British universities are not your b*tches, big business!

This post comes with a couple of health warnings for those readers with a more delicate constitution. Firstly, it is entirely a one sided argument, perhaps even polemic. Its inspiration comes from me listening to a program on Radio 4 called “what’s the point of university?”, perhaps the modern middle class British equivalent of “writing a strongly worded letter to someone in authority”. Also, if you’re a “right thinking person” (in the political sense), then perhaps it may be a tad distasteful to you. That’s unintentional, I assure you, because I think that this is an issue that people of all persuasions can unite on. It arises purely out of my inner hard core of “librulness”. I am from Middlesbbrough after all. With that out of the way let’s move on. 

Back in the 12th century (correct my history if necessary!) universities started in the UK. They were originally set up as kind of training schools for the Church, churning out ministers and monks and bishops and whatever else they need in the Church. “That would be an ecumenical matter” which I’m not qualified to comment on. Eventually universities in Britain moved on to researching the unknkown, pushing back the boundaries of human knowledge, and even giving women degrees. People eventually went to university to study things like Philosophy, and Classical Civilisation, and Biochemistry, and the History of Art, and they went because, depending on your viewpoint, a) they were rich southern jessies who had nowt’ better to do wi’ their time, or b) because they were bloody well interested in those things like What the Romans Had for Breakfast, and the Germ Theory of Disease. This post is not intended to be about equality, or the gap between rich and poor, or access to higher education. These are all worthy issues, and I have strong feelings about them, but I think they’re separate issues and will address them…. some other time. Let’s accept thesis b) for now, then. People, at one time in the mystical past (probably around upto about 10 years ago), by and large went to university to learn more about something that interested them. Why would you do that? I don’t know really, I think perhaps, it stems from the fact that interesting things are, well, to put it simply, interesting. It is stimulating to learn about them, and you feel enriched and excited and that the world is just a slightly better place than you thought it was before. Ever since we invented spoken language, and some guy said to some other guy “hey, this is kind of cool”, human beings have started learning and inventing. And, unless you’re some kind of person who believes that humans have some kind of intrinsic value and we’re made in the image of someone, that is just about the only thing that separates us from the animals. Universities are one way that mankind has invented to collectivise and organise the process of learning, the thinking being that by putting together lots of people who want to learn something with lots of people who know about that thing already, and who are actively themselves trying to learn more about it, that people will effectively learn more stuff. It’s actually a fairly simple plan.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the current British university policy: it seems to me that the idea is to no longer regard universities as education institutions at all. If this seems harsh to you, consider that the minister with responsibility for universities, is not the minister for education. In fact, the minister is not even in the department of education, but rather the “department of business, innovation and skills”. I have no objection to universities giving people skills, that’s fantastic. Also, it’s brilliant that we recognise that fantastic innovation comes from universities. Marvellous. However, these two terms are clearly just tacked on. Business? hang on….
British business is on the record moaning that “current graduates aren’t fit for employment”. The government continually harps on about how universities must respond to the needs of the “business community” (which is a phrase I dislike immensely) and teach more “appropriate courses”. Even vice chancellors themselves seem to be pandering to the needs of business. A university education is “sold” (arrrgh!) to students nowadays on the basis that they’ll get better, more well paid employment. Interviews with students themselves, by and large just seem to concentrate on the economics of their decision to study. They have, to use another american phrase that I’m not keen on but is appropriate “drunk the power-aid” (we don’t have “kool-aid” in the UK). It’s still true that there is overall a salary benefit to having a degree, but it seems to be rapidly being eroded, and the problems we are seeing in terms of unemployed graduates are mainly a symptom. In trying to twist the university system to their own needs, business interests have destroyed that which they wanted. 
Where is the place in a business oriented university sector for the study of Plato? Or Group Theory? Or, god forbid, Marxism? I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s indoctrination, but they certainly would prefer people studying management studies to Medieval history. Even in my own discipline of fairly applied experimental physics (which is pretty well valued by the “business community”), I think this focus purely on the employment prospects of getting a degree is patently ridiculous. For a start, the economic benefit itself is a bit tenuous. A very wise friend of mine, let’s call him Mr. T-W, who is actually Canadian and therefore a dispassionate outside observer (hah! actually he’s not that dispassionate), had this extremely cogent argument to contribute: 

there’s a legitimate argument to be had about the lack of good and well respected vocational training, not everyone wants to be an innovator/radical.
But on the whole the history of the last 40 years in Britain has been *business*’s failure to invest in brilliant British technological strides. Yes, academia needs to equip students with a wider set of skills and awareness of the landscape *outside* of current businesses and jobs — that’s where the next generation of growth will come from. Businesses that want training focussed on their short-term needs are in effect arguing for state subsidy.

I wouldn’t have put it quite that strongly myself, but there is a certain delicious irony about the businesses who argue constantly for deregulation and lower taxes also want the state to do their employee training for them. It’s great that they fund some research, but I do think demanding to own the curriculum as well is a step too far. And this isn’t even resorting to the even more important point that education has a benefit in and of itself, however much it may or may not benefit the “business community” and, for that matter, the economy at large. 
All I can say is this: Student’s for goodness sake, GO AND DO SOMETHING INTERESTING, that you’re INTERESTED in! Do not get yourself into this ridiculous debt on the promise of being a b*tch for big business. It won’t be that fun, and it certainly won’t be as rewarding as learning about the Four Course Crop Rotation System as it relates to modern views on Feminism. Which for me personally, wouldn’t be particularly rewarding at all. Though I would support that scholarship before any kind of degree tailored to the needs of industry captains. We have a field of study dedicated to advancing human technology already, it’s called “engineering”, and it’s a brilliant thing to learn and do. We already have a thing for learning about how human markets and currencies work, and it’s called “economics”. We do not need degree courses written by big business, and we should not want them either. The tragedy of the current british higher education system is that government and industry have convinced us that we need and want them, and that anything we want and need must be sold to us.

Getting away with Dinner Party Bullsh*t

Well, perhaps you’ve read my previous overly longwinded entry about where the phrase “Dinner Party Bullsh*t” came from, perhaps not. It doesn’t really matter too much, but what does matter to me is what it represents. The folks over at have some excellent explanations of what I’m trying to get at, and if you’re after a genuinely good explanation please go there. In the meantime, allow me to try and explain using the tried and tested science educational technique of taking a metaphor with some relavance to the topic at hand, then stretching it first beyond usefulness, then beyond credibility, and finally beyond sanity. Awful wordplay is denoted by underlines. Please look away if you have a sensitive literary palette.

Imagine a big diamond mine. Buried in this diamond mine are beautiful Stones of Pure Truth, which the miners are trying to dig out. They think that eventually they’ll dig enough out that they’ll all fit together so we can make a lovely Tiara of Everything. Of course, down a diamond mine you have lots of people working. There are people at the coal diamond face, chipping away with little pickaxes. They are called the Experiminetalists. Their job is to chip away at the un preposessing rock all day in the hope of finding little diamonds. Most of the time they are just blunting their pickaxes and digging in the wrong places. They often get blinkered by going down a blind alley (it’s dark down the diamond mine), and often can’t see where to dig next. But sometimes they’ll uncover what looks like the start of a big seam of diamonds. Quite often, unfortunately, they can’t actually tell whether a shiny stone is a diamond or some other useless piece of glass (there is also glass in the mine for some reason). 
Up above in the bright daylight, near the entrance to the diamond mine, there are a few porta-cabins. In here, there are mining engineers, payroll clarks, health and safety people and… everything else you need to run a modern mining operation. They carry Theorist cards, and wear Theorist yellow hard hats. They are interested in getting as many diamonds out of the mine as possible. They buy tools for the Experiminetalists to use, often they can only afford little wooden pickaxes, but when business is good  and health and safety doesn’t notice they can buy TNT and big drills called “Maths Skills Drills”. (in some mines they can use Data Mining). Every day they talk to the experiminetalists and collect all the stones they’ve dug out. Sometimes they’ll draw detailed plans and maps which guide the miners to great big seams of diamonds, but quite often the miners will stumble across seams that they didn’t predict at all.
One thing’s for certain, only genuine Stones of Truth can go into the Tiara of Everything, and there are so many mines around and quite a lot of dodgy people working in them. No one in any one mine trusts anyone in another mine, so even after the Theorists have looked at the stones very carefully, they are all sent to a Peer Reviewed Jewel Shop to be tested. At this shop, other people in the mine industry examine each stone carefully, and if they all think it’s genuine, they take a photo and catalogue the stone and put it in their Jewel Journal which is published and sent to all the mines. We only need one stone of each exact type to make up the Tiara, so when other mines find jewels the same it adds to the weight of evidence that the Stone is one of Pure Truth. If other miners find flaws in the Stone then it’s thrown away. Sometimes a new stone is found that’s so perfect, it makes the Jewellers realise that a lot of previous stones can no longer be regarded as perfect, then they tend to be put in a back catalogue where people can still look at them if they want, but they know they’ve been superseded.
Well that’s it, I think that gets across the process of peer review reasonably, except perhaps missing out the concept that any scientific research needs to be falsifiable to be useful. I am planning to tackle this in a later post though. Anyway, the point is this: the miners from different mines (researchers from different universities) do not trust each other inherently. They don’t believe what they read in the papers unless people they’ve looked at it carefully and other people they trust have looked at it carefully too. They may be friends with other researchers or not. They may all be in the same bridge club, or some of them may prefer BMX riding or Parkour. Some of them might be gay, straight, or have a foot fetish. Some of them might be politically left wing, others right wing. In short, people who do not naturally get on, and sure as hell wouldn’t want to go to a dinner party together. But, “if the stones are kosher” (if you haven’t seen the Guy Ritchie film Snatch, then 1. you won’t get that reference and 2. why not? Go and see it now), they’ll respect that and move on. And anyone who’s not willing to have their stones examined will certainly not be trusted at all. In short, they are not at a dinner party, and cannot get away with Dinner Party Bullsh*t (DPB). The problem with the people who don’t believe in Relativity, climate science, evolution, etc etc. are invariably also those who rely on “science” done by people who not only believe that all the other scientists ARE at a dinner party spouting DPB, but put on their OWN dinner parties which the real scientists are not invited to, so they can spout their own DPB. And that is how the scientific community tells the difference between a Good After Dinner Speaker, and a Dinner Party Bullsh*tter.
I’ll move onto something else next. Thanks for being patient.

The Nature of Scientific Enquiry

So, for my first few proper blog posts, I thought I’d write about the Scientific Method, and why I think it’s important. I really don’t want these to turn into a sort of collection of “what I did in my holidays” kind of essays, but bear with me I’ve never done this before. Incidentally, the phrase “what I did in my holidays” was exactly how I was advised not to write a successful masters research project paper by my excellent Director of Studies at Cambridge, let’s call him Prof. G. And thanks to his excellent advice (and many long hours of headscratching and the awesomeness of my project supervisor Dr. A, and lots of pro plus)  I got a 1st (to any overseas readers – a good mark 😀 ) in the project. But I digress. Most people who see this are probably actually a lot more qualified than I am in science, so please accept my ramblings at most as the thoughts of an inexperienced practitioner.

The scientific method is one thing I believe is most widely misunderstood outside science, and one of the greatest reasons to believe in the power of scientific enquiry. One of the most deep and profound insights I have been given into this was by a supervisor I had during my third year of undergrad, for the General Relativity course that was compulsory for all physics students. And so begins the anecdote:
GR was taught by the highly regarded prof H. who I have a lot of respect for and is clearly a fantastically clever and brilliant man. He had written an excellent book on the subject of introducing GR and his lecture course consisted essentially of him summarizing and explaining his book chapter by chapter. I had long realised that Astrophysics would not be the most interesting part of physics to me, and I had also realised even at this early stage in my scientific life that I definitely wanted to be an experimentalist. Things had always made more sense to me when explained “downwards” from observation, and being shown the intricate and beautiful mathematical machinery below gave me a wow factor. Starting from the theory and working up never felt as fulfilling. Unfortunately for me, prof H. was an unabashed and unapologetic “card carrying theorist” as he put it, and was very proud of such facts as “there you go you see, all of electrodynamics just dropped out there, trivially, and I didn’t have to wiggle a single wire”. The problem sheets set for GR were to me, in true Cambridge fashion, like trying to smash a breeze block using only a handful of pumpkin seeds. Even my much more mathematically and theoretically inclined friends were having trouble.
We were supervised by an enigmatic man, Dr. S. He was short and stout with an unmistakable haircut and a lung capacity defyingly deep, booming voice. Luckily for me, Dr. S. was very much a “wire wiggler” as prof. H. would have put it. He had been involved in radio astronomy for many years, and judging by his personal homepage on the Cavendish website, you could certainly tell that his work was there well before the WWW was. He had an excellent way of explaining the somewhat dense and dry mathematics of differential tensor geometry that is necessary in GR in a way that we mere experimentallists could understand. In fact, he made no secret of the fact that he thought the questions that prof H. had set were hideously difficult. He even went down the corridor more than once to ask prof. H. about some problems on the sheets, which were, as prof. H. put it “five finger exercises”.
So now after the huge buildup, the scene is set. One day we walked into the seminar room and sat down with Dr. S. for our two-weekly supervision on the latest problem set, and waited for him (he was always fairly late). After his usual anecdotes about how his week had gone, he passed out his worked solutions to the problems. These were altogether entirely useless until he’d explained them to us, because to me they appeared to be written in Egyptian Heiroglyphics (as in, he had absolutely appaling handwriting, as do many of the research physicists I have met). After he explained and we had judiciously annotated the scripts, they made a lot of sense and unpicked the seemingly intractable web of prof. H’s problems. At one point in the supervision, one of my colleagues asked some question about the mathematics of a solution. At this particular question, Dr. S stood up from his desk, drew himself up to his full height, transfixed us all with his deep stare, and bellowed (bellowed is certainly the appropriate term, he seemed incapable of speaking quietly)

“what you have to understand is, that in General Relativity, what you absolutely cannot get away with, is any of this DINNER PARTY BULLSH*T.” (caps for emphasis).

I’m sure he was coming forth with his exuberance purely from his wit, but this little one liner will undoubtedly stay with me as long as my own sanity does. I’m sure he didn’t mean it as a comment on research science in general, but the more I think about it, the more I realise it sums the whole situation up perfectly. I’ll expound further on this in the next post, but to finish this one, just let me say: thank you Dr. S, you were a fantastically inspirational teacher and all round good egg/legend, and helped me scrape together any understanding I ever truly gained about general relativity and tensor algebra.
See you soon

Let’s begin this “Orgy of Ignorance”

Hello everyone!

I am starting this blog chiefly because I’ve wanted to for a long time. You can find out more about me on the page appropriately titled “About the Author”. 
Quite frankly, I also believe there is a systemic and disappointing lack of representation of people from Middlesbrough who studied physics at Cambridge and are just beginning their academic phD journey in the blogosphere, and I’m here to try and correct that. 
Many people in real life have been very kind to me and told me that I am interesting to talk to. I don’t mind if you don’t agree at all, but I’m going to do my best. Maybe I can convince some people that the more mundane bits of physics are cool, or that Marillion are awesome, or somesuch. 
Apart from hearing about my life in Physics, I’m going to probably talk a bit about my other interests. I love to play music and take part in theatre productions, which I’ve done less in the last few years but am hoping to get back to. Aside from that I love Rowing, Kayaking, Scuba Diving and helping to build robot submarines. The only thing you’ll find among my hobbies that’s dry is humour. 
Bye for now