Disturbing the Universe

David L Clements, science and science fiction

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Hertfordshire: the ‘your papers please’ university

I just sent the following to colleagues at the University of Hertfordshire, the University that wants to see the passport of anybody visiting.

I doubt it will do any good in the short term, but if more bad press accrues, and if they lose more visiting speakers and external examiners, maybe sense will prevail in the long term.

One must draw a line somewhere, and this is mine.

Dear Colleagues,
As I’m sure you are aware there has been much discussion about the University of Hertfordshire’s requirement that visiting speakers must present a copy of their passport before being allowed to talk. This has been discussed in the THES, in blogs, on twitter and has even reached the hallowed halls of Mumsnet. In none of these venues has the University of Hertfordshire looked even sensible. One blogger has gone so far as to suggest Hertfordshire should go to the top of the league for silliest university.

Since no seminar speaker is paid to speak, the question of right to work is not an issue. Instead, my understanding is that the justification for demanding a passport is to ‘ensure we know who is on campus’. This would seem to suggest that anybody stepping onto the grounds for whatever reason will have their passport demanded. People attending a TAG meeting at Hertfordshire, as I have done, will thus be subject to this demand, as would anybody attending a conference. Presumably, parents picking their offspring up for the vacation or members of the public attending an open day will also be subject to a demand for their papers, and that’s before we get to the milkman and whoever is dropping off parcels from DHL this week.

There is also significant fraction of the UK population (17% according to the last census) who do not have passports at all. Are they banned from the campus? This might include many of your own students.

This is surely bureaucratic paranoia over-reaching itself, and it is bringing significant reputational damage to the University of Hertfordshire and, I’m afraid, to those who work there.

I have been approached by XXX to act as an external examiner for [redacted]. I had been looking forward to this, but, while Hertfordshire continues to support this unreasonable and unworkable passport policy – something I believe is antithetical to the whole concept of a university – I sadly conclude I must withdraw as an external examiner as an act of protest.

I will also encourage my colleagues to avoid a campus where ‘your papers please’ is the first demand made of anybody visiting.

Yours sincerely,


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Asking guest speakers to produce a passport: Hertfordshire front runners to top Silliest Uni league table

According to a colleague there this is being excused on the basis of needing to know who is on campus. As if that would ever be possible.

Yes, Hertfordshire is definitely the silliest university of the year, and likely to get sillier as they really don’t understand why this is stupid.

And they may just have lost me as an external examiner as well. I’d encourage others to consider this as a way of putting a stop to this idiocy.



For some time now, a lot of British universities have asked external examiners to show a passport. This is, apparently, the result of government immigration regulations, which require employers to show that all employees have the right to work in the UK.

It’s a very silly interpretation of immigration law, which universities could happily ignore. Illegal immigrants don’t usually end up examining at universities; and the fee – usually in the region of £150-£200 – is hardly an incentive to people smugglers. But some human resources directors enjoy frightening themselves, and their senior managers, with fearful warnings of what ‘could‘ go wrong.

new-picture The University of St Andrews tries to persuade its staff that it has made a sensible decision

We now seem to have an even sillier refinement of this precautionary approach. Jonathan Webber, Reader in Philosophy at Cardiff University, tweeted this week that the University of Hertfordshire…

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The Weimar Years

Scary stuff for scary times

Lavie Tidhar

I came back to the UK in the autumn of 2011 – just over 5 years ago, now. I’d weathered out the then-current recession in warmer climates very far from the preoccupations of the West – a year on a remote island in Vanuatu, a couple more in Laos (where incidentally I wrote Osama, a novel about the on-going war being waged by the West, and its consequences) – and the return was something of a psychic shock.

The West changed while I’d been away. What I felt most keenly during that winter, besides the cold, was the new wind that was blowing. The rise of right-wing ideologies, the anti-immigrant rhetoric, the sense of anger and fear coming to the fore. They were all present and palpable, and it was then that I began to imagine the book that would become A Man Lies Dreaming.

That novel came…

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Judgment Day on Article 50

Good commentary on the Article 50 judgement today.

In the Dark

I couldn’t resist a quick comment on today’s ruling by the High Court that the Prime Minister cannot trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty (and thus begin the process of taking the United Kingdom out of the European Union) without the approval of Parliament. The case was brought by Gina Miller and Deir Tozetti Dos Santos (the claimants) and has important constitutional implications because it limits the use of the Royal Prerogative.

I’m not by any means a legal expert but reading the full judgment it strikes me that this unanimous decision represents a comprehensive defeat for the Government’s lawyers. The crucial paragraphs of the judgment are 92-94 if you wish to refer to them in the full judgment. Interestingly, the ruling  does not really rest on the claimants’ case at all but instead is based on a complete rejection of the main point of the Government’s submission. It…

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The Case of Bode versus Mundell

I know too many of the people involved in this to be less than flabbergasted. It is also a good example of theme Streisand Effect.

In the Dark

Getting ready to come in and help with today’s Undergraduate Open Day today at Cardiff University, I checked Twitter this morning and found a number of tweets about a shocking news story that I feel obliged to comment on.  The astronomy community in the United Kingdom is fairly small and relatively close-knit, which makes this case especially troubling, but it does have far wider ramifications in the University sector and beyond.

I don’t usually link to stories in the Daily Mail, but you can find the item here. The report relates to a libel action taken by Professor Mike Bode of Liverpool John Moores University against Professor Carole Mundell, a former employee of that institution who is now Head of the Astrophysics group at the University of Bath.  Carole Mundell is a highly regarded observational cosmologist who works primarily on gamma-ray bursters and their implications for cosmology. The case revolves around…

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The Possible Plumes of Europa

Nice coverage of the HST observations of Europa by Peter Coles. I’m not a disinterested party here since we are observing Europa (and Enceladus) using a different approach to look for chemistry in these plumes. More news soon I hope!

In the Dark

I was too busy yesterday to write a post about the latest hot news from the NASA Hubble Space Telescope, so here’s a quick catch-up.

It seems that Europa, the smallest of the four Galilean moons of Jupiter, may from time to time be releasing “plumes” of water vapour. It has long been speculated that there might be large quantities of liquid water under Europa’s extremely smooth icy crust. Here’s a picture of possible plumes (to the bottom left of the image) in which a high-resolution picture of the surface of Europa has been superimposed.

europa Picture Credits: NASA/ESA/W. Sparks (STScI)/USGS Astrogeology Science Center

There’s also short video explaining the possible discovery here.

It’s not obvious at first sight that features like that shown above are caused by water erupting through Europa’s surface. On the face of it they could, for example, be caused by the impact of…

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