Archive for the Biographical Category

Thirty Years as a Doctor!

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on July 11, 2019 by telescoper

A chance discovery while rummaging around in my filing cabinet reminded me that today is the anniversary of a momentous event. What I found was this:

It’s the programme of the summer Graduation Ceremony in 1989 at which I formally received my DPhil (Doctor of Philosophy). As you will see that was precisely thirty years ago today!

I actually submitted my thesis the previous summer (either at the end of August or start of September 1988) but had to wait a few months for the examination, which I think was in December.  By the time I had done my corrections (mainly typographical errors) the next available date for the degree to be formally conferred was in July 1989 so that’s when I officially got doctored. I was actually still in Brighton at the time, as had started work as a postdoctoral researcher soon after I had submitted my thesis.

Here’s my thesis:

In those days they actually printed the thesis title in the programme, alongside the graduand’s name in the case of DPhil degrees.

It’s normal practice for people to assume the title of Doctor as soon as they have passed the viva voce examination but although I’ve never objected to that,  I’ve always been a bit unsure of the legality. Probably one doesn’t actually have a doctorate until it is conferred (either at a ceremony or in absentia).

Anyway, here is a picture of me (aged 26!)  emerging from the Brighton Centre wearing the old-style Sussex doctoral gown just after I received my DPhil:


Unfortunately the University of Sussex decided a while ago to change the style of its academic dress recently to something a bit more conventional and as far as I know it’s not possible to obtain the old-style gowns any more. They also changed the title DPhil to PhD because it confused potential students, especially those not from the UK.

My first degree came from Cambridge so I had to participate in an even more archaic ceremony for that institution. The whole thing is done in Latin there (or was when I graduated) and involves each graduand holding a finger held out by their College’s Praelector and then kneeling down in front of the presiding dignitary, who is either the Vice-Chancellor ot the Chancellor. I can’t remember which. It’s also worth mentioning that although I did Natural Sciences (specialising in Theoretical Physics), the degree I got was Bachelor of Arts. Other than that, and the fact that the graduands had to walk to the Senate House from their College through the streets of Cambridge,  I don’t remember much about the actual ceremony.

I was very nervous for that first graduation. The reason was that my parents had divorced some years before and my Mum had re-married. My Dad wouldn’t speak to her or her second husband. Immediately after the ceremony there was a garden party at my college, Magdalene, at which the two parts of my family occupied positions at opposite corners of the lawn and I scuttled between them trying to keep everyone happy. It was like that for the rest of the day and I have to say it was very stressful. A few years later I got my doctorate from the University of Sussex, at the Brighton Centre on the seafront. It was pretty much the same deal again with the warring family factions, but I enjoyed the whole day a lot more that time. And I got to wear the funny gown.


A Head Again!

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth with tags , on July 4, 2019 by telescoper

Today is Independence Day – on which all joint probabilities P(A,B) can be expressed in the form P(A)P(B) – and by coincidence I received a letter that I’ve been expecting from the President. No, not Michael D. Higgins (nor Donald Trump for that matter) but the President of Maynooth University, Professor Philip Nolan.

Despite it being marked Strictly Private and Confidential I have actually read it, and it says that I have been appointed as Head of the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University, with effect from 1st September 2019.

The appointment is for three years in the first instance, with the possibility of renewal for another two years `subject to satisfactory performance’. So just the three years then.

The current Head of Department is taking a sabbatical next semester (from September to January) and just this morning we have been interviewing candidates for a temporary to provide teaching cover for his absence. Now we officially begin the handover (including, I suppose, moving offices…).

It’s about three years now since I stepped down as Head of School at the University of Sussex at which point I didn’t imagine I would be stepping up to be Head of Anything again, but to be honest this position has a smaller and much better defined set of responsibilities than the one I used to hold so I’m actually quite looking forward to it.

But first I’m going to take tomorrow off.

Additional Mathematics O-level 1979

Posted in Biographical, Education, mathematics with tags , , , on July 1, 2019 by telescoper

Yesterday a comment appeared on an old post of mine about the O-level Examination I took in Mathematics when I was at School. With a shock that reminded me that it was FORTY years ago this summer that I was taking my O-levels at the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle. That’s a memory lane down which I wasn’t anxious to take a trip.

For any youngsters reading this, the GCE (General Certificate of Education) Ordinary Level Examinations O-levels were taken at age sixteen in the United Kingdom back in the day; they were replaced during the 1980s by the modern GCSE Examination. For readers in Ireland the O-levels were roughly equivalent to the Junior Certificate, just as A-levels are roughly equivalent to the Leaving Certificate.

Anyway, that also reminded me that I never got round to posting the other O-level I took in Mathematics that summer, in Additional Mathematics. I thought I’d remedy that failing now, so here are the two papers I took (on Tuesday 26 June 1979 and Thursday 5 July respectively.

I had forgotten that there was so much mechanics in this actually (Section C of each paper). Is that different from equivalent papers nowadays? In fact I’d be interested in comments about the content and level of difficulty of this compared to modern examinations in mathematics via the box below.

P.S. I did ten O-levels that summer of ’79: Mathematics; Additional Mathematics; Combined Science (2); English Language; English Literature; French; Latin; History; and Geography. I still have all the papers and have only posted a subset. If anyone has requests for any others please let me know and I’ll scan them.

Stonewall, Fifty Years On

Posted in Biographical, LGBT with tags , , , , , on June 28, 2019 by telescoper

Well, it’s 28th June 2019 which means that it is exactly 50 years to the day since the Stonewall Riots, the event commemorated each year by the annual Pride celebrations. The Dublin Pride Parade is tomorrow, actually. My Facebook and twitter feeds have been filled with rainbows all week, and it is nice to to see so many people, straight and gay, celebrating diversity and equality. I’m a bit more cynical about the number of businesses that have tried to cash in on  Pride but even that is acceptance of a sort. It remains to be seen how many of them are fair weather friends. I’m sure I’m not the only person who sees the dark clouds of bigotry threatening the fragile and precious rainbow.


It’s all very different from the first Pride March I went on, way back in 1986. That was a much smaller scale event than yesterday’s, and politicians were – with very few exceptions – notable by their absence.

It was in the early hours of the morning of Saturday June 28th 1969 that the Stonewall Riots took place in the Greenwich Village area of New York City. There are few photographs and no film footage of what happened which, together with some conflicting eyewitness accounts, has contrbuted to the almost mythical status of these demonstations, which were centred on the Stonewall Inn (which, incidentally, still exists).  What is, I think, clear is that they were the spontaneous manifestation of the anger of a community that had simply had enough of the way it was being treated by the police. Although it wasn’t the first such protest in the USA, I still think it is also the case that Stonewall was a defining moment in the history of the movement for LGBT equality.

One of the myths that has grown up around Stonewall is that the Stonewall Inn was a place primarily frequented by drag queens and it was the drag queens who began the fight back against intolerable  police harassment. That was the standard version, but the truth is much more complicated and uncertain that that. Nevertheless, it is clear that it was the attempted arrest of four people – three male (cross-dressers) and one female – that ignited the protest. Whether they led it or not, there’s no doubt that drag queens played a major role in the birth of the gay liberation movement. Indeed, to this day, it remains the case that the “T” part of the LGBT spectrum (which I interpret to include Transgender and Transvestite) is often neglected by the rest of the rainbow.

I have my own reasons for being grateful for drag queens. When I was a youngster (still at School) I occasionally visited a gay bar in Newcastle called the Courtyard. I was under age for drinking alcohol let alone anything else – the age of consent was 21 in those days – but I got a kick out of the attention I received and flirted outrageously without ever taking things any further. I never had to buy my own drinks, let’s put it that way.

Anyway, one evening I left the pub to get the bus home – the bus station was adjacent to the pub – but was immediately confronted by a young bloke who grabbed hold of me and asked if I was a “poof”. Before I could answer, a figure loomed up behind him and shouted “Leave him alone!”. My assailant let go of me and turned round to face my guardian angel, or rather guardian drag queen. No ordinary drag queen either. This one, at least in my memory, was enormous: about six foot six and built like a docker, but looking even taller because of the big hair and high heels. The yob laughed sneeringly whereupon he received the immediate response of a powerful right jab to the point of the chin, like something out of boxing manual. His head snapped back and hit the glass wall of a bus shelter. Blood spurted from his mouth as he slumped to the ground.

I honestly thought he was dead, and so apparently did my rescuer who told me in no uncertain terms to get the hell away. Apart from everything else, the pub would have got into trouble if they’d known I had even been in there. I ran to the next stop where I got a bus straightaway. I was frightened there would be something on the news about a violent death in the town centre, but that never happened. It turns out the “gentleman” concerned had bitten his tongue when the back of his head hit the bus shelter. Must have been painful, but not life-threatening. My sympathy remains limited.

I think there’s a moral to this story, but I’ll leave it up to you to decide what it is.

Anyway, back to Pride. In a post a few days ago I referred to the view that since we now, for example, ave equal marriage then it’s basically all done, isn’t it? There’s now no discrimination. You can stop talking about LGBT+ matters and `just be a scientist’.

That, I’m afraid, is bollocks. We may have equal marriage but, though welcome, by no means represents some sort of utopia. Society is still basically a patriarchy, configured in a way that is profoundly unfair to many groups of people, so there are still many challenges to be fought. Hate crimes against LGBT+ – especially transgender – people have rocketed. The rise of fascism around the world is encouraging bigots to target minorities and other vulnerable groups with their agenda of hate. Unless we keep pushing for a truly inclusive society there is a real danger that the rights we have won could easily be rolled back. In fact, you could really say that it’s really just the start. We still need to stand up for ourselves just like the heroes of 1969.

Synthesis – Con Moto

Posted in Biographical, Jazz with tags , , , , , on June 25, 2019 by telescoper

You will have to be of a certain age to remember this piece of music, the second movement (Con Moto) of a four-part work called Synthesis by Laurie Johnson who was a renowned composer of TV themes. This piece, however, written for Jazz Big Band and Symphony Orchestra, was used for many years as the intro theme Sounds of Jazz, a BBC2 Radio 2 programme presented on Sunday evenings by Peter Clayton. I always used to switch over from John Peel when Sounds of Jazz started, but we never got to hear more than the first minute or so so here’s the whole piece.

There are some exceptional British musicians on this track, including Kenny Wheeler (trumpet), Tubby Hayes and Tony Coe on reeds, and the great Stan Tracey on piano. It’s the London Jazz Orchestra, in fact, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Now, for bonus marks, can anyone remember what was the music used to close this show?

Birds of Play

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth with tags , , on June 23, 2019 by telescoper

As if it weren’t enough to have a celebrity cat, Maynooth University now also has a celebrity bird. Or birds. I’m not absolutely sure that it’s the same Jackdaw that is a frequent visitor to offices on the South Campus, as they are so many around, but here are a few pictures taken from Twitter which may or may not be the same critter:

I’ll assume for the purpose of this blog that it is the same bird, but I don’t know whether it’s male or female so I’ll just say call it `it’. As you can see, it is very trusting of humans.

Jackdaws are extremely characterful, intelligent and inquisitive birds. These traits are not unrelated. In fact this is true in general of the family Corvidae which includes the genus Corvus (crows, rooks, ravens, and jackdaws) as well as magpies, jays, nutcrackers and a number of other species: this family has about the same ratio of brain to body weight as the great apes and cetaceans.

One of the characteristics of this family is their propensity to indulge in various forms of play. I imagine most people know that magpies and other Corvidae like to steal and hoard shiny things, but they also engage in even stranger behaviour. I saw some crows sliding down a roof on campus during the winter snows, which is one of their favourite games. They also like to hang upside down from branches, washing lines and telephone wires. Another thing I’ve seen groups of campus jackdaws do is collect sticks and arrange them in patterns on the ground. I’m not at all sure of the rules of the game they were playing, but they seemed to be taking it very seriously, which made it all the funnier to watch.

I’ve heard various reports of what the Jackdaw above gets up to when visiting staff offices. Most of its activities cause considerable chaos. It seems to be fascinated by string, elastic bands and tissue paper which it pulls out of any container that it can and scatters about. It also has a particular interest in pencils, a fascination which may be related to the stick game I mentioned in the previous paragraph, and it delights in pulling them out of containers to play with.

I’m not aware of any jackdaws coming into offices on the North Campus (where my office is situated), which is a shame because they provide a great deal of amusement.I imagine it took quite a long time to build up a sufficient level of trust for this one to feel comfortable indoors because, outside, they seem rather wary of humans.

I can add one personal anecdote though. Some weeks ago I went for a walk along the canal and at one point sat down on a bench on the towpath. I wasn’t there long until a Jackdaw appeared on the ground and began tugging at the shoelaces on my left foot. I assumed it thought they were something edible such as worms or perhaps spaghetti so just watched in amusement as it tugged more and more frantically. It was only then that I realized that there another Jackdaw had appeared to my right hand side on the bench and was busy trying to get into my bag. This was clearly an attempted distraction theft, but I refrained from calling the Gardaí..

P.S. Here’s a hooded crow trying much the same trick.

Summer Open Day

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , on June 22, 2019 by telescoper

This morning I made my way onto campus to  represent the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University’s Summer Open Day which took place today. Naturally I encountered Maynooth Library Cat on the way. I’ve never seen him in that location amid the shrubs before, and when I saw him heading for that place I thought he might be about to do a poo in the mulch (which looks a bit like a litter tray). Instead of that he just flopped into the position shown in the photo. It was quite sunny early on today and I think he was happy to have found a spot in the shade.

Despite the good weather, the Open Day wasn’t as busy as the last couple I’ve been involved with, probably because this year’s Leaving Certificate examinations haven’t quite finished. Nevertheless we had a reasonable number of prospective students visit the stall in Iontas, shown here with Rebekah (a current student in the Department on a summer research project):

Later on I gave a talk. The audience was fairly small but quite a few people took the opportunity to ask questions at the end, so I think it was useful for those who attended.

At least today the weather was nice, even if the occurrence of the solstice yesterday means that the nights are now drawing in…

I find these occasions always bring a bit of a flashback to Sussex days, actually, when I used to have to do this sort of thing quite regularly on Saturdays throughout the year. It’s almost three years since I left there. Can it really be so long already?