Archive for the Biographical Category

The Vernal Equinox 2023

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on March 20, 2023 by telescoper

The Vernal Equinox, or Spring Equinox, (in the Northern hemisphere) takes place on Monday 20th March 2023, at 21.24 UTC (which is this evening at 9.24pm local Irish Time). I’m posting this 12 hours in advance of the big event to give you plenty of notice.

Many people regard the Vernal Equinox as the first day of spring; of course in the Southern hemisphere this is the Autumnal Equinox. The date of the Vernal Equinox is usually given as 21st March, but in fact it has only been on 21st March twice this century so far (2003 and 2007); it was on 20th March in 2008, has been on 20th March every spring from then until now, and will be until 2044 (when it will be on March 19th). This year, however, the Sun will already have set in Ireland before the Equinox, so sunrise tomorrow 21st March could reasonably be taken to be the first dawn of Spring.

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). Day and night are not necessarily exactly equal on the equinox, but they’re the closest they get. From now until the Autumnal Equinox, days in the Northern hemisphere will be longer than nights, and they’ll get longer until the Summer Solstice before beginning to shorten again.

Loughcrew (County Meath), near Newgrange, an ancient burial site and a traditional place to observe the sunrise at the Equinox

There’s usually a lot of neo-Pagan nonsense going around at the Solstices and Equinoxes, which reminded me of the following clipping related to an even more significant astronomical event, a total eclipse. I found it in The Times, in 1999, just before the total eclipse that was visible from parts of the United Kingdom on August 11th of that year. It was a feature about the concerns raised by certain residents of Cornwall about the possible effects of the sudden influx of visitors on the local community. Here is a scan  of a big chunk of the story, which you probably can’t read…

.and here is a blow-up of the section shown in the red box, which places cosmologists such as myself in rather strange company:

In protest, I wrote a letter to the The Times saying that, as a cosmologist, I thought this piece was very insulting … to Druids. They didn’t publish it.

Over the Break

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth on March 19, 2023 by telescoper

After last week’s study break, the St Patrick’s Day holiday, and all the excitement of Ireland’s Grand Slam, I woke up this morning with a shudder at the realization that I have to start teaching again next week and I had a lot to do to prepare. As a consequence, I’ve been busy all afternoon getting lectures and coursework ready, as well as writing examination papers, the deadline for which is tomorrow. These deadlines seem to happen earlier every year!

Among the things I had to do last week was make a trip to the rheumatology clinic where I have steroid injections in my knees for arthritis. It’s not a pleasant procedure, but I have been struggling for the last few weeks and was glad when my appointment came up. It’s not really painful, but the lack of mobility does get me down a bit. For one thing, I suspended my Friday concert-going. For another, a couple of weeks ago, I had to kneel down in the computer lab to fix a cable and could hardly get up again!

It usually takes just a day or two after the jabs to feel some improvement, and so it is this time. I’m moving a lot more freely now, which is a relief, and this should last for 9 months or so.

Anyway, we now have almost three weeks of teaching before another break. I say almost three weeks because Good Friday is a holiday here, as is the following week. I hope to be able to get through my remaining lectures on Computational Physics before then so all that will remain of that module will be labs and project work for the students. And, of course, marking…

The draft exam timetable has been issued, and it looks like I have yet another Saturday paper. Ho hum. Still, after the end of May, I can hopefully start thinking ahead for what is coming over the summer and next academic year…

Essays and (Computational) Physics

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , , on March 14, 2023 by telescoper

There have been more news stories about ChatGPT and assessment in universities going around. There’s one here from The Journal and another here from The Conversation to give just two examples.

I wrote about this myself a couple of months ago in a post that included this:

I have to admit that I’ve never really understood the obsession in some parts of academia with “the student Essay” as a form of assessment. I agree that writing skills are extremely important but they’re not the only skills it is important for students to acquire during the course of a degree. Of course I’m biased because I work in Theoretical Physics, an area in which student essays play a negligible role in assessment. Our students do have to write project reports, etc, but writing about something you yourself have done seems to me to be different from writing about what other people have done. While forms of assessment in science subjects have evolved considerably over the last 50 years, other domains still seem to concentrate almost exclusively on “The Essay”.

Whatever you think about the intrinsic value of The Essay (or lack thereof) it is clear that if it is not done in isolation (and under supervision) it is extremely vulnerable to cheating.

A few people have retorted that communication skills are very important in higher education. I agree with that wholeheartedly, but it seems to me that (a) there are other ways of communicating than via formal essays and (b) there are, should be, more to academic study than  writing about things.

That said, I do think we could be doing more in some disciplines, including my own, to cultivate communication skills in general and writing skills in particular. In Theoretical Physics we certainly don’t do this as much as we should. I do have a project report in my 3rd Year computational physics module, but that is a relatively short document and the report itself counts only one-third of the marks (and the project is only 40% of the module mark).

These thoughts somehow reminded me of this. You can click on it to make it bigger if it’s difficult to read. It was the first paper (called colloquially Paper Zero) of my finals examination at the University of Cambridge way back in 1985, getting on for 40 years ago:


As you can probably infer from the little circle around number 4, I decided to write an Essay about topic 4. I’ve always been interested in detective stories so this was an easy choice for me, but I have absolutely no idea what I wrote about for three hours. Nor do I recall actually ever getting a mark for the essay, so I never really knew whether it really counted for anything. I do remember, however, that I had another 3-hour examination in the afternoon of the same day, two three-hour examinations the following day, and would have had two the day after that had I not elected to do a theory project which let me off one paper at the end and for which I got a good mark.

Anyway, to get back to the essay paper, we certainly don’t set essay examinations like that here in the the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University and I suspect they no longer do so in the Department of Physics at Cambridge either. At the time I didn’t really see the point of making students write such things under examination conditions but then we didn’t have ChatGPT way back then. No doubt it could generate a reasonable essay on any of the topics given.

I am skeptical about whether any of my 3rd year computational physicists would use ChatGPT to write their reports, but they might. But ChatGPT can write Python code too. Am I worried about that? Not greatly. I’ve asked it to write scripts for the various class exercises I’ve set so far and the code it has produced has usually failed. It will get better though….

Into the Study Break

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , on March 11, 2023 by telescoper

So here we are, then. We’ve arrived at the half-term Study Break at Maynooth University. Six weeks of Semester 2 down, six to go. There are no lectures, labs or tutorials next week. It’s not actually a holiday, but the lack of teaching duties will enable me to catch up quite a few things I’ve let slip during term. It will also give me the chance to regroup and prepare for final assault on the second half of term.

The spell of freezing weather we’ve had recently has morphed into something a little warmer and a lot wetter. The light dusting of snow we had yesterday has dissolved in the torrential rain stotting against the windows as I write this piece. I’m waiting for a lull in the downpour so I can make a quick dash to the shops before returning to the comfort of my house for the rest of the day. The weather is coming in from the West today, and I spy a little gap heading my way:

Next Friday, March 17th, is of course, St Patrick’s Day, a national holiday in Ireland. I certainly hope the weather is better for the traditional parades on that day!

I’m glad of the arrival of this break, as I’ve been running on empty for the last several days, the fatigue exacerbated by a flare-up of the arthritis in my knees. On Thursday I had to kneel down next to one of the machines in the computer lab to fix something and I had considerable difficulty getting up again. Doctors say that there’s no reliable evidence that arthritis pain correlates with the weather, but in my case it does seem to come on when the weather changes, especially when it suddenly becomes cold or damp. I’ll be due for another steroid shot soon, which should help, and hopefully the weather will improve over the next few weeks. Possibly.

Anyway, the second half of term should be a lot easier than the first. For one thing, we have another break coming up three weeks in. Good Friday is on April 7th, so that is a holiday, as is the following week. Moreover, I usually only give lectures in Computational Physics for 9 of the 12 teaching weeks in the Semester, after which the students will be working on the mini-projects which form part of the assessment for this module.

P.S. It was on 11th March 2020 that the World Health Organization officially announced the Covid-19 pandemic and it was just before the corresponding Study Break that year that the University was closed and we went into lockdown. Can that really have been three years ago?

Examinations and Memory

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , on March 5, 2023 by telescoper

This Sunday evening I take the text for my sermon from a piece about examinations by Katie Stripe in the Times Higher about examinations:

Testing students’ ability to show their learning in a closed context is not preparing them for a future in which technology is ubiquitous. There are few professional contexts that require you to recall information in a specific time frame.

I agree to some extent with the conclusion of the article but for different reasons. In particular, I don’t think this conclusion has much to do with the arrival of new technologies such as ChatGPT. Exams that simply require the students to “recall information” and nothing else seem to me to be of limited value from an educational point of view and should indeed be scrapped, but I think exams can play a role in testing other, more important, skills such as problem-solving.

Over my lifetime the ratio of assessment to education in universities has risen sharply, with the undeniable result that academic standards have fallen especially in my own discipline of physics. The modular system encourages students to think of modules as little bit-sized bits of education to be consumed and then forgotten. Instead of learning to rely on their brains to solve problems, students tend to approach learning by memorizing chunks of their notes and regurgitating them in the exam. I find it very sad when students ask me what derivations they should memorize to prepare for examinations because that seems to imply that they think their brain is no more than a device for storing information. It became clear to me over the years that school education in the UK does not do enough to encourage students to develop their all-round intellectual potential, which means that very few have confidence in their ability to do anything other than remember things. It seems the same malaise affects the Irish system too.

On the other hand, a good memory is undoubtedly an extremely important asset in its own right.

I went to a traditional Grammar school that I feel provided me with a very good education in which rote learning played a significant part. Learning vocabulary and grammar was an essential part of their approach to foreign languages, for example. How can one learn Latin without knowing the correct declensions for nouns and conjugations for verbs? But although these basic elements are necessary, however, they are not sufficient. You need other aspects of your mental capacity to comprehend, translate or compose meaningful pieces of text.

The same considerations apply to STEM disciplines. It is important to have a basic knowledge of the essential elements of mathematics and physics as a grounding, but you also need to develop the skill to apply these in unusual settings. I also think it’s simplistic to think of memory and creative intelligence as entirely separate things. I seems to me that the latter feeds off the former in a very complex way. A good memory does give you rapid access to information, which means you can do many things more quickly than if you had to keep looking stuff up, but I think there’s a lot more to it than that. Our memories are an essential part of the overall functioning of our brain, which is not  compartmentalized in such a simple way.  For example, one aspect of problem-solving skill relies on the ability to see hidden connections; the brain’s own filing system plays a key role in this.

In recognizing the importance of memory I don’t mean that rote learning is necessarily the best way to develop the relevant skills. My own powers of recall are not great – and are certainly not improving with age – but I find I can remember things much better if I find them interesting and/or if I can see the point of remembering them and/or if I use them a lot. Remembering things because they’re memorable is far easier than remembering because you need to remember them to pass an examination!

Anyway, my point is that a good memory can help you learn, but is not in itself what should be assessed in an examination. I wish universities made more effort to educate students to understand that their brain can be much more than a memory device.

Here endeth the lesson.

Covid-19 in Ireland – The Last Post

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19 with tags , , , on March 1, 2023 by telescoper

On February 29th 2020, Ireland identified its first case of the novel coronavirus, SARS CoV2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The World Health Organization declared the outbreak a pandemic on March 11th. On March 12th 2020 Schools and Colleges in Ireland were closed.

Since then, I have posted regular updates of the number of cases of COVID-19, initially daily and more recently weekly as the frequency of official announcements on the data hub decreased. The plotting the latest figures actually became a sort of ritual for me over this time and I even found mildly therapeutic.

Now, however, three full years have passed- can it really be three full years? – have since the (official) arrival of the pandemic in Ireland and, with the situation looking stable, I think it’s time to stop posting these updates. I made the decision to stop at the end of February 2023 unless something drastic happened to change my mind. Ironically, I just heard this morning that one of my colleagues has a new case of Covid-19 but that hasn’t changed my mind.  I hope this makes it clear that I don’t think the pandemic is over: there are many people still suffering from new infections and the effects of “Long Covid”. I just don’t see the need to continue my updates here.

I will leave the data online here in case anyone is interested in the numbers, but I won’t be posting any further updates.

So here are the final graphs from me.  The present 7-day moving average of new cases is just 89.6 per week, down from 103.0 last week and 36 deaths were recorded in the same period.


On a linear scale the cases look like this

The numbers for deaths on a linear scale look like this

Early Morning Lectures

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth on February 23, 2023 by telescoper

I saw this doing the rounds on Twitter the other day. I even made a little joke about it which went viral (by my standards) with over a million views and almost 2000 retweets:

There’s no accounting for taste.

Am I a meme now?

Anyway, I’m in the office quite early this morning ahead of my 9am Computational Physics lecture so thought I’d do a quick post. I realize that 9am is not early compared to practice in some institutions abroad where lectures can start at 7.30am or even earlier. Everything I say here is based on my own experience and is not claimed to be universal.

As a lecturer I don’t mind 9am lectures at all. I find itt’s nice to get something significant done before 10am as opposed to just trying to deal with emails. On the other hand, I live only about 20 minutes’ walk away from campus so I don’t have to get up especially early. As a matter of fact I get up at 7am on weekdays, so no real adjustment is necessary for a 9am start. If I had a two-hour commute it would no doubt be a different matter.

At conferences and so on, I don’t find myself sleeping in the morning sessions. I find the slots immediately after lunch the worst for staying awake. That’s the time we have our theoretical physics seminars at Maynooth, actually.

My own experiences of being an undergraduate student (at Cambridge) was that I had regular 9am lectures 6 days a week (Saturdays included) and didn’t mind those either. But Cambridge is relatively compact and, living in College, it didn’t take me long to get to the lecture theatres in town. I usually felt quite sharp at 9am, actually, probably less so later in the morning.

Of course the reality is different for many students, some of whom have lengthy journeys into campus on not-entirely reliable public transport, so find a 9am start a challenge (to say the least). It’s certainly not unknown for students to doze off, but I don’t mind that as long as they don’t snore too loudly. I try to break up these lectures with things for the students to do, and that sometimes wakes them up again. In terms of attendance it’s the early evening slots that are worse in my experience than early morning.

Anyway, here in Maynooth we teaching staff have no real say over timetabling so now I should head off to Hall C to set up.

UPDATE: I had a pretty full class but one student did doze (without snoring) for about 3 minutes.

Parnell Memorial

Posted in Biographical, History with tags , , , on February 19, 2023 by telescoper

Yesterday’s march, which started near Parnell Square, passed by the Monument to 19th century Irish nationalist politician Charles Stewart Parnell on O’Connell Street in Dublin. I took the above picture on the way there, before the march.

I was an undergraduate student at Magdalene College, Cambridge, which just happens to be where  Charles Stewart Parnell studied, although I hasten to add that we weren’t contemporaries. There is an annual Parnell Lecture at Magdalene in his honour; an annual Coles lecture is yet to be established.

Parnell was reportedly one of the most charismatic, capable and influential Parliamentarians of his era. He led the Irish Parliamentary Party at the forefront of moves for Home Rule for Ireland. He also had a splendid beard:

His career was cut short by scandal in the form of an adulterous relationship with Kitty (Katherine) O’Shea, whom her husband divorced in 1889 naming Parnell in the case, and whom he married after the divorce. (Kitty, that is, not her husband.) They were not to enjoy life together for long, however, as Parnell died in 1891 of pneumonia in the arms of his wife at their home in Brighton (Hove, actually).


Posted in Biographical, Politics on February 18, 2023 by telescoper

The day has come and I’ll shortly be getting on a train into Dublin to attend the above event in Parnell Square this afternoon. Somewhat annoyingly I’ve had a flare-up of my arthritis recently, but I think it’s important to stand up and be counted. There are rumours that “far-right agitators” (i.e. fascist thugs) are planning to disrupt the event, but if any of them have a go at me I’ll fend them off with my walking-stick!

Update: the journey to Dublin by train was uneventful except that a little boy sitting in the same carriage as me was very upset that it didn’t actually go “choo choo” like his Mam had told him it would.

Update: I’m back in Maynooth enjoying a nice cup of tea, after a very enjoyable day in Dublin. There were many more people on the march than I expected – upwards of 30,000 – which was great, but meant it was very crowded and difficult to take pictures of anything but backs of people.

We took a long while to get going because of the numbers, so I reached the end too late to hear some of the speakers and musicians at the rally. Some of us were still in O’Connell Street when the front of the march arrived at the Customs House. I’m very sorry I missed Christy Moore and Bernadette McAliskey, but the huge turnout was in itself more than adequate compensation.

I am also happy to report that the rumored far-right counter-protest failed to materialize so the whole event went off peacefully. The important thing now, as many of the speakers at the rally stressed, is to ensure that this is just the start.

You can find a report on the march here.

Three weeks in…

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth on February 17, 2023 by telescoper

The first quarter of the second Semester at Maynooth University has flown by. I’ve now done three weeks of lectures and even conducted the first class test in the computer lab. It is from the correcting of these submissions that I am now taking a short break to compose this blog.

Amazingly, for the first time ever, there have been no major problems in the Computational Physics lab at all. In previous years, something has always gone wrong but not (so far) this time round. I’m sure our nice new digital display screen has also improved the experience for the students in that they can now actually see the instructions I give them!

I’m actually ahead of the game in my Advanced Electromagnetism module, having done 7 lectures in 3 weeks instead of the usual 6, because I used one of my tutorial slots to give an extra lecture, anticipating that I’d lose a lecture on Good Friday (7th April) as this is a national holiday in Ireland. The following week is a holiday here too. Three weeks from now we have the mid-term Study Break (13th-17th March, ending on St Patrick’s Day), so after the first six weeks of this Semester we get a little more time to relax.

Soon it will be time to write the examinations for Semester 2. I need to think up some questions for Advanced Electromagnetism and Computational Physics. Writing an examination takes the same time regardless of how many students are taking it, but when the class sizes are small it takes much less time to do the marking. There is a large component of continuous assessment in Computational Physics, which means more work for me through the term, but there are only 25 in the class so it’s not too bad. The class for Advanced Electromagnetism is even smaller, which should make my marking workload in June a bit less heavy than it was in January.

Today students were notified of their provisional Semester 1 examination results. I expect I’ll be talking to some of them next week to discuss their options in the light of the outcome. Final marks don’t get confirmed until the Summer, when we have a full meeting of the Examination Board together with the External Examiner. Marks don’t usually change but they can if the Board decides they should.

We often have a seminar on Friday afternoons but we don’t have one today which is why I’ve got time to write this post. Often I go to the National Concert Hall on Friday evenings but I’m not going this evening. I decided to have a quiet night in tonight, as I’ve got something important to do tomorrow. After I finish marking this first class test I think I’ll toddle off home.