Three Weeks In…

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth on October 8, 2021 by telescoper

Today marks the end of the third week of the Autumn Semester in Maynooth, which is also the end of the third week of teaching for returning students and the end of the second week of teaching for new arrivals. I was talking to some friends from Cardiff yesterday and expressed relief that the daily number of new cases seemed to be falling despite the return of students to campus.

Today, however, the number of positive test results reported was 2002, which is a big increase on recent days. Last Friday’s figure was 1059 and the intervening numbers have been hovering around the 1000 mark. I was quite shocked when I saw the latest number.

The latest data for students testing positive in Maynooth are for the week ending October 3rd, during which there were only 7 cases. I’d be interested to see whether those numbers have risen significantly.

The latest increase doesn’t look much on the 7-day average, and it might just be a blip. After all, we’ve had plenty of those over the last 18 months! I was just starting to relax because of the falling curve but now I am very worried.

I have to say that the students have behaved impeccably in my classes. If there has been an increase in transmission associated with the return to campus it seems more likely to me that it is associated with social activities, or travelling on crowded public transport.

The reason I am so concerned is partly that I really don’t want to have to switch everything back online again like we did last year, but more immediately that we are so short-staffed this year that if any lecturer or tutor falls ill we have no spare effort available to provide cover. We still have one lecturer without a visa having to give lectures remotely. Our increased student numbers this year make this an especially bad time to be short of teaching staff.

Well just have to wait and see how things develop over the next few days and weeks, but I could do without this stress!

Romanesco and the Golden Spiral

Posted in mathematics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on October 7, 2021 by telescoper

This week’s veggie box included the following beauty

The vegetable in the picture is called Romanesco. I’ve always thought of it as a cauliflower but I’ve more recently learned that it’s more closely related to broccoli. It doesn’t really matter because both broccoli and cauliflower are forms of brassica, which term also covers things like cabbages, kale and spinach. All are very high in vitamins and are also very tasty if cooked appropriately. Incidentally, the leaves of broccoli and cauliflower are perfectly edible (as are those of Romanesco) like those of cabbage, it’s just that we’re more used to eating the flower (or at least the bud).

A while ago, inspired by a piece in Physics World,  I wrote an item about  Romanesco, which points out that a “head” of Romanesco displays a form of self-similarity, in that each floret is a smaller version of the whole bud and also displays structures that are smaller versions of itself. That fractal behaviour is immediately obvious if you take a close look. Here’s a blow-up so you can see more clearly:

There is another remarkable aspect to the pattern of florets, in that they form an almost perfect golden spiral. This is a form of logarithmic spiral that grows every quarter-turn by a factor of the golden ratio:

\phi = \frac{1+\sqrt{5}}{2}.

Logarithmic, or at least approximately logarithmic, spirals occur naturally in a number of settings. Examples include spiral galaxies, various forms of shell, such as that of the nautilus and in the phenomenon of phyllotaxis in plant growth (of which Romanesco is a special case). It would seem that the reason for the occurrence of logarithmic spirals  in living creatures is that such a shape allows them to grow without any change in shape.

Although it is rather beautiful, the main attraction of Romanesco is that it is really delicious. It can be eaten like cauliflower (e.g. in a delicious variation of cauliflower cheese) but my favourite way of cooking it is to roast it with a bit of olive oil, lemon juice and garlic. Yum!

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)


Nobel Prize for Physics Speculation

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on October 4, 2021 by telescoper

Just  to mention that tomorrow morning (October 5th 2021) will see the announcement of this year’s Nobel Prize for Physics. I must remember to make sure my phone is fully charged…

I do, of course, already have a Nobel Prize Medal of my own already, dating from 2006, when I was lucky enough to attend the prize-giving ceremony and banquet.

I was, however, a guest of the Nobel Foundation rather than a prizewinner, so my medal is made of chocolate rather than gold. I think after 15 years the chocolate is now inedible, but it serves as a souvenir of a very nice weekend in Stockholm!

I have a spectacular bad track record at predicting the Physics Nobel Prize winner. Most pundits have, actually. I certainly didn’t see the last two coming. I couldn’t resist having a go again however.

It’s been a good few years for cosmology and astrophysics, with Jim Peebles (2019), Roger Penrose, Andrea Ghez & Reinhard Genzel (2020) following on from Kip Thorne, Rainer Weiss and Barry Barish (2017) for the detection of gravitational waves.  Although I said so last year only to be proved wrong, I think it’s very unlikely that it will be in this area again. I have no idea who will win but if I had to take a punt I would suggest  Alain Aspect, Anton Zeilinger and John Clauser for their Bell’s inequality experiments and contributions to the understanding of quantum phenomena, including entanglement. I’m probably wrong though.

Feel free to make your predictions through the comments box below.

To find out you’ll have to wait for the announcement, around about 10.45 (UK/Irish time) tomorrow morning. I’ll update tomorrow when the wavefunction has collapsed.

Anyway, for the record, I’ll reiterate my opinion that while the Nobel Prize is flawed in many ways, particularly because it no longer really reflects how physics research is done, it does at least have the effect of getting people talking about physics. Surely that at least is a good thing?

UPDATE: Unsurprisingly, I was wrong again. The 2021 Nobel Prize for Physics goes to Syukuro Manabe and Klaus Hasselmann (1/4 each) and Giorgio Parisi (1/2). Manabe and Hasselmann were cited for their work in “the physical modeling of Earth’s climate, quantifying variability and reliably predicting global warming”. The second half of the prize was awarded to Parisi for “the discovery of the interplay of disorder and fluctuations in physical systems from atomic to planetary scales.” Congratulations to them all!

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.

Astrophysics Job Opportunity in Cork

Posted in The Universe and Stuff on October 2, 2021 by telescoper

Just time today to pass on the news that the University of Cork is advertising a Professorship “with a specialism in astrophysics, gravitational physics or cosmology”. More details can be found here.

I’m posting this information here to encourage cosmologists and gravitational physicists to apply because I would love to see the community in these areas grown in Ireland. It’s nice to see the University of Cork investing in astrophysics too. I had a quick look at their Physics department webpage and it seems their main interest at the moment is in radio astronomy and Active Galactic Nuclei so presumably they are looking for something to complement this activity. There is a follow-up position in theoretical astrophysics in the pipeline too.

P.S. I’ve never been to Cork, actually, but I’ve heard very good things about the city and it’s high on my list of places to visit when travel becomes more feasible than it is at the moment.

How to fit any dataset with a single parameter

Posted in mathematics with tags , , , , on October 1, 2021 by telescoper

There’s a famous quote that physicist Enrico Fermi attributed to John von Neumann that goes something like

With four parameters I can fit an elephant and with five I can make him wiggle his trunk.

Well, there’s a fun paper by Laurent Boué on the arXiv with the title Real numbers, data science and chaos: How to fit any dataset with a single parameter. If von Neumann were alive today he’d be turning in his grave!

The abstract of the paper, which is not new but which I only came across recently, reads

We show how any dataset of any modality (time-series, images, sound…) can be approximated by a well-behaved (continuous, differentiable…) scalar function with a single real-valued parameter. Building upon elementary concepts from chaos theory, we adopt a pedagogical approach demonstrating how to adjust this parameter in order to achieve arbitrary precision fit to all samples of the data. Targeting an audience of data scientists with a taste for the curious and unusual, the results presented here expand on previous similar observations regarding expressiveness power and generalization of machine learning models.

The function of which this claim is made is

(which actually has two parameters but τ is “a constant that basically controls the desired level of accuracy”). Here some examples of the datasets that can be fitted for various values of α:

If you want to know more, read the paper!


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…

New Publication at the Open Journal of Astrophysics

Posted in Open Access, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on September 30, 2021 by telescoper

Time to announce another publication in the Open Journal of Astrophysics. This one is the twelfth paper in Volume 4 (2021) and the 43rd in all.

The latest publication is entitled  Bridging the Gap Between Simply Parametrized and Free-Form Pixelated Models of Galaxy Lenses: The Case of WFI 2033-4723 Quad and is in the folder marked Astrophysics of Galaxies. The authors are Bernardo Barrera (Tecnológico de Monterrey, Mexico), Liliya Williams (University of Minnesota, USA), Jonathan P. Coles* (Technical University of Munich, Germany) and Philipp Denzel (University of Zurich, Switzerland).

*No relation.

Here is a screen grab of the overlay which includes the abstract:

You can click on the image to make it larger should you wish to do so. You can find the arXiv version of the paper here.

The teaser image doesn’t show up very well on the overlay so here it is in all its glory: