Archive for the Biographical Category

Storm Damage

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth with tags , on January 13, 2020 by telescoper

We’ve had an eventful day in Maynooth so far with the arrival of Storm Brendan in Ireland. It was already rather windy when I set out for work about 9.00 this morning and the storm grew in intensity throughout the morning. We’re quite a long way inland, though, and conditions were nowhere near as wild as coastal areas, especially County Cork, where winds reached 140 km/h in places. Other areas badly affected include Galway, Limerick, Kerry and Donegal.

I was just thinking about taking my lunch break at around 12.30 when all the power went off in the Science Building. I had a quick look around inside the Department to check there weren’t any serious issues (e.g. damage to computers) then ventured outside, where I found the entire campus, both South and North, was affected plus the traffic lights on Kilcock Road.

Since it was a widespread power failure I was a bit worried that it might take some time to fix. This, however, wasn’t the case and as I returned from my scouting expedition I saw power had already been restored to some campus buildings. Power outages have happened before at Maynooth and the usual practice is to power up gradually zone by zone, presumably to avoid any surges. Eventually, about an hour after the original interruption to service, everything came back online.

I had just written the end of that paragraph (at about 3.20pm) when the power went off again. That apparently was a scheduled outage in order to fix a `wider network problem’. The electricity supply was only off for about ten minutes this time. Unfortunately, this second power cut seems to have taken out our internet connections so I had to complete this via a wireless connection. Fortunately, WordPress has an autosave facility so I didn’t lose anything. Now let’s see if we can fix the server…

Exams and Anniversaries

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on January 9, 2020 by telescoper

Tomorrow (10th January)  is the start of our mid-year examination period here at Maynooth University. It’s therefore a good opportunity to send a hearty “good luck” message to all students about to take examinations, especially those who are further on in their courses for whom these papers have greater importance. In particular I’d like to send my best wishes to students on my fourth-year module on Astrology Astrophysics and Cosmetics Cosmology, whose paper is tomorrow.

On the equivalent day last year I reflected on examinations and in particularly on the fact that the system of education both here in Ireland and in the United Kingdom places such a great emphasis on examination and assessment compared to learning and understanding.

Also on the equivalent day yesterday I was about to travel to London to attend my first LGBT+STEMinar at the Institute of Physics in London. Tomorrow I’ll be doing a similar thing, getting up at stupid o’clock
to travel to Birmingham for the 2020 event. The main difference this year (apart from the change of venue) is that I’m not giving a talk this time. This is good news for me (because it means I can relax a bit more) and for the attendees (because they don’t have to listen to me rambling on like they did last year).

I won’t be able to stay to the end of the LGBT+STEMinar, however, as I have to get to London. As I have mentioned previously here, 2020 marks the bicentenary of the Royal Astronomical Society:

According to the brief history published on the RAS website:

The ‘Astronomical Society of London’ was conceived on 12 January 1820 when 14 gentlemen sat down to dinner at the Freemason’s Tavern, in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London. After an unusually short gestation the new Society was born on 10 March 1820 with the first meeting of the Council and the Society as a whole. An early setback, when Sir Joseph Banks induced the Duke of Somerset to withdraw his agreement to be the first President, was overcome when Sir William Herschel agreed to be the titular first President, though he never actually took the Chair at a meeting.

To be precise, the Society only became the `Royal Astronomical Society’ in 1831 when it was granted a Royal Charter by William IV, but its roots go back to 1820.

It’s not only the Royal Astronomical Society that has survived and prospered for two hundred years. The group of `gentlemen’ who met for dinner in January 1820 has also carried on in the form of the RAS Club which is, of course, older than the RAS itself. The Dining Club always meet on the second Friday of the month, which means that tomorrow is the closest date to that very first meeting. There will therefore be a special club dinner tomorrow night, with more guests than usual. I’m looking forward to it a lot, actually, although I’m slightly apprehensive about the fact that I’ll be relying on the train to get me there in time!

A Blog on Nollaig na mBan

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth on January 6, 2020 by telescoper

In the Liturgical Calendar today (6th January) is the date of Epiphany, the tradition arrival date of the Wise Men from the East bearing gifts. Like them I also travelled from the East today and gave arrived at my destination in Maynooth. Not sure about the gifts though.

In Ireland today is also Nollaig na mBan (Women’s Christmas), a day on which it is traditional for women to get together and enjoy their own Christmas, while the menfolk stay at home and handle the chores. Although an old tradition, emanating from the West of Ireland, the traditional Nollaig na mBan has apparently had a bit of a resurgence in recent years.

Anyway it’s been a very quiet Christmas for me, not least in terms of the weather which has been mild and largely rain-free. Except, that is, for the precise time that I walked to the bus stop to get the bus to Cardiff Airport during which I got drenched. I’ve been away from Ireland for a couple of weeks so don’t know what it has been like here but it’s a lot chillier here. My flat is particularly cold as the heating has been off all the time I’ve been away.

I was supposed to be in the office today but I only realised on Saturday that I’d booked my return flight on 6th (today) not 5th (yesterday). Not a great start to a year in which I am supposed to be improving my time management! I probably didn’t miss anything vital as there are no lectures this week; the January examination period starts on Friday and the days before that are meant for private study.

I do have quite a few things to do tomorrow though – including answering a ton of emails – so I think an early night followed by an early start tomorrow morning might be in order!

Not my New Year’s Resolutions

Posted in Biographical, Music on January 2, 2020 by telescoper

What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.

from Four Quartets, ‘Little Gidding’ by T. S. Eliot.

I said yesterday that I don’t really do New Year’s resolutions (largely because I know I’m no good at keeping them) but in an idle moment this morning (or should I say “a period of reflection”?) I posted on Twitter a few things I hope to achieve in 2020 and thought I’d share them here.

In no particular order:

  1. Go to more live concerts. Although I enjoy the radio and recordings, I far prefer to listen to live music at concerts. Attending such events helps also support the venues and musicians as without an audience both would die. I’m ashamed to say I haven’t heard any live jazz in Ireland!
  2. See more of Ireland. I moved to Maynooth two years ago but apart from one visit to Galway and one to Armagh I still haven’t travelled much beyond the Dublin area. I must get around more, especially to the South.
  3. No more working weekends. I’ve been in the office for at least one day every weekend since I started at Maynooth. I did the same when I was at Sussex too, and seem to have relapsed. I have always had problems managing my own work/life balance but I realise it’s not setting a good example to younger folk to be getting it so obviously wrong. I’ll add not reading work emails at weekends to this.
  4. Be a better colleague. This is something I think one should always strive to be, but I have particular need to improve. I know that over the last four years or so things weighed very heavily on me behind the scenes and I ended up letting people down on too many occasions. I apologise for that and will try to do better in future.
  5. Read more books. I used to be a voracious reader of all kinds of books, both fiction and non-fiction, but I somehow got out of the habit. I now have a stack of unread works that I must try to read before the year is out!
  6. Finish more things! Not unrelated to No. 4 above, I have been very poor over the last few years at completing projects and writing papers. I need to clear the backlog and get on with some new things.
  7. Do more to promote Open Access publishing. I’m not surprised that the status quo in academic publishing is proving hard to dislodge, but I believe that change can be achieved if researchers take the initiative. I’m proud of what we have achieved so far at the Open Journal of Astrophysics but there’s much more to be done.

There are some others, but they’re too personal to put on here!

End of Teaching for 2019

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth on December 18, 2019 by telescoper

So it’s 6pm on Wednesday 18th December and I’ve just given my 24th and last Astrophysics & Cosmology lecture for the term at Maynooth University. Earlier this afternoon I gave my 36th and last first-year Mechanics & Special Relativity module so that’s over for the year too. That makes 60 lectures for the semester.

I find these twelve week semesters very tiring (even with a week-long break in the middle). I assume the students do too. Numbers in class certainly dropped off this week, but overall I’ve been very happy with the level of engagement of the students, especially the first years. Although it’s a lot of work putting on a big course for the first time, I do enjoy teaching very much indeed. I have found few things in life more rewarding than teaching students who want to learn and physics students here in Maynooth do seem to be highly motivated. The exams for both modules are in January so I’ll find out in the New Year if anyone actually learnt anything!

This morning somebody suggested that would be my last teaching for the decade. Of course that is incorrect. The current decade ends on 31st December 2020, not 31st December 2019, just as the millennium started on 1st January 2001 not 1st January 2000. I’m glad a fellow blogger has taken the trouble to point the reason: there is no Year Zero.

Earlier today we had presentations from our final-year project students, which were very good. As usual on such occasions I find myself thinking how much better current generations of students are at that than mine was!

I don’t mind admitting that I’m not inconsiderably knackered at this moment and will be heading home for a bite to eat and a glass or several of wine. Tomorrow I have a few things to do before heading off for the Christmas break, after which regular blogging will be suspended for a time.


Those `Former Mining Communities’

Posted in Biographical, History, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on December 15, 2019 by telescoper

I’ve generally avoided the UK media over the last few days but couldn’t resist commenting on a phrase that has appeared again in the context of constituencies in the North and Midlands of England that voted in Tory Members of Parliament in the 2019 General Election.

The first of these to declare a result was Blyth Valley, in Northumberland, a place that I know reasonably well as I grew up in the North-East. This constituency was created in 1955 and had a Labour MP continuously from then until December 12th 2019.

(Incidentally, the winning candidate in Blyth Valley, Ian Levy, presented himself as an NHS nurse, which he has never been. I doubt anyone cares, though. Bare-faced lying seems to be completely acceptable these days.)

(Left) Bates Colliery in Blyth in 1986 when it closed; (Right) the scene in 2014. Picture Credit Newcastle Evening Chronicle.

I should state for the record that I was born in Walker, to the East of Newcastle upon Tyne, but grew up in Benwell, to the West. When I was a child all the pits in the immediate vicinity, such as the Montague Main Colliery in Denton Burn, had already closed because the inland coal seams had been exhausted. Those remaining open were deep mines in which the coal faces were out under the North Sea.

Anyway, Blyth Valley was described in the media after the election result as a `Former Mining Community’. The town of Blyth is a port and was at one time a major centre for shipbuilding as well as coal mining, but the coal industry –especially Bates colliery – was indeed an extremely important factor in the town’s economy.

But Bates Colliery closed in 1986. A bit further inland the larger, and probably more famous, Ashington Colliery closed in 1988. The last mine in the North West Durham coalfield closed in 1994. Further South, Bolsover Colliery (in the Derbyshire constituency by Dennis Skinner for 49 years, until December 12th 2019) closed in 1993. And so on. All these places, and many others. decided to return Conservative MPs in 2019.

None of these places has had a working coal pit for 25 years or more, yet they are still consistently described in the media as `former mining communities’. I find that very telling, when there hasn’t been any mining there for a generation.

Coal mining forged the identity of these places. Almost everything revolved around the pits. Many of the houses were specifically by colliery owners to house the miners and their families. In the North-East, miners even had their own dialect, Pitmatic (distinct from Geordie). It wasn’t by any means an easy life being a miner but to be a miner at least meant having a distinct and proud identity,

The foundations of these communities were taken away during the Thatcher years. It’s not just about the local economic devastation, though that was bad enough, it was that the entire raison d’être disappeared. Over the subsequent decades little effort has been made by any Government of any complexion to stimulate the towns and villages so they remain `former mining communities’. Their past is well-defined, their future not.

After a decade of particularly severe austerity it’s hardly surprising that people in such areas expressed their anger at a political system that has failed them so badly, first in the 2016 referendum and then in this year’s General Election.

What’s less comprehensible (at least to me) is why anyone would think that their situation is likely to improve under the same Tories that have ignored them so consistently for so long. All I can guess is that it’s something to do with finding a sense of identity in a mining community that’s no longer a mining community. I suppose that, for some, this entails adopting increasingly nationalistic attitudes, such as were encouraged by the Conservative Party’s consistently xenophobic and anti-immigrant rhetoric.

For myself I don’t see what identity has to do with nationality at all. We can identify ourselves in all kinds of ways without having to rely on the geographical accident of our birthplace.

I have no idea what the next five years will bring for places like Blyth Valley and Bolsover. But the wider question is whether by the time of the next General Election we will will be talking about the former United Kingdom.

Goodbye UK

Posted in Biographical, Politics, Uncategorized on December 13, 2019 by telescoper

Britain’s Prime Charlatan

Here I am on a Late Great Western train heading to this month’s Meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society in London and to pass the time I thought I’d have a go on the blog.

I’m not going to comment at length of the election results, except to say that the scale of the Conservative majority and corresponding Labour rout mean that the UK is heading for at least five years with the hard right in charge, and probably many more. That is if the United Kingdom exists five years from now, which is doubtful.

During this time the country of my birth will almost certainly turn itself into a Trumpian dystopia, with planned assaults on the National Health Service, the courts, and what remains of its threadbare constitution. Poverty and homelessness will continue to rise and the evil xenophobic rhetoric that helped win the election (as it did the 2016 Referendum) will make the environment of the UK even more hostile to anyone ‘foreign’.

That’s whats going to happen and that, apparently, is what people voted for. How anyone could vote for a party led by a person so palpably unsuitable for high office is beyond me. But that’s what people did. I hope they’re proud.

For myself, I’ll just say two things. One is that at least this Election Night made me feel young again. I relived all the horror of 1983.

The second is just that although Ireland is no paradise I’m glad I found a way out of the nightmare of Britain. Sorry if that sounds selfish but it’s the truth.

Goodbye UK.

P.S. My train is going to be at least an hour late. No chance of the railways being fixed in the next five years either.