Archive for September, 2021

A New Regime

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth on September 30, 2021 by telescoper

With the departure of Professor Philip Nolan (whose last day at Maynooth is today) there will soon be a new regime in place at the University. Nobody knows what changes will take place, but there will undoubtedly be some and there are reasons for being nervous about what they will bring to STEM disciplines.

On a more personal note some things will change less than I originally planned. Back in July, exhausted after a difficult academic year, I wrote this:

I was appointed as Head of Department for three years, but last week I asked the University to let me step down from my role as Head of Department of Theoretical Physics from the end of September 2021, a year early. I’ll carry on as a Professor, hopefully with some time to do research, although my teaching duties will undoubtedly remain heavy.

Part of the thinking behind that decision was that a major reorganization of Physics at Maynooth University was on the cards and I thought the position of Head of Department would no longer really exist from the end of September. It is now clear, however, that the reorganization is not imminent. Don’t ask me whether or when it will happen now. That will be up to the new President. It certainly won’t be in effect from 1st October, though. We also have serious staffing issues this year due to the retirement of one colleague, the departure of another to a position in Germany, and another taking a sabbatical for the year. These positions are currently replaced by temporary lectureships, the holder of one of which is still yet to arrive in Ireland and is doing his lectures remotely from abroad.

The current state of the Department is not such as to make the position of Head attractive so, after discussions with my colleagues in the Department earlier this month I agreed to carry on for another year, until the end of my original term. Hopefully by this time next year we will be back to a full complement of permanent staff and the position concerning the reorganization will be clearer – or indeed the reorganization might have actually happened – so that would be a far better time for someone to take over if the position still exists.

I do therefore have another year of heavy teaching and administration in front of me, except that my colleagues have agreed to help me out considerably by taking some of the administrative burden on their own shoulders and teaching will hopefully be in person for the whole year and not online, which makes it far less onerous.

On the other hand, there are two silver linings. One is that after three years as Head of Department I get an automatic sabbatical – if I can find another institution who wants to host me! The other is that this Semester I have no teaching on Thursdays. That is more by luck than good judgement but I decided to seize the opportunity to make it my “research day”. For the rest of the Semester I will be working from home on Thursdays, as I am indeed doing now (although actually not working at the moment but taking a tea break and writing this post).

As it happens Thursday is also the day of my newly organized veggie box delivery, so here’s a picture of the enormous Savoy cabbage that arrived this morning (along with various other items such as leeks, rainbow chard and beetroot):

One final aspect of the new regime is that being at home today I’ve finally surrendered to the colder weather and put the central heating on…

New Publication at the Open Journal of Astrophysics

Posted in Open Access, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on September 30, 2021 by telescoper

Time to announce another publication in the Open Journal of Astrophysics. This one is the twelfth paper in Volume 4 (2021) and the 43rd in all.

The latest publication is entitled  Bridging the Gap Between Simply Parametrized and Free-Form Pixelated Models of Galaxy Lenses: The Case of WFI 2033-4723 Quad and is in the folder marked Astrophysics of Galaxies. The authors are Bernardo Barrera (Tecnológico de Monterrey, Mexico), Liliya Williams (University of Minnesota, USA), Jonathan P. Coles* (Technical University of Munich, Germany) and Philipp Denzel (University of Zurich, Switzerland).

*No relation.

Here is a screen grab of the overlay which includes the abstract:

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.

The teaser image doesn’t show up very well on the overlay so here it is in all its glory:

The End of an Era

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , on September 29, 2021 by telescoper

This afternoon I attended an event in the Aula Maxima on Maynooth University Campus to bid farewell to the President of Maynooth University, Professor Philip Nolan who has been in that position for 10 years and who steps down at the end of September (i.e tomorrow). For the last 18 months he has been chairing the Epidemiological Modelling effort as part of National Public Health Emergency Team dealing with Covid-19.

Here are two views of the ceremony taken from my position next to a radiator (it was quite cold today) :

Presentation of Gifts
Farewell Speech

After the formal indoor bit of the event in which the number in the audience was strictly limited and masks were worn, we adjourned outside for a reception which was especially nice because it’s the first social event I’ve attended in person for a very long time. In fact I haven’t been in the Aula Maxima for a couple of years either!

It was a pleasant occasion with many warm and well-delivered contributions, and I think was a fitting tribute to a President who has held his office with great distinction. I had the opportunity to wish Professor Nolan all the best in person over a glass of wine at the reception but I’d like to repeat it publicly here. After all, it was on his watch that I got my position here. Farewell, Prof. Nolan, and please accept my very best wishes for the future.

The only disappointment for me is that among the speeches by academics and other staff there was no time for personal appearance by Maynooth University Library Cat…

New Publication at the Open Journal of Astrophysics

Posted in Open Access, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on September 28, 2021 by telescoper

Time to announce another publication in the Open Journal of Astrophysics. This one is the eleventh paper in Volume 4 (2021) and the 42nd in all.

The latest publication is entitled Squeezing the Axion – it’s about inflationary scalar field perturbations using the squeezed state formalism – and is by

Here is a screen grab of the overlay which includes the abstract:

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. This one is also in the folder marked Cosmology and Non-Galactic Astrophysics.  

P.S. I hope to publish another paper tomorrow…

Astrophysics & Cosmology Masterclass at Maynooth!

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on September 28, 2021 by telescoper

Regular readers of the blog – both of them – may remember that, after a couple of postponements due to Covid-19,  we presented a Masterclass in Astrophysics & Cosmology in Maynooth on March 25th 2021. Well, owing to popular demand we’ve decided to do a re-run of the event on Friday 12th November 2021 ahead of next year’s CAO cycle.

This will be a half-day virtual event via Zoom. It’s meant for school students in their 5th or 6th year of the Irish system. There might be a few of them or their teachers who see this blog so I thought I’d share the news here. You can find more information, including instructions on how to book a place, here.

Here is the updated official poster and the programme:

I’ll be talking about cosmology early on, while John Regan will talk about black holes. After the coffee break one of our PhD students will talk about why they wanted to study astrophysics. Then I’ll say something about our degree programmes for those students who might be interested in studying astrophysics and/or cosmology as part of a science course. We’ll finish with questions either about the science or the study!

(And at 12 noon I don’t turn into a pumpkin but do have to run off to give a lecture on vector calculus..)

Welcome to the First Year

Posted in Education, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on September 27, 2021 by telescoper

Well this morning I had my first lecture to the new first-year students on their first day of teaching at Maynooth University. It went fairly well, and my improvised attempts to record the lecture for the students were reasonably successful too.

When I started at about 11.05am I was a little disappointed that I only had around two-thirds of the number I expected, but I assumed that was that students had difficulty locating the venue, Physics Hall. Not unreasonably quite a few new students assume that this is in the Science Building on the North Campus where the Physics staff are based. In fact Physics Hall is on the much more scenic South Campus, which is quite a distance from the Science Building which usually means that some newbies arrive late as a result of going to the wrong venue.

Incidentally, here is a view of Physics Hall from the front taken in 2012 at a Mathematics Lecture by Tim Gowers. The hall hasn’t changed much since then!

I like this room because (a) it has good blackboards at the front and (b) although a reasonable size there is not a huge distance from the lecturer to the back of the audience so everyone can see and hear the lecturer, and can be heard by the lecturer if they ask something.

Anyway, the first lecture was very introductory so late students weren’t going to miss anything earth-shattering, and in any case I was recording it, so I started on time. After talking for over half an hour someone – a theoretical physics PhD student – came in to the hall and explained that about half the class had been standing outside thinking I hadn’t turned up because the door was closed. Why they didn’t try the handle and have a look inside I don’t know! When the latecomers had all filed in and found a seat I had roughly the number I had initially expected so all was well. I explained to them that they shouldn’t stand on ceremony next time.

It did occur to me that this year’s new students have a pretty good reason for not knowing where anything is on campus is that for many of them today is the first day they’ve ever been herein Maynooth. Open days last year were all virtual, for example. It must feel very strange to commit to a four-year degree at a University you’ve never even visited before, but that’s what this cohort of students have been forced to do.

One of the things I tend to do in the first lecture is to explain that I do like to have interaction in my lectures and it was nice to find that quite a few people did answer when I asked questions. Lectures are so dull if it’s just an old fart blathering on for 50 minutes. The capacity of Physics Hall is about 90, which is not huge, but interaction is possible in much bigger rooms if you work to create the right atmosphere.

Giving students the encouragement to get involved is also helpful to the lecturer, as students will then be more willing to point out errors on the blackboard (which, of course, I put in deliberately to see if they’re paying attention). After today I have a pretty good feeling about this new class and I’m looking forward to seeing them for Lecture 2 tomorrow.

Oh, and the instruction that masks are mandatory in lectures was observed impeccably by the students.

Back to the First Year

Posted in Education, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff on September 26, 2021 by telescoper

It’s a rainy Sunday evening and I’ve spent most of the day sorting out material for my first year module on Mechanics and Special Relativity. I’m looking forward to teaching a full class again. I like a big room and I particular like Physics Hall. The first lecture will be very introductory. I’ll be introducing the students to this character who appears a number of times in the Lecture Notes in various settings:

I’ll also be explaining how the subject of Mechanics began in the 17th Century when Sir Isaac Newton fell out of a tree and landed on an apple. Newton was of course building on previous work by Galileo and his colleagues Figaro and Magnifico, including the famous experiment in which he dropped a cannonball off a tower onto a pizza.

I’ve been looking through the enrolment figures for this year which look quite encouraging. The number of first-year students taking my module is up about 38% on last year, though last year was down on the year before. The other good news is that the number of new students on Theoretical Physics & Mathematics (who do not take the module I mentioned above) is more than double last year’s intake and higher than it has been in living memory. All this would be even better news if it weren’t for the workload issues arising from our being so short-staffed. I was hoping that we’d emerge from the pandemic in a better shape than we are now, having to rely on three one-year temporary lecturers (one of whom still hasn’t arrived in Ireland).

Talking of the pandemic, there’s no clear evidence yet of an increase in Covid-19 cases associated with a return to third-level education.

Our returning students in Maynooth started last week but other colleges in Ireland began earlier. I don’t know whether we can expect an upturn in infections resulting from this, but whether or not it will eventually happen I think it’s too early to see it just now. I remember last year when we started on-campus lectures only to switch abruptly to online teaching. I hope that doesn’t happen again. But it might.

Two Sugars

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , , , , on September 25, 2021 by telescoper

The song Sugar (That Sugar Baby Of Mine) was written by Maceo Pinkard, Edna Alexander and Sidney Mitchell way back in the 1920s and quickly became a jazz standard played in various ways by various musicians. To illustrate its versatility as a vehicle for improvisers here are two very different versions that are favourites of mine that I’ve had reason to remember recently.

In 1980 I bought an album by the extraordinarily underrated Scottish Jazz singer Jeanie Lambe with the Danny Moss Quartet when it first came out. The British tenor saxophonist Danny Moss was married to Jeanie Lambe from 1964 until his death in 2008. Jeanie passed away last year at the age of 79. Many versions of Sugar are slow and slushy but this a straight-ahead swinging take on it, played at a jaunty tempo, with a fine solo by Danny Moss in the middle.

The second version is totally different. It was performed by the Newport All-Stars at a midnight concert in Paris in 1961. The band was led by pianist George Wein who passed away on 13th September. As well as being a musician in his own right, George Wein owned and ran the famous Storyville club in Boston during the late 40s and early 50s but was perhaps most famous for being behind the annual Newport Jazz Festival, which began in 1954 and is still going to this day. It was quite usual at these festivals to have an all-star band playing in support of various solo artists, which is why Jack Teagarden and Buck Clayton turned up playing behind Chuck Berry at the 1958 Festival. George Wein also persuaded Thelonious Monk to allow Pee Wee Russell to sit in with his Quartet on clarinet for a set – I have the record of that gig and it’s every bit as strange and wonderful as you might imagine!

An eccentric character who struggled with alcoholism, Pee Wee Russell (real name Charles Ellsworth Russell) was somewhat unreliable as a musician but although he was frequently wayward he had a unique voice and, when he was on good form, a beautifully lyrical way of playing with a really original approach to harmony. It might surprise you to know that Sidney Bechet was a big fan of Pee Wee as – no less surprisingly – was Benny Goodman. The great Coleman Hawkins said of Pee Wee in 1961:

For thirty years, I’ve been listening to him play those funny notes. I used to think they were wrong, but they weren’t. He’s always been way out, but they didn’t have a name for it then.

I’ve always been drawn to very original musicians like Pee Wee Russell; the sort that when you hear just one note you recognize immediately who it is. It’s not all about technique. Pee Wee had soul. Messrs Bechet, Goodman and Hawkins et al knew that for all his technical deficiencies he was the genuine article, a complete original.

I’ve always felt that one should judge musicians by their best playing rather than their worst and, on that night in Paris, Pee Wee produced this achingly beautiful and hauntingly tender rendition of Sugar, played as a slow ballad. He’s introduced on this track by George Wein who aptly described him as “The Poet of the Clarinet”. You can of course listen to the track and decide for yourself, but I think this is gorgeous.

A Return of the Three-day Week in Britain?

Posted in Covid-19, History, Politics with tags , , on September 25, 2021 by telescoper

Back in 2014, on the 40th anniversary of the start of the Three-Day Week in Britain, I wrote this:

I wonder how many of you are old enough to remember the “Three Day Week”? I am. In fact I remember sitting my 11+ examination right in the middle of the period (from January to March 1974) in which electricity supplies across the UK were restricted to three days per week. Although it meant reading books by candlelight, it wasn’t as bad as it may sound to younger readers because we didn’t have that many electrical gadgets in those days and at least our house was heated by coal, not electricity. I dread to think what would happen nowadays if we should experience  problems with fuel supplied similar to those caused by the Oil Crisis of 1974. But such an event is not altogether impossible…

In the Dark, 4th January 2014

Not impossible at all given recent news. It seems even the Daily Torygraph agrees. Moreover, a senior Conservative politician has described such talk as “alarmist and misguided“, which convinces me that it is indeed likely to happen. My social media feeds are filled with pictures of queues of cars caused by people panic-buying petrol. Makes a change from toilet roll I suppose…

There is a concern here in the civilized world that problems with supply chains caused by Brexit may impact Ireland. Though there is no sign of this yet, it is of course possible, but only if people here continue to disrespect UK sovereignty by insisting on buying British products. The message must get through that the UK simply does not want the trade surplus it has enjoyed with Ireland for many years so it would be impolite to let it persist. Fortunately the shops are now displaying a much wider range of European products so this should not be a problem. I find it easy to manage using predominantly local Irish suppliers, apart from wine and some speciality products which are mainly imported from EU countries.

P.S. There’s an article in the Newcastle Evening Chronicle about the original Three-Day Week, which brought back a lot of memories. I remember the newspapers had lists of which areas would lose electricity at what time : candles and paraffin lamps suddenly became fashionable; and of course we had quite a few days off school!

Popping up on Campus

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , on September 24, 2021 by telescoper

Well that’s the end of Week 1 of the new regime (or Week 0 for new students). Apart from quite a few timetabling issues and a staff short shortage it hasn’t gone too badly. I also heard today that next week there will be a “pop-up vaccination centre” on Maynooth University campus.

I think this is a good idea.

Talking of things popping up on campus, I think Maynooth University Library Cat has been enjoying the attention he’s been getting from returning staff and students. In fact his little abode is now an official calling point on the Campus Tours for new students.

Being petted and pampered can be exhausting however and occasionally he likes to withdraw to his quarters for a rest..

Anyway, it’s been a hectic week and the new students arrive tomorrow so now it’s definitely long past wine o’clock…