Archive for October, 2019

Halloween in the Dark Again

Posted in Biographical, Talks and Reviews with tags , on October 31, 2019 by telescoper

Although it’s still Study Week here in Maynooth I am back at work for the morning and then I’m attending a conferring ceremony this afternoon and later on I have to go into Dublin to give a talk at the Institute of Advanced Study. It’s Hallowe’en, of course, so no doubt there are quite a few weirdly dressed scary-looking people about, but one gets used to that working in a Physics Department. I just hope this evening’s talk isn’t an unintentionally horrible experience.

Anyway, it’s more than a decade since I posted my first blog about the real horror of Hallowe’en so, despite popular demand, I’ll take the excuse of a busy day to repeat it here.


We never had Hallowe’en when I was a kid. I mean it existed. People mentioned it. There were programmes on the telly. But we never celebrated it. At least not in my house, when I was a kid. It just wasn’t thought of as a big occasion. Or, worse, it was “American” (meaning that it was tacky, synthetic and commercialised). So there were no parties, no costumes, no horror masks, no pumpkins and definitely no trick-or-treat.

Having never done trick-or-treat myself I never acquired any knowledge of what it was about. I assumed “Trick or Treat?” was a rhetorical question or merely a greeting like “How do you do?”. My first direct experience of it didn’t happen until I was in my mid-thirties and had moved to a suburban house in Beeston, just outside Nottingham. I was sitting at home one October 31st, watching the TV and – probably, though I can’t remember for sure – drinking a glass of wine, when the front door bell rang. I didn’t really want to, but I got up and answered it.

When I opened the door, I saw in front of me two small girls in witches’ costumes. Behind them, near my front gate, was an adult guardian, presumably a parent, keeping a watchful eye on them.

“Trick or Treat?” the two girls shouted.

Trying my best to get into the spirit but not knowing what I was actually supposed to do, I answered “Great! I’d like a treat please”.

They stared at me as if I was mad, turned round and retreated towards their minder who was clearly making a mental note to avoid this house in future. Off they went and I, embarrassed at being exposed yet again as a social inadequate, retired to my house in shame.

Ever since then I’ve tried to ensure that I never again have to endure such Halloween horrors. Every October 31st, when night falls, I switch off the TV, radio and lights and sit soundlessly in the dark so the trick-or-treaters think there’s nobody at home.

That way I can be sure I won’t be made to feel uncomfortable.

The Royal Society really needs to work on its history of the telescope

Posted in History, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on October 30, 2019 by telescoper

An important corrective to frequently repeated fallacies about the history of telescopes in astronomy. The Royal Society really shouldn’t be making mistakes like this!

The Renaissance Mathematicus

One would think that the Royal Society being one of the eldest, but not the eldest as they like to claim, scientific societies in Europe when presenting themselves as purveyors of the history of science, would take the trouble to get their facts right. If, however, one thought this, one would be wrong. Last week on the Internet the Royal Society was pushing a slide show, under their own name, on Google Arts and Culture on the history of the telescope in astronomy that in terms of historical accuracy is less than one, as a historian of science, nay of the telescope, might hope or indeed wish for.

The slide show in question is titled, Silent Harmony: astronomy at the Royal Society: Discover how innovation in telescopes and other optical instruments changed the way we see the universe. Following the title slide we have another general blurb slide…

View original post 835 more words

Meanwhile, in the House of Commons..

Posted in Politics with tags , on October 29, 2019 by telescoper

Hallowe’en at Dias!

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on October 29, 2019 by telescoper

I’m interrupting my short break to post a quick reminder that I’m giving a public talk at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS) this coming Thursday, Dark Matter Day, October 31st 2019, coincidentally the same day as Hallowe’en, or in modern parlance Not-Brexit Day. I am particularly grateful to be invited to give a talk that evening because it allows me to avoid getting involved in trick-or-treat or any of that nonsense.

Here is the nice advert the people at DIAS have made for the event:

The talk is free, but you need to sign up here as the venue is not infinitely large and is already almost full. You can also find some more details about the talk there.

5/12 Term Break

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth on October 25, 2019 by telescoper

Today marks the end of the fifth week of teaching at Maynooth University and next week is the October mid-term break, starting with a bank holiday on Monday 28th October: the last Monday of October (Lá Saoire i mí Dheireadh Fómhair), or the Halloween Holiday (Lá Saoire Oíche Shamhna), is a national holiday in Ireland.

The mid-term break, optimistically known as ‘Study Week’, is often called ‘Half Term’ but since we have twelve-week teaching terms and we’ve only done five weeks at this point, I’ve used the more accurate description in the title of this post.

I’ll be back in Maynooth next week but I’m taking a few days off until then. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible, but there will now follow a short intermission.

The Gaia video!

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , on October 24, 2019 by telescoper

I’ve blogged quite a few times about the European Space Agency’s Gaia mission (see this tag). Social media brought this nice new video to my attention this morning so I couldn’t resist adding it to the collection. I don’t think it accompanies any new data release or scientific results but it’s very impressive anyway!

Not Really Irish?

Posted in Biographical, Politics with tags , , , on October 23, 2019 by telescoper

I’m taking a quick break for coffee and remembered an article I saw in the Irish Times at the weekend about British immigrants in Ireland. Being one such myself I find a lot of it rings true. You can read the article here (I don’t think it’s behind a paywall). I think it’s well worth a look.

I found quite a few things in it resonate quite strongly with my experiences since I arrived here a couple of years ago. Top of these was the realization of just how ignorant I was about Irish history, thanks to the almost total neglect of this topic in British schools. Lack of education inevitably leads to lack of understanding and more often than not leads to prejudice and one finds a lot of that in the attitude of British people, even senior figures (many of them “educated” at Oxford) who are supposed to know better.

Another point I recognize is how many people ask me to explain Brexit, as if being British means that I should be able to do that. I don’t understand the madness that has descended on Britain but I feel it in my bones that the United Kingdom is headed for very dark times indeed.

I was also struck by the “Not Really Irish” tag, which I think about rather a lot. It’s not really just a question of whether or not you have Irish citizenship or an Irish passport, it’s about the extent to which you belong. I spent over fifty years living in England and Wales so I’m missing a huge amount of cultural background. I won’t ever be able to catch up so I don’t suppose I’ll ever feel `really Irish’. Of course people speak English here but I’m very conscious that I have a funny accent. I suppose that means I’ll always feel like a stranger in Ireland. If there is predominant attitude towards the British over here, however, in my experience it is one of sympathy rather than hostility. And the general friendliness of the locals means that this isn’t a bad place at all to be a stranger.

One final comment: it was mentioned in the Irish Times piece that there are a lot of British TV programmes on Irish television. I do not regard that as a positive at all! In fact I stopped watching UK television long before leaving the UK and have not started again since I moved here.

I wonder how different it feels to be an Irish person living in Britain right now? That might make for an interesting complementary article for a future edition of the Irish Times?