Archive for the Maynooth Category

Canal Bank Walk, by Patrick Kavanagh

Posted in Maynooth, Poetry with tags , , on June 19, 2021 by telescoper

The Royal Canal, Maynooth (Picture Credit: M. Maher)

Written in 1954 when the poet was recovering from a life-threatening illness this poem – a sonnet by Patrick Kavanagh – is a celebration not only of nature’s powers of regeneration but of the delight in taking things slowly. As he expressed in his lecture Man and Poet:

We are in too great a hurry. We want a person or thing to yield their pleasures and their secrets to us quickly for we have other commitments. But it is the days when we are idle, when nothing appears to be happening, which provide us, when no one is looking, with all that is memorable.

Here is the poem Canal Bank Walk:

Leafy-with-love banks and the green waters of the canal
Pouring redemption for me, that I do
The will of God, wallow in the habitual, the banal,
Grow with nature again as before I grew.
The bright stick trapped, the breeze adding a third
Party to the couple kissing on an old seat,
And a bird gathering materials for the nest for the Word
Eloquently new and abandoned to its delirious beat.
O unworn world enrapture me, encapture me in a web
Of fabulous grass and eternal voices by a beech,
Feed the gaping need of my senses, give me ad lib
To pray unselfconsciously with overflowing speech
For this soul needs to be honoured with a new dress woven
From green and blue things and arguments that cannot be proven.

Opening Up Again

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff on June 15, 2021 by telescoper

The Irish Government has just produced its plan for A Safe Return to on-site further and higher education and research that outlines what is basically a full return to on-campus activity from September 2021.
I quote from the preamble to the document linked to above:

It is expected that the majority of the people over 18 in Ireland will have been vaccinated by September 2021, and so planning is proceeding on the basis that full resumption of on-site activity is possible, while ensuring that overall numbers attending on-site are monitored and controlled.

In the absence of regular updates about the progress of Ireland’s vaccination programme it is difficult to know whether the first sentence is accurate or not, especially since it appears that two vaccine doses are needed to protect against the Delta-variant. I think most teaching staff will have been immunized by September, but am not so sure about the student population.

I’m also mindful that we were optimistic in advance of the start of last academic year and things didn’t exactly go to plan then. Nevertheless there do seem to be reasonable grounds for believing that we can return to on-campus teaching in September and we will be planning on that basis until there is evidence to the contrary. I just hope we don’t have to do a rapid about-turn like we did last year.

The first step in this process for us here in Maynooth is that from 5th July staff and research students can return to their offices on campus – following the existing protocols on social distancing, sanitation and ventilation – without having to make a special case. Only a few people have been working inside the Department since the start of the year and I’d expect most to begin making their way back.

In fact some members of the Department of Theoretical Physics joined us only this academic year and have never actually been the building (or on campus) at all. I suppose I’ll now have to find office space for them, something that hasn’t been necessary while we have all been working from home!

As a matter of fact, since it’s a nice day and I’ve been on Teams all morning, I might take a walk onto campus myself this afternoon and visit my office in the Department for the first time in a month…

Boards of Examination

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , , on June 11, 2021 by telescoper

We’ve at last staggered to the end of a week dominated by Examination matters. For myself that consisted of preliminary Examination Boards for Theoretical Physics and Engineering (for which we teach modules in Engineering Mathematics) followed by Final Examination Boards in both subjects with External Examiners present. Those final meetings both took place today so it’s been a particularly busy end of the week.

That’s not quite the end of the examinations business for the academic year, however, as we have the Final Final Examination Board in about ten days’ time. That is when marks from all Departments come together to determine the final results for students who are taking degrees in combinations of subjects. We have quite a number doing Joint Honours with Mathematics, for example. It does add an extra level to the process, but I think that’s a price worth paying for the flexibility we offer to students.

This final Examination Board takes place on 23rd June and students will get their marks a couple of days later on 25th June. Even that won’t be the end, because some students will be taking repeat examinations in August, but at least it signals a gap in the assessment cycle during which we can hopefully think of other things for a while.

Obviously I’m not going to comment on the marks for individual students but nobody will be surprised to hear that the Covid-19 pandemic has obviously had a big impact on some. It also had an impact on our External Examiner for Theoretical Physics who actually caught Covid-19 recently and became quite ill. Thankfully she is now feeling better and well enough to join us remotely today.

The Repeat Examination period takes place in August and will again be conducted remotely but hopefully the 1st Semester examinations next year will be under more normal circumstances. It’s not so much that I’m worried that our online examinations are somehow inappropriate, it’s just that it does take far longer to mark them than paper examinations and this year it has been extremely tight getting everything ready for the deadline by which marks must be committed to our central system (which is Monday 14th June).

Anyway, we’ve now done the job so I have an opportunity to thank all the staff in Theoretical Physics for their hard work and diligence!

Now it’s definitely wine o’clock.

University Troubles

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth on June 9, 2021 by telescoper

I noticed an article today in the Grauniad about a wave of redundancies about to hit English universities. Among those affected are the University of East London; Goldsmiths; and the University of London and the universities of Liverpool, Leeds, Leicester, Southampton Solent, Brighton. Dundee is also threatening redundancies (Higher Education is a devolved matter in the United Kingdom). There are probably many other institutions planning similar moves.

The University of Sussex, for example, has embarked on an ominous-sounding “Size and Shape” exercise that will probably lead to course and Departmental closures. “Restructuring” is the word being used. The Vice-chancellor of Sussex has refused to rule out compulsory redundancies, triggering a dispute with the Universities and Colleges Union UCU.

As regular readers will know I worked at the University of Sussex until the Summer of 2016 – was it really 5 years ago? – and when I left I was very optimistic about the future for the School of Mathematical & Physical Sciences of which I was Head. I haven’t really kept up with the details of what has been going on there but I’m not sure my optimism was well placed.

In late 2017 after I had started work here in Maynooth I wrote about my reasons for moving to Ireland. One of them was this:

My short exposure to a role in senior management, as Head of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex, convinced me that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in a system that I felt had lost all sight of what universities are and what they are for.

I haven’t changed my mind.

Anyway the timing of this attack on university staff – during a global pandemic – is rightly described in the Guardian piece as “despicable”. University staff have worked themselves into the ground by putting in countless hours of unpaid overtime to keep teaching going during the time of Coronavirus restrictions and now many of them are to be rewarded with a hefty kick in the teeth.

It’s notable too that these decisions are going to be made before the outcome of the latest Research Excellence Framework (REF 2021) are announced. This makes me doubt that the motivation for these changes has anything to do with academic considerations. It seems much more likely to me that certain university leaders see the pandemic as an excuse to force through change while staff too exhausted to resist, using the opportunity to get rid of expensive courses and/or troublesome departments.

We don’t now whether there will be widespread restructuring of the University system in Ireland but I wouldn’t bet against it. Generations of Irish governments have copied the idiotic English approach to Higher Education. The President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins can see what’s coming. In a recent speech he highlighted the threats to academic freedom and breadth of teaching.

Leaving Late Again

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , on June 3, 2021 by telescoper

Yesterday we were told that, as was the case last year, this year’s Leaving Certificate results will be delayed until September (3rd, to be precise). The first round of CAO offers will be made a few days later, on September 7th. All this is about three weeks later than the usual (pre-Covid) cycle of examinations and results. Last year the announcement of a delay was made in mid-July, but now it’s been done in early June.

I’m actually a bit baffled as to why it is going to take so long this year, given that it’s not a new situation with respect to Covid-19 and there will be fewer examinations to mark than in previous years. Universities are able to turn around marks for thousands of students in just a couple of weeks so why the heck will it take so long to get the Leaving Certificate results out? There will be fewer exams to mark than in pre-Covid era too, as some subject marks will be based on coursework.

Here at Maynooth University the start of the academic year 2021/22 is due to take place on Monday 20th September, with Welcome Week starting on 13th September.   Getting everything ready in time for teaching will be a huge challenge because we will only find out very late in the day how many students we have to accommodate in first-year lectures. It is unlikely that timetable will be possible so we face the prospect of having to scrap the orientation events that usually take place in Welcome Week, delaying the start of term, shortening the teaching semester (again) or scrapping the mid-term Study Break.

We’re not able to make many plans in advance because we don’t have much idea in what form teaching will resume because that depends on public health guidelines. Last year, most lecture rooms had their capacity reduced by more than half. Lecturers need to know how many students they have in order to decide how to use the available lecture slots and how to strike a balance between live and online delivery. It’s an even worse situation for laboratory subjects.

The Minister responsible is saying he expects campuses to be more-or-less fully open in September but I’m not convinced that we’re out of the woods yet. Let’s hope that I’m wrong.

If any prospective student is getting worried reading this, I can promise you that we will be doing the best we can to provide the best education we can in whatever circumstances we find ourselves in this September. So please bear with us. We didn’t want any of this any more than you did, but we just have to make the best of it!

UPDATE: We have now been informed that returning students will start as planned on 20th September, while lectures for new students will start a week later, on 27th September, with the previous week being used for some orientation events.

Buttercups and Columbines

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Maynooth with tags , , on June 2, 2021 by telescoper

I suppose Ranunculus and Aquilegia are technically both weeds but they are adding a bit of colour to my garden at the moment and seem to be thriving in their spot next to the wall so I’ll leave them undisturbed.

I suppose it was inevitable that, the day I finished correcting my examination scripts, the glorious weather would end and it would start raining. Still, the rain is good for the garden. There’s always a burst of new growth after each shower. I wonder what will come up next?

The weather improve for the coming weekend which will be nice. It’s a Bank Holiday next Monday and a significant date for me personally on Friday so I’m hoping to take a break during which some gardening will be on the agenda (weather permitting).

I was also thinking about going into Dublin at some point for the first time in over a year, just for a walk around and maybe to visit the National Gallery again. The stories in the press of big crowds of people drinking outdoors last weekend have put me off a bit, but I dare say I can avoid the likely problem areas. Having been stuck in one place for 15 months (apart from a trip to get vaccinated) I feel I should make the effort to begin some sort of renormalisation.

With the exams over, students are asking what is going to happen with teaching in September. The answer is still that I have no idea, though if there’s a spike in infections due to recent events it will be even less likely that we will be back to normal for the new academic year.

Life is too short…

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth on May 31, 2021 by telescoper

Today not being a bank holiday in Ireland – though it is in the UK, it’s our turn next Monday – I’ve been trying to finish off my examination marking and haven’t had time to write a proper post. Instead of doing that I thought I’d share the following picture, which I found on Facebook. It’s from the Technische Universität Kaiserslautern. I hope my colleagues in the Department of Experimental Physics don’t take offence!

Lest anyone gets the wrong idea about my view of the Experimental versus Theoretical Physics
divide, let me repeat some thoughts I posted a while ago.

Regular readers of his blog will know 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 have so far have been largely separate in terms of teaching and research; Experimental Physics (EP) is somewhat larger in terms of staff and student numbers than Theoretical Physics (TP).

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. In the second year of this programme students do three subjects so can continue with both Theoretical and Experimental Physics (and another) , as they can in Year 3 where they do two subjects, and in Year 4 where they can do a single Major in either TP or EP or a double Major doing a bit of both.

To confuse matters still further, the Department of Theoretical Physics only changed its name from the Department of Mathematical Physics relatively recently and some of our documentation still carries that title. Quite often I get asked 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.

The Wikipedia page for Theoretical Physics begins

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.

This 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 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 and many of the researchers in my discipline (cosmology) actually work at the interface between theory and experiment, so the distinction between theorists and experimentalists is perhaps not a very useful one.

As a matter of fact I think there’s a good case for theoretical physicists to have at least some experience of practical experimental work. There are two reasons for this:

  1. to understand about errors in measurement and how to treat them properly using statistical methods;
  2. to learn how easy it is to break expensive laboratory equipment.

In the past during Open Days I have asked the audience of prospective physics students 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 perhaps 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 some potential students at least 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. No doubt there are many prospective students who are primarily drawn to laboratory work just as there are many drawn to theoretical calculations. But there are probably others whose interests encompass both. 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. Life is too short for arbitrary divisions!

Meet the Astronomer Royal for Scotland!

Posted in Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff on May 27, 2021 by telescoper

I just heard this morning the wonderful news that Scotland has a new Astronomer Royal, in the form of Professor Catherine Heymans who is based at the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh. I am delighted to hear of this appointment! I have known Catherine for a long time from her work on cosmological applications of gravitational lensing. She was kind enough to visit us in Maynooth back in 2019 on University business and to meet Maynooth University Library Cat.

Catherine Heymans is the 11th Astronomer Royal for Scotland, succeeding Professor John Brown who passed away in 2019. She is also the first female holder of the title, in the 187 years since it was created.

I’m not exactly sure what is in the job description of Astronomer Royal for Scotland. I think it is largely an honorary title, but it will give Catherine a platform for outreach and other public activities which I’m sure she will do brilliantly, hopefully inspiring a future generation of female scientists in the process!

P.S. I can’t resist mentioning that I have posted a look-alike

I’m not in Lausanne…

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff on May 25, 2021 by telescoper

A view of Lausanne, where I am not.

For the rest of this week I shall not be in the beautiful town of Lausanne on the shores of Lake Léman in Switzerland.

The reason I am not in Lausanne is that the Annual Meeting of the Euclid Consortium is being held here this year. I was not in Barcelona for the corresponding meeting last year. At least I have actually been to Barcelona a few times. I’ve never been to Lausanne, and won’t have been even after attending a conference there.

While not in Lausanne I shall be watching the talks remotely from Maynooth but of course there is much more to a conference than the formal sessions. I am looking forward to not travelling there and back as well as not socializing with the other delegates, not sampling the local food and wine, not meeting any new people and not making any use of networking opportunities to start new collaborations. I’ll also not be rummaging around in the conference goody bag.

Above all I am looking forward to not seeing many old friends for the first time in ages and not going out for a drink with them. Instead of that I’ll be not having a drink, on my own, in Maynooth.

These virtual conferences are all very well, and of course made necessary by the Covid-19 pandemic, but what particular annoys me about them is the absence of travel means I don’t get to use my Irish passport. I deeply resent being denied the opportunity brandish it in front of my UK colleagues as I use the fast track at the airport…

Give us a break!

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth on May 24, 2021 by telescoper

Taking a short break from marking exams I thought I’d share an article you can read here entitled Let’s Reclaim Summer Break arguing that Faculty members should make a point of taking a break this summer. Here’s a short excerpt:

Our work seems to have fried our willpower and our ability to unplug and left us feeling tethered to our email and work even when, ostensibly, we are taking time off. We need to rest our minds, bodies and spirits — which will inevitably enrich our ability to return to our work with new energy. We can’t all book a fancy self-care retreat on an isolated island, but maybe it’s time to commit to enjoying a guilt-free beach read. Or to taking a long walk in the middle of the day or visiting a local venue for a live music performance.

I wholeheartedly agree with this. This year has been exhausting enough but I didn’t get any time off at all last summer and it’s definitely showing. I’m completely drained. I can see the tasks piling up for this summer already so I hope I’ve got the willpower not only to say ‘no’ but to disconnect entirely for the time that is owed to me.

But my biggest fear isn’t whether I myself get a holiday this coming academic year or not. It’s that, having worked all summer last year, and put in countless hours of unpaid overtime ever since, there is a real danger that level of overwork will be the “new normal” for all of us – and I don’t just mean at my University.

We’d like to think our employers will let us relax a bit once the Covid19 pandemic is over, but another possibility is that having seen how much we’re prepared to put up with that they’ll expect that to carry on forever, with perhaps a few webinars on “resilience” thrown in for good measure.