Archive for the Biographical Category


Posted in Biographical, LGBT with tags , on November 18, 2021 by telescoper

So here we are once again on LGBTQ+ STEM Day! Last year on this day I gave a talk via Zoom and remember hoping that the following year we could have an in-person event in Maynooth but alas that was not to be. Nevertheless I can at least use the medium of this blog to wish all LGBTQ+ persons working in STEM subjects around the globe a very enjoyable day. You can find out about events near you by checking here, looking for the hashtag #LGBTQSTEMDay on social media or by following the twitter account:

Voices and Faces

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

Regular readers of this blog will know that I listen to the radio much more often than I watch the TV. In fact I was thinking last night that I might make the forthcoming Christmas break entirely television-free, to give me a chance to catch up on reading and listen to music when I’m not drinking wine or cooking and eating food.

Anyway, I was listening to the radio last night and it struck me that whenever I hear the voice of someone whose face I have never seen my brain seems to construct a to want to construct a mental image of what the person looks like. This not only happens when listening to the radio but also when talking to someone on the phone. It seems an automatic process over which I have no conscious control. If and when I subsequently find out what the person actually does look like they’re rarely anything like I’d imagined, so whatever process goes on in my head is not very accurate!

But what is the process?

My theory – for which I have absolutely no evidence – is that my brain kind of runs through my memory bank of voices and the faces that go with them, tries to find the closest matches to the voice I’m hearing, and then constructs an image as a kind of amalgam of those identified. The assumption would be that people who sound the same might tend to look the same, which is obviously more than a little dodgy.

Obviously there is contextual information too. Gender and race and age influence the process, for example, but there are many other factors. If I hear the voice of someone on the radio who is introduced as, say, an opera singer my brain probably try to find a match among the faces of opera singers I have seen, and so on.

I’d be interested to know if anyone shares this experience of trying to put a face to the voice and what is going on in the brain when it happens!

As a related issue I remember a discussion in a pub a while ago – back in the days when I used to have discussions with people in pubs – about faces. Some people are considered have more attractive faces than others (an entirely subjective statement) but there’s something about certain faces that makes the owner of the face appear kind as opposed to being beautiful or handsome or otherwise attractive.

People with kind faces appear to be friendly and sympathetic and, by implication, more approachable, which encourages other people to talk to them in a way that they probably would not talk to others. This is not always a positive move. I remember a female colleague in Cardiff – who is aware that she does have such a kind of kind face – telling me that she often got a bit fed up with other colleagues unburdening themselves in conversation with her about things she’d rather not know about.

Anyway I know quite a few people that I would say have kind faces but I don’t know what it is that makes them appear so. It may be something about the shape of the face, softer features, the eyes….or what?

So Question 2 for today’s discussion is: what makes a face look kind?

Half Measures

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , on November 16, 2021 by telescoper

Against the backdrop of rapidly rising numbers of Covid-19 cases the Irish Government today announced the return of some restrictions, including the closure of hospitality venues no later than midnight and a return to working from home “unless absolutely necessary”. On the latter, however, it has said that “There will be no reintroduction of remote learning for schools and third-level institutions at this point”.

I think the key phrase is “at this point”. I don’t think the new measures go nearly far enough and they will have to be revisited in a week or two, at which point we will revert to remote (online) teaching. Although we haven’t been give guidance yet, I think we’ll be carrying on with in-person lectures and tutorials at Maynooth for the time being, but it’s no more than an even money bet that we’ll stay that way until the end of term. I would also suggest that the odds are very much against us actually having examinations on campus in January. We await further guidance from the University about this, so I don’t know. The timetable for the January examinations is due to be published next week so a decision will have to be made very quickly.

What I do know, though, is that my second vaccine dose was on June 8th. The Government has now announced that 50-59 year olds (which includes me) can now get a third (booster) dose six months from their last one. In my case that is December 8th. But the roll-out of boosters has been painfully slow in Ireland, and most of the over-60s haven’t had theirs yet. It’s likely to be weeks or months until I get an appointment for mine.

We might have to switch to remote teaching in a while anyway if the rules are changed but I have made the decision that if I haven’t got my booster by December 8th I’ll be working from home and switching all my lectures online. Term ends on December 17th so I’ll only have to give a few remote lectures, but for me it is a matter of principle.

By deciding that in person teaching is “absolutely essential” the Government has admitted that lecturers are frontline staff and we should accordingly get a booster dose at the appropriate time. I’ve worked countless hours of unpaid overtime during this pandemic and I’m not going to continue without adequate protection from infection.

Worrying Times…

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on November 14, 2021 by telescoper

So here I am, trying to plan my teaching for next week and wondering what’s going to happen between now and the end of term. Here at Maynooth University lectures finish on 17th December, five weeks from now. I’m just about on schedule to cover everything I’m supposed to, so I’m not worried about that.

What I am worried about is that Covid-19 cases are continuing to climb. The latest 7-day rolling average of new cases is over 3900 per day and the increasing trend show no sign of slowing down. It will reach the 5000 mark in a week or two. Some daily figures have already passed that milestone. The death rate is still relatively low – 74 Covid-19 related deaths were recorded in the last week – but is edging up; over a hundred people with Covid-19 are being treated in ICU as of today.

The Irish Government seems to have no intention of introducing effective countermeasures and is instead just advising people to cut down the amount of socializing they do. I don’t think that will work. It seems very clear to me that the Government lost the room many weeks ago by frequently implying that the Covid-19 pandemic was over. They then caved in to the hospitality industry by allowing nightclubs to open. It is no doubt in such places that the virus is spreading. The Government keep stating that they are concerned but do nothing, blinking at the onrushing disaster like rabbits caught in the headlights of an approaching car.

Case numbers on campus at Maynooth remain fairly low, though the latest figure (69) is almost double last week’s figure (35). Students in my classes continue to wear face coverings and observe the other protocols and all the signs are that lecture halls and labs are pretty safe environments but we have no say in what happens off campus. As well as being concerned for the health of students and staff, I have particular worries about my Department. We’ve been short-staffed since the start of term and simply have no spare effort to provide cover for lectures or tutorials if anyone becomes sick.

The Irish Health Service is under extreme pressure and the delivery of booster shots is being rolled out very slowly. I had my second Pfizer dose in June so should get a third shot in December but it is not clear that I will. I’m not going anywhere at Christmas anyway so that’s not a big deal but I’m worried by the broader picture. A cartoon in a recent issue of Private Eye is very apt:

Might we have to switch our lectures back online again before Christmas? Might our examinations be online again in January? Who knows. We’ll just have to wait and see but I think the blackboard in my study might be back in use very soon.

Introducing the Icelandverse

Posted in Biographical with tags , , , on November 13, 2021 by telescoper

At the end of another exhausting week this parody of Mark Zuckerberg and his “metaverse” cheered me up no end. It reminds me that I visited Iceland once in 2008 and enjoyed it enormously, but for some reason have never been back…

Please don’t call me “Sir”!

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth on November 10, 2021 by telescoper

Yesterday, on the way out of the lecture theatre after finishing a class, I was chatting with some of the students therein and the subject came up of how they should address me (and their lecturers in general).

One thing I’ve noticed since moving to Ireland is that, more so in England or Wales, first-year students often call me “Sir” if they want to attract my attention to something such as – to give a purely hypothetical example – a missing minus sign in a calculation. I suppose that me something to do with more of the schools perhaps being run on more traditional lines than in the UK.

For completeness I should point out that I went to an old-fashioned grammar school at which all the teachers were called “Sir” as they were all male. Some teachers were unbearably pompous in their insistence on that form of address, which is probably why I dislike it so much although I do appreciate the attempt to be polite.

I can understand why students – at least initially – carry on at university with behaviours that were deemed appropriate at school, but to my mind universities are really different because everyone is an adult. Of course I’m supposed to know more about the stuff that I’m teaching than the student, but the aim of the education is to eradicate that difference as effectively as possible. I think an important step on that journey is for the students to feel part of a joint venture than being talked at by some sort of authority figure. Formal titles do not encourage students to ask questions, which is an essential part of the teaching process.

Anyway, when a student asked me if he should call me “Sir” I said “No. Please don’t!”

“What should I call you then?”, he asked. “Professor?”

“My name is Peter, so that’s what you should call me” I replied. The student seemed quite shocked at the level of informality implied, but as far as I know I think all the teaching staff in the Department of Theoretical Physics are all comfortable with first-name terms.

I’ve never really thought about this before so I wonder what other university teachers think. Do any of you out there insist on using formal titles or is informality the norm?

A Gift

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth with tags , , on November 9, 2021 by telescoper

It is with a sense of relief bordering on joy that I can report that after many weeks of delay because of visa issues the last of our temporary lecturers has finally arrived in Maynooth. He has been teaching online for half the semester but at least he can do the second half in person.

He also gave me a wonderful gift in the form of a sumptuously illustrated multi-lingual edition of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám:

Here is a glimpse inside:

I am familiar with Edward Fitzgerald‘s famous English translation of these quatrains with an AABA rhyming scheme by the Astronomer-Poet of Persia but skimming the volume I see that the translations into other languages are rather different. It must be difficult to find three rhyming endings for each quatrain without stretching the original meaning, so some of the translations don’t attempt this. Here is the German translation (not by Fitzgerald) in the book of one of the most well-known verses:

Es schreibt die Hand und schreibt
Weder dein Witz noch all dein Glaubensmut
Euft sie zurück, daß sie ein Wort nur tilgt –
Kein Tüttelchen löscht deiner Tränen Flut.

Notes from Half Way

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , , , on November 6, 2021 by telescoper

We’ve now reached the halfway point in our teaching semester at Maynooth University. That means there are another six weeks of teaching before the end of term break. I was looking through the notes of my modules this morning in order to make a plan for the rest of term and was relieved to find that I’m roughly on track to finish on time. That is despite the first years starting a week late and lectures being 45 minutes long instead of 50.

At this point I’m still finding it very disconcerting talking to an audience of masked students, but it’s a heck of a lot better than just talking at a camera. Quite a few times I’ve been walking around campus and a student without a face covering has said “hello Peter” or words to that effect and I’ve smiled and said “hello” back while wondering who they were. Outside, you see, people take their masks off while, inside, I’m the only person whose face is uncovered.

Still, at least during lectures I get to make eye contact with the students. I don’t know why that matters so much to me, but it does. I remember as a student I had some lecturers who were pathologically incapable of making eye contact with the class, usually staring at a spot about six feet over the heads of the students. I found that most off-putting.

Although it still feels a bit weird, I’m glad that the mask-wearing protocol is being observed very well at least in lecture theatres. Unfortunately cases are skyrocketing right now – almost 4000 yesterday, as high as last January – which is all very worrying. Are we going to move to a Plan B? I doubt it, because the Government doesn’t seem to have one. Nevertheless I do think there’s still a significant possibility of our January exams being moved online yet again, but that hasn’t been decided yet.

Meanwhile, in the UK, University staff have been balloted over industrial action relating to the USS pension scheme and to various issues relating to terms and conditions. The majority of votes cast were in favour of strikes, but some institutions did not reach the 50% threshold required for strike action to be legal (some by just a handful of votes) and others achieved the threshold in only one of the disputes. I don’t know what will happen next, but I’d like to express my solidarity with those taking what I consider to be entirely justified action.

I couldn’t resist quoting this from the Universities UK statement on the dispute:

After a difficult 18 months, students do not deserve any further disruption.

Yes, it has been a difficult 18 months for students, but the absence of even a teeny bit of recognition that it has also been very difficult for staff is extremely telling.

I’m taking a particular interest in the disputes not only because I have friends and former colleagues in the UK but also because I have the best part of 30 years’ contributions locked into the USS pension scheme, plus some additional voluntary contribitions, and am relying on the benefits from those for my own retirement. If anything happens to that source of income I am financially screwed.

Apart from the USS scheme, the other side of the UCU dispute concerns ‘four fights‘ over:

  1. Pay
  2. Workload
  3. Equality
  4. Casualisation

These issues don’t only apply in the UK, of course. Workloads in my Department are at ridiculous levels – not only for me – and we have been forced by Management decisions into a situation in which half of our lecturing is being done by staff on short-term contracts. I suspect that the unpaid overtime we have put in during the pandemic is the expectation for the future, and I see no sign of the casualisation of our teaching staff being reversed in the immediate future. I hope I’m proved wrong, but in the meantime I’m keeping a close eye on my USS pension in case early retirement proves the only way to escape…

Astrophysics & Cosmology Masterclass at Maynooth!

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on November 4, 2021 by telescoper

Regular readers of the blog – both of them – may remember that, after a couple of postponements due to Covid-19, we presented a Masterclass in Astrophysics & Cosmology in Maynooth on March 25th 2021. Well, owing to popular demand, we’ve decided to do a re-run of the event on Friday 12th November 2021 ahead of the forthcoming CAO cycle. That’s a week tomorrow!

This will be a half-day virtual event via Zoom. It’s meant for school students in their 5th or 6th year of the Irish system. There might be a few of them or their teachers who see this blog so I thought I’d share the news here. You can find more information, including instructions on how to book a place, here.

Here is the updated official poster and the programme:

I’ll be talking about cosmology early on, while John Regan will talk about black holes. After the coffee break one of our PhD students will talk about why they wanted to study astrophysics. Then I’ll say something about our degree programmes for those students who might be interested in studying astrophysics and/or cosmology as part of a science course. We’ll finish with questions either about the science or the study!

I’m told that with a week still to go we already have over 750 science students based in schools from An Daingean to Arranmore Island, from Monaghan to Mayo and many counties in-between. Fortunately it is online so no travelling is involved. Unfortunately the participants don’t get to see the wonderful campus so here’s a gratuitous picture!

(And at 12 noon I don’t turn into a pumpkin but do have to run off to give a lecture on vector calculus..)

A Time to Confer

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth on October 27, 2021 by telescoper

Booklet Cover

This morning I braved the inclement weather to attend a Conferring Ceremony at Maynooth University. This was the first Conferring Ceremony to be held in person since for about two years and the first ever featuring the new President of Maynooth University, Prof. Eeva Leinonen, presiding.

There were only four students from Theoretical Physics graduating this morning, and two of them graduated in absentia but I did get to see two students get their Master of Science by Research awards. If you’re interested their theses are available online here and here.

I wouldn’t say the ceremony went off without any hitches. There were quite a few late arrivals among the graduands. I think the bad weather elsewhere in Ireland caused some delays which led to some people being late for the ceremony (which was due to start at 10am, but didn’t get going until about 10.30). Then there were some last minute changes of order which led to one or two students initially getting the wrong scroll. I remember how nerve-wracking it was when that sort of reshuffling happened when I was involved in similar ceremonies at Sussex. It’s bad enough stressing over the correct pronunciation of the names! Anyway I was glad that these days all I have to do is sit there.

The last conferring ceremony I attended in person was on October 31st 2019. It was while I was en route to give a talk at DIAS that evening after the ceremony that I heard that my Mam had passed away. So much has happened between then and now that it is hard to accept that was only two years ago…