Brief comments on the EU Debate


This week saw the TV debate between Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage on the UK’s EU membership. Both presented their cases robustly, and the perception of a ‘winner’ depends on which side of the argument you support. So I think the reason Farage ‘won’ is because more people with  anti-EU views took part in the aftershow poll. In the grand scheme of things it was a sideshow, and I agree with the Labour MP interviewed who said that most people have more pressing worries.

In any case, there is only likely to be a referendum if the Tories win outright next year. At the moment that seems an unlikely scenario. Even if UKIP do well in the upcoming EU elections, it will be a minor irritation at most.

So, as someone who feels that our continued membership of the EU is essential, I’m not particularly concerned by this week’s events. More pressing concerns lie ahead!

Scottish Independence and Research Funding issues


With the Scottish Independence referendum getting ever closer, it’s surely time to get away from the ‘braveheart’ posturing and consider some real issues, many of which have not been adequately addressed by the SNP in their independence campaign.

One such issue, close to my heart, is one of research funding in Scottish universities. In my field, solid state chemistry, there is much excellent research being done in universities such as St Andrews, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Strathclyde. In many cases the research is world-leading; one example is the fuel cells work being done at St Andrews. This work is rightly funded by the EPSRC, a UK funding agency, and there are many other examples I could cite.

If there is a ‘yes’ vote in September, what will happen to the EPSRC funding of these excellent research groups, and more broadly, what will happen to the groups themselves? The EPSRC will obviously not fund research done in a foreign country, and the Scottish government seems highly unlikely to be able to make up for the lost funding. Recently the House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee addressed this issue, as discussed here. The SNP seem to think that the status quo can continue, with the EPSRC assuming some kind of trans-national role. This is as ridiculous as their assumptions about keeping the pound, and joining the EU!

I fear that in these circumstances there is a real danger that the excellent research being done in these universities will suffer, and further, that the researchers themselves will leave for better funded locations. There will then be a knock-on effect on the universities themselves, since their current excellent research infrastructure has a positive effect on teaching, giving undergraduate students the opportunity to carry out research projects in these leading research groups. This may all be lost if Scotland becomes independent. These are worrying times for anyone who cares about the research being done, the people involved, and the future of the institutions themselves.

The House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee

Concerts in the next two weeks


I’m playing in two concerts, on the next two Saturdays. The programmes are challenging but wonderful, and because I’ve managed to prioritise studying the music, they should be more rewarding than some previous concerts where I didn’t manage to do this.

The first concert, next Saturday 22 March, is with the South Cheshire Orchestra. The programme is:

Humperdinck: Hansel and Gretel overture
Schubert: Symphony no. 8, ‘Unfinished’
Sibelius: Finlandia, Karelia Suite

For the Schubert and Sibelius I’m playing the first trombone part on a superb Vincent Bach tenor trombone, borrowed (with many thanks) from a fellow trombonist, Bob Crawshaw (I own a bass trombone and an alto trombone at present). For the Humperdinck the first part is sufficiently high to warrant playing on an alto trombone.

The second concert is on Saturday 29 March, with the Middlewich Concert Orchestra. The programme is:

Smetana: Ma Vlast (Moldau)
Dvorak: Cello concerto
Borodin: Symphony no. 2

The Smetana and Borodin first trombone parts are written for a tenor trombone, while the Dvorak is written for alto. So once again, two instruments will be used (with thanks again to Bob!)

Now I am generally playing first trombone parts, it has become clear that I need to buy a tenor trombone, as the alto tends to feature fairly infrequently. Some years ago I set aside a fund against this becoming necessary, so a purchase will be made! I will post about this exciting event, with photos, when the time comes. In the meantime I’m looking forward to the concerts!

PowerPoint in teaching – the verdict.


Following my midweek post on use of PowerPoint in teaching I got a few responses, which I’ve collated in a storify post (see Twitter feed for link).

I’m pleased to say that no significant objections were raised. Not having too many slides and not going too fast are obvious points, as well as the desirability of mixing up the use of PowerPoint with other things, like board work, etc. Specific topics, like teaching curly arrows and organic reaction mechanisms, were mentioned as areas that are not well covered by PowerPoint (where getting students to write down the mechanisms themselves is an important part of the learning process).

But, taking these reservations into account, the perceived anti-PowerPoint sentiments don’t seem to be there. That’s a relief, as I sort out my lectures for the remaining 4 weeks before the Easter vacation!

What’s wrong with using PowerPoint in teaching?


It seems that, unbeknown to me, there’s been an anti PowerPoint ‘thing’ going on amongst the Chemistry teaching community. This I find puzzling.

In my teaching, all my notes are on PowerPoint. In a typical lecture I go through the slides, explaining and elaborating on them, with the occasional use of the whiteboard for worked examples. Without it both myself and the class would spend nearly all the time writing, instead of thinking and asking questions! And I can include diagrams, crystal structures etc which I could never display otherwise, at least recognisably!

I really can’t think of a single objection to the use of PowerPoint, as long as you don’t just show the s!ides, but include other activities as well. It’s an indispensable and useful tool for teaching and research presentations which I wouldn’t be without.

Watching the Winter Olympics – a new therapy?


In between all the lecture and meetings preparation of the past two weeks since returning from my Hannover trip, I have been surprised to find that I’ve enjoyed watching the Winter Olympics – especially the downhill skiing and snowboarding events. Somehow, watching someone flying down a sheer face, and perhaps combining it with some jumping and other seemingly impossible twists, has calmed me down and helped me to get through this busy period. Now it has all finished, I shall miss it.

The Sochi Winter Olympics had a difficult build up, and no doubt the questions raised before the games started have not been resolved. But in terms of organisation, it seems to have been excellent, and all the venues worked well as far as I could tell. The organisers did a good job, and setting political issues aside for the moment, they deserve congratulations.

Social media and teaching – an update


Regular readers of my blog and Twitter feed will know that I am a keen user of social media in general, but in particular I use it in my teaching where I can. With my current lectures on crystallography and X-ray diffraction, and my forthcoming lectures on quantum chemistry and statistical thermodynamics (not to forget forensic ballistics), it seemed appropriate to write an update.

My main social medium for teaching is still Facebook, where I put useful web links and other information on my teaching pages ( I genuinely believe this can be helpful and time-saving for my students; it offers one-click access to useful links, saving having to cut and paste links between lecture slides and web browsers. It has been well-received in previous years, and it will be interesting to see what the students I am currently teaching make of it!

With Twitter, as well as my personal account, I jointly run the Keele Chemistry account. Quite a few students follow this account, but not enough to be confident that information placed there will be seen widely. Of course, you don’t have to follow an account to read its posts, but follower numbers provide a guide. So I will continue to persevere with using Twitter to provide links etc, and I will try to assess, at some point, how widely it is used (although it is more difficult to do this with Twitter than with Facebook, where you can see at a glance how many times a particular post has been viewed).

Comments and experiences from others will be welcome as always.

Wednesday travel carnage


On Wednesday of this last week (12/02/14) I attended a meeting at the Rheged Centre, Penrith, on funding schemes for nuclear waste disposal research. It should have been a simple trip, but for the intervention of the weather …

I set out just before 07:00, taking a bus from Keele to Crewe. My train left Crewe at 08:09, and arrived on time at Penrith at 09:45 It was a short taxi ride to the Rheged Centre, which seems an interesting place, although we had little time for exploration. Another time, maybe!

The meeting itself was interesting and potentially useful. Mark Read and I made some contacts, with whom we might be able to put together a proposal. However we are somewhat limited by the rules of the funding competition, which does not allow academics to be proposal leads, meaning we will have to find something like an SME to work with.

Shortly before the end of the meeting I received a Tweet alerting me to the planned closure of the West Coast line at 19:00 due to strong winds. I was booked on a train at 16:21, so we headed back to the station as soon as we could get a taxi, which was slightly challenging since it coincided with school run time! But we got to the station, and the train seemed to be running and on time. So far, so good.

Having got on the train, we were told by the train manager that we would be travelling at a reduced speed due to the wind conditions. At that point, my ETA at Crewe was about 19:20, as opposed to the scheduled time of 17:59. Annoying but not unmanageable! However it was much worse in the end, because we crawled to Preston, where the train stopped. At that point it wasn’t at all clear if it would (or even could) go any further, and if so, whether it would stop at Crewe station, which was closed for a while when part of the roof blew off (!)

To cut a long story short, we finally left Preston around 21:00, having waited there for nearly 3 hours, during which time we had no idea where the train would stop having left the station. The train reached Crewe just after 22:00 and (thankfully) stopped. The taxi queue had to be seen to be believed (!) so I was grateful that I was still in time to get a bus home. I finally got home just before 23:00, about 4 hours later than planned, but at least I was safe and sound!

The next morning revealed significant storm damage on the campus, an example of which is shown below (close to where I live).


Early February madness


I have commented in previous posts about everything that’s going on at the moment for me in terms of work, including preparation of new lecture material, revision of our final year courses, etc. But the last 3 days have been particularly busy, even hectic, and I thought I should describe them here.

On Thursday (6 February) I travelled to Hannover for a research meeting. This was a relatively simple trip, involving a bus to Crewe, a train to Manchester Airport, and a very convenient flight (with FlyBe) to Hannover. On arrival I was met by my host, who took me to my hotel, and later we had some preliminary discussions over a beer in a local bar.

On Friday I went to the Institute of Mineralogy at the University of Hannover, where I met in person the PhD student I’ve been helping via email for just over a year. She summarised what she had done recently, and we discussed possible future research directions for her. I was then scheduled to give a talk, which I did, and I’m pleased to say that it went well. This was followed by lunch, and in the afternoon I was involved in further research discussions with my host and some other researchers (from the University of Bonn). Hopefully this will lead to something fruitful in collaboration terms in the future! The meeting lasted until the late afternoon, when I returned to the airport, in time for my flight back to Manchester.

In planning this trip, I was happy to take the flights from Manchester; they were direct, and the airport is far more convenient than Heathrow or Gatwick! The only problem was that I would arrive back in Manchester too late to take a train home. So I booked a hotel, with a view to taking the first train home in the morning.

That takes me neatly to Saturday morning, 8th February. I got up at 5:00 am, and took the 6:05 train from Manchester Airport to Crewe as planned. On arrival I had a short wait for a bus to Keele, and I got home at just after 7:30 am. This gave me time for breakfast before setting out again, this time by car, to drive to Middlewich High School for a workshop on Borodin’s 2nd symphony, which one of my orchestras is performing at a concert in March. This lasted all day, and was hard work but good fun; I was wilting somewhat by the end through tiredness, but I’m glad I went.

So now, as I write this, I feel I haven’t stopped since Thursday, and that a good rest will be needed on Sunday. Next week sees my first lecture and problem class on X-ray diffraction, with a research funding trip in the middle of the week, so I had better be ready for these!

My Crystallographic Links


As you may have picked up from my Twitter feed and my most recent post, I’m giving lectures on X-ray diffraction this semester. In preparing them, and thinking about crystallography in general, I have thought back to when I was taught the subject at UCL around 1976-77.

We were taught crystallography by Judith Milledge, herself a former student of Kathleen Lonsdale, who in turn did her PhD with W H Bragg (the older Bragg). Judith was assisted by Monica Mendelssohn, and I remember that both Judith and Monica were very helpful to us, in spite of our probable lack of appreciation of their subject!

In 1978 I graduated and started my PhD with Stuart Walmsley on lattice dynamics of molecular crystals, and in that year the UCL Crystallography Unit transferred from the Chemistry to the Geology Department. They didn’t have to physically ‘move’, because by then Geology were occupying parts of what is now called the Kathleen Lonsdale Building, where they were located. The reason for the move may have had something to do with actions of the then head of department, Max McGlashan, but I have no official evidence of that!

So, in a few weeks’ time, when I give my lectures, I will try to be inspired by the thought that I was taught crystallography by Sir William Bragg’s scientific granddaughter!


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