Archive for the Biographical Category

The Autumnal Equinox

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth with tags , , , on September 23, 2018 by telescoper

So here we are then. The Autumnal Equinox (in the Northern hemisphere) took place in the early hours of this morning, at 01.54 UT (which is 02.54 Irish Time) on Sunday 23rd September. I was, of course, sound asleep during this momentous event.

People sometimes ask me how one can define the `equinox’ so precisely when surely it just refers to a day on which day and night are of equal length implying that it’s a day not a specific time? The answer is that the equinox is defined by a specific event, the event in question being when the plane defined by Earth’s equator passes through the centre of the Sun’s disk (or, if you prefer, when the centre of the Sun passes through the plane defined by Earth’s equator passes through the centre of the Sun’s disk). Day and night are not necessarily exactly equal on the equinox, but they’re the closest they get. From now on days in the Northern hemisphere will be shorter than nights and they’ll get shorter until the Winter Solstice.

For many people the autumnal equinox is taken to be the end of summer, though there is a saying around tyhese parts that `Summer is Summer to Michaelmas Day’ (which does not happen until September 29th). It has actually been a nice morning in Maynooth, though the winds are roughly Northerly and it is consequently a tad on the blustery side. Looking back over the posts I’ve written at this time of year since I started blogging in 2008, it’s noticeable how many times we’ve had a window of good weather around the autumnal equinox, although this year there have been storms and heavy rainfall over the last few days. Here’s am excerpt from the post I wrote in 2008 on this:

The weather is unsettling. It’s warm, but somehow the warmth doesn’t quite fill the air; somewhere inside it there’s a chill that reminds you that autumn is not far away.

I find this kind of weather a bit spooky because it always takes me back to the time when I left home to go to University, as thousands of fledgling students are about to do this year in their turn.

Indeed tomorrow, Monday 24th September, is the first day of lectures for the new term in Maynooth. The new students have been going through various induction and orientation processes for a week or so already, but their first encounter with actual teaching will be to morrow. I don’t actually take the stage until Tuesday, on which day both my new modules start. The second years will get Vector Calculus and Fourier Series while the fourth years get Astrology and Cosmetics Astrophysics and Cosmology. That is assuming that I take the right notes to the right lectures.

Looking back to the corresponding equinoctial piece I posted last year brought it home to me just what a strange year has passed. On 22nd September 2017 I visited the Office of the Consulate of India in Cardiff to lodge an application for a visa for a trip to attend a conference in Pune, watched a bit of cricket, then some work preparing for the launch event of the Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in Data-Intensive Science that was about to take place. I was only working part-time in Cardiff then.

Although I no longer work at Cardiff University, I still hold it in great affection and wish it all the best. I heard on the grapevine that it has been a good year for undergraduate recruitment in the School of Physics & Astronomy, which is excellent news, and the Data Innovation Research Institute also seems to be thriving. No doubt I’ll bump into various members of staff on occasional visits to Cardiff, at least until such time as I sell my house in Pontcanna.

At the time of last year’s autumnal equinox I hadn’t even been interviewed for the job I now hold in Maynooth, and had no inkling that within a year I would have relocated to Ireland. I actually took an hour out of the CDT event to be interviewed via Skype over a crappy Hotel internet connection. I thought it went terribly badly – I hate Skype! – but I ended up being offered the job. I was able to put in a quick visit to Maynooth to confirm the details before going to India as planned. I’ve been so busy flitting back and forth betweeing Ireland and Wales during the last 12 months that I haven’t really had time to reflect properly on how extraordinary life is that it can change so much as a result of lucky coincidences!

Anyway, I think that’s enough rambling for now. I’ve got a couple of problem sets to put together. Let me end by wishing the new and returning students at Maynooth and at Cardiff all the best for the new academic year. Work hard, and enjoy your studies, but don’t forget to enjoy life on the way!


Seven Years From Swindon

Posted in Biographical with tags , on September 20, 2018 by telescoper

I took the above snap this morning walking back to the Science Building. It shows the view from the other side of St Joseph’s Square compared to the picture I posted on Tuesday, i.e. towards St Patrick’s House rather than away from it. The weather has taken a turn for the worse since Tuesday, and it’s decidedly autumnal today but it’s still not a bad view to be greeted with on the way to the office.

Contrast this with a photograph I took precisely seven years ago today, on September 20th 2011, when I had just arrived in Swindon for a stint on the STFC Astronomy Grants Panel:

I’m no longer part of the UK research system so I guess I’ll never have to visit Swindon again…

A Decade In The Dark!

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags on September 16, 2018 by telescoper

When I logged onto WordPress yesterday I received a message that it was the 10th 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. Anyway, that confusion is the reason why I usually take 16th September as this blog’s real anniversary.

I’d like to take this opportunity to send my best wishes, and to thank, everyone who reads this blog, however occasionally. According to the WordPress stats, I’ve got readers from all round the world, including  the Vatican!

If you’re interested in statistics then, as of 14.00 Irish Summer Time Today today, I have published 4,225 blog posts, not counting about 20 that I wrote but have not yet published; I’ll probably save these for my memoirs.. These posts have received 3,688,023 hits altogether; I get an average of about 1200 per day.  This varies in a very erratic fashion from day to day, but the annual average has been fairly constant over the last several years. The greatest number of hits I have received in a single day is 8,864 (at the peak of the BICEP2 controversy). Some of the most popular posts have not been about science at all, including  my rant about Virgin Media and a post about the last episode of Inspector Morse.

There have been 30,372 comments published on here and  2,213,145 rejected by my filters. The vast majority of the rejected comments were from automated spam 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 decade has 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, and 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 decade too. Science has moved forward, even if there are many things in this world that seem to be going backwards.

I don’t know how long I’ll keep blogging – vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat incohare longam – but I’ve got no immediate plans to stop.

End of Summer in Wales

Posted in Biographical, Cricket on September 11, 2018 by telescoper

Well, with the Last Night of the Proms over and done with on Saturday, and the last day of the Fifth Test between England and India just finished at the Oval, that’s the end of the summer as far as I’m concerned.

I thought for a while earlier today that India might just pull off a remarkable victory. Needing 464 to win they were going well as Rahul and Pant put on a 200 partnership. I saw that BetFair were offering 16/1 on an India victory so put a tenner on. That had the desired effect and India were all out for 345. Good effort though by India. Especially well, played by Pant, on his maiden century!

Oh, and Jimmy Anderson took the last wicket, his 564th in Test cricket, and thereby beat Glenn McGrath’s record as leading pace bowling wicket-taker of all time in Test matches.

The 4-1 margin of victory in this series rather flatters England and is correspondingly harsh on India. The big worry for England is that with Cook now in retirement they now have to find two reliable opening batsmen when so far they’ve failed to find one.

Anyway, tomorrow morning I’m back to Maynooth. I have a paper and a book manuscript to submit before getting my lectures ready for the new term.

After receiving some very good news today, there is also a big event to prepare for on October 9th of which more anon..

Cricket Comments

Posted in Biographical, Cricket on September 9, 2018 by telescoper

As the Test cricket season in England draws to a close I thought I might do a post summarising my extensive contributions to the comments section of the BBC Test Match Special website.

Here they both are:

The first was posted just before the start of play on the first day of the 4th Test between England and India. It turned out to be rather prescient. The second appeared earlier today, during the third day of the Fifth Test.

I think it was Andy Warhol who said that one day everyone will have a comment on the TMS web page. At any rate, that’s probably the closest I’ll ever get to 15 minutes of fame..

Notes from Maynooth

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Education, Maynooth with tags , on September 6, 2018 by telescoper

A few people have asked me to comment a little bit on difference between Higher Education Institutes in the United Kingdom and here in Ireland from the point of view of teaching and learning. I can’t do that systematically of course because I’ve only ever been at one University in Ireland, Maynooth, and that for only a year. I have however held positions that involved teaching in several UK universities (Queen Mary, Nottingham, Cardiff and Sussex) so perhaps some comments based on my own experiences might be useful. And of course I’m just talking about Theoretical Physics here, so I won’t discuss labs. It’s a very big selling point for our Theoretical Physics courses here that students don’t have to do labs (apart from Computational Physics labs, of course).

To start with something rather trivial, the `load’ for a student in most UK universities is usually 120 credits while here in Ireland it is 60. The actual workload expected of a student is the same so this just means there’s an exchange rate of 2:1 between the UK and Ireland. In the UK the load is usually split into two equal semesters with examinations in January and May after each. In the UK the 60 credits of each semester is usually split into modules. In my experience in physics these can be either 10 or 20 credits (e.g. Cardiff) or 15 credits (e.g. Sussex). The standard size here in Maynooth is 5 credits (equivalent to 10 in the UK), so most comparisons will be with a standard 10-credit module based on the Cardiff model (which I think is more common than the Sussex model).

What goes into these standard modules differs slightly. Here in Maynooth there are twelve teaching weeks per semester plus a `Study Week’ half way through, so each is 13 weeks long. For a 5-credit module there are usually two lectures per week (so 24 in total, as there are no lectures in Study Week). On top of this there are weekly tutorials (usually done by PhD students). In Cardiff there are also 2 lectures a week for the directly comparable 10 credit module, though not all modules have tutorials associated with them. There is no mid-term Study Week in Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff and teaching term is only 11 weeks, so students typically have 22 lectures in a `standard’ module.

Continually-assessed coursework at Maynooth typically counts for 20% of a module mark (as it does in Cardiff), with 80% on an examination. In both Cardiff and Maynooth a `standard’ module has a two-hour examination at the end, but there’s a big difference in style: most of the papers in Maynooth require students to answer all the questions for full marks, whereas in Cardiff it’s two out of three or three out of four (usually). The Maynooth style makes it much harder for students to question-spot.

In summary, then, the amount of contact time for a student in Maynooth is greater than in Cardiff. The student-staff ratio in the Department of Theoretical Physics in Maynooth is about 15, which is a little higher than most UK physics departments (see Table here). There are only 7 full-time academic staff with full curriculum to deliver, means that teaching loads here are quite heavy compared to the UK.
Four modules per year is typical.

That might seem a lot to some people, but I actually enjoy teaching so don’t mind at all. In fact, with the mountain of administrative stuff I had to do at Sussex, it was only the fact that I taught a full module (on Theoretical Physics) that kept me (partially) sane. This year I shall be teaching, in the Autumn Semester, a 4th-year module on Astrophysics & Cosmology and a 2nd-year module on Vector Calculus and Fourier Series and, in the Spring Semest, 3rd-year Computational Physics 1 (again) and Engineering Mathematics (for First-year engineers). I’m not sure what to expect of that last one, but I’m not going to think about it until the New Year.

Most of our students do a four-year Bachelors programme in Science (as discussed briefly here) with a very general first year. Some, however, come directly into a programme called Theoretical Physics & Mathematics (TP&M, for short) which is three-year fast-track degree. It’s harder to get into TP&M than the `Omnibus’ Science course, but it does attract some very capable students.

I should mention that the really big difference between Ireland and the UK is that the system of teaching and learning here is much less centralized and much less rigid that UK universities. The small size of the Department means that it is possible to know all the students by name and students with difficulties can always find someone to talk to. That is increasingly not the case in UK universities, which are rapidly turning into teaching factories and are subject to the pressure to do well in league tables (often with a negative impact on teaching quality).

Subject to some conditions, first-time full-time undergraduate students in `Third-level’ education in Ireland do not pay tuition fees as such, and neither do students from other EU or EEA countries. There is however an annual ‘student contribution’ of €3000 which all students pay (unless they have a grant that covers it). As far as I can see, that is effectively a fee, though it is supposed to cover student services (e.g. libraries) and examinations rather than tuition. Students taking repeat examinations generally have to pay extra for them. If you consider the `student contribution’ to be a fee (which is effectively what it is) then the Irish funding system is similar to the pre-2012 UK system, i.e. before the introduction of the current £9K fee.

Finally, one of the most striking differences between Ireland and the UK is that here a much higher proportion of students live at home with their parents while studying and commute into campus daily (some of them from quite a distance). That is quite unusual in the UK, but is fairly typical in other EU countries (e.g. Italy). The cost of accommodation is undoubtedly a factor, but I think it’s also a more general cultural thing. I’ve also noticed something here that I’ve never seen in the UK, which is that some student accommodation is let on a Monday-Friday basis, the tenant being expected to go back to the parental home at the weekends. On Fridays in term-time, you can see quite a lot of students with their bags waiting for coaches or trains to take them away for the weekend…

In a future post I might comment on non-academic differences between Ireland and the UK (e.g. tax, public services, cost of living, etc) but I think that will do for now.

Charles Kingsley on the Irish

Posted in Biographical, History, Politics with tags , , , , on September 4, 2018 by telescoper

I’ve been aware since my schooldays that there has been (and still is) a significant tendency among the English (especially their governing classes) to regard the Irish as lawless barbarians, but this quote which I found in a book I’ve been reading really took my breath away. It’s from a letter written by Charles Kingsley to his wife in 1861, while he was travelling through an Ireland still reeling from the devastation of the Great Famine:

But I am haunted by the human chimpanzees I saw along that hundred miles of horrible country. I don’t believe they are our fault, I believe that there are not only more of them than of old, but that they are happier, better, more comfortably fed and lodged under our rule than they ever were. But to see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were black, one would not feel it so much, but their skins, except where tanned by exposure, are as white as ours.

This passage is revolting in so many ways that I don’t think it needs any further comment, but it is worth mentioning that Charles Kingsley was, by the standards of his time, regarded as something of a progressive. As well as being a Church of England priest, Professor of History and a novelist (I read The Water-Babieswhen I was a child), he was also a social reformer involved in such initiatives as the working men’s college and labour cooperatives. Clearly his concern for the poor and oppressed didn’t extend much beyond his own people.

P.S. In the interest of full disclosure, I should also mention that Charles Kingsley did his undergraduate studies at Magdalene College, Cambridge, as did I (thought not at the same time).