Farewell to astronomy?

Whoever then has the effrontery to study physics while neglecting mathematics, should know from the start that he will never make his entry through the portals of wisdom.

Thomas Bradwardine

I have been in my present institution for almost 25 years now. I am in the School of Mathematical Sciences, which is made up of pure and applied mathematicians, statisticians and astronomers. It is great place to do research, because we tend to reject the artificial boundaries that the bureaucrats would like to impose on us. Some of my best work has been done with physicists, applied probabilists, and statisticians in the School.

Two anecdotes illustrate this.

Soon after my arrival here, Ann Cook (who then ruled the roost in the School office) asked me to stand against a wall while she photographed me with her Polaroid camera. When I asked her what this was for, I was told to wait and see. That afternoon, the Dynamics seminar was given by Ian Percival, one of our best-known applied mathematicians at that time. His first slide showed a picture of me and one of Carl Murray, an eminent Solar system astronomer who is now closely associated with the Cassini probe exploring Saturn and its rings and moons. Ian said, “I bet you never thought you’d see these two people together on a slide.” His talk was an application of some work on counting trees (which he had been discussing with me) to the orbits of asteroids (if I remember correctly).

This week, one of my project students was discussing with me his presentation, and I suggested that he could use an icosahedron to illustrate the six equiangular lines in 3-dimensional Euclidean space. He didn’t have one, and the models I have in my office are rather too complicated for his purpose. So I emailed the department to ask if anyone had one. Carl Murray was the first to respond. I didn’t like to ask if he was trying to revive Kepler’s theory of planetary orbits, based on the ideas that the planetary spheres are inscribed and circumscribed to the Platonic solids!

Anyway, sad to say, we may be saying farewell to the astronomers soon. New management has decided that, despite what Thomas Bradwardine (one of my predecessors as a “Merton calculator”) said, Astronomy should move out of mathematics and into physics. No good reasons were offered: it seems that it is incumbent on new management to change something, to make their mark. The Vice-Principal said, almost in these exact words, that he intends to act first and think later; he seemed unaware of the enormous problems this move would entail in terms of teaching and teaching support. Words like “synergy” and “branding” were bandied around with no awareness that these act on academics like red rags to bulls (according to folk wisdom).

It may be that, in the long term, the natural home for the Astronomy Unit is in the Physics department. But now is a time of great uncertainty, with the huge rise in student fees, the fact that both our buildings need extensive re-furbishment, and the up-coming REF (research assessment); it seems a bit perverse to make a big change at such a time.

Anyway, we seem to have little input to the decision. The “consultation process” involved the Vice-Principal announcing an email address to which we could send comments. One of my colleagues suggested that the email would be forwarded to Human Resources so that troublemakers could be identified. At any event, weeks have passed with no reply or even acknowledgment to these emails. The VP divided us into three separate groups for discussion with him, on the “divide-and-rule” principle. He will announce his decision very soon.

If I sound critical, I must say that things I hear from other universities suggest that this management style is not unique to our place, and that probably this is a glimpse of the future. The purpose of a university used to be teaching and research; now it is making money and scoring well in league tables, and our bosses are trying to achieve these things.

So it may be that the astronomers are going; but we will miss them!

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About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
This entry was posted in mathematics and ..., maybe politics and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Farewell to astronomy?

  1. Yiftach says:

    Peter look at the positive side, at least your VP intends to think (eventually), better late than never.

  2. The VP told us that his decision would be announced very soon after the end of the so-called consultation. It has just today been announced. The astronomers are indeed going, and the administrative changes are going to be rushed through before the REF, although physical moves and transfer of teaching loads will take longer (hopefully well after my retirement!)

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