Archive for the Biographical Category

Notes on Eurovision

Posted in Biographical, Music, Politics with tags , , , , on May 15, 2022 by telescoper

To nobody’s surprise Ukraine won last night’s Eurovision song contest after collecting a huge dollop of the televotes. After the jury votes, the United Kingdom’s entry was in the lead which surprised me because I thought it wasn’t much of a song at all. I’ve never been very good at picking the tunes that do well though. I didn’t like Ukraine’s entry – Stefania by the Kalush Orchestra – much either, but obviously there are special circumstances this year and I’m not at all sorry that they won.

In fact I thought the best song – and the best singer – by a long way was the Lithuanian entry sung by Monika Liu, who held the stage brilliantly by standing there and singing, without any fancy staging. She finished a disappointing 14th.

Monika Liu

Other entries I enjoyed were: Spain, catchy dance number with excellent choreography that finished 3rd; Moldova, an energetic performance full of humour (7th); and Norway, whose entry Give that Wolf a Banana was enjoyably deranged (10th). The less said about the other entries the better. I’m still as baffled by how Sam Ryder’s entry for the UK, Space Man, did so well in the jury votes as I am that Lithuania did so badly there, but there you go. What do I know?

I’ll state without comment that the Ukrainian jury gave a maximum douze points to the United Kingdom, but in return the UK jury gave Ukraine nil points

Anyway, three things struck me as I sipped my wine and watched the show:

  1. Ironically the Opera on the radio last night was Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg which is about a sixteenth century song contest that resembles the Eurovision versiononly in the length of time it goes on for. Perhaps someone should write a modern music drama called Die Meistersinger von Eurovision?
  2. I think the Research Excellence Framework would be much more fun if it were done like the Eurovision Song Contest. Each University regardless of size could be given the same distribution of scores to allocate to the others (but not itself). I can see interesting patterns emerging during that!
  3. When I was formally presented with my DPhil in the summer of 1989, the graduation ceremony took place on the same stage (at the Brighton Centre) on which Abba won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974 with their song Waterloo.

REF 2021 Results and Ranking

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff with tags , , , on May 12, 2022 by telescoper

The results of the UK’s Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2021 have now been published. You can find them all here at the REF’s own website because they are presented there in a much more informative way than the half-baked “rankings” favoured by, e.g., The Times Higher.

To give some background: the overall REF score for a Unit of Assessment (UoA; usually a Department or School) is obtained by adding three different components: outputs (quality of research papers); impact (referring to the impact beyond academia); and environment (which measures such things as grant income, numbers of PhD students and general infrastructure). Scores are assigned to these categories, e.g. for submitted outputs on a scale of 4* (world-leading), 3* (internationally excellent), 2* (internationally recognized), 1* (nationally recognized) and unclassified. Similar star ratings are applied to the impact and environment. These are weighted at 60%, 25% and 15% respectively in the current incarnation of REF.

You can find further discussion of the REF submission rules, especially concerning changes with respect to 2014, here.

The way the star ratings are often reported is via a Grade Point Average reflecting the percentage of in each band. A hypothetical UoA that scored 100% in the top category would have a GPA of 4.0, for example. One that had 50% 4* and 50* 3* would be 3.5, and so on.

In the 2014 REF institutions were allowed to be selective in the number of staff submitted so the GPA wasn’t really a very appropriate measure: some institutions chose to submit only their very best research in order to get a high GPA. The funding allocated as a result of REF turned out to be highly weighted towards 4* so this was a sensible strategy for them, but it made the simple GPA-based rankings even more meaningless than usual. That didn’t stop e.g. The Times Higher making such rankings though.

This time the rules on selection are stricter so the GPA is arguably more relevant, though many institutions have achieved selectivity anyway by moving certain staff onto teaching-only contracts. Staff on such contracts do not have to be submitted. I note that the main REF website does not use the GPA at all but instead gives profiles like this:

I show the example of Sussex because of my bad memories of the last REF (the 2014 exercise). I had moved to Sussex in 2013 at which point preparations were not well advanced and although everyone concerned worked very hard to put together the best submission for Physics & Astronomy we had to face the problem that our staff numbers had grown significantly in 2013 response to an increase in student numbers. While new staff could bring publications with them they couldn’t bring impact or environment, and while the outputs scored well the latter two categories didn’t so the Department of Physics & Astronomy did poorly in the ensuing rankings.

It must be said however that the primary purpose of the REF (allegedly) is to allocate blocks of funding- the so-called QR funding – to support research in the UoA concerned and while the GPA at Sussex was disappointing the fact that the money depends on the number of staff submitted meant that we got a substantial increase in QR dosh. Note further that the formula for allocation of funds to 4*, 3*, etc is not even specified in advance of the exercise: it is likely to be highly concentrated on research graded 4* and that the funding formula will probably different in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. A ranking in terms of money earned is likely to look rather different from one based on GPA.

Another, even more fundamental, problem with the GPA is that the scores are so close together that the differences are of doubtful significance. In the Physics UoA, for example, the gap between top GPA (Sheffield) and 5th place (Bristol) is just 0.05 (3.65 versus 3.60) respectively. I see also that Cardiff is ranked equal 18th (with Imperial College) on a GPA of 3.45.

I say these things just to illustrate how much more subtle the criteria for success are compared to a simple GPA. It’s even hard to tell on an objective basis who to congratulate and who to commiserate.

Anyway, back to Sussex I see that Physics & Astronomy has done far better on environment and impact than last time round and the outputs (95% of which are either 4* or 3*) are comparable to last time (96%) so by those measures they have done well although this might not be reflected in a GPA-based ranking. Sussex is 26th in the rankings with a GPA of 3.35, if you’re interested, which is better than last time, though they will probably be disappointed at the presence of 2* elements in their profile.

Indeed, looking through the Physics list I can’t see any UoA that has a lower GPA this time than last time. The pot of money to be allocated for QR funding is fixed so if every UoA does better that doesn’t mean every UoA gets more money; some institutions will no doubt find that their improved GPA is accompanied by a cut in QR funding.

I’ll end by re-iterating that, having moved to Ireland in 2017, I’m very glad to be out of the path of the bureaucratic juggernaut that is the REF. In its first incarnations (as the Research Assessment Exercise) it did fulfil a useful purpose and did, I believe, improve the quality of UK research. Since then, however, it has become an industry that is largely self-serving. I quote from an article in the Times Higher itself:

The allocation of QR funding could be done in a much simpler and fairer way but the REF is now such a huge edifice it will resist being replaced by something smaller. No doubt before long the staff who spent so much time preparing for REF 2021 will start work on the next exercise. And so it goes on.

The changes in ranking that now occur from exercise to exercise are generally small in magnitude and in number. In other words, huge effort and cost are being invested to discover less and less information.

P.S. For completeness I should say that I am glad we don’t have an equivalent of the REF here in Ireland, we don’t have an equivalent of the QR funding either. This latter is a serious problem for the sustainability of research in third-level institutions, and it is not addressed at all in the recent proposals for reform.

The Time of the Pandemic

Posted in Biographical, Books, Talks and Reviews, Covid-19, Science Politics, Talks and Reviews with tags , , , , on May 11, 2022 by telescoper

I’ve posted before about the way the Covid-19 pandemic has played havoc with my perception of the passage of time and today I’ve experienced another example because I was reminded that it was on this day (11th May) last year that I received my first shot of Covid-19 vaccine.

It’s very hard for me to accept that it was just one year ago that I was waiting in City West to get my injection as it seems in my memory further back than that in my memory. It’s not only how long ago things happened, but also even the sequence of events that has become muddled. I wonder how long it will take to restore any normal sense of these things?

Anyway, I’ve just updated the daily statistics on this blog and although case numbers remain relatively high they do seem to be falling steadily and things do seem to be under control in terms of hospital admissions and deaths. Only 254 people are in hospital with Covid-19 today and the trend is downward.

Maybe the time of the pandemic is drawing to a close?

Further evidence that things may be getting back to normal is that I’m giving the first in-person research talk I’ve done since before the pandemic started at the Irish Theoretical Physics Meeting (ITP22) at the end of this month in Dublin (at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, to be precise). I’m looking forward to giving a talk in the same room as real people. I’m even top of the bill (though only thanks to alphabetical order):

I’ve only got a 30-minute slot so I hope my sense of the passage of time returns at least to the extent that I keep to schedule. My PhD student is travelling to Newcastle next week to give her first ever conference talk at the UK Cosmology Meeting. Hers is a 5-minute talk, which is quite a difficult thing to do well, but I have every confidence it will be excellent.

And talking of research, I see that tomorrow sees the public announcement of the results of the 2021 Research Excellence Framework. Universities have had their results since the start of the week but they are embargoed until tomorrow, no doubt to allow PR people to do their work. I’ll probably post a reaction tomorrow, but for now I’ll just send best wishes to colleagues in the UK – especially in Cardiff and Sussex – who are waiting anxiously hoping for a successful outcome and say that I’m very happy to be here in Ireland, out of the path of that particular bureaucratic juggernaut.

Mental Health and the Reasons for Burnout

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth, Mental Health with tags , , , on May 10, 2022 by telescoper

It is now European Health Week as well as “Employee Wellbeing Month” here at Maynooth University. I’m reminded that ten years ago that I was heading for a breakdown and a subsequent spell in a psychiatric institution so I always try to use this opportunity to encourage friends colleagues and students to do what I didn’t back then, and ask for help sooner rather than later.

Today my colleague from, and former Head of, the Psychology Department at Maynooth shared a piece on twitter that provided me with a new theme, burnout, which is usually described in these terms:

Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands. As the stress continues, you begin to lose the interest and motivation that led you to take on a certain role in the first place.

Burnout reduces productivity and saps your energy, leaving you feeling increasingly helpless, hopeless, cynical, and resentful. Eventually, you may feel like you have nothing more to give.

I’d be surprised if any of my friends and colleagues in the University have not felt at least some of the signs of burnout at some point over the last two years during the which the pandemic drastically exacerbated existing conditions of overwork. I know there’s a tendency among staff to blame themselves for struggling and I know that there’s a even stronger tendency for Management to want staff to blame themselves: “you need to be more resilient” is the catchphrase.

As a counter to this attitude I suggest you read this piece which explains that burnout is not the fault of employees but of the environment created by management. In particular, here are the five main causes of burnout:

  1. Unfair treatment at work
  2. Unmanageable workload
  3. Lack of role clarity
  4. Lack of communication and support from their manager
  5. Unreasonable time pressure

Do any of these look familiar to you? They certainly do to me! I would add a sixth: “6. management determination to make 1-5 even worse in future”. Academic staff on proper contracts are much more expensive than low-paid temporary lecturers on insecure contracts. If you care more about making a profit than providing a quality third level education, why not let the former burn out and replace them with the latter?

My biggest fear is that having seen the lengths to which staff have been prepared to go voluntarily to keep things going during the pandemic, all that has been achieved is to establish in the minds of Management an expectation that this is the way things will be for the indefinite future.

It’s not so bad for me. I’ll be 60 next year and I can see the prospect of retirement on the horizon, but I do worry about what this means for the careers of younger staff.

Last Day of Term!

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth on May 6, 2022 by telescoper

So at last we’ve arrived at the last day of teaching for Semester 2 at Maynooth University. My final session – a revision lecture – was actually yesterday. Today I’m on tenterhooks as the students are submitting their Computational Physics project reports ahead of the deadline of 4pm this afternoon and I’m on hand to help with last minute problems. Some have already appeared on Moodle, bucking the fine academic tradition of only submitting things at the very last minute. Students on this module have to do the project in order to pass the module, so I hope they all manage to submit something by the deadline. I saw a few in the lab yesterday afternoon and they seemed to have good results. I just hope they left enough time to write everything up! No prizes for guessing what I’ll be doing next week: marking project reports (and coursework I didn’t have time to correct earlier).

Next week is a study week for the students, so the powers be must think academic staff are going to be sitting around twiddling their thumbs until the exam period begins (on Friday 13th). That’s the only explanation I can think of for the proliferation of meetings in my calendar for next week.

After that of course my colleagues and I will be marking examinations. I have papers on Tuesday 17th May and Friday 20th May. I may be able to get the first set of scripts marked before the second set arrives, but maybe not. At any rate we have to get all the marks up on the system well before the Exam Boards take place in early June. That should be easy for me, but not so much for those staff who have exams much later in the cycle.

This term has been marked by low attendances at lectures and tutorials, for a number of Covid-related reasons. We’ve done our lectures in person on campus, but only around a third of the students have been attending. Neither I nor anyone else knows what that will mean for the results of the forthcoming examinations. We’ll just have to wait and see…

At least our Exam Board will take place in person this time as the Covid-19 situation here in Ireland looks reasonably positive which will make it a bit easier to discuss any important matters that may arise.

This has been a tough year, with half our lecturing staff being temporary replacements after one departure, one retirement and one on sabbatical. One member of staff will be returning from sabbatical in September, and we have one permanent position under advertisement (application deadline: 22nd May) but we’re going to be forced employ temporary lecturers again next academic year as it seems unlikely the permanent replacement will be in post by September and in any case we will be a post down even if that post is filled. I don’t like this at all, but I have no choice.

A Dress Code for Physics?

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , , , on May 2, 2022 by telescoper

This image has been doing the rounds on Physics Twitter recently, accompanied by a mixture of incredulous, amused and angry comments. It’s from the instructions from the 13th International Particle Accelerator Conference (IPAC2022) which takes place in Thailand next month.

To be fair I think this dress code is only for delegates wishing to attend a special event at which the Thai Royal Family will be present, but that it is strange that it should be so “Westernized”. It seems nobody wearing more traditional formal clothing from African or Asian countries, or even Thailand itself would be allowed.

Aside from that, the highly gendered instructions would make many attendees uncomfortable. Women must wear skirts, not trousers for example. Why? I wonder if they’d allow a Scotsman wearing a kilt? It’s all very silly and not at all inclusive. I suspect this nonsense has put off a number of potential attendees.

Speaking for myself, I don’t mind dressing up a bit for special social occasions that have a dress code. At the RAS Club Dinners at the Athenaeum the dress code for men is, amusingly, “jacket and tie”. Trousers are apparently not allowed and there’s no restriction that I know of on female dress. As a matter of fact I find it a relief when the dress code for a function is formal (e.g. “black tie”) because a male person such as me then doesn’t have to think about what to put on. IG wouldn’t like to have a dress code imposed on me at work, though.

The instruction that clothing must be “crisp, neat, pressed and never wrinkled” would represent an impossible standard for most of my colleagues in physics who for the most part dress in a manner that’s more “scruffy academic” than “business professional”. I have however worked with physicists who dress at work in a wide variety of ways. One I remember always wore a three-piece suit (even at the height of summer) and another was full Goth, neither style made any difference to their ability to do research.

I have sometimes been asked by junior researchers about how to dress for things like interviews or conference talks. I wrote about this before, here.

In brief the idea of of dressing up for job interviews in academia has always seemed rather odd to me. The default style of dress for academics is “scruffy”, so it’s a bit odd that we all seem to pretend that it’s otherwise for interviews. I suppose it’s just to emphasize that it’s a formal occasion from the point of view of the interview panel, and to show that the candidates are taking it seriously. I don’t really pay much attention to what interviewees wear, other than that if they look like they’ve just been dragged through a hedge one might infer that they’re  a bit too disorganized even to be a member of the academic staff at a University or that they’re not really putting enough effort into the whole thing.

On the other hand, some people feel so uncomfortable in anything other than jeans and a T-shirt that putting on a suit would either be an unbearable ordeal for them or conflict with their self-image in some fundamental way. Neither of these are intended, so if that’s going to be the case for you, just dress as you normally do (but preferably with something reasonably clean).

I sometimes get asked whether a (male) candidate for a PhD place should wear a suit and tie forsuch an interview. Having conducted interview days for many years at a number of different institutions, my experience is that a smaller proportion do dress formally for PhD interviews than for job interviews. My advice to students asking about this is just to say that they should try to look reasonably presentable, but suit–and-tie are definitely not compulsory. I would say “smart casual” is a good guide, though I have to say I don’t really know what that is. In any case it’s unlikely the staff interviewing you will be dressed formally…

Anyway, in writing this I started to think that the world would be a better place if “business professionals” were made to dress like academics, rather than the other way round.

Lá Bealtaine

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education on May 1, 2022 by telescoper

Today, 1st May, Beltane (Bealtaine in Irish) is an old Celtic festival that marks the mid-point between the Spring Equinox and the Summer Solstice. The month of May is called Bealtaine in Irish and May Day is called Lá Bealtaine. It’s one of the so-called Cross-Quarter Days that lie halfway between the equinoxes and solstices. These ancient festivals take place earlier in the modern calendar than the astronomical events that represent their origin: for example, the halfway point between the Spring Equinox and Summer Solstice is actually next week.

A consequence of all this is that Monday is a Bank Holiday and, in keeping with tradition, the weather has taken a turn for the worse and it is pouring with rain. Nevertheless  Lá Bealtaine shona daoibh go leir!

On the corresponding days last year and the year before I was wondering about how the pandemic would pan out. Back on May 1st 2020 I didn’t think it would last until May 2021 and back in 2021 I did not forecast that we would still have over a thousand new infections every day in May 2022.  The vaccination programme seems to have done its job though and although case numbers remain high, the number of hospitalizations, ICU admissions and fatalities have not increased as in previous waves.

The Department of Health no longer gives Covid-19 updates at weekends (or on holidays) so here is the chart up to Friday 29th April:

May 1st 2021 was around 410 on the time-axis, with cases and deaths falling:

I hadn’t expected the subsequent increase to much higher levels of infection, but the ratio of deaths to cases is much lower now than it was a year ago despite the lower level of testing now.

It was announced on Friday that the Department of Health is to stop giving daily updates. I don’t know if they’re still going to put daily figures on the data hub (which is where I get them from) but if they don’t I’ll discontinue putting data on my Covid-19 page.

Anyway, yesterday’s open day went ahead without physical distancing though some staff and visitors were wearing masks. It was so busy in the Iontas Building that the hubbub made it difficult to be heard while talking with a mask on so I just dispensed with mine for the duration. Some visitors were wearing theirs though.

After tomorrow’s holiday we have four days left of teaching term then there’s a study week for the students – duyring which I’ll be marking computational projects and other assessments – and then the exams begin. For many students this will be their first on-campus examinations and we’re all a bit nervous about how they will go, but we’ll find out soon enough…

Open Day on Campus

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth on April 30, 2022 by telescoper

Today was an Undergraduate Open Day at Maynooth University and contrary to my pessimistic expectations it was extremely busy, probably the busiest I have ever attended in Maynooth. I was told that there were 4,500 people on campus for this event which compares to a more normal figure of 3,000ish. I gather one of the reasons it was so busy was that few (if any) other Irish universities are having open days on campus this year.

Busy foyer stands in the Iontas Building

The stand in Iontas was quite busy all morning and my subject talk on Theoretical and Mathematical Physics was so well attended that the room was full and people were standing at the back. I was in the last slot of the day (as usual) so nobody else was in the lecture room after my group so I invited people to stay and ask questions if they wanted to. It ended up with 45 minutes of very interesting discussion.

This is the first of these sessions we’ve done since November 2019. Since then the entire admissions process has been disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic. There is more than a little uncertainty about entrance requirement for September 2022, but I gave the best advice I could. Talking face-to-face with real people made a very pleasant change from the webinars and pre-recorded videos we’ve been doing recently.

Anyway, I think today has been a success, though a very tiring one. It’s very exhausting trying to be nice to people. I think I’ll need the rest of the holiday weekend to recover!

Project Time

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth on April 26, 2022 by telescoper

For the next and final two weeks of my Computational Physics module the students are now working in groups of two or three on their mini-projects, so our twice-weekly lab sessions are much less structured and the students work in their groups with myself and a demonstrator to help out if they have problems. Somewhat to my surprise the lab was full this afternoon. I expected the students might prefer to work outside the scheduled times, but it was nice to see them working away together and managing to get some results. They hand in their projects at the end of next week, so they finish this part of their assessment before the exam session starts, a week after that.

The projects cover quite a wide range of material and the students have plenty of choice but some of the projects I offered didn’t have any takers. Anyway, I thought you might like to see the titles of the projects that are being done:

  • Electronic Energy Levels in Aluminium
  • Brownian Motion
  • El Niño
  • Action Potentials in Neurons
  • Wave Functions in the Hydrogen Atom
  • The Chaotic Inflationary Universe,
  • Polytropes and the Lane-Emden Equation
  • A Semiconductor Laser
  • The Dimension of a Strange Attractor
  • The Earth-Jupiter-Sun Interaction and Milankovitch Cycles
  • Fluid Flow through a Pipe
  • Random Polymers
  • Modelling Infectious Diseases
  • Modelling the Refraction of Light

Not all of these are to do with physics of course, but I make no apology for this as not all of our graduates will become physicists. The main point is that the projects require application of the skills taught during the module, as well as a bit of teamwork and report-writing; the latter two activities are things that theoretical physics students don’t get much practice at. I usually try to think of 4-5 new projects each year: the others are recycled.

Anyway, I look forward to reading and assessing the 14 project reports in due course!

Post Easter Post

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth with tags , , on April 25, 2022 by telescoper

So here I am, then, back in the office after the Easter break for the remaining two weeks of Semester Two. I was supposed to be on leave last week but there’s so much to do that I ended up working most days apart from the Easter weekend itself, but at least I do so from the comfort of my own home and, occasionally, garden.

I had hoped to be able to spend the latter part of this week at the annual Euclid Consortium meeting which is being held this year in Oslo. Unfortunately because this year it falls within teaching term I’ve just got too much to do so I can’t go. I hope my colleagues and friends in Euclid have an enjoyable and successful time in Oslo. I hope to make it next year, wherever it is held.

Next Monday is the May Day Holiday so we have only 9 days of teaching left before the study break and examinations. Although next weekend is a Bank Holiday weekend, the powers that be in Maynooth have decreed that Saturday will be an Open Day:

It remains to be seen how many prospective students and their families will choose to interrupt their long weekend to visit campus on Saturday April 30th but I’ll be there. I know no bounds, you see…

The most exciting thing that happened last week was that a bloke from the Gas Board came to install a new gas meter. My colleagues were skeptical that he would actually turn up at the appointed time but he did. He completed the job in about half an hour, including time for a short lecture on why I should have a carbon monoxide meter put in my kitchen. The gas meter is actually on the front of the house and the gas man was kept under close surveillance as he worked by the local robin who has clearly decided that both front and back gardens are its own private property.

Last week the same robin made further visits to the inside of my house, even tapping on the window with its beak to be let in. I am increasingly concerned that it will decide that the inside of the house also belongs to it and I’ll end up being forcibly evicted.

It is an annual tradition at Eastertide to worry about whether Newcastle United will be relegated from the Premiership but after a string of good results they look reasonably safe. The players will be relieved to have avoided a public flogging by the clubs new owners, the Saudi Royal Family.