Archive for September, 2018

Smiths, Millers, Priests: European Occupational Surnames

Posted in Uncategorized on September 30, 2018 by telescoper

I have known for some time that ‘Ferreira’ (a rather common surname in Portugal) means more or less the same thing as ‘Smith’ (Ferreira derives from the Latin word for Iron). But I’ve often wondered whether other countries have similarly common surnames relating to occupations. Yesterday, through the power of the interwebs, I came across this blog post which answers this very question, though it seems variations on ‘Miller’ may be as common as those relating to ‘Smith’.

Marcin Ciura

Here is the map of the most frequent occupational surnames in European countries and the corresponding trades.

surnames

CountrySurnameTransliteration
BelarusКавалёўKavalyow
BulgariaПоповPopov
GreeceΠαπαδόπουλοςPapadopoulos
MacedoniaПоповскиPopovski
RussiaКузнецовKuznetsov
SerbiaПоповићPopovic
UkraineМельникMelnyk

I made it with Cartopy, Shapely, and Natural Earth data. The surnames are taken mainly from the appropriate Wikipedia page. Redditors provided data for Sweden, Norway, Lithuania, Latvia, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Turkey, and Catalonia (Ferrer = Smith), as well as corrected my mistakes in Ukraine and Austria. I sincerely appreciate their help. Click on the links to see relevant comments.

This is a quick hack, not serious research. The map takes into account countries rather than ethnic or cultural areas (update of October 1, 2015: now the maps of Spain…

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100 Years of ‘The Planets’

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , on September 29, 2018 by telescoper

Not a lot of people know that today, 29th September 2018, is exactly one hundred years since the first ever performance of The Planets by Gustav Holst which took place at the Queen’s Hall in London.

As it happens, although I’ve heard countless performances of this work on the radio and on record, I had never heard it live – until last night at the National Concert Hall in Dublin.

From its arresting opening with the strings beating out quintuple time col legno battuto on Mars, The Bringer of War to the wordless singing at the end of Neptune, The Mystic the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by José Serebrier (and at the end, and in the wings, the ladies voices of the RTÉ Philharmonic Choir) gave a very good account of this enduringly popular work. The centrepiece of this suite of seven movements is Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity which consists of an intro and and outro either side of the famous ‘big tune’ (“Thaxted”) often sung as the hymn I Vow To Thee My Country. The string playing at that section was exceptional, with a lovely rich texture and a very well chosen stately tempo.

The only disappointment of this performance for me was the ending. The voices off are supposed to fade away gently until they are inaudible, but last night they cut off abruptly, rather ruining the intended effect.

This didn’t stop the audience giving the Orchestra a standing ovation, however, so obviously not everyone was bothered by the ending.

For the record I’ll just mention that the first half of the concert consisted of two shorter works. The opening piece was one of Leopold Stokowski’s rather unnecessary orchestral arrangements of music by Bach, in this case the famous Toccata & Fugue in D Minor. I spent the entire performance looking at the NCH’s fine concert organ and wishing the original was being played on that. Still, at least the Stokowski arrangement didn’t have a harpsichord in it.

The other first-half piece was far more interesting (to me), the world premiere of a piece by the conductor José Serebrier called Symphonic B A C H Variations for Piano and Orchestra. This is like a piano concerto in four movements each based a little riff made the four notes B A C and H (in German musical notation, B is B flat and H is B Natural – don’t ask me why). It’s an intriguing piece, which I hope I get to hear again, and was very well played by young Alexandre Kantorow.

Presidential Election Time

Posted in Politics with tags , , , , on September 29, 2018 by telescoper

This week the deadline passed for nominations of candidates for the post of President of Ireland (Uachtarán na hÉireann). The rather peculiar nomination process has left voters with a choice of six, including the incumbent Michael D Higgins. As a relative newcomer to Ireland, even I know that the post of President doesn’t have any real power associated with it and is largely ceremonial. Surprisingly, some of the people who put themselves forward didn’t seem to understand that but, fortunately, some of the more obvious fruitcakes who put themselves forward failed to get nominated. On the other hand, three of the candidates are businessmen best known for having appeared on the Irish version of the TV show Dragon’s Den. There’s ample evidence that the products of reality TV shows do not make good presidents.

The election takes place precisely four weeks from now, on Friday 26th October 2018, and the term of the presidency is 7 years – the last such election took place in 2011.

Naturally, given the vital importance of the office of the Presidency and the need to treat the forthcoming election with the appropriate gravitas, my first thought was to look at the betting odds on Paddy Power. Here is the full SP:

  1. Michael D. Higgins (Incumbent) 1/5
  2. Sean Gallagher  5/1
  3. Gavin Duffy 14/1
  4. Joan Freeman 25/1
  5. Liadh Ni Riada  33/1
  6. Peter Casey 66/1

Obviously Michael D Higgins is a strong favourite. I think he’s carried out his duties in a very dignified and diligent way for seven years, so he will probably get my vote. Candidates 2, 3 and 6 are the Dragon’s Den people. Joan Freeman is a  journalist by trade (and an Independent member of the Seanad Éireann) and Liadh Ni Riada is the official candidate of Sinn Féin. Neither of the two biggest parties in the Dáil Éireann, Fine Gael and Fianna Fianna Fáil, nominated a candidate, preferring to back the incumbent.

It seems likely that Michael D. Higgins will win and serve another seven years, but it’s hard to be confident about anything in politics these days so we’ll just have to wait and see..

 

 

From Phase Walks to Undergraduate Research

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on September 28, 2018 by telescoper

This week I put together a couple of brief descriptions for possible research projects for final-year undergraduate and/or Masters students in the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University, and I was reminded of the value of projects like this when I found this paper on the arXiv:

In fact the `Phase Walk Analysis’ developed here is based on an original idea I had for an undergraduate summer research project when I was at Nottingham University and have mentioned before on this blog. The student who did the project with me was Andrew Stannard (who is now at King’s College, London) and the work led to a paper that was published in a refereed journal in 2005 and has now been cited 21 times by various authors including the Planck Team.

Although Andrew is now working in a completely different area (Condensed Matter Physics), I like to think this taste of research was of at least some assistance in developing his career. Above all, though, it relates to something I read in the Times Higher by astronomer, Nobel Prize winner, and Vice-Chancellor of the Australian National University, namely that the idea that many politicians seem to have of separating teaching from research in universities is at best misguided and at worst threatens the very idea of a university.

Close of Play

Posted in Cricket with tags , on September 27, 2018 by telescoper

Today has seen the last day’s play of the 2018 County Championship season, yet another sign that summer is over. This has happened very late this year. Indeed I wonder if this is the latest end to a County Championship season ever? Had the last round of matches started before the start of teaching term, I might have gone back to Cardiff for at least some of Glamorgan’s last match but the timing made that impossible.

Glamorgan actually won their last game of the season, yesterday, beating Leicestershire by 132 runs. That was a fairly comfortable victory, but Glamorgan made hard work of it given that Leicestershire were 102 for 8 in their second and managed to reach 270 all out. That was Glamorgan’s second win of the season, the first being their first match of the season, against Gloucestershire. In between these two they’ve endured a wretched season of 10 defeats – including several absolute thrashings – and two draws. It’s true that Glamorgan been unlucky, with injuries to key players, and others being called up for international duty, but it’s worrying that the others just haven’t been good enough to compete. Some young players haven’t come on at all, others seem to have gone backwards, and one (Aneurin Donald) left the club in mid-season. It’s hard not to point the finger and the coaches for this.

I hope Glamorgan have a better season next year. I won’t be renewing my membership, though, as I’ll be spending nearly all my time here in Ireland.

Their final result notwithstanding, Glamorgan are rooted firmly to the bottom of Division Two. The top two teams, promoted to Division One next year are Warwickshire and Kent. Relegated from Division One are Worcestershire and Lancashire. The latter finished level on points with Nottinghamshire, but were relegated because they had won fewer games. Lancashire won their last game, but failed to get enough bonus points in their first innings, collapsing from 273 for 7 to 273 all out. Had they made 300 they would have stayed up. C’est la vie.

The last game of the season to finish was a topsy-turvy affair featuring Surrey versus Essex, the end of which I followed this afternoon on a cricinfo tab while doing other stuff. Surrey had already been confirmed as champions before this last round of matches, and perhaps they were still hung over when they were dismissed for 67 in their first innings on Monday. Essex then declared on 477 for 8, looking set for a comprehensive victory. But Surrey showed their mettle and reached 541 in their second innings, but Essex still needed only 132 to win. In an exciting finish, they slumped to 124 for 9, but managed to win by one wicket.

It seems apt to mark the end of the County Championship with one of the classic cricket poems, Close of Play by Thomas Moult.

How shall we live, now that the summer’s ended,
And bat and ball (too soon!) are put aside,
And all our cricket deeds and dreams have blended —
The hit for six, the champion bowled for none,
The match we planned to win and never won? …
Only in Green-winged memory they abide.

How shall we live, who love our loveliest game
With such bright ardour that when stumps are drawn
We talk into the twilight, always the same
Old talk with laughter round off each tale —
Laughter of friends across a pint of ale
In the blue shade of the pavilion.

For the last time a batsman is out, the day
Like the drained glass and the dear sundown field
is empty; what instead of Summer’s play
Can occupy these darkling months ere spring
Hails willows once again the crowned king?
How shall we live so life may not be chilled?

Well, what’s a crimson hearth for, and the lamp
Of winter nights, and these plump yellow books
That cherish Wisden’s soul and bear his stamp —
And bat and ball (too soon!) are put aside,
Time’s ever changing, unalterable score-board,
Thick-clustered with a thousand names adored:
Half the game’s magic in their very looks!

And when we’ve learnt those almanacs by heart,
And shared with Nyren … Cardus ….the distant thrill
That cannot fade since they have had their part,
We’ll trudge wet streets through fog and mire
And praise our heroes by the club-room fire:
O do not doubt the game will hold us still!

The One True Ranking Narrative

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on September 27, 2018 by telescoper

Yesterday saw the release of the 2019 Times Higher World University Rankings. The main table of rankings can be found here and the methodology used to concoct it here.

It seems that there’s little point in doing so, but I’ll try to reiterate the objections I made last year and the year before that and the year before that to the completely unscientific nature of these tables. My main point is that when changes to the methodology used to compile these tables are introduced no attempt is ever made to distinguish their effect from changes in the input data. This would be quite easy to do, by simply running the old methodology alongside the new on the metrics. The compilers of these tables steadfastly refuse to do this straightforward exercise, I suspect this is because they know what the result would be: that many of the changes in these tables year-on-year are the result of artificially introduced `churn’.

And then there’s the questions of whether you think the metrics used are meaningful anyway, and whether any changes not due to methodological tweaks are simply statistical noise, but I have neither the time nor the energy to go into that one now…

Notwithstanding the reasonable objections to these tables, the newspapers are full of stories constructed to explain why some universities went up, some went down and others stayed roughly the same. Most of these articles were obviously written by that well-known journalist, Phil Space.

However, not all these narratives are meaningless. The latest Times Higher World University Rankings have revealed that here in Ireland, while more famous higher education establishments such as Trinity College Dublin have fallen three places due to *insert spurious narrative here*, my own institution (Maynooth University) is one of only two to have risen in the tables. It simply cannot be a coincidence that I moved here this year. Clearly my arrival from Cardiff has had an immediate and positive impact. There is no other credible explanation.

Newsflash: Ireland and ESO

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on September 26, 2018 by telescoper

Some good news was waiting for me when I got back to the office after my lecture just now, namely that Astronomy in Ireland will shortly receive an enormous boost, as the Republic has joined the European Southern Observatory (ESO).

For those of you not in the know, ESO is an intergovernmental astronomy organisation and is the world’s most productive astronomical observatory. Founded in 1962, its headquarters are in Garching (near Munich, Germany), and it currently has 15 member states. On October 1st, Ireland will become the 16th. Its main work is conducted using a variety of large optical and radio telescopes which are all located in the southern hemisphere, notably at Paranal in Chile.

ESO’s VLT telescopes at Paranal (in the Andes Mountains).

The official press release includes the following:

We are delighted to welcome Ireland as the newest member of our organisation” stated ESO’s Director General, Xavier Barcons. “Ireland’s mature and thriving astronomical community will add to the broad variety of expertise in the ESO Member States, strengthening ESO’s position at the forefront of global astronomy. Irish astronomers will gain access to a suite of the world’s most advanced ground-based astronomical telescopes and will have the opportunity to be part of the construction of the next generation of ESO instruments in partnership with other ESO Member States. We are also very much looking forward to working with Irish industrial partners to build and operate ESO’s state-of-the-art telescopes.

It was probably the industrial opportunities afforded by ESO membership that persuaded the Irish government to stump up the subscription fee, but this decision is also extremely positive news for the relatively small but vibrant community in Ireland working on observational astronomy which I’m sure will make the most of the chance to do ever more exciting research using these facilities.

A Problem with a Geostationary Orbit

Posted in Cute Problems, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on September 26, 2018 by telescoper

I’ve been sorting through some old problem sets for my course on Astrophysics and Cosmology, and thought I would post this one in the Cute Problems folder for your amusement. The first part is easy, the second part not so much…

  1. Verify that the radius of a circular geostationary orbit around the Earth is about 42,000 km, i.e. find the radius of a circular  orbit around the Earth which has a period of 24 hours so it is always above the same point on the Earth’s surface . (You will need to look up the mass of the Earth.)
  2. Use the answer to (1)  to estimate what fraction of the Earth’s surface is visible at any  time from a satellite in such an orbit. (You will need to look up the radius of the Earth.)

Answers to (2) through the comments box please – and don’t forget to explain your working!

`An Astronomer’ – Ferdinand Bol

Posted in Art with tags , , , , on September 25, 2018 by telescoper

by Ferdinand Bol (1619-1680), painted in 1652, 127 x 135 cm, Oil on Canvas.

I saw the above painting the other day and thought I’d share it here, as part of an occasional series of works of art. It can be found in the National Gallery in London.

It’s a fairly conventional composition and the style is clearly heavily influenced by Rembrandt, but this painting is beautifully done and has some interesting features all of its own. On the table is a celestial globe, and behind it a terrestrial one. The darkness surrounding the astronomer and his desk suggests isolation and introspection which, together with the pose of the figure and his abstracted manner, indicates that the painting may belong to the visual tradition of Melancholia, made famous by the work of Albrecht Dürer, in which it was suggested that a scholar’s research would inevitably lead him to an awareness of the futility of his endeavours in the face of death.

It’s being so cheerful that helps keep me going…

The Importance of Taking Notes

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , on September 24, 2018 by telescoper

Well, term has officially started and the campus of Maynooth University is looking very busy. Taking a short break from the task of preparing notes and problem sets for the modules  I’m teaching this term.  I’ve just remembered an old post I did some time ago about  lecture notes. I won’t repeat the entire content of my earlier discussion, but one of the main points I made in that was that many students are simply not used to taking notes and find it difficult to do so effectively during lectures, so much so that the effort of copying things onto paper must surely prevent them absorbing the intellectual content of the lecture (assuming that there is any). Since it’s the first week of teaching here, I thought I’d share some thoughts, for the benefit of those starting a new term.

I dealt with the problem  of taking notes when I was an undergraduate by learning to write very quickly without looking at the paper as I did so. That way I didn’t waste time moving my head to and fro between paper and screen or blackboard. Of course, the notes I produced using this method weren’t exactly aesthetically pleasing, but my handwriting is awful at the best of times so that didn’t make much difference to me. I always wrote my notes up more neatly after the lecture anyway. But the great advantage was that I could write down everything in real time without this interfering with my ability to listen to what the lecturer was saying.

An alternative to this approach is to learn shorthand, or invent your own form of abbreviated language. This approach is, however, unlikely to help you take down mathematical equations quickly.

My experience nowadays is that many students simply aren’t used to taking notes like this – I suppose because they get given so many powerpoint presentations or other kinds of handout –  so they struggle to cope with the old-fashioned chalk-and-talk style of teaching that some lecturers still prefer (and which actually works very well in mathematically-based disciplines). That’s probably because they get much less practice at school than my generation did. Most of my school education was done via the blackboard..

Nowadays,  many lecturers  give copies of their powerpoint slides to students and others even give out complete sets of printed notes before, during, or after lectures. That’s all very well, I think, but what are the students supposed to be doing during the lecture if you do that? Listen, of course, but if there is to be a long-term benefit they should take notes too. In other words, entirely passive learning is unlikely to be effective.

Even if I hand out copies of slides or other notes, I always encourage my students to make their own independent set of notes, as completely as possible. I don’t mean by copying down what they see on the screen and what they may have on paper already, but by trying to write down what I say as I say it. I don’t think many take that advice, which means much of the spoken illustrations and explanations I give don’t find their way into any long term record of the lecture.

And if the lecturer just reads out the printed notes, adding nothing by way of illustration or explanation, then the audience is bound to get bored very quickly.

My argument, then, is that regardless of what technology the lecturer uses, whether he/she gives out printed notes or not, then if the students can’t take notes accurately and efficiently then lecturing is a complete waste of time. In fact for the modules I’m doing this term I don’t intend to hand out lecture notes at all during the lectures, although I do post lecture summaries and answers to the exercises online after they’ve been done.

As a further study aid, most lectures at my previous institutions (Sussex University and Cardiff University) are recorded and made available to students to view shortly after the event. Contrary to popular myth there’s no evidence that availability of recorded lectures lowers the attendance at lectures. It appears that students use the recordings for revision and/or to clarify points raised in the notes they have taken, and if anything the recordings allow the students to get greater value from lectures rather than persuading them that there’s no need to attend them. Unfortunately we don’t have lecture capture at Maynooth, but I hope it can be introduced  here at some point.

I do like lecturing, because I like talking about physics and astronomy, but as I’ve got older I’ve become less convinced that lectures play a useful role in actually teaching anything. I think we should use lectures more sparingly, relying more on problem-based learning to instil proper understanding. When we do give lectures, they should focus much more on stimulating interest by being entertaining and thought-provoking. They should not be for the routine transmission of information, which is far too often the default.

I’m not saying we should scrap lectures altogether. At the very least they have the advantage of giving the students a shared experience, which is good for networking and building a group identity. Some students probably get a lot out of lectures anyway, perhaps more than I did when I was their age. But different people benefit from different styles of teaching, so we need to move away from lecturing as the only  option and ensure that a range of teaching methods is available.

I don’t think I ever learned very much about physics from lectures – I found problem-based learning far more effective – but I’m nevertheless glad I learned out how to take notes the way I did because I find it useful in all kinds of situations. Effective note-taking is definitely a transferable skill, but it’s also in danger of becoming a dying art. If we’re going to carry on using lectures, we old fogeys need to stop assuming that students learnt it the way we did and start teaching it as a skill.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the way we* teach physics these days, however,  is not really about the mode of delivery but the compartmentalization that has crept in via the school system which encourages students to think of each `module’ as a bite-sized piece that can be retained until the examinations, regurgitated, and then forgotten. I’ve no doubt that a great many students pass the examinations we set by simply memorizing notes with little genuine understanding  needed or problem-solving ability demonstrated. We promote physics as a subject that nurtures these skills, but I don’t think many physics graduates – even those with good degrees – actually possess them at the end. We should be making much more of an effort in teaching students how to use their brains in other ways than as memory devices, and getting them engaged in more active teaching activities seems to me to be a very high priority. That said, I think we probably do much more of this in physics than in most other subjects!

*by `we’ I mean physicists generally, rather than my current Department (where we do actually make a lot of effort to develop these skills through small group sessions that complement other teaching activities.