Dear Students

Dear students*,

Today is polling day in the UK general election, it also coincides with the day that our final year students are leaving, and that got me thinking.


I didn’t have to pay a penny in tuition fees to get my degree, and I got a grant meaning that I didn’t need paid work and could focus on my studies. When my wife and I had kids, we were able to buy a family-sized flat in London even when, at times, only one of us was working and we had hardly any savings.

Most of you will leave university having clocked up £27000 in loans and supported yourselves by paid work throughout your degree. Judging by the experience of my 20- and 30-something nieces and nephews, and their friends – and to put it very mildly –  few of you will be able to buy a property in the town where you work; many will have to pay very high rents and/or travel costs to get to work. Your conditions in the workplace will be less secure – we now have the “gig economy” where young people in particular are expected to volunteer and work zero-hour contracts on demand.

The opportunities of young people have clearly deteriorated over the last decades. In my opinion one reason for this is that, over most of my lifetime, politicians have been less concerned with what happens to young people than with the older people who vote in much larger numbers (78% of over 65s voted in the last election compared with 43% of 18-24 year olds). I saw lots of over 65s leaving the polling station when I voted this morning – no one younger than me.

The country is now politically split on generational lines. This was demonstrated very clearly in the Brexit referendum, but it is also true in the general election. Please take a look at these polling figures in the Economist and take the time to click on the buttons to see how starkly the voting intentions of younger and older people differ.

This is one of the most important elections in our lifetimes. The Brexit result will completely change our lives regardless of who wins, but for once we are not being asked to choose between slightly different “brands”, coke v pepsi, but between strikingly different political philosophies. Every vote counts because even if the party you vote for doesn’t win, it will send politicians a very clear message that young people’s views can’t safely be ignored. You almost certainly won’t get another chance to vote for 5 years – think where you’ll be then.

This year I’ll be 50. I’ve been lucky and benefited hugely from the support of the NHS and welfare state that my grandparents generation helped set up after World War II. They put everything on the line to defend our right to vote. I remember them and I will never betray their sacrifices by not using that right. But I won’t use it to feather my own nest at the expense of the next generation. I don’t want a world setup neatly for my retirement if it comes at the cost of my children and grandchildren’s futures. I couldn’t forgive myself if I didn’t post this in time to persuade a few more young people to vote today. The polls don’t close until 10pm.


*this message is a very personal one, but I am glad to say it is the official position of my employers to encourage students to vote. Quite right, too.



Can I Just Say…?

This week psychologists, neuroscientists and statisticians have been again prompted to reassess our methods by a widely-circulated preprint (pdf) accusing some in the field of acting like “methodological terrorists”. Thankfully, the initial urge to identify with one or other “side” (and to hit back at “opponents”) has largely given way to more thoughtful, nuanced and long overdue discussions about how research should be conducted. I am not arguing for or against one of the “sides” in this debate, but I am just sharing my perspective.

Scientists have learned that we need to continually question our beliefs about the natural world, and test them against the evidence. As Feynman put it: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.” We have to question our beliefs. This applies to our beliefs about the scientific method as well as to our beliefs about the natural world. It applies to ourselves as well as the other people who we think are wrong.

Continue reading “Can I Just Say…?”

The Sorting Ceremony

Harry gripped the edges of the stool and thought, Not Slytherin, not Slytherin. “Not Slytherin, eh?” said the small voice. “Are you sure? You could be great, you know, it’s all here in your head, and Slytherin will help you on the way to greatness, no doubt about that — no?”

Tomorrow the UK votes on a referendum: do we remain part of the EU or do we leave? Every vote counts equally, and the outcome is very finely-balanced, so every vote is important. I’ve been on a bit of a journey with this issue. At first, although I could see many clear-cut benefits of membership, reservations about the EU’s arcane structure weighed very heavily with me. Later, although the facts and my understanding of them hadn’t changed, I began to feel uncomfortable with the idea of leaving; the risks of leaving seemed much clearer and more immediate than the risks of staying, and I decided I had to vote to remain. However, I was still ambivalent.


Now all ambivalence has gone. I know why I felt so uncomfortable about the idea of voting to leave. The referendum campaigns have been divisive, and while both campaigns have been negative, the Leave campaign has focused on the issue of immigration. I think immigration (whether from the EU or beyond) benefits the UK, and I think that blaming immigrants for our problems is the opposite of what Britain stands for, or should stand for.

In troubled times such as the recession we’re currently experiencing, it’s easy to prey on people’s fears, to cast outsiders and foreigners as scapegoats and have them take the blame for problems caused by bankers and politicians. We’re very lucky in Britain that our grandparents and great-grandparents didn’t fall for this crap in the 1930s, and we shouldn’t be falling for it now.

When Jo Cox MP was murdered, we got a glimpse of where this rhetoric leads, where it can still lead in the 21st Century and in Britain, and for me, that was the moment when the last trace of ambivalence evaporated. My reservations about the voting mechanisms seemed very small and a very, very long way away.

It’s natural that people in every nation are proud of their culture, and perhaps overlook their own shortcomings. I think that generation had reason to be proud, and I grew up with a (perhaps rose-tinted) idea that Britain had done some good in the world. Although that feeling gradually faded, I still felt proud to be British. In 2012 when London hosted the Olympics, I thought the opening ceremony distilled the essence of what we still had: at our best we’re industrious, creative, funny, irreverent, welcoming to newcomers, proud of our diversity and self-confident. If we lose those things, we won’t have much left. It will be a very hollow kind of “independence” if it means closing the borders and polishing our memories of empire.


Maybe this is where I was so wrong at the beginning of the process. I had thought that we could at least contemplate leaving the EU while still being the welcoming, diverse and self-confident country that made me proud. The Leave campaign has convinced me that’s not the possible. Talking to friends from continental Europe I realise that the EU now plays a big part in my rosy image of a outgoing, self-confident country. Although I work with people from all around the world, colleagues from continental Europe, especially, value the ability to live and work in Britain, and they feel hurt Britain might reject them, as they see it. I was taking these friends for granted, and I am sorry.

Tomorrow will be like a grim Sorting Ceremony in Harry Potter, and I am still desperately hoping we will find ourselves in Gryffindor, like the generations before us. The other possibilities are now all too clear.


My 10,000th tweet

Twitter is great but (perhaps because) you only get 140 characters. So this post mentions some of the highlights of my twitter experience so far. If you don’t know twitter at all or you don’t “get” it, don’t start here with my 10,000 tweet. Start with my post on “What is the point of twitter?” instead. Sign up, and you’ll see that it can be great fun, and very useful too.

I created my @tom_hartley account on 14th May 2010 (I’d been tweeting from another account since 2008). It’s rather brought me out of my shell.

In twitter terms, I am an old hand. In real life I am not quite as old, wrinkled or bald yet.
In twitter terms, I am an old hand. In real life I am not quite as old, wrinkled or bald yet.

Continue reading “My 10,000th tweet”

The White Dot: A Parable

Originally posted anonymously at in Sept 2011. It had 563 views in March 2013. Posterous is now closing down, so I am reposting here. Not my normal style! Enjoy this parable of academic publishing and look forward to the time when the white dot comes to Science!

Dear cousin, I feel I must relate the tale of an island we recently visited in the midst of an archipelago kingdom. The inhabitants of the island had established a remarkable economy, based on a trade in dolls. These dolls were beautiful artifacts indeed. Carved from wood, dressed in gaudy clothes and garlanded in extraordinary symbols, each was exquisite and unique. One fashioned in the image of a revered ancestor, another like a gargoyle. Some took the form of gnomes or sprites or other weird and fanciful creatures, and each bore a coloured dot on the tip of its nose.

Continue reading “The White Dot: A Parable”

Which A-Levels should you study if you want to get into a top university?

I don’t think university is for everyone, but I do believe that in every school in the country there are young people who would enjoy university life, who would succeed academically and who would benefit enormously from doing a degree. At the moment, students from many schools are missing out. Continue reading “Which A-Levels should you study if you want to get into a top university?”