Archive for June, 2014

Farewell to Academia

June 11, 2014

Fourteen years ago, aged 40, I resigned from my position as a tenured lecturer in the Physics Department at University College London and took up my current position at the National Physical Laboratory.

I periodically reflect on this decision which at the time I found painful and traumatic. In retrospect, it was undoubtedly one of the best decisions I ever made.

At the time I felt I was leaving ‘academia’, but now I feel differently.

The bullying culture, total focus on income, and indifference to teaching quality or intellectual matters were actually signs that ‘academia’ as a concept was withering.

In the same way that Agri-culture became Agri-business, so ‘academic culture’ has become ‘academi-business’.

The fundamental problem is that academic institutions used to have academic goals – furthering knowledge and inspiring minds. But now they are conceived of as being primarily businesses, and so they have primarily business goals. And every other activity is subservient to these goals.

I recall a conversation with my then Head of Department at UCL, Brian Martin,  who told me that he would ‘make my life hell‘ if I didn’t bring in £200,000 of income in the next year – a task both he and I knew was impossible. He advised me particularly that I should not doubt that he would really do it.

Nowadays this lesson is pre-learned and is assumed by all staff. This recent article about destructive dismissals at Kings College London reminded me of the insane logic of the process. But KCL is not unique: I hear similar stories from other universities both in the UK and abroad.

The business perspective is re-shaping how we concieve  of what used to be called ‘an academic life’.

In the sciences, universities acknowledge teaching and research because they have associated income streams which can be maximised. The employment of short-term staff for both teaching and research (MacLecturers(™) and MacResearchers(™)) is booming. (This is incidentally the reason why I encourage students to study science to highest level they can, but not to take jobs in the subject.)

However scholarship– advanced reading, learning and synthesis – is simply not acknowledged as a category of useful activity. Thus we find ourselves in a world where people are encouraged to publish more and more, but fewer and fewer people are reading the articles!

In my opinion, aside from vestiges in the richest universities world-wide, ‘academia’ is dead and it is time to acknowledge its death and say, farewell.

I, for one, am missing it already.

What could possibly go wrong?

June 3, 2014
Our data acquisition equipment outside the Aarhus University Mars Simulator.

Our data acquisition equipment outside the Aarhus University Mars Simulator. What could possibly go wrong?

My colleague Andrew Finlayson and I made it to Denmark on Sunday and turned up at Aarhus University bright and early on Monday morning.

We set about unpacking our equipment and around four hours later the pile of  apparatus you see above was pretty much working.

Looking at the scene, my first thought was, and is:

What could possibly go wrong?

But I am not asking in a sarcastic tone: I want to know the answer!

And I want a list! That way I can go down the list and think in advance how to avoid that possibility and what to do if I can’t.

So Monday was a good day because none of the major things which could go wrong, did go wrong. In the afternoon we lowered the pressure until it was equivalent to a height of 8 kilometres altitude and most of the equipment seemed to cope.

Tuesday was not so good. We spent the morning understanding the effect of air circulation within the chamber. Fortunately I had anticipated this might be a problem* and brought two fans with me that we could place inside the chamber. (See the pictures below).

And just when we thought we had sorted out the temperature control – the laser in our our laser hygrometer broke. This is kind of thing which is difficult to plan for. But we did have a plan!

My colleague Tom Gardiner was planning to join us tomorrow morning and by chance a new laser module had been delivered to NPL last week and he will be able to bring it with him.

So with luck – and it will require some – we should be back up and running tomorrow afternoon.

Anyway I must get to bed now – I need to be bright and alert in the morning. But below are a few pictures of our adventure.


*Actually it was my wife who anticipated it – but I listened to her and took her advice!


Installing Equipment in the Aarhus University Mars SImulator

Installing Equipment in the Aarhus University Mars Simulator. The experimental section of the pressure vessel slides out on rails to allow access to the equipment.

Installing Equipment in the Aarhus University Mars SImulator

Installing Equipment in the Aarhus University Mars Simulator. Here Jens Jacobson and Jon Merrison from Aarhus University are installing a barrier to restrict air flow in the experimental section

Installing Equipment in the Aarhus University Mars SImulator

Installing Equipment in the Aarhus University Mars Simulator. My colleague Andrew Finlayson is just adjusting a mirror on the laser hygrometer. Below it can be seen an ultrasonic anemometer from Gill Instruments which measures air flow within the chamber – both natural convective flows and those due to fans.

Installing Equipment in the Aarhus University Mars SImulator

‘Feedthroughs’ in the Aarhus University Mars Simulator. One of the major problems is how to connect electrical equipment outside the pressure chamber to sensors inside the  chamber. This is how we did it!


Installing Equipment in the Aarhus University Mars SImulator

Two fans for moving the air inside the environmental chamber. The tiny fan on the left can move 67 cubic metres of air per hour and makes a big difference to the uniformity of the temperature within the chamber.

Installing Equipment in the Aarhus University Mars SImulator

Graph showing temperature versus time for two sensors inside the chamber. The air is unmixed at first and the two sensors indicate temperature differences from one part of the chamber to another of more than one degree Celsius. When the fan is switched on the air is mixed and the temperature becomes uniform to with 0.05 degrees Celsius.

%d bloggers like this: