Archive for the Maynooth Category

Age, Memory and Learning

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , , , , on August 20, 2018 by telescoper

Today’s a big day for prospective students at Irish universities. It’s the day when the Central Applications Office (CAO, the equivalent of the UK’s UCAS) makes offers of places to students based the Leaving Certificate results that were announced last week. Thus begins the process by which universities find out how many students we will have for entry next month. Lectures here at Maynooth start on 24th September, with an induction week before that, so there promises to be quite a rush to get everything sorted out.

The first thing that struck me thinking ahead to this year’s new entry of students was that the majority of students starting this autumn either here in Ireland or in the UK were born in the year 2000. That means that I’ve been a Professor (at four different universities: Nottingham, Cardiff, Sussex and Maynooth) all the time they have been alive! Yikes I feel old!

The other thing that struck me among all the press coverage of the Leaving Certificate in Ireland is the significant amount of griping about how these examinations are basically just memory tests and the system encourages rote learning. This is something I’ve complained about before in the context of British A-levels and indeed the system of university examinations.

Over my lifetime the ratio of assessment to education has risen sharply, with the undeniable result that academic standards have fallen especially in my own discipline of physics. The modular system encourages students to think of modules as little bit-sized bits of education to be consumed and then forgotten. Instead of learning to rely on their brains to solve problems, students tend to approach learning by memorizing chunks of their notes and regurgitating them in the exam. I find it very sad when students ask me what derivations they should memorize to prepare for examinations because that seems to imply that they think their brain is no more than a memory device. It has become very clear to me over the years that school education in the UK does not do enough to encourage students to develop their all-round intellectual potential, which means that very few have confidence in their ability to do anything other than remember things. It seems the same malaise affects the Irish system too.

On the other hand, as a number of people have pointed out in opinion pieces (e.g. here) and letters (here and here), a good memory is undoubtedly an extremely important asset in its own right.

I went to a traditional Grammar school that I feel provided me with a very good education in which rote learning played a significant part. Learning vocabulary and grammar was an essential part of their approach to foreign languages, for example. How can one learn Latin without knowing the correct declensions for nouns and conjugations for verbs? But although these basic elements are necessary, however, they are not sufficient. You other aspects of your mental capacity to comprehend, translate or compose meaningful pieces of text.

The same considerations apply to STEM disciplines. It is important to have a basic knowledge of the essential elements of mathematics and physics as a grounding, but you also need to develop the skill to apply these in unusual settings. I also think it’s simplistic to think of memory and creative intelligence as entirely separate things. I seems to me that the latter feeds off the former in a very complex way. A good memory does give you rapid access to information, which means you can do many things more quickly than if you had to keep looking stuff up, but I think there’s a lot more to it than that. Our memories are an essential part of the overall functioning of our brain, which is not  compartmentalized in such a simple way.  For example, one aspect of problem-solving skill relies on the ability to see hidden connections; the brain’s own filing system plays a key role in this.

Recognizing the importance of memory is not to say that rote learning is necessarily the best way to develop the relevant skills. My own powers of recall are not great – and are certainly not improving with age – but I find I can remember things much better if I find them interesting and/or if I can see the point of remembering them. Remembering things because they’re memorably is far easier than remembering because you need to remember them to pass an examination!


The Rooks of Maynooth

Posted in Maynooth with tags , , , , on August 3, 2018 by telescoper

On a previous post I mentioned the proliferation of crows in Maynooth. It turns out that was a terminological inexactitude, in that the birds in question were actually rooks. It’s true that rooks are part of the crow family (genus Corvus, family Corvidae) which also includes ravens and jackdaws but they do have a distinctive look and character. See the above picture (taken in Maynooth but not by me; picture credit here).

The rooks have been prevalent in Maynooth for centuries. A quick google found this quote from 1802 from the poet W.M.Letts:

The men of Maynooth are like o’ the rooks,
With their solemn black coats an’ their serious looks.

This refers to the young men studying at the Romania Catholic seminary of St Patrick’s College, of whom there were 500 or so in those days. The seminarians are somewhat fewer in number now, but the rooks are still plentiful.

I wouldn’t say that rooks are the most visually attractive birds, and they do have a slightly sinister aspect, but they are very characterful creatures and I find them very amusing to watch. They’re very sociable and tend to go about their business in large groups, especially when scouring pieces of open land for insects and other things to eat. They also seem to tolerate the presence of their cousins the jackdaws (of which there are also quite a few in Maynooth, though not as many as the rooks). Jackdaws are a bit smaller, prettier, and neater in appearance than rooks (which often look very scruffy indeed). I imagine that the jackdaws look down on the rooks rather snootily, as one might one’s less sophisticated relatives. The collective noun for rooks is a `Parliament’, which also suggests that they are not held in very high regard.

Like jackdaws, rooks have two modes of locomotion along the ground: a sort of strutting walk and a two-legged hop, both of which are rather comical. Their walk makes them look like officious constables, whereas the hop is more like a child pretending to be a horse. The rooks are basically scavengers and they have a penchant for systematically emptying litter bins in their quest for scraps of food. At the rear of the apartment block in which I live there is a place for storing rubbish for collection in large dumpsters. Sometimes somebody forgets to close the lid with the inevitable result that a large group of rooks gets inside and strews garbage all over the place. When they’re not patrolling around or rooting through rubbish they tend just to sit there watching the world go by, waiting for another opportunity for mischief.

I’m told that, in the old days, the rooks of Maynooth used to gather at the Old Mill, but since that was demolished to make way for a shopping centre they seem mostly to congregate on the playing fields on or near the Royal Canal. Anyway, I’ve got used to them in the short time I’ve been in Maynooth and I always look out for them when I’m walking around.

Anyway, what prompted me to write this post is that on my way to the Department yesterday morning I came across a dead rook lying on the path. It looked like it had died only recently, as there was no sign of decay. It was well away from the road, so it seemed unlikely it had been hit by a car. I suppose it just died of natural causes.

Nature After Planck…

Posted in Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on July 24, 2018 by telescoper

After last week’s short update about the last tranche of papers from the European Space Agency’s Planck Mission it’s time for another short update about a piece in Nature (by David Castelvecchi) that explains how researchers are moving to smaller projects studying different aspects of the cosmic microwave background.

In the spirit of gratuitous self-promotion I should also mention that there’s a little quote from me in that piece. My comment was hardly profound, but at least it gets Maynooth University a name check…

Much of Davide’s piece echoes discussions that were going on at the meeting I attended in India  last October, but things have moved on quite a bit since then at least as far as space experiments are concerned. In particular, the proposed Japanese mission Litebird has been shortlisted for consideration, though we will have to wait until next year (2019) at the earliest to see if it will be selected. An Indian mission, CMB-Bharat, has also emerged as a contender.

While the end of Planck closes one chapter on CMB research, several others will open. These are likely to focus on polarization, gravitational lensing and on cosmic reionization rather than refining the basic cosmological parameters still further.

Drought in Greater Dublin

Posted in Maynooth on July 14, 2018 by telescoper

The prolonged period of dry weather we’ve been having in Ireland has led to a water shortage in Greater Dublin and some surrounding districts, including Maynooth in County Kildare (where I live). A hosepipe ban has been in place for some time and now there are restrictions on overnight water usage in Dublin, although not yet in Maynooth.

The map above shows the area affected by the hosepipe ban, which doesn’t affect me because I haven’t got a garden, but I’ve included it because it shows Maynooth and some of the neighbouring towns, in one of which I might well find myself living permanently.

The bus route from Maynooth to Dublin Airport passes through Leixlip and Lucan Village. My current residence is on Straffan Road, which leads south from Maynooth to Straffan. Other notable places are Kilcock, Celbridge, and… er…. Newcastle.

Quantum Coherence Therapy

Posted in Maynooth on July 10, 2018 by telescoper

I spent an amusing few minutes during lunchtime today looking through a leaflet from a local Maynooth business called Alchemy Holistic Therapies.

Unfortunately their advertised website appears not to be active, but here are a couple of examples of the sort of `therapy’ they offer:

The Quantum Sound Bath sounds a bit noisy to me, but Quantum Coherence Therapy has a good vibe to it. I’m sure it’s all based on proper physics too.

Summer Open Day in Maynooth

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

It seems I have volunteered to represent the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University’s Open Day tomorrow, so I’ll be giving a talk as well as answering questions, handing out leaflets etc on the Theoretical Physics stall (with the aid of some current students). It’s a bit of a flashback to Sussex days, actually, when I used to have to do this sort of thing quite regularly on Saturdays throughout the year. At least the weather looks like it’s going to be nice, even if the post-solstitial nights are now drawing in.

If you’re planning to come tomorrow, the event starts at 10.30 am and the first talk is at 11.15, but I’m not on until 13.35. Lots of information is available here. Please come and say hello if you’ve read this here blog post!

Anyway, Maynooth University has made a nice little video about the Open Day so I thought I’d share it here, mainly to give readers a look at the lovely campus, which is bathed in sunshine as I write this!

Back to Cardiff again..

Posted in Cardiff, Maynooth with tags , on June 6, 2018 by telescoper

So here I am again, back in sunny Cardiff (if a bit later than planned). My flight from Dublin was supposed to depart at 8.35, but didn’t go until over an hour later. The delay was allegedly caused by a lightning strike last night that required the plane to be checked before take-off. Although they must have known about this mishap for some time, FlyBe didn’t bother to tell us anything about the reason for the delay or how long it would be. This was the scene at the (unstaffed) departure gate at about 9.15am. The lack of communication or any form of customer service compounds the irritation caused by such delays.

Anyway, once airborne, it was a pleasant flight. Here are two pictures just after taking off from Dublin Airport, with a view up to Malahide in the North.

And here are a few more flying over Wales about 10 minutes before landing.

We landed about 85 minutes late in Cardiff, but it’s lovely weather here so I’m not as grumpy as I might have been. Now, to work.