Archive for the Biographical Category

For Those in Peril on the Sea

Posted in Biographical, Politics on December 7, 2021 by telescoper

News that winds up to 156 km/h associated Storm Barra were recorded earlier this morning at Fastnet Lighthouse made me think of the brave lifeboat crews who put to sea in such conditions to save lives around the UK and Irish coasts. That in turn put me in mind of the hymn Eternal Father Strong to Save which I used to sing in the church choir when I was a boy and of which I can still remember most of the words:

This hymn gains extra poignancy given the tragic incident in the English Channel a few weeks ago when 27 people drowned when their boat was swamped by water in rough weather.

Thinking of Storm Barra, the desperate refugees attempting to cross the Channel, and the reports of people attempting to stop a lifeboat from launching, I decided to make a donation to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) and encourage you, if you are able, to do likewise. You can do so here.

Storm Barra Approaches

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth with tags , on December 6, 2021 by telescoper

I’m going to have an early night tonight as tomorrow promises to be a very “interesting” day. A large Atlantic weather system – Storm Barra – is heading towards Ireland and is expected to reach the South West coast around 3am tomorrow morning. It is expected to last about two hours.

As if the winds in excess of 130 km/h were not bad enough, the storm will reach the coast just before a very high tide so flooding is expected, especially near Cork.

Colleges and schools in the Red and Orange alert areas will be closed tomorrow. Maynooth is in a Yellow alert area so the current plan is for the University to remain open, but it may change to Orange overnight and I suspect a significant number of staff and students will not be able to make it in anyway.

I’ll leave it there for tonight and update tomorrow.

UPDATE: 9.20am. It was very windy from about 6am and is now raining very heavily. Some branches have come down but no serious damage done near where I am.

Update: 14:20pm. Winds steadily backing as the depression moves out across the Irish Sea, now North-Easterly bringing colder air.

Exams in the Time of Covid

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth on December 5, 2021 by telescoper

Not an online examination

With two weeks of teaching to go before the Christmas break in Maynooth we now have a settled plan for our January examinations in the Department of Theoretical Physics. We have decided that all our examinations will be done online, as we have done for all cycles of examinations since May 2020.

It seems that most other third-level education institutions – certainly the “traditional” universities have their examinations in December. At NUI Galway, for example, the examination session starts tomorrow (Monday 6th December) and their examinations will be on campus, despite the objections of the Students’ Union. This is also the case at Trinity College and University College Dublin, though University College Cork is doing most of its December exams online.

Our original plan at Maynooth was to have examinations on campus in January and some students were unhappy at the decision to revert to online examinations. The representations I heard from students in the Department of Theoretical Physics all gave the same reason: that online examinations are more difficult than on-campus examinations. I think this is the opposite of what students in other disciplines might think, but our online assessments focus to a greater extent on problem-solving tasks than the on-campus examinations, which means they are more difficult to do by rote learning and regurgitation.

An open-book exam is obviously easier if it simply requires students to look things up in their notes, textbooks or the web. Such an assessment would not only be easier, but also in my view absolutely pointless. Indeed, any exam, whether online or not, that requires students to use their brains only as memory devices is basically worthless. So our approach is to concentrate on the application of principles learned rather than bookwork.

Anyway, back to the on-campus versus on-line issue. I think campus exam venues, if arranged sufficiently carefully, need not be in themselves be places of high risk for Covid-19 risk, but large numbers of students will have to travel to and from them at the same time, largely on public transport, and there will also be a significant amount of milling around before and after. Large lectures (in the case of Maynooth this means over 250) are being delivered online at all Irish universities and exam halls will frequently have to hold greater numbers than that. It therefore seems to me rather inconsistent to insist on having large exams in person.

Finally, I’ll just note that all my colleagues (lecturers and tutors) are reporting a drop-off in student attendance at lectures and tutorials.  Last Friday the campus was extremely quiet, and I had only about half the expected class in my Vector Calculus lecture. This happens a bit in a “normal” year towards the end of term but is more marked this time round. I’m not surprised at it. With around 5000 new Covid cases per day I think many students are anxious not about lectures but about travelling on public transport and having to wait about on campus outside in the cold. I have been recording all my lectures this term and I don’t mind if students choose to view them remotely. Although we’re still officially teaching on campus, in practice many students are doing their learning online.


Sugar Rum Cherry – Duke Ellington

Posted in Biographical, Jazz with tags , , , , , on December 3, 2021 by telescoper

Today has been one of those days on which I’ve been quite busy all day but seem to have achieved very little so I eventually retreated home in the rain to have a drink or several before making dinner.

Jazz and classical music don’t always provide a palatable blend, but here’s one cocktail that definitely works, especially as the festive season approaches. It’s from the 1960 album The Nutcracker Suite by Duke Ellington, based on original music for the ballet by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovksy. Most of the arranging on the album was done by Duke Ellington’s regular collaborator Billy Strayhorn,  and the result is every bit as witty, elegant and charming as you’d expect.  This is their gorgeous take on The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy:

No Booster in Sight…

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth on December 2, 2021 by telescoper

Data from the last few days provide just a hint that the recent increase in Covid-19 infection in Ireland may be slowing down:

Even if this is the case, though, the level of Coronavirus in circulation is very high, much higher than it was this time last year ahead of the Christmas surge and this year there’s the apparently much more transmissible omicron variant to throw into the mix.

I saw a letter in the Irish Times earlier this week pointing out that Universities in Ireland have worked very hard to stay open throughout the recent wave. Third level institutions have been told by Government so stay open despite a wider exhortation to “work from home wherever possible”. Well, most of us have been working from home doing online lectures for most of the past 18 months so we know that is “possible” – and indeed large classes containing over 250 students are still being taught that way – yet we’re now being told that it is essential that we continue teaching smaller classes in person.

I have enjoyed teaching on campus again, despite the hassle of having to improvise a method of recording the blackboard on video. I also believe that the situation is fairly safe, what with well ventilated classrooms, all students wearing face coverings, and everyone vaccinated…

But there’s the rub.

Next Wednesday will be six months since my second dose of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine so I am concerned that my protection is on the wane. Next week I will be due a booster. Unfortunately the Irish Government is making a complete hash of the booster campaign which, as a result, is running way behind many countries, including the UK. Two elderly neighbours of mine in Maynooth had to queue for three hours in the freezing cold at Citiwest for their boosters, only to be told to come back another day as they weren’t ready. I know others in the 60-69 age group who haven’t even got an appointment yet. I am a bright young thing of 58 so I am quite a way back in queue. Although I’m due my booster by next Wednesday I won’t be surprised if I have to wait until after Christmas.

Update: the rollout of boosters to those in the 50-59 age group is supposed to begin in ‘mid-December’.

I’ve said so before on this blog that unless I get my booster before 8th December, I will be switching all my teaching online and working from home and I’ll continue doing that until I am fully protected, however long that takes. It’s not so much that I am afraid of being infected on campus, just that the situation is quite unreasonable and I’m taking a stand on point of principle. As the correspondent in the Irish Times points out, University staff have been taken completely for granted during the pandemic.

P.S. If the Government regards a lecturer’s work as “essential” then they should treat us as frontline staff and prioritize our booster shots. They were keen to set up campus vaccination centres for students so why not do the same for staff?

R.I.P. Jon Davies

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, The Universe and Stuff on December 1, 2021 by telescoper

Once again I find myself having to pass on some bad news. I was shocked and saddened last night to hear of the death of former colleague at Cardiff University, astronomer Prof. Jonathan Davies (shown left).  I understand he had been ill for some time, but had preferred to keep his illness private.

Jon followed an interesting route into astronomy. He left school at 16 to become an apprentice car mechanic and did a few other jobs before deciding to study for a degree in Physics at the University of Bristol in 1986, following that up with a PhD at Cardiff University where he spent the rest of his academic career teaching and doing research in extragalactic astronomy.

Jon’s main research interests involved low surface brightness galaxies and cosmic dust which he studied using observations at a range of wavelengths, using radio and infra-red as well as optical facilities.

Jon was always helpful and supportive to other staff in the School of Physics & Astronomy, especially new arrivals. For example, when I was arrived in Cardiff in 2007 I inherited a part of a module from Jon (the “Nuclear” part of “Nuclear and Particle Physics”) and he was very helpful in getting me started on it. I remember also having interesting discussions with him about the physics of the hyperfine transition in atomic hydrogen which produces the 21cm much exploited by astronomers but for some reason not covered in much detail by many quantum mechanics texts.

Jon Davies was a fine colleague and an excellent astronomer who will be greatly missed in Cardiff and beyond. I send my heartfelt condolences to his wife Anne and their family on their loss.


Four Years in Maynooth

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , on December 1, 2021 by telescoper


In recent times I’ve found myself remarking quite frequently on this blog how much the Covid-19 pandemic has played havoc with my perception of the passage of time, and I come to reflect on that again now that today (1st December 2021) marks four years since I started work at Maynooth University. So much has happened in that period it seems very much longer since I first arrived here.

I started off working part-time here in Maynooth and part-time in Cardiff, commuting once a week to and fro across the Irish Sea until July 2018. That was a very tiring experience that brought it home very forcefully that I don’t have anywhere near as much energy as I did when I was younger.

I won’t deny that the past four years have had their frustrations. The teaching and administrative workload, especially since I became Head of Department in 2019, and even more so since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, has been very heavy and has made it difficult to be very active in research. That’s not helped by the lack of opportunities for funding in basic science, thanks to what I believe to be a very short-sighted policy on research funding by the Irish government.

On the other hand, I have great colleagues and the students are very engaged. There are few things in life more rewarding than teaching people who really want to learn.

I hadn’t realized when I arrived in Ireland that it would take the best part of three years to find somewhere permanent to live, but I managed to buy a house in the summer of 2020. I am very happy here despite the continuing restrictions due to the pandemic.

The thing I’m probably most proud of over the past four years is, with the huge help of staff at Maynooth University Library, getting the Open Journal of Astrophysics off the ground and attracting some excellent papers. Hopefully that will continue to grow next year.

I am also proud of having played a part in the successful application for a new SALI Chair which we will be advertising formally in the new year. That is just one of many new developments on the horizon here at Maynooth, which suggest the next few years should be very exciting for physics and astronomy at Maynooth.

So, after a few years of hard and at times dispiriting slog, things are definitely looking up. Meanwhile, in Brexit Britain, events have turned out exactly as I predicted:

The referendum campaign, followed by the callous and contemptuous attitude of the current UK Government towards EU nationals living in Britain, unleashed a sickening level of xenophobia that has made me feel like a stranger in my own country. Not everyone who voted `Leave’ is a bigot, of course, but every bigot voted for Brexit and the bigots are now calling all the shots. There are many on the far right of UK politics who won’t be satisfied until we have ethnic cleansing. Even if Brexit is stopped the genie of intolerance is out of the bottle and I don’t think it well ever be put back. Brexit will also doom the National Health Service and the UK university system, and clear the way for the destruction of workers’ rights and environmental protection. The poor and the sick will suffer, while only the rich swindlers who bought the referendum result will prosper. The country in which I was born, and in which I have lived for the best part of 54 years, is no longer something of which I want to be a part.

In other words I don’t regret for one minute my decision to leave Britain.

P.S. After I finish my term as Head of Department next year I am eligible for a sabbatical, so if anyone fancies playing host to an old cosmologist please let me know!

P.P.S. Solidarity to all my colleagues in UK universities who are, from today, taking part in strike action against pension cuts and deteriorating working conditions.

A Pembrokeshire Dangler

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff on November 28, 2021 by telescoper

I checked the weather app on my phone last night and noticed the unmistakable cloud formation over the Irish Sea known as a Pembrokshire Dangler:

The Dangler is the strip of rain  over the Irish Sea extending North from the Pembrokeshire coast in Wales. I knew I had mentioned this phenomenon before on this blog and when I check it turns out to have been almost exactly four years ago. That’s not very surprising as winter is definitely the season for dangling. There has been a northerly airflow over Ireland for a few days now, which is why it has been so cold here, though in relatively sheltered Maynooth we have been spared the worst of the effects of Storm Arwen.

The situation required for the formation of a Pembrokeshire Dangler (which quite often involves snow rather than rain) is a cold northerly airflow down into the Irish Sea from the Arctic. This combines with slightly warmer air in the form of land breezes from the Irish coast to the North West and the Scottish coast to the North East, funneling the airflow into a narrow channel over the Irish Sea in which convection cells form, leading to precipitation. The configuration is quite stable as long as the dominant northerly airflow continues so although the strip of cloud tends to persist for some time once it has formed.

Back to Online Examinations Again

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on November 26, 2021 by telescoper

This afternoon teaching staff at Maynooth University were informed of changes to the plans for the January examination session: all examinations will now be held remotely, apart possibly from those for some final-year modules; for the latter the lecturer will decide whether they should be on campus or remote.

It’s worth mentioning that a petition set up recently by the Maynooth University Students Union urging the University to switch exams online attractive over 4,000 signatures.

As I said a while ago I think this is a very sensible move. I was chatting to some students before a lecture earlier today and I think they will all be relieved that a decision has been taken and they can make sensible plans for the Examination Period. I am teaching one module for first-year students and one for second-years this semester so both of these will definitely be going online.

We now have done three full cycles of online examinations since the pandemic started: May 2020, January 2021 and May 2021, plus two sets of repeats. I think we have a pretty good idea what we are doing with them and have got three weeks before the end of term to make any changes to the papers we have written for January. Since the online examinations are effectively open-book tests we tend to exclude bookwork – stating results which the students could easily look up – and concentrate instead on problem-solving tasks. Online examinations done this way are certainly no easier than in-person papers, and emphasize what is probably the most useful skill we try to develop.

I am glad we have some clarity on the examinations. We still have three weeks of teaching to finish before the end of term, though, and no changes have been announced to plans for lectures and tutorials. I told my class this afternoon however that as of Wednesday 8th December I will have exceeded 6 months since my second Pfizer dose. There is very little chance I will get a booster dose by then so I will be working from home from that date until the end of term. That means I’ll be doing three first-year lectures and three second-year lectures from home using my famous blackboard. I explained this decision to my second-year class today and they were supportive.

Peppa Pig: An Apology

Posted in Biographical, Education, Politics, Television with tags , on November 24, 2021 by telescoper
Offensive Item

I have over many years been using the item shown above in lectures to demonstrate the properties of spherical surfaces, for example in situations involving vector calculus and in astrophysics. Given recent events, however, I realize that my use of this specific object may cause offence through the possibility that it may be construed as an endorsement of the views of the UK Prime Minister. I would therefore like to make it clear that no such endorsement should be inferred, that I have never visited Peppa Pig World, and that I did not play any part in the writing of Mr Johnson’s speech to the Confederation of British Idiots earlier this week.

I can also confirm that I have now disposed of the above item in an authorised refuse and recycling centre.

I hope this clarifies the situation.