Archive for the Biographical Category

40 years since A-level

Posted in Biographical, Education on June 22, 2021 by telescoper

It was with quite a shock that I realized the other day that it is no less than forty years since I took my GCE A-levels. Here is the evidence:

I don’t know why kept this “Statement of Entry” all this time but you’ll see that my first exam was the Physics Multiple Choice paper exactly 40 years ago today on 22nd June 1981. The following day was a toughie with Mathematics 1 in the morning and a Chemistry Paper in the afternoon, but I remember 26th June (which was a Friday) being the hardest with the with Further Maths examination in the morning followed by the Chemistry Special Paper in the afternoon, both of them of 3 hours duration. I’ve actually posted the first of these on this blog, here, along with quite a few of the papers I took way back then.

The State of the Universe Talk – Reminder

Posted in Biographical, Books, Talks and Reviews, Sport, Talks and Reviews, The Universe and Stuff with tags on June 21, 2021 by telescoper

Just time for a quick reminder that I’m giving a talk on Wednesday (23rd June 2021). It’s at 4pm Paris Time which is 3pm Irish Time. See my original post here.

I had a sudden sense of dread that this Colloquium might clash with the Portugal-France game in the European Championship which takes place the same day but it turns out that won’t kick off until 9pm Paris Time which means that I should just about be finished before the football starts. I don’t think even I could overrun by 4 hours! Indeed I should finish before the earlier games that day, which kick off at 5pm Paris Time…

If you want to attend the Colloquium (via Zoom) you can register for it here.

Remembering John Barrow

Posted in Biographical with tags , , on June 17, 2021 by telescoper

This is a special post about John D. Barrow who passed away from colon cancer last year. As you probably know John Barrow was my thesis advisor.

John’s son Roger is running the London Marathon in October this year to raise funds for MacMillan Cancer Support. It’s a very special cause for John’s family and friends and I hope you will consider helping Roger money for this charity as an excellent way of remembering John.

You can donate here.

Please feel free to share this as widely as possible. Let’s raise that total as high as we can!

Marking Bloomsday 2021 with beard power

Posted in Beards, Biographical, Literature on June 16, 2021 by telescoper

Although my primary research interest is in the area of astrophysics and cosmology I think it is important to get involved whenever possible in interdisciplinary scholarship. My latest such contribution was to use the “find” facility on the online version of Ulysses by James Joyce to establish that the word “beard” appears 59 times in that work. A thorough analysis of the role of beards in Ulysses would make an interesting PhD topic, in my opinion.

Kmflett's Blog

As former Beard of Ireland Peter Coles noted on twitter there are 59 references to beards in James Joyce’s Ulysses.

On Bloomsday 2021 the Beard Liberation Front salutes the hirsute canon of Joyce.

A typical Ulysses reference is below:

Mastiansky and Citron approach in gaberdines wearing long earlocks. They wag their beards at Bloom

(page 438)

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Opening Up Again

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff on June 15, 2021 by telescoper

The Irish Government has just produced its plan for A Safe Return to on-site further and higher education and research that outlines what is basically a full return to on-campus activity from September 2021.
I quote from the preamble to the document linked to above:

It is expected that the majority of the people over 18 in Ireland will have been vaccinated by September 2021, and so planning is proceeding on the basis that full resumption of on-site activity is possible, while ensuring that overall numbers attending on-site are monitored and controlled.

In the absence of regular updates about the progress of Ireland’s vaccination programme it is difficult to know whether the first sentence is accurate or not, especially since it appears that two vaccine doses are needed to protect against the Delta-variant. I think most teaching staff will have been immunized by September, but am not so sure about the student population.

I’m also mindful that we were optimistic in advance of the start of last academic year and things didn’t exactly go to plan then. Nevertheless there do seem to be reasonable grounds for believing that we can return to on-campus teaching in September and we will be planning on that basis until there is evidence to the contrary. I just hope we don’t have to do a rapid about-turn like we did last year.

The first step in this process for us here in Maynooth is that from 5th July staff and research students can return to their offices on campus – following the existing protocols on social distancing, sanitation and ventilation – without having to make a special case. Only a few people have been working inside the Department since the start of the year and I’d expect most to begin making their way back.

In fact some members of the Department of Theoretical Physics joined us only this academic year and have never actually been the building (or on campus) at all. I suppose I’ll now have to find office space for them, something that hasn’t been necessary while we have all been working from home!

As a matter of fact, since it’s a nice day and I’ve been on Teams all morning, I might take a walk onto campus myself this afternoon and visit my office in the Department for the first time in a month…

Boards of Examination

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , , on June 11, 2021 by telescoper

We’ve at last staggered to the end of a week dominated by Examination matters. For myself that consisted of preliminary Examination Boards for Theoretical Physics and Engineering (for which we teach modules in Engineering Mathematics) followed by Final Examination Boards in both subjects with External Examiners present. Those final meetings both took place today so it’s been a particularly busy end of the week.

That’s not quite the end of the examinations business for the academic year, however, as we have the Final Final Examination Board in about ten days’ time. That is when marks from all Departments come together to determine the final results for students who are taking degrees in combinations of subjects. We have quite a number doing Joint Honours with Mathematics, for example. It does add an extra level to the process, but I think that’s a price worth paying for the flexibility we offer to students.

This final Examination Board takes place on 23rd June and students will get their marks a couple of days later on 25th June. Even that won’t be the end, because some students will be taking repeat examinations in August, but at least it signals a gap in the assessment cycle during which we can hopefully think of other things for a while.

Obviously I’m not going to comment on the marks for individual students but nobody will be surprised to hear that the Covid-19 pandemic has obviously had a big impact on some. It also had an impact on our External Examiner for Theoretical Physics who actually caught Covid-19 recently and became quite ill. Thankfully she is now feeling better and well enough to join us remotely today.

The Repeat Examination period takes place in August and will again be conducted remotely but hopefully the 1st Semester examinations next year will be under more normal circumstances. It’s not so much that I’m worried that our online examinations are somehow inappropriate, it’s just that it does take far longer to mark them than paper examinations and this year it has been extremely tight getting everything ready for the deadline by which marks must be committed to our central system (which is Monday 14th June).

Anyway, we’ve now done the job so I have an opportunity to thank all the staff in Theoretical Physics for their hard work and diligence!

Now it’s definitely wine o’clock.

University Troubles

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth on June 9, 2021 by telescoper

I noticed an article today in the Grauniad about a wave of redundancies about to hit English universities. Among those affected are the University of East London; Goldsmiths; and the University of London and the universities of Liverpool, Leeds, Leicester, Southampton Solent, Brighton. Dundee is also threatening redundancies (Higher Education is a devolved matter in the United Kingdom). There are probably many other institutions planning similar moves.

The University of Sussex, for example, has embarked on an ominous-sounding “Size and Shape” exercise that will probably lead to course and Departmental closures. “Restructuring” is the word being used. The Vice-chancellor of Sussex has refused to rule out compulsory redundancies, triggering a dispute with the Universities and Colleges Union UCU.

As regular readers will know I worked at the University of Sussex until the Summer of 2016 – was it really 5 years ago? – and when I left I was very optimistic about the future for the School of Mathematical & Physical Sciences of which I was Head. I haven’t really kept up with the details of what has been going on there but I’m not sure my optimism was well placed.

In late 2017 after I had started work here in Maynooth I wrote about my reasons for moving to Ireland. One of them was this:

My short exposure to a role in senior management, as Head of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex, convinced me that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in a system that I felt had lost all sight of what universities are and what they are for.

I haven’t changed my mind.

Anyway the timing of this attack on university staff – during a global pandemic – is rightly described in the Guardian piece as “despicable”. University staff have worked themselves into the ground by putting in countless hours of unpaid overtime to keep teaching going during the time of Coronavirus restrictions and now many of them are to be rewarded with a hefty kick in the teeth.

It’s notable too that these decisions are going to be made before the outcome of the latest Research Excellence Framework (REF 2021) are announced. This makes me doubt that the motivation for these changes has anything to do with academic considerations. It seems much more likely to me that certain university leaders see the pandemic as an excuse to force through change while staff too exhausted to resist, using the opportunity to get rid of expensive courses and/or troublesome departments.

We don’t now whether there will be widespread restructuring of the University system in Ireland but I wouldn’t bet against it. Generations of Irish governments have copied the idiotic English approach to Higher Education. The President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins can see what’s coming. In a recent speech he highlighted the threats to academic freedom and breadth of teaching.

Full of Pfizz

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19 on June 8, 2021 by telescoper

Well, this morning I took my second trip to City West Convention Centre for my second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. It all went off smoothly, except the queues were very much longer than last time so it took me about 90 minutes from start to finish. Most of the extra time was spent queuing outside which wasn’t too bad because it wasn’t raining. Chatting to one of the volunteers on the way I learned that they are doing about 4,500 a day at this centre, which is getting on for 500 an hour.

When I left after my jab I noticed the outdoor queue was much longer than it had been when I joined this morning, so those just starting to wait were probably in for at least two hours before they got jabbed. Still, after everything that we’ve been missing out on for the past year and a bit, what’s a couple of hours?

Other than the increased numbers the experience was similar to my first dose: well-run, efficient and friendly. Thanks again to all concerned!

So that’s me fully vaccinated although disappointingly I don’t seem to be able to receive 5G signals and haven’t received my instructions from Bill Gates yet.

Anyway, now I’m back home about an hour later and have so far no ill-effects. We have an examination board meeting this afternoon so let’s hope I don’t flake out during it.

UPDATE: 8 hours on and I’m definitely feeling a bit tired…zzzz

UPDATE: 24 hours on, I was more-than-usually tired last night and that continues but I experienced no fevers or anything like that. Slight discomfort in the arm where the injection was given.

Lá Saoire i mí Mheitheamh

Posted in Biographical on June 7, 2021 by telescoper

It’s a Bank Holiday Monday here in Ireland which makes for a nice end-of-term break for some of us. Not all staff had exams early enough to finish in time like I did, however, and no doubt some had to spend the weekend marking exam scripts. I am fortunate to have been able to accomplish everything I intended over the weekend – nothing at all – and today I’ll be able to recover from that exertion.

The June Bank Holiday (Lá Saoire i mí Mheitheamh) in Ireland is actually the equivalent of last week’s late May Bank Holiday in the UK, in that both have their origin in the old festival of Whitsuntide (or Pentecost) which falls on the 7th Sunday after Easter. Because the date of Easter moves around in the calendar so does Whit Sunday, but it is usually in late May or early June. Here in Ireland the Bank Holiday is always on the first Monday in June whereas on the other side of the Irish Sea it is on the last Monday in May.

Although I’m only at beginners’ level in Irish, the phrase Lá Saoire i mí Mheitheamh gives me a chance to bore you about it. It’s actually quite a straightforward phrase until you reach the last word: “Lá” means “day” and “Saoire” means “leave” or “vacation” so “Lá Saoire” means “holiday”; “i” is a prepositional pronoun meaning “in” and “mí” means “month”. So far so good.

The word for June however is Meitheamh (at least when it is in the nominative singular case). As an Indo-European language, Irish is distantly related to Latin which has six grammatical cases for nouns actually seven if you count the rarely used locative case). Irish has only four cases – there’s no ablative and, curiously, no distinction between nominative and accusative. That leaves nominative, dative, genitive, and vocative. The dative – used after simple prepositions – is only rarely distinct from the nominative so basically the ones you have to learn are the genitive and the vocative.

Whereas, in Latin, cases are indicated by changes to the end of a word, in Irish they involve initial mutations. In the example of “mí Mheitheamh” meaning “month of June”, requiring the genitive form of “June”, the initial consonant “M” undergoes lenition (softening) to sound more like a “v”. In old Irish texts this would be indicated by a dot over the M but in modern orthography it is indicated by writing an “h” after the consonant. This is called a séimhiú (pronounced “shay-voo” ). Note the softened m in the middle of that word too but it’s not a mutation – it’s just part of the regular spelling of the word, as is the -mh at the end of Meitheamh. There’s also a softened “t” in the middle of Meitheamh which makes it vrtually disappear in pronunciation. Meitheamh is thus pronounced something like “Meh-hiv” whereas “Mheitheamh” is something like “Veh-hiv”.

Gheobhaidh mé mo chóta

Birthday Treats

Posted in Art, Biographical, Covid-19 on June 5, 2021 by telescoper

As planned I took some time out yesterday, hopped on a train for the first time in 15 months and went into Dublin. I was shocked by some of the scenes I saw when I reached my destination: large crowds with no masks and no social distancing and all kinds of rowdy behaviour. Here’s an example:

I was at the National Gallery of course. I wandered around for a couple of hours and then returned to Maynooth. The gallery is still free for visitors but these days you have to register online beforehand so they can control numbers. I have been there before but didn’t realize until yesterday that there’s an entrance on Clare Street, which is even closer to Pearse Station than the main entrance of Merrion Square, so I’ll be using that from now on. There’s a lot to see in the National Gallery and I hope to spend more time there in future.

After getting home I had Zoom drinks with some old friends from Cardiff, which was very pleasant indeed, and then cooked myself a self-indulgent dinner which I ate with a nice Barolo.

Earlier in the day, I was able to publish another paper in the Open Journal of Astrophysics (of which more anon).

Then, as a lovely present, I received a text telling me of the appointment for my second Pfizer/BioNTech Jab: Tuesday 8th June, exactly 4 weeks after the first. People (and the leaflets I was given on the occasion of Jab Number 1) say that the second dose is more likely to produce side effects than the first but I’m glad that in a few days I’ll be fully vaccinated and can start thinking about the possibility of travelling at some point this summer, regulations permitting.

Anyway, the relaxation isn’t over yet. This is a Bank Holiday Weekend in Ireland so I’ll be doing as little as possible until I return to work on Tuesday for Examination Matters, etc.

P.S. My birthday fundraiser has almost reached its target but is still going so if you feel like contributing you can still do so here.

P.P.S. There were some rowdy scenes in Dublin yesterday evening but not where I was (and I was home before they started).