Archive for November, 2019

Mission (Almost) Accomplished

Posted in Biographical with tags , on November 20, 2019 by telescoper

Well, it’s been a fairly intense couple of days in Munich with not much time for anything other than work but I think we’ve finished everything we were supposed to do. The authorities will shortly evict us from the offices up in which we have been cooped and I’ll have to take a short walk to the Terminal Building at Munich airport in order to catch my flight back to Dublin. This may take me through the Christmas Market which has appeared at Munich Airport, complete with skating rink:



I anticipate falling asleep on the flight back as I’m more than a little knackered.

UPDATE: My flight back from Munich with Aer Lingus was due back in Dublin at 21.50 last night so I should have missed the last airport hopper bus to Maynooth (which departs at 21.50). Fortunately the flight was 30 minutes ahead of schedule, so I got the bus I should have missed and was able to get home and to bed at a reasonable hour!




Somewhere near Munich..

Posted in Biographical with tags , , on November 19, 2019 by telescoper

There’s an episode of the old television series Auf Wiedersehen, Pet (about Geordie migrant labourers working on building site in Germany) in which the character Oz (played by Jimmy Nail) comes across a German person wanting directions to München. Oz says that he doesn’t know where München is exactly but believes it is somewhere near Munich

Anyway, here I am somewhere near Munich myself. I’m not on a building site, though, but in a hotel near the airport which is some distance from the old city. I arrived last night on a flight from Dublin, using my Irish identity and travel documents.

I’ve just had a nice breakfast and am about to embark on two days of meetings as part of a secret mission on behalf of an intergovernmental organization. I and the other secret agents will be held here incommunicado in the environs of the airport until we are released tomorrow (Wednesday) evening.

It’s a shame that we won’t get to see the real Munich, which is a great city that I’ve visited on a number of occasions. To make up for it, here’s a picture of Marienplatz in the historic centre of Munich:

Still, the hotel isn’t bad – as airport hotels go – and everything seems reasonably well organized so far. I don’t think I’ll time to post anything substantial until tomorrow morning so until then, Auf Wiedersehen.

R. I. P. John Brown (1947-2019)

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags on November 18, 2019 by telescoper

It’s a very sad way to start the week but I have to convey the news that the Astronomer Royal for Scotland, John Brown, passed away suddenly on Saturday 16th November.

John (pictured above just after he received the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 2012) was an expert on the physics of solar and stellar plasmas. He was also an enthusiastic and dedicated teacher and advocate for science, giving memorably ebullient public talks to a diverse range of audiences in which he often included conjuring tricks (of which he was a skilled exponent). He was awarded an OBE in 2016 for services to science and outreach.

Above all else he was a very kindly and affable character who was universally liked, was great fun to be around, and who will be greatly missed within the astronomical community and beyond.

I send my heartfelt condolences to his family, friends and colleagues at the University of Glasgow on the loss of a much loved and irreplaceable character.

Rest in peace, John Campbell Brown (1947-2019).

The Bechet-Lyttelton Session

Posted in History, Jazz with tags , on November 17, 2019 by telescoper

Every now and again on this blog I like to mark significant anniversaries, so I’m quite annoyed that I’ve missed one by a few days. It’s perhaps not very well known that the great Sidney Bechet came to England in 1949 and did a concert and a recording session with Humphrey Lyttelton’s band while he was here. That recording session took place just over 70 years ago, on 13th November 1949.

What’s also not very well known is how controversial this session was at the time, because in the immediate post-war years the Musician’s Union had persuaded the UK government to ban American artists from performing over here. Humph was having none of it, thank goodness, and here we have the legacy. Here is the unmistakable Sidney Bechet on soprano sax, playing a traditional blues called I told you once, I told you twice with Humph on trumpet, Wally Fawkes on clarinet and, stealing the show, the superb (and, to my ears, rather modern-sounding) Keith Christie on trombone.

According to Humph’s memoirs, after the concert they played together, Bechet summoned Humph to his dressing room in order to deliver a kind of end-of-term report on the band in which he pointed out little criticisms of their playing. Bechet was a forceful character and often a harsh critic but when he got to Keith Christie he expressed nothing but unqualified admiration. There’s not much higher praise than that in the world of jazz…

The Necessity for De-Anglicising Irish Universities

Posted in Education, History with tags , , , , on November 17, 2019 by telescoper

Way back in 1892 Douglas Ross Hyde (who later became the First President of Ireland) delivered a famous speech to the Irish National Literary Society in Dublin on the subject of The Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland. You can find the text of the speech here, and it’s well worth reading because much of what Hyde says is still relevant to the state of independent Ireland. It’s by no means a xenophobic anti-English rant, by the way, if that’s what you are tempted to infer it is based on the title.

I was struck by a theme which comes up repeatedly in Hyde’s speech. Here, for example:

It has always been very curious to me how Irish sentiment sticks in this half-way house –how it continues to apparently hate the English, and at the same time continues to imitate them; how it continues to clamour for recognition as a distinct nationality, and at the same time throws away with both hands what would make it so.

Having moved to Ireland to take up a position in an Irish university relatively recently I have been particularly struck by the tendency of those in charge of higher education in Ireland to copy slavishly the actions of the English government. I say `English’ specifically because higher education is devolved within the UK and there are different policies in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. While it is true that we haven’t got a REF or a TEF yet or ridiculously high tuition fees, but that is probably just because of inertia. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if any or all of these were introduced before too long.

(As things stand students at Irish universities do not have to pay tuition fees as such but they do have to pay a `student contribution’ of up to €3000, which is a fee in all but name. There is more state help for disadvantaged students in Ireland than in England too. In most respects the situation here is similar to the regime that held in England prior to 2012, when £9000 year fees were brought in following the Browne Review. The question is whether England will cut university fees before Ireland gets round to increasing them. )

The current Irish government – which is of neoliberal hue – is presiding over a worsening situation in Irish universities, with funding for Irish undergraduate students failing to keep up with increasing numbers. It is hard to resist the feeling that starving the system of state funding is a precursor to increasing student fees to levels seen in England. At the moment English universities have the highest tuition fees in Europe. After Brexit it will be Ireland that takes that dubious honour within the EU.

The situation is even worse at postgraduate level, about which there seems to have been no thought whatsoever at government levels. In contrast to most European countries there is very little state funding for Masters courses in Ireland, so those wanting to do postgraduate degrees generally have to fund their own fees (over €6K per annum in physics) and living expenses. When final-year undergraduate students ask for advice about doing a Masters one is morally obliged to point out to them that they can do a high-quality course in, e.g., Germany or The Netherlands essentially for free, and that’s what many very able students do. Some might return, and bring their skills and knowledge back to Ireland but many won’t. The landscape of higher-education in Ireland does not encourage them to come back.

So what’s the answer to these woes? Well, it won’t solve everything, but a good start would be to stop looking at England for a way to run higher education and look instead at continental models. In this respect Brexit could prove to be an excellent opportunity for Ireland to reinvent itself as a fully European country. Over the years, largely driven by its membership of the European Union, Ireland has steadily reduced its economic dependency on trade with the United Kingdom and increased its connections with mainland Europe. Brexit will probably accelerate that trend.

I think that Ireland now needs to re-examine other sectors and stop the slavish copying of the idiotic policies of English politicians. It could do worse than to start with higher education.

The Case for Irish Membership of CERN

Posted in Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on November 16, 2019 by telescoper

In the news here in Ireland this week is a new report from a Committee of the Houses of the Oireachtas making the case for Ireland to join CERN. You can download the report here (PDF) and you’ll find this rather striking graphic therein:

You will see that there are only three European countries that don’t have any form of membership or other agreement with CERN: Latvia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Ireland. The fact that almost everyone else is in is not in itself necessarily a good argument for Ireland to join, but it does make one wonder why so many other countries have found it to join or have an agreement with CERN while Ireland has not.

As the document explains, if the Irish government  were to decide to take Ireland into CERN then  it would first have to become an Associate Member, which would cost around €1.2 million per year. That’s small potatoes really, and  the financial returns to Irish industry and universities are likely to far exceed that, so the report strongly recommends this step be taken. This Associate member stage would last up to 5 years, and then to acquire full membership a joining fee of around €15.6 million would have to be paid, which is obviously a much greater commitment but in my view still worthwhile.

While I strongly support the idea of Ireland joining CERN I do have a couple of concerns.

One is that I’m very sad that the actual science done at CERN is downplayed in the Oireachtas report. Most of it is about return to industry, training opportunities, etc. These are important, of course, but it must not be forgotten that big science projects like those carried out at CERN are above all else science projects. The quest for knowledge does have collateral benefits, but it a worthy activity in its own right and we shouldn’t lose sight of that.

My other (related) concern is that joining CERN is one thing, but in order to reap the scientific reward the government has to invest in the resources needed to exploit the access to facilities membership would provide. Without a related increase in research grant funding for basic science the opportunity to raise the level of scientific activity in Ireland would be lost.

Ireland recently joined the European Southern Observatory (ESO), a decision which gave Irish astronomers access to some amazing telescopes. However, there is no sign at all of Irish funding agencies responding to this opportunity by increasing funding for academic time, postdocs and graduate students needed to do the actual science.

Although astronomy is clearly much more interesting than particle physics (😉) in one respect the case of ESO is very like the case of CERN – the facilities do not themselves do the science. We need people to do that.

That was the Science Week that was..

Posted in Books, Talks and Reviews, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on November 15, 2019 by telescoper

So, as advertised, this morning I gave a talk mainly to school students as part of Science Week Ireland on the subject of the cosmic web. This was a similar talk to the one I gave at DIAS a couple of weeks ago.


There was a slight confusion about rooms but we did eventually get everyone into the right lecture theatre and weren’t too late getting started. The audience was about 140, so the room was very full and most of them didn’t fall asleep. I had a nice chat afterwards with a group of them and they seemed to have enjoyed it. Anyway, in case anyone is interested here are my slides. Most of them are recycled from previous versions of this talk.

Following this morning’s exertions we had lovely seminar after lunch by Wyn Evans of Cambridge about the stellar dynamics of the Milky Way and the wonders of Gaia and soon will be going to dinner.

Searching for Synge

Posted in History, mathematics, Television with tags , , on November 14, 2019 by telescoper

John Lighton Synge (above; 1897-1995), who was an expert on geometrical approaches to general relativity, was regarded by many as the most eminent Irish mathematician and physicist since Sir William Rowan Hamilton. Synge (whose uncle was the famous playwright John Millington Synge) was born in Dublin and had spells at Trinity College Dublin, the University of Toronto and various universities in the USA before taking up a position as Senior Professor at Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS) in 1948 from which he retired in 1972.

I have been asked by a friend to find out if there are any video recordings of Synge talking or lecturing. A quick google search turns up nothing, so I thought I would put this request out into the blogosphere to see if anyone is aware of anything.

Given the dates it seems likely that any recordings of him would be originally on film (or perhaps television) which would have to be transferred to digital format. Perhaps there is archive material at Trinity College or DIAS that could be suitable?

Irish Regional Accents – Niall Tóibín

Posted in Maynooth, Television with tags , , on November 14, 2019 by telescoper

I heard yesterday that renowned actor and comedian Niall Tóibín passed away yesterday at the age of 89. I knew him best from his role as the priest Frank MacAnally in Ballykissangel which I watched occasionally in the 1990s. This morning I heard a tribute to him on the radio and discovered that he was a bit of an expert on Irish regional accents, so I thought I’d share a clip here.

Living and working in Maynooth, which is not far from Dublin, the accents I hear most frequently are those of the Greater Dublin area. I say “accents” rather than “accent” because, as the clip demonstrates, there is quite a wide variety even in this region. At Maynooth we do have students from as far afield as the North of County Donegal and the South of County Cork (where Niall Tóibín came from). I’m better at identifying accents from the North than the South, and can at least tell the difference between Belfast and elsewhere in Ulster, but other than that although I can spot different accents I’m hopeless at identifying where they come from.

One final thing. Niall Tóibín mentions in this clip that the Cork accent sounds a bit like a Welsh accent. This is not the first time I’ve heard someone say that but I have to admit I can’t hear any resemblance myself!

Upcoming conference in Ireland on the history of physics

Posted in History, The Universe and Stuff on November 13, 2019 by telescoper

Much as I dislike the word “upcoming”, it is my pleasure to reblog this announcement about a conference to be held at Trinity College next summer (June 17th to 19th). In particular the deadline for abstracts is only a month away (December 15th) so if you would like to contribute a talk you have until then to submit an abstract!


Just a quick post to highlight the fact that December 15th marks the deadline for submission of abstracts for the 4th International Conference on the History of Physics. The conference marks the fourth in a biennial series of meetings supported by the UK Institute of Physics and the European Physical Society that aim to bring together historians of science and physicists with an interest in the history of their subject and will take place at Trinity College Dublin on June 17th-19th. The website for the conference is here and previous iterations of the conference can be found here.


I have attended all three of the previous meetings of this conference series and they were most interesting. As the conference takes place in Ireland this time around, I have been heavily involved in the preparations, from chairing the scientific programming committee to attending regular meetings of the organizing committee…

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