Archive for the Cardiff Category

On Barry John

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Rugby with tags , , on January 30, 2019 by telescoper

I was browsing a few rugby sites yesterday evening, ahead of this year’s Six Nations competition (which starts on Saturday) when I stumbled across this little clip featuring legendary Welsh standoff Barry John.

The opening part of this clip really caught my attention because it was filmed near the bus stop just outside The Halfway, a pub on Cathedral Road just a few yards from my house in Cardiff; in the background you can see Llandaff Fields.

I’ve often wondered what became of Barry John. He’s 74 now and no longer the slim young prodigy who was quite simply the best rugby player I ever saw. Since he played in a great Welsh side that included Gareth Edwards, J.P.R. Williams, Gerald Davies et al, that really says something. As a sort of rugby equivalent of George Best, he was incredibly famous during his career. Budding rugby players – even those not born in Wales – all wanted to play like Barry John. But suddenly, at the age of just 27, after playing just 25 internationals, he turned his back on all the publicity and adulation and retired from rugby. He found the pressure of being such a star in the amateur era too difficult to cope with.

Anyway, was Barry John really that good? Absolutely yes, he was. Slight of build but with superb balance, he had an extraordinary, almost magical, ability to find his way through a crowd of potential tacklers as if they weren’t there at all. In the memorable words of that great commentator Bill McLaren “he flits like a little phantom”. But you don’t need to take my word for it. Just look at him – and some other giants of the time – in these highlights of the classic Scotland-Wales tie in the Five Nations of 1971. Watch about 30 seconds in, where he wrong-foots half the Scottish three-quarter line before ghosting through three more before releasing the ball to his forwards. Will there ever be another Barry John? I doubt it..

I doubt if Barry John will ever get to read this, but I’m sure there are many of us who remember the excitement of watching him play and feel enriched by what he gave us.


Travels and Travails

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff with tags , , , on January 25, 2019 by telescoper

This morning I headed back to Cardiff for a few days. It’s my last opportunity to sort out a few things here before teaching starts.

I’m not having much luck with travelling this week. This morning there was a last-minute change of gate at Dublin Airport, then a delay boarding due to ‘technical issues with the aircraft’, then a lengthy queue of other planes on the way to the runway.

Then, just as it seemed to be our turn to take off, we started to taxi back in the direction we had come from. The pilot muttered something about ‘a discrepancy with the paperwork’. I really though we were going back to the Terminal and would all have to disembark.

Fortunately that didn’t happen. We parked in a remote part of the airfield while the alleged discrepancy was resolved. We eventually took off about an hour late.

When we got to Cardiff we were delayed still further by having to get a bus from the plane to the Arrivals area, although the usual gates within walking distance were unoccupied.

Finally I was surprised to see full passport control in place inside the Terminal. Normally there are no passport checks on passengers flying from Dublin to the UK because of the Common Travel Area. I suppose that arrangement will be yet another casualty of Brexit.

On the other hand perhaps all these curious incidents with paperwork, passport checks, etc were related? A suspicious individual on the plane perhaps?

A large contingent of rugby fans were on the plane for tomorrow’s match between Cardiff Blues and Connacht at Cardiff Arms Park, but they were a friendly crowd and unlikely to be the cause of security concerns.

Anyway, I got back to Pontcanna a full 90 minutes late and not entirely gruntled.

Here’s another picture of Maynooth University Library Cat from earlier this week. I wonder what he would have made of today’s shenanigans?

Bernard Schutz wins the 2019 Eddington Medal

Posted in Cardiff, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on January 14, 2019 by telescoper

I wasn’t able to get to the Ordinary Meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society on Friday 11th January as I was otherwise engaged. In case you didn’t know, these meetings happen on the second Friday of every month and consist of short talks, longer set-piece prize lectures and Society business. The January meeting is when the annual awards are announced, so I missed the 2019 crop of medals and other prizes. When I got to the Athenaeum for dinner I was delighted to be informed that one of these – the prestigious Eddington Medal – had been awarded to my erstwhile Cardiff colleague Bernard Schutz (with whom I worked in the Data Innovation Research Institute and the School of Physics & Astronomy).

Here is a short video of the man himself talking about the work that led to this award:

The citation for Bernard’s award focuses on his invention of a method of measuring the Hubble constant using coalescing binary neutron stars. The idea was first published in September 1986 in a Letter to Nature. Here is the first paragraph:

I report here how gravitational wave observations can be used to determine the Hubble constant, H 0. The nearly monochromatic gravitational waves emitted by the decaying orbit of an ultra–compact, two–neutron–star binary system just before the stars coalesce are very likely to be detected by the kilometre–sized interferometric gravitational wave antennas now being designed1–4. The signal is easily identified and contains enough information to determine the absolute distance to the binary, independently of any assumptions about the masses of the stars. Ten events out to 100 Mpc may suffice to measure the Hubble constant to 3% accuracy.

In this paper, Bernard points out that a binary coalescence — such as the merger of two neutron stars — is a self calibrating `standard candle’, which means that it is possible to infer directly the distance without using the cosmic distance ladder. The key insight is that the rate at which the binary’s frequency changes is directly related to the amplitude of the gravitational waves it produces, i.e. how `loud’ the GW signal is. Just as the observed brightness of a star depends on both its intrinsic luminosity and how far away it is, the strength of the gravitational waves received at LIGO depends on both the intrinsic loudness of the source and how far away it is. By observing the waves with detectors like LIGO and Virgo, we can determine both the intrinsic loudness of the gravitational waves as well as their loudness at the Earth. This allows us to directly determine distance to the source.

It may have taken 31 years to get a measurement, but hopefully it won’t be long before there are enough detections to provide greater precision – and hopefully accuracy! – than the current methods can manage!

Congratulations to Bernard on his thoroughly well-deserved Eddington Medal!


New Year Honour

Posted in Beards, Biographical, Cardiff with tags on December 29, 2018 by telescoper

The New Year Honours List for 2019 has been published and I find that once again I have been denied the opportunity to turn down an award.

I find more than adequate compensation, however, in the award of Beard of the Year 2018. I was presented with the Certificate in Tiny Rebel Cardiff by Beard Liberation Front organiser and spokesbeing Keith Flett (left; picture by Megan Davies)

The certificate mentions a joint award but I am yet to receive the joint.

Anyway here is the certificate in close up.

Although I saw I was doing well in the popular vote, I was surprised be a winner as I thought it would be given to someone with a higher public profile than me. Happily, for me anyway, the Electoral College decided in my favour.

We bumped into two members of the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University in Tiny Rebel (both of whom, I must say, appeared to be rather the worse for drink). A short discussion arose as to whether Beard of the Year could be submitted as evidence of ‘impact’ for the forthcoming Research Excellence Framework. I was working at Cardiff for about half the period covered by the award, you see. I’ll leave that as a matter for the relevant authorities to decide.

FlyBe in a Mess

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff with tags , , , on November 17, 2018 by telescoper

Having to return to Cardiff for the weekend, on Tuesday I booked a ticket with FlyBe for a flight from Dublin as I have done on many previous occasions.

Yesterday I tried to check in online to get my boarding pass beforehand (which speeds things up a lot if you have only hand luggage) but the system failed. I contacted Flybe and they said I’d have to check in at the airport. When I arrived at Dublin airport this morning I found the staff at the check-in desk unable to check anyone for the Cardiff in because the passenger list had not be generated, evidently as a result of the same computer glitch.

I waited. About an hour passed and a large queue grew. Fortunately I was near the front as, anticipating issues, I was sure to get to the airport in good time. Eventually the staff resorted to an older, manual, system and I was checked in. The plane was delayed taking off but I got to Cardiff about 10am.

Today’s mess was entirely self-inflicted as it transpires that it was an error arising from an update to their computer system. That sort of thing won’t do FlyBe any favours. The airline is currently up for sale as it is steadily losing money. These are difficult enough times for the air travel industry, without antagonising customers with displays of sheer incompetence. There were very many disgruntled passengers in the line behind me who won’t be using Flybe again.

To be fair, though, I have used this airline quite a lot in the past year and have had few reasons to complain.

I hope Flybe doesn’t go bust, as the livelihoods of many workers are at stake. But finding a buyer a few months before Brexit might not be easy. The consequences for Cardiff Airport would in that case be very serious, as this piece explains.

For myself, I’m just relieved that I longer have to commute weekly between Cardiff and Dublin as I did earlier this year, as Flybe is the only airline operating on that route.

Another Pembrokeshire Dangler

Posted in Cardiff with tags , , on October 29, 2018 by telescoper

Taking the opportunity of  the Irish Bank Holiday Monday to spend a long weekend in a rather chilly Cardiff,  I find that Wales is once again under the influence of a Pembrokeshire Dangler:

The Northerly airflow that is responsible for this phenomenon (which I first encountered last year)  is causing a bit of a cold snap here in Cardiff, and has even brought snow to  parts of Wales,  but hopefully the Pembrokeshire Dangler will not interfere with my flight back to Ireland.

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.