Posts

Showing posts from 2015

Academic Toolkits

Image
First, the usual apologies! It's been an age since I have written here, but, as you know, the life of the academic is a busy one! Especially since I have just completed a book which is to be published next year. More on that journey later, but today a little post about academic toolkits.

This is something that I have written about before, and I know some of my colleagues and peers disagree with me, but that's fine as I think it illustrates that there is no single recipe for success in academia (Am I a success in academia? That's for others to judge, but I am still here after twenty years :).

What makes a "good" academic? In modern academia, we have to be specialists, focused on a generally tiny part of the immense enterprise called science. When ever I realise this, Kenneth Williams springs immediately to mind
Crossing boundaries and commenting on other areas of science that are not in your domain is met with suspicion and attack, and it's not just new ideas…

Is an elephant heavier than a mouse?

Image
Wow. It's been a while since I have written a blog post. Much of this is because of work and travels, and book writing (more news on that in the near future). But I'd like to get into blog writing, so here's a little science musing.

Is an elephant heavier than a mouse?

Now, you are probably saying "well, of course". Surely event the heaviest mouse weighs less than the newest born baby elephant, so why am I asking such a stupid question.

Well, because science can never really prove that an elephant is heavier than a mouse.

I know, I've gone and put that word in, and I've written about how proof has no place in science. But let's examine this in a little more detail.

I've stressed many times before that while measurements are important in science, without an uncertainty such measurements are useless. And while professional scientists pour over papers focused on the error bars in figures, errors and uncertainties are typically waived over in undergr…

Musings on an academic career - Part 2

A long rainy Easter weekend in Sydney. And, as promised, here's some additional musings on an academic career. I thought I would tackle a big one and present the question that all ECRs and wannabe-academics should be asking themselves from day one, and it's a question that all academics should ask themselves periodically (where the period of periodically can be as short as 5 minutes). Namely, "Do I really want an academic career?"

Now, I am sure that some of you reading this, especially the more junior researchers of you, will be thinking "Well, duh! Ain't that obvious?" But, in fact, I think this goes to the heart of many of the touted problems with regards to academia, and it's a problem of our own making, and I mean all of us.

But before I start, the usual caveats apply. While this year marks two decades since I got my PhD and so I have a long history with academia, and while I am a professor at a large, prestigious university, I have limited ex…

Musings on academic careers - Part 1

As promised, I'm going to put down some thoughts on academic careers. In doing this, I should put my cards on the table and point out that while I am a full-time professor of astrophysics of the University of Sydney, I didn't really plan my career or following the musings given below. The musings come from take a hard look at the modern state of play in modern academia.

I am going to be as honest as possible, and surely some of my colleagues will disagree with my musings. Some people have a romantic view of many things, including science, and will trot out the line that science is somewhat distinct from people. That might be the case, but the act of doing science is clearly done my people, and that means all of the issues that govern human interactions come into play. It is important to remember this.

Now, there may be some lessons below for how to become a permanent academic, but there is no magic formula. But realising some of these lessons on what is at play may help.

Some…

Moving Charges and Magnetic Fields

Image
Still struggling with grant writing season, so another post which has resulted in my random musings about the Universe (which actually happens quite a lot).

In second semester, I am teaching electricity and magnetism to our First Year Advanced Class. I really enjoy teaching this class as the kids are on the ball and can ask some deep and meaningful questions.

But the course is not ideal. Why? Because we teach from a textbook and the problem is that virtually all modern text books are almost the same. Science is trotted out in an almost historical progression. But it does not have to be taught that way.

In fact, it would be great if we could start with Hamiltonian and Lagrangian approaches, and derive physics from a top down approach. We're told that it's mathematically too challenging, but it really isn't. In fact, I would start with a book like The Theoretical Minimum, not some multicoloured compendium of physics.

We have to work with what we have!

One of the key concept…

Shooting relativistic fish in a rational barrel

Image
I need to take a breather from grant writing, which is consuming almost every waking hour in between all of the other things that I still need to do. So see this post as a cathartic exercise.

What makes a scientist? Is it the qualification? What you do day-to-day? The association and societies to which you belong? I think a unique definition may be impossible as there is a continuum of properties of scientists. This makes it a little tricky for the lay-person to identify "real science" from "fringe science" (but, in all honesty, the distinction between these two is often not particularly clear cut).

One thing that science (and many other fields) do is have meetings, conferences and workshops to discuss their latest results. Some people seem to spend their lives flitting between exotic locations essentially presenting the same talk to almost the same audience, but all scientists probably attend a conference or two per year.

In one of my own fields, namely cosmology…

The Constant Nature of the Speed of light in a vacuum

Image
Wow! It has been a while, but I do have an excuse! I have been finishing up a book on the fine-tuning of the Universe and hopefully it will be published (and will become a really big best seller?? :) in 2015. But time to rebirth the blog, and what a better way to start that a gripe.

There's been some chatter on the interweb about a recent story about the speed of light in a vacuum being slowed down. Here's oneHere's another. Some of these squeak loudly about how the speed of light may not be "a constant", implying that something has gone horribly wrong with the Universe. Unfortunately, some of my physicsy colleagues were equally shocked but the result.

Why would one be shocked? Well, the speed of light being constant to all observers is central of Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity. Surely if these results are right, and Einstein is wrong, then science is a mess, etc etc etc.

Except there is nothing mysterious about this result. Nothing strange. In fa…