The Case of Norm versus Criterion

Peter Coles making perfect sense, yet again. This time he highlights the clear superiority of the Leaving Certificate system over A-levels (which I similarly lauded here: )

In the Dark

I saw a news item last night that revealed the grade boundaries for some of this year’s A-level examinations in the United Kingdom. Among the surprises were that for one board an A-grade in Mathematics corresponded to a mark of 55% and an A-grade in Physics was 59%. I’m sure I’m not the only one to find these results a bit disturbing.

The explanation given for these figures is basically that there’s a new style of A-level examination this year and the boundaries were adjusted so as not to penalize the current set of students with respect to previous years. In other words, students did much worse than expected on the new examinations so the grade boundaries were lowered.

Most assessments of academic performance such as A-levels can be classified into two broad types: criterion-referenced and norm-referenced. In the former performance is measured relative to defined goals, whereas in…

View original post 671 more words

If I hadn’t failed my exams, I wouldn’t be a professor of physics

The very best of luck to all those students who are getting their A-level results as I write this. It’s been a while since I reblogged the post below, but I’ve received a number of emails from students over the years who said that it helped them put things in perspective when they didn’t get the results they wanted so I hope you don’t mind another repost on results day.

I formally finished my five years stint as undergraduate admissions tutor this week, handing over the reins to my much more capable colleague Meghan Gray. I’ll blog about my thoughts and perspectives on the admissions systems in due course, but one key observation is worth highlighting today: even over the relatively short five year period of the admissions tutor role there has been a sharp increase in the number of students who had significant anxiety and stress-related extenuating circumstances. As the following post highlights, even in the worst possible case of failing as disastrously as I did, there was still a way forward…


Symptoms Of The Universe

I started writing this post a little after 06:00 am this morning, the time at which schools and colleges were officially permitted to start releasing A-level results to hundreds of thousands of students across England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. I vividly remember the stomach-churning sense of dread thirty years ago as I awaited my Leaving Certificate results (the ‘Leaving’ is the Irish equivalent of the A-level system), and empathise with all of those students across the country biting their nails and pacing the floor as I write this.

By far the best advice for A-level students I’ve read over the last week was an open letter by Geoff Barton, Headteacher of King Edward VI school, to his Year 13 students, published in the TES on Tuesday: “Worrying about A-level results won’t help. They are out of your control“. Barton’s article resonated with me for a number of reasons, not…

View original post 943 more words

Composing Lydian Pi

Over the years I’ve dabbled with “translating” the digits of fundamental constants (pi, tau, phi, etc.) into musical — and arguably not-so-musical — scales, not only for my own fun and distraction but because it’s a neat way of getting across the fundamental links between maths and music (and physics and music.) As I’m fond of noting in talks and podcasts (and  *cough* books), although one should generally never read below the line, this particular comment, posted under that “not-so-musical” video, made me very happy indeed:


I was equally, if not more, delighted when an e-mail popped into my inbox earlier this week from Paul Downing, who had watched the Numberphile video I did with Brady Haran on converting pi to music and did his own far, far superior* version, based on the Lydian mode. I’ll let Paul explain in the following guest post…

*That “pi music” video contains possibly the most painfully inept guitar work (courtesy of yours truly) since CC DeVille last picked up his axe. My sincere apologies. The pi-derived guitar solo in the track below is slightly less teeth-grindingly awful. Alan Stewart‘s version without my guitar noise on top is here.

I was wandering around YouTube one day, looking at videos about maths, a subject that has always intrigued me (although I must confess it can confuse me more often than not.) Let’s just say I enjoy being mystified by difficult to grasp concepts and strange looking symbols. It proves to me there is much to learn in the universe and that inspires me.

I came across Brady’s video where Philip maps a major scale to the digits of Pi and plays the sequence on guitar. Wow, I thought. That is quite something. Pi.  A universal constant. A number that pops out of a circle. A number that presumably has existed since the birth of the universe and will presumably exist as long as the universe exists. Leading to a sequence of notes or pitches that, as far as we know, goes on forever. An infinite melody. Now that is quite something. In fact, that’s totally awesome.

As someone who composes a fair amount of music, I was hooked. I started to think about writing a melody using this technique. I had a think about how to approach things. I’ve always liked the Lydian mode. It’s basically a major scale with a raised 4th (think of a C major scale with an F sharp in it). It has a kind of ethereal, mystical sound to it, very open, almost super-major. How many notes should the melody have? Well an infinite number would be ideal. But seeing as I don’t have an infinite amount of time to compose, I settled on Pi to 100 decimal places.

I wrote out the digits and mapped them to C Lydian using the technique Philip had used and grouped them in bunches of 10. I then set about the task of creating a melody that had pleasing aesthetics. This part of the process is hard to describe. I rely on intuition and instinct, listening to the muse in my head, to write music. So, at this point, I went into ‘composing mode’. Improvising and refining until I had something I was pleased with. Making artistic decisions about rhythm, phrasing and bass notes.

This led to the creation of a lead sheet. A basic structure and blueprint that myself and other musicians could work from. Now it was time to arrange and record. I started by creating a fast moving looped synth sequence of the 101 notes and imported it into the main song to run in the background. It acts almost like a background drone, anchoring the piece. Next, some guide drums (which I later removed). Then some arpeggiated chords from the piccolo bass. A moog synth bass. Another piccolo bass playing the melody on the head and soloing during the improvised section. I then asked Mark Allaway to play some alto saxophone on the composition, with splendid results I think. Finally the track was mixed and mastered…

Something that struck me about improvising within ‘Lydian Pi’ is that whatever notes the improviser chooses. Assuming that the digits of Pi go on forever. Then that sequence of notes must exist somewhere along that Pi number line. So as long as you stick to the mode, you literally can’t play a wrong note. It’s in there somewhere.  Which is nice to know I think.

Thanks to Philip for introducing me to the ‘fundamental-constant-to-music concept’. I’m finding it a great springboard to musical composition and have created another piece using Pi (currently a demo) and a piece based on Euler’s number ‘e’ titled ‘E by Sum’. I’m now thinking about using Phi and fixating somewhat on Euler’s identity.

Paul Downing   16.07.2019



The stem cell trachea scandal

Over the last couple of years I have followed Leonid Schneider‘s dedicated and forensic reporting of the Macchiarini trachea implant scandal (which has taken its toll on Leonid through legal threats and court costs) but had not realised that my colleague and collaborator, Raphael Levy (University of Liverpool) was also embroiled in this tragic case. That was until the following blog post appeared in my e-mail inbox a couple of days ago…

Raphael’s commitment to uncovering scientific misconduct, in this case alongside his colleague Prof Patricia Murray in the Institute of Translational Medicine at Liverpool, continues to inspire. I hope that Shauna Davidson‘s family get the answers they deserve very soon. It is very disappointing, to put it mildly, that, as Raphael describes below, the Medical Research Council (MRC) has been less than entirely open with its responses.


Yesterday night, BBC Newsnight broadcasted an investigation by journalist Deborah Cohen featuring interviews with my colleague Prof Patricia Murray as well as extremely moving testimony by the mum of Shauna Davidson. Shauna’s mum had been misled on the nature of the intervention on her daughter and even on the cause of her death.

Patricia is a stem cell expert and we’ve hada longterm (and ongoing) collaboration on using imaging to track stem cells for evaluation of their safety and efficacy. When, a few years ago, she started to get interested in the Macchiarini scandal and realised that similar experiments on patients had been done in the UK (and continued to be done), she contacted me knowing my interest in ethical issues and scientific misconduct. I am proud to have supported her sterling work in uncovering this scandal – I am also pleased that legal threats have…

View original post 97 more words

A Suspension of Hostilities

An eloquent and affecting post from Peter Coles on the centenary of Armistice Day and the poppy.

“The message of the poppy is supposed to be “Lest We Forget”. I’m afraid far too many have already forgotten.”

In the Dark

Among all the images produced during this weekend’s commemorations of the centenary of Armistice Day, this image of Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron struck me as particularly moving.

Part of the reasons is that it reminded me of this photograph, of President Mitterand and Chancellor Kohl, taken in 1984:

Exactly one hundred years after the truce that effectively ended the First World War, these images remind us how much suffering took place before Europe reached a point at which war between France and Germany became unthinkable. That peace now looks increasingly fragile as the forces of nationalism, spurred on by populist demagogues, and funded by greedy disaster capitalists, threaten to tear apart the institutions that have brought Europe together in a spirit of mutual cooperation for so long. All that has been achieved could so easily be lost.

As Fintan O’Toole has written in a long article in this…

View original post 506 more words

Probes, Patterns, and (nano)Particles

Raphael Levy was kind enough to invite me to write a post for his blog on a recent paper that, unlike some previous work I’ve critiqued there, represents a careful and credible approach to imaging sub-nanoparticle structure. (That close-to-a-decade-old profile photo really needs to be updated, however…)


philipmoriarty Philip Moriarty

This is a guest post by Philip Moriarty, Professor of Physics at the University of Nottingham (and blogger).

“We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.”

Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980)

My previous posts for Raphael’s blog have focussed on critiquing poor methodology and over-enthusiastic data interpretation when it comes to imaging the surface structure of functionalised nanoparticles. This time round, however, I’m in the much happier position of being able to highlight an example of good practice in resolving (sub-)molecular structure where the authors have carefully and systematically used scanning probe microscopy (SPM), alongside image recognition techniques, to determine the molecular termination of Ag nanoparticles.

For those unfamiliar with SPM, the concept underpinning the operation of the technique is relatively straight-forward. (The experimental implementation rather less so…) Unlike a conventional microscope, there are no lenses, no mirrors, indeed, no optics of any sort [1]. Instead…

View original post 1,124 more words

A Patter of Podcasts*

* Following extensive research — the best part of three whole minutes on Google — there shockingly appears not to be a collective noun for podcasts. Henceforth, I’m using “patter”. Given at least one OED definition of the word, I think it fits.

I’ve been very fortunate — if I were a religious man, I’d say “blessed” — to have had the support of not only the fantastic marketing team at Ben Bella (including, in particular, Lindsay Marshall) but a number of colleagues and friends when it comes to “plugging” that book I’ve recently written.

I don’t want to turn Symptoms… into a series of adverts for ‘Uncertainty to 11′ — and I won’t. Promise. I’ve got a stack of non-book-related posts coming up if I can ever find time — but I’ve done a series of podcasts and interviews recently that I’ve enjoyed so much I wanted to say a public thank you to all those involved (including Lindsay for setting up and coordinating the majority.) I’ve already blogged about The Aussie Pink Floyd pinkcast and The Death Hangout, and there are a few other podcasts to be uploaded/broadcast in future that I’ll blog about (briefly) in due course, but for now…

The Unmade Podcast

Unmade…” is the brainchild of Brady Haran, with whom I’ve worked just a little over the last decade or so, and Tim Hein. The premise is that they chat about ideas for podcasts that might get made, but probably never will. Occasionally, they invite a guest or two on to join in the conversation and come up with their own ideas for podcast themes. Not only did Brady and Tim let me do that — although, as I noted in the podcast, I can’t claim credit for all of the suggestions I made — but they very kindly let me waffle on at length about that bloody book…


Although the Ikonokast podcast with Greg Laden and his co-host Mike Haubrich started off on that Spinal Tap-inspired theme, we diverged from there quite quickly and chatted about a much broader variety of academic (and non-academic) concerns than just the metal-quantum interface…

Coincidentally, that piece of metal that opens up the Ikonokast conversation (and closes the Unmade podcast) is something called The Root Of All Things that I recorded a while ago as background music for a video. I’m hoping to find time to expand this short piece, with the help of a few musician (and scientist-cum-musician) friends, to a full-blown nano-themed sci-fi metal track over the course of the next year or so. (After all, there’s EPSRC funding to do so.) For now, however, that piece has found its place as backing music for some of Pete McPartlan’s wonderfully quirky animations and art…

The Quantum Podcast

height_90_width_90_15817639_1066803776798865_1271 The Uncertainty Principle and Metal

Maria, the host, is a second year undergraduate physics student who explains a variety of topics covered in her degree via her podcast. We had a fun time discussing everything from Devin Townsend to string theory and the state-of-the-art in theoretical physics. The latter is a theme I’m going to return to very soon here at Symptoms… (and elsewhere) in the context of Sabine Hossenfelder‘s impassioned, sharp, and brilliant critique of the state of 21st century physics, “Lost In Math“. If you have any interest at all in physics, you owe it to yourself to go get Hossenfelder’s book.


I spent most of this podcast trying to stop laughing. Byrne and Wade, your genial hosts, are both very funny guys. Unfortunately, when tasked, I failed spectacularly to come up with a musician joke on the spot. Usually I fall back on one of the drummer classics — “How can you tell a drummer’s at the door? The knocking speeds up” — but it was clearly too early in the morning and/or insufficient caffeine had been imbibed.

A big thank-you to Brady, Tim, Greg, Mike, Maria, Byrne, and Wade for the invitation to join them for a natter.