Archive for the Maynooth Category

Exams in the Time of Covid

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth on December 5, 2021 by telescoper

Not an online examination

With two weeks of teaching to go before the Christmas break in Maynooth we now have a settled plan for our January examinations in the Department of Theoretical Physics. We have decided that all our examinations will be done online, as we have done for all cycles of examinations since May 2020.

It seems that most other third-level education institutions – certainly the “traditional” universities have their examinations in December. At NUI Galway, for example, the examination session starts tomorrow (Monday 6th December) and their examinations will be on campus, despite the objections of the Students’ Union. This is also the case at Trinity College and University College Dublin, though University College Cork is doing most of its December exams online.

Our original plan at Maynooth was to have examinations on campus in January and some students were unhappy at the decision to revert to online examinations. The representations I heard from students in the Department of Theoretical Physics all gave the same reason: that online examinations are more difficult than on-campus examinations. I think this is the opposite of what students in other disciplines might think, but our online assessments focus to a greater extent on problem-solving tasks than the on-campus examinations, which means they are more difficult to do by rote learning and regurgitation.

An open-book exam is obviously easier if it simply requires students to look things up in their notes, textbooks or the web. Such an assessment would not only be easier, but also in my view absolutely pointless. Indeed, any exam, whether online or not, that requires students to use their brains only as memory devices is basically worthless. So our approach is to concentrate on the application of principles learned rather than bookwork.

Anyway, back to the on-campus versus on-line issue. I think campus exam venues, if arranged sufficiently carefully, need not be in themselves be places of high risk for Covid-19 risk, but large numbers of students will have to travel to and from them at the same time, largely on public transport, and there will also be a significant amount of milling around before and after. Large lectures (in the case of Maynooth this means over 250) are being delivered online at all Irish universities and exam halls will frequently have to hold greater numbers than that. It therefore seems to me rather inconsistent to insist on having large exams in person.

Finally, I’ll just note that all my colleagues (lecturers and tutors) are reporting a drop-off in student attendance at lectures and tutorials.  Last Friday the campus was extremely quiet, and I had only about half the expected class in my Vector Calculus lecture. This happens a bit in a “normal” year towards the end of term but is more marked this time round. I’m not surprised at it. With around 5000 new Covid cases per day I think many students are anxious not about lectures but about travelling on public transport and having to wait about on campus outside in the cold. I have been recording all my lectures this term and I don’t mind if students choose to view them remotely. Although we’re still officially teaching on campus, in practice many students are doing their learning online.


No Booster in Sight…

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth on December 2, 2021 by telescoper

Data from the last few days provide just a hint that the recent increase in Covid-19 infection in Ireland may be slowing down:

Even if this is the case, though, the level of Coronavirus in circulation is very high, much higher than it was this time last year ahead of the Christmas surge and this year there’s the apparently much more transmissible omicron variant to throw into the mix.

I saw a letter in the Irish Times earlier this week pointing out that Universities in Ireland have worked very hard to stay open throughout the recent wave. Third level institutions have been told by Government so stay open despite a wider exhortation to “work from home wherever possible”. Well, most of us have been working from home doing online lectures for most of the past 18 months so we know that is “possible” – and indeed large classes containing over 250 students are still being taught that way – yet we’re now being told that it is essential that we continue teaching smaller classes in person.

I have enjoyed teaching on campus again, despite the hassle of having to improvise a method of recording the blackboard on video. I also believe that the situation is fairly safe, what with well ventilated classrooms, all students wearing face coverings, and everyone vaccinated…

But there’s the rub.

Next Wednesday will be six months since my second dose of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine so I am concerned that my protection is on the wane. Next week I will be due a booster. Unfortunately the Irish Government is making a complete hash of the booster campaign which, as a result, is running way behind many countries, including the UK. Two elderly neighbours of mine in Maynooth had to queue for three hours in the freezing cold at Citiwest for their boosters, only to be told to come back another day as they weren’t ready. I know others in the 60-69 age group who haven’t even got an appointment yet. I am a bright young thing of 58 so I am quite a way back in queue. Although I’m due my booster by next Wednesday I won’t be surprised if I have to wait until after Christmas.

Update: the rollout of boosters to those in the 50-59 age group is supposed to begin in ‘mid-December’.

I’ve said so before on this blog that unless I get my booster before 8th December, I will be switching all my teaching online and working from home and I’ll continue doing that until I am fully protected, however long that takes. It’s not so much that I am afraid of being infected on campus, just that the situation is quite unreasonable and I’m taking a stand on point of principle. As the correspondent in the Irish Times points out, University staff have been taken completely for granted during the pandemic.

P.S. If the Government regards a lecturer’s work as “essential” then they should treat us as frontline staff and prioritize our booster shots. They were keen to set up campus vaccination centres for students so why not do the same for staff?

Four Years in Maynooth

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , on December 1, 2021 by telescoper


In recent times I’ve found myself remarking quite frequently on this blog how much the Covid-19 pandemic has played havoc with my perception of the passage of time, and I come to reflect on that again now that today (1st December 2021) marks four years since I started work at Maynooth University. So much has happened in that period it seems very much longer since I first arrived here.

I started off working part-time here in Maynooth and part-time in Cardiff, commuting once a week to and fro across the Irish Sea until July 2018. That was a very tiring experience that brought it home very forcefully that I don’t have anywhere near as much energy as I did when I was younger.

I won’t deny that the past four years have had their frustrations. The teaching and administrative workload, especially since I became Head of Department in 2019, and even more so since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, has been very heavy and has made it difficult to be very active in research. That’s not helped by the lack of opportunities for funding in basic science, thanks to what I believe to be a very short-sighted policy on research funding by the Irish government.

On the other hand, I have great colleagues and the students are very engaged. There are few things in life more rewarding than teaching people who really want to learn.

I hadn’t realized when I arrived in Ireland that it would take the best part of three years to find somewhere permanent to live, but I managed to buy a house in the summer of 2020. I am very happy here despite the continuing restrictions due to the pandemic.

The thing I’m probably most proud of over the past four years is, with the huge help of staff at Maynooth University Library, getting the Open Journal of Astrophysics off the ground and attracting some excellent papers. Hopefully that will continue to grow next year.

I am also proud of having played a part in the successful application for a new SALI Chair which we will be advertising formally in the new year. That is just one of many new developments on the horizon here at Maynooth, which suggest the next few years should be very exciting for physics and astronomy at Maynooth.

So, after a few years of hard and at times dispiriting slog, things are definitely looking up. Meanwhile, in Brexit Britain, events have turned out exactly as I predicted:

The referendum campaign, followed by the callous and contemptuous attitude of the current UK Government towards EU nationals living in Britain, unleashed a sickening level of xenophobia that has made me feel like a stranger in my own country. Not everyone who voted `Leave’ is a bigot, of course, but every bigot voted for Brexit and the bigots are now calling all the shots. There are many on the far right of UK politics who won’t be satisfied until we have ethnic cleansing. Even if Brexit is stopped the genie of intolerance is out of the bottle and I don’t think it well ever be put back. Brexit will also doom the National Health Service and the UK university system, and clear the way for the destruction of workers’ rights and environmental protection. The poor and the sick will suffer, while only the rich swindlers who bought the referendum result will prosper. The country in which I was born, and in which I have lived for the best part of 54 years, is no longer something of which I want to be a part.

In other words I don’t regret for one minute my decision to leave Britain.

P.S. After I finish my term as Head of Department next year I am eligible for a sabbatical, so if anyone fancies playing host to an old cosmologist please let me know!

P.P.S. Solidarity to all my colleagues in UK universities who are, from today, taking part in strike action against pension cuts and deteriorating working conditions.

On Fourier Series

Posted in mathematics, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on November 30, 2021 by telescoper

So here we are, in the antepenultimate week of the Autumn Semester, and once again I find myself limbering up for the “and” bit of my second-year module on Vector Calculus and Fourier Series, i.e. Fourier Series.

As I have observed periodically, I don’t like to present the two topics mentioned in the title of this module as completely disconnected, so I linked them in a lecture in which I used the divergence theorem of vector calculus to derive the heat equation, the solution of which led Joseph Fourier to devise his series in Mémoire sur la propagation de la chaleur dans les corps solides (1807), a truly remarkable work for its time that inspired so many subsequent developments.


Anyway I was looking for nice demonstrations of Fourier series to help my class get to grips with them when I remembered this little video recommended to me some time ago by esteemed Professor George Ellis. It’s a nice illustration of the principles of Fourier series, by which any periodic function can be decomposed into a series of sine and cosine functions.

This reminds me of a point I’ve made a few times in popular talks about astronomy. It’s a common view that Kepler’s laws of planetary motion according to which which the planets move in elliptical motion around the Sun, is a completely different formulation from the previous Ptolemaic system which involved epicycles and deferents and which is generally held to have been much more complicated.

The video demonstrates however that epicycles and deferents can be viewed as the elements used in the construction of a Fourier series. Since elliptical orbits are periodic, it is perfectly valid to present them in the form a Fourier series. Therefore, in a sense, there’s nothing so very wrong with epicycles. I admit, however, that a closed-form expression for such an orbit is considerably more compact and elegant than a Fourier representation, and also encapsulates a deeper level of physical understanding.

Great News for Astrophysics & Cosmology at Maynooth!

Posted in Education, Maynooth, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on November 29, 2021 by telescoper

I couldn’t resist a quick post in reaction to the announcement by the Irish Government of ten new senior professorial positions under the Strategic Academic Leadership Initiative (SALI). I blogged about this scheme here. Among the positions just announced is a new Chair in Observational Astrophysics or Cosmology at Maynooth University. You can find Maynooth University’s official response to the announcement here.

The pandemic has played havoc with my sense of the passage of time so I had to check my documents folder to see when we completed the application. It turns out to have been January this year; the deadline was 29th January 2021. It has taken much longer than expected to for the outcome of this, the second, round to emerge but I suppose it’s better late than never!

The key rationale for these SALI positions is clear from the statement from Simon Harris, the Minister responsible for Third Level education in Ireland:

“Championing equality and diversity is one of the key goals of my department. The Senior Academic Leadership Initiative (SALI) is an important initiative aimed at advancing gender equality and the representation of women at the highest levels in our higher education institutions.

We have a particular problem with gender balance among the staff in Physics in Maynooth, especially un Theoretical Physics where all the permanent staff are male, and the lack of role models has a clear effect on our ability to encourage more female students to study with us.

The wider strategic case for this Chair revolves around broader developments in the area of astrophysics and cosmology at Maynooth. Currently there are two groups active in research in these areas, one in the Department of Experimental Physics (which is largely focussed on astronomical instrumentation) and the other, in the Department of Theoretical Physics, which is theoretical and computational. We want to promote closer collaboration between these research strands. The idea with the new position is that the holder will nucleate and lead a new research programme in the area between these existing groups as well as getting involved in outreach and public engagement.

The next step will be to launch a recruitment campaign, and more details will be available when the position is formally advertised. Let me just say for now that we intend the position to appeal not only to people who have their own observational programmes (e.g. using facilities provided by ESO, which Ireland recently joined) but also working on data from space missions, multi-messenger astrophysics, gravitational waves, and so on.

A Pembrokeshire Dangler

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff on November 28, 2021 by telescoper

I checked the weather app on my phone last night and noticed the unmistakable cloud formation over the Irish Sea known as a Pembrokshire Dangler:

The Dangler is the strip of rain  over the Irish Sea extending North from the Pembrokeshire coast in Wales. I knew I had mentioned this phenomenon before on this blog and when I check it turns out to have been almost exactly four years ago. That’s not very surprising as winter is definitely the season for dangling. There has been a northerly airflow over Ireland for a few days now, which is why it has been so cold here, though in relatively sheltered Maynooth we have been spared the worst of the effects of Storm Arwen.

The situation required for the formation of a Pembrokeshire Dangler (which quite often involves snow rather than rain) is a cold northerly airflow down into the Irish Sea from the Arctic. This combines with slightly warmer air in the form of land breezes from the Irish coast to the North West and the Scottish coast to the North East, funneling the airflow into a narrow channel over the Irish Sea in which convection cells form, leading to precipitation. The configuration is quite stable as long as the dominant northerly airflow continues so although the strip of cloud tends to persist for some time once it has formed.

Back to Online Examinations Again

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on November 26, 2021 by telescoper

This afternoon teaching staff at Maynooth University were informed of changes to the plans for the January examination session: all examinations will now be held remotely, apart possibly from those for some final-year modules; for the latter the lecturer will decide whether they should be on campus or remote.

It’s worth mentioning that a petition set up recently by the Maynooth University Students Union urging the University to switch exams online attractive over 4,000 signatures.

As I said a while ago I think this is a very sensible move. I was chatting to some students before a lecture earlier today and I think they will all be relieved that a decision has been taken and they can make sensible plans for the Examination Period. I am teaching one module for first-year students and one for second-years this semester so both of these will definitely be going online.

We now have done three full cycles of online examinations since the pandemic started: May 2020, January 2021 and May 2021, plus two sets of repeats. I think we have a pretty good idea what we are doing with them and have got three weeks before the end of term to make any changes to the papers we have written for January. Since the online examinations are effectively open-book tests we tend to exclude bookwork – stating results which the students could easily look up – and concentrate instead on problem-solving tasks. Online examinations done this way are certainly no easier than in-person papers, and emphasize what is probably the most useful skill we try to develop.

I am glad we have some clarity on the examinations. We still have three weeks of teaching to finish before the end of term, though, and no changes have been announced to plans for lectures and tutorials. I told my class this afternoon however that as of Wednesday 8th December I will have exceeded 6 months since my second Pfizer dose. There is very little chance I will get a booster dose by then so I will be working from home from that date until the end of term. That means I’ll be doing three first-year lectures and three second-year lectures from home using my famous blackboard. I explained this decision to my second-year class today and they were supportive.

Maynooth University Library Cat Update

Posted in Maynooth with tags , on November 24, 2021 by telescoper

It has been some time since I last posted an update about Maynooth University Library Cat. It’s been rather chilly recently and he’s probably been keeping out of the cold somewhere snug. I’m not sure exactly where he goes to stay warm but I’m sure he has some favourite places here and there around campus. He lives outdoors but I’m sure he’s prepared from time to time to venture inside for warmth. On his own terms, of course. He is, after all, a cat.

I did however see him on the way to my 2pm lecture today and he was still on post when I returned an hour or so later. He was looking fluffier than usual, a normal reaction against the cold, but was his usual friendly self when I stopped to give him a stroke. He only sits in the location shown on the picture when he wants a bit of a fuss and/or to be fed. When he’s not in the mood he makes himself scarce!

Incidentally, in the distance, past the Library on the left you can see the new building on the North campus which is nearing completion…

Colder Times

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth with tags , , , on November 22, 2021 by telescoper

All of a sudden winter is here. Until now the temperature has stayed in double figures but it was much colder yesterday and this morning we had a hard frost. It has barely been above freezing at any point today. It was -2 °C at 7.30pm when I got home from work.

I now wish I’d bought some food for the birds at the weekend as the feeders are empty and I think my little avian visitors need some fuel. At least there are lots of berries around. A wood pigeon visits my garden regularly to feast on them and as a result is now as round as a football and probably too fat to fly.

On the subject of birds, this little chap appeared outside my office window last week. The distinctive red colour on the body doesn’t show up at all in the phone picture but, when combined with the black cap on its head, made me think it was a bullfinch. Bullfinches spend the winter here so maybe I’ll see this one again.

I suddenly thought today that it might be an idea to put some bird feeders in the space outside my office window. It’s enclosed by walls on all sides but open above. It would be a very safe space for birds to feed and it would be nice to encourage a few more avian visitors.

Questions of Examinations and Lectures

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , on November 20, 2021 by telescoper

The deterioration of the Covid-19 situation in Ireland continues apace, with a 7-day average of new cases currently around 4300 per day and 640 people in hospital with 121 needing intensive care.

No doubt due to vaccination the number of deaths remains mercifully low, just 43 reported last week. Let’s hope that lasts.

We have four more weeks of teaching at Maynooth University this semester after which we have the Christmas break and then, in January, the examination period. The current plan is for the examinations to be of the traditional kind, taken in an exam hall on campus but how long this will indeed be the plan is anyone’s guess.

Here at Maynooth we have been told here that a decision will be taken next Friday (26th November) on whether on-campus examinations will go ahead after Christmas. With just three weeks of the term left at that point, this seems very late. If the decision is taken next week to go ahead and the pandemic continues to deteriorate (which is likely, with a surge in transmission expected over the holiday) then that decision may have to be reversed in January.

The Minister responsible for Higher Education, Simon Harris, has indicated that third-level institutions may have to introduce special mechanisms to help students prevented from attending exams in person by Covid-19.

I really hope this is not going to be interpreted as meaning that we have to offer both online and on campus examinations.

That’s partly because of the workload issue: we’ve already written our examinations on the basis that they will be held in person and would have to write another set and get them ready with just three weeks of the term left. We’ve been landed with heavy increases in workload at short notice before I don’t think I’m the only person to be a bit fed with it. Another issue, is that is fairness. I think it is important that all students should take the same examination in the same way otherwise one group might be disadvantaged relative to the other. It would be fairer simply to allow students who can’t take the on-campus examinations in January to take the August repeat in the usual manner.

It’s not for me to decide, of course, but I think it would be sensible to take the decision immediately to switch to online examinations in January. That way staff and students will know straight away where they stand. If it turns out the pandemic does go as badly over the next two months then this might seem to have been excessively cautious, but what would really be lost? We have done three examination periods online now during the pandemic and I think that by now we know how to do it reasonably well.

Examinations are still some time in the future of course, but we still have four weeks of teaching to get through. I have seen anecdotal evidence from colleagues that attendance at lectures and tutorials has fallen rapidly since the mid-term break. I have heard directly from some students that they do not feel safe travelling to and from University and are wary of the large crowds on campus.

My own experience is that lecture attendance has held up reasonably well in my modules, but I deliver my lectures as webcasts and record them anyway so am quite happy if students want to watch them remotely or offline at a subsequent date. Many of them are taking other subjects which are taught in bigger classes which are all online anyway and in that case there is little incentive to come onto campus for one module when everything else is remote.

Simon Harris seems to have nailed his colours to the “return-to-campus” mast so even if there is a drastic surge in Covid-19 over the next few weeks I think the official line will be that we carry on teaching in person. Students however are probably more sensible that either politicians or University managers and will revert to online learning for all practical purposes by simply not coming to campus. And who could blame them?