Archive for the Cardiff Category

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.

Advertisements

Jurassic Cardiff

Posted in Bute Park, Cardiff on August 24, 2018 by telescoper

I saw the above creature when I was walking through Bute Park in Cardiff this afternoon.

I hadn’t realised that the annual UKIP conference was in Cardiff this year…

Glamorgan versus Somerset: Vitality Blast Twenty20

Posted in Cardiff, Cricket, Uncategorized on July 20, 2018 by telescoper

After a little drinks reception in the School of Physics and Astronomy (at which I was given a very nice gift of wine) I joined the staff outing to Sophia Gardens to watch this evening’s Twenty20 cruise cricket between Glamorgan and Somerset.

The start was delayed by rain so we lingered in a pub on the way only to be caught on the hop when play actually started and missing the first few overs. Somerset batted well to reach 190 off their 20 overs, with Anderson hitting four big sixes in his 59.

Without Shaun Marsh, who will miss the rest of the season, the Glamorgan batting lineup seemed to have a very long tail and a lot rested on Khawaja and Ingram. Both scored runs quickly while they were in but neither could build a big score. Once those two were out, the Glamorgan innings faltered and they never looked like reaching Somerset’s total. The finished on 160 for 9, losing by 30 runs.

Glamorgan v Northants: Day 3

Posted in Cardiff, Cricket with tags , , , on June 27, 2018 by telescoper

For the record, I thought I’d post a short update on today’s play at Sophia Gardens.

I only attended the morning session today. I forgot to take my phone so there’s no picture. It was a good morning’s play actually, with Glamorgan’s bowlers doing better. The huge opening partnership of 208 was eventually broken when Procter fell, soon followed by Duckett. How often it happens that both batsmen involved in a big stand get out in quick succession. Another three wickets fell for the addition of 90 runs. However at 259 for 5, with the Northants lead at 289, at lunch I reckoned the game was already beyond Glamorgan, and instead of returning to the ground after lunch I took a stroll around sunny Bute Park and went into the Data Innovation Research Institute office to attend to a few things.

Northamptonshire progressed to a total of 406 and declared when their 9th wicket fell. Tea was taken at that point. In the last session, Glamorgan slumped to 121 for 4, the first innings hero Khawaja among the fallen.

Glamorgan need to score 313 tomorrow to win. More relevantly, Northants need to take 6 wickets. I wouldn’t bet against the game finishing before lunch, actually.

International LGBT+ in STEM Day

Posted in Cardiff, LGBT with tags , , on June 27, 2018 by telescoper

Tired by the heat and by watching Glamorgan losing at cricket, and despite being on annual leave, I popped in to the relative cool of the office of the Data Innovation Research Institute at Cardiff University to tidy up a few things. I noticed the above poster on the main entrance to the School of Physics & Astronomy, which reminded me to post a quick plug for the first ever LGBTSTEM Day, which takes place next Thursday (5th July). I agreed some time ago to give a short talk at the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University about this and am looking forward to returning from Maynooth next week to do so.

Many universities and other organizations (including the Royal Astronomical Society) are involved in supporting events on 5th July. If you want to keep up with what’s happening try having a look a the twitter hashtag #LGBTSTEMDay.

It’s not too late to put your own event together either! You can find a handy toolkit to help you do it here.

Glamorgan v Northants: Day 1

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Cricket, Uncategorized with tags , , , on June 25, 2018 by telescoper

Here I am, back in Cardiff and officially still employed at Cardiff University, but now taking up the annual leave I am owed before I depart.

The plan for this week’s leave, or at least four days of it, is to watch Glamorgan play Northamptonshire in Division Two of the County Championship at Sophia Gardens.

I arrived at the ground just before the start of play, with hardly a cloud in the sky. It was already hot at 11am so I covered myself liberally in sun lotion, which I clearly managed to get on the camera lens:

Here’s another one I took in the afternoon after I realised what had happened:

It proved to be an absorbing day’s cricket. Northants won the toss and, unsurprisingly, decided to bat first.

Glamorgan had an early breakthrough from Hogan and Smith but Northamptonshire reached lunch at 87 for 2, with Wakely and Vasconcelos looking settled. The latter fell soon after lunch, but Wakely and Levi then took Northants to tea without further loss.

The pair went on to share a stand of 118 until Smith (who was expensive but troubled all the batsmen) got Wakely caught in the slips by Khawaja for a fine 82.

Soon Northants were five down for 231 after Rossington departed for 7, but Crook and the combative but slightly portly figure of Levi took the score on to 275 for 5. At that point a decent score for Northants still looked likely.

Then Glamorgan took the new ball and Tim van der Gugten steamed in. Levi had an awful waft at the first ball and was caught: 275 for 6.

At that point all the wickets to fall had been caught behind the wicket, either by the wicket-keeper or in the slip cordon. What had troubled the batsmen had been bounce rather than lateral movement, which is a fairly typical Sophia Gardens wicket.

Anyway, two balls after Levi departed new batsman Prasanna tried to play some kind of shot (I know not what shot) and succeeded only in spooning up a dolly catch to mid on: 275 for 7.

Next over Hogan brought one back into Crook who was adjudged lbw (though if truth be told it looked a little high to me): 279 for 8.

Then it was van der Gugten’s turn again, getting one to lift at Hutton (no, not Len). The ball flashed into the slips and looked to have gone past Khawaja but somehow he plucked it out of the air for one of the best catches I have ever seen: 281 for 9.

Last man for Northants, Sanderson, walked to the wicket in the manner of a condemned man approaching the scaffold and when he got there he was clean bowled first ball by van der Gugten. Northants all out for 281, their last five wickets falling in the space of three overs. Quite a turnaround in the final session: Northants were 199 for 3 at tea.

Northamptonshire’s rapid demise left Glamorgan seven overs to bat before the close; openers Selman and Murphy negotiated them safely to end the day on 21 without loss.

It was a very absorbing day’s cricket on a very warm day indeed. I’m glad I had plenty of suncream on, as there were many in the crowd looking distinctly frazzled.

I don’t normally criticise umpires because they do a very hard job, but I feel I should mention one major lapse. Fortunately I don’t which it was so I can’t mention him by name. During the Northants innings, a batsman (Kevin, I think) played a shot to the mid-off area and set off for a quick single. The fielder threw and hit the stumps at the non-striker’s end with the batsman apparently short of his ground. Unfortunately the umpire, who was moving to get out of the way, had turned his back to the action and couldn’t give the decision. There being no third umpire in County Cricket, that meant it was ‘not out’. I thought that was poor: umpires should keep their eyes on the play all the time. I would have thought a first class umpire would have done so.

Anyway, I’m looking forward to the second day to see if Glamorgan can capitalise on Northamptonshire’s collapse. I’ve followed Glamorgan long enough to know not to take anything for granted!

Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra: Mahler Symphony No. 3

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Music with tags , , , , on June 18, 2018 by telescoper

Well, I’m back in Maynooth after a weekend in Cardiff, on the Sunday of which I went to St David’s Hall to see the Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra playing Gustav Mahler’s Third Symphony. Actually this concert was originally scheduled to take place on the evening of Friday 15th June, which is why I booked a ticket to return from Bonn in time to see it instead of waiting for the formal close of the meeting. As it turns out, my flight was so late I would have missed it but fortunately the Rolling Stones intervened. Because Jagger et al were performing at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff on Friday (with all the consequent congestion and traffic disruption that implies) it was decided to shift the concert to Sunday 18th, but I couldn’t be bothered to change my flight.

Anyway, it proved an excellent way to spend a Sunday afternoon. Gustav Mahler spoke of his Third Symphony as being “of such magnitude that it mirrors the whole world” and you can see what he was getting at by just looking at the scale of the forces arrayed on stage when it’s about to be performed live. For yesterday’s concert at St David’s Hall, the Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra was augmented by the WNO Community Chorus and the Choristers of St David’s Metropolitan Cathedral Choir, as well as soloist mezzo soprano Kate Woolveridge.

The orchestra needed to perform this extravagant work is much larger than for a normal symphony, and it involves some unusual instrumentation: e.g. two harps, a contrabassoon, heaps of percussion (including tuned bells and double tympanists), etc. The string section was boosted by double-basses galore, and there’s also a part (for what I think was a flugelhorn) to be played offstage. The work is also extremely long, being spread over six movements of which the first is the longest (over 30 minutes). Yesterday the performance stretched to about 1 hour and 40 minutes overall, with no interval. I don’t know of any symphonic works longer than this, actually.

It’s worth pointing out that the orchestra and choir(s) tackling this immense work were non-professional. It’s also worth pointing out that the principal French Horn – who is given a lot to do in this piece – was none other than Dr Bernard Richardson, recently retired from the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University.

I have to admit I have always had lot of trouble getting to grips with the first movement, in which various themes are repeatedly played off against each other, punctuated by a series of extravagant crescendo passages in which the orchestra threatened to blow the roof off. It is, at times, thrilling but also manic and, to me, rather indecipherable. The second movement, in the form of a minuet, is elegant enough, and was beautifully played (especially by the strings), but in comparison with the wayward exuberance of the first movement it sounds rather conventional.

The third movement, however, is totally gorgeous, especially in the passages featuring the offstage flugelhorn (?) and the string section of the orchestra on stage. From this point this piece started to bring me under its spell. The solo vocalist and choir(s) were marvellous in the fourth and fifth movements, the former a setting of a poem by Nietzsche and the latter a mixture of traditional verse and Mahler’s own words, but it was in the majestic sixth and final movement that the orchestra really reached its peak. This is one of the most romantic movements to be found in all of Mahler, passionate, lyrical and supremely uplifting. At times before the sixth movement the orchestra (especially the brass) had struggled a bit with the demands of the score, but the finale was as good a performance as you’ll hear anywhere.

Mahler’s 3rd Symphony is an epic journey through a landscape filled with dramatic contrasts. At times you wonder where you are going, and sometimes feel in danger of getting completely lost, but by the time you arrive triumphantly at the final destination all those doubts had melted away. Congratulations to the Cardiff Philharmonic on a very fine performance, warmly received by the audience.

After the concert there was a collection on behalf of the Forget-Me-Not Chorus, which supports people with dementia and their families through weekly singing sessions. I think this is a great initiative and made a donation on the way out – if you feel like doing likewise you can do so here.

Well, that’s my concert-going at St David’s Hall over for another season. Indeed, it’s probably the last concert I’ll be attending there for the foreseeable future, as I’ll be relocating fully to Ireland this summer. I’ll have many fine memories of listening to music there.