Archive for the Biographical Category

The Final Third

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Maynooth on November 20, 2022 by telescoper

There are now precisely four weeks to go until the end of teaching term at Maynooth University. Since the FIFA World Cup starts today it seems apt to borrow a sporting cliché and describe this as the final third. Miraculously, given that I’m having to fit 12 weeks of teaching into 11 week term for the first years, I’m almost on schedule with both my modules but I have this weekend come down with something which may affect the rest of term. I don’t think it’s Covid-19 – at least the antigen test I did yesterday was negative – but whatever it is I hope it doesn’t get worse. All the teaching staff in the Department of Theoretical Physics already have very heavy teaching loads already so we simply don’t have any spare staff to cover my lectures if I can’t deliver them. I don’t know what I’ll do in that case. I suppose I could recycle some of last year’s videos, or record some new ones from my sick bed. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. It may be just a cold.

Anyway, what was until last week an unusually mild autumn has turned into something much more wintry. The sudden cold snap has set off my arthritis, which is an additional complication on top of whatever bug I’ve got.

Evidence of the Berry Phase

Outside temperatures have plummeted so I have mobilized my bird feeders to take care of the feathered friends in the garden. Fortunately there is ready-made food at this time of the year in the form of berries on the Cotoneaster bushes. I watched a song thrush for about ten minutes tucking in yesterday. Pigeons like them too. The birds usually don’t strip all the berries so there’ll be food of that form for a while but some of the smaller birds can’t eat them so I’ve put out seed and peanuts too.

UPDATE: Monday 21st November. It appears it was just a cold, or something else very mild, as I felt much better this morning and went to work as normal.

The Week(s) Ahead

Posted in Biographical, Education, Irish Language with tags , , on November 6, 2022 by telescoper

So here we are then. The study break is over. Tomorrow we resume teaching. Six weeks of the semester gone. Another six to go. I didn’t do half the things I meant to do last week but at least I’m not behind with teaching things. I should be able to cover everything I need to cover in the second half without having to speed up too much. That’s the hope anyway.

Over the weekend I’ve been thinking a bit about my social media strategy, if you can call it that. It seems Elon Musk has realized that Twitter isn’t worth a fraction of what he paid for it, and is worth even less now that advertisers are fleeing, so has decided to recoup at least some of his losses by giving priority to anyone who wants to pay $8 a month so they can broadcast whatever they like withouyt moderation. The famous “blue tick” will no longer even mean a verified user, just someone willing to pay to shout at everyone else. Musk is also in the process of sacking about half his workforce.

I’m not going to pay anything to the Chief Twit and don’t like the way Twitter is going anyway so I’ve decided that I will indeed move to Mastodon, which I quite like, and where you can find me here. I don’t have a huge Twitter following so migrating to Mastodon is no big deal for me. I see many thousands I know on Twitter and many more I don’t are doing likewise.

Posts from this blog are automatically sent to Twitter and I won’t stop doing that, but I won’t be logging on there much except from time to time to block anyone I see who has a blue tick on their profile…

Anyway, in other news, the forthcoming week also sees me resume my feeble attempts to learn the Irish language, so it’s possible I may be boring you all with updates over the next few weeks and months. You have been warned.

Nocturne in Black and Gold

Posted in Art, Biographical with tags , , on November 5, 2022 by telescoper

`Only Connect’ – the epigraph of the novel Howard’s End by E.M. Forster – was a favourite phrase of one of my English teachers at school, and he invoked it whenever he set us one of his creative writing challenges. We were given two apparently disconnected things (usually news items), asked to think of a possible connection between them and write an story joining them together. From time to time when stuck for a topic for a blog post I’ve resorted to playing the same game.

In that vein: (a) I noticed a story last week about a painting by Piet Mondrian which has been hanging upside down for 75 years and (b) today is November 5th, Bonfire Night in the United Kingdom. The connection between these two things that sprang to my mind is this painting, Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket by James McNeill Whistler.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne in Black and Gold – the Falling Rocket, c1875, oil on panel, 60.3 × 46.7 cm (Detroit Institute of Arts)

This, the last in his wonderful series of paintings of night-time scenes, first displayed in 1877, is set in the Cremorne Gardens, which was a park in Chelsea, though in a manner typical of Whistler’s work of this period it is more a response to the location than a representation of it. The sombre colours – mainly green and blue, except for the grey smoke of the falling rocket and the gold flames and flashes of fireworks – are layered in such a way as to blur the situational context of the composition so that it’s no longer a purely figurative work. It’s certainly an enigmatic painting, but I think the arrangement of colours and textures is very well balanced as well as intriguing. It is historically important too, because it represents one of the first stirrings of modernism in art in England.

The compositional ambiguity is deliberate. The ghostly figures in the foreground are almost transparent. Are they even people? When asked this question himself, Whistler replied “They are just what you like”. Whistler is encouraging viewers of his work to construe their own meaning in, and interpretation of, what he put on the canvas. As an astrophysicist, the filamentary pattern of sparks reminds me of chains of distant galaxies. What does it remind you of?

Nocturne in Black and Gold is also famous for having been at the centre of a libel case. The influential art critic John Ruskin hated it and accused Whistler of “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face”. Whistler sued for damages (though he couldn’t really afford to). He won the case against Ruskin, but the outcome was financially disastrous for him because he was awarded only one farthing in damages.

Anyway, the connection with the Mondrian story is that Whistler’s case was done no favours when this painting was brought into the courtroom during the Whistler v Ruskin case, as it was was presented for viewing upside down

Hallowe’en in the Dark once more

Posted in Biographical, Film, Music with tags , , on October 31, 2022 by telescoper

So we have arrived at October 31st, Hallowe’en or, in pagan terms, Samhain. This, a cross-quarter day – roughly halfway between the Autumnal Equinox and the Winter Solstice – represents the start of winter (“the dark half of the year“) in the Celtic calendar. As it turns out I didn’t get any trick-or-treaters this evening. I think the torrential rain put the dampeners on any such adventures, and I could scarcely hear the fireworks for the sound of the rain stotting down on my roof.

Despite my own reservations about Hallowe’en, I’ve decided to resurrect the following little video which seems to be appropriate for the occasion. It’s made of bits of old horror B-movies but the music – by Bobby “Boris” Pickett and the Crypt-kickers is actually the second 7″ single I ever bought, way back in 1973…

On Mastodon…

Posted in Biographical with tags , , , on October 31, 2022 by telescoper

The recent takeover of Twitter by Elon Musk, and the likely removal of content moderation with all that implies for increased toxic behaviour, has led me to reconsider my use of social media. I know I’m not alone in this either. Over the weekend I noticed quite a few of my friends quitting Twitter for Mastodon so I thought I’d give it a go.

Mastodon is a microblogging service with a similar look and functionality to Twitter but there are some big differences. For a start Mastodon is not run from a single website. It is a distributed network of servers around the world running open-source software; each server is called an ‘instance’. This means that it is not owned by a single individual or company and the different instances can have different moderation policies. Any person or organization capable of operating a server running the software, and willing to take on the legal issues, can federate to the overall network.

For another thing it is community led, with each instance run by volunteers. It is free of charge, has no advertising , so none of those annoying ‘promoted tweets’, nor any creepy algorithms trying to influence your behaviour, and above all does not exist to serve the ego of a billionaire owner with sociopathic tendencies.

Then there is the moderation policy. I joined the original server `’ (where I am the usual @telescoper) which has the following rules:

Hopefully this will deter those who spend all their time on Twitter sending abuse from joining Mastodon. This server is based in Germany, hence number 5. Although I think it was included for other reasons, it reminds me that defamation is a criminal offence in Germany, punishable by a prison sentence. A certain individual who has a habit of posting defamatory messages about me on Twitter should bear this in mind…

Anyway, I’ve only just got onto the platform and am still finding my way around. I only have a handful of followers, compared to the 7000+ I have on Twitter. For the time being I’m still on Twitter, but if it goes well then I intend to leave that to the trolls and bigots. I’m sick of spending so much time blocking objectionable people and seeing decent people abused.

P.S. One thing I think would be handy would be an API that allows me to publish these blog posts automatically on Mastodon like I do on Twitter, but I haven’t seen one yet…

Study Break Time

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Irish Language, Maynooth with tags , , , , on October 29, 2022 by telescoper

Yesterday my Vector Calculus students gave me the above Hallowe’en gift, which was nice of them, although I did chastise them for missing the apostrophe. Of course Hallowe’en itself is not until Monday, but that is a Bank Holiday in Ireland and the rest of next week is Study Week so there are no lectures or tutorials.

Hallowe’en is, in pagan terminology, Samhain. This, a cross-quarter day – roughly halfway between the Autumnal Equinox and the Winter Solstice, represents the start of winter (“the dark half of the year“) in the Celtic calendar. Samhain is actually November 1st but in Celtic tradition the day begins and ends at sunset, so the celebrations begin on the evening of 31st.

Incidentally, Samhain is pronounced something like “sawin”. The h after the m denotes lenition of the consonant (which in older forms of Irish would have been denoted by a dot on top of the m) so when followed by a broad vowel the m is pronounced like the English “w”; when followed by a slender vowel or none “mh” is pronounced “v” or in other words like the German “w” (which makes it easier to remember). I only mention this because I will be resuming my Irish language education after the break with classes every week for the rest of the academic year. Hopefully I’ll make some progress.

This term has been very tiring so far. I have to teach a very big first-year class this year which meant adding another tutorial group. Although I stepped down as Head of Department at the end of August the powers that be delayed appointing a replacement until well into term which caused a lot of unnecessary stress for everyone. Once we got under way, though, everything has settled down reasonably well.

One thing I was a bit worried about this term was that the resumption of in-person teaching would lead to a surge in Covid-19 cases, not only in Maynooth but across the country. However there isn’t any evidence of significant increases in the latest figures (updated weekly nowadays, on Wednesdays):

Some students have come down with Covid-19 of course but not in the numbers I had feared. Also despite accommodation shortages and other difficulties, attendance at lectures and tutorials has so far held up well.

I like having the study break. I’ve never previously worked at an institution that has such a thing, but I think 12 weeks of non-stop teaching would be extremely exhausting. Anyway, after the break we have a further six weeks of teaching until December 16th, which is the official end of term, but for now I have Monday off completely and the rest of the week without teaching duties. That’s not to say I’ll be on holiday though. I have a number of tasks to catch up on, including setting examination papers for January…

Summer Programme for Undergraduate Research

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on October 28, 2022 by telescoper

Not long ago I posted an item about the Summer Programme for Undergraduate Research (SPUR) at Maynooth University. This past summer I had two undergraduate students doing research projects with me funded under this scheme. They were both involved with making Monte Carlo simulations of galaxy clustering and using them to test various statistical analysis tools. The Department of Theoretical Physics actually had five students on three different projects, which is quite a lot for a small Department. The University as a whole had 57 SPUR students so we had almost ten percent of the total!

Well, earlier this week there was a Research Symposium at which all the summer’s research undergraduates presented posters on their work, with prizes being awarded for the best. I couldn’t attend the Symposium because of other commitments but I was delighted to find out that both my students won prizes – that’s two out of the five awarded. Here are the pictures of them being presented with their awards at the ceremony yesterday, flanked by the Vice-for Research and Innovation, Brian Donnellan and the President, Eeva Leinonen.

The awards ceremony was held in the foyer of the new TSI building yesterday afternoon, which wasn’t an ideal choice because the acoustic is very poor and lots of students were making their way to and from lectures. I didn’t hear a word of the speeches, actually. Nevertheless it was nice to see Pawel (top prize in the Science and Engineering category) and Lisa (audience choice prize winner) collect their awards. It was a pleasure to work with both of them this summer!

Incidentally, the SPUR students are paid for the projects, which last for (usually) six weeks but can be extended. I wish we could offer these projects to every student who wanted one, actually, but we just can’t afford to do that. I don’t agree with unpaid internships as these can only be taken up by students who have access to enough income to cover living expenses over the summer, so are discriminatory. We select students based on an application form and their academic performance.

A New Head for the UK

Posted in Biographical, Politics with tags , , on October 21, 2022 by telescoper
The UK’s new Head of Lettuce Government

Although I no longer live in Britain, every morning I look at the UK news media to check the previous night’s football results and find out who is the latest Prime Minister.

I had a quick look this morning before work and unless I’ve misunderstood things, Liz Truss has been replaced as PM by a lettuce.

I think we need to know whether the lettuce voted leaf or romaine ‘cos the answer to that little gem could be the tip of the iceberg that may end up determining whether its popularity will rocket… (continued, p. 94)

The Autumn Leaves

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth with tags , , on October 16, 2022 by telescoper

Autumn is definitely here. It’s very nice to live in a tree-lined street but the consequence of that at this time of year is that there are leaves everywhere. They don’t call it “fall” for nothing. Actually I let the leaves lie until they compost down on the actual garden but unfortunately the side of my house is a bit of wind trap and they tend to accumulate there in large quantities. When they do start to break down it makes a slippery hazard for anyone visiting, especially if it rains.

So this lunchtime I cleared away most of the leaves from the path leading up to my front door, in which task I was joined by a little robin who was no doubt hoping I would disturb some bugs or at any rate something edible when I swept up the leaves. I’m not sure this is the same robin that came in my house earlier this year, but it wasn’t afraid to come very close.

Reading a little about robins I discovered that many don’t live to reach their first birthday, but those that do have a good chance of living quite a while longer. The record is 19 years! Today’s robin could be the same one I’ve seen before, but I can’t be certain.

That reminded me that it was about time to start putting the bird feeders out again so I went out and bought some seed and peanuts and fat balls, although I think I’ll keep those for when it’s a bit colder.

At some point soon I’ll have to get the ladders out and trim back the ivy which is once again reaching the top of the wall. That will have to wait a few days, though, as my garden refuse bin is now full and won’t be empty again until Wednesday.

That Was The (Space) Week That Was

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on October 7, 2022 by telescoper

Last night I participated in an event at Maynooth for Space Week which I think went very well. We had a big audience so the decision to move to a bigger lecture theatre was a good one. Nobody took count but I think we had as many as 400 people of all ages, including some very young kids, some students and a variety of others.

I was the last one up to speak and took a few pictures at the three talks before mine but obviously couldn’t take a picture of mine so I’ve included a pic of some of the hi-tech equipment I used for a couple of demonstrations:

If anyone wants to see the pictures I showed you can find them here:

There was an official photographer there last night so I’ll upload any pictures I come across in due course. Watch this space.

UPDATE: Here’s a picture of the four speakers

Last night’s four speakers: Créidhe O’Sullivan, Me, Emma Whelan and John Regan

Anyway, thank you to everyone for coming last night and especially to all the people who helped organize and run the event, including our student volunteers. We’re planning to do similar event for space week next year and hopefully this will become a regular feature in the calendar.