Telescope Project 2019

Hello! We are the telescope team of 2019! We are Aman, Paul, Victor, Ki, Tim, Mohyuddin and of course, Malcolm!

The purpose of this blog will be to keep a log of what we’ve been up to on a regular basis, and hopefully form a nice basis for the dreaded report.

Over the past few weeks we have been working on creating a Hertzsprung-Russell diagram of the Messier 47 star cluster. A HR diagram is a graph that plots stars according to their luminosity and colour. Using this diagram we are able to identify a star’s type depending on its position on the diagram.

Even more, by looking at the turn off point (the point where main sequence stars become red giants) we are able to figure out the cluster’s age.

In order to do this we first needed to get a number of images to work with.  In the observatory we managed to take 20 pictures of Messier 47. 10 of these were taken with a blue filter and the other 10 with a green filter.

The reason for taking these two sets of images are to allow us to calculate a B-V colour index, fulfilling one of the axis requirements for the HR diagram.

The next stage was for us to take the images and merge them into one. But first we had to get rid of ‘hot pixels’. These are bright points in our images caused by defects in the cameras system. Below is an example image – if you look closely you can very bright and very small dots. These are hot pixels, not stars!

An image we have taken of Messier 47. If you look closely enough you can see the tiny, but bright, hot pixels.

We first attempted processing the images by hand.  We removed the hot pixels by painting them out in GIMP, an image manipulation program. We then layered all the corresponding B and G images on top of each other and merged them using the ‘addition’ blending channel. Unfortunately, since the telescope was not perfectly still when it was taking the photos, you could see a significant directional blur. To remedy this we had to align all the images manually by eye. Below is what resulted.

This is the result of aligning and merging all 10 blue filter images of M47 in GIMP

Same as above but with the green filter instead.

While it was sufficient for our purposes, we decided that this approach was far too labour intensive. If we managed to go up again a take even more pictures, we’d have to repeat the whole tedious process. Instead it would be better to handle all this using the magic of python!

By working with the FITS files through python we hoped to automate the whole process.

We first converted the files into arrays and then took the logarithms of the intensity values. This gave the images a better contrast allowing us to see far more stars.

The raw FITS file

The same file but with a logarithm applied

However after taking the logarithm we were left with images with significant noise. The next step was to set a threshold intensity. Any value below this threshold would be changed to 0, and as a result we should be left with only stars and some hot pixels. We determined the optimum threshold value by taking the maximum of the second derivative of the total intensity.

Intensity values within a FITS file of M47

A graph of the 2nd derivative

For this image we found the optimum threshold intensity value to be 3.38.

The determined threshold applied to the log10 FITS file.

Since what we now had was just an array of points with different intensities, the next step was to cluster them into their own star arrays. First we used a Gaussian blur to smooth out the objects. This also had the additional benefit of blurring away the hot pixels.


Here is a Boolean test demonstrating the thresholding applied to the image. Notice all the noise and jagged shape of the stars.

But with the Gaussian blur applied we have a cleaner image with much smoother objects.

Here we have an even larger blurring radius applied.

The next step was to cluster pixels into their own groups of stars. This was accomplished with the ndimage.label function.

Here are the segregated objects. Each star has its own unique colour, indicating that it’s has it’s own distinct label.

Now that we had separated the intensities into their own stars, we could then work out the centre of masses for each one.

Centres of masses applied to the clusters

Centre of masses isolated

With the pre-processing complete, we could now work on automating the alignment of all the images with respect to each other.


Memories of David Bailin, by G. V. Kraniotis

This lovely tribute was sent to me by fellow Bailin PhD student George Kraniotis who was unable to come to the memorial today.

My memories of David Bailin are many and still vivid in my mind since I spent 12 exciting and very productive years with him in United Kingdom. Firstly, he was my  M.Sc. and D. Phil. supervisor at Sussex University during the period 1990-1995. The second phase of our collaboration (1996-2002) started in 1996  when I was hired by Alexander Love as a postdoctoral research assistant at Royal Holloway  University of London and continued later at Sussex university (2001-2002).   During the second phase the three of us formed a very strong research team. We published 16 original papers (12 in Physics Letters B,  2 in Nuclear Physics B and 2 in JHEP) in the fields of string phenomenology and cosmology.

Let me start with my first personal memories of David. When I was finishing my first degree at Ioannina University in Greece, I decided to start my research in string theory since I was aware, after reading a popular science article, that the theory of strings was attempting to reconcile General Relativity with Quantum Mechanics. At the same time, I had understood from my undergraduate courses that although the Standard Model of particle physics was a successful theory, yet it was not a complete story since it could not predict the mass of the electron and gravity was out of its realm. After making a personal bibliography research in Greece I realised that David Bailin was one of the world experts in this new theory. Thus I decided to apply at Sussex University for my postgraduate studies with the hope that David will become my supervisor. After I received a formal offer from the University of Sussex to enroll as an M.Sc. student  on October the 2nd 1990 I travelled to Brighton. During the first week as a student I had to meet with the faculty members and find a supervisor for my M.Sc. dissertation. When I first met David I remember his welcoming smile and how polite person he was. He asked me various things about my background and then he asked me why I want to work with superstrings. I told him I am aware that the theory involves very advanced branches of mathematics however I am interested in finding out through my research about its physical relevance in Nature. Immediately David gave me to read his article entitled Why Superstrings? and we decided to meet every week to discuss my progress for the topic of my M.Sc. dissertation on string theory. I was quite pleased of course. Our common journey for the next 12 years had just started. Besides introducing me to the world of superstrings David during these first days introduced me also to the world of coffee! In our first meeting after the initial encounter he asked me if I want to drink a coffee. I was shy to tell him that I was not drinking coffee so I accepted his kind offer. To my surprise the instant coffee he made me was so tasty that since that day I joined the club of coffee lovers! He was a modest person despite the fact he was a famous theoretical physicist. He was a great teacher. Very direct with his students he asked me from the first days to call him David and not Professor Bailin.  Initially it was not easy for me due to my academic undergraduate background in Greece but eventually I got used to it. He was very smart and very perceptive of the needs of his students. He inspired confidence with his knowledge and with his penetrating questions he immediately was able to have a picture of the student’s progress.  I remember in February of 1991 Dr. Copeland the person responsible at Sussex at that period for the academic postgraduate admissions he asked me to meet with him in David’s office to discuss about the perspectives for me to enroll as a D.Phil, student after completing my M.Sc. course especially the financial issues. Initially we discussed about such formalities and when I thought the meeting had ended David asked me to go to blackboard and explain to both of them what I have had learned so far about string theory. I was quite surprised, and unprepared nevertheless I started writing equations on the blackboard. At some stage I mentioned that  is the critical spacetime dimension of the bosonic string. David asked me to give some arguments about this. I started giving arguments about the absence of ghost states for ,  but then David told me but why exactly 26. I was at a loss for a few moments but then I recovered and explained that consistent quantization of the theory and the conformal symmetry (cancellation of anomalies) required the critical spacetime dimensionality to be exactly 26. After the end of the meeting (examination in fact) I learned from David that I was accepted for a D.Phil. position and he told me I did well in the board especially in the question about the dimensionality of the bosonic string.  My M.Sc. project was to derive a particular Grand Unified theory the so called flipped    model in the fermionic formulation of strings as formulated by Kawai et al. This project required among other things mastering the basics of group representation theory something I did pretty fast but also knowledge of number theory. In particular the derivation of the particle spectrum from the formulation required solving systems of congruences something it was completely new to me. I remember the enigmatic smile of David when I first asked him about congruences: he told me don’t you know about congruences ? It took me some effort to be able to learn solving them. I derived most of the spectrum but there were still  some more involved cases that needed to be solved. David was quite rigorous and demanding and he told me  you must solve all congruences and then you will start writing up your dissertation. After a few days I return in triumph to David who was pleased and he gave me the go ahead for the completion of the dissertation.

In my D.Phil. years David gave me enough space for doing independent research. He was always encouraging me to leave my mark in research but at the same time he was very supportive when it was necessary to calm me down. I learned programming from scratch. I remember David telling me when I first realized that some numerical analysis  was needed in my project: George leave the calculations in paper for the moment, it is time to learn how to produce software in order to solve your renormalization group differential equations! On the other hand  he was quite generous in his comments when he realized that a real progress was taking place. When I had published my second paper  on the constraints the observed flavour changing neutral current process  was imposing on the physical parameters of the effective supergravity from heterotic string theory he told me: George you realise that this is real life you are talking about! We celebrated the award of my D.Phil. in a Greek restaurant with live music in Brighton, David his wife  Anjali, my parents and I and many of my friends in Brighton.  At this point I must mention an interesting coincidence in our lives: both our fathers were tailors in profession his father’s first name was William which in Greek is usually interpreted to correspond to Vassilios my father’s first name!

During my postdoctoral years I had a very intensive interactive time with David and his long-term collaborator Alex Love.  I remember vividly our trip to Philadelphia USA for the conference SUSY97. This was my first trip to USA. I was so excited. During this conference we completed (adding the final touches) our first fundamental  paper on CP violation by soft supersymmetry breaking terms in orbifold compactifications and we uploaded a first version to arXiv. We were both very pleased with our results and we celebrated in an exclusive restaurant in the city. David took a nice photo of me sitting next to the well known statue of Benjamin Franklin on a bench of Philadelphia.

On the same trip I remember David expressing his firm belief on the European Community. It was Sunday morning and we had a time to spare. We took a walk on the urban Philadelphia. Near a music record shop I was mesmerised by the captivating music of Kind of Blue by Miles Davis. I told that to David so we went inside the shop to buy the cd. The seller when he understood David was an Englishman he told him that he could not  understand how UK is a member of European Community since it has such a closed relationship with USA. David he responded: UK being a member of EU is able to hire people such as George here- showing me, from other  EU member states ( such as Greece) who can contribute to the advancement of knowledge! The American citizen said no more!

David was very observant on the comments of his collaborators and friends. During the visits of me and Alex Love to him at Sussex for a research collaboration we used to take our lunch in the Falmer pub together with a pint of beer. On one occasion as that, the discussion involved the star wars program of USA in the era of Ronald Reagan presidency.  David and Alex were quite critical of the project in general. In a surprising note to them I responded saying that perhaps the reason that the star war program was launched was not only military as a response to the cold war era but that the USA leaders of the project  also had in mind the development of a defense system against a possible encounter with a large comet or asteroid that could threat Earth. David told me that I have similar ideas to Sir Fred Hoyle and he recommended to read the book by the latter:     Origin of the Universe and the Origin of Religion (Anshen Transdisciplinary Lectureships in Art, Science, and the Philosophy ) 

A book that I really enjoyed.  This is an example of how the interaction between physicists even at relaxation moments can reveal and inspire new avenues of scientific thought. Especially nowdays the relevance is more evident since astrobiology has become a new fundamental scientific discipline in the enquiries of humans on the origins of life.

He loved the Sussex surroundings very much. Besides long walks he enjoyed taking pictures of the beautiful English hill landscape around Falmer at different periods of the year in order to capture the changes of Nature at different seasons.

We also many times enjoyed the company of each other in his Hove house drinking ouzo and eating fish eggs (fish roe) a kind of caviar specialite from Vonitsa  (my father’s hometown)  that my father was sending me to England occasionally. Other times we spent quality time in pubs and restaurants in Hove and Brighton. On one occasion the physics department had a dinner party in a Brighton restaurant. Each one of us had the right to bring his own drinks.  I brought a bottle of a very good red wine.  I thought the waiter would open the bottles on table. Instead he took all bottles to open them in a separate place. I was worried but did not say anything. David  read my mind and he said: George you worry that he will change the content of the bottle.  He spontaneously  laughed.

Our published work involved not only elementary number theory but also advanced analytic number theory such as the modular functions that were appearing in the effective supergravity Lagrangian that was consistent with modular invariance. Modular forms became a highly interesting topic for me so the field of number theory and its relation to physics became one of the subjects I got really engrossed.  David invited my wife Rania and me to his house in Hove a number of times to enjoy the delicious Indian food prepared with love by Anjali. On one of these  social occasions he gave me as present the book:
The Man Who Loved Only Numbers: The Story of Paul Erdös and the Search for Mathematical Truth by Paul Hoffman. I really enjoyed and have used it many times to inspire my students when I want to present examples of dedication and excellence.

Many times I enjoyed drinking tea with David in his house by the garden in Hove. Quite often in these tea breaks we discussed about the applications of number theory in cryptography  bringing as an example and sharing information about the  Enigma Machine and how the cryptologist’s team in Bletchley Park finally broke the code.

David encouraged my inclination to number theory aspects in many ways.  When our paper in The Effect of Wilson line moduli on CP violation by soft supersymmetry breaking terms  got published in Physics Letters B a week after its submission all three members of our research team were so pleased. It was a highly original and technical paper. In this paper the Igusa cusp form of genus two was involved in the construction of the effective supergravity  Lagrangian. The  original use of this highly non-trivial function for the first time in the string theory literature was certainly a reason for some pride for the achievement. David once more was very generous in his comments to me by telling me: George, there are only two physicists in the world who are really experts in these Igusa functions, you and a colleague of ours in Germany (S.Stieberger). The latter had been cited in our work.

In summer 1998  we shared some very beautiful moments in Oxford in a conference there (SUSY 98).  Besides the exciting scientific part of our visit we spent some quality time there together with colleagues and friends in the local pubs and cafes discussing physics enjoying the atmosphere of Oxford. David emitted a kind of beautiful warmth with his acquaintances and friends. As a part of the social program of the conference we attended an opera in the city. Before the start of the performance I noticed a luxurious chair in the middle of the scene. Being in a good humour I asked David for who is this chair? David being also in a good humour he replied: for you! We both smiled happily and enjoyed the rest of the evening.

In spring of 2000, I spent a month at Cern with David as a visiting scientist. During this month we completed a PLB paper: CP violation including universal one loop corrections and heterotic M theory . Besides work we had time for enjoying ourselves. I remember vividly dinning with David in Café de Paris restaurant in Geneva where we ate very high quality beef steaks.  I enclose a picture of me and David from this night. We also enjoyed walking in the surrounding mountains with the company of other colleagues. I enclose two pictures from such mountain walks. In the photos besides David and me appear two other ex students of David: Thomas Dent and Malcolm  Fairbairn.

In the years 2001-2002 we produced and published some pioneering and influential work in the exciting  field of intersecting Dirichlet branes. Specifically,  we produced semi-realistic standard-like models in the context of the large extra dimensions string gravity scenario. I believe we were the first group that  solved analytically in a general way the string tadpole equations and the constraints arising from a generalised Green-Schwartz anomaly cancellation mechanism.

Besides being my supervisor, mentor, teacher, research collaborator, a friend,  David he was also my best man. He was the best man  together with Phil Valder in my marriage with Ourania Kraniotis  in a beautiful ceremony in Weybridge Register Office /Surrey County Council on October the 18th 2001. All of us have very fond memories of that day. I sent some photos from this happy day. When we received the marriage certificate David told us both: never lose it! David was also very happy when our son Vassilis was born in Brighton!

Many times in our informal discussions David had mentioned that a professional physicist in his career  must necessarily spend some time working in USA  in order to gain experience on how US physicists collaborate in doing research. Indeed, after my research experiences in USA working as a postdoctoral research fellow at Texas A&M university in the period 2004-2006 , I couldn’t agree more (with David).

In 2010 David introduced me to the world of Facebook! We became friends in the platform and many times we exchange personal communication there. I remember how happy I felt when I received a like from David for my uploads. Especially each time he added a like on my scientific uploads sharing my recent publications in gravitational physics and black holes constituted an additional gratification for me!

In retrospect I feel very lucky that I met David and spent twelve exciting years with him in United Kingdom. On the other had I feel sad and regret that after I left England in April 2002 I never met in person with David again. Of course we had frequent communication exchanging emails and latter messages in Facebook but still this cannot substitute the personal live contact. Many times humans make the mistake to believe that their beloved ones will always be physically around. Especially when their beloved ones  have been  larger than life as David was. Unfortunately life is cruel in this respect. David left us suddenly last March, resting now in a neighbourhood of Stars.  However, people never die as long as their living beloved ones keep remembering them. I will miss you dearly David and I will honour your memory forever.



David Bailin 1938-2018 (My Talk in his memory)

I’ve been putting off this particular blog post.  In March of this year, my PhD supervisor David Bailin died suddenly.  This unexpected loss left a shadow over many peoples’ lives.

Today we are celebrating his life at the meeting house at Sussex University where he worked.  I am giving a talk.  This is what I am going to say:-

My name is Malcolm Fairbairn and I was a PhD student of David Bailin’s here at the turn of the millennium.

I’ve been asked to say a few words about David from the point of view of one of his PhD students.

I have remained in academia and I am used to giving talks to potentially aggressive rooms full of theoretical physicists, nevertheless I find it particularly intimidating to fulfil this role today as I feel a great responsibility to do justice to someone who was so universally loved and respected.  Plus I can’t use powerpoint!

Let me start by saying that David was a first class physicist with a formidable array of skills and we were all in awe of his particle physics expertise and experience and I will come on to that a little bit.  However for his PhD students (sorry DPHIL STUDENTS!), he was much more than this, he was a great role model as a human being.   During my preparation for this talk today I spoke to a few of my peers who were also his ex PhD students (George Kraniotis, Thomas Dent and Maria Angulo-Lopez, with sincere apologies if you are here and I didn’t get in contact, feel free to put your hand up at the end) and the thing which struck me the most was that we all seemed to use the same terms to describe him and his effect upon our lives, that he was very kind, that he had unlimited time for us even though he was clearly very busy and that he was an extraordinarily decent human being.  He has certainly left a lasting impression on each of us.

As you probably know, David started his academic career playing a role in the understanding of the standard model of particle physics.  While his two most famous books today (both authored with Alex Love) are on quantum field theory and SUSY,   I have met senior physicists working at CERN in the 70s who treated his book on weak interactions as a standard reference as they tried to understand their data.

Later on he became interested in string theory and since I was interested at that time in understanding the interconnection between string theory and cosmology at a deeper level I managed to blackmail him into supervising me.

I recall that as a PhD supervisor he first came across as being quite direct, which was a bit scary, but he also put us at ease and did things like making sure that we addressed him as David (we forget, it was a long time ago and he was a very senior and universally respected member of the department so this was not at first immediately obvious)  I remember him specifically saying with a mischievous grin “if you call me professor Bailin I will have to call you Mr. Fairbairn” putting me at ease without making me feel awkward.

He then supported us as we found our feet as physicists.

David’s attitude to string theory was to make links with observations and his great hope was that a compactification could be found which gave rise to the standard model.  Conversely I think he hoped that deviations from the standard model would at some point enable us to learn about string theory.  Because of his interest in making links between actual data and string theory, he soaked his PhD students in particle phenomenology, whether they were working on extremely mathematical aspects of orbifolds, or had more cosmological interests as I did.  He made sure we all attended the UK beyond the standard model meetings regularly and it is very clear to me now that exposure to these meetings certainly had a lasting impact on my career and changed the direction of my research.

Sussex has always been a wonderful department and it was very special at that time with a seemless continuum of expertise from string theory to particle physics to cosmology to astronomy, the likes of which I have never really seen anywhere else in my travels.   Together with Beatriz de Carlos, Mark Hindmarsh and Ed Copeland David helped arrange exchange trips with Spanish Universities (where Tom and I met Alessandro Ibarra, Jose Ramond Espinosa and the rest of the group of Casas and Quiros) and we hosted regularly students from other Universities, I remember meeting a very young Silvia Pascoli and Jon Urrestilla in this way.

When he went to visit CERN for a few months, he made sure that we came out to visit him there and he looked after us carefully, making sure that we had money and accommodation as well as taking us on a trip up into the Jura mountains.  This trip to CERN was a hugely important experience for me and left a lasting impression until many years later when I was lucky enough to get a job there.  I also remember during that trip Tom and I meeting and exploring Geneva with a very young Spanish physicist called Veronica Sanz….

Tom recalled to me the times when David had bad cases of sciatica but still managed to give him supervisions, albeit from a horizontal position to ease the pain!

So he was an excellent facilitator, however, outside this David was more to us than simply an academic supervisor.  Over time and in interactions with him we realised that he was a thoroughly decent man.  I have to say that as a boy from Wigan with a chip on his shoulder it was a revelation to me that such a sophisticated gentleman, wearing blazers and driving a jaguar could also be a staunch labour supporter.  He never failed to call me or anyone else out when I or they said something stupid (which I am eternally grateful for).  He taught me to be more tolerant of different people and less tolerant of injustice.

Both Maria and I happened to be in the process of getting married to non EU citizens during this period of time and he was a constant source of unwavering support to both of us.

He has stayed with us in other ways too, for example, when I was asked to become union representative for Physics at KCL, there was a moment I am not proud of when I hesitated and considered the potential effect of this upon my career within Kings.  Of course I then reflected upon what David would do or say, and I could hear his voice in my head admonishing me quite strongly for even considering saying no.

I think that at this point I should read out just a few of the things that people sent me to say about David.

“I gave for several years a masters course at the University Autónoma de Madrid (UAM) on Supersymmetry, and my main reference was his book, which I found excellent in every aspect…  Apart from that I have very good memories of him. He was an extremely friendly and accessible person. His passing is a great loss and we will miss him.”

“I remember some of his advice during one of the perennial pparc arguments that it’s never a good idea to try and get your research area more funding by attacking other areas – departments and schools should stick together. If funding people see scientists putting each other’s research down they could come to the conclusion that they should all be cut”


“you hear scary stories about women in science but he always made me feel just part of the group”

“He was an excellent scientist, a great colleague and a wonderful, generous friend.”

“I learnt from him not just about physics but also how to think about things”

And I will end with the last paragraph from the nice piece George Kraniotis wrote in memory of David, the full version of which I will put up on my blog.  These are George’s words, and I think that it’s fair to say the sentiment is shared by all of his students:-

“Many times humans make the mistake to believe that their beloved ones will always be physically around. Especially when their beloved ones have been larger than life as David was. Unfortunately life is cruel in this respect. David left us suddenly last March, resting now in a neighbourhood of Stars.  However, people never die as long as their living beloved ones keep remembering them. I will miss you dearly David and I will honour your memory forever.”

Week 9 – Project Update

Here’s a short update that I wrote two Mondays ago (on the 19th) and never got around to posting:

An unexpected bought of cold brought clear skies to London briefly tonight (Monday). As I type this week’s update from the tube on my way home, I can barely feel my fingers still. Tonight was very, very cold. Way colder than it should ever get in March. We did some imaging of M53 and the cigar galaxy as we slowly turned into human icicles. These images will be stacked and processed by each of us and the best result will be posted in our next update! In the meantime, here’s a picture of Malcolm when he stopped playing space invaders long enough to decide what to image : “


Final update coming soon!


Weeks 7-8 Project Update

Hi everyone! We’re back to tell you a bit more about what’s been going on up on the roof lately!

The biggest obstacle we’ve been facing recently has been the weather. London is usually quite cloudy, but recently it seems as though clouds have a permanent place overhead (and let’s not even begin to discuss the snow we got). While we did go up to the roof once in weeks 7 and 8, the sky wasn’t quite clear enough to see much of interest. But fear not, we were still productive! Our biggest accomplishment of that night was adjusting the weighting of the telescope to improve accuracy. It was a group effort to hold up the OTA (Optical Tube Assembly – aka the main body of the telescope) and move it into the optimal position. There was much trial and error involved, and the words “we have to move the telescope again” may or may not have earned Isaac some death glares throughout the night. In the end though, we managed to get the counterweight on, the telescope balanced, and we saw a dramatic improvement in the accuracy and steadiness of the telescope. Of course, no blog post would be complete without pictures, so here’s one of Malcolm laughing at us trying to get the telescope into place:



Check in again soon for more of our adventures!

  • Despina, Conor, Ethasham, Isaac, and AJ

Weeks 2-6 – Project Update

Hello everyone!

So as it turns out, we have not been very good about these ‘weekly’ updates. Here is a bit of an update from week 2 – week 6!

First of all, below are some pictures from a late night telescope visit earlier this term:



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During this particular session, we took spectral readings of the Orion nebula and Sirius, which were used for calibration. This was done using the DADOS spectroscope.


The poor quality of the spectrum is due to the fact that this is a picture of the screen in the observatory (don’t worry, our actual data is better than this!)

Of course this was all after we focused the telescope by spying on some office workers. When you are located somewhere like London (i.e. an area of extreme light pollution and perpetually dismal weather), sometimes the best targets for observation are offices and bars (whoops?). Before going home, we looked at the moon briefly – here is a picture taken through the telescope (with an iPhone camera):


We took this picture of the moon by pressing a phone camera up against the eyepiece of the telescope

After this, the next couple of weeks primarily focused on analyzing the data we obtained and writing a code to give us pretty graphs like the one that Conor is pointing at below from our original spectral data (shout-out to AJ and Ethasham for doing the heavy lifting on this part of the project!)



Conor points at a screen (!)

Keep an eye out for our next post (coming soon!) where we’ll talk about what we’ve done since then!

– Despina, Conor, Isaac, Ethasham, and AJ

Striking for Pensions

From the end of last week academics at Universities all across the UK have gone on strike to protest at a proposed slash to their pensions. There are very many people who have studied this in a great deal more detail than I have and it is certainly a complicated story. A good place to start is the work of Mick Otsuka in setting out the problem in all its gory details. However to cut a long story short, the USS which is the pensions fund for lecturers is suggesting that they cut the level of pensions promised to lecturers based upon a risk assessment process which assumes that every single higher education establishment which signs up to the pension pot suddenly goes out of business simultaneously. Since this is clearly ridiculous, the only reasonable interpretation of their actions is that they are greedy and they are trying it on. I am one of those people cursed with the ability to see both sides of an argument. On this occasion, I can see no reason at all why the proposed changes are reasonable – it looks like a straight forward cooked up money grab so that those people who view universities simply in terms of the bottom line of a financial spreadsheet can make that number a little better.

Their proposed changes would drastically reduce the level of pensions paid to University lecturers upon their retirement, the University lecturers are not happy about this and so we are currently on strike.

When you go on strike, you don’t get paid of course. However in some sense the worse thing is the effect upon your students. This term I am teaching projects but I am not teaching actual courses, so it is a lot worse for my colleagues than it is for me because they have to decide whether or not they withdraw the teaching of actual courses, which effects many more students and cannot really be made up for.

So why do the lecturers feel motivated to strike given the adverse effect it will have upon their students?

If you undertake a career in academia, you have to put yourself through years of uncertainty. You have to do a PhD, and then you have to do multiple postdoctoral positions, (at each stage probably moving country in my field). At each stage, many people drop out of the process and only the most stubborn and lucky people (or occasionally, sometimes, the really gifted ones) make it to the place where they can get a permanent position. Their reward for dragging their family and their life around for more than five years? Well it certainly isn’t a huge salary. My PhD students who quit the field for finance or, more recently, big data regularly inform me that they are earning more than me within a year of their leaving academia.

Why then do academics remain academics? Well of course there are advantages to the lifestyle. I get to decide what research I do, I am in a sense my own boss. This sometimes has its own stresses associated with it – I have no inbox, I have to invent my own inbox and sometimes that makes me question whether I am putting myself under enough pressure. However on the whole, I am very lucky to be in that situation. In return I have to teach, which is not a bad thing. I don’t have to teach all the time and on average it is a pleasure to pass on the skills I have developed by doing research to younger people who are motivated by science. I like students a lot, on average they are amazing, intelligent people, spending time with young people is a pleasure (they have a lot of energy which is infectious) and I often see my younger self in them. Often much more than my younger self. What I teach them is what they need to know to become physicists and/or to solve problems, it is often not what they think they need to know and it is based upon my years of research experience. It is very different from what they would get from someone who was purely a teacher.

With the level of skills that I have developed over the years I could have done multiple things, most of which would have resulted in my salary being significantly larger than it is with me being in academia. However generally academics don’t worry about this too much because there are two things apart from the academic freedom I already mentioned which add to the equation when trying to decide whether to make this compromise or not – the pension and job security. Since I have been a permanent academic, I have come to realise that my job is not as secure as I thought it was – a few years ago the College closed down the school of physical sciences and engineering and opened a new school of natural and mathematical sciences in order to get rid of the engineering department. There was a “new” physics department and there was a job for me in it, but the stress that we all went through during that period was extreme and is something I will never forget.

Now they are trying to reduce our pensions, again, having already reduced them a couple of years ago and promising not to do anything with them for a long period of time. At some point, one has to ask oneself, why should academics come to work in the UK?

Of course anybody reading this who believes in the free market would say that I should vote with my feet and leave the country. There are indeed many postdoctoral researchers who would like a “permanent” position in the UK and lets face it, some of them are very good, and they are now cheaper than me, because I’ve been here for a while and I’ve been promoted. However, theoretical physicists, while often being quite naive in a frustrating head-in-the-clouds kind of way are not completely stupid. If the powers that be (Universities UK and University vice chancellors) continue to allow our job security and our pensions to be eroded, the equation will simply not add up in the UK, and people will eventually start to avoid the country. Already academics in the US or Switzerland earn a lot more than we do, even PhD students have started to choose those countries over us on purely financial reasons.

Disputes like the current one don’t motivate those of us trying to do our best to bring glory on our UK Universities to try harder and unless we fight for better packages for our future younger selves, the UK will slowly move towards being a second rate destination for researchers (and don’t get me going on Brexit)…