Archive for the Maynooth Category

Maynooth University Library Cat Update

Posted in Maynooth with tags on October 6, 2021 by telescoper
Cat On Post

On my way through the drizzle to my 2pm lecture today I happened to see Maynooth University Library Cat at his usual position so stopped to take a snap. When I got closer I discovered that his food dishes were awash with rainwater so emptied one of them out and gave him some food from the plentiful stash next to his little box. There are many more people on campus now than a few weeks ago so he’s getting a lot of attention (and food) and seems in good health. I wonder what he thinks about all these strange humans rushing to and fro past his residence?

A Day in Autumn, by R.S. Thomas

Posted in Maynooth, Poetry with tags , , on October 5, 2021 by telescoper

Tree-lined Avenue at Maynooth University


It will not always be like this,
The air windless, a few last
Leaves adding their decoration
To the trees’ shoulders, braiding the cuffs
Of the boughs with gold; a bird preening

In the lawn’s mirror. Having looked up
From the day’s chores, pause a minute,
Let the mind take its photograph
Of the bright scene, something to wear
Against the heart in the long cold.

by R.S. Thomas (1913-2000)


A Question of Accommodation

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

Two weeks into the Autumn Semester, we’ve now had a week of teaching first-year students and two-weeks for all other years. I won’t say there have been no challenges but I think it has gone as well as can be expected. In particular the students (at least in my lectures) have impeccably observed the protocols. Although I’ve had to improvise with the equipment they do seem to appreciate my attempts to record my classes too.

The biggest problem Irish universities seem to be facing as we emerge from the pandemic is student accommodation. The media are full of stories about this issue, pointing the social cost as well as the difficulty posed to students’ education; see, e.g. here. There is a chronic housing shortage in Ireland anyway and this is a specific manifestation of that general problem.

The situation here in Maynooth is particularly acute, with some students having to make 220km round trips by bus to and from Co Wexford. I saw that bus the other day, actually. It’s always been an issue with my Tuesday MP110 lecture (which starts at 5pm) that some students have had to leave early in order to get a bus home. Even more students are doing that this year. I’m definitely glad I decided to record my lectures for the benefit of these students who have to miss part of the class for no fault of their own.

So why is there a student accommodation crisis? One factor is that Maynooth has had a bumper year for recruitment. There is only room on campus for 1,170 students out of a total enrolment approaching 14,000 and those rooms were all snapped up weeks ago. It’s a similar situation elsewhere. Universities have not been able to construct sufficient numbers of sufficiently affordable student rooms to keep up with demand. This is partly because of high building costs and planning bureaucracy, but also because Irish third-level institutions are strapped for cash thanks to decades of underfunding.

But there’s another issue, caused by the lingering effect of Covid-19. A significant number of students at Maynooth usually rent rooms locally in a family home on a four or five days a week basis, sometimes with meals included. This sort of arrangement is highly unusual in the UK, so it surprised me when I first moved here that so many students live that way. On the weekends they go back to their families, often travelling a considerable distance to do so. Typically these students arrive in Maynooth on Sunday evening or Monday morning and leave on Friday afternoon or evening; we see lots of students waiting for buses on the Kilcock Road on Friday afternoons.

Because we’re not fully out of Covid-19 restrictions, the supply of rooms available on this kind of letting arrangement is greatly diminished because of the perceived risk of a tenant being infectious (especially for elderly landlords). I know personally quite a few people who used to offer this kind of accommodation but are not doing so this year, hence the particular difficulty. I hope this situation improves soon, but for the time being it leaves many students having to commute great distances. I hope this doesn’t lead to some with difficult journeys dropping out.

I actually feel a bit guilty about this myself. I have a spare room in my house in Maynooth. It’s not huge but it has a single bed and a small desk in it so would work quite well for a student. I don’t really need the money, though it would be useful, but given the crisis I’ve thought of offering it as a weekday let. I do think, however, that it would be very awkward for a member of University staff to be landlord to one of their own students (both for me and for the student). On top of that, after such a long time as a bachelor I’ve just got used to living on my own! It’s a bit selfish, I know, but I therefore decided not to do it, though if there is an emergency (such as if people get snowed in as happened a few years ago) I would obviously offer my spare room as temporary accommodation.

A New Regime

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth on September 30, 2021 by telescoper

With the departure of Professor Philip Nolan (whose last day at Maynooth is today) there will soon be a new regime in place at the University. Nobody knows what changes will take place, but there will undoubtedly be some and there are reasons for being nervous about what they will bring to STEM disciplines.

On a more personal note some things will change less than I originally planned. Back in July, exhausted after a difficult academic year, I wrote this:

I was appointed as Head of Department for three years, but last week I asked the University to let me step down from my role as Head of Department of Theoretical Physics from the end of September 2021, a year early. I’ll carry on as a Professor, hopefully with some time to do research, although my teaching duties will undoubtedly remain heavy.

Part of the thinking behind that decision was that a major reorganization of Physics at Maynooth University was on the cards and I thought the position of Head of Department would no longer really exist from the end of September. It is now clear, however, that the reorganization is not imminent. Don’t ask me whether or when it will happen now. That will be up to the new President. It certainly won’t be in effect from 1st October, though. We also have serious staffing issues this year due to the retirement of one colleague, the departure of another to a position in Germany, and another taking a sabbatical for the year. These positions are currently replaced by temporary lectureships, the holder of one of which is still yet to arrive in Ireland and is doing his lectures remotely from abroad.

The current state of the Department is not such as to make the position of Head attractive so, after discussions with my colleagues in the Department earlier this month I agreed to carry on for another year, until the end of my original term. Hopefully by this time next year we will be back to a full complement of permanent staff and the position concerning the reorganization will be clearer – or indeed the reorganization might have actually happened – so that would be a far better time for someone to take over if the position still exists.

I do therefore have another year of heavy teaching and administration in front of me, except that my colleagues have agreed to help me out considerably by taking some of the administrative burden on their own shoulders and teaching will hopefully be in person for the whole year and not online, which makes it far less onerous.

On the other hand, there are two silver linings. One is that after three years as Head of Department I get an automatic sabbatical – if I can find another institution who wants to host me! The other is that this Semester I have no teaching on Thursdays. That is more by luck than good judgement but I decided to seize the opportunity to make it my “research day”. For the rest of the Semester I will be working from home on Thursdays, as I am indeed doing now (although actually not working at the moment but taking a tea break and writing this post).

As it happens Thursday is also the day of my newly organized veggie box delivery, so here’s a picture of the enormous Savoy cabbage that arrived this morning (along with various other items such as leeks, rainbow chard and beetroot):

One final aspect of the new regime is that being at home today I’ve finally surrendered to the colder weather and put the central heating on…

The End of an Era

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , on September 29, 2021 by telescoper

This afternoon I attended an event in the Aula Maxima on Maynooth University Campus to bid farewell to the President of Maynooth University, Professor Philip Nolan who has been in that position for 10 years and who steps down at the end of September (i.e tomorrow). For the last 18 months he has been chairing the Epidemiological Modelling effort as part of National Public Health Emergency Team dealing with Covid-19.

Here are two views of the ceremony taken from my position next to a radiator (it was quite cold today) :

Presentation of Gifts
Farewell Speech

After the formal indoor bit of the event in which the number in the audience was strictly limited and masks were worn, we adjourned outside for a reception which was especially nice because it’s the first social event I’ve attended in person for a very long time. In fact I haven’t been in the Aula Maxima for a couple of years either!

It was a pleasant occasion with many warm and well-delivered contributions, and I think was a fitting tribute to a President who has held his office with great distinction. I had the opportunity to wish Professor Nolan all the best in person over a glass of wine at the reception but I’d like to repeat it publicly here. After all, it was on his watch that I got my position here. Farewell, Prof. Nolan, and please accept my very best wishes for the future.

The only disappointment for me is that among the speeches by academics and other staff there was no time for personal appearance by Maynooth University Library Cat…

Astrophysics & Cosmology Masterclass at Maynooth!

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on September 28, 2021 by telescoper

Regular readers of the blog – both of them – may remember that, after a couple of postponements due to Covid-19,  we presented a Masterclass in Astrophysics & Cosmology in Maynooth on March 25th 2021. Well, owing to popular demand we’ve decided to do a re-run of the event on Friday 12th November 2021 ahead of next year’s CAO cycle.

This will be a half-day virtual event via Zoom. It’s meant for school students in their 5th or 6th year of the Irish system. There might be a few of them or their teachers who see this blog so I thought I’d share the news here. You can find more information, including instructions on how to book a place, here.

Here is the updated official poster and the programme:

I’ll be talking about cosmology early on, while John Regan will talk about black holes. After the coffee break one of our PhD students will talk about why they wanted to study astrophysics. Then I’ll say something about our degree programmes for those students who might be interested in studying astrophysics and/or cosmology as part of a science course. We’ll finish with questions either about the science or the study!

(And at 12 noon I don’t turn into a pumpkin but do have to run off to give a lecture on vector calculus..)

Welcome to the First Year

Posted in Education, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on September 27, 2021 by telescoper

Well this morning I had my first lecture to the new first-year students on their first day of teaching at Maynooth University. It went fairly well, and my improvised attempts to record the lecture for the students were reasonably successful too.

When I started at about 11.05am I was a little disappointed that I only had around two-thirds of the number I expected, but I assumed that was that students had difficulty locating the venue, Physics Hall. Not unreasonably quite a few new students assume that this is in the Science Building on the North Campus where the Physics staff are based. In fact Physics Hall is on the much more scenic South Campus, which is quite a distance from the Science Building which usually means that some newbies arrive late as a result of going to the wrong venue.

Incidentally, here is a view of Physics Hall from the front taken in 2012 at a Mathematics Lecture by Tim Gowers. The hall hasn’t changed much since then!

I like this room because (a) it has good blackboards at the front and (b) although a reasonable size there is not a huge distance from the lecturer to the back of the audience so everyone can see and hear the lecturer, and can be heard by the lecturer if they ask something.

Anyway, the first lecture was very introductory so late students weren’t going to miss anything earth-shattering, and in any case I was recording it, so I started on time. After talking for over half an hour someone – a theoretical physics PhD student – came in to the hall and explained that about half the class had been standing outside thinking I hadn’t turned up because the door was closed. Why they didn’t try the handle and have a look inside I don’t know! When the latecomers had all filed in and found a seat I had roughly the number I had initially expected so all was well. I explained to them that they shouldn’t stand on ceremony next time.

It did occur to me that this year’s new students have a pretty good reason for not knowing where anything is on campus is that for many of them today is the first day they’ve ever been herein Maynooth. Open days last year were all virtual, for example. It must feel very strange to commit to a four-year degree at a University you’ve never even visited before, but that’s what this cohort of students have been forced to do.

One of the things I tend to do in the first lecture is to explain that I do like to have interaction in my lectures and it was nice to find that quite a few people did answer when I asked questions. Lectures are so dull if it’s just an old fart blathering on for 50 minutes. The capacity of Physics Hall is about 90, which is not huge, but interaction is possible in much bigger rooms if you work to create the right atmosphere.

Giving students the encouragement to get involved is also helpful to the lecturer, as students will then be more willing to point out errors on the blackboard (which, of course, I put in deliberately to see if they’re paying attention). After today I have a pretty good feeling about this new class and I’m looking forward to seeing them for Lecture 2 tomorrow.

Oh, and the instruction that masks are mandatory in lectures was observed impeccably by the students.

Back to the First Year

Posted in Education, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff on September 26, 2021 by telescoper

It’s a rainy Sunday evening and I’ve spent most of the day sorting out material for my first year module on Mechanics and Special Relativity. I’m looking forward to teaching a full class again. I like a big room and I particular like Physics Hall. The first lecture will be very introductory. I’ll be introducing the students to this character who appears a number of times in the Lecture Notes in various settings:

I’ll also be explaining how the subject of Mechanics began in the 17th Century when Sir Isaac Newton fell out of a tree and landed on an apple. Newton was of course building on previous work by Galileo and his colleagues Figaro and Magnifico, including the famous experiment in which he dropped a cannonball off a tower onto a pizza.

I’ve been looking through the enrolment figures for this year which look quite encouraging. The number of first-year students taking my module is up about 38% on last year, though last year was down on the year before. The other good news is that the number of new students on Theoretical Physics & Mathematics (who do not take the module I mentioned above) is more than double last year’s intake and higher than it has been in living memory. All this would be even better news if it weren’t for the workload issues arising from our being so short-staffed. I was hoping that we’d emerge from the pandemic in a better shape than we are now, having to rely on three one-year temporary lecturers (one of whom still hasn’t arrived in Ireland).

Talking of the pandemic, there’s no clear evidence yet of an increase in Covid-19 cases associated with a return to third-level education.

Our returning students in Maynooth started last week but other colleges in Ireland began earlier. I don’t know whether we can expect an upturn in infections resulting from this, but whether or not it will eventually happen I think it’s too early to see it just now. I remember last year when we started on-campus lectures only to switch abruptly to online teaching. I hope that doesn’t happen again. But it might.

Popping up on Campus

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , on September 24, 2021 by telescoper

Well that’s the end of Week 1 of the new regime (or Week 0 for new students). Apart from quite a few timetabling issues and a staff short shortage it hasn’t gone too badly. I also heard today that next week there will be a “pop-up vaccination centre” on Maynooth University campus.

I think this is a good idea.

Talking of things popping up on campus, I think Maynooth University Library Cat has been enjoying the attention he’s been getting from returning staff and students. In fact his little abode is now an official calling point on the Campus Tours for new students.

Being petted and pampered can be exhausting however and occasionally he likes to withdraw to his quarters for a rest..

Anyway, it’s been a hectic week and the new students arrive tomorrow so now it’s definitely long past wine o’clock…

The Autumnal Equinox 2021

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on September 22, 2021 by telescoper

So here we are then. The Autumnal Equinox (in the Northern hemisphere) takes place this evening (Wednesday 22nd September)  at 20.21 Irish Time (19.21 UT).

Although  the term `equinox’  refers to a situation in which day and night are of equal length, which implies that it’s a day rather than a specific time, the astronomical equinox is more accurately defined by a specific event, i.e. when the plane defined by Earth’s equator passes through the centre of the Sun’s disk (or, if you prefer, when the centre of the Sun passes through the plane defined by Earth’s equator). Day and night are not necessarily exactly equal on the equinox, but they’re the closest they get. From now on days in the Northern hemisphere will be shorter than nights and they’ll get shorter still until the Winter Solstice.

Many people take the autumnal equinox to be the end of summer. There is a saying around these parts, however, that `Summer is Summer to Michaelmas Day’ (September 29th), which is not until next week. I must say, though,  though it doesn’t feel very summery today.

Anyway, this is Welcome Week in Maynooth and, barring any sudden changes of plan, we’re due to start teaching first year students on Monday 27th September. Returning students commenced on Monday 20th. I gave my first lecture on Vector Calculus yesterday. That was the first in-person lecture I’ve done for over a year. It was strange because I taught the same students online last year, but obviously never actually saw or heard them, as students generally mute their video and sound when attending lectures. Today was an improvement on that but everyone in the class was wearing a mask so I still haven’t really seen them! At lest this means that all the students were observing the necessary protocol, which is a relief, and the masks didn’t interfere with them responding to questions of mine or asking questions of their own.

We are still one lecturer short as the visa office in Dublin has been sitting on the application from our new member of staff since June 23rd. On top of my own things to do I’ve been setting up lectures for him so the students can view them in the lecture hall remotely. I’m not sure how long that will go on for, although it’s out of my hands.

Other than that I’ve spent the last couple of days trying to iron out problems with the timetable – of which there are unfortunately many – as well as preparing my own lectures. I want to record my lectures from the classrooms but unfortunately the University has chosen not to install decent video equipment so I’ve had to improvise. I recorded yesterday’s lecture using a webcam attached to the stand for my tenor saxophone. It seemed to work out reasonably well.