Archive for December, 2020

End of Year Thoughts

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Maynooth, Poetry on December 31, 2020 by telescoper

The Royal Canal, Maynooth, looking towards the Railway Station; the harbour is on the right.

The last morning of 2020 found Maynooth covered in a light dusting of snow. Since then the snow has turned to sleet and rain and the town looks a bit less picturesque as a consequence, not least because we haven’t really seen any proper daylight. My trip out this morning was a rare excursion from my house, but I’m glad I was able to get a bit of fresh (though freezing) air without there being lots of people around. I’ll be sitting cosily at home for the rest of the day (and, probability, tomorrow).

It’s extraordinary to think that this time last year there wasn’t an inkling of what was to come in terms of the Coronavirus pandemic. The first cases had been detected in China in December 2019 but I don’t think anyone seriously thought it would go global in the way it did. A year on and we’re still not out of it. Not by a long way. I think this are going to get a lot worse before they get better, but at least there are vaccines on the way.

Looking back over some of my posts from early in the year I’m reminded of two  events in particular- the 200th Anniversary Dinner of the RAS Club in January and the Irish General Election in February, both of which seem now to have happened at least a decade ago. I went to London again in mid-February, but had to cancel my planned trip back to the UK in March because FlyBe went bust. After that I made a couple of trips to Dublin (including a performance of Fidelio)  but since then I haven’t left Maynooth. It’s extremely likely that by March 2021 I will have spent an entire year without leaving the boundaries of Maynooth.

It’s almost a whole year since I posted a list of things I wanted to do in 2020. The first three were:

    1. Go to more live concerts.
    2. See more of Ireland.
    3. No more working weekends

That went well then! I don’t think I’ll bother making a list for next year, or perhaps I’ll just carry over this year’s. Obviously the Covid-19 restrictions and vastly increased workload involved in switching teaching to online put paid to most of my plans for 2020. Although I did manage to buy a house in Maynooth, I will have to wait until the Third Wave is over before I can retrieve the rest of my belongings from Wales and relocate fully.

Although I didn’t make an impact in this year’s Beard of the Year (finishing in last place in the final poll), at least I have the honour of being St Patrick’s Day Beard of Ireland for 2020.

You have to take what positives you can but I’m sure I’m not the only person to think, on balance, this has been a spectacularly awful year. I haven’t myself had Covid-19 but I know people who have and some of them are still struggling with the after-effects. I know many have also lost loved ones to the Coronavirus; condolences to everyone so affected. Although nothing to do with Covid-19, I still feel a very deep sadness that my former thesis supervisor John Barrow is no more. I hope after the pandemic there can be some form of proper tribute to him.

Anyway, to end with, here are a few verses from In Memoriam, by Alfred Lord Tennyson:

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Level 5 New Year

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Maynooth with tags , on December 30, 2020 by telescoper

To nobody’s surprise the Taioseach this evening announced that the whole of Ireland would go immediately into full Level 5 Covid-19 restrictions. Officially these will apply until January 31st, but nobody thinks they will end then. Nor should they. The past few days have seen the number of cases and hospitalizations skyrocket and the current positivity rate of tests is 10.5% (7-day average) with a figure of 18% recorded yesterday.

Here are the latest plots of 7-day averages. First, logarithmic:

Second, linear:

I’m not alone in thinking that it was a very big mistake to relax the restrictions in early December, but that’s done now and we have to deal with the situation as it is now. Unfortunately the Christmas wave hasn’t really hit these figures yet so I think thinks are going to get a lot worse before they get better. The current exponential phase with a R number of around 1.6-1.8 means the cases will probably double by this time next week.

Anyway, looks like a quiet night in for New Year’s Eve (not that I mind that) and my horizon for January is back down to a 5km radius, although its centre has shifted a little as I have moved house since last time!

The Mechanics of Nursery Rhymes

Posted in Cute Problems, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on December 30, 2020 by telescoper

I’ve always been fascinated by Nursery Rhymes. Some people think these are little more than nonsense but in fact they are full of interesting historical insights and offer important advice for the time in which they were written. One such story, for example, delivers a stern warning against the consequences of placing sleeping babies in the upper branches of trees during windy weather.

Another important role for nursery rhymes arises in physics education. Here are some examples that students of elementary mechanics may find useful in preparation for their forthcoming examinations.

1. The Grand Old Duke of York marched 10,000 men up to the top of a hill and marched them down again. The average mass of his men is 65 kg and the height of the hill is 500m.

(a) Estimate the total work done in marching the Duke of York’s men up to the top of the hill.

(b) If, instead of marching down again, the men take turns sliding down a frictionless slide back to where they started, estimate the average speed of a man when he reaches the bottom of the hill.

(You may assume without proof that when they were up they were up, and when they were down they were down and, moreover, when they were only half way up they were neither up nor down.)

2. By calculating the combined rest-mass energy of half a pound of tuppenny rice and half a pound of treacle, and assuming a conversion efficiency of 10%, estimate the energy released when the weasel goes pop. (Give your answer in SI units.)

3. The Moon’s orbit around the Earth can be assumed to be a circle of radius r. A cow of mass m is standing on the Earth (which has mass M, and radius R). Derive a formula in terms of r, R, M, m and Newton’s Gravitational Constant G for the energy the cow needs in order to jump over the Moon.

(The Earth, Moon and cow may be assumed spherical. You may neglect air resistance and udder frictional effects. )

Feel free to contribute similar problems through the Comments Box.

Drogheda and its Surroundings – by William Topaz McGonagall

Posted in Literature with tags , on December 29, 2020 by telescoper

I’ve recently been criticized for not posting enough poetry about Ireland nor by Irish poets, hence this truly remarkable poem by the inimitable William Topaz McGonagall (who was Scottish, but of Irish descent). Let this be a lesson to you.

The town of Drogheda is situated on the river Boyne, a few miles from the sea,
And is its head-quarters for the exploration of its scenery;
And portions of its ancient walls and two gate towers remain,
And one of them is quite perfect – St. Laurence by name.

The west gate is in a good state of preservation,
And is well worth the tourist’s observation,
Because it will stir in him great admiration,
And raise his spirits to a great elevation.

The ruined Church of St. Mary I must mention,
The tower of which is very fine and worthy of attention,
A structure dating from the fourteenth century,
And deserves special notice, because it is wonderful to see.

Then there’s King William’s Glen and the Boyne valley to be seen,
The spot where King William’s troops charged across the stream;
And an imposing obelisk is there, which marks the spot
Where the Battle of the Boyne was fought, which will never be forgot.

And as the tourist for beautiful spots there doth range
I advise him to view the chambered Tumulus of New Grange,
And there he will see remarkable caves, wonderful to be seen,
And in the summer-time the entrance is beautiful with shrubberies green.

The Monastery of Mellifont is most wonderful to see,
And will repay the tourist who visits the locality,
For within the enclosure is a tower standing 110 feet high,
Which arrests the attention of strangers while passing by.

Then there’s the celebrated Hill of Slane,
Which is a very great height and of historical fame,
Because on Easter Eve St. Patrick lighted the paschal fire
And worshipped God there to his heart’s desire.

Then the tourist should visit the Castle of Dunmoe,
And the scene there will drive from him all woe;
And spend a day or two in visiting Tara and Bective Abbey,
For around there is some great curiosities to see.

Then there’s Lough Erne, most beautiful to be seen,
And dotted with beautifully wooded isles, charming and green,
And freely thrown open for public inspection
For the visitor’s amusement, and to which the proprietor has no objection.

There the tourist will find comfortable accommodation,
And nothing short of pleasant recreation;
For there’s boating and fishing if the tourist wishes,
Which will be excellent sport while catching the big and little fishes.

Then ye lovers of beautiful scenery away! away!
To Drogheda, in Ireland, and have a holiday,
And view the romantic scenery and inhale pure air,
Emanating from the sea and wild flowers and woodlands there.

written in 1902 by William Topaz McGonagall. I think the “Church of St Mary” referred to is the Church of Ireland church of that name built between 1805 and 1810 on the site of an older (14th Century) Parish Church, and beside a ruined 13th Century Cistercian abbey, but it may also be the Roman Catholic Church of the same name built during 1881 and 1889 (which has the more impressive “tower”)

The Innocents’ Day

Posted in Music with tags , , , , on December 28, 2020 by telescoper

I am reliably informed that today, 28th December, is The Innocents’ Day, so the least I can do is post a track from the album. This is Chains of Love.

Do you remember?
Once upon a time
When there were open doors
An invitation to the world



Erasmus Minus

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Politics with tags , , on December 27, 2020 by telescoper

The news that the UK is to leave the Erasmus+ scheme for student exchanges shouldn’t have come as a surprise. After all, the Prime Minister Boris Johnson explicitly promised in the House of Commons in January 2020 that it wouldn’t happen and what he says is virtually guaranteed to be the opposite of the truth.

I quote:

There is no threat to the Erasmus scheme. We will continue to participate. UK students will continue to be able to enjoy the benefits of exchanges with our European friends and partners, just as they will continue to be able to come to this country.

In a similar vein, the stated reason for this decision (“financial considerations”) is also untrue. (Contrary to popular myth the United Kingdom is not the most popular destination for Erasmus students; that is Spain.) The cost of participating in Erasmus is modest and the benefits huge for both incoming and outgoing students and indeed the relevant home and host institutions. The real reason for this act of vandalism is demonstrated by the announcement of a new £100 million Turing scheme that is one-way only. Evidently the UK doesn’t want any nasty foreign students coming here. Equally evidently the UK Government believes that other countries will gleefully accept thousands of UK students in their universities while not having the mutual benefit of an exchange programme. Above all, most young people in the United Kingdom did not vote for Brexit in the referendum and remain strongly pro-EU. To the Brexit Government that means they must be punished. Come to think of it, the Erasmus slogan (“Enriching Lives, Opening Minds”) is pretty much the antithesis of the UK Government’s isolationist stance.

It’s “interesting” (and, to me, sickening) that the name of Alan Turing has been appropriated for this new programme. Turing, I’ll remind you, was a man whose life was destroyed by the British authorities despite everything he did for the United Kingdom during World War 2. The (perhaps unintentional) symbolism is obvious. If any of the institutions to which participating students are sent via this scheme are in countries where homosexuality is still illegal, the irony will be complete.

According to the UK Government’s own numbers, the £100 million cost of the Turing scheme will support 35,000 students to study or work internationally. That works out at less than £3000 per student. How much will that pay for? In the absence of a mutual fee waiver (which is how Erasmus+ works) it seems it will cover only a small fraction of the cost of a year abroad. Not to mention the need to acquire a visa which was not the case for movement within the EU. Still, that probably doesn’t matter, as it is only the rich who are meant to benefit.

There are a number of interesting points about UK participation in Erasmus+ which may not have been fully thought through by the Johnson government. I know it’s astonishing to think that a Cabinet full of such stellar intellects might have missed something important, but in fact Higher Education is a devolved responsibility in the United Kingdom. What the Government says about Education policy therefore only really applies to England. Scotland and Wales could in principle decide to continue as members. Moreover, if the Turing scheme is administered through the Department of Education, appropriate funding should be passed to the devolved nations by the Barnett formula which they can spend on continuing Erasmus+ participation if they wish. There’ll be legal arguments of course, but on the face of it that seems to be the situation.

Students in Northern Ireland won’t have to worry, however, as the Republic has already offered to fund the participation of NI students, a decision as generous and politically astute as the English decision is petty and mean-spirited.

The decision to withdraw from Erasmus+ will make life very difficult for many UK Higher Education institutions as many run degree programmes that include a year abroad facilitated by the scheme. As of January 1st 2021 they will no longer be able to offer these programme. I know from my own past experience how long it takes to set exchange programmes, how much work is involved in keeping it going, but how rewarding the participating students find it. Tragically, all that will disappear in the New Year.

But there may be silver lining for Ireland. Students from the EU wishing to study in an English-speaking country are likely to be looking at Irish universities in increasing numbers. We already have quite a few at Maynooth (though not this year because of Covid-19 travel restrictions); for information see here. I think there’s a strong case to exploit the British mistake and boost the involvement in Erasmus+ across the Republic.

I would very much like to do this in the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University. Though a small Department, we are in a good position to develop more international partnerships because of our collaborative networks. Indeed, although it is the Christmas break, I today received two emails from colleagues abroad wondering if we would be interested in replacing UK institutions. I think we could offer a very nice option for students from Spain and Italy. The problem is that to balance the books we really need to encourage more of our own students to venture abroad. That is difficult because, in Ireland (as in the UK), only a small number of students studying Physics at third level institutions have proficiency in a European language (other than Irish). That may not effect the teaching too much, as many European universities do teach science courses in English, but for life in general it is more difficult if you can’t speak the local language to any real extent. For this reason, it may be better for us to target postgraduate rather than undergraduate students for such an arrangement.

That’s another job to add to my list for the New Year!

Wren Day

Posted in History with tags , , , on December 26, 2020 by telescoper

Yesterday afternoon I checked up and refilled the bird feeders in my garden and a bit later on sat down in the kitchen to see what visited. The usual suspects turned up: starlings, house sparrows, blackbirds, blue tits, great tits, dunnocks, a robin, and a couple of jackdaws. I think I’m going to have to replenish the feeders pretty soon the rate they are guzzling food.

Anyway, during a lull in the proceedings I saw something moving around in the raised beds. At first I couldn’t see it and could only tell from the moving leaves. Then it emerged briefly before darting back under cover. It was a wren. That’s the first time I’ve ever seen one in my garden. From time to time I could hear its very loud song – it’s another small bird with a very big voice! – but it remained quite difficult to see. I tracked the wren’s progress across the garden for quite a while before it finally flew off. It didn’t try to use the feeders but, as I found out later, the wren feeds exclusively on insects rather than seeds and nuts.

I wasn’t sure whether wrens spends the winter here in Ireland but in the process of googling that I found out about a strange and disturbing Irish Christmas tradition. Another name for St Stephen’s Day is Wren Day or Wren’s Day or The Hunt of the Wren Day (Irish: Lá an Dreoilín). This is because of an ancient tradition of hunting wrens at this time of year, the origins of which are lost in history but it is worth remarking that birds play an important role in Celtic and Norse mythology. Originally this was probably connected with the Winter Solstice, but moved to St Stephen’s Day when the season was coopted by the Christian Church. Many so-called “Christmas” traditions are in fact entirely pagan in origin.

Nowadays Wren Day does not involve hunting any actual birds, though the celebrations can include a fake wren as a sort of effigy. It seems to involve people dressing up like this:

The people dressed like Boris Johnson in that photograph are mummers (or wrenboys, or strawboys) and they take part in parades, sing songs and generally carry on. There are Mummers parades elsewhere in the world too, although probably not this year because of Coronavirus restrictions. This year groups of mummers have been taking the opportunity to visit the homes of people isolated by Covid-19 restrictions, although I’m not sure I’d want a group of people dressed like that turning up at my doorstep. It’s all a bit Wicker Man for my taste.

I checked the garden this morning and there was no sign of the wren. Perhaps it knows what used to happen on this day!

Nollaig Shona Daoibh

Posted in Biographical, History, Literature on December 25, 2020 by telescoper

Well here we are, Christmas Day. I got up late this morning and opened the present I bought for myself:

It’s not exactly light reading, but grimly fascinating. I ordered it through the splendid local bookshop, by the way.

As I had my coffee I had a visit from the local Robin, who seemed to be carrying out a pitch inspection.

A crowd of very noisy seagulls have arrived in the neighbourhood today, which seems to have scared the other birds off.

Now I’m going to have a late breakfast (a fry-up) before preparing this evening’s dinner. I’m not sure it’s worth seeing if there’s anything worth watching on the telly, but there is a complete performance of Handel’s Messiah on the radio this afternoon so I might listen to that.

Update: first course. Smoked salmon seasoned with fennel and lemon with pan-fried asparagus.

Update: main course. Confit of duck, roast potatoes, red cabbage spiced with cinnamon & apple, chestnut and orange ciabatta stuffing and port sauce.

I don’t mind telling you the duck was delicious!

Update 3: Dessert. Plum Pudding with Brandy Cream.

Anyway, let me wish you all a Merry Christmas, Nadolig Llawen, Nollaig Shona, Fröhliche Weihnachten, Joyeux Noël, Buon Natale, Feliz Navidad, Glædelig Jul, etc. And in the words of a traditional Irish toast:

Go mbeirimid beo ag an am seo arís!

Yule Blog

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth on December 24, 2020 by telescoper

It’s Christmas Eve at last. This morning I ventured out briefly to buy a newspaper. That was more problematic than I’d anticipated as most newsagents in Maynooth had sold out of the Irish Times. There won’t be an edition until next Monday so people had got theirs early. I did eventually manage to find a copy however and did the Christmas Crosaire crossword when I got back home.

With that errand out of the way it is now my plane to stay at home alone until Sunday 27th at the earliest. The reason for that is the very dangerous Covid-19 situation, with another 922 cases reported today. Cases in Ireland aren’t as high as in many other European countries but are going quicker than any at this time. The official advice is to minimize social interactions over the Christmas period, so I’m doing that. Zero is the minimum in my case.

In case you think I’ll be miserable here on my own, I assure you that I won’t. I’ve got plenty of things to do, and plenty to eat and drink. I’m quite proud of the fact that I bought six bottles of wine last weekend and managed not to drink any until today!

I’m not myself of that faith (or indeed any) but I understand it is a Catholic tradition to eat fish the day before a Feast Day. This evening I’ll be cooking Sea Bass with a lemon and dill sauce and Mediterranean roast vegetables. That’s not because I’m becoming a Catholic but because of balance for the next two days. To go with the fish I’ll be drinking a nice Pouilly-Fumé. I’ll bore you with the menu for the next two days when I get to them (assuming no culinary disasters).


I know it doesn’t look great – the fish didn’t want to come out in one piece – but it tasted delicious!

Incidentally, it is interesting that almost nobody here uses “Boxing Day” to refer to the day after Christmas Day. It’s “St Stephen’s Day” or just “Stephens Day”.

I realized this morning that this will be the very first Christmas I’ve ever spent outside the United Kingdom. The vast majority of Christmases Past I’ve been in Newcastle, but I have also over the years been in Brighton, London, Nottingham and Cardiff at this time of year.

I’ll end with the official Christmas greetings from Maynooth University!

New Publication at the Open Journal of Astrophysics

Posted in Open Access, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 24, 2020 by telescoper

Just time before Christmas to announce another paper in the Open Journal of Astrophysics. This one was actually published a few days ago but because of holiday delays it took some time to get the metadata and DOI registered so I held off announcing it until that was done.

The latest publication is by my colleague* John Regan (of the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth), John Wise (Georgia Tech), Tyrone Woods (NRC Canada), Turlough Downes (DCU), Brian O’Shea (Michigan State) and Michael Norman (UCSD). It is entitled The Formation of Very Massive Stars in Early Galaxies and Implications for Intermediate Mass Black Holes and appears in the Astrophysics of Galaxies section of the arXiv.

Here is a screen grab of the overlay:

You can click on the image to make it larger should you wish to do so. You can find the arXiv version of the paper here.

I think that will be that for for 2020 at the Open Journal of Astrophysics. We have published 15 papers this year, up 25% on last year. Growth is obviously modest, but there’s obviously a lot of inertia in the academic community. After the end of this year we will have two full consecutive years of publishing.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all our authors, readers, referees, and editors for supporting the Open Journal of Astrophysics and wish you all the very best for 2021!

*Obviously, owing to the institutional conflict I recused myself from the editorial process on this paper.