U of O Watch mission, in the words of Foucault...

"One knows … that the university and in a general way, all teaching systems, which appear simply to disseminate knowledge, are made to maintain a certain social class in power; and to exclude the instruments of power of another social class. … It seems to me that the real political task in a society such as ours is to criticise the workings of institutions, which appear to be both neutral and independent; to criticise and attack them in such a manner that the political violence which has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them." -- Foucault, debating Chomsky, 1971.

U of O Watch mission, in the words of Socrates...

"An education obtained with money is worse than no education at all." -- Socrates

video of president allan rock at work

Friday, October 24, 2008

Thuggery in Physics


Physics undergraduate student Marc Kelly was expelled by the U of O Faculty of Science from his B.Sc. project course (PHY 4006) before the official student drop date for the course on the basis of behind-closed-door decisions by enlightened physics professors (members of the Departmental Teaching Personnel Committee and the physics chairman) who judged the project to not be physics, in the absence of any investigation beyond reading an announcement for the project topic.
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PRESS CONFERENCE TODAY
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Details are given HERE.
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A first draft report of the student’s PHY 4006 project is given HERE.
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It appears the high priests of the physics department are protecting the purity of physics, while refusing to give a definition of physics. Hooray for disciplinal divisions and professionalism!
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[Photo credit: University of Ottawa; Dr. Bela Joos, Chairman of Physics]

For all and more recent posts about student Marc Kelly CLICK HERE.

27 comments:

Philippe said...
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Philippe said...
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Mireille said...

I really liked your post Philippe. It's too bad reason doesn't work with these guys.

philippe said...

Merci Mireille! C'est bien d'avoir du feedback positif de temps en temps.

(Quand j'ai vu qu'il y avait un autre commentaire je pensais que c'était encore quelqu'un qui me traiterait de "moron" ou me souhaiterait un tremblement de terre.)

Anonymous said...

I think the issue really is though: what constitutes as a "physics paper". What the course is really looking for is a paper grounded in the field of physics, not an outside analysis of its study (which I would suggest is honestly more in the field of psychology or philosophy). The topic may be a great field of study that needs addressing, but it is not fairly within the scope of an undergraduate physics course, and is inappropriate for the circumstances. One does not have a right to explore any topic in a thesis class; it's not a free credit to whoever writes an essay, and I can't fathom why people are so outraged that the student was tossed out for not conforming to the clearly established guidelines. If you want to study conventional physics, you enroll in physics at a school known for teaching conventional physics (UOttawa). If you want to study experimental psychology, you enroll in a school known for experimental psychology and not conventional physics. There is no "right" to academic approval, and all ideas are not created equally in an academic environment.

Philippe said...
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Anonymous said...

A few years ago, at the University of Ottawa, I took the graduate physics class PHY5361 - nonlinear dynamics in the natural sciences, with Dr. Andre Longtin. In this class, I remember a student was permitted by Dr. Longtin to do their project on modeling WAR. Is modeling WAR "physics"?

Given that Dr. Longtin is also on the committee that shut down Mr. Kelly's project, I see what happened to Mr. Kelly as nothing but hypocrisy by the department, and the department's actions clearly politically motivated.

Lastly, who has the right to define what is "conventional" physics? Those opposed to the efforts of Mr. Kelly really need to read Einstein's (he received the Noble prize in physics for the "photoelectric effect") damning critique on separating the "natural" sciences from the "social" sciences and defining fields of study as "conventional". By the logic of the previous post (anonymous) on what is "conventional" physics, where is the outcry against the newly created >>PHYSICS<< course PHY4722 - Physique BIOLOGIQUE! given by Dr. Bela Joos, who is also on the committee that shut down Mr. Kelly's project.

Hypocrisy. Pure hypocrisy.

philippe said...

To further support the previous comment, one homework in a computational physics class I took at U of O was to model traffic flow, not a conventional topic of research for physicists either.

The last commenter seems to agree with me that this decision is prejudice-motivated rather than science-motivated.

Why else would they worry so much about making their reasons public?

Anonymous said...

Oh dear, I will surely regret saying this, but here goes...

Let me preface this by saying that I am not what could be called a Rancourt sympathizer. In fact, I am probably the exact opposite.

However, in this particular case, having read Marc Kelly's excerpts of his research project, I think that the department of physics is on shaky ground trying to defend that this is not worthy of a physics project. It seems to me to be an excellent example of mathematical modelling, together with appropriate definitions and computations. The analysis of the model made by Kelly seems to be quite clever. To just summarily dismiss this as being ''non physics'', especially from a department that prides itself on recent hires in neurosciences and biological physics, does smell like political interference, unfortunately.

Philippe said...
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Anonymous said...

It is unfortunate that you're arguing in terms of prejudices rather than thinking about this question with an open mind. Your point about "conventional physics" is irrelevant in a scientific perspective. Tradition is an important value for religions, not for sciences.

Not only are these prejudices in and of themselves, but your offensive ad hominem of a "rebuttal" hasn't addressed the key issue here: what is an appropriate topic for an undergraduate physics student. He is not entitled to a credit, and the university is not required to give him a credit regardless of what he studies.

Philippe said...
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Philippe said...
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Anonymous said...


Instead of addressing the precise points I was making (and the other anonymous posters is making), you're starting from the premise that this is not physics.


This is incorrect, the broad premise I am working from is that there exists such a thing as an acceptable an unacceptable topic for a 4th year thesis course. Because the topic is not physics centered, it falls beyond the mandate of the course.

I'll concede the "conventional point" in principle, but I don't think your counter examples are relevant or fair comparisons, given that those fields involve physics and another discipline, and this paper seems only to be linked to physics in terms of the actual test subjects. There's an argument to made here that this isn't even unconventional physics, it's just psychology.

The university of course has maintained the ability to deregister a student. They do this if students register for the wrong class, or don't meet pre-requisites. What I do find concerning here is that they would de-register a student for reasons pertaining to their class performance (other than for extremely inappropriate behavior). What would have been more appropriate would have advising the student they were going to fail, and that they should pull out before the last withdraw day.

You know what, we disagree with whether the project is appropriate, but ultimately professors will decide that anyways. What is concerning here is how the administration has bungled yet another case involving students, and their universally heavy-handed approach to any dissent is concerning to me.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to comment the topic in a rational and nuanced manner. [...]
Unfortunately [...]


I am dangerously ill-equipped and absolutely unprepared to do so. Instead, please enjoy my one-sided, irrational, poorly-edited rant.

Be assured though, that I will use plenty of trivial notions in such a condescending manner that a third grader might be fooled into thinking I'm clever. I'll even call them axioms and name them after people.

Anonymous said...

I'm interested to hear about the Marc's experiments - the bits of the thesis he posted were simply models. The first thing that separates "physics" from "not-physics" is falsifiable experiments. When I read his thesis, the closest thing I found to an experiment was a personal anecedote about his experiences within the department, which doesn't really qualify. I assume that Marc had some method planned to test his model?

Also, he referenced an number of papers, and (other than the first two) I couldn't figure out how they related to his thesis. If you're reading this, Marc, please explain?

-My Mommy Told Me Not to Use My Real Name on the Tubes

philippe said...

I wonder if debate forums on the Internet would be a good platform to test Marc's model. People usually start responding to any discussion based on their first opinion on the topic and as it goes on (with messages being added through the days) some people stick to their opinions and some change their mind. And when you attend such a forum for a couple weeks you can see personality patterns without knowing these people.

In fact maybe Marc's model would simulate a delayed "correspondance" (like discussion forums) better than a live conversation. But I'm not sure.

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If you look at my first comment here, I only concluded that a rational individual could hold the opinion that this project is suitable for a physics course. (Clearly some people here agree.) I didn't say that ALL rational individuals would. But it's a grey area than can and should be at least debated before any administrative decision is taken.

Based on the information here (and again, I invite the department of physics to make any other information public to support their case), we have no evidence such a nuanced debated happened before the decision to deregister Marc.

That's really all that I have to, or wanted to say about this.

DeeDee said...

I'm a graduate student in chemistry, next door. After reading through Marc's project, I have to conclude that I would have a hard time accepting that as a physics paper. Yes it models behaviours mathematically, but its a paper based on a social science field. Thats not physics...You should have picked something with a little more meat....Quantum mechanics anyone? Science geeks like I would never dream of going to the artsy social side to do a research or thesis project on. We know we would get laughted at...and for good reason.
I would like to end that I totally support Marc with this battle with the department and the school.

tm said...

After reading through Mr. Kelly's paper, it seems to me that it is merely an unveiled, defamatory, and puerile attack on a group of specific individuals working at the university and who are named in the main text and in the footnotes.

Enveloping a simplistic mathematical model (this is just first-year linear algebra) around words like "ass-licking" (hey! it's scientific) does not constitute unconventional research.

Anonymous said...

Marc Kelly can fuck off.
Stop spamming everyone's email with your conspiracy bullshit.

You got expelled because you're a failure. Deal with it.

The Pirate said...
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Anonymous said...

The comment about Nash's work not being ''necessarily mathematics'' is just completely ludicrous and ignorant. You should have chosen to remain quiet...you have lost all credibility. Do yourself a favor...go read Nash's (published) work and then come back here and speak about Nash with an informed opinion.

The Pirate said...

It was an honest question, not a request for verbal abuse.

Lesson learned: don't feed the trolls.

Anonymous said...

It wasn't a question -- you conveniently deleted your original post. What really happened is that you were spouting out like some kind pseudo-expert-intellectual who in fact knows nothing, in a bid to support a thesis that is fundamentally flawed and indefensible, and you got called on it.

Have a nice day.

Anonymous said...

This paper is a JOKE. Not physics at all. Please stop spamming our inbox's.. NOBODY CARES. Get off your high horse and realize that you have failed at this institution.

You and Raincourt need to stop trying to hide behind false accusations of "suppression of free speech" and stop EMBARRASSING our University.

Anonymous said...

I think this whole thing is part of a much bigger issue. I think there is a strong general bias from physicists against anything that they perceive as "not being physics". Often, even experimental condensed matter work (my area of research) is being snubbed by physics "purists".

Try this for fun: submit an experimental condensed-matter paper to PRL with an affiliation in an engineering department. You will get the exact same comments about your work "not being physics".

Then, the hypocrisy gets even further when physicists claim they want to do multidisciplinary work...

This is just a lame attempt from physics faculty to get more funding.

Liesl said...

I also took a fourth year research project course in physics.

While Marc Kelly's paper demonstrates a creative understanding of some notation, I don't believe that it's grounded enough in physics for this particular course.

The question is not whether his paper has any merit, it is its appropriateness for this particular course.

There is a PhD program in Physics Education Research at UBC, that Marc Kelly's study would be better suited to happen within. At an undergraduate level, while it's a novel application of the mathematical notation and concepts, the actual thesis is more of an arts paper than a science one..