Concrete Reasons for the Abstract

I’ve just finished my last set of undergraduate lab report marking for this year and breathed a huge sigh of relief. Overall, however, the quality of the students’ reports has improved considerably over the year, with some producing work of a very high standard. (I get a little frustrated at times with the frustrating Daily Mail-esque whining about “students these days” that infects certain academics of a certain vintage.) Nonetheless, there remain some perennial issues with report writing…

My colleague James O’Shea sent the following missive/ cri de coeur to all of our 1st year undergrad lab class yesterday. I’m posting it here — with James’ permission, of course — because I thought it was a wonderful rationale for the importance of the abstract. (And I feel James’ pain.) Over to you, James.


 

You have written your last formal report for the first year but you will write many more in the coming years and possibly throughout your career. It seems that the purpose of abstracts and figure captions has not quite sunk in yet. This will come as you read more scientific papers (please read more scientific papers). What you want is to give a complete picture of why the experiment was needed, what the hypothesis was, how it was explored, what the result was, and what the significance of that result is. You should read your abstract back as if it is the only thing people will read. In most cases, it really is the only thing they will read. If the abstract does not provide all these things, the likely outcome is that they won’t bother reading the rest – your boss included – and all the work you put in doing the research will be for nothing.

If a researcher (or your boss) does decide – based on the abstract – that they are interested in your report or paper, they might if they are short of time first just look at the figures. The figure caption is therefore vital. Again, look at the figure and read the caption back to yourself as if this (in conjunction with the abstract) is the only thing they will read. It has to be understandable in isolation from the main body of the text. The figure represents the work that was done. The caption needs to explain that work.

If your boss did read the abstract and decided to look at the figures, they will then most likely skip to the conclusions. From this they will want to get an overview of what new knowledge now exists and what impact it will have on their company or research program. They might then recommend that others in the organisation read your report in detail to find out how robust the research is, or they might give you the go ahead to do more research, or let you lead your own team. But if your abstract did not tell the interesting story in the first place, or your figure captions did not convey what work was done, your report might not even get read in the real world.

Best regards

James O’Shea

 

 

The wit and wisdom of Associate Deans

There are very, very, very few things I miss about Twitter but the brilliantly incisive @ass_deans is certainly one…

 

Lightning Strikes Again: Spring Into Science 2019

I was delighted when a link to this video popped into my Outlook inbox a few days ago…

A big thank you to the video-maker, Tony Martin, who did such a wonderful job of capturing the enthusiasm, energy, and exuberance of the three hundred or so Year 8 students crowded into our largest lecture theatre for this year’s Spring Into Science. It’s the third year in a row that we’ve run this event, after it was inspired by my friend and colleague Ed Copeland during a Brian Cox lecture here in Nottingham in late 2016. As described in a University of Nottingham blog post covering the inaugural Spring Into Science,

Professor Copeland joined him on stage and spoke about the need for more young people to get involved in science: “Getting more young people enthusiastic about science is vital both to ensure progression and growth in the subject but also because science plays such an important role in society. We designed the content to be interactive and engaging, with the aim of showing how exciting science can be and to hopefully inspire the audience to consider it as a subject to pursue.”

I look forward eagerly to Spring Into Science every year. It’s a huge amount of fun to give the lecture because of the students’ reactions to the demonstrations and their willingness to engage with the science. But I’ve got the easy job — I just turn up and talk. There’s a heck of a lot more hard work involved for those who put in the effort (both behind the scenes and “up front” during the lecture) to organise everything and to ensure that the many demos not only work but grab the students’ attention year in, year out. There’s nothing quite like that “ohhhh” that echoes across the theatre each year as the Tesla coil is fired up…

As ever, it’s the unsung heroes of universities — the technical and support staff — who make events like Spring Into Science such a success. So a very big thank-you indeed to Ian Taylor, Denise Watt, Matt Young, and Paul Munday for their dedication and commitment in developing, testing, and supporting all of the demos we use (for not only Spring Into Science but the very many other outreach, public engagement, and schools events with which the School of Physics and Astronomy is involved.) I’ve also got to very gratefully acknowledge the hard work of Ed, Chris Staddon (our outreach coordinator), Aggie Gasiorowska (who liaises with all of the schools and has the unenviable task of ensuring that hundreds of thirteen year olds end up in the right places in the lecture theatre), and our colleagues involved in secondary education across Nottingham: Nadia Hussain, Frances Rowland, John Dexter, and Mick Evans, in particular, who make sure the word gets out to Notts schools. And, of course, I have to highlight the immense hard work, dedication, and enthusiasm of all of the Year 8 teachers who attended. (If I’ve forgotten anyone, it is most definitely not a deliberate slight. My memory ain’t what it once was…(and it’s never been that great.))

Hot on the heels of the Spring Into Science lecture there’s a Q&A session, with a panel comprising students and researchers in physics and astronomy at pretty much all career stages: undergrads, postgrads, postdoctoral researchers, lecturers, and professors. (Another big thank you, of course, to all those who contributed to the panel discussion.) It’s always fascinating (and instructive) to listen to the Year 8 audience quiz my colleagues. This year, in addition to the traditional questions about the origin of the Earth/universe (or is it multiverse…?), we had students keen to know about that incredible black hole image, whether the Earth is the only planet with four seasons (a great question), and what our panel thought about the flat Earth “controversy”. Dr. Meghan Gray’s answer to the latter question was a model of restraint, clarity, and compelling scientific argument: “There is no controversy. Here’s why…”

At about the 1:40 mark in the video above, one of the students explains that “We got to explore our imaginations a little more and figure out what we wanted to do when we’re older.” I was very pleased to hear this, as one message I try to get across during the Spring Into Science lecture is the importance of breaking down that irksome “Two Cultures” divide that continues to exist between STEM and the arts and humanities. Too often (particularly at secondary school level), science is viewed as a staid, static body of facts and techniques that need to be learned so as to “get the right answer”. The more we can highlight just how much creativity, imagination, and, indeed, artistry are involved in science, the better.

Maths In Action

Just back from London where I had a fun — and ever-so-slightly daunting — time talking about the beauty of maths in music and physics for an audience of 700 GCSE students at the “Maths In Action” conference. The venue was stunning…

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Just about visible at the front of the cavernous auditorium is the speaker before me, Hugh Hunt (Engineering, Cambridge), doing a remarkable job of entertaining and engaging the audience with his demonstration-packed talk on angular momentum, gyroscopic precession, and all things spin-y. Hugh’s talk was an impossible act to follow — he set the bar exceptionally high indeed. I did my usual spin on the quantum-metal interface but tilted it towards a discussion of the role of mathematics in physics. (I had to come clean right at the start and confess to the students that I am most definitely not a mathematician.)

The students were great throughout — they certainly were not shy to shout out answers to the questions I asked (and to sing musical notes back to me, occasionally even in tune). An extra big thank you to Korbyn — and my sincere apologies if I’ve got the spelling wrong — for coming up on stage to play the opening riff to Black Sabbath and help me introduce the concept of the diabolical flattened fifth.

And, of course, I have to say a huge thank you to David Matthews, coordinator of the event (and Maths Programme Manager for The Training Partnership, who run a very broad series of GCSE events of this type)  for both the invitation to speak and for such an impressively organised day. As someone who too often struggles to manage just two teenagers*, attempting to coordinate 700 would bring me out in a cold sweat…

* I’m joking, Niamh and Saoirse. You’re great.

“Science on Saturday” Goes to 11

This weekend I had the honour and privilege of being the first speaker for the 2019 Ronald E Hatcher Science on Saturday series of lectures held at, and organised by, Princeton’s PPL (Plasma Physics Laboratory).  I’ll let PPPL themselves explain what Science On Saturday is all about:

Science on Saturday is a series of lectures given by scientists, engineers, and other professionals involved in cutting-edge research. Held on Saturday mornings throughout winter, the lectures are geared toward high school students. The program draws more than 300 students, teachers, parents, and community members. Topics are selected from a variety of disciplines.

Named after the late Ronald E Hatcher, who ran and hosted the series for many years, Science on Saturday is a fun way to bring physics (and other lesser sciences) to the general public(s) and other scientists alike. I was bowled over by the enthusiasm and engagement of the audience, who braved a bracing Saturday morning to hear about the connections between Sabbath, Stryper, and Schrödinger.  (The free bagels and coffee before the talk were, I’m sure, not entirely incidental in attracting the audience. I certainly can vouch for the quality of the pre-lecture consumables.) The Q&A session at the end ran for over an hour, with many insightful questions from the audience, whose age range seemed to span ~ 9 to 90 years young!

A number of those who were in the audience e-mailed me after the talk to ask for a copy of the slides. I’ve uploaded them to SlideShare (sans videos, regrettably) to make them publicly available here:

 

Andrew Zwicker has been the energetic and entertaining host for Science on Saturday for, if I recall correctly, more years than he cares to remember. In parallel with his career in physics, Andrew has successfully forayed into politics, as outlined at his Wikipedia page. Before the lecture he told me about an exciting scheme to encourage more early career researchers into politics. I thoroughly understand the reticence of many scientists to get involved with the political sphere — my involvement with the Royal Society MP-Scientist pairing scheme a number of years ago was an eye-opener in terms of the mismatch that can exist between political and scientific mindsets — but we need to bite the bullet and dive in*, especially in an era when hard scientific evidence is so readily dismissed as “fake news”. (Apologies. Make that “FAKE NEWS” and add any number of exclamation marks to taste.)

On the day of my Science on Saturday lecture, a white supremacist march had been mooted to be held in Princeton (not the most likely of venues, it fortunately has to be said, for that type of hatemongering.) In the end, the basement dwellers never turned up — they claimed that it was a hoax. But the counter-protesters attended in their heart-warming hundreds…

I’d like to offer a very big thank you both to Andrew for the invitation to speak at “Science on Saturday” and to DeeDee Ortiz, the Program Manager for Science Education at PPPL, for organising the visit. A similarly massive thank you to Lori for all of her help and organisation, including providing the key musical “props” used during the lecture.


*Excuse the mixed metaphor. I love mixed metaphors. This, taken from Leon Lederman’s “The God Particle” as an example of writing by one of his PhD students, is my very favourite: “This field of physics is so virginal that no human eyeball has ever set foot in it.” (That quote tickles me so much that I use it as part of the introduction to the final year Politics, Perception, and Philosophy of Physics  module here at Nottingham.)

When I were a lad…

…we’d have to get up for a morning tutorial at ten o’clock at night, half an hour before we went to bed… complete all 171,117 problems in each of Schaum’s Outline series on partial derivatives, fluid mechanics, and vector analysis before breakfast… work twenty-nine hours in the undergraduate lab (and pay the lab organiser nineteen and six for the privilege)… and when we got back to the halls of residence, the Hall Tutor would kill us and dance about on our graves while reciting Chapter 1 of Feynman’s Lectures In Physics, Vol I. 

But you try and tell that to young people today and they won’t believe you…

[With all due credit to Messrs Cleese, Chapman et al.]


There’s yet another one of those irksome hand-wringing “…tsk, kids these days…articles in the Times Higher this week. Here’s a sample:

Even science students seem to struggle with mathematics. During my last few years of teaching in the UK, I was aggressively confronted by science undergraduates because I tried to engage them in an exercise that required them to calculate percentages. I was told that this was unreasonable because they were not, after all, doing a maths degree.

In twenty-one years of undergraduate science teaching (to date) I have not once encountered a student who baulked at the calculation of percentages. Granted, I usually teach physicists, but I’ve also taught chemists, chemical engineers, biomedical scientists, and pharmacy students. (I should note that I’m also not the least cynical academic teaching at a UK university.) The reactionary “eee by gum, they don’t know they’re born” whining is teeth-grindingly frustrating because it does a massive disservice to so many of our students.

Last week (as a Christmas, um, …treat) I decided I’d ask my first year tutorial group to attempt questions from an exam paper from 2001. I have done this for the last four or five years so it’s becoming a bit of a festive tradition. Here are two of the questions:

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My tutees tackled these questions, and others, with quite some aplomb, despite the paper having been set when they were still in nappies. You may note that the questions involve mathematical (and physics) reasoning significantly more sophisticated than the calculation of percentages.

Deficiencies in the secondary/high school education system are too often lazily attributed to a lack of engagement or effort from students; that THE article is, of course, only the latest in a long line of Daily Mail-esque “We’re going to hell in a hand-cart” polemics in a wide variety of online and traditional forums [1]. In my experience, student ability or commitment has most definitely not dropped off a cliff at some point during the last two decades. Indeed, students are instead generally much more focused now due to the imposition of the £9250 per year fee regime; too focussed in some cases, many would say.

So let’s put the pearl-clutching to one side for a while and instead highlight the positives in higher education: the talents and tenacity of our students. In the midst of the madness that is Brexit, let’s not succumb to the lazy narratives and sweeping generalisations that characterise so much of public debate right now. After all, don’t we teach our students that critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning are core to their education?

[1] …or fora for those who are particularly pedantic and especially wedded to that fifties idyll of English  Latin as it should be, dammit. (Sorry, “damn it”. (Oops, sorry again, make that deodamnatus.))

 

Is physics boring?

This is a guest post by Hannah Coleman, a 2nd year physics undergrad here at Nottingham. (Hannah’s YouTube channel is well worth a visit for insights into student life and the trials and tribulations of studying physics.)


One of the more unusual aspects of being an undergraduate is that you are sometimes asked to attend staff meetings as a ‘student representative’. I’ve attended many meetings in my past life where people waffle on for a very long time about all things that should be done but never actually happen. Thankfully the Outreach Committee meetings in the School of Physics and Astronomy don’t fall into that category.

One of the agenda points today was feedback from the Diversity Committee. Our school really works hard to tackle diversity issues in physics, not just for our undergraduate courses, but also, and especially, for A Level physics. Data from 2016 indicates that only 1.9% of girls progress to A Level physics, while 6.5% of boys choose the subject. The other two sciences (and maths) have a much less pronounced gender split.

There are many complicated and subtle reasons why girls choose not to study physics at A Level and university, and these need to be countered very early on. However, one reason that was discussed more than briefly at today’s meeting was the idea that physics is boring. In a room filled with half a dozen physicists, this is a ridiculous notion. Yet I think it is worth considering.

I can only really speak from personal experience, but I have vivid memories of being routinely disappointed by science at school. I received most of my secondary education in South Africa under the IGCSE system, in a school that was mostly driven by money and results, but I had some really good teachers. There were only two male teachers and they taught art and geography, so I certainly wasn’t lacking female roles models in the sciences. I remember both of my maths teachers being very enthusiastic, and they made the classes fun, and the problems seem like puzzles. (I still managed to bag myself an E at IGCSE, but that’s a story for another time).

But the physics sucked.

Now, physics is a truly incredible subject, and the people who study it tend to be fairly passionate and enthusiastic. With the amount of time spent banging your head against a wall while trying to make sense of some problem or other, the enthusiasm is almost a prerequisite. So why is school physics so boring?

I think physics at school is robbed of almost everything that makes it such a fascinating subject. Velocity is boring. Potential energy is boring. Friction is boring. It can all be so incredibly dry when it’s void of any greater context and/or taught by someone who doesn’t particularly enjoy the subject. I remember looking forward to the one lesson of the year that had anything to do with astronomy, only to be hugely disappointed because we learnt about the solar system. Don’t get me wrong, the solar system is pretty incredible, but it felt like we learnt the same facts we learnt at primary school. Where were the quasars, the black holes and the expanding universes?

I saw this same disappointment countless times as a secondary school teaching assistant, and I tried my best to explain to those kids that all of physics was just as interesting if they were willing to dig deeply enough. But I think the curriculum probably lost them pretty quickly.

As someone who has returned to study later in life, I have often thought about (and over-analysed) the reasons I didn’t pursue physics after GCSE. The three things I come back to time and again are the perceived difficulty of the subject (‘it’s too hard for someone like me’), the lack of role models (‘people like me aren’t successful in the field’), and just how dull it was at school. The latter frustrated me the most as a kid, because it wasn’t a perceived fault within me. I knew my teachers could have been teaching us some really cool stuff, but I was worried it wouldn’t change at A Level or university and I’d be stuck doing something that didn’t enthuse me.

The fundamentals of physics don’t have to be boring (and I’m sure all of my lecturers would argue that they most definitely aren’t!). So what’s so special about friction? Why should I be interested in potential energy? Let’s face it, cars on inclined planes aren’t exactly the most fascinating things, but the underlying laws that govern how they interact have so many applications, and are actually kind of cool just by themselves. I hope that if we can show a few kids a different side to physics, then they might be more adventurous with their A Level choices.