Archive for the Covid-19 Category

The Final Third

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Maynooth on November 20, 2022 by telescoper

There are now precisely four weeks to go until the end of teaching term at Maynooth University. Since the FIFA World Cup starts today it seems apt to borrow a sporting cliché and describe this as the final third. Miraculously, given that I’m having to fit 12 weeks of teaching into 11 week term for the first years, I’m almost on schedule with both my modules but I have this weekend come down with something which may affect the rest of term. I don’t think it’s Covid-19 – at least the antigen test I did yesterday was negative – but whatever it is I hope it doesn’t get worse. All the teaching staff in the Department of Theoretical Physics already have very heavy teaching loads already so we simply don’t have any spare staff to cover my lectures if I can’t deliver them. I don’t know what I’ll do in that case. I suppose I could recycle some of last year’s videos, or record some new ones from my sick bed. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. It may be just a cold.

Anyway, what was until last week an unusually mild autumn has turned into something much more wintry. The sudden cold snap has set off my arthritis, which is an additional complication on top of whatever bug I’ve got.

Evidence of the Berry Phase

Outside temperatures have plummeted so I have mobilized my bird feeders to take care of the feathered friends in the garden. Fortunately there is ready-made food at this time of the year in the form of berries on the Cotoneaster bushes. I watched a song thrush for about ten minutes tucking in yesterday. Pigeons like them too. The birds usually don’t strip all the berries so there’ll be food of that form for a while but some of the smaller birds can’t eat them so I’ve put out seed and peanuts too.

UPDATE: Monday 21st November. It appears it was just a cold, or something else very mild, as I felt much better this morning and went to work as normal.

Study Break Time

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Irish Language, Maynooth with tags , , , , on October 29, 2022 by telescoper

Yesterday my Vector Calculus students gave me the above Hallowe’en gift, which was nice of them, although I did chastise them for missing the apostrophe. Of course Hallowe’en itself is not until Monday, but that is a Bank Holiday in Ireland and the rest of next week is Study Week so there are no lectures or tutorials.

Hallowe’en is, in pagan terminology, Samhain. This, a cross-quarter day – roughly halfway between the Autumnal Equinox and the Winter Solstice, represents the start of winter (“the dark half of the year“) in the Celtic calendar. Samhain is actually November 1st but in Celtic tradition the day begins and ends at sunset, so the celebrations begin on the evening of 31st.

Incidentally, Samhain is pronounced something like “sawin”. The h after the m denotes lenition of the consonant (which in older forms of Irish would have been denoted by a dot on top of the m) so when followed by a broad vowel the m is pronounced like the English “w”; when followed by a slender vowel or none “mh” is pronounced “v” or in other words like the German “w” (which makes it easier to remember). I only mention this because I will be resuming my Irish language education after the break with classes every week for the rest of the academic year. Hopefully I’ll make some progress.

This term has been very tiring so far. I have to teach a very big first-year class this year which meant adding another tutorial group. Although I stepped down as Head of Department at the end of August the powers that be delayed appointing a replacement until well into term which caused a lot of unnecessary stress for everyone. Once we got under way, though, everything has settled down reasonably well.

One thing I was a bit worried about this term was that the resumption of in-person teaching would lead to a surge in Covid-19 cases, not only in Maynooth but across the country. However there isn’t any evidence of significant increases in the latest figures (updated weekly nowadays, on Wednesdays):

Some students have come down with Covid-19 of course but not in the numbers I had feared. Also despite accommodation shortages and other difficulties, attendance at lectures and tutorials has so far held up well.

I like having the study break. I’ve never previously worked at an institution that has such a thing, but I think 12 weeks of non-stop teaching would be extremely exhausting. Anyway, after the break we have a further six weeks of teaching until December 16th, which is the official end of term, but for now I have Monday off completely and the rest of the week without teaching duties. That’s not to say I’ll be on holiday though. I have a number of tasks to catch up on, including setting examination papers for January…

Second Booster

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19 with tags , , , , on September 22, 2022 by telescoper

Today I took a trip out to Punchestown Racecourse for my second Covid-19 booster jab. The possibility of booking one of these opened up for my age group (55+) a few weeks ago and I booked one straightaway, but I was advised to postpone it because of a mystery ailment. That now having cleared up I decided to have it done today, ahead of the full start of teaching next week. In the meantime the booster process has been opened up to mere youngsters (50+) but it was easy to get an appointment.

As far as I know I have ever caught Covid-19, but I thought it wise not to take any chances with the new influx of students and the possibility of increased infection levels. My first booster was on 15th December 2021, so protection is likely to have waned considerably since then. As you can see, new cases have been falling recently in Ireland but the level of new infections (7-day average around 230 per day) is still quite high:

My previous jabs were at City West so I was a little surprised when I registered for my second booster that I was directed to Punchestown. It’s about the same distance from Maynooth to either venue, though, and when I got to the racecourse it was very quiet and I was in and out within half an hour (half of which was the 15 minute “recovery” period). The racecourse – used for steeplechases – is heaving at the time of the annual Punchestown Festival, but fortunately I didn’t have to dodge either crowds or horses, though it was raining heavily.

This time I had the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine (“Comirnaty”), same as my two original shots; my first booster was of the Moderna (“SpikeVax”) variety.

I’ll be working from home this afternoon in case of problems (though I didn’t experience any serious issues with previous jabs). My next lecture is at 11am tomorrow (Friday) so I should be fine by then even if I experience any side-effects this afternoon.

In Defence of Blackboards

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , on August 21, 2022 by telescoper
Lecturing from Home

I wasn’t very surprised to find that the large lecture theatres in the swanky new building at Maynooth University are not equipped with chalkboards, as I had been told that the powers-that-be were finding it difficult to “source” boards of the appropriate size. I was more surprised and disappointed to find that none of the smaller teaching rooms have blackboards either; the best they have is very small whiteboards which are useless for teaching mathematical subjects.

I know people think I am very old fashioned in persistently using a chalkboard (a better word than “blackboard” as many chalkboards are actually dark green). They also find it quite amusing that I bought one especially so I could do lectures during the pandemic from home using it. One reason for that is that it’s far easier to get a decent contrast on camera than using a whiteboard. I also find that standing up and walking around allows me to communicate more effectively, at a decent pace and with a reasonable amount of energy which made the lectures from home a little less unbearable to give and, hopefully, to watch. Here’s the green blackboard in my office that I used to give some lectures during lockdown:

The very chalky chalkboard in my office on campus

It was never the intention of course that the board in my office would be used for lecturing. We have such things to facilitate the communication of ideas during a discussion by scribbling mathematical expressions or diagrams.

I found some time ago an article about why Mathematics professors at Stanford University still use chalkboards. I agree with everything in it. The renowned Perimeter Institute in Canada and the Isaac Newton Institute in Cambridge also have blackboards, not only in teaching rooms but also in corridors and offices to encourage scientific discussions.

For teaching I think the most important thing for the students in a lecture on a subject like theoretical physics to see a calculation as a process unfolding step-by-step as you explain the reasoning, rather than being presented in complete form which suggests that it should be memorized rather than understood. Far too many students come to university with the impression that their brain is just a memory device. I fill it’s our job as lecturers to encourage students develop genuine problem-solving skills. The example in the first picture above – Gaussian Elimination – is a good illustration of this. Most of my colleagues in Theoretical Physics and in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics seem to prefer chalkboards too, no doubt for similar reasons.

I know that many in Senior Management think of us as dinosaurs for clinging to “old technology” but the fact is that new technology isn’t always better technology. Whiteboards are just awful. As well as being impossible to read in a large room or to record from, the marker pens are expensive, filled with nasty solvent, and impossible to recycle when empty. Unfortunately the purveyors of these items seem to have cornered the market I hate whiteboards so much I call them shiteboards.

Anyway, with the new academic year due to start in a month, and there being no likely resolution of the accommodation crisis, it looks like many students will be unable to attend lectures in person. It doesn’t matter whether rooms have blackboards or whiteboards or enhanced multimedia digital display screens if the students can’t get to the campus…

Meanwhile, back at Covid…

Posted in Covid-19, Maynooth, Politics with tags , on July 6, 2022 by telescoper

While the Tory Government on the other side of the Irish Sea appears to be collapsing I’ve trying not to laugh too loud so have distracted myself by updating my Covid-19 page with the latest data for Ireland. The summary figure is this:

You can see that cases (blue curve) are still rising (up 5.8% on last week) but the increase may just be slowing. I only show PCR-confirmed tests so interpretation of these is complicated by the lack of general PCR testing. The testing positivity rate is 38.5% and there are many more positive antigen tests not confirmed by PCR. There are now over 900 people in hospital with Covid-19 and 37 in intensive care. The mortality rate (orange curve) however remains steady.

I’m a bit concerned that case numbers are so high, especially as there are so few people taking precautions. I know this is purely anecdotal but I do know several people in Maynooth who have come down with fairly nasty doses of Covid-19 in recent weeks. I also know of many people who have travelled to conferences for the first time in a couple of years only to come down with Covid-19 in the process. The high incidence of Covid-19 is causing staff absences elsewhere that are disrupting many organizations and businesses. I do hope we’re not in for another surge before the start of term in September!

Despite all this (and the fact that I have been fairly lax about wearing a face covering myself) I still have not experienced Covid-19. I’ve never had symptoms and never tested positive. Have I just been lucky, or is there more to it than that?

Concerning Covid Immunity

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Maynooth with tags , , , on June 10, 2022 by telescoper

Over the past few weeks I’ve attended a number of events at which most people were not wearing face coverings, including a recent Open Day at which I took my mask off in order to be heard in a very crowded space. Although I still wear a mask on public transport and in shops, most people now do not.

The first thing I’d note is that that there has been a clear upturn in reported Covid-19 cases, with figures now running at about 700 per day:

(Official figures for Ireland are only issued weekly these days…)

It’s not an alarming increase but hospitalizations and testing positivity are also increasing, though the mortality rate remains low because of the protection afforded by vaccines. Incidentally, it was a year ago on Wednesday (8th June) that I received my second Pfizer dose. One wonders how long vaccine protection will last, though, until further boosters are needed. If cases continue to rise I wonder if any measures will be put in place before the start of next academic year?

A number of my colleagues at home and abroad have attended scientific conferences recently, a number of which have led to mini-outbreaks and some instances of quite serious illness. Although most people seem to think Covid has gone away, it clearly hasn’t. A resurgence is all we need right now.

Anyway, one of my colleagues at work expressed surprise that I didn’t catch Covid during the largely unmasked Open Day at the end of April. Of course I might have done but I certainly didn’t display any symptoms. I’ve actually been quite surprised that I have never shown any sign of SARS-Cov2 at all during the entire period of the pandemic, while many of my colleagues and students in the Department have come down with it.

Coincidentally, a comment appeared yesterday on a blog post I wrote a while ago in which I revealed that I have the  CCR5-Δ32 genetic mutation which confers protection against HIV infection. As a matter of fact I have it twice (i.e. homozygotic). For one thing the commenter pointed out that this mutation may have protected against smallpox, which means some evolutionary selection may have been involved in its propagation. The commenter also drew attention to the evidence – by no means conclusive at this stage – that this mutation may also protect against Covid-19. If you’re interested here are links to some papers:

The last of these is a preprint but the other two are peer-reviewed publications.

Could it be that I’ve yet again been a jammy bastard and inherited immunity to Covid-19 too?

On Board for Examinations

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth on June 2, 2022 by telescoper

We’ve at last managed to finish marking and collating examination scripts, coursework and project reports of various types and the provisional results are all uploaded to the system. I have to say that marking examinations on paper is much less of a chore than doing digital submissions online, though it is still not exactly a simple task and I’m glad it’s over for another year.

Tomorrow morning we’ll have a relatively informal “Pre-Board” meeting to go double-check the results and discuss any isues arising before the full Departmental Examination Board which takes place next week. That’s just for the Department of Theoretical Physics but we also do teaching for the Department of Engineering and there are Pre-Boards and Full Boards for those too.

In between now and the Full Boards we have a Bank Holiday weekend. Not the extravaganza going on over the Irish Sea concerning the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, just the regular Lá Saoire i mí Mheitheamh we have every year. In any case, there’s more than one old Queen having a celebration this weekend. A nice thing about living in Ireland is that my birthday is always in close proximity to a national holiday.

But I digress.

The Departmental Examination Boards do not quite mark the end of the examinations business for the academic year, as we have the Final Final Examination Board after all the Departmental ones.  That is when marks from all Departments come together to determine the final results for students who are taking degrees in combinations of subjects. The Department of Theoretical Physics has quite a number of students doing Joint Honours with Mathematics, for example, and we don’t won’t know their final results until we see how their Mathematics has gone. It does add an extra level to the process, but I think that’s a price worth paying for the flexibility we offer to students through joint programmes.

This final Examination Board takes place on 22nd June and students will get their marks a couple of days later on 24th June. We have an official Consultation Day (28th June) the following week during which students can get feedback on their examinations as well as discussing options for choices to be made ahead of next year. Even that won’t be the end, because some students will be taking repeat examinations in August, but at least it signals a gap in the assessment cycle during which we can hopefully think of other things for a while.

This year has been challenging, to say the least. There was a piece in the Irish Times recently discussing concerns about lack of student engagement, poor lecture attendance and high dropout rates for students in Irish universities. I discussed some of the reasons for this here. Obviously, until our results are finalized I can’t say anything specific about the impact of all these difficulties on our students, but the post-Covid turmoil undoubtedly has had a significant impact on many students and a severe impact on some. It remains to be seen precisely what the scale of the problem is and what we can do to mitigate it.

The general turbulence in the wake of the pandemic, which is unavoidable, has been exacerbated in my Department by serious staffing issues resulting from deliberate management decisions. This combination has created a perfect storm which in my view could easily have been avoided. I shall refrain from commenting further, except to say that it will take some time to sort out and we’ll probably have similar – though hopefully less severe – issues next year.

One of the difficulties faced by students this summer is that they would not have done traditional written examinations for two years before this May’s set. The online timed assessments we deployed during the pandemic were of “open-book” style but the unseen written papers on campus are not. The challenge posed by these two types of examination are different, and it remains to be seen how well the students – especially those in Years 1 and 2 – have coped with the abrupt switch. Those who get disappointing results will have the opportunity to take repeat examinations (on campus) and those who disengaged entirely will have the chance to repeat the year in full if they so desire, so all is not lost!

Another sign of our gradual emergence from the pandemic is that our Examination Board meeting next week will be attended in person by the External Examiner. She wasn’t able to get here last year owing to  illness so it will be nice to have her present at the Exam Boards and, hopefully, at dinner afterwards.



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.

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…

Meanwhile, back to Covid…

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , on April 8, 2022 by telescoper

So here we are, at the end of the 9th teaching week of Semester 2 at Maynooth University. There are three more weeks of lectures before the end of term, either side of a one-week break for Easter.

It was decided weeks ago that we all have to proceed on the basis that the Covid-19 pandemic is all over.

Case numbers are still very high though:

The above picture is a bit misleading because it shows only cases confirmed by PCR tests fewer of which are being done now than previously. The HSE data hub also records daily antigen tests which are typically of the same order but higher than the PCR results. The real level of infection is therefore at least twice the level shown in the picture. That’s the bad news. The good news is that positive results from both PCR and antigen tests do seem to be falling, as do hospitalizations and ICU admissions. The mortality rate has also remained low during this phase of the pandemic. The logical inference is that wall of protection afforded by vaccines is holding despite the high level of infections. We’re clearly in a less dangerous phase of the pandemic than we were last year.

But, equally clearly, the pandemic is not all over.

The number of absences due to illness or self-isolation is high for both staff and students. I’ve noted before on this blog that although third level institutions were put under great pressure to return to on-campus teaching, many students are just not attending lectures, tutorials and laboratories in person.

As well as having to look after their own health, many students haven’t been able to secure local accommodation for this Semester, partly because of a general shortage and partly because the 21/22 academic year started late and in chaotic fashion making it impossible for first years to sort out satisfactory living arrangements. It looks like this will happen next year too.

Third-level education isn’t the only sector feeling significant residual effects of the pandemic, but it is one in which problems have been exacerbated by the unrealistic expectations of Government and University managements.

Anyway, after so much disruption we approach the end-of-year examination period with considerable trepidation. For first- and second-year students these will be the first examinations they have taken on the campus; third-years will not have taken on-campus exams since January 2020. The style of our online examinations was necessarily different to the traditional format so in the Exam Halls the students will find themselves in very unfamiliar territory. In particular, we used “open-book” exams so students could use notes, textbooks and other resources to do the examinations. This won’t be the case in May.

How will the results turn out?

We can only wait and see.