Archive for the Maynooth Category

Job Opportunity in Theoretical Physics at Maynooth!

Posted in Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff on May 21, 2022 by telescoper

Just a very quick reblog of this post because the deadline is tomorrow (22nd May) at 23.30. It’s a for a Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in Theoretical Quantum Physics, interpreted broadly to include quantum computation, quantum information theory, quantum many-body systems, quantum field theory, and applications thereof to condensed matter and high-energy physics, etc.

In the Dark

Just a short post passing on the information that we have a permanent Lectureship (Assistant Professorship) available in the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University. You can find the details, including a full Job Description and salary, here.

For the purposes of this position we interpret Quantum Physics broadly to include quantum computation, quantum information theory, quantum many-body systems, quantum field theory, and applications thereof to condensed matter and high-energy physics, etc.

This position is the first of several to be advertised across the Departments of Theoretical & Experimental Physics at Maynooth University, in areas including Astronomy and Earth Science, on top of this opportunity at Professorial level in Observational Astrophysics or Cosmology. Watch this space for more details!

The position is available from 1st September 2022 and the deadline for applications is 23.30 on Sunday 22nd May 2022 and you should apply through the Maynooth jobs…

View original post 18 more words

Mental Health and the Reasons for Burnout

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth, Mental Health with tags , , , on May 10, 2022 by telescoper

It is now European Health Week as well as “Employee Wellbeing Month” here at Maynooth University. I’m reminded that ten years ago that I was heading for a breakdown and a subsequent spell in a psychiatric institution so I always try to use this opportunity to encourage friends colleagues and students to do what I didn’t back then, and ask for help sooner rather than later.

Today my colleague from, and former Head of, the Psychology Department at Maynooth shared a piece on twitter that provided me with a new theme, burnout, which is usually described in these terms:

Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands. As the stress continues, you begin to lose the interest and motivation that led you to take on a certain role in the first place.

Burnout reduces productivity and saps your energy, leaving you feeling increasingly helpless, hopeless, cynical, and resentful. Eventually, you may feel like you have nothing more to give.

I’d be surprised if any of my friends and colleagues in the University have not felt at least some of the signs of burnout at some point over the last two years during the which the pandemic drastically exacerbated existing conditions of overwork. I know there’s a tendency among staff to blame themselves for struggling and I know that there’s a even stronger tendency for Management to want staff to blame themselves: “you need to be more resilient” is the catchphrase.

As a counter to this attitude I suggest you read this piece which explains that burnout is not the fault of employees but of the environment created by management. In particular, here are the five main causes of burnout:

  1. Unfair treatment at work
  2. Unmanageable workload
  3. Lack of role clarity
  4. Lack of communication and support from their manager
  5. Unreasonable time pressure

Do any of these look familiar to you? They certainly do to me! I would add a sixth: “6. management determination to make 1-5 even worse in future”. Academic staff on proper contracts are much more expensive than low-paid temporary lecturers on insecure contracts. If you care more about making a profit than providing a quality third level education, why not let the former burn out and replace them with the latter?

My biggest fear is that having seen the lengths to which staff have been prepared to go voluntarily to keep things going during the pandemic, all that has been achieved is to establish in the minds of Management an expectation that this is the way things will be for the indefinite future.

It’s not so bad for me. I’ll be 60 next year and I can see the prospect of retirement on the horizon, but I do worry about what this means for the careers of younger staff.

Last Day of Term!

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth on May 6, 2022 by telescoper

So at last we’ve arrived at the last day of teaching for Semester 2 at Maynooth University. My final session – a revision lecture – was actually yesterday. Today I’m on tenterhooks as the students are submitting their Computational Physics project reports ahead of the deadline of 4pm this afternoon and I’m on hand to help with last minute problems. Some have already appeared on Moodle, bucking the fine academic tradition of only submitting things at the very last minute. Students on this module have to do the project in order to pass the module, so I hope they all manage to submit something by the deadline. I saw a few in the lab yesterday afternoon and they seemed to have good results. I just hope they left enough time to write everything up! No prizes for guessing what I’ll be doing next week: marking project reports (and coursework I didn’t have time to correct earlier).

Next week is a study week for the students, so the powers be must think academic staff are going to be sitting around twiddling their thumbs until the exam period begins (on Friday 13th). That’s the only explanation I can think of for the proliferation of meetings in my calendar for next week.

After that of course my colleagues and I will be marking examinations. I have papers on Tuesday 17th May and Friday 20th May. I may be able to get the first set of scripts marked before the second set arrives, but maybe not. At any rate we have to get all the marks up on the system well before the Exam Boards take place in early June. That should be easy for me, but not so much for those staff who have exams much later in the cycle.

This term has been marked by low attendances at lectures and tutorials, for a number of Covid-related reasons. We’ve done our lectures in person on campus, but only around a third of the students have been attending. Neither I nor anyone else knows what that will mean for the results of the forthcoming examinations. We’ll just have to wait and see…

At least our Exam Board will take place in person this time as the Covid-19 situation here in Ireland looks reasonably positive which will make it a bit easier to discuss any important matters that may arise.

This has been a tough year, with half our lecturing staff being temporary replacements after one departure, one retirement and one on sabbatical. One member of staff will be returning from sabbatical in September, and we have one permanent position under advertisement (application deadline: 22nd May) but we’re going to be forced employ temporary lecturers again next academic year as it seems unlikely the permanent replacement will be in post by September and in any case we will be a post down even if that post is filled. I don’t like this at all, but I have no choice.

Words about Higher Education in Ireland

Posted in Education, Maynooth, Politics on May 5, 2022 by telescoper

Yesterday the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science”, Simon Harris announced a “funding and reform framework” for Ireland which you can find here (PDF).

It’s a typical neoliberal trick to tie “funding” to “reform” because that immediately sends a message that Ireland’s universities are somehow underperforming in some way other than the fact that they are grossly underfunded. The document however admits that there is a huge funding shortfall caused by lack of Government investment over many years, leading among other things to huge student-staff ratios. Perhaps it’s primarily the Government that need reform rather than universities?

That said, I do agree that if extra money is going to be sent to universities, there should be some guarantee that it is spent on the right things: not only academic staff but also, where appropriate, laboratory facilities and so on. Based on my experience in several institutions, typically over half of  university’s budget is spent on central services, some of which are excellent but others of which are expensive and not fit for any purpose at all other than wasting money and causing frustration.

As for the proposals themselves, I’d just say that it is good to have a Minister who recognizes at least some of the problems and is prepared to make positive noises about addressing them. However, the document itself is extremely vague. Look at this, for example, from the
Government’s Press Release announcing the new “landmark policy on funding higher education and reducing the cost of education for families”:

That’s it.

Since the departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union, Ireland’s fees for undergraduate study are the highest in the EU and with the current cost of living crisis (including exorbitant rents) this is in need of reform.  The response however is that the Minister is “committed” only to reviewing (i.e. not necessarily reducing) the fee over some unspecified but probably lengthy timescale.

As with the other items in the “framework” there is no commitment to anything that will halt the immediate crisis currently afflicting students who are struggling to engage and academic staff whose workloads are skyrocketing. In fact I don’t foresee any prospect of material changes before I retire.

Another thing I’ll mention with deep frustration is that there is nothing in the policy about postgraduate education for which there is no framework at all in Ireland and very little funding. It seems Irish Governments just don’t think this is important aspect of what universities do.

Anyway, back to the “policy”, I know that what will actually happen depends on Mr Harris’s success in winning over cabinet colleagues so at this stage he can’t be very specific, but the media somehow dress all this nebulosity up as a policy, which it isn’t: it’s a collection of aspirations.

Warm words, perhaps, but just words nevertheless. We won’t find our for a while whether they actually mean anything.

Open Day on Campus

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth on April 30, 2022 by telescoper

Today was an Undergraduate Open Day at Maynooth University and contrary to my pessimistic expectations it was extremely busy, probably the busiest I have ever attended in Maynooth. I was told that there were 4,500 people on campus for this event which compares to a more normal figure of 3,000ish. I gather one of the reasons it was so busy was that few (if any) other Irish universities are having open days on campus this year.

Busy foyer stands in the Iontas Building

The stand in Iontas was quite busy all morning and my subject talk on Theoretical and Mathematical Physics was so well attended that the room was full and people were standing at the back. I was in the last slot of the day (as usual) so nobody else was in the lecture room after my group so I invited people to stay and ask questions if they wanted to. It ended up with 45 minutes of very interesting discussion.

This is the first of these sessions we’ve done since November 2019. Since then the entire admissions process has been disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic. There is more than a little uncertainty about entrance requirement for September 2022, but I gave the best advice I could. Talking face-to-face with real people made a very pleasant change from the webinars and pre-recorded videos we’ve been doing recently.

Anyway, I think today has been a success, though a very tiring one. It’s very exhausting trying to be nice to people. I think I’ll need the rest of the holiday weekend to recover!

Girls, Physics and “Hard Maths”

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on April 28, 2022 by telescoper

There was an appropriately hostile reaction from people who know things yesterday to bizarre comments by Katharine Birbalsingh, who is apparently a UK Government commissioner for something or other, but who seems to know very little. Birbalsingh is in charge of a school in which only 16% of the students taking physics A-level are female, whereas the national average is about 23%. She tried to explain this by saying that girls don’t like doing “hard maths” and as a consequence…

..physics isn’t something that girls tend to fancy. They don’t want to do it, they don’t like it.

There is an easy rebuttal of this line of “reasoning”. First, there is no “hard maths” in Physics A-level. Most of the mathematical content (especially calculus) was removed years ago. Second, the percentage of students taking actual A-level Mathematics in the UK who are female is more like 40% than 20%. The argument that girls are put off Physics because it includes Maths is therefore demonstrably bogus.

An alternative explanation for the figures is that schools (especially the one led by Katharine Birbalsingh, where the take-up is even worse than the national average) provide an environment that actively discourages girls from being interested in Physics by reinforcing gender stereotypes even in schools that offer Physics A-level in the first place. The attitudes of teachers and school principals undoubtedly have a big influence on the life choices of students, which is why it is so depressing to hear lazy stereotypes repeated once again.

There is no evidence whatsoever that women aren’t as good at Maths and Physics as men once they get into the subject, but plenty of evidence that the system dissuades then early on from considering Physics as a discipline they want to pursue. Indeed, at University female students generally out-perform male students in Physics when it comes to final results; it’s just that there are few of them to start with.

Anyway, I thought of a way of addressing gender inequality in physics admissions about 8 years ago. The idea was to bring together two threads. I’ll repeat the arguments here.

The first is that, despite strenuous efforts by many parties, the fraction of female students taking A-level Physics has flat-lined at around 20% for at least two decades. This is the reason why the proportion of female physics students at university is the same, i.e. 20%. In short, the problem lies within the school system.

The second line of argument is that A-level Physics is not a useful preparation for a Physics degree anyway because it does not develop the sort of problem-solving skills or the ability to express physical concepts in mathematical language on which university physics depends. In other words it not only avoids “hard maths” but virtually all mathematics and, worse, is really very boring. As a consequence, most physics admissions tutors that I know care much more about the performance of students at A-level Mathematics than Physics, which is a far better indicator of their ability to study Physics at University than the Physics A-level.

Hitherto, most of the effort that has been expended on the first problem has been directed at persuading more girls to do Physics A-level. Since all UK universities require a Physics A-level for entry into a degree programme, this makes sense but it has not been very successful.

I believe that the only practical way to improve the gender balance on university physics course is to drop the requirement that applicants have A-level Physics entirely and only insist on Mathematics (which has a much more even gender mix). I do not believe that this would require many changes to course content but I do believe it would circumvent the barriers that our current school system places in the way of aspiring female physicists, bypassing the bottleneck at one stroke.

I suggested this idea when I was Head of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at Sussex, but it was firmly rejected by Senior Management because we would be out of line with other Physics departments. I took the view that in this context being out of line was a positive thing but that wasn’t the view of my bosses so the idea sank.

In case you think such a radical step is unworkable, I give you the example of our Physics programmes in Maynooth. We have a variety of these, including Theoretical Physics & Mathematics, Physics with Astrophysics, and Mathematical Physics and/or Experimental Physics through our omnibus science programme. Not one of these courses requires students to have taken Physics in their Leaving Certificate (roughly the equivalent of A-level).

Project Time

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth on April 26, 2022 by telescoper

For the next and final two weeks of my Computational Physics module the students are now working in groups of two or three on their mini-projects, so our twice-weekly lab sessions are much less structured and the students work in their groups with myself and a demonstrator to help out if they have problems. Somewhat to my surprise the lab was full this afternoon. I expected the students might prefer to work outside the scheduled times, but it was nice to see them working away together and managing to get some results. They hand in their projects at the end of next week, so they finish this part of their assessment before the exam session starts, a week after that.

The projects cover quite a wide range of material and the students have plenty of choice but some of the projects I offered didn’t have any takers. Anyway, I thought you might like to see the titles of the projects that are being done:

  • Electronic Energy Levels in Aluminium
  • Brownian Motion
  • El Niño
  • Action Potentials in Neurons
  • Wave Functions in the Hydrogen Atom
  • The Chaotic Inflationary Universe,
  • Polytropes and the Lane-Emden Equation
  • A Semiconductor Laser
  • The Dimension of a Strange Attractor
  • The Earth-Jupiter-Sun Interaction and Milankovitch Cycles
  • Fluid Flow through a Pipe
  • Random Polymers
  • Modelling Infectious Diseases
  • Modelling the Refraction of Light

Not all of these are to do with physics of course, but I make no apology for this as not all of our graduates will become physicists. The main point is that the projects require application of the skills taught during the module, as well as a bit of teamwork and report-writing; the latter two activities are things that theoretical physics students don’t get much practice at. I usually try to think of 4-5 new projects each year: the others are recycled.

Anyway, I look forward to reading and assessing the 14 project reports in due course!

Post Easter Post

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth with tags , , on April 25, 2022 by telescoper

So here I am, then, back in the office after the Easter break for the remaining two weeks of Semester Two. I was supposed to be on leave last week but there’s so much to do that I ended up working most days apart from the Easter weekend itself, but at least I do so from the comfort of my own home and, occasionally, garden.

I had hoped to be able to spend the latter part of this week at the annual Euclid Consortium meeting which is being held this year in Oslo. Unfortunately because this year it falls within teaching term I’ve just got too much to do so I can’t go. I hope my colleagues and friends in Euclid have an enjoyable and successful time in Oslo. I hope to make it next year, wherever it is held.

Next Monday is the May Day Holiday so we have only 9 days of teaching left before the study break and examinations. Although next weekend is a Bank Holiday weekend, the powers that be in Maynooth have decreed that Saturday will be an Open Day:

It remains to be seen how many prospective students and their families will choose to interrupt their long weekend to visit campus on Saturday April 30th but I’ll be there. I know no bounds, you see…

The most exciting thing that happened last week was that a bloke from the Gas Board came to install a new gas meter. My colleagues were skeptical that he would actually turn up at the appointed time but he did. He completed the job in about half an hour, including time for a short lecture on why I should have a carbon monoxide meter put in my kitchen. The gas meter is actually on the front of the house and the gas man was kept under close surveillance as he worked by the local robin who has clearly decided that both front and back gardens are its own private property.

Last week the same robin made further visits to the inside of my house, even tapping on the window with its beak to be let in. I am increasingly concerned that it will decide that the inside of the house also belongs to it and I’ll end up being forcibly evicted.

It is an annual tradition at Eastertide to worry about whether Newcastle United will be relegated from the Premiership but after a string of good results they look reasonably safe. The players will be relieved to have avoided a public flogging by the clubs new owners, the Saudi Royal Family.

Job Opportunity in Theoretical Physics at Maynooth!

Posted in Maynooth on April 22, 2022 by telescoper

Just a short post passing on the information that we have a permanent Lectureship (Assistant Professorship) available in the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University. You can find the details, including a full Job Description and salary, here.

For the purposes of this position we interpret Quantum Physics broadly to include quantum computation, quantum information theory, quantum many-body systems, quantum field theory, and applications thereof to condensed matter and high-energy physics, etc.

This position is the first of several to be advertised across the Departments of Theoretical & Experimental Physics at Maynooth University, in areas including Astronomy and Earth Science, on top of this opportunity at Professorial level in Observational Astrophysics or Cosmology. Watch this space for more details!

The position is available from 1st September 2022 and the deadline for applications is 23.30 on Sunday 22nd May 2022 and you should apply through the Maynooth jobs portal here.

P.S. This position comes with membership of the Irish Single Public Service Pension Scheme

A Question of the Past

Posted in Biographical, Cute Problems, Education, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on April 20, 2022 by telescoper

I was tidying up some old files earlier today and came across some old examination papers, including those I took for my final examinations in Part II of the Natural Sciences Tripos in 1985. There were six of these, in the space of three consecutive days…

I picked one of the questions to share here because it covers similar ground to my current (!) Advanced Electromagnetism module for final-year students in Maynooth. Sorry it’s a bit grubby!

It’s been a long time since I took my finals and I’d largely forgotten what the format was. The question above was taken from Paper II which consisted of nine questions altogether in three Sections, A (Solid State Physics), B (Statistical Physics) and C (Electromagnetism, from which Q9 above was taken; I think the course was actually called Electrodynamics & Relativity). The examination was 3 hours in duration and students were asked to answer four questions, including one from each Section. That means each question would be expected to take about 45 minutes.

Looking at the paper in general and the above question in particular, a number of things sprang to mind about differences between then in Cambridge and now in Maynooth:

  1. Our theoretical physics papers in Maynooth are 2 hours in duration in which time students are to answer four questions, so that the questions are a bit shorter – 30 minutes each rather than 45.
  2. Our papers are also on a single subject rather than a composite of several; we typically don’t offer the students choice; my Advanced Electromagnetism paper has four questions and students have to answer all four for full marks.
  3. The questions on the old Tripos papers are less structured. There is no indication of the marks allocated to each part of the question in the question above.
  4. As far as I can recall there was no formula booklet back in 1985, though there was a sheet of physical constants. My Advanced Electromagnetism examination this year comes with a couple of pages of useful formulae from vector calculus and key equations in EM theory. One might argue that the old Cambridge papers relied rather more on memory (especially when you take into account that everything was in the space of three days).
  5. Back to Question 9, it is true that this along with the other Electromagnetism questions is at a similar level to what I have been teaching this Semester. If I recall correctly the relevant course in Cambridge was of 24 lectures, the same length as the course I’m teaching this year.
  6. Students taking my course should know how to do both parts of Question 9 without too much difficulty.

On the final point, the easiest way to tackle this sort of problem is to do what the question says: determine the electric and magnetic potentials, derive the electric and magnetic fields from them, then work out the Poynting vector quantifying the energy flux. The part of this that survives in the far-field limit gives you the radiated power then – Bob’s your Uncle – the answer is basically the Larmor Formula which is ubiquitous in problems of this type. The case of an oscillating dipole is a standard derivation but this method works for any time-varying source, as long as you remember to include the retarded potentials if it’s not periodic.

Had I been writing this question for a modern exam I think I would at very least have ended the first part with “Show that the radiated power is…” and then given the formula, so that it could be used for the second part even if a student could not derive it.