Archive for the Maynooth Category

Over the Break

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth on March 19, 2023 by telescoper

After last week’s study break, the St Patrick’s Day holiday, and all the excitement of Ireland’s Grand Slam, I woke up this morning with a shudder at the realization that I have to start teaching again next week and I had a lot to do to prepare. As a consequence, I’ve been busy all afternoon getting lectures and coursework ready, as well as writing examination papers, the deadline for which is tomorrow. These deadlines seem to happen earlier every year!

Among the things I had to do last week was make a trip to the rheumatology clinic where I have steroid injections in my knees for arthritis. It’s not a pleasant procedure, but I have been struggling for the last few weeks and was glad when my appointment came up. It’s not really painful, but the lack of mobility does get me down a bit. For one thing, I suspended my Friday concert-going. For another, a couple of weeks ago, I had to kneel down in the computer lab to fix a cable and could hardly get up again!

It usually takes just a day or two after the jabs to feel some improvement, and so it is this time. I’m moving a lot more freely now, which is a relief, and this should last for 9 months or so.

Anyway, we now have almost three weeks of teaching before another break. I say almost three weeks because Good Friday is a holiday here, as is the following week. I hope to be able to get through my remaining lectures on Computational Physics before then so all that will remain of that module will be labs and project work for the students. And, of course, marking…

The draft exam timetable has been issued, and it looks like I have yet another Saturday paper. Ho hum. Still, after the end of May, I can hopefully start thinking ahead for what is coming over the summer and next academic year…

Lá Fhéile Pádraig sona daoibh go léir!

Posted in Beards, History, Maynooth with tags , on March 17, 2023 by telescoper

So it’s St Patrick’s Day, a bank holiday here in Ireland. I shall probably observe the festivities in Maynooth later on, though it is pouring down at the moment and very likely to rain on the parade, which starts at 11am. That would be disappointing, as it hardly ever rains in Ireland.

I came second in the Beard of Ireland poll, by the way. Thanks to everyone who voted for me and congratulations to the winner, Aodhan Connolly. A few people have asked for an up-to-date picture of me and my beard, so here goes:

Not many facts are known about the life of St Patrick, but it seems he was born in Britain, probably in the late 4th Century AD, probably somewhere around the Severn Estuary and probably in Wales and according to virtually all artistic depictions of him he had a fine beard. It also appears that he didn’t know any Latin. When a young man, it seems he was captured by Celtic marauders coming up the River Severn and taken as a slave to Ireland. He eventually escaped back to Britain, but returned to Ireland as a missionary and succeeded somehow in converting the Irish people to Christianity.

Ireland was the first country to be converted to Christianity that had never been part of the Roman Empire. That made a big difference to the form of the early Irish Church. The local Celtic culture was very loose and decentralized. There were no cities, large buildings, roads or other infrastructure. Life revolved around small settlements and farms. When wars were fought they were generally over livestock or grazing land. The early Irish Church that grew in this environment was quite different from that of continental Europe. It was not centralized, revolved around small churches and monasteries, and lacked the hierarchical structure of the Roman Church. Despite these differences, Ireland was quite well connected with the rest of the Christian world.

Irish monks – and the wonderful illuminated manuscripts they created – spread across the continent, starting with Scotland and Britain. Thanks to the attentions of the Vikings few of these works survive but the wonderful Lindisfarne Gospels, dating from somewhere in the 8th Century were almost certainly created by Irish monks. The Book of Kells was probably created in Scotland by Irish Monks.

Saint Patrick’s Day is celebrated on March 17th, the reputed date of his death in 461 AD. Nobody really knows where St Patrick was born, though, so it would be surprising if the when were any better known.

In any case, it wasn’t until the 17th Century that Saint Patrick’s feast day was placed on the universal liturgical calendar in the Catholic Church. Indeed, St Patrick has never been formally canonized. In the thousand years that passed any memory of the actual date of his birth was probably lost, so the choice of date was probably influenced by other factors, specifically the proximity of the Spring Equinox (which is this year on Monday, March 20th).

The early Christian church in Ireland incorporated many pre-Christian traditions that survived until roughly the 12th century, including the ancient festival of Ēostre (or Ostara), the goddess of spring associated with the spring equinox after whom Easter is named. During this festival, eggs were used a symbol of rebirth and the beginning of new life and a hare or rabbit was the symbol of the goddess and fertility. In turn the Celtic people of Ireland probably adapted their own beliefs to absorb much older influences dating back to the stone age. St Patrick’s Day and Easter therefore probably both have their roots in prehistoric traditions around the Spring Equinox, although the direct connection has long been lost.

Lá Fhéile Pádraig sona daoibh go léir!

Update. I waited until it stopped raining before leaving the house, which meant that I missed the start of the Maynooth parade but there seemed to be a very good turnout. Here are some snaps of the bit I saw:

Essays and (Computational) Physics

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , , on March 14, 2023 by telescoper

There have been more news stories about ChatGPT and assessment in universities going around. There’s one here from The Journal and another here from The Conversation to give just two examples.

I wrote about this myself a couple of months ago in a post that included this:

I have to admit that I’ve never really understood the obsession in some parts of academia with “the student Essay” as a form of assessment. I agree that writing skills are extremely important but they’re not the only skills it is important for students to acquire during the course of a degree. Of course I’m biased because I work in Theoretical Physics, an area in which student essays play a negligible role in assessment. Our students do have to write project reports, etc, but writing about something you yourself have done seems to me to be different from writing about what other people have done. While forms of assessment in science subjects have evolved considerably over the last 50 years, other domains still seem to concentrate almost exclusively on “The Essay”.

Whatever you think about the intrinsic value of The Essay (or lack thereof) it is clear that if it is not done in isolation (and under supervision) it is extremely vulnerable to cheating.

A few people have retorted that communication skills are very important in higher education. I agree with that wholeheartedly, but it seems to me that (a) there are other ways of communicating than via formal essays and (b) there are, should be, more to academic study than  writing about things.

That said, I do think we could be doing more in some disciplines, including my own, to cultivate communication skills in general and writing skills in particular. In Theoretical Physics we certainly don’t do this as much as we should. I do have a project report in my 3rd Year computational physics module, but that is a relatively short document and the report itself counts only one-third of the marks (and the project is only 40% of the module mark).

These thoughts somehow reminded me of this. You can click on it to make it bigger if it’s difficult to read. It was the first paper (called colloquially Paper Zero) of my finals examination at the University of Cambridge way back in 1985, getting on for 40 years ago:


As you can probably infer from the little circle around number 4, I decided to write an Essay about topic 4. I’ve always been interested in detective stories so this was an easy choice for me, but I have absolutely no idea what I wrote about for three hours. Nor do I recall actually ever getting a mark for the essay, so I never really knew whether it really counted for anything. I do remember, however, that I had another 3-hour examination in the afternoon of the same day, two three-hour examinations the following day, and would have had two the day after that had I not elected to do a theory project which let me off one paper at the end and for which I got a good mark.

Anyway, to get back to the essay paper, we certainly don’t set essay examinations like that here in the the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University and I suspect they no longer do so in the Department of Physics at Cambridge either. At the time I didn’t really see the point of making students write such things under examination conditions but then we didn’t have ChatGPT way back then. No doubt it could generate a reasonable essay on any of the topics given.

I am skeptical about whether any of my 3rd year computational physicists would use ChatGPT to write their reports, but they might. But ChatGPT can write Python code too. Am I worried about that? Not greatly. I’ve asked it to write scripts for the various class exercises I’ve set so far and the code it has produced has usually failed. It will get better though….

Maynooth University Library Cat Update

Posted in Maynooth with tags on March 12, 2023 by telescoper

I’m afraid that there has been an incident on Maynooth University Campus, as I discovered on Twitter:

It seems that somebody or something trashed Maynooth University Library Cat’s little box, which ended up beside the stream that runs under the bridge next to the library. The poor cat was wet and hungry because it was raining most of yesterday, but I am reliably informed that he is now OK, the box is back in place and fitted out with new blankets:

I think I’ll go over later to check everything is in order.

If there’s CCTV nearby we might be able to find out exactly what happened.

Into the Study Break

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , on March 11, 2023 by telescoper

So here we are, then. We’ve arrived at the half-term Study Break at Maynooth University. Six weeks of Semester 2 down, six to go. There are no lectures, labs or tutorials next week. It’s not actually a holiday, but the lack of teaching duties will enable me to catch up quite a few things I’ve let slip during term. It will also give me the chance to regroup and prepare for final assault on the second half of term.

The spell of freezing weather we’ve had recently has morphed into something a little warmer and a lot wetter. The light dusting of snow we had yesterday has dissolved in the torrential rain stotting against the windows as I write this piece. I’m waiting for a lull in the downpour so I can make a quick dash to the shops before returning to the comfort of my house for the rest of the day. The weather is coming in from the West today, and I spy a little gap heading my way:

Next Friday, March 17th, is of course, St Patrick’s Day, a national holiday in Ireland. I certainly hope the weather is better for the traditional parades on that day!

I’m glad of the arrival of this break, as I’ve been running on empty for the last several days, the fatigue exacerbated by a flare-up of the arthritis in my knees. On Thursday I had to kneel down next to one of the machines in the computer lab to fix something and I had considerable difficulty getting up again. Doctors say that there’s no reliable evidence that arthritis pain correlates with the weather, but in my case it does seem to come on when the weather changes, especially when it suddenly becomes cold or damp. I’ll be due for another steroid shot soon, which should help, and hopefully the weather will improve over the next few weeks. Possibly.

Anyway, the second half of term should be a lot easier than the first. For one thing, we have another break coming up three weeks in. Good Friday is on April 7th, so that is a holiday, as is the following week. Moreover, I usually only give lectures in Computational Physics for 9 of the 12 teaching weeks in the Semester, after which the students will be working on the mini-projects which form part of the assessment for this module.

P.S. It was on 11th March 2020 that the World Health Organization officially announced the Covid-19 pandemic and it was just before the corresponding Study Break that year that the University was closed and we went into lockdown. Can that really have been three years ago?

Maynooth University Library Cat Update

Posted in Maynooth with tags , on March 8, 2023 by telescoper

It has been very cold in Maynooth for the last couple of days and the forecast is for sioc, oighear, sneachta agus flichshneachta. In inclement conditions I tend to worry about our resident feline, but have been reassured by various social media posts showing him fit and well:

Better still, this afternoon on my way back to the office from lunch I spotted him, oriented North-South on the wall next to the library. Judging by the empty feeding bowls behind him seems likely he was having a post-prandial snooze so I didn’t disturb him, though I was jealous that I don’t get to take a nap after lunch…

State Supports for PhD Researchers

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on February 27, 2023 by telescoper

By sheer coincidence, the very same day that I posted a piece in which complained that the issue of PhD stipends for Irish postgraduates had apparently been “kicked into the long grass”, the consultation has at last opened.

You can contribute your submission or submit your contribution, whichever seems appropriate, here.

The Great British Tomato Mystery

Posted in Maynooth, Politics with tags , , , , on February 26, 2023 by telescoper

Q: What’s red and not there?

A: No tomatoes.

This week my social media timelines have been filled with pictures like this of British supermarket shelves bereft of salad vegetables, especially tomatoes. The UK Government has stated, through its mouthpiece the BBC, that this is due to unseasonably bad weather in Spain and Morocco, although I very much doubt this is the whole story.

There have been reports of similar shortages in Ireland but all I can do is report on my own experience. Because I live on my own in a small town with plenty of shops nearby I don’t do a big weekly trip to the supermarket but prefer to buy fresh things as and when I need them, usually on the way home from work. I therefore generally pop into Dunnes and/or Supervalu every day. On no occasion this week have I noticed any shortage of tomatoes or other salad ingredients in Maynooth, despite always going in the evening when you might expect the shelves to be depleted. I found plenty of nice tomatoes from both Spain and Morocco, though the ones I actually bought – of the cherry vine variety – are from Italy. People living elsewhere in Ireland may of course have experienced shortages, but I certainly haven’t.

Raising PhD Stipends

Posted in Education, Maynooth, Politics with tags , , on February 24, 2023 by telescoper

Although the Irish Government has kicked its planned review of postgraduate support into the long grass, the Board of Trinity College Dublin recently approved a proposal to increase stipends to for all its PhD students to €25,000. I applaud this decision, but would argue that it doesn’t go far enough.

A while ago Government of Ireland announced a new scheme intended to recruit “high-level researchers” to PhD programmes in Ireland. This scheme, which is a public-private partnership of around  €100 million, will fund around 400 PhD studentships with an annual stipend around €28K, which is substantially higher than the current rate for, e.g., ICR-funded students which is €18.5K. The justification for the higher €28K stipends is that they would be “in line with financial supports offered under similar global scholarships”. I take this as a statement that the Irish Government has acknowledged that the proper rate of pay for a PhD student is at this level, which seems to me to be about right. It seems to me to be logical that all PhD stipends should be increased to this level.

High levels of inflation are combining with spiraling rental costs to make it very difficult for a student to live on the current level of stipend (especially in the Greater Dublin area). This forces postgraduate students to undertake large amounts of tutoring or other work in order to get by financially. This situation is a direct result of the chronic underfunding of higher education in Ireland which means that there aren’t enough academic staff to cover the teaching required. Universities will argue that they don’t have any choice but to exploit PhD students to make up the shortfall, but that doesn’t make the situation is acceptable.

It is of course good for a research student to get some teaching experience during their PhD but this should be on a voluntary basis. A PhD student who chooses to teach will probably do a better job than one who is forced to do it in order to pay the rent. My basic point, though, is that a full-time research student should be funded to do research full time, and it is grossly unfair to pay them too little for this to be possible.

There needs to be a serious “levelling up” of PhD stipends across the entire third-level sector in Ireland. I hope in particular that my own institution, Maynooth University, will take the lead and increase its PhD studentships to the fair level of €28K per annum. This would be a good way to spend at least some of the surplus of €13.2M it ran up during the first year of the pandemic alone.

UPDATE: The Government has now opened a consultation on PhD supports to which you can contribute here.

Early Morning Lectures

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth on February 23, 2023 by telescoper

I saw this doing the rounds on Twitter the other day. I even made a little joke about it which went viral (by my standards) with over a million views and almost 2000 retweets:

There’s no accounting for taste.

Am I a meme now?

Anyway, I’m in the office quite early this morning ahead of my 9am Computational Physics lecture so thought I’d do a quick post. I realize that 9am is not early compared to practice in some institutions abroad where lectures can start at 7.30am or even earlier. Everything I say here is based on my own experience and is not claimed to be universal.

As a lecturer I don’t mind 9am lectures at all. I find itt’s nice to get something significant done before 10am as opposed to just trying to deal with emails. On the other hand, I live only about 20 minutes’ walk away from campus so I don’t have to get up especially early. As a matter of fact I get up at 7am on weekdays, so no real adjustment is necessary for a 9am start. If I had a two-hour commute it would no doubt be a different matter.

At conferences and so on, I don’t find myself sleeping in the morning sessions. I find the slots immediately after lunch the worst for staying awake. That’s the time we have our theoretical physics seminars at Maynooth, actually.

My own experiences of being an undergraduate student (at Cambridge) was that I had regular 9am lectures 6 days a week (Saturdays included) and didn’t mind those either. But Cambridge is relatively compact and, living in College, it didn’t take me long to get to the lecture theatres in town. I usually felt quite sharp at 9am, actually, probably less so later in the morning.

Of course the reality is different for many students, some of whom have lengthy journeys into campus on not-entirely reliable public transport, so find a 9am start a challenge (to say the least). It’s certainly not unknown for students to doze off, but I don’t mind that as long as they don’t snore too loudly. I try to break up these lectures with things for the students to do, and that sometimes wakes them up again. In terms of attendance it’s the early evening slots that are worse in my experience than early morning.

Anyway, here in Maynooth we teaching staff have no real say over timetabling so now I should head off to Hall C to set up.

UPDATE: I had a pretty full class but one student did doze (without snoring) for about 3 minutes.