Archive for August 12, 2020


Posted in Cute Problems, Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on August 12, 2020 by telescoper

While this morning’s repeat exams were going on I was leafing through an old second-hand text book, one of many I have acquired over the years looking for nice problems and worked examples. The good thing about old books is that solutions to the problems are usually not available on the internet, unlike modern ones. The book concerned this morning is a classic: Statics by Horace Lamb, which you can still get via Cambridge University Press. I have the first edition, published in 1912.

Looking through I was somewhat alarmed to see what had been pencilled in some of the margins:

Of course anyone who has been to India knows that the swastika isn’t necessarily a Nazi symbol: you find it all over the place in the Indian sub-continent, where it is used as a symbol for good luck. I remember being given a very nice conference bag in Pune many years ago with a swastika on it. I didn’t use it back home, of course.

The first owner of the copy of Statics that I have was acquired in 1913 by a J.H.C (or G) Lindesay of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. I know because he/she inscribed their name in the front. That doesn’t look to me like an Indian name, but I think it’s a fair bet that the book passed through many hands before reaching me and that one of the past owners was Indian. I haven’t tried any of the problems marked with the swastika, but perhaps they are difficult – hence the `good luck’ symbol? I notice though that the symbol at the bottom of the page has a chirality different from the others. Is this significant, I wonder?

All of which irrelevance reminded me of an discussion I’ve had with a number of people about whether they like to scribble in the margins of their books, or whether they believe this practice to be a form of sacrilege.

I’ll put my cards on the table  straightaway. I like to annotate my books – especially the technical ones – and some of them have extensive commentaries written in them. I also like to mark up poems that I read; that helps me greatly to understand the structure. I don’t have a problem with scribbling in margins because I think that’s what margins are for. Why else would they be there?

This is a famous example – a page from Newton’s Principia, annotated by Leibniz:


Some of my friends and fellow academics, however, regard such actions as scandalous and seem to think books should be venerated in their pristine state.  Others probably find little use for printed books given the plethora of digitial resources now available online or via Kindles etc so this is not an issue..

I’m interested to see what the divergence of opinions is in with regard to the practice of writing in books, so here’s a poll for you to express your opinion:

Examination Shenanigans

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on August 12, 2020 by telescoper

So here I am in my office while the first batch of our repeat examinations gets under way here in Maynooth. They seem to have started correctly so I’ve taken a break to have a cup of coffee and catch up on the news.

I find that examinations seem to be making headlines in the United Kingdom. First there was a to-do and a hoo-ha in Scotland that resulted in school examination results that had been downgraded being upgraded again. The downgrading involved using some sort of statistical model to `correct’ teacher-assigned grades and coursework but this model apparently generated significant anomalies.

Then, not to be outdone by the Scots, the English government has announced that estimated A-level grades, presumably obtained by a similar process to that deployed in Scotland, were to be upgraded too. Or not. It seems they will get the original grades but be able to appeal the results.

Writing in today’s Daily Telegraph, presumably without irony, Gavin Williamson explains the decision not to upgrade A-level results automatically:

Increasing the A Level grades will mean a whole generation could end up promoted beyond their abilities.

Gavin Williamson wrote that. Gavin Williamson.

Universities in the UK receive A-level results a few days before the students in order to make admissions decisions, but this year the results students eventually receive may differ from those the universities got. I can imagine the chaos this is causing behind the scenes.

If I understand correctly the new `Triple Lock’ on A-level results means that a student’s grade will be whichever is the highest of:

  • their mock exam result;
  • the grade estimated by their teacher;
  • an A*.

(OK, I made up that last bit.)

Some people think this approach might lead to grade inflation, but I imagine the authorities are less concerned about that than they are by the prospect of getting sued.

Another issue with the downgrading/upgrading situation is that students who took the International Baccalaureate (IB) and have received algorithmic grades have not had their grades increased, which seems to put them at a disadvantage with respect to students who took A-levels and may cause them to miss out on UK university places.

Meanwhile, here in Ireland, we await the School Leaving Certificate results. These are not due until 7th September but I think the plan is to moderate them as in the United Kingdom. Delaying these results gives Ireland the chance to learn from the UK but whether the process will end up being any fairer here is anyone’s guess!