Archive for the Biographical Category

Garden Birds

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth with tags , , , on September 20, 2020 by telescoper
A blue tit at the peanuts

The previous owner of my house left a bird feeder in the shed so I decided to see what sort of birds would come if I put it up. The feeder has quite a wide mesh so I bought a sack of peanuts, filled it up, and suspended from one of the trees.

Almost immediately a group of starlings arrived and took turns at pecking at the contents. I know that some starlings are resident all year round, but there is an annual influx of migratory birds around autumn. It seems a bit early for the continental starlings which usually start to turn up in October. Anyway, they seem ravenously hungry but are rather messy eaters and keep dropping bits on the ground.

The principal beneficiary of the starlings’ messiness is a robin, whose tactic is to wait underneath for peanuts from above. It does not seem keen to attempt the acrobatics needed to feed directly from the feeder. Sparrows do this too, but not when the robin is around as the robin chases them off; robins are feisty little critters. This one isn’t afraid to have a go at the much larger starlings if they descend to ground level.

There are at least two blue tits that visit the garden but they rarely get the chance to get at the peanuts before being scared off by yet more starlings. The picture above is an exception.

To help the smaller birds I bought a second feeder with a finer mesh that the starlings can’t get into this and filled it with mixed seed. The blue tits have this to themselves but obviously like the nuts too and will go to that feeder if there are no starlings.

Yesterday one of the many resident jackdaws tried the peanut feeder but failed in its mission as it was too big to hang on.

So far apart from those mentioned above I’ve also seen a chaffinch and a great tit but mainly it’s been blue tits and starlings. Of course I’m not in during the day so there might well be other species of garden visitor that I don’t see.

I’m thinking of getting a third feeder (for fat balls, etc) but I’m told that around here that will just mean a garden permanently full of rooks jackdaws and magpies. Any suggestions for alternative feeding mechanisms that might attract a wider variety of birdlife are welcome!

Culture Night 2020

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth, Music on September 19, 2020 by telescoper

Yesterday evening was Culture Night 2020. I’m afraid the only event I was able to enjoy was the concert from the National Concert Hall by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Gavin Maloney that consisted of:

Bartok: Romanian Folk Dances, BB 76

Mozart: Clarinet Concerto K.622 in A Major
John Finucane (clarinet)

Mendelssohn: Symphony No.4 Op.90 in A Major (Italian)

Here is the concert as it appeared on the live stream.

The bright and breezy Italian Symphony by Mendelssohn was a welcome tonic at the end of yet another exhausting and stressful week.

On Culture Night last year I was actually in the National Concert Hall after spending a very enjoyable afternoon wandering around Dublin. Yesterday however it was announced that after a surge in Covid-19 cases in the capital additional restrictions would be imposed there. What a difference a year makes! On Culture Night 2019 nobody had even heard of Covid-19.

Because many of our students come from the West Dublin area it has been decided to ‘escalate protective measures‘ at Maynooth University. This means, among other things, that the maximum class size for in-person lectures is 30. That means we have to revise our teaching plans yet again with just a week to go before the students arrive on campus, though I think for Theoretical Physics it really only changes the second-year modules. That is unless there are further restrictions, which is not unlikely.

Another exhausting and stressful week beckons!

[twitter-follow screen_name=’telescoper’

Moving Over

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Maynooth with tags , , on September 18, 2020 by telescoper

Although I moved into my new house in Maynooth nearly three weeks ago, it was only today that my former landlord came to collect the keys to the flat I was formerly living in. I am quite pleased that I no longer have the keys because having them made me feel some sort of responsibility for the place even though there is nothing of mine there. Handing over the keys is a form of closure, I suppose.

The fact that the landlord wasn’t in a hurry to complete the formalities gave me a bit of extra time to finish a couple of tasks that took longer than I’d expected.

The first was to close the electricity account for which task I needed a final reading from the electricity meter. One of the awkward things about the flat I was in was that the electricity meter isn’t in the flat but in a cupboard in the hallway along with the meters for the other three flats in the building. The cupboard belongs to the management company and they have the only keys. Whenever I needed a meter reading I therefore have to ask them to take one. I contacted them before moving out to do this, but they only sent me the reading this Monday so I only just got the account closed this week. I was a bit irritated that it took so long, but pleased in the end because the reading was substantially less than the `estimated’ reading used by the electricity company in the absence of any readings during the lockdown so I got a nice farewell refund.

Incidentally, the level of sloth of managing agents is by no means unusual in my experience. They always seem to manage to do as little as possible.

The other thing was the washing machine. The appliance supplied with the flat broke down at the start of the lockdown so I bought a new one just in time before all the stores closed and, with the landlord’s permission, I scrapped the old one. I always had the intention of taking the new one with me when I moved out. When the time came however it proved more difficult than I’d imagined.

In order to detach a washing machine from the water supply it is necessary to close a valve, otherwise there will be a flood. Unfortunately the valve was jammed and I could budge it. No worry, I thought, I’ll just turn off the cold water at the stopcock. Mostly this is found under the kitchen sink but when I looked for it I realized that whoever had installed the unit under the sink had boarded up the stopcock so it was inaccessible. I therefore had to take the back panel off the unit to get at the stopcock. When I had done that I found the stopcock wouldn’t budge. Not at first anyway. Eventually, with the application of a bit of elbow grease, I got it to turn. And so it came to pass that the washing machine was detached.

I then had to cart it to my new house. The only hard bit of that was lifting the thing onto the trolley I’d borrowed for the purpose. Washing machines are rather heavy, you see. After some struggling I managed to get going and trundled quite happily down the road to my new house and got it attached to the water there without any problem.

After having a cup of tea and a bit of a rest I thought it would be a good idea to go back to the flat and leave a note to explain that the cold water was turned off at the main and that it would be inadvisable to turn it on without sealing up the inlet pipe with a blank (or indeed another washing machine).

These tasks completed, and the keys returned, one part of the process of moving is now over. Phase Two will involve transporting the rest of my belongings from Cardiff, but that won’t be possible for a while as it looks like both Ireland and the UK are heading for more restrictions on movement due to Covid-19.

The one thing that has really struck me since moving is how much quieter my new neighbourhood is. The flat was on a main road so – apart from the full lockdown period in the spring – there was constant traffic noise. Although I got used to it, it did make it very hard to record video lectures etc. The new place is sufficiently far from large roads that the background noise is negligible, and it’s a detached house so there’s no noise from the neighbours either!

Twelve Years in The Dark!

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags on September 15, 2020 by telescoper

When I logged onto WordPress today I received a message that it was the 12th anniversary of my registration with them as a blogger, which is when I took my first step into the blogosphere; that was way back on 15th September 2008.

I actually wrote my first post on the day I registered but unfortunately I didn’t really know what I was doing on my first day at blogging – no change there, then – and I didn’t actually manage to figure out how to publish this earth-shattering piece. It was only after I’d written my second post that I realized that the first one wasn’t actually visible to the general public because I hadn’t pressed the right buttons, so the two appear in the wrong order in my archive.

If you’re interested in statistics then, as of 13.00 Irish Summer Time Today today, I have published 5197 blog posts posts and have received 4,369,422 hits altogether; I get an average of just under 1000 per day. This varies in a very erratic fashion from day to day, but there has been a bit of a downward trend over the last few years, presumably because I’m getting older and more boring. The largest number of hits I have received in a single day is 8,864 (at the peak of the BICEP2 controversy).

There have been 35,313 comments published on here and 2,672,823 rejected by the spam filters. The vast majority of the rejected comments were from bots, but a small number have been removed for various violations, usually for abuse of some kind. And, yes, I do get to decide what is published: it is my blog!

While I am on the subject of comments, I’ll just repeat here the policy stated on the home page of this blog:

Feel free to comment on any of the posts on this blog but comments may be moderated; anonymous comments and any considered by me to be abusive will not be accepted. I do not necessarily endorse, support, sanction, encourage, verify or agree with the opinions or statements of any information or other content in the comments on this site and do not in any way guarantee their accuracy or reliability.

It does mean a lot to me to know that there are people who find my ramblings on this `shitty wordpress blog’ interesting enough to look at, or even read, and sometimes even to come back for more, so I’d like to take this opportunity to send my best wishes to all those who follow this blog and especially those who take the trouble to comment on it in such interesting and unpredictable ways!

The last twelve years have been eventful, to say the least, both personally and professionally. I started blogging not long after I’d moved into my house in Pontcanna, Cardiff. Since then I moved to Sussex, then back to Cardiff, and now to Ireland. More importantly we’ve seen the discovery of the Higgs Boson and gravitational waves, both of which resulted in Nobel Prizes, as did the studies of high-redshift supernovae. The Planck mission mission was launched, did its stuff, and came to a conclusion in this time too. Science has moved forward, even if there are many things in this world that seem to be going backwards.

A Semester of Covid-19

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth, Music with tags , , , , , , , on September 12, 2020 by telescoper

It’s the Twelfth of September so it’s now precisely six months to the day since schools and colleges in Ireland were closed because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The initial announcement on 12th March was that the closure would be until 29th March. Little did we know then that six months later campus would still be closed to students.

Here is how the pandemic has progressed in Ireland since March:

On 12th March, 70 new cases of Covid-19 were announced in Ireland; yesterday there were 211. The current 7-day average in Ireland is over 180 new cases per day and is climbing steadily. Things are similar, if not worse, elsewhere in Europe. as countries struggle to contain the pandemic while simultaneously attempting to reopen their economies. We are heading towards a very difficult autumn, with a large second peak of infection definitely on the cards. Who knows how this will turn out?

The word ‘semester’ is derived from the Latin for ‘six months’ but the term now applies almost exclusively to half a university teaching year, usually more like four months.

I’m looking ahead to the next teaching semester at Maynooth University, which starts in two weeks. The last time I gave a face-to-face lecture was on the morning of March 12th (a Thursday). Going home that evening I was engulfed by morbid thoughts and wondered if I would ever see the students again. Now we’re making plans for their return to (limited) on-campus teaching. Outline teaching plans have now been published, so returning students will have an idea how things will go. These will be refined as we get a better idea of student numbers. Given the continued increase in Covid-19 cases there is a significant chance of another campus closure at some point which will necessitate going online again but, at least to begin with, our students in Theoretical Physics will be getting 50% or more of the in-person teaching they would have got in a normal year.

Yesterday third-level institutions made their first round of CAO offers. Maynooth’s can be found here. Our offer for MH206 Theoretical Physics & Mathematics is, like many courses around the country, up a bit at 510 points reflecting the increase in high grades in this year’s Leaving Certificate.

We won’t know the final numbers for at another week or more but based on the traffic on Twitter yesterday Maynooth in general seems to be very popular:

Outline teaching plans are available for new students but these will not be finalised until Orientation Week is over and students have registered for their modules, which will not be until Thursday 24th September, just a few days before teaching starts. The weekend of 26th/27th looks like being a very busy one!

Returning to the original theme of the post I have to admit that I haven’t set foot outside Maynooth once in the last six months. I haven’t minded that too much, actually, but one thing I have missed is my weekly trip to the National Concert Hall in Dublin. Last night saw the start of a new season of concerts by the RTE National Symphony Orchestra at the NCH. There is no live audience for these so it’s not the same as being there in person, but watching and listening on the live stream is the next best thing.

Last night’s programme was a very nice one, of music by Mendelssohn Mozart and Beethoven, that not only provided a welcome tonic to the end of a busy week but also provided a great example of how to adapt. I’m glad they’re back and am looking forward to the rest of the season.

The Year Ahead

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , on September 6, 2020 by telescoper

Tomorrow sees the release of the 2020 Leaving Certificate results which this year are based on “calculated grades” rather than examination results. It seems that for about 79% of students these grades will be the same as the teacher’s assessment, about 17% will be lower than the teacher assessment and in about 4% of cases it will be higher. It remains to be seen whether the results will create the sort of stir that this year’s A-level results did.

That seems to imply that CAO points will be a bit higher on average than previous years so more students will make the grade for their first choice of course, which may have a significant impact on recruitment.

We’ll find out all about that next week when the details come in. Teaching term starts on Monday 28th September so there’s very little time to get things organised for the new cohort, especially on the Omnibus Science course on which students have a wide range of alternatives from which to pick their first-year subjects.

Next week at Maynooth University we also have our repeat Examination Board (a week later than usual). After that we will have a good idea of how many students will be returning for Years 2, 3 and 4 and how many will not progress.

So soon we will have enough information to fine-tune our teaching plans. These are challenging this year because of the reduced capacity of the rooms we use for lectures and tutorials due to physical distancing. Some rooms are affected more than others – it’s far worse for large lecture theatres than for tutorial rooms – so we have to look at each module separately.

We had a (virtual) meeting of teaching staff in the Department of Theoretical Physics to coordinate the approaches to different modules. Among other things, that showed how very sensitive everything is to numbers of students taking. If a room can take N students then if the actual number taking the class is less than or equal to N then the class can proceed as usual but if it exceeds N, even by just one, then we have to split the class somehow.

Having detailed numbers is essential to sorting all this out but students can change modules during the first few weeks of teaching, we’re likely to be reorganising as we go along.

All this causes multiple headaches but, despite the extra complications this year, I’m looking forward to seeing the students on campus again. I haven’t given a ‘proper’ lecture since March 12th.

I was so busy last week, grappling with these and other matters, that I missed the fact that I took over as Head of Department on 1st September 2019, a year ago last Tuesday. Little did I know what I was letting myself in for…

Sunday Morning at Home

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth on August 30, 2020 by telescoper

In between posts about Charlie Parker yesterday I moved quite a lot of my stuff from the flat to my house. With enough of the essential elements in place, I slept here for the first time last night.

I was planning to cook my first dinner here but was running late and couldn’t be bothered so instead ordered a very nice takeaway from the excellent Croatian bistro in town, which has just reopened after summer vacations. I can pretend that I wasn’t just being lazy but doing my bit to support local businesses.

I thought it might feel a bit strange sleeping in a new place. Not that I thought it would haunted or anything, it’s that when sleeping in an unfamiliar location (such as a hotel) I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night not knowing where the hell I am. Sometimes also there are strange noises that make it difficult to get to sleep in the first place.

When I first moved into the flat, I found the traffic noise from the busy main road quite difficult and for the last almost three years I’ve used earplugs almost every night I’ve slept there.

Last night though the remarkable and slightly unnerving thing is just how quiet the new place is: no traffic noise at all, no earplugs needed. It I did however still wake up at 4am not remembering where I was. I guess that will pass.

Anyway I rose late this morning and, as the weather is lovely, had some coffee in the garden, which has a definite look of late summer about it, the Crocosmia already fading…

I still have some other items to move here from the flat, but should be able to finish doing that today. I don’t have to hand over the keys until Monday evening but, unlike the UK, that’s not a Bank Holiday in Ireland so I’ll have to work.

Anyway I’ve got a lot of things to do today so I had better make a start – by which I mean have another cup of coffee.

Primordial Figures

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on August 28, 2020 by telescoper

I was rummaging around looking for some things related to a paper I’m struggling to finish before term starts and I found some vintage diagrams. They brought back a lot of memories of working on the textbook I wrote with Francesco Lucchin way back in the 1990s. In particular I remember how long it took to make these figures, when nowadays it would take a few minutes. In fact I’m thinking of setting this as a Computational Physics project for next year. These are not full computations either, just a simple fluid-based approach.

The curves show the evolution of fluctuations in both matter δm and radiation δr on a particular scale (i.e. a Fourier mode of given wavelength) defined as δm=δρmm, etc.  The x-axis shows the cosmic scale factor, which represents the expansion of the Universe and in both cases the universe is flat, i.e. it has a critical density. The first graph shows a universe with only baryonic matter:

Notice the strongly coupled oscillations in matter and radiation until a scale factor of around 10-3, corresponding to a redshift of a thousand or so, which is when matter and radiation decouple. The y-axis is logarithmic so the downward spikes represent zero points.

It is these oscillations which are responsible for the bumps and wiggles in the spectrum of the cosmic microwave background spectrum, as different Fourier modes arrive at the last scattering surface at a different phase of its oscillation. Of course going from the Figure above to the CMB fluctuation spectrum (see below) involves more calculations, and there is now a well-established machinery for doing these with full physical descriptions, but I think the above diagram makes the physical origin of these features clear.

The CMB power spectrum from Planck

The second diagram shows what happens if you add a third component called `X’ in the Figure below which we take to be cold non-baryonic matter. Because  this stuff doesn’t interact directly with radiation (while baryons do) it doesn’t participate in the oscillations but the density perturbations just carry on growing:

Notice too that at late times (i.e. after the baryonic matter and radiation have decoupled) the baryonic component grows much more quickly than in the first Figure. This is because, when released from the effect of the photon background, baryons start to feel the gravitational pull of the dark matter perturbations.

There’s nothing new in this of course – these Figures are thirty years old and similar were produced even earlier than that – but I still think pictures like these are pedagogically useful,

 

Home in Ireland

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth with tags , , , on August 26, 2020 by telescoper

Just after 5pm yesterday I got a phone call from my solicitor telling me that all the formalities relating to my purchase of a house had been completed and the keys had been released. That gave me just enough time to finish what I was doing and head to the Estate Agent before they closed to get the keys. When I got there I found that a card and a bottle of wine were included, which was nice.

So now I own a house in Ireland, a rather lovely bungalow to be precise. It’s rather empty at the moment but I’ll be moving things in gradually over the next few days from my flat which I have until the end of the month. It will still be rather empty after I’ve done that because a lot of my stuff is still in Wales. I’ll have to figure out a plan to get over there and arrange to have it moved here to Ireland, though the timing of  that is rather dependent on Covid-19 restrictions…

I have bought and sold properties in England (and Wales) a few times. The process here in Ireland as many similarities but also some differences. One big difference is the auction process. Estate agents here in Ireland are generally called auctioneers, actually. In order to register to bid you have to first show that you have the necessary funds and then you can place a bid online and then there’s a genuine auction, with bid and counter-bid. It’s easy in an auction to get drawn in so far that you end up spending more than you wanted to, so I decided on an absolutely upper limit on how high I would go. Fortunately on the house I ended up buying the bidding stopped well below that.

There are a few other differences. One is that stamp duty is just 1% in Ireland (for properties up to €1M) whereas in England it is much more complicated but for a property  in England of similar value to mine it would be 5%. Incidentally there is also a Local Property Tax (LPT) based on the value of your home – similar to the old system of rates in the UK. The amount payable however is much lower, which is why local councils have so little money in Ireland and many services are privately run. You have to pay a private refuse and recycling company to deal with your garbage, for example. Which reminds me that I have to organize that.

I have to say I found the business of getting a mortgage a bit painful. Banks in Ireland are still saddled with bad mortgage debt from the time of the Credit Crunch about a decade ago so they are extremely cautious. I had to supply a huge amount of paperwork – about my income, savings, previous residences, etc  – before the bank agreed to lend me money. Then the Covid-19 lockdown intervened and by the time we got moving again, in June, I had to supply all that information again because the documents were then out of date.

You also have to take out mortgage protection insurance, a form of life insurance policy. For that I had to have a full medical examination – the second such I’ve had in three years. (The previous one was when I joined the staff here at Maynooth). There’s also buildings insurance. If I have one word of advice for anyone thinking of buying a house in Ireland it is to do with the insurance policies. Banks and other lenders tend to be tied agents of certain insurance companies so if you ask your mortgage lender to arrange the insurance they will go with one company. When I did that I found the policies were at least 50% more expensive than the market rate. Fortunately I was able to get some local advice and got mine sorted independently at a very much more reasonable cost than those offered by the bank itself.

Other than that the business of mortgages and valuations and surveys and Land Registry is all tediously familiar.

One of the good things about having lived in Maynooth for a while before buying a house is that I know people who can give local recommendations. The solicitor who did the conveyancing was very efficient and competent, though it was very strange doing everything by Zoom, including witnessing the signing of documents!

Once I’d had my offer accepted, the process of actually taking possession of the house took about two months. I’m told that is exceptionally fast as these things go in Ireland, but the vendor and I both wanted to move quickly – I really wanted to get everything sorted before the start of term – and we were both prepared to nag the various people involved to make it happen.

Now all I have to is to arrange with the various utilities companies to have accounts switched to my name, notify various changes of address, buy some bits and bobs, and finish the moving of my gear. Lots to do, but it’s a nice feeling to have my own place once again.

P.S. I bought a piano from the vendor, but it badly needs tuning!

 

 

 

Back to School

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , on August 26, 2020 by telescoper

News that primary and secondary schools in Ireland are re-opening this week reminded me of this picture I saw a year ago:

I suppose the items on display there provide one way of dealing with the stress of worrying whether re-opening will result in a large increase in Covid-19 cases!

Meanwhile the Third Level sector is also preparing to re-open. Although we have another month to go before teaching is supposed to restart at Maynooth University, I’m already getting quite a few emails from students asking what things are going to be like when it resumes in September. All I can answer is what our plans are, but whether or not we can put those plans into practice depends crucially on things outside my control, including local factors (such as the number of students taking each module) and national factors (especially the restrictions intended to prevent the spread of Covid-19).

On the first matter we’ll have to wait until students register which, for first years will be very late in the day because of the delayed leaving certificate results this year. We will know a bit sooner about returning students, but even for them it will be a couple of weeks or so.

The national picture is even more uncertain. As of yesterday, the average number of new Covid-19 cases per day over the last 7 days was an uncomfortably high 103.6:

Over the next month will the local lockdown in Kildare carry on? What will be the impact of schools’ reopening? Will the national Covid-19 picture improve or deteriorate? Although at this stage we plan to resume (partly) campus-based teaching on September 28th, but we have to accept that if things take a turn for the worse we might not be able to do that and will instead have to go online. We’ll just have to wait and see.

That doesn’t help students, of course, because they have to make decisions about accommodation and travel. It’s a very awkward and stressful situation for them but I think the only way to approach the queries I’m getting is to tell the truth. Sometimes “I don’t know” is the only honest answer.

At least my own preparations are proceeding. I’ve just had my own tensor barrier put in. This is intended to deter people from wandering into my office and spreading their germs. I don’t think the installation is finished yet, however, as it doesn’t seem to be connected to the mains electricity.