, I thought, this could be a tough crowd. But I should have remembered (having been one) that all adolescent males look like disaffected slackers no matter what’s going on underneath. Once we started actually talking about astrophysics and cosmology, their minds were engaged, despite their hoodies and their slouches. The girls were slightly harder to bring out of their shells, but they too were happy to participate and, indeed, to show off what they could do.

So thanks to all of the students (even if I didn’t teach them to make salad), to their teacher, Miss Innocent Mutumba, and to everyone else that I met there.

Any good suggestions for or case studies of using blogs as part of teaching?

The obvious possibilities: I could blog all of my notes (although I’m not actually teaching any lecture courses this year). But that’s just using a slightly different medium for an old task (and it’s hard to translate math into html!). Or the students could blog theirs -- I suppose that would count as a sort of “User-Generated Content”...

More ideas welcome -- from students and teachers!

OK, here's an example from Coturnix at Science and Politics: using blogs as both a model and a research tool (which is safe if you have a reputable starting point).

And Rachel suggests this nice list of bloggers in eduction.


Regular readers may have noted a slackening of my posting pace over the last couple of weeks. For the first time in life, I'm earning my keep doing what most people think a "University Lecturer" (a.k.a. "College Professor" in the US) gets paid to do: teaching (in fact, most of our professional stature and advancement is based upon research, but that's another story).

So far I've taught a few sessions of our first-year ("freshman") Seminars in Communication and Teamwork -- it's a joy to see these exciting and excited students thinking, speaking and working together. Next week I dive into one of the unique -- and somewhat daunting! -- aspects of the UK University system: tutorials, just me with three or four students.

So, if any of the students I'm teaching see this, I'd love to hear from you -- leave a comment if you're willing to do it in public, otherwise send an email.

p.s. I haven't been able to bring myself to watch Supernova, the BBC's new sitcom revolving around the life of (wait for it) an astronomer... Has anyone out there seen it?

Evolution: still fact

Creationist Textbook Stickers Declared Unconstitutional: "An anonymous reader writes 'MSNBC reports that a judge in Atlanta, GA has ruled that a sticker placed on all textbooks in Cobb County stating that 'Evolution is a theory, not a fact,' is unconstitutional, and ordered that all stickers be removed.'" (Via Slashdot.)

Meanwhile, here in the UK, not only does the government refuse to condemn the teaching of creationism, it still actively encourages rich creationist demagogues' control of schools.

With the closure of University departments throughout England (Chemistry at Exeter and Architecture at Cambridge just announced this week), and the Science Minister called to the Parliamentary Science and Technology Committee today, UK science funding has been making headlines (or at least showing up on media radar) over the last couple of days. Currently, departmental funding comes from several sources: teaching funds come from HEFCE, the Higher Education Funding Council for England; research funding from HEFCE via a complicated formula depending on the number of students in the department, and also depending on the department's rating in the 'Research Assessment Exercise' (RAE); further research funding comes direct from organizations like the research councils (for example, my research is funded by PPARC, the Particle Physics and Astrophysics Research Council).

The recent row over university fees for students arises from the fact that, in many universities, research income is essentially covering for a lack of direct teaching income from the government. The perverse upshot of this, however, is that departments without the highest possible RAE ratings (5 or 5*) find it difficult to stay open, irrespective of their teaching quality. Ironically, this works against the government's (wrongheaded, I think) idea of concentrating research in a small group of universities with a wider range concentrating on teaching.

Other ideas for research funding are being considered, not just in the UK but throughout Europe, where a European Science Council is being funded, although if my experience of the interaction of individual nations within organizations like the European Space Agency is any guide, it's difficult to see how such a supranational body could be effective. From BBC News: Stakes high for EU science plans: Europe must make good on plans to set up an independent funding body for science or face an unprecedented brain drain, a leading scientist has warned. (See also this editorial in the Guardian over the weekend.)

Finally, organizations like Save British Science and Scientists for Global Responsibility are interested not only in the funding of Science, but equally important questions such as what science we pursue and the way we pursue it.

Science in Bush's America

Wired News: Science Braces for Second Term

Climate change. The teaching of Darwinian evolution. Stem Cell research and reproductive rights. Industrial waste. Exploring Mars.

Many or most of us scientists disagree with the Bush Administration's policies on many of these and other issues. That becomes a real problem when they start interfering with the flow of ideas among scientists and between scientists and the public. They've been accused of trying to tell scientists what to say (as they did with climatologist James Hansen), stacking committees with administration and industry mouthpieces, and, in a recent report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, more generally distorting information for their own purposes (see also an excellent discussion in the New York Review of Books). Of course, this should sound like a familiar problem in the foreign-policy arena, too.

Academic blogs

Bloggercon happened last weekend at Stanford University in the USA. One of the sessions was on Blogging in Academia; I wasn't there, but anyone can listen to it at IT Conversations. The moderator was Jay Rosen, and there are notes on the sessions at his site, and on the blogs One Pilgrim's Walk and JZip. A list of other academics' blogs (including a very few in physics and astro) is at Crooked Timber

As an academic (see the "About" section up top, or my home page), it was a useful summary of the obvious and not-so-obvious issues: How do blogs relate to journal publishing? What takes the place of peer review? How can blogs be used to supplement or replace classroom teaching?

One useful aspect of blogging is that anyone (in a developed economy with access to appropriate resources) can read them -- or write them.

In astrophysics, we've achieved a similar sort of access with a set of archives (originally at Los Alamos, now at Cornell, with worldwide mirrors) that hosts freely-accessible copies of papers and preprints in a variety of disciplines from astrophysics to mathematics and quantitative biology. There is some moderating of submissions, but there is no further set of rules: authors can post papers just after they've been written, after they've been peer-reviewed, or at publication. (And some papers appear only here and are never published elsewhere.) More importantly, access for readers is universal: you don't need a subscription or library access. In a field like astrophysics, essentially everything that will appear in the major journals also appears on the astro-ph archive. There's no included commentary, so, in a distinction drawn by one of the Bloggercon participants, it's still a 'lecture', not a 'seminar.' Conversely, no one wants to read a thirty-page paper with equations and figures in a blog.

But a couple of other questions arise. What about non-academic content? This site is hosted on an Imperial College server, but I've written as much about politics or wine as science. Does this bother anyone out there?

The moderator, Jay Rosen, is a professor of Journalism and made a distinction between 'writing' (which is what he does in his academic papers) and 'writing up', which is, he claimed, what we scientists do; this is at least sometimes true -- and scratching my writing itch is part of why this blog exists. Although this entry isn't such a good example...

Let me know what you think. (And come to think of it, just let me know if you've read this at all!).