Archive for the Maynooth Category

The Irish Accent

Posted in History, Maynooth with tags , , , , , , , , on December 11, 2018 by telescoper

It’s been a very busy day, as Tuesdays tend to be this term, so I thought I’d wind down with a little blog post.

Some time ago I got an email from Maynooth University about Irish language classes. Still feeling a bit ashamed about not having learned Welsh in all my time in Cardiff, I thought I’d sign up for the Beginners class and fill in a Doodle Poll to help the organizers schedule it. Unfortunately, when the result was announced it was at a time that I couldn’t make owing to teaching, so sadly I’m not learning Irish properly yet.

I have picked up a few things about the language, however, which it might be worth passing on here. Although Irish and Welsh are both Celtic languages they are from two distinct groups: the Goidelic group that comprises Irish, Manx and Scottish Gaelic; and the Brythonic group that comprises Welsh, Cornish and Breton. These are sometimes referred to as q-Celtic and p-Celtic, respectively, although not everyone agrees that is a useful categorization. Incidentally, Scottish Gaelic is not the language spoken by the Celtic people who lived in Scotland at the time of the Romans, the Picts, which is lost. Scottish Gaelic is actually descended from Middle Irish. Also incidentally, Breton was taken to Brittany by a mass migration of people from South-West Britain which peaked somewhere around 500 AD. I guess that was the first Brexodus.

Welsh and Irish don’t sound at all similar to me, which is not surprising really. It is thought that the Brythonic languages evolved from a language  brought to Britain by people from somewhere in Gaul (probably Northern France), whereas the people whose language led to the Goidelic tongues were probably from somewhere in the Iberia (modern-day Spain or Portugal). There are nevertheless some similarities. For example, `Merry Christmas’ is Nadolig Llawen in Welsh and Nollaig Shona in Irish..

Anyway, back to the topic of this post, there is only one accent in Irish (in the sense of a diacritic mark), which is the síneadh fada (`long accent’), sometimes called the fada for short, which looks the same as the acute accent in, e.g., French. There’s actually one in síneadh if you look hard enough. It just means the vowel is pronounced long (i.e. the first syllable of síneadh is pronounced SHEEN).

One does find quite a few texts (especially online) where the fada is carelessly omitted, but it really is quite important. For example Cáca is the Irish word for `cake’, while the unaccented Caca means `excrement’…

I took the above text in Irish and English from the front cover of an old examination paper. You can see the accents as well as another feature of Irish which is slightly similar to Welsh, the mysterious lower-case h in front of Éireann. This is a consequence of an initial mutation, in which the initial character of word changes in various situations according to syntax or morphology (i.e. following certain words changing the case of a noun or following certain sounds). This specific case is an an example of h-prothesis (of an initial vowel).

In Welsh, mutations involve the substitution of one character for another. For example, `Wales’ is Cymru but if you cross the border into Wales you may see a sign saying Croeso i Gymru, the `C’ having mutated. The Irish language is a bit friendlier to the learner than Welsh, however, as the mutated character (h in the example above) is inserted in front of the unmutated character. Seeing both the mutated and unmutated character helps a person with limited vocabulary (such as myself) figure out what’s going on.

Mutations of consonants also occur in Irish. These can involve lenition (literally `weakening’, also known as aspiration) or eclipsis (nasalisation). In the case of eclipsis the unmutated consonant is preceded by another denoting the actual sound, e.g. b becomes m in terms of pronunciation, but what is written is mb. On the other hand, lenition is denoted by an following the unmutated consonant.

In older forms of Irish the overdot (ponc séimhithe) -another diacritic – was used to denote lenition. Had this practice continued into the modern era there would be two Irish accents, but nowadays there is only one.


Azed and Ireland

Posted in Crosswords, Maynooth with tags , , , on December 9, 2018 by telescoper

I had a nice surprise when I opened today’s Observer to the crossword page to find I had won a prize!

The solution to Azed 2423 printed in the paper is not, however, as I remember it.

Obviously there have been a few gremlins at the Observer.

Although I’ve been doing the Azed Crossword for the best part of twenty years this is actually the first time I’ve won the regular crossword prize, in which solvers just have to send in a completed puzzle and the winners’ names are drawn out of a hat, as opposed to the Competition puzzle (which occurs roughly every 4 weeks), in which solvers also have to supply a clue for one of the answers in the grid. It’s also worth saying that this is the first crossword prize I’ve won from Ireland. I have won a couple of other prizes (Everyman and the Times Literary Supplement) in the the past year, but I gave my address in Wales on both occasions as I was spending half time there and half in Maynooth for much of the past year.

Anyway, the prize is not a dictionary but £25 in book tokens, which should be enough to buy a dictionary should I feel the need. I think I may choose something else, however, assuming the tokens ever make it across to Ireland! I’ve not been impressed with the efficiency of the postal service to and from the UK so far…

According to the &lit archive I’ve been sending in entries for about 18 years. Since 3/4 of the Azed puzzles are of the regular type that means that if I’d done every puzzle correctly for that period I would have about 18 × 52 ×¾ ≈ 700 chances to win, which gives a crude estimate of the number of correct entries that must be sent in each week. In fact I’ve missed quite a few and probably made some mistakes. Nevertheless, a weekly entry of several hundred seems a reasonable order-of-magnitude guess. The number that enter the monthly competition is somewhat lower (around 200 usually). I don’t need to guess that – Azed himself supplies the numbers via the Azed Slip.

I’ve got a mediocre record in the Azed clue-setting Competition – I think I’m much better as a solver than a setter! – but have at least scored some successes and finished 15th (equal) in 2010/11. That turns out to have been my high-water mark, as I stopped doing the Azed puzzle regularly when I moved to Sussex in 2013, at which time I started doing the Beelzebub puzzle in the Independent on Sunday. I only re-started buying the Observer when the Independent stopped producing a print edition in March 2016.

So far I’ve struggled with the clue-writing, but I’ll soldier on with it and hopefully will hit some form at some point. Three puzzles into the latest season I’ve scored three HCs, which is at least consistent. Officially `HC’ means Highly Commended’ but I translate it as `Hard Cheese’. One needs to get a VHC (`Very Highly Commended’) at least to score points so I’m still just an `Also Ran’ this year. I got one VHC last year and hopefully can improve on that this time round, with ten puzzles still to go.

Incidentally, looking at the latest Azed Slip I notice that there are several solvers in Ireland. I’ve never noticed that before. I wonder how many have moved recently, like me?

Finally I think I’ll mention the winning clue in the last Azed Competition. The word to be clued was SPASMODICAL and the winning clue was:

À la PM’s disco dancing?

The word `dancing’ here is an anagram indicator, and the previous letters (A+LA+PMS+DISCO) form an anagram of the target word. A different wording of the clue acts as the definition, suggesting that Theresa May’s dancing at the Tory Party Conference was spasmodical. This type of clue is described as `anag. &lit’ (meaning `anagram’ and literally what it says). Undoubtedly, &lit clues are very difficult to construct, and the anagram in the above clue is extremely clever. Whether you think the &lit constitutes a fair definition of SPASMODICAL is a matter of taste. It’s perhaps a bit borderline, but probably saved by the `?’ at the end which traditionally implies some sort of funny business with the definition. In any case, this one is far less controversial than some of the others I’ve seen. For example, here it a prize-winning clue for SUBORDINATELY:

As in ‘B-role’ duty possibly

Here `possibly’ is the anagram indicator, which is fair enough, but for me the surface reading barely makes sense. Azed is the only judge, however, and he generally does seem to cut people quite a bit of slack when they attempt this type of clue.

Fintan O’Toole on “Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain”

Posted in Literature, Maynooth, Politics with tags , , , on December 6, 2018 by telescoper

Time for a tea break and a quick post about a very interesting event this afternoon at Maynooth featuring renowned Irish journalist and author Fintan O’Toole (whose regular columns in the Irish Times I read with great interest).

This event saw John O’Brennan, Director of the Centre for European and Eurasian Studies in Maynooth in conversation with Fintan on his new book, Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain. The book deals with the Brexit referendum, the chaos it unleashed in British politics and the challenges posed to the island of Ireland by a ‘No Deal Brexit’. In particular the book examines how a country that once had colonies is redefining itself as an oppressed nation requiring liberation; the dreams of revolutionary deregulation and privatization that drive Arron Banks, Nigel Farage and Jacob Rees-Mogg; and the silent rise of English nationalism, the force that dare not speak its name. He also discusses the fatal attraction of heroic failure, once a self-deprecating cult in a hugely successful empire that could well afford the occasional disaster: the Charge of the Light Brigade, or Franklin lost in the Arctic. Now failure is no longer heroic – it is just failure, and its terrible costs will be paid by the most vulnerable of Brexit’s supporters, and by those who may suffer the consequences of a hard border in Ireland and the breakdown of a fragile peace.

The discussion was so interesting – and Fintan O’Toole was so eloquent and amusing –  that I bought the book. The author was kind enough to sign it for me too!

There’s an extract printed on the cover that will give you a taste, but if you want more you’ll have to buy the book:

Of all the pleasurable emotions, self-pity is the one that most makes us want to be on our own…Only alone can we surrender completely to it and immerse ourselves in the steaming bath of hurt, outrage and tender regard for our terribly wronged selves. Brexit therefore makes sense of a nation that feels sorry for itself. The mystery, though, is how Britain, or more precisely England, came not to just experience this delightful sentiment but to define itself through it.

I only bought the book today so haven’t read it yet, but I will endeavour to write a review when I have.

Now back to the writing of lecture notes…

A Year In Maynooth

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth on December 1, 2018 by telescoper

Well, it’s December 1st, which means that it’s a year to the day since I started my current job in Maynooth.

I started here part-time and from December 2017 until summer 2018 I had to commute back and forth between Wales and Ireland. I’m glad I don’t have to do that anymore!

This term has been my first full-time in Maynooth and with two new modules to teach it has been hard work, but it’s been nice to get back to teaching physics again and I’m very glad I had institutional support needed to get the Open Journal of Astrophysics up and running on a permanent basis.

Terms here in Maynooth involve 12 weeks of teaching (plus a study week in the middle), and this year that means we teach all the way until Friday 21st December. That’s three weeks away, which means there’s one quarter of the teaching still to do. I’ve therefore decided to take a break this weekend before entering the home straight, which is why I’m sitting in Dublin Airport as I write this…

Physics: Mathematical or Theoretical or Experimental?

Posted in Education, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on November 26, 2018 by telescoper

Fresh from doing two Open Day talks last week I thought I’d write a few words here about something that cropped up in the question-and-answer session.

For a start, I should explain that here at Maynooth University there are two Physics departments, one the Department of Theoretical Physics (of which I am a Faculty member) and the other the Department of Experimental Physics. These two units are in the same building but are largely separate in terms of teaching and research.

For instance, when students enter on our General Science degree programme they have to choose four subjects in the first year, including Mathematics (much as I did when I did my Natural Sciences degree at Cambridge back in the day). Picking `double physics’ (i.e. Experimental Physics and Theoretical Physics) uses up two of those choices, whereas Physics was a single choice in the first year of my degree.

To confuse matters still further, the Department of Theoretical Physics only recently changed its name from the Department of Mathematical Physics and some of our documentation still carries that title. I got asked several times at the weekend what’s the difference between Theoretical Physics and Mathematical Physics?

As far as Maynooth is concerned we basically use those terms interchangeably and, although it might appear a little confusing at first, having both terms scattered around our webpages means that Google searches for both `Mathematical Physics’ and `Theoretical Physics’ will find us.

It’s interesting though that Wikipedia has different pages for Mathematical Physics and Theoretical Physics. The former begins

Mathematical physics refers to the development of mathematical methods for application to problems in physics. The Journal of Mathematical Physics defines the field as “the application of mathematics to problems in physics and the development of mathematical methods suitable for such applications and for the formulation of physical theories”. It is a branch of applied mathematics, but deals with physical problems.

while the latter starts

Theoretical physics is a branch of physics that employs mathematical models and abstractions of physical objects and systems to rationalize, explain and predict natural phenomena. This is in contrast to experimental physics, which uses experimental tools to probe these phenomena.

The difference is subtle,and there is obviously a huge amount in common between these two definitions, but it is perhaps that Theoretical Physics is more focused on the use of mathematics to account for the results of experiment and observations whereas Mathematical Physics concerns itself more with the development of the necessary mathematical techniques, but I’m sure there will be readers of this blog who disagree with this interpretation.

For the record here is what Wikipedia says about Experimental Physics:

Experimental physics is the category of disciplines and sub-disciplines in the field of physics that are concerned with the observation of physical phenomena and experiments. Methods vary from discipline to discipline, from simple experiments and observations, such as the Cavendish experiment, to more complicated ones, such as the Large Hadron Collider.

I’d say that theoretical physicists are more likely than mathematical physicists to be working closely with experimentalists. I count myself as a theoretical physicist (that’s what I did in Part II at Cambridge, anyway) though I do work a lot with data.

Anyway, as an experiment, I asked the audience at my Open Day talks if they could name a famous physicist. Most popular among the responses were the names you would have guessed: Einstein, Hawking, Feynman, Dirac, Newton, Schrodinger, and some less familiar names such as Leonard Susskind and Brian Greene. Every single one of these is (or was) a theorist of some kind. This is confirmed by the fact that many potential students mention similar names in the personal statements they write in support of their university applications. For better or worse, it seems that to many potential students Physics largely means Theoretical (or Mathematical) Physics.

Although it is probably good for our recruitment that there are so many high-profile theoretical physicists, it probably says more about how little the general public knows about what physics actually is and how it really works. For me the important thing is the interplay between theory and experiment (or observation), as it is in that aspect where the whole exceeds the sum of the parts.

It might seem a bit strange to have two Physics departments in one University – though it seems to work alright in Cambridge! – but I think it works pretty well. The one problem is that there isn’t a clear entry point for `Physics’ without an adjective. Students can carry Theoretical Physics and Experimental Physics through all the way to final year and get a joint honours degree (50% theory and 50% experiment) or they can pick one to do single honours, but we might attract a few more students if the former possibility were just called `Physics’. Perhaps.

On the Second (Open) Day..

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , on November 24, 2018 by telescoper

I’ve been back on campus all morning today (Saturday 24th November) at Maynooth University for the second Open Day. I’m just taking a short break to have a sandwich and a cup of tea before rejoining the fray and giving the Subject Talk at 2.10pm on behalf of the Department of Theoretical Physics.

Yesterday’s Open Day was a very busy day. I’m given to understand that there was a record crowd  of over 3000 visitors. We were certainly not short of people to talk to at our stand in Iontas.

I think being a number of school trips contributed to the high attendance. Today has been more individual prospective students and parents. Also it’s been a bit rainy this morning so numbers might be down a bit compared to yesterday, but we’ve been busy again on the stall.

Anyway the main reason for writing this post is to thank all our student helpers including Rebekah, Eibhlin, Philip, Cai, Tigernach and Ryan for contributing over the two days and staff members Paul and Jiri for doing their stint. Their only material reward for helping has been a lunch voucher for one of the campus refectories.

UPDATE: The talk was very well attended and ended with lots and lots of questions, so I think I’ll call it a success. Now home to put my feet up and have a nice cup of tea!

Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University Open Days!

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , on November 22, 2018 by telescoper

Well, tomorrow (Friday 23rd November) and Saturday 24th November are both open days at Maynooth University. If you want to find out more about them you can look here where you will find this video which has some nice views of the campus:

I used to give Open Day talks quite frequently in a previous existence as Head of School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex and now I’m at it again, giving talks on behalf of the Department of Theoretical Physics on each Open Day. If you come along, please say hello either at the lectures (1.10pm on Friday and 2.10 on Saturday)! We also have a stall in the Iontas Building from 9.30 each day where you can meet staff and students and talk to them about the course, or anything else vaguely related to Theoretical Physics. There are other stalls, of course, but the Theoretical Physics one is obviously em>way more interesting than the others!

Looking for fun pictures to put in my talk I stumbled across this:

I think that’s the only one I need, really!