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)…


Week 1 – The STARt of Something New

Hi everyone! We’re Malcolm’s victims this year for the third-year telescope project!


Meet the team:


So, what’s been going on with the telescope project this year? We are currently attempting to calculate Jupiter’s rotational velocity using spectroscopy. For the duration of this project, we will be posting weekly updates on what we’ve been up to, complete with pictures and videos from the world’s most poorly located observatory!


The perfect hours to use the telescope are either extremely late at night or very early in the morning. Our first proper trip up to the telescope required coming in at 5:45am – meaning an early wake up call for everyone. Somehow, it was decided that allowing sleep-deprived young adults functioning almost entirely on coffee near very expensive equipment was a good idea.

The first week mainly revolved around learning how to operate the telescope and its subsequent components, as well as how to collaborate as a team. During that first morning at the telescope we took some readings of Jupiter – we worked on how to find the planet and bring it into focus, how to attach the spectrograph to the telescope correctly, and which sounds made by the camera were “good sounds” vs “bad sounds”. Most importantly, we learned that one cannot always expect good results every night, especially when one tries to use a telescope in central London. It was impossible to get a stable view of Jupiter that night, due in part to the heat haze the city causes, but we were still able to learn a lot about the equipment. Understanding the fundamentals of the technology we are working with and the methods used to evaluate data is crucial to our success with this project, more so than obtaining ideal results from the telescope.

Of course, we were rewarded for our efforts with stunning views of the sun rising over London from the rooftop of Strand Campus (and more coffee – thanks, Malcolm!)
IMG_4241file-3 (1)

Dark Matter Day and new camera

On Halloween, someone somewhere decided it was dark matter day.  That’s fine by me, I spend a lot of time worrying about dark matter and anyway, it had been a long time since we had done any outreach activities, so we arranged an evening talk.  Myself, John Ellis and Chris McCabe spoke about Why we need dark matter, What it might be and How we might detect it.  The talks went well and there was a really good question and answer session at the end where there were excellent questions.

The picture on the left is John explaining the different symbols on his tank top, (it is the standard model of particle physics).

Then we got a new camera for the telescope.  I got pretty frustrated at having to fight against the weather and the mount and the dome AND the CCD so I just wanted something where we could get pretty pictures for the UGs (and for me) from time to time.  So I bought a second hand DLSR on ebay, a Canon EOS 600D.  I went up there last night with four undergrads, Alexandra, Evan, Francesca and Jamie and we got it working (Evan and Francesca turned out to be photography people so they were very helpful).  The weather wasn’t great, so we had to look for really bright things, so unfortunately, as usual, we went for the very easy Orion Nebula M42, but we were happy with our first attempt…




Moons of Saturn

It might appear to the casual reader that we’ve been inactive here at the KCL telescope over the past few months.  This is not true, we had a very successful project with UG students over the Spring where they did lots of image processing coding and some fixes to make the dome rotation more stable.  And we’ve had trips to to the roof for UG students, maybe I’ll post some images of those.

More interestingly, this summer I have taken on two students Alexandra Tofful and James Davies who are very good, and they are doing a nice astrophysics project related to dark matter I hope to tell you about later in the summer.  But they have also been helping with the telescope, mainly in the difficult business of getting the auto-tracking working.  When we had no more hair to pull out (didn’t take long in my case) we looked for more fun things to do.  So here is a composite image of the moons of saturn


“Composite” sounds like cheating and it is really, but its only two images on top of each other, a really short exposure to get saturn and a really long exposure (450 times longer) where saturn is massively over-exposed to get the moons.  We got four tonight, Tethys, Rhea and Dione which are all quite small (about a hundreth the mass of the moon) and frankly not very  very interesting unless you are very into these things.  However we also got the mighty Titan – TWICE the mass of the moon with a thick atmosphere and hydrocarbon seas and a possible location of life outside the Earth.

I hope to have more fun/cool pictures soon but if there aren’t, rest assured we are messing around with dodgy USB connections and remote telescope control and trying to find guide stars amongst the terrible London pollution etc.


You can still see the Moon through the pollution in London

It hasn’t been a great year for the telescope, the weather has been pretty cloudy since the Summer, and when it has been clear, the pollution has been horrible.  Let me be clear, not light pollution, but regular pollution.  It has been really visibly worse than in previous years as has been noticed recently, even by politicians .  So I went in last night with a student who has been helping me out called Imogen and she’d basically never been able to see anything in the three or so times she has been up, so we took pictures of the moon (literally the only thing visible, even bright stars were virtually invisible even through the finderscope, Deneb for example) and made them into a big photo.  I have a 6 megabyte version but I don’t think the atmosphere was clear enough really for that to be worthwhile.moonstitch

So that’s a nice picture and something I’ve been meaning to do for a while.  It’s actually about 20 pictures stitched together, each taken through a hydrogen alpha filter with an exposure of 0.2 seconds.  It also gives me an indication of what it would take if I ever decided to get a nice picture of andromeda.  Quite a lot of work!

I don’t know what will become of things telescope related if the pollution gets worse.  I can only hope for a few heavy rainfalls followed by super cold spells which might clear things up.  Anyway, if it carries on like this, people in London will start dropping like flies, so hopefully things will change and we can get some nice images of stuff in space again.

My main concern about the pollution is not actually telescope related!  I have a four year old child growing up in this city, we are currently looking at which primary school to send him to.  One on our list is Earlsmead primary school close to where we live in Tottenham. Nitrogen Dioxide measurements have been made there recently, it is site HR3o in this list.  They show that the yearly average value of nitrogen dioxide is 50 micrograms per cubic metre.  Meanwhile the European Union state that the legal maximum level of this gas is 40 micrograms per cubic metre.  That’s not good, and its only one indicator of the problem.  I don’t suppose any of the other schools in the vicinity close to roads (Risley Avenue, Harris Tottenham, Wellbourne) are much better, its just Earlsmead has a NO2 detector outside.  I didn’t think I would be choosing schools on the basis of how to poison my child slightly less at one rather than another but apparently this is the world we live in.

I think people need to be aware that London really is now reaching a limit of pollution which is untenable.  At the very least, we need to reduce the number of diesel cars onto the street and of course ultimately the move to electric will improve things a lot.

On that cheery note, I wish you a super solstice and a cloud free new year!

Some Random Images

The astronomy weather has matched the politics lately – awful.  I was going to go out tonight but it’s looking cloudy now.  Again.  So I’m going to upload a few images that have been hanging around on my computer.  The reason they were hanging around on my computer was that they are not great…  first the Eskimo Nebula


Eskimo Nebula, obtained by undergraduates, this image processed by Alexandre Adler.  First attempt at this object.  Much room for improvement.

So what I found out is that this thing is very small, but quite bright.  So I should have used the planetary camera and 1×1 binning or something.  I’ll try again.  But you can just about see some details.  This was the best version of the data that any of us managed to put together and Alexandre Adler did it.  We should be able to improve on this significantly.

Next, we tried to get Mars but it was a bad night.  I am ashamed of this image, but its important to show how bad planets are from London when they are close to the horizon.


Yes that’s it.  Not great…  and now Mars is moving away from us, so we won’t be able to get good images of it until 2018.

Finally another image which is actually not so bad of The Whirlpool Galaxy.  If you follow my twitter you’ve probably already seen this.


OK, so that’s not so bad, it actually looks like a galaxy.  But the colours are a bit washed out, it appears to be green really.  I need to learn some more tricks to bring out the different colours.

This galaxy is about 7 Mpc away, so if we imagine shrinking the Universe, if we were 60 cm from the centre of the Milky Way, this Galaxy would be about half a mile away.

I had hoped to go out tonight and get more practise but its not good weather.  However I do think I have finally obtained all the hardware and software to guide the telescope with guide stars as opposed to just hoping it is tracking well, and I hope that will lead to much sharper images in the future, so watch this space.


Trying to Understand the Brexit Vote

People have asked me to write a blog post about the current Brexit situation. I voted remain.  I have noticed that many of my friends in London are surprised and upset about the decision people have made in the wider country to leave the EU.

Why did we have the vote?

At the last election David Cameron thought that UKIP, another party, which was formed specifically to leave the European Union, would take a lot of votes from his own Conservative party, so he told voters if they voted Conservative,  he would give them a vote on staying part of the EU. The amount by which this neutralised UKIP in the elections is unclear, although even if the Conservatives had done considerably worse, they would still have formed the government, albeit probably as leader of a coalition. Cameron never thought there would be a referendum because he thought he would have to go into coalition and the lib democrats who are very pro- Europe would block it.  However the conservatives won outright.

What Happened?

In general across the country, older people voted to leave and younger people voted to remain. However older people are more likely to actually turn up and vote, whereas younger people have a terrible voting record, the turnout for the 18-25-year-olds was a very low, 47%.

People in big cities voted to remain. London, Bristol, Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle etc.  University cities like Cambridge and Oxford and Exeter voted to stay. Places like Cheltenham and the Cotswolds where many people live who work and commute to London voted to stay. Scotland almost completely voted to stay.   Everyone else voted to leave.

Of course in every area there were people on both sides, and there is no area where it was a kind of 95%-5% situation apart from Gibraltar.

I think there was a large group of people, perhaps aged between 25-50, who are not at all racist, understand the world is changing but voted to leave anyway. Why?

European free movement

In order to increase economic growth, cheap labour has been brought into the EU by allowing countries in eastern Europe to join up. It significantly improved those people’s quality of life, their prospects and their freedom.

The cheap labour came to the UK too. For a long time we had Polish plumbers and electricians who worked harder for less money. Now there are plenty of Bulgarians doing similar work. The people coming here are young and need hospitals less on average than people who have been here since birth. They are not (on average) looking for benefits either, they are coming here to work. They pay tax and every reliable economic indicator says that the UK as a country is richer (per capita, including these guys) because of their presence and industry.

Where it went wrong – Hospitals and Schools

Some if not most of the extra money from migrant workers should be used to support those areas where there are more migrating workers. This is not controversial, it is how a country works. Tax income and spend on hospitals and schools to support the people who are making the income. That money hasn’t been spent, the government has simply failed to operate the country in a fair way.

The government should spend some of this money we are making from immigrants on better public services in the areas where there are lots of immigrants.  Instead, they are closing many hospitals across the UK in an idealistic, idiotic, anti-economics austerity drive. My local hospital North Middlesex Hospital is now crumbling under the pressure because the other nearest A & E has closed and I live in an area with a large number of EU and non EU immigrants. There are similar hospital closures going on all across the country.

You hear people on the news saying “the UK is full, we don’t have any space for any immigrants, send them back home” and many of us think instinctively what a racist idiot.  However what that person is saying is that their hospitals are full. Their schools are full.  And they are right, they are full.  Nobody is doing anything about it and its getting worse and all they can see is more people arriving in the country.  The crazy thing is those people arriving are making money for the country. Who’s getting the money?  Hmmm, I wonder.

How about saying “look at all these people here from the EU making money for us, here is a new hospital, here is a shiny new school, isn’t this lovely!” THAT would have been the way to run the country and we’d ALL have got a lot richer .

Where it went wrong – Jobs

The minimum wage is going up and unemployment is quite low.  Personally I’m doing fine, it’s not easy living in London believe me but my quality of life is steadily improving.  However if I was someone who was working at the bottom of the pay scale, my life would not have been steadily improving.

You can’t pay immigrants from the EU less than the minimum wage as that would be illegal. However some businesses always run things so as to get away with whatever they can get away with and some EU immigrants are grateful to have any kind of half decent pay and minimum wage is good for them so they will put up with endless other abuses at the hands of employers. They play tricks like employing people on zero hour contracts so they don’t know if they will be hired from one day to the next.  These people’s job security has been stripped from them, they don’t know if they will be working next week. Can you imagine if someone asked you to adopt such a contract?  OK, if you are earning huge money that’s different – you can probably afford to be out of work for a while when you are looking for something else if you earn £100 K or something. Imagine being on minimum wage £14K with a family and a zero hours contract.

The British people at the bottom end of the pay scale have to put up with this because in many places they are competing for work with EU immigrants. Their lives are getting worse. How is it acceptable that the rich people’s lives get better while the poor people’s lives get worse?

The Government didn’t do anything about it, so the people told the Government to go and get stuffed.

But what about the Racists!

So there are a bunch of racists in this whole thing too.  Let us assume that the reasonable non-racist people I have been talking about here are only a few percent of the total. If they had voted remain then that would have been enough, the victory was only 52% to 48%.


People are blaming Jeremy Corbyn the leader of the opposition because he didn’t campaign harder. The fact he campaigned at all is a miracle, he wants to renationalise industry and as things are going that’s actually going to be more difficult under European laws which are being introduced as we speak. Why this is happening is crazy incidentally, our UK privatised public services are a disaster – we pay much more and get much less. So why the EU is doing this can only be for the benefit of the rich and powerful. I voted remain despite this, I’ll explain why below.

So Corbyn swallowed his view and tried his best to summon up some enthusiasm. To demonise him when he has gone out on a limb like that is not fair. That said, I do not think he has the oratory skills to win over the electorate and his kind of socialism is a bit old fashioned. If there is another vote for a leader of the Labour Party and there is an anti-austerity, genuinely left wing candidate who I think can address people better than Corbyn I’ll vote for that person, but if we end up with another bunch of tory-lite purple candidates I’ll be voting Corbyn again without any hesitation.

Why did I vote remain?

Well I’ve made it clear that the EU is great for science. However in general, the EU is a kinder, more left wing place than the UK. People in the EU pay more tax, they have better public services and I feel (felt) proud to be a member. I used to live in Brussels. The people at the EU (a huge number of whom are British, our influence was massive) are indeed blinkered and self-important to a ridiculous degree but they are also good people who believe in making people’s lives better. Unlike our current government.

Our country is not being run for the good of the people within it. The EU is (just about).  Unfortunately I believe that this Brexit decision will make things worse but I understand why it happened. My ideal road forward would be that the EU changes the way it operates to make things better for everyone including the bottom 30% and we somehow vote again to stay in.

Unfortunately we have just given power to people who will close more hospitals and schools.  They’ll probably try to blame someone else for that too.