Archive for the Biographical Category

Spring Return

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth on April 12, 2021 by telescoper

After a few days off last week following the Easter Bank Holiday weekend it’s time to get back into the swing of things for the four weeks of teaching term that remain. It’s back to school today for all school students in Ireland too, so good luck to them on their first day in the classroom since Christmas!

As well as (remote) lectures the next four weeks will involve us getting our papers ready for the examination period which starts on 14th May this year. All our examinations will be remote online timed assessments (as indeed they were last year). I’ve been teaching three modules this Semester so have no fewer than six examinations to write: three main exams plus three repeat papers for the resit period in August. The decision has already been made to make all the repeat exams online so at least these will be of similar style to the original May versions.

Then it will be marking and Exam Boards and various other things heading into the summer break. Hopefully I will get some holiday this summer as I didn’t get any at all last year. On the other hand there’s a strong likelihood that Senior Management will think of something else for Heads of Department to do that will make this impossible.

What happens at the end of summer all depends on Covid-19 of course, and specifically how Ireland’s vaccination programme goes. My personal opinion is that we should continue with remote teaching until all staff and students have had their jabs, which is unlikely to be the case before September at the current rate, but you never know. The speed of vaccination shows signs of increasing though, so we might be able to do it.

Despite the more rapid progress with immunisation over the other side of the Irish Sea, UK university bosses are apparently complaining that they haven’t got a date for returning to campus. This surprises me as they run on roughly the same calendar as here in Ireland so there are only a few weeks of teaching left there too. Why bother to go back at such a late stage? Unless of course it’s so they can charge students for a full term’s accommodation…


Uniform at School?

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , on April 9, 2021 by telescoper

I noticed a little news item this morning about school uniforms and thought I’d comment, because I think the author of the piece misses some important points.

I had to wear a uniform when I went to my secondary school, the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle upon Tyne. I got a place there under the Direct Grant system, after passing the 11+ examination. It was basically a private school but I won a scholarship and my parents didn’t have to pay anything, which was just as well as they would never have been able to afford the fees.

I should mention that when I went to the RGS, in the 1970s, it was only for boys, but it is now for boys and girls.

Before actually starting at the RGS (in September 1974) we were sent a list of things that would be needed including various items of sports gear and, of course, the uniform. This included a distinctive blue* blazer with the school crest on the pocket. That was for the first two or three years. After that we got to wear a black/dark grey blazer which more closely resembled what other schools required and in the sixth form it was even more flexible, with many of the boys wearing a suit.

The list of things to be bought was quite long but we didn’t have to worry about the cost because we weren’t very well off and I qualified for vouchers from the Council to buy everything.

I was mightily relieved that I got to turn up for my first day at school in a new uniform because I didn’t have any good clothes – most of my normal clothes were hand-me-downs from my older brother. If I’d just worn my usual things it would have made be feel even more out of place than I did anyway, as all the posh kids would have been dressed much better than me. The uniform was a relief because it put everyone on the same footing – at least at a superficial level.

The big problem was that I had to travel every day on the bus from Benwell (a rough area, where I lived) to Jesmond (a posh area, where the RGS was and still is). The bright blue blazer was very conspicuous and I often got picked on by local kids while en route there or back. I remember getting spat on more than once. In the end I decided to wear a big coat over my uniform to avoid it being recognized, even on hot days.

The value of the uniform seemed to me that it was a leveller. It wasn’t really anything about expressing loyalty to the school, nor was it a means of imposing discipline and obedience, it just helped diminish the effect of parental wealth. In an environment in which social class was such a prominent factor it seemed to me that the uniform was a good thing. My friends from wealthier families disliked the uniform, usually for the same reason that I liked it.

I’m all in favour of updating the style of uniform to a more neutral, less gender-specific style – especially for coeducational schools – but I think as long as schools take in kids from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds then on balance they’re a good concept.

Anyway, you probably disagree so here’s a poll:

P.S. Our school had an exchange programme with a school in Germany – the Max Planck Gymnasium in Gelsenkirchen. When I was told the name I assumed the kids were all fantastic athletes, but then a teacher explained that the name came from the Greek word gymnos meaning “naked”. That minimal approach to a school uniform would never have taken on in Newcastle, on grounds of the weather among other reasons, but I learnt (to my disappointment) that it was only a metaphorical term anyway.

Cá bhfuil tú i do chónaí?

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth with tags , , , on April 3, 2021 by telescoper

I had another Irish language class on Thursday, in between various other things. I’m finding it a struggle since I don’t get much time in between the classes to revise or practice and also because there is quite a lot to learn that is very different from languages with which I am familiar. I spent a lot of time at school learning Latin and tend to filter new languages through that experience, which works reasonably well for French, Spanish and Italian but isn’t very good for Irish.

Some things in Irish are simpler than Latin: there are effectively only four cases for nouns in Irish as there is no real distinction between nominative and accusative. I mean the two cases are grammatically distinct but there is no difference in the word depending on whether it is subject or object of a verb. The other three cases are vocative (preceded by the particle a), genitive and dative. There is no ablative case; the dative is used instead.

Other things are more complicated. Last week we discovered that there are two versions of the verb “to be”. One is bí (which, as in most other European languages, is irregular in declination); the other is called the copula (“an chopail”)  which is used in limited (but quite common) circumstances such as linking a noun with a predicate clause. Confusingly, the form of the copula used in the present tense is “is” but it’s not part of the verb “to be”.

We learnt about these things when talking discussing the question

Cá bhfuil tú i do chónaí?

which is “where do you live?”, literally “Where are you in your habitation?”.  The way to answer this is something like

Tá mé i mo chónaí i Maigh Nuad. 

these sentences both involve the verb to be in the second person and first person respectively. Instead of Tá mé you could use Táim which is the equivalent of using “I’m” for “I am” in English.

It’s more complicated than that though because some place names have to be modified in this construction using an urú (eclipsis):

Maigh Nuad (Maynooth) begins with an M which is not modified but Doire (Derry) becomes nDoire, etc. The mutation from c to g after the preposition i also happens in Welsh, e.g. in the phrase Croeso i Gymru but in Irish you add the changed letter in front of the original rather than replacing it. For example, if I were living in Cork I would say

Tá mé i mo chónaí i gChorchai. 

The g is understood to replace the C for pronunciation purposes.

That brings us on to Irish place names, which are often very different from their anglicized versions. Here are a few examples:

  • Maigh Nuad (Maynooth)
  • Corcaigh (Cork)
  • Port Láirge (Waterford)
  • Doire (Derry)
  • Tir Eoghain (Tyrone)
  • Aontroim (Antrim)
  • Fear Manach (Fermanagh)
  • Béal Feirste (Belfast)
  • Gaillimh (Galway)
  • Thiobraid Árann (Tipperary)

The last one is not actually a long way from where I am. You can guess most of them but it’s a little confusing that the English versions are often conflations of two Irish words.

Obituary of John Barrow

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags on April 2, 2021 by telescoper

Just a quick word to let you know that my obituary of John Barrow (partly based on my blog post here) has now been published in The Observatory Vol. 141 No. 1281 (2021 April) pp. 93-96. The Observatory Magazine isn’t available online so, with the permission of the Editors, I’ve included a link to a PDF of the published version here:

John Barrow Obituary in Observatory by Peter Coles

Good Friday Break

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth, Poetry with tags , , on April 2, 2021 by telescoper

Garden Update: the daffodils are done but the tulips are still going…

Well, here we are. It’s Good Friday, the start of an extra-long weekend (Friday to Monday inclusive). I’m making it a bit longer by taking a few days off next week too. It’s officially Easter break so there are no lectures next week anyway.

I need a break. This term has been exhausting, and the busiest bit is yet to come. We return for four weeks of teaching then, after a short hiatus, we’re into the examination period followed by marking, Exam Boards and all the rest. Oh and there’s the small matter of yet another virtual Open Day at the end of this month.

I’ve put out-of-office replies on my work email and won’t be attending to messages there until I get back to work at the end of next week. Part of me feels a bit guilty for doing that, but only a very small part.

As it’s a nice day, I spent a couple of hours this morning doing some remedial work in the garden. I may have a late lunch out there too as the weather is nice and I recently invested in a garden table and chairs which I have yet to use properly. If the weather holds I might get the mower out and give the lawn a trim. Judging by the constant noise this morning it seems that everyone in the neighbourhood is doing that too. Some people seem to enjoy the sound of their own lawn mowers.

Talking of which I also trimmed my beard this morning, for the first time since Christmas. I have also acquired some clippers and may actually cut the hair on my head at some point over the weekend too.

That’s enough inconsequential rambling for today. Here is a poem on the subject of Good Friday by Christina Rossetti:

Am I a stone, and not a sheep,
That I can stand, O Christ, beneath Thy cross,
To number drop by drop Thy blood’s slow loss,
And yet not weep?

Not so those women loved
Who with exceeding grief lamented Thee;
Not so fallen Peter, weeping bitterly;
Not so the thief was moved;

Not so the Sun and Moon
Which hid their faces in a starless sky,
A horror of great darkness at broad noon –
I, only I.

Yet give not o’er,
But seek Thy sheep, true Shepherd of the flock;
Greater than Moses, turn and look once more
And smite a rock.

Relativity and Electromagnetism

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff on April 1, 2021 by telescoper

As a service to the public I thought I’d share one of my lectures. This is one I did yesterday, Lecture 16 in my module MP465 Advanced Electromagnetism:

I don’t know how I managed to pad this out to a whole hour.

In the Name of the Solicitor

Posted in Biographical, Film with tags , , , , on March 28, 2021 by telescoper

Looking through the TV listings just now I saw that the 1993 film In the Name of the Father about the Guildford Four, starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Emma Thompson, was on last night. I didn’t watch it but seeing it mentioned jogged my memory about a strange incident when I lived in London which I thought I’d share.

One evening in the early 1990s – I don’t remember the exact date – I was sitting in my flat in Bethnal Green when the phone rang. At the other end of the line was Ruth, a member of the admin staff in the School of Mathematical Sciences at Queen Mary, where I was working at the time. She was obviously very upset and it took some time to get her to calm down and tell me what had happened.

Ruth’s boyfriend, an Irish guy called Stephen who lived in Stepney Green, not far from me, and whom I knew a little socially, was in Bethnal Green Police Station. It seems that earlier in the day there had been some sort of altercation in Whitechapel after which one of the two men involved had got into a car and deliberately ran another man over, resulting in his death. The Police had taken Stephen in for questioning despite the fact that (a) he was with a group of friends in a pub at the time of the incident and (b) he didn’t have a car and didn’t have a driving licence. I remember (b) quite well because I was (and still am) a non-driver too. In any case it was unthinkable that Stephen could have been involved in such a terrible thing. Being charitable to the cops, it was obviously a case of mistaken identity.

Stephen had gone voluntarily to be questioned and as far as could be discerned had not been charged but had been there some time and Ruth was getting nervous about what the Police might be up to. There was quite a lot of real or suspected IRA activity in London at that time, and the Police were notoriously hostile to Irish people, even those who weren’t involved in any of that. Ruth’s suspicion was that the cops were trying to stitch Stephen up and not unreasonably wanted to get him a solicitor. But she didn’t know any. Could I help?

Well, the only solicitor I at the time was the chap who did the conveyancing for the purchase of the flat, which wasn’t of any use, but I did have friends in Brighton who worked in the legal profession so I told Ruth I’d make a few calls and see what I could do. It didn’t take long before I got the number of a bloke who worked for a London firm called Benedict Birnberg (which I had never heard of at the time). When I explained the situation he gave me the home phone number of a solicitor colleague, one Gareth Peirce.

I called the number straight away and asked if I could speak to Gareth* Pierce. “Speaking” came a woman’s voice, which surprised me a little, as I had assumed Gareth would be a man’s name, but I went on to explain how I had got her number and what was the issue. She asked me to confirm Stephen’s full name and where he was being held and, to my surprise, said she would go straight away. It was about 9pm if I remember correctly.

About an hour later the phone rang again. It was a jubilant Ruth. Stephen had been released without charge. He was never contacted again about the alleged incident. When I spoke to him later about it he revealed that the solicitor didn’t mince any words in the process of getting him out and the police seemed rather terrified of her. It was only when I went to work the next day and talked about it at coffee-time that someone told me who Gareth Peirce was: she was rather famous, and was the solicitor played by Emma Thompson in the film In the Name of the Father.

At least for a while, this episode gave my work colleagues the entirely false impression that I was someone with immensely useful connections. In truth I had no idea who Gareth Peirce was and never actually met her. As far as I know she acted that evening on an entirely pro bono basis.

*Gareth Peirce was born Jean Webb but changed her name when young. I don’t know why.

The REF goes on

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Maynooth with tags , , , , on March 27, 2021 by telescoper

A few communications with former colleagues from the United Kingdom last week reminded me that, despite the Covid-19 pandemic, the deadline for submissions to the 2021 Research Excellence Framework is next week. It seems very strange to me to push ahead with this despite the Coronavirus disruption, but it’s yet another sign that academics have to serve the bureaucrats rather than the other way round.

I know quite a few people at quite a few institutions that are completely exhausted by the workload required to deal with the enormous exercise in paperwork that is intended to assess the quality and impact of research at UK universities.

With apologies for adding to the stack of memes based on recent events in the Suez Canal, it made me think of this:

One of the major plusses of being in Ireland is that there is no REF, so I’m able to avoid the enormous workload and stress generated by this exercise in bean-counting. That’s good because there are more than enough things on my plate right now, and more are being added every day.

My memories of the last REF in 2014 when I was Head of School at Sussex are quite painful, as it went badly for us then. I hope that the long-term investments we made then will pay off, though, and I hope things turn out better for Sussex this time especially for the Department of Physics & Astronomy for which the impact and environment components of the assessment dragged the overall score down.

Not being involved personally in the REF this time round I haven’t really paid much attention to the changes that have been adopted since 2014. One I knew about is that the rules make it harder for institutions to leave staff out of their REF return. Some universities played the system in 2014 by being very selective about whom they put in. Only staff with papers considered likely to be rated top-notch were submitted.

Having a quick glance at the documents I see two other significant differences.

One is that in 2014, with very few exceptions, all staff had to submit four research outputs (i.e. papers) to be graded. in 2021 the system is more flexible: the total number of outputs must equal 2.5 times the summed FTE (full-time equivalent) of the unit’s submitted staff, with no individual submitting more than 5 and none fewer than 1 (except in special cases related to Covid-19). Overall, then there will be fewer outputs than before, the multiplier of FTE being 2.5 (2021) instead of 4 (2014). There will still be a lot of papers, of course, not least because many Departments have grown since 2014, so the panels will have a great deal of reading to do. If that’s what they do with the papers. They’ll probably just look up citations…

The other difference relates to staff who have left an institution during the census period. In 2014 the institution to which a researcher moved got all the credit for the publications, while the institution they left got nothing. In 2021, institutions “may return the outputs of staff previously employed as eligible where the output was first made publicly available during the period of eligible employment, within the set number of outputs required.” I suppose this is to prevent the departure of a staff member causing too much damage to the institution they left and also to credit the institution where the work was done rather than specifically the individual who did it.

Thinking about the REF an amusing thought occurred to me about Research Assessment. My idea was to set up a sort of anti-REF (perhaps the Research Inferiority Framework) based not on the best outputs produced by an institutions researchers, but on the worst. The institutions producing the highest number of inferior papers could receive financial penalties and get relegated in the league tables for encouraging staff to write too many papers that nobody ever reads or are just plain wrong. My guess is that papers published in Nature might figure even more prominently in this…

Anyway, let me just take this opportunity to wish former colleagues at Cardiff and Sussex all the best for their REF submission on Wednesday 31st March. I hope it turns out well

After the Fludd…

Posted in Biographical, History on March 25, 2021 by telescoper

A friend just pointed out to me that the Wikipedia page of 16th century medic, mystic and occult figure Robert Fludd

… contains an unexpected link to my own Wikipedia page:

Shurely Shome Mishtake?

P. S. Sadly this has now been corrected.

Laocoön and his Sons

Posted in Art, Biographical, Poetry with tags , , , , on March 15, 2021 by telescoper

Yesterday I was remind of the above very famous statue which is on display in the Vatican. It dates from antiquity but was unearthed almost intact during an excavation in Rome in the 16th Century. It’s an extraordinary work that depicts a legendary episode in the Trojan wars of priest Laocoön and his sons Antiphantes and Thymbraeus being attacked by sea serpents. Evidently it was very cold that day…

This scene is described in Book II of Virgil‘s Aeneid which happens to be the text I studied for Latin O-level back in the day. Virgil’s verse takes the form of a strict (dactylic) hexameter which provides a rhythmic pulse perfectly designed for action sequences such as this. Before this part, Laocoön (whose name has to be spoken as four syllables – Lah-o-co-ohn – in order to scan correctly) warns the Trojans about their gift of a wooden horse using the most famous phrase in the entire Aeneid:

Primus ibi ante omnis magna comitante caterva 40
Laocoon ardens summa decurrit ab arce,
et procul: ‘O miseri, quae tanta insania, cives?
Creditis avectos hostis? Aut ulla putatis
dona carere dolis Danaum? Sic notus Ulixes?
Aut hoc inclusi ligno occultantur Achivi, 45
aut haec in nostros fabricata est machina muros,
inspectura domos venturaque desuper urbi,
aut aliquis latet error; equo ne credite, Teucri.
Quidquid id est, timeo Danaos et dona ferentis

Then, while about to sacrifice a bull to the god Neptune, he and his sons meet their grisly end:

Laocoon, ductus Neptuno sorte sacerdos,
sollemnis taurum ingentem mactabat ad aras.
ecce autem gemini a Tenedo tranquilla per alta
(horresco referens) immensis orbibus angues
incumbunt pelago pariterque ad litora tendunt;
pectora quorum inter fluctus arrecta iubaeque
sanguineae superant undas, pars cetera pontum
pone legit sinuatque immensa volumine terga.
fit sonitus spumante salo; iamque arva tenebant
ardentisque oculos suffecti sanguine et igni
sibila lambebant linguis vibrantibus ora.
diffugimus visu exsangues. illi agmine certo
Laocoonta petunt; et primum parva duorum
corpora natorum serpens amplexus uterque
implicat et miseros morsu depascitur artus;
post ipsum auxilio subeuntem ac tela ferentem
corripiunt spirisque ligant ingentibus; et iam
bis medium amplexi, bis collo squamea circum
terga dati superant capite et cervicibus altis.
ille simul manibus tendit divellere nodos
perfusus sanie vittas atroque veneno,
clamores simul horrendos ad sidera tollit:
qualis mugitus, fugit cum saucius aram
taurus et incertam excussit cervice securim.

(You can find a translation into English here.)

The colour and energy of this verse, propelled by the remorseless rhythm, brings the horrific episode to life in truly compelling and typically gore-filled way. You don’t really have to be fluent in Latin to appreciate its quality. The line sibila lambebant linguis vibrantibus ora is particularly brilliant. It’s no surprise that Virgil is regarded as such a literary superstar.

My Latin teacher at school pointed out that epic poetry like this would probably have been performed in the Roman era by an actor as a dramatic recitation, probably with a drum pounding out the rhythm and with various sound and lighting effects to boot.

Anyway, today is the Ides of March so I thought I’d keep up classical theme by posting this  priceless bit of British cultural history relevant to such a fateful day.

This is from the First Folio Edition of Carry On Cleo, and stars the sublime Kenneth Williams as Julius Caesar delivering one of the funniest lines in the whole Carry On series. The joke may be nearly as old as me, but it’s still a cracker…