The QS World University Rankings are a load of old baloney

The University of Cambridge is not the best university in the world.

The University of Cambridge is the best university in the world, according to the eighth annual QS World University Rankings for 2011/2012, out today. Oxford came fifth in the tables and there is a total of five UK universities in the top 20. What a load of old baloney.

Here are the rankings:

1. University of Cambridge
2. Harvard University
3. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
4. Yale University
5. University of Oxford
6. Imperial College London
7. UCL (University College London)
8. University of Chicago
9. University of Pennsylvania
10. Columbia University
11. Stanford University
12. California Institute of Technology
13. Princeton University
14. University of Michigan
15. Cornell University
16. Johns Hopkins University
17. McGill University
18. Swiss Federal Institute of Technology
19 Duke University
20 University of Edinburgh

This ranking is complete rubbish and nobody should place any credence in it. The results are based on an entirely flawed methodology that underweights the quality of research and overweights fluff:

40 per cent -- academic reputation from a global survey
10 per cent -- from employer reputation
20 per cent -- from citations by faculty
20 per cent -- from student faculty ratio
5 per cent -- proportion of foreign students
5 per cent -- proportion of foreign faculty

The methodology is designed to underweight the performance of US universities that tend not to have a high proportion of foreign students or foreign faculty members -- but who cares about that? It is unclear whether having more foreign students and faculty should even have a positive rank; less is probably better. So, the UK faculty all say they are wonderful, but that isn't a plausible measure of quality. Another way to improve the rankings of UK universities would be to replace the 20 per cent for citations with a 20 per cent weight to any university whose name started with the letters CAM or OXF; the ranking is that absurd. Or they could weight by the proportion of buildings on the campuses built before 1500.

A more realistic ranking is provided by the University of Shanghai, that ranks the quality and quantity of research output of its faculty as well as the receipt of Nobel Prizes and field medals by both its faculty and alumni heavily. The number of faculty members from Botswana and the number of students from Chile quite rightly have zero impact, which is as it should be. Here are the weights used in their much more believable methodology:

Criteria
Alumni of an institution winning Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals -- 10 per cent
Faculty of an institution winning Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals -- 20 per cent
Highly cited researchers in 21 broad subject categories -- 20 per cent
Research Output Papers published in Nature and Science -- 20 per cent
Papers indexed in Science Citation Index-expanded and Social Science Citation Index -- 20 per cent
Per Capita Performance Per capita academic performance of an institution -- 10 per cent
Total 100 per cent

Note that since 2000, the faculty of the University of Cambridge has been awarded one Nobel Prize, in 2010, which was its first since 1984, while UCL and Oxford have both had none. Indeed, the University of Oxford's faculty hasn't received one since 1973. By contrast, MIT and Columbia have both had five; UC Berkeley has had four while Stanford, Rockefeller, Johns Hopkins, Chicago and Princeton have each had two and Harvard one.

Here is Shanghai University's much more believable 2010 ranking that ranks Cambridge fifth and Oxford tenth, and these are the only two UK universities in the top 20:

1. Harvard University
2. University of California, Berkeley
3. Stanford University
4. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
5. University of Cambridge
6. California Institute of Technology
7. Princeton University
8. Columbia University
9. University of Chicago
10. University of Oxford
11. Yale University
12. Cornell University
13. University of California, Los Angeles
14. University of California, San Diego
15. University of Pennsylvania
16. University of Washington
17. University of Wisconsin, Madison
18. The Johns Hopkins University
18. University of California, San Francisco
20. University of Tokyo

The QS is a flawed index and should be ignored. The University of Cambridge is not the best university in the world.

David Blanchflower is economics editor of the New Statesman and professor of economics at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire

Getty
Show Hide image

Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.