Archive for January, 2022

All Change for Semester Two!

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on January 31, 2022 by telescoper

So here we are, then, at the start of Semester Two at Maynooth University. When I arrived in the Department of Theoretical Physics I noticed a few differences:

August 2020 versus January 2022

All the signage relating to physical distancing has been removed. We are no longer required to observe 2m spacing between individuals in labs or anywhere else. That solves my potential problem about constraints in the Computational Physics lab (to the left of the picture).

Our little kitchen is also now back in operation so we can share that space for lunch or coffee, sitting around the table which has now been put back in place. Staff meetings can be held in person, though the meeting of Academic Council I have to attend this afternoon will still be via Teams. I don’t actually start teaching until tomorrow and will be in the office most of the day so will have to wait until tomorrow until I find out how busy the campus seems; we expect there to be more students around than last term.

Students are still to wear face coverings in lectures etc but other than that all restrictions seem to have gone, including those on eating and social spaces on campus. Everyone seems to have decided that this pandemic is all over. Only time – and perhaps the next coronavirus variant – will tell whether they are right.

Bloody Sunday Remembered

Posted in History, Politics with tags , , , on January 30, 2022 by telescoper

I’ve been a bit busy today catching up on the backlog caused by my recent incapacity so I’ll just post a quick item to mark the 50th anniversary of the Bogside Massacre which took place on Bloody Sunday (30th January 1972) in Derry as British paratroopers opened fire on a civil rights demonstration. For more information see here.

I’m old enough to remember the news of this at the time and the widespread coverage of this event on the media today brought back a lot of memories. I certainly didn’t think then that, fifty years on, none of the soldiers who murdered these civilians would have been brought to justice.

Thirteen people people died that day, and another died of his wounds some months later. Their names are:

Patrick (‘Paddy’) Doherty (31)
Gerald Donaghey (17)
John (‘Jackie’) Duddy (17)
Hugh Gilmour (17)
Michael Kelly (17)
Michael McDaid (20)
Kevin McElhinney (17)
Bernard (‘Barney’) McGuigan (41)
Gerald McKinney (35)
William (‘Willie’) McKinney (26)
William Nash (19)
James (‘Jim’) Wray (22)
John Young (17)
John Johnston (59) – shot twice and later died on 16 June 1972

May they rest in peace, and may their murderers not.

New Publication at the Open Journal of Astrophysics

Posted in Open Access, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on January 29, 2022 by telescoper

It’s time yet again to announce a new publication in the Open Journal of Astrophysics! This one is the 2nd paper in Volume 5 (2022) and the 50th in all. We actually published this one a couple of days ago I’ve only just got around to announcing it now.

It’s very nice to mark our 50th publication with two firsts: (1) this is the first ‘Citizen Science’ paper we have published; and (2) it is the first paper in the folder corresponding to the arXiv section on Earth and Planetary Astrophysics (astro-ph.EP).

The latest publication is entitled The CosmoQuest Moon Mappers Community Science Project: The Effect of Incidence Angle on the Lunar Surface Crater Distribution and is written by Matthew Richardson (Planetary Sciences Institute, Tucson = PSI), Andrés A. Plazas Malagón (Princeton & Astronomical Society of the Pacific=ASP; corresponding author), Larry A. Lebofsky (PSI), Jennifer Grier (PSI), Pamela Gay (PSI & ASP), Stuart J. Robbins (Southwest Research Institute) and The CosmoQuest Team.

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. As I mentioned above this is the first publication in the folder marked Earth & Planetary Astrophysics.

There is a nice twitter thread by the corresponding author explaining what the paper is about:

If you click on the above it will take you to the rest of the Twitter thread.

Back Pain

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth with tags on January 28, 2022 by telescoper

I broke a 170-day blogging streak yesterday (Thursday) by failing to post anything. The reason for this lapse was that on Wednesday evening I started to experience very painful back spasms which carried on all night and made it almost impossible to get any sleep. It seems only very slight movements would trigger one of these, so it wasn’t just getting into and out of bed that caused problems: even adjusting my sleeping posture triggered a stabbing pain. Getting out of bed involved various abortive attempts to twist and slide into a position from which I could stand before finally managing to find one that minimised the pain. Standing up was OK, but the transition to sitting or lying, or walking, was perilous. As was getting dressed…

I had to be on campus in the morning so I made my way there gingerly and did what I had to do, but sitting in a chair was even more difficult than lying down, and I wasn’t getting anything useful done, so I decided to go home, try to get some rest and hope a bit of natural healing would mend whatever had gone wrong.

I’ve had such spasmodic attacks before though it has been a while since the last one, and they haven’t usually been quite so painful. In the past they’ve usually lasted just a few days and I hoped that would be the case this time too, especially because I have to start teaching on Monday! Luckily that seems to be true, as this morning I found I could get out of bed much more easily than yesterday. I am still getting twinges but, fingers crossed, I think it will pass.

As to what brought this all on, I have no idea.

The Complex Heart of the Milky Way

Posted in Art, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on January 26, 2022 by telescoper

I couldn’t resist sharing this amazing radio image of the Galactic Centre made using the South African MeerKAT radio telescope:

Radio frequency electromagnetic radiation is able to penetrate the dust that permeates this region so can reveal what optical light can not. In particular you can see the very active region around the black hole at the centre of the Milky Way, bubbles caused by exploding stars and – most interesting of all – a number of magnetized filamentary structures.

It’s an extraordinarily beautiful picture made from a mosaic of 20 separate observations. In fact I like it so much I’ve cross-filed it in my “Art” folder. Those of us who work in astronomy or astrophysics are wont to say that there’s much more to it than pretty pictures, but when one like this comes along we’re all sure to geek out over it!

For more information about this image at the science behind it, see here.

Maynooth University Library Cat Update

Posted in Maynooth with tags on January 26, 2022 by telescoper

It’s been a while since I’ve posted an update about Maynooth University Library Cat so I’m taking the opportunity provided by our return to campus to correct that omission. In a nutshell, said feline seems to be in good health and is well nourished. I visited him at his usual spot on Monday afternoon in order to give him some food but he had already dined and was in the process of departing for a post-prandial walkabout.

I realized when I watched him toddle off into the distance that he is such a creature of habit that he has worn away a path through the grass. I think it’s visible on this picture. I leave it as an exercise to the reader to spot where he is.

Incidentally the magpie to the left of the picture is another regular visitor to Library Cat’s spot – to eat any leftovers from his dish. It’s a waste of time leaving food out for him when he’s not there as the birds get it all.

Anyway, here’s a more conventional picture so you can see he looks well:

Starting Back Again

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth on January 25, 2022 by telescoper

So. The Examination Period at Maynooth University is over and the students are having a bit of a break before we start teaching again next Monday, 31st January. In the meantime we have to finish the examination marking and prepare for the new term. I’ve actually been on campus for part of the last two days, as have a few of my colleagues though there aren’t many students around.

Yesterday we received the expected guidance on how teaching will proceed based on the Government’s decision on Friday to relax most Covid-19 related restrictions. The one big change that I really expected was that large lectures (to audiences of 250+ students) would resume on campus, but it seems that will not happen until half-term. Presumably that’s because many Departments had planned on the basis of these being online and were caught on the hop by the abrupt change. It was at half-term in 2020 that we entered the first lockdown so it will be two full years until we completely re-open (assuming there are no setbacks).

This makes no difference to Theoretical Physics however as we don’t have any classes with more than 250 students in them.

Another thing to have changed is the staggered start of lectures. In the Good Old Days all lectures at Maynooth started at five past the hour and ended at five to and were consequently 50 minutes long. Last term rooms were designated to have lectures starting at 10 past or 5 past and and lectures were reduced in length to 45 minutes so would finish either at 5-to or 10-to. This was to avoid having large numbers of students mingling in foyers and corridors at the start and end of lectures.

Semester 2 will have a full 12 weeks of teaching too, as we won’t miss the first week like we did last term. Hopefully that means Semester 2 will be a bit less rushed than Semester 1; for example in the first year there will be 36 lectures of 50 minutes’ duration (1800 minutes altogether) compared with 33 lectures of 55 minutes (1485 in total), which gives 315 extra minutes – five and a quarter hours – which is about 21%! It seems a lot when put like that. Perhaps we should adjust the weighting of Semester 1 v Semester 2 modules to reflect this?

My biggest worry was a capacity limit on our Computational Physics lab, but with no physical distancing requirement that worry has receded. I’ve decided however that I should still allow any students that want it to attend the lab remotely.

That brings me to the interesting issue. Although officially we are reopening to something near full capacity the question remains as to how many students are comfortable with the new arrangements. Little thought seems to have been given to vulnerable students with underlying health issues and we may find quite a lot of them opting not to return to campus just yet. It is incumbent on us to cater for these students in the best way possible but as yet we don’t know how many there will be in this situation.

What’s the difference between Astronomy and Astrophysics?

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff on January 24, 2022 by telescoper

I’ve been a bit busy today but I did notice at lunchtime that an old question has been going around on Twitter which gives me the excuse to post an old answer to it, what’s the difference between Astronomy and Astrophysics? This is something I’m asked quite often, and have blogged about before, but I thought I’d repeat it here for those who might stumble across it.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives the following primary definition for astronomy:

The science which treats of the constitution, relative positions, and motions of the heavenly bodies; that is, of all the bodies in the material universe outside of the earth, as well as of the earth itself in its relations to them.

Astrophysics, on the other hand, is described as

That branch of astronomy which treats of the physical or chemical properties of the celestial bodies.

So astrophysics is regarded as a subset of astronomy which is primarily concerned with understanding the properties of stars and galaxies, rather than just measuring their positions and motions.

It is possible to assign a fairly precise date when astrophysics first came into use in English because, at least in the early years of the subject, it was almost exclusively associated with astronomical spectroscopy. Indeed the OED gives the following text as the first occurrence of astrophysics, in 1869:

As a subject for the investigations of the astro-physicist, the examination of the luminous spectras of the heavenly bodies has proved a remarkably fruitful one

The scientific analysis of astronomical spectra began with a paper by   William Hyde Wollaston in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society Vol. 102, p. 378, 1802. He was the first person to notice the presence of dark bands in the optical spectrum of the Sun. These bands were subsequently analysed in great detail by Joseph von Fraunhofer in a paper published in 1814 and are now usually known as Fraunhofer lines.  Technical difficulties  made it impossible to obtain spectra of stars other than the Sun for a considerable time, but  William Huggins finally succeeded in 1864. A drawing of his pioneering spectroscope is shown below.

Meanwhile, fundamental work by Gustav Kirchoff and Robert Bunsen had been helping  to establish an understanding of the spectra produced by hot gases.  The identification of features in the Sun’s spectrum  with similar lines produced in laboratory experiments led to a breakthrough in our understanding of the Universe whose importance shouldn’t be underestimated. The Sun and stars were inaccessible to direct experimental test during the 19th Century (as they are now). But spectroscopy now made it possible to gather evidence about their chemical composition as well as physical properties. Most importantly, spectroscopy provided definitive evidence that the Sun wasn’t made of some kind of exotic unknowable celestial material, but of the same kind of stuff (mainly Hydrogen) that could be studied on Earth.  This realization opened the possibility of applying the physical understanding gained from small-scale experiments to the largest scale phenomena that could be seen. The science of astrophysics was born.

One of the leading journals in which professional astronomers and astrophysicists publish their research is called the Astrophysical Journal, which was founded in 1895 and is still going strong. The central importance of the (still) young field of spectroscopy can be appreciated from the subtitle given to the journal:

Initially the branch of physics most important to astrophysics was atomic physics since the lines in optical spectra are produced by electrons jumping between different atomic energy levels. Spectroscopy of course remains a key weapon in the astrophysicist’s arsenal but nowadays the term astrophysics is taken to mean any application of physical laws to astronomical objects. Over the years, astrophysics has therefore gradually incorporated nuclear and particle physics as well as thermodynamics, relativity and just about every other branch of physics you can think of.

I realize, however, that this  isn’t really the answer to the question that potential students want to ask. What they (probably) want to know is what is the difference between undergraduate courses called Astronomy and those called Astrophysics? The answer to this one depends very much on where you want to study. Generally speaking the differences are in fact quite minimal. You probably do a bit more theory in an Astrophysics course than an Astronomy course, for example. Your final-year project might have to be observational or instrumental if you do Astronomy, but might be theoretical in Astrophysics.  If you compare the complete list of modules to be taken, however, the difference will be very small.

Over the last twenty years or so, most Physics departments in the United Kingdom have acquired some form of research group in astronomy or astrophysics and have started to offer undergraduate degrees with some astronomical or astrophysical content. My only advice to prospective students wanting to find which course is for them is to look at the list of modules and projects likely to be offered. You’re unlikely to find the name of the course itself to be very helpful in making a choice.

To confuse things further, here in Maynooth there is a degree programme called Physics with Astrophysics which is taught primarily by the Department of Experimental Physics and has a heavy focus on observational techniques. If students want to do the interesting theoretical bits of Astrophysics, such as black holes and general relativity, they have to choose  options with the Department of Theoretical Physics.  As a theoretical astrophysicist I feel a bit frustrated by this.

One of the things that drew me into astrophysics as a discipline is that it involves such a wide range of techniques and applications, putting apparently esoteric things together in interesting ways to develop a theoretical understanding of a complicated phenomenon. I only had a very limited opportunity to study astrophysics during my first degree as I specialized in Theoretical Physics.  This wasn’t just a feature of Cambridge. The attitude in most Universities in those days was that you had to learn all the physics before applying it to astronomy. Over the years this has changed, and most departments offer some astronomy right from Year 1.

I think this change has been for the better because I think the astronomical setting provides a very exciting context to learn physics. If you want to understand, say, the structure of the Sun you have to include atomic physics, nuclear physics, gravity, thermodynamics, radiative transfer and hydrostatics all at the same time. This sort of thing makes astrophysics a good subject for developing synthetic skills while more traditional physics teaching focusses almost exclusively on analytical skills.

I hope this clarifies the situation.

Memories of Perugia

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , on January 23, 2022 by telescoper

My friend and colleague Vicent Martínez sent me this picture which dates from the spring of 1988.

Picture credit: Vicent Martinez

It took me a while to figure out where it was taken but I finally came to the conclusion that it was in Perugia (the University thereof) in Italy at a small workshop organized there by Silvio Bonometto. If memory serves that room was called the Aula Mussolini

I am on the far left (looking deranged) and talking to Alain Blanchard (with the long black hair). In between us is Vincent Icke. Further along the same row you can see Dennis Sciama, who is sadly no longer with us, and John Miller. In the middle looking at the camera is Rien van de Weijgaert. Just behind me is Bernard Jones. I guess Vicent must have taken the picture!

You can find this and other pictures from this bygone era here.

Yes, I know it’s very white and very male. Meetings tended to be like that in those days.

Incidentally 1988 was the year that I finished my DPhil thesis so I was still a graduate student at the time of this meeting. I think I gave a talk but can’t remember what it was about! In fact I don’t remember much about that meeting except for the splendid lunch that happened at the end. We took a coach trip to a magnificent Castello in the country and were treated to a lavish banquet of many courses. As luck would have it I sat next to Dennis Sciama at the meal, which I enjoyed greatly. Dennis was my academic grandfather (i.e. he supervised my supervisor). He was a lovely gracious man as well as hugely knowledgeable about a wide range of things, wonderful to talk to, and very generous with his time. He was also teetotal, so when they came to fill up his glass he gave it to me so I had a double wine ration, and a single ration would have been a lot!

If I recall correctly the coach trip also took in quick visits to the towns of Cortona and Arezzo.

Anyway, seeing that picture sent me a bit down memory lane during which I opened up a box of old photographs to find some more of Perugia. That meeting in 1988 was the first time I’d visited that ancient and beautiful place but I’ve been back a few times since then and on one occasion took a few snaps as I wandered round. I thought black-and-white would capture the atmosphere of the place. You can decide whether I was right!

The first picture is of the main square (Piazza IV Novembre) and the second the famous Etruscan Arch, which dates from pre-Roman times, emphasizing how ancient this place is! The town is perched on top of a steep-sided hill so it’s quite hard work getting around on foot but well worth exploring.

Restrictions Eased

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth, Politics on January 22, 2022 by telescoper

Last night the Taioseach Micheál Martin went on the telly to confirm, amid a flood of clichés, the news that had been leaking all day that most public health restrictions in Ireland were to be scrapped from 6am this morning. That means all capacity limits on pubs and restaurants, social distancing, vaccination certificates, household gatherings, etc, no longer apply from today. I wasn’t up at 6am to see anyone rushing to the nearest pub to celebrate but I suspect some might have done.

The scale of the loosening of restrictions has taken a lot of us by surprise, especially as case numbers, though falling, are still at very high levels. This was the situation yesterday:

The key thing is the orange line, which has remained steady and low despite the rising number of cases; the very successful vaccination booster programme and the apparently less lethal nature of the omicron variant have combined to keep hospitalizations well below hospital capacity, especially for intensive care and relatively stable.

Let me remark on the fatality figures. Ireland only reports Covid-19 related deaths once a week now, on Wednesdays. In the week up to 19th January, 52 deaths were reported. That compares with 1,865 over the same period in the UK (and that figure is obtained using an artificial 28-day cutoff, i.e. a Covid-19 related death is only counted as such if it occurs within 28 days of a positive test). The population of the UK is about 67 million, compared to Ireland’s 5 million, i.e. about 13 times larger. The number of Covid-19 related deaths however, even using the artificially reduced UK figure, is 36 times larger. That means the per capita death rate there in the UK is at least 2.7 times higher than here in Ireland. What are so many more people dying in the UK? The only reason I can think of is that the UK has significantly worse vaccination coverage.

Note also that although most restrictions are being removed, that does not mean all restrictions are being removed. People who test positive for Covid-19 will still have to isolate, as will close contacts. Face coverings will still be required in indoor settings such as shops and on public transport, for example. I for one would have carried on wearing a face covering in such places even if it were not required.

Obviously it is good that restrictions are being removed. Everyone I know is fed up and many businesses, especially in the hospitality sector, are struggling. I would however like to make two points.

First, give a thought to those people who are medically vulnerable. They will be very concerned at the removal of social distancing. I can imagine that many will have good reasons for not wanting to be in the crowded environments that are now allowed. I certainly think we should continue to make it possible for students in that situation, or those who have to isolate, to follow lectures remotely.

My second point is that almost everyone seems to be assuming that there’s no possibility at all of another, more lethal, variant coming along and putting us all back to square one. The greater the level of infection circulating, the greater the probability this will happen. Loosening restrictions will lead to a further increase in cases and a greater probability of further mutations in the coronavirus. For that reason alone I would have preferred a more gradual relaxation of the rules. In other words, I don’t agree with this front page in today’s Irish Times, which I think is highly irresponsible.

It crossed my mind last night that it was in mid-March 2020 that we entered our first lockdown. What’s the betting that we’ll have to reimpose restrictions about the same time in 2022 as a result of another surge?

We don’t know yet precisely what all this means for teaching at Maynooth University, which is due to resume a week on Monday. I’d guess that it means that all lectures, including very large ones, will be on campus. We’ll have to wait for official guidance on that, though I’m fairly confident there won’t be big changes for my Department compared with last Semester. My one concern was physical distancing in the Computational Physics lab, but that seems likely not to be an issue now.

There won’t be any big changes for me in a personal sense either. I don’t intend to suddenly start going out in crowded places and it will take me some time to feel confident enough to resume my concert-going, etc. When the Taoiseach announced the removal of all physical distancing requirements yesterday, to take place from early the next morning, it was as if we were all expected to turn overnight from fermions into bosons. I’ve never liked crowds and have become even more agoraphobic over the last two years of the pandemic. It will be some time before I get over that, if I ever do.