Archive for the Politics Category

Kildare for All

Posted in Maynooth, Politics with tags , , on February 5, 2023 by telescoper

Earlier today in Courthouse Square, Maynooth I attended the gathering described above. It was organized at very short notice in response to a demonstration by about 20 fascists in the same place last week (which I didn’t see). Although the rally was quite small – I counted about 60 or 70 people – many motorists passing by along Straffan Road honked their horns to express support. Well done to the organizers for pulling this together on such a short timescale. I only found out about it yesterday.

The rally was in response to a wave of violence against refugees in Ireland incited, and in many cases carried out, by thugs belonging to fascist organizations. Kildare For All part of a national movement, Ireland For All, that seeks to take a stand in support of those facing violence and abuse from far-right thugs. We can’t let Ireland go down the fascist road. We know where it leads.

The fascists are trying to play on the understandable anger and resentment felt by many people in Ireland at the chronic housing shortage, poor healthcare and inadequate public services. These are not the fault of refugees who come here fleeing war and persecution, but are the fault of 15 years of failures in Government. If the Far Right were really bothered about housing etc they would have been protesting against homelessness all that time, which they did not do. They’re just using the situation as an excuse to exercise their racist and xenophobic views. Refugees are not to blame. All the recent influx of refugees has done has been to expose the indolence and incompetence of those in Government.

The rally included a number of speeches by union leaders and political figures, including Réada Cronin, the Sinn Féin TD for Kildare North of which Maynooth is a part.

Réada Cronin, the Sinn Féin TD for Kildare North at today’s rally

It is important for decent people to counter the campaign of disinformation from fascists on social media and to stand in solidarity against the threats, intimidation and actual violence against refugees in the places where they live. Today’s event was small, but it is only through grass-roots organizations like this that we can hope to stem the rising tide of bigotry and intolerance. There will be a much larger event in Dublin on 18th February.

Solidarity with the UCU Strikers!

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , , , , on January 31, 2023 by telescoper

Tomorrow, 1st February 2023, members of the University and College Union will walk out for the first of 18 days of strike action in UK universities:

This industrial action arises from a dispute over pensions, pay, and working conditions. The strikes will affect 2.5 million students but are necessary to safeguard not only the livelihoods of academic staff against increased casualisation and salary cuts but the UK university system itself, which is being ruined by incompetent management. Regrettably, the strikes will cause considerable disruption but, frankly, there is no point in a strike that doesn’t do that.

Although I no longer work in the UK I’d like to take this opportunity to send a message of support to my former colleagues there who will be out on the picket lines tomorrow and on subsequent days.

That also goes for workers in other sectors who are also involved in industrial action in the UK at this time!

Royal Mail Failure

Posted in Politics with tags on January 18, 2023 by telescoper

Quite a few people I know in the UK are unaware that the Royal Mail is currently unable to deliver any mail to locations outside the UK. The above message, from the Royal Mail website, has been there for a week now and has not changed in that time apart from the date at the top. There is no information about what has happened, no estimate when services will resume, and no idea what will happen to mail stuck in the system. This failure to communicate with users just adds insult to injury. It also calls into question the claim that this failure is “temporary”

I am mildly inconvenienced by the Royal Mail’s collapse, as I am waiting for some items of legal correspondence, but it must be catastrophic for small businesses who use its services to export products abroad. I’m sure any that survive this disaster will be taking their custom elsewhere as soon as they can.

Ooh. An update! Hopefully, they’ll start to clear the backlog soon.

Putting girls off Physics

Posted in Education, mathematics, Maynooth, Politics with tags , , on January 9, 2023 by telescoper

I see that Katharine Birbalsingh has resigned from her job as UK Government commissioner for social mobility. Apparently she feels she was “doing more harm than good”. If only the rest of the Government had that level of self-awareness.

I wrote about Katharine Birbalsingh last year, and her departure gives me the excuse to repeat what I said then. Birbalsingh is Head of a school in which only 16% of the students taking physics A-level are female (the national average is about 23%) and tried to explain this by saying that girls don’t like doing “hard maths”.

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

Gender stereotyping begins at school, it seems.

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 differential 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% and girls do better at Mathematics than boys at A-level. 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) though as I explained in yesterday’s post, Mathematics is a compulsory subject at Leaving Certificate. The group of about first-year 130 students I taught this academic year is considerably more diverse than any physics class I ever taught in the UK, and not only in terms of gender…

I contend that the evidence suggests it’s not Mathematics that puts female students off Physics, a large part of it is A-level Physics.

Mathematics for All?

Posted in Education, mathematics, Maynooth, Politics with tags , , on January 8, 2023 by telescoper
Random maths stuff to scare Simon Jenkins.

One of the things I noticed in the news from the UK last week was PM Rishi Sunak’s suggestion that all school students in England should study mathematics to age 18. I’ve emphasized in England because responsibility for education is devolved to the governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland so what the Prime Minister on this matter says has no bearing outside England.

Anyway, two of the obvious fundamental problems with Sunak’s proposal are:

  1. How will making mathematics a compulsory subject at age 16-18 fit within the current system of A-levels, in which most students study only three subjects?
  2. Who is going to teach all the extra lessons required when there is already a shortage of STEM teachers?

I’m not sure of the extent to which Sunak has thought through this plan. I suspect it’s nothing more than the usual sort of half-baked idea that his type of politician likes to float in order to distract attention away from serious problems elsewhere (e.g. NHS, the economy, strikes, etc). The suggestion has generated a wide range of responses, including from the Guardian’s resident idiot Simon Jenkins who, as usual, misses the point spectacularly when he writes:

Like many of my generation, I did basic and advanced maths to age 16. This embraced complex algebra, trigonometry, quadratic equations, differential calculus, the use of logarithms and old-fashioned slide rules. I cannot recall ever using one jot of it, all now forgotten. 

I’m tempted to suggest that if Simon Jenkins hadn’t forgotten what he’d learnt at school he might write less garbage, but I won’t. I also studied these things to age 16 and, because I chose a career in science, I have used all of them (except slide rules, which were obsolete, but including logarithms). Of course not everyone will feel the same.

I should however point out that as well as Mathematics and science subjects I also studied Geography, History, French, Latin, and English Literature to O-level (which I took at age 16). I don’t think I have ever “used” any of these since, but I do not for one minute regret having studied them. In my opinion education is not just about the acquisition of things to use, but represents a way of opening the mind up to a range of different ways of thinking. Mathematical reasoning is not the only way of thinking but it is important, as is the process involved in learning another language. As I have written on this blog many times before, education is not just about “skills training”: it’s about expanding the mind.

Putting most of Simon Jenkins’s childish rant to one side, there is a serious point buried in it. What Sunak seems to want to achieve is increased levels of basic numeracy which does not require the fluency in trigonometry or differential calculus. The question then is what has gone wrong with the education of a student who hasn’t acquired that knowledge by the age of sixteen? I’d suggest that indicates as significant failing of the pre-16 education system, which is therefore what needs to be fixed. Remedial action in post-16 education is at best a sticking-plaster solution, when more fundamental reform is required.

I feel obliged to point out, however, that here in Ireland, Mathematics is indeed a compulsory subject up to age 18 at least for those students who take the Leaving Certificate. This plays a role here similar to that of GCE A-levels in the UK, but most students take 7 subjects rather than just three. Mathematics is compulsory (as are English and Irish). All subjects can be taken at Ordinary or Higher level in the Leaving Certificate and Mathematics can also be taken at Foundation level (as can Irish).

Last Semester I was involved in teaching Mathematical Physics to a class of about 130 first-year students at Maynooth University. Most of these students are doing our General Science degree, entry to which requires just Ordinary level mathematics and one science subject at Leaving Cert.

The great strength of the Leaving Certificate, which it shares with the International Baccalaureate, is its breadth. I think having English as a compulsory subject for everyone is just as positive as the Mathematics requirement. The concentration of subjects at A-level can work very well for students who know what they want to do after School – as it did with me – but there are dangers involved in pigeonholing students at age 16. A broader education does not put so much pressure on students to decide so young.

Moving to something more like the Leaving Certificate addresses Item 1. at the start of this piece, but Item 2. remains an issue for England as it does in Ireland. In reality the choice for many students is restricted not by the examination system by the lack of specialist teachers in schools, especially (not not only) in STEM subjects. The problem there is that the pay and working conditions for teachers in state schools are not commensurate with their importance to society. I don’t see Sunak showing any inclination to change that situation.

Ireland and CERN

Posted in Maynooth, Politics, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on December 30, 2022 by telescoper

Not long ago I posted an item about Ireland’s potential membership of CERN. There seems to have been some progress at political levels in this direction. In Mid-December, the Seanad called for a detailed proposal for CERN membership to be drawn up. More recently still, Minister Simon Harris has indicated that he will bring such a proposal to Cabinet on the matter.

There’s an article in yesterday’s Irish Times by Cormac O’Raifeartaigh reviewing the situation.

As I understand things, if the Irish Government were to decide to take Ireland into CERN then it would first have to become an Associate Member, which would cost around €1.5 million per year. That’s a modest contribution, and the financial returns to Irish industry and universities are likely to far exceed that. This Associate member stage would last up to 5 years, and then to acquire full membership a joining fee of around €16.8 million would have to be paid, though that could be spread out over ten years, along with an annual contribution of around €13.5m.

While I support the idea of Ireland joining CERN I feel obliged to stress my concerns. The most important of these is that there seems to me to be a real danger that the Government would simply appropriate funding for CERN membership from within existing programmes leaving even less for other forms of scientific research. In order to reap the scientific reward of CERN membership the Government will have to invest the additional resources needed to exploit the access to facilities membership would provide. Without a related increase in research grant funding for basic science, the opportunity to raise the level of scientific activity in Ireland would be lost and science overall may end up worse off.

Ireland recently joined the European Southern Observatory (ESO), a decision which gave Irish astronomers access to some amazing telescopes. However, there is no sign at all of Irish funding agencies responding to this opportunity by increasing funding for academic time, postdocs and graduate students needed to do the actual science. In one respect ESO is very like CERN: the facilities do not themselves do the science. We need people to do that. CERN membership could turn out to be like a very expensive Christmas gift that looks very exciting until you open the box and find that the batteries are not included.

P.S. At least Cormac’s employers in Waterford have been quick off the mark in exploiting the potential of CERN by renaming their entire institution after it…

A Message of Solidarity

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , on November 24, 2022 by telescoper

Today (and tomorrow) 70,000 members of the University and College Union at all 150 UK universities are on strike over over pay, working conditions and pensions.

Had I still been employed in the UK Higher Education system I would probably be standing on a picket line but I’m not, but at least I can send this message of solidarity to everyone who is!

Is Ireland about to join CERN?

Posted in Politics, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on November 16, 2022 by telescoper

Way back in 2019 I posted a piece about the case for Ireland to join CERN and revived the discussion about six months ago after talking about it to particle physicist John Ellis.

Well it seems there has been progress and, according to the Irish Times, a proposal to join CERN is going to be tabled by the Minister Simon Harris. This follows a long hiatus after a move reported in the news here in Ireland several years ago of a report from a Committee of the Houses of the Oireachtas making the case for Ireland to join CERN. You can download the report here (PDF) and you’ll find this rather striking graphic therein:

You will see that there are only three European countries other than Ireland that don’t have any form of membership or other agreement with CERN: Latvia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Moldova. The fact that almost everyone else is in is not in itself necessarily a good argument for Ireland to join, but it does make one wonder why so many other countries have found it important to join or have an agreement with CERN while Ireland has not.

As the document explains, if the Irish government  were to decide to take Ireland into CERN then  it would first have to become an Associate Member, which would cost around €1.2 million per year. That’s small potatoes really, and  the financial returns to Irish industry and universities are likely to far exceed that, so the report strongly recommends this step be taken. This Associate member stage would last up to 5 years, and then to acquire full membership a joining fee of around €15.6 million would have to be paid, which is obviously a much greater commitment but in my view still worthwhile.

There were some positive noises when the document came out, but that was near the end of 2019. Not far into 2020 the pandemic struck and the idea sank without trace. Now it looks like the idea is alive again. It’s not exactly a done deal but at least there’s some movement.

While I strongly support the idea of Ireland joining CERN I do have a couple of concerns about the case as presented in the Oireachtas report.

One is that I’m very sad that the actual science done at CERN is downplayed in that report. Most of it is about the cash return to industry, training opportunities, etc. These are important, of course, but it must not be forgotten that big science projects like those carried out at CERN are above all else science projects. The quest for knowledge does have collateral benefits, but it a worthy activity in its own right and we shouldn’t lose sight of that.

My other (related) concern is that joining CERN is one thing, but in order to reap the scientific reward the government has to invest in the resources needed to exploit the access to facilities membership would provide. Without a related increase in research grant funding for basic science the opportunity to raise the level of scientific activity in Ireland would be lost.

Ireland recently joined the European Southern Observatory (ESO), a decision which gave Irish astronomers access to some amazing telescopes. However, there is no sign at all of Irish funding agencies responding to this opportunity by increasing funding for academic time, postdocs and graduate students needed to do the actual science. In one respect ESO is very like CERN: the facilities do not themselves do the science; we need people to do that. The jam for research is already spread very thinly in Ireland so having an extra thing to spread it on will not necessarily be a good thing for science in general.

That Tory Cabinet Reshuffle…

Posted in Art, Politics on October 26, 2022 by telescoper

In the Name of JWST

Posted in LGBT, Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on October 25, 2022 by telescoper

JWST – nice telescope, shame about the name

I’ve blogged before about the problematic naming of the James Webb Space Telescope. Its name was changed in 2002 from the Next Generation Space Telescope to the James Webb Space Telescope after James E. Webb, a civil servant who was NASA’s chief administrator from 1961 to 1968.

It’s not uncommon for scientific space missions like this to be named after people once the proposal has moved off the drawing board and into serious planning. That happened with the European Space Agency’s Planck and Herschel to give two examples. In any case Next General Space Telescope was clearly never anything but a working title. Yet naming this important mission after a Government official always seemed a strange decision to me. Then news emerged that James Webb had enthusiastically cooperated in a McCarthyite purge of LGBT+ people working in government institutions, part of a wider moral panic referred to by historians as the Lavender Scare. There have been high-profile protests (see, e.g., here) and a petition that received over a thousand signatures, but NASA has ruled out any change of name.

The main reason NASA give is that they found no evidence that Webb himself was personally involved in discrimination or persecution. I find that very unconvincing. He was in charge, so had responsibility for what went on in his organization. If he didn’t know then why didn’t he know? Oh, and by the way, he didn’t have anything to do with infrared astronomy either…

I still think it’s a shame that this fantastic telescope should have its image so tarnished by the adoption of an inappropriate name.

Anyway, yesterday I saw that the Royal Astronomical Society has issued a statement about this issue, which I encourage you to read in full. It begins

At its meeting in July the governing council of the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) took a decision to write to the UK Space Agency, the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA to express its concerns about the original JWST naming process, the apparent failure to investigate James Webb’s background and the dismissal of requests to rename the telescope.

Until that investigation takes place and the results are made public, the RAS now expects authors submitting scientific papers to its journals to use the JWST acronym rather than the full name of the observatory. In this case, the previous requirement for the acronym to be spelled out at first mention will not be observed. This change will also be reflected in our communications more generally.

This does at least acknowledge the problematic nature of the name and the message it sends to LGBT+ scientists around the world and it the statement as a whole is to be welcome.

I think I’ll continue to use the name James Webb Space Telescope on this blog, though, as a reminder that the name should just be changed. Even in shorthand it’s an insult.