Archive for the Biographical Category

Reasons to stay alive

Posted in Biographical, Mental Health with tags , , , , on September 15, 2019 by telescoper

I saw this message from author Matt Haig on Twitter last weekend and it affected me so much I couldn’t write about it at the time.

Twenty years ago, when he was in his twenties, Matt tried to take his own life. He didn’t succeed, but the attempt left him severely ill as he summarises in that tweet. He wrote about his crisis in his book Reasons To Stay Alive, from which I have borrowed the title of this post.

Why did this message affect me so much? It’s largely because the words he uses to describe his condition also exactly describe what I was like seven years ago when I was admitted to an acute ward in a psychiatric hospital. I wasn’t exactly suicidal, just so exhausted that I didn’t really care what happened next. I was however put on a kind of `suicide watch’, the reason for this being that, apparently, even while sedated, I kept trying to pull the tube out of my arm. I was being fed via a drip because I was ‘Nil by Mouth’ by virtue of uncontrollable vomiting. I guess the doctors thought I was trying to sabotage myself, but I wasn’t. Not consciously anyway. I think it was probably just irritating me. In fact I don’t remember doing it at all, but that period is very much a blur altogether. Anyway, I then found myself in physical restraints so I couldn’t move my arms to stop me doing that.

Eventually I was deemed well enough to move to a general ward and shortly after that I was discharged (with follow-up counselling and medication).

Experiences like that – which I sincerely hope none of you reading this ever have to go through – make you feel very isolated because you are lost inside your own head and body. Knowing that other people go through similar things, and not only survive but prosper, helps a lot. You feel a bit less of an outlier. Of course I’ll never appear on stage at the National Theatre, but although the intervening years haven’t exactly been plain sailing, the last seven have brought far more positives than negatives.

It’s hard to explain why Matt’s message had such a resonance. His experience was clearly far worse than mine, but when I was discharged from hospital the doctors made it very clear just how ill I had been, and that if there was any recurrence I should get help as soon as possible. As well as writing about it on this blog, I did a piece for Time to Change Wales, encouraging people to ask for help if they need it.

Anyway, this brings me to the point of this sermon. Yesterday I received this by email:

It’s from Niteline, an organisation whose volunteers offer students free confidential counselling, and it came with a suggestion (which I will follow) that I should share it with students before and after my lectures. I’m not sure how many students will read this blog, but I thought I would share it here too. If it encourages just one person who is struggling to find someone to talk to then it’s worth it.


Conferring Ceremony

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on September 12, 2019 by telescoper

So far it has been a very busy but interesting day, involving both the start of a new academic year and the end of the old one. Today I did three subject information talks – to different groups of students – about our Mathematical and Theoretical Physics courses here at Maynooth University. This is part of the pre-term  Orientation Week, designed to help new arrivals at the University settle into their courses and choose their options.

In between these sessions signifying the start of the new academic cycle,  I had to don academic garb in order to attend my first ever Graduation Ceremony at Maynooth, thus marking the end of the old.

These events are not actually called Graduation Ceremonies here in Ireland but Conferring Ceremonies. I was impressed that the local suppliers of academic dress, Phelan Conan were able to find and supply the correct 1989 vintage DPhil gown from Sussex University as opposed to the less interesting modern one.

Aula Maxima, Maynooth

Conferring Ceremonies in Maynooth are held in the Aula Maxima, on South Campus, which is an excellent venue with lots of atmosphere.I somehow found myself at the front of the academic procession and almost screwed everything up by entering through the wrong door, but a sharp poke in the back from a member of the Psychology Department set me on the right track and I ended up in the right place on the stage.

The ceremony, which was rather shorter those I’ve attended in UK universities, was conducted in a mixture of English, Latin and Irish and was quite enjoyable. The President, Philip Nolan, gave a very nice and well-chosen speech at the end before we spilled out into the drizzle for handshakes and photographs, thence into Pugin Hall for a lunch reception and then, for me at least, a rush back onto North Campus to give another subject information talk.

Whatever their name, graduation ceremonies are funny things. With all their costumes and weird traditions, they even seem a bit absurd. On the other hand, even in these modern times, we live with all kinds of rituals and I don’t see why we shouldn’t celebrate academic achievement in this way.

I love graduation ceremonies, actually. As the graduands go across the stage you realize that every one of them has a unique story to tell and a whole universe of possibilities in front of them. How their lives will unfold no-one can tell, but it’s a privilege to be there for one important milestone on their journey. Getting to read their names out is quite stressful – it may not seem like it, but I do spend quite a lot of time fretting about the correct pronunciation of the names. It’s also a bit strange in some cases finally to put a name to a face that I’ve seen around the place regularly, just before they leave the University for good. I always find this a bittersweet occasion. There’s joy and celebration, of course, but tempered by the realization that many of the young people who you’ve seen around long enough to grow accustomed to their faces, will disappear into the big wide world never to be seen again. On the other hand, this year quite a few graduates of the Department of Theoretical Physics are staying in Maynooth to do Masters programmes so they won’t all be vanishing without trace.

Graduation of course isn’t just about dressing up. Nor is it only about recognizing academic achievement. It’s also a rite of passage on the way to adulthood and independence, so the presence of the parents at the ceremony adds another emotional dimension to the goings-on. Although everyone is rightly proud of the achievement – either their own in the case of the graduands or that of others in the case of the guests – there’s also a bit of sadness to go with the goodbyes. It always seems that as a lecturer you are only just getting to know students by the time they graduate, but that’s enough to miss them when they go.

Anyway, all this is a roundabout way of saying congratulations once more to everyone who graduated today, and I wish you all the very best for the future!



Heading Off

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth on September 9, 2019 by telescoper

So here I am, then, Head of the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University.

I’ve even got a sign on my door to prove it!

More to the point I’ve also got a calendar full of meetings!

This morning was my first ever meeting of the Faculty Executive for Science & Engineering. The most exciting part of that was that I managed to leave my umbrella behind when I left.

After that I had a number of meetings with students to discuss the results of the recent Repeat Examinations, go through scripts, and give advice on progression. I also met with the new Head of the Department of Design Innovation to discuss the module in Physics & Mathematics we teach for them.

Coming up shortly I have a Euclid telecon (for an hour).

At the crack of dawn tomorrow I’m heading off to Edinburgh for the day to examine a PhD thesis.

Busy busy busy. And term hasn’t even started yet!

Maynooth Access Programme Launchpad Panel

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , , on September 8, 2019 by telescoper

Launchpad banner outside the Science Building last week

As I mentioned a while ago, one of the reasons I had to come back from Armagh before the end of INAM2019 was an event I had to attend on Friday to do with Launchpad.

Launchpad is the Maynooth University Access Programme (MAP) orientation designed to support and ease the transition to third level for students who are coming to Maynooth University through entry routes supported by MAP. These groups include under-represented school leavers, mature students, students with disabilities and members of the Irish Traveller community. Incoming students supported by MAP can get to know fellow first years, ask questions and find out advice from existing student ambassadors on how to navigate the University before starting a new course at Maynooth.

It’s worth mentioning one specific initiative related to mature students, namely the Certificate in Science, which is a programme for mature students who wish to undertake a foundation year in preparation for degree studies in Science or Engineering. In this one year, full-time programme of study, students undertake modules on Mathematics, Engineering Science, Computer Science, Experimental Physics, Mathematical Physics, Biology and Chemistry. Students who do well can progress from this course into one of the science or engineering degree courses on offer at Maynooth.

Anyway, the event I took part in on Friday was a panel discussion involving the MAP advisors from each of the Departments in the Faculty of Science and Engineering and a lecture room full of students just about to start their courses at Maynooth. There were similar panel discussions for the other Faculties. I have assumed the responsibility as MAP advisor for Theoretical Physics this year, as I think it’s important that as Head of Department I make it clear that this programme has a high priority for the Department. Because I haven’t attended any such events before I wasn’t sure what to expect of this session. I worried the students might be very shy about asking question and that as a consequence in might not be very useful. I’m very glad to have been proved completely wrong!

We had a huge number of questions from the audience on a whole range of topics, such as subject choices (especially for the Omnibus Science course), coursework requirements, note-taking and all kinds of other issues too numerous to mention, filling up the entire 90 minute slot scheduled for the event. It was  a very interesting and enjoyable session and great to see the students so engaged and enthusiastic. Thanks to all who attended and especially to the new students for playing their part!

Teaching term doesn’t start for another couple of weeks during period which there will be further introductory sessions for the MAP students and others. My calendar is already rather full, but I don’t mind that at all if the events are as enjoyable as Friday’s.

Breakthroughs, Beermats and the Bending of Light

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on September 6, 2019 by telescoper

I found out on the way home from Armagh yesterday that this year’s Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics (worth $3,000,000) has been awarded to the team behind the Event Horizon Telescope which was featured in newspaper and magazines around the world in April this year and which I blogged about here. There are 347 members of the team so it amounts to an average of less than $9000 per person, but let me offer them all my sincerest congratulations!

Coincidentally, just before my talk at INAM2019 yesterday I noticed that the Armagh Observatory and Planetarium stocks these items:

I’m not sure they are intended to be used as beer mats but that’s what they look like! Anyway, I picked one up and showed it at the end of my talk. I was talking about the 1919 eclipse expeditions, which I have done rather a lot these days, and finished up by mentioning that the events of a hundred years ago ushered in a century of developments in relativistic astrophysics, including gravitational lensing, gravitational waves and of course the Event Horizon Telescope.

If you’re interested here are the slides I used for this (short) talk:

Across the Border

Posted in Biographical, Politics with tags , , on September 5, 2019 by telescoper

I’ve got a bit of time to spare between breakfast and the start of a new day of talks at INAM2019 so I thought I’d rattle off a short travelblog.

I went straight to Armagh Observatory and Planetarium from the bus station when I arrived yesterday so had to check in to my hotel after the end of the day’s session. I had reserved a room online (and brought the confirmation with me) so I thought that would just take a few minutes. Unfortunately the hotel had lost the booking so had to start again, which took quite a while. However, to make up for the inconvenience they put me in an `Executive Room’ with a balcony. It is indeed quite luxurious and I now wish I were staying for more than one night. Sadly, however, I have to get the bus back to Dublin this evening as I have lots to do tomorrow.

On the trip up here the main thing I noticed after crossing the border into Northern Ireland was the number of Union flags on display on telegraph poles, lampposts and buildings. I learned from a booklet in the conference pack that the Orange Order was founded in County Armagh and there are obviously strong unionist sentiments around. Flags and sashes and regalia as symbols of national and/or religious identity seem to mean a lot to some people. I find it all rather baffling.

Among the more trivial things I noticed were a change in typeface for the road signs, the fact that roads are numbered as in Great Britain (e.g. `A28′) rather than in Ireland, and that post boxes here are red rather than green. Oh, and Tayto crisps are different here too..

Of course yesterday was a big day in the United Kingdom Parliament, with Boris Johnson suffering yet another humiliation as a cross-party bill was put through the House of Commons attempting to stop a `No Deal’ Brexit. Johnson then attempted to call a General Election but failed to secure sufficient votes, Jeremy Corbyn refusing to support the motion unless and until the No-Deal Bill becomes law.

I don’t know where these shenanigans will lead, but it seems to me that humiliating Boris Johnson is a good thing in itself so I watched the events last night in my hotel room with some satisfaction. Of course if there is a General Election, a new Parliament could repeal the `No Deal’ Act anyway, so in the long run this could all amount to very little.

I’m still eligible to vote in a UK General Election but there is one soon I really don’t know what I’ll do.

The Road to Armagh for INAM 2019

Posted in Biographical, Talks and Reviews with tags , , on September 4, 2019 by telescoper

In a week of firsts I now find myself for the first time in Armagh for my first ever Irish National Astronomy Meeting, INAM 2019. Unfortunately I can’t stay for the whole meeting as I have things to do in Maynooth on Friday, but I’m looking forward to the next day and a half.

By the way, I got here from Maynooth by bus, via Dublin. There is a direct service from Busáras in central Dublin to Armagh, which takes about 1 hour and 40 minutes. The bus carries on from there to Derry.

I may post a few updates from the meeting about the science talks. Mine is not until tomorrow afternoon so I can relax and enjoy the presentations before then.

Here’s a picture of the auditorium. Garret Cotter from Oxford is talking about Gamma Ray Astronomy..