Neither left nor right, but international environmentalism: Australia reflections part 8

I’m reblogging this compelling post by Jeff Ollerton, Professor of Biodiversity at the University of Northampton. I share Jeff’s immense frustration at the relentless demonisation of “The Other” that not only characterises so much of our political discourse but has come to define how we communicate with each other in general. Not everyone with whom we disagree politically is, as some would have it, a sociopath or a simpleton. It is refreshing to see that Jeff — whose politics, like my own, are very firmly left of centre — foregoes the usual “Boris is a buffoon” sloganeering to remind us that some members of Johnson’s family have strong environmentalist credentials.

As Jeff puts it so well,

“…there are plenty of historical and current examples of rapacious right-wing and left-wing governments, and also examples of such governments being highly pro-active at reducing their country’s environmental impact. The one thing that seems to me to be environmentally damaging is a rigid ideology that is followed through regardless of where it is positioned.”


Jeff Ollerton's Biodiversity Blog

2020-01-13 12.17.33

The NASA Earth Observatory reported this week that “explosive fire activity” has caused smoke from the Australian bushfires to enter the stratosphere and be carried half way around the world.  That smoke is currently creating hazy skies and colourful sunrises and sunsets across South America.  In the coming months the smoke will complete a full circuit and arrive back in Australia, and then continue onwards … for who knows how long?

Nothing I’ve read this week sums up better the fact that the world’s environmental challenges, including climate change, are global in scale and scope.  They therefore require global initiatives to solve.  But as I’ll argue below, equating “green” politics with the left and “anti-environmental” policies with the right is an unhelpful characterisation.

Despite the need for global action, the world’s political landscape seems to be going in the opposite direction.  Inward-looking, right-wing populism is on the rise, and governments…

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Random Acts Of Selfless Kindness

The piece below features in this week’s Times Higher Education as part of an article entitled “Is these still a place for kindness in today’s harsh academic environment?“. My original title was that above, which is a play on Jack Womack‘s almost criminally overlooked “Random Acts of Senseless Violence“, a cyberpunk-esque tale of a crumbling society. Given the lack of impact of Womack’s meisterwerk, the THE sub-editors were absolutely right to re-title my contribution to the article as “Kicking Against The Me, Me, Me”. And, as ever, the piece was improved immensely by Paul Jump‘s edits. I’m posting my contribution to the article here for those who don’t have a subscription to the THE. 

It’s exactly one month to Christmas Day as I write this. Academics and students alike should be drafting their letters to Santa and looking forward to the festive season after toiling all term in lecture theatres, seminar rooms, workshops and – very occasionally – libraries.

Except that today is also the first day of the latest round of strike action by members of the UK’s University and College Union. This time, the issue isn’t just pensions: the strike is also in protest at pay, equality, casualisation and workloads. But universities’ reactions are familiar from the previous strike in 2018, with reports of draconian measures being taken against not only striking staff but also, unforgivably, students who support them.

It is clear that senior management and rank-and-file staff are unlikely to be on each other’s Christmas card lists this year. Nonetheless, in these days of ever-increasing and ever-more-infuriating corporatisation and depersonalisation of universities, it’s important not to lose sight of the collegiality that still exists, and the sense of community that is fostered when students and staff (of all stripes – from the cleaners to the professoriate) look out for each other.

This has certainly been the case during my 25 years in the University of Nottingham’s School of Physics and Astronomy. Indeed, the often-clueless, metrics-driven management style foisted upon us from on high results in an “us versus them” mentality that only serves to bring us even closer together. I hesitate to use the hoary old Dunkirk spirit cliché, especially in these days of Brexit-inspired Little-Englander fervour, but it certainly captures that sense of fighting back from the chalkface. In solidarity.

It’s the little things that matter most: those seemingly small acts that cultivate a culture of kindness, kicking against the me, me, me of metrics and the tediously relentless pseudostatistics of league tables. I’ve lost count of the number of times that students and staff have gone the extra mile to brighten up someone else’s day, week, month or year. Examples range from the tea-room coordinators who put aside particular fruit, biscuits and cakes because they remember just what each member of staff likes with their beverage of choice for “elevenses” (Anna, we salute you!) to the tutees who turn up with gifts, cards and messages of thanks for their tutor; the anonymous faces in the lecture theatre who take the time to nominate members of staff for various teaching awards; and the graduates who email unexpectedly, years after they finished their degrees, to describe how fondly and gratefully they look back on their time at university.

Sometimes these random acts of kindness make you smile. And other times, I’ve been moved to tears. A couple of years ago, I was in the middle of a phone call when a knock on the door interrupted the conversation.

“Just one second!” I called out, and finished the call as quickly as I could. When I opened the door, there was no one there. But at my feet there was a big box of chocolates and a card containing the simple message: “Thanks for everything”. It was from a student who was severely autistic, with whom I had communicated almost exclusively via email over the years of their degree.

Forget my latest publication, or research grant, or citation count. That simple message meant so much more.


Bowled Over in Pakistan — a guest post from Oli Gordon

In these days of “Rule Britannia” populism, “Get Brexit Done“, and rampant Little Englander fervour, it’s great to have a guest post that highlights just how science transcends small-minded nationalism and crosses borders. Oli Gordon, a second year PhD in the Nanoscience Group here at Nottingham, recently visited Pakistan for the 2nd International Conference on Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (ICONN-2019), along with eight other British Council-sponsored PhD researchers from across the UK. Over to you, Oli…

Sitting at my desk on an otherwise normal day, I received a rather curious email. It asked if, fully funded by the British Council in Pakistan, I wished to give a talk at a nanoscience conference at LUMS University Lahore, sight-see, meet students and researchers, and travel with eight (or more?) other PhDs from different UK institutions with distance ranging from UCL to Glasgow and Strathclyde. There would of course be 5* hotels, top tier flights, amazing food, and armed police escorts, all while being a UK dignitary and taken round by the same people that hosted the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge a couple of weeks prior to the visit.

“Ahhh… hmmm… yes?”



One quick day trip to Gerry’s Visas in Birmingham later, I arrived at Manchester Airport not quite knowing what I had got myself in for. After a short layover in Qatar (plus a few hours to sleep off the jet lag!) I found myself in Lahore in the company of the other researchers and our front-facing representatives from the British Council; Mubbashir, Hajira and Namra.

Hosted at LUMS, the ICONN nanoscience and nanotechnology conference contained an absolutely packed two days of talks, and was attended by several hundred people, including a pleasingly large number of university students. I was invited to give a 12 minute talk on the PhD I do with the nanoscience group here in Nottingham, applying the latest in machine learning technologies to automatically run the millions of pounds of probes we use for our research. (Going back through this blog, you may find a post I wrote on this topic during a summer internship during my undergraduate here).


Oli2My expectations of the conference were for it to be like a nanoscience conference in the UK –far-out future technologies and new-found properties of surfaces, using eye-wateringly expensive equipment. Instead, local research was specific, and highly focused on practical solutions to the immediate issues facing Pakistan: pollution, healthcare, clean drinking water and reliable battery storage. LUMS even offers space and expertise to start-up companies working towards this end.


The whole experience gave us a real taste of Pakistani science and was a real joy. In particular, the conference, visits to other universities, and allowing us to judge the conference posters during the cultural night at LUMS gave us plenty of chances to speak to loads of students, PhDs and researchers from up and down the country. This in particular was quite eye-opening to me – some of them explained that low funding meant that they often have to travel and pay out of pocket to use equipment and do analysis that we could routinely do in the first year undergraduate lab in Nottingham. Science is held in incredibly high regard in Pakistan, and I can only admire people doing work for the immediate benefit of their nation, even when it comes at their own expense. I must also mention how touching it was to see how enthusiastic and just proud the students were to be involved with science in general.

This conference only made up two days of the week we had, though. Besides the university visits, we also had time to do some sightseeing. Lahore fort and the old walled city was a real gem, as well as having dinner by the largest Mosque in the country – capable of holding 100,000 worshippers. We also squeezed in a visit to the British Council HQ, where they support people taking UK educational qualifications. Their library is wonderful (and open to international e-members) – it is a bustling, cross-cultural community hub with a real international spirit, and the British Council should be proud of what they have created there.

Oli3I will, however, confess that the real highlight of the trip for me was playing cricket at COMSAT University Lahore. The first thing we saw at COMSAT was their cricket green and pavilion – the faculty and cricket team were more than happy to arrange a five-over game with us over lunch. Unfortunately, I (captaining) found myself run out trying to steal a quick single…

But after some long goodbyes and games of ping-pong in our hotel, I found myself back in Manchester and welcomed by the UK’s torrential rain. It had to end at some point!

I need to say an absolutely massive thank you to Walther Schwarzacher at the University of Bristol for arranging the trip (plus his great talk on clouds), as well as to Mubbashir, Hajira, Namra, and the rest of the British Council team for their incredible hospitality. This trip really left me feeling genuinely quite inspired about just how much of a privilege and pleasure research is, and looking forward to getting to my lab to do more.

The moral of the story? Check your emails!

…and here’s a clip of Oli posted by The British Council shortly after the ICONN 2019 conference.


Let’s pick(et) our battles wisely

VROOMFONDEL: We demand that machine not be allowed to think about this problem!

DEEP THOUGHT: If I might make an observation…

MAJIKTHISE: We’ll go on strike!

VROOMFONDEL: That’s right. You’ll have a national philosophers’ strike on your hands.

DEEP THOUGHT: Who will that inconvenience?

MAJIKTHISE: Never you mind who it’ll inconvenience you box of black legging binary bits! It’ll hurt, buster! It’ll hurt!

     From Fit The Fourth of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, Douglas Adams.  Broadcast on BBC Radio 4, March 29 1978.

I suspect that this is going to be a contentious post.

Having spent my time on the picket lines over the last eight (non-)working days…

…and last year,

… I am acutely aware of, and deeply sympathetic to, the issues underpinning the strike. The speeches at yesterday’s closing rally — including that from the ever-impressive Lilian Greenwood, Labour MP for Nottingham South (and someone for whom I will again be voting in a week’s time) — brought home the exceptionally precarious and deeply unfair working conditions that so many university employees endure under zero hours contracts. Even Spiked! magazine — whose coverage of universities usually fixates on hysterical fantasies about the infestation of evil, leftist, free-speech-suppressing, no-platforming Cultural Marxists indoctrinating our children — saw fit to publish a rousing article supporting the strikes.

There has similarly been a series of compelling and affecting pieces over the last few weeks that drive home the damage that the ever-accelerating corporatisation and marketisation of our universities is doing to education. One of the more comprehensive analyses I’ve seen is The Seven Deadly Sins of Marketisation in British Higher Education by Lee Jones, Reader in International Politics at Queen Mary University of London. Thoroughly recommended.

But what have these eight days on strike actually achieved?

Yes, I know that we’ve demonstrated a great deal of solidarity and that the time on the picket lines has been morale-boosting (and at least it wasn’t as sodding cold as last year). But still, pragmatically, what did we achieve?

Here at Nottingham, at least, the response from the “powers that be” has been a deafening silence. (And Nottingham’s hardly alone in this.) For many departments, including my own, it’s been business as usual; the car park has been full, lectures and lab sessions went ahead with nary a disturbance, and coursework was dutifully marked and returned to students. This is not to downplay in any way, I hasten to add, the heartening efforts of my UCU colleagues and our incredibly supportive students, including, in particular, those who occupied UoN’s iconic Trent Building…

And I’ve also got to highlight the incredible energy, charisma, and tenacity of Matt Green, the President of Nottingham’s UCU Committee, who has been as outstanding as ever.

But the upshot of our eight day strike is that …drum roll… the UCU is going to call for yet more strikes in January. The argument is that we’ve got to keep the pressure up. But who, exactly, are we pressuring? Or, as Deep Thought puts it in that salient quote that opens this post, who, exactly, are we inconveniencing? We’ve hardly brought senior university management to their knees, have we?

For those who, like me, were on the picket lines — and, indeed, for those who weren’t — ask yourself this: which of the options below hurts the university more? Which is more likely to cause some sleepless nights for the senior executive?

A. An empty seminar room or lecture theatre,

B. A five- or ten-strong picket line chanting at a university entrance,


C. A low score in the National Student Survey/ low league table ranking/ damaging media coverage for their university?

Not only did we have PVCs and other senior staff crossing picket lines with wild abandon, but quite a few union members — and, indeed, some erstwhile union reps — didn’t strike, let alone picket. University management will be well aware of this lack of engagement with the strike either now or when the figures for non-pay in January are returned. They save on the salary bill and they can rest easy that the impact on students’ progression is minimal, at best, and negligible, at worst.

Because what most matters to universities is their brand. If we want to have greater influence and bargaining power I would argue that we have to be a little more canny in our tactics and exploit exactly the corporatisation and marketisation culture we criticise and that underpins the behaviour of the 21st century university. (I’ve written before about the frustrating tendency of the left to not always be entirely cognisant of the value of “optics” and PR.)

Sceptical? Here are a few examples of brand management that might help to make my case…

Along with a number of APM colleagues, I spent six months chasing up a (very modest) honorarium payment for an invited speaker. Six months. The speaker eventually reached the point where, exasperated, she tweeted about the University’s lack of payment to her tens of thousands of followers (tagging in @UniOfNottingham). Within minutes she had a response from UoN, and within days the money was in her account.

Down the road, at Nottingham-Trent University (Guardian University Of The Year 2019), Liz Morrish was subject to disciplinary proceedings when a post hit 10,000 views on Liz’s own blog and trended at the Times Higher website, as described in the article linked in the tweet below.

And Warwick hardly covered itself in glory in this appalling case because they placed their brand management well ahead of students’ safety. That’s how engrained the importance of protecting the university brand can be.

“The top six universities are like the most beautiful cities in the world, reputable even if they have failing ­sewers, arrogant mayors and dodgy no-go areas…A folklore builds up around them, as do money and fans.”

(From Beyond the super-brands, universities are strengthening their positions, Times Higher Education)

So let’s stop trying to repeatedly use the same seventies strategies to attack a 21st century problem. Let’s think a little bit more about what really matters to university managers.

It’s not the students*.

It’s not the staff.

It’s the brand.  


* …although it’s certainly the student numbers.

Radio, Someone Still Loves You…

I’d sit alone and watch your light
My only friend through teenage nights
And everything I had to know
I heard it on my radio

From “Radio Ga Ga”, Track 1, Side 1 of Queen’s “The Works” (EMI Capitol 1984).
Written by Roger Taylor.

I’ve been delighted by the response to the “Joy Of Radio“, and accompanying “Resonant Frequency” [1], video that Brady uploaded to Sixty Symbols a couple of weeks ago. In addition to the very many kind, supportive, and heart-warming messages left under the video — which have done a lot to almost restore my faith in the humanity of YT’s comment sections — I’ve received a number of affecting e-mails telling me how much the video brought back happy memories.

One of these came from Rocco Cuffaro, a third year Mathematical Physics student here at Nottingham. Rocco saw the video, immediately thought of his crystal-radio-loving granddad (who is eighty years young), and emailed him a link to the video. Rocco’s granddad’s wonderfully engaging response is below. Thank you both for sharing this with me (and for giving me permission to post it here). Over to you, Rocco’s granddad…

Where do I begin?

After you and I built the Meccano type of Rocket steam engine it was my intention for you and I to build a crystal set exactly as the simple circuit in Prof Moriarty’s book. For the coil we would have used the cardboard centre of a toilet roll as a former. For the crystal I would have used a crystal from a ex war time radar if I still had some or more likely buy a silicon diode from Maplins. I have or did have plenty of variable vane capacitors that we could have used. The box of capacitors that Prof Moriarty showed us included some wide vane capacitors that were probably I guess ex transmitter components.

I very much like his approach with the experiment set up live and using a corroded penny with a wire whisker very much as it was with crystals in the early days before my time. Just a hook up of components rather than a workshop prepared demonstration.The early sets used a crystal and a wire whisker and just as he said there were many swear words so it was when people tried to find the right spot on the crystal and were then afraid to jog the thing. 

I attended an exhibition at the IET’s home in Savoy place in London( I am still a member but thinking of cancelling as I am in information overload with so many and varied things to read) which I believe marked the anniversary of the broadcast station 2LO which was the forerunner of the BBC. Many crystal sets from way back were on display and included some with more complex circuits that I was not aware of until then.

Before we became the affluent society in the 1960s I knew the elderly lady that occupied the old observatory tower in Falmouth. There was not much money around in those days so I built her a crystal set in an old cigar box and used an ex service radar diode for the crystal. The aerial was one to envy in that situation. A vertical wire 50 feet down the side of the building. The lady came from London and was thrilled to hear Big Ben for the first time in years. That happened not very long after the war.

When Nan and I lived in Ware we had a reel to reel tape recorder. I do not recall how it came about but I discovered that if I put a wire in the microphone socket the recorder thought it was a radio and picket up a strong radio signal of one programme only from obviously Brookmans Park not a million miles away. This can easily happen if all the real and stray capacitances and inductances etc allow this to happen with some non-linearity in a component giving that rectifier action that Prof Moriarty was demonstrating. I was able to record a complete set of the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas in this way. 

The converse of this phenomena is modulation and also cross modulation. At Lands End Radio the receiving aerials were close to the building housing the receivers. The transmit aerials were not very far away by a couple of fields. A problem arose when unwanted radio stations were splashing across the entire spectrum of the receivers (around and either side of 2182khz) [Editor’s note — see footnote #2 below]. I traced this to a dustbin (!) in the grounds of the station. The lid was placed lightly over the bin. On removing and replacing the lid the problem cleared. This was in my view caused by rust around the edge acting like the penny and whisker in Prof Moriarty’s experiment in reverse. The bin would have been receiving a very strong signal from the transmitting aerials of course plus a multitude of other radio signals from all over the place. The bin was transmitting a cross modulation of the lot and dumping it on the receiver aerial system. 

I will wind up there except to mention that there were a number of interesting cases of interference including a grandfather clock with no electrical connection interfering with television and the static from a lady combing her hair interfering with television through a party wall.(not mine but a colleagues) The frequencies in use then were much more susceptible to interference than now.

[1] I only realised this after reading the comments, but, remarkably, when I hit the desk to “kick start” the crystal radio at the start of the Resonant Frequency video, the song that blasts out is…Queen’s Radio Ga Ga. I was entirely oblivious to this while making the video. (This is a good thing. I’m already as overly enthusiastic as a litter of labrador puppies in that video. (Those five coffees before Brady arrived probably didn’t help.) If I had realised at the time that we’d picked up a broadcast of Radio Ga Ga I may well have melted down with excitement…)

[2] I deliberately set up the simulation of the crystal radio described in this post to mimic this “bleeding” of signals across the frequency spectrum.