UNESCO and Open Science

Posted in Politics, Open Access with tags , , , , , on January 12, 2022 by telescoper

Time to pass on news of an interesting development from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) concerning Open Science. Here’s a little video to explain what it’s about:

A press release announcing the new recommendations begins thus:

The first international framework on open science was adopted by 193 countries attending UNESCO’s General Conference. By making science more transparent and more accessible, the UNESCO Recommendation on Open Science will make science more equitable and inclusive. 

Through open science, scientists and engineers use open licenses to share their publications and data, software and even hardware more widely. Open science should, thus, enhance international scientific cooperation. 

Some 70% of scientific publications are locked behind paywalls. Over the past two years, however, this proportion has dropped to about 30% for publications on COVID-19 specifically. This shows that science can be more open. 

The framework document itself is here (21 pages). It’s a very general document, the strongest aspect of which is that it takes a broad view of open science. When I’ve talked and written about open access publishing I’ve always stressed that represents only one aspect of open science: there is a need to share data and analysis software too.

You can find an upbeat commentary on the new agreement by James Wilsdon here. Here’s a snippet:

At a time when ideologies opposed to universalism, multilateralism, and collaboration are gaining ground in many parts of the world—exacerbated by greed, corruption, and exploitation of common assets and resources—the scientific system is as vulnerable as it has always been to reflecting both the best and the worst of society’s wider tendencies.

Moves towards open research have gained significant ground over the past twenty years, but this progress remains fragile, under-resourced, and at times willfully or unintentionally blind to the fresh inequalities and pressures it can create—particularly for researchers and institutions in the global south.

For me, the greatest strengths of the UNESCO statement are its breadth and holism—unlike some declarations in this field, it speaks with an authentically international chorus of voices. It reasserts the need for cultural, linguistic, and disciplinary pluralism, and reminds us that openness is ultimately a means to more fundamental ends. The recommendation returns repeatedly to the importance of infrastructures and incentives, which need to be financed, sustained, and better aligned.

I couldn’t agree more!

A Memoir of Thomas Bewick

Posted in Art, Education, History, Politics with tags , , , on January 11, 2022 by telescoper

Thomas Bewick (1753-1828) was a superb illustrator and natural historian who lived in the North East of England. He is celebrated primarily for his fine engravings and woodcuts of wild animals and birds, and humorous vignettes, some of which are quite cheeky, such as this one called “Man Pissing”…

Man Pissing (c.1797, wood engraving on laid paper, 8.9 x 12.5 cm)

You can find many other examples of his fine work here.

Bewick also held radical political views in a time of great social unrest across the continent of Europe. His views were heavily influenced by the terrible conditions of the rural poor in his native Northumberland and the corruption of the Government. In 1822 he began to write his Memoir, which is absolutely fascinating, not least because part of it is devoted to his views about the British Government and the media of the time. Two hundred years later, many of his words still ring true.

Here’s an excerpt from a section covering the period from about 1818 to 1823, a period of domestic instability in Britain that led to acts of protest and brutal suppression, including the Peterloo Massacre of 1819:

The pen of literature was prostituted to overshade the actions of good men, and to gloss-over the enormities of the base. The energies of many members of both Houses of Parliament were unavailing against this compact confederacy of undeserving placemen and pensioners, who were bound together by fellow feelings of self-interest, in which all ideas of public trust were lost in private considerations. They had sinned themselves out of all shame. This phalanx have kept their ground, and will do so till, it is to be feared, violence from an enraged people breaks them up, or, perhaps, till the growing opinions against such a crooked order of conducting the affairs of this great nation becomes quite apparent to an immense majority, whose frowns may have the power of bringing the agents of government to pause upon the brink of the precipice on which they stand, and to provide in time, by wise and honest measures, to avert the coming storm.

A Memoir of Thomas Bewick, Written by himself, CHAPTER XVII.

Plus ça change

P.S. Not far from where I grew up in Newcastle upon Tyne there is a school for children and young adults with autism called the Thomas Bewick School. His name is well known in the Newcastle area for that reason and his artistic legacy, but I’m not sure his memory is as widely celebrated as it should be. He was a fascinating character.

ERC Starting Grant Statistics

Posted in Politics, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on January 10, 2022 by telescoper

Today the European Research Council (ERC) announced the first round of winners of Starting Grants under the new Horizon Europe programme. The results make for interesting reading. Some 397 grants were awarded worth a total of €619 million, i.e. about €1.5 million each on average, all intended for researchers in the early stages of their careers. A complete list of award winners can be found in this PDF document. Congratulations to all of them!

Here is the breakdown by host country:

You will see that Ireland has secured 8 (half in social sciences & humanities, and half in science). That’s not bad for a small country, and is comparable with Denmark, Norway and Finland. The only two funded in Physical Sciences & Engineering in Ireland are both at the University of Limerick.

The big shock, however, is that the number of grants to be hosted in the UK is down sharply on previous Starter Grant rounds. In previous years that I can remember the UK was at the top of the awards table. Now top spot goes to Germany, with the UK in third place, only just above the Netherlands. I wonder what the reason could be for that?

You might be surprised that the UK is listed at all because it is not in the EU has not signed an association agreement with the European Union. Switzerland, also not in the EU, has been awarded 28 grants but these are not eligible for funding because negotiations on association have ended without a signature. According to the ERC website:

As a result, host institutions established in Switzerland are not eligible for funding. Exceptionally for this call, since it was already closed before the termination of the negotiations between the EU and Switzerland, the proposals submitted with Swiss host institutions and which have been selected for funding may remain eligible if their host institution is replaced with a legal entity established in an eligible country.

This looks like a cue for other institutions to start poaching! Israel and Norway are non-EU countries have agreements in place.

The situation with the UK, as far as I understand it, is that negotiations towards an association agreement are currently snarled up with issues surrounding the Northern Ireland Protocol component of the UK’s withdrawal agreement from the European Union. If an agreement is signed before contracts have to be issued (in April) then the grants to UK institutions will be funded by the EU. If not then not.

In addition, successful applicants established in a country in the process of associating to Horizon Europe will not be treated as established in an associated country if the association agreement does not apply by the time of the signature of the grant agreement. 

In this case, however, the UK Government will fund these through the UKRI budget. So they say.

On the other hand, these grants are portable and some winners may decided to change host institution to avoid any uncertainty. Cue some more poaching?

Another thing that is striking is that although 46 UK institutions are intended hosts for such funding, only 12 of the grantees have UK nationality.

It follows that many of the UK’s grantees are from elsewhere, either in the EU or outside. It is possible under this scheme for awardees to relocate to institutions in member countries from non-member countries, which accounts for the large number of “Others” in the plot.

Notice the opposite applies to Italy: there are 58 Italian grantees but only 28 grants will be hosted in Italy.

Here is the breakdown by gender:

Anyway, you can read more about the statistics in this PDF document here.

After The Treaty

Posted in Biographical, History, Television with tags , , , , , on January 9, 2022 by telescoper

On Friday I saw a bit of a programme on RTÉ One called Treaty Live which covered the events of January 7th 1922 in the form of a modern live news broadcast. It was on that date that the Dáil Éireann voted on whether to ratify the Anglo-Irish Treaty (usually called “The Treaty”) negotiated between the British Government (led by Prime Minister David Lloyd George) and representatives of the Irish Government (led by Arthur Griffith) and signed on 6th December 1921. The Treaty was intended to end the Irish War of Independence and bring about the removal of Crown forces from Ireland, but it fell short of establishing a fully independent Irish Republic, instead creating an Irish Free State with the status of a British dominion rather like New Zealand or Australia (i.e. with its own government but with the British Monarch as Head of State). It also led to the partition of Ireland with six of the nine counties in the province of Ulster remaining under British rule.

Three days of debate preceded the momentous vote in the Dáil which, incidentally, took place in a room in a building in University College Dublin that is now the National Concert Hall. Here is some footage of TDs leaving the building after the debate:

It’s strange to think of the number of times I’ve walked up those steps to attend a concert without realizing this historic event took place there.

Anyway, in the end the vote was to ratify The Treaty by 64 votes to 57. It seems popular opinion at the time was in favour of ratification, and what was surprising was not the fact that the vote was carried but that the margin was so narrow: had just four TDs voted the other way it would have failed.

Éamonn de Valera, then President of the Irish Republic, was the most prominent opponent of ratification. Michael Collins, who was a member of the delegation of plenipotentiaries who negotiated The Treaty, was prominently in favour. Many questions can be asked about the conduct of the negotiations, including why de Valera did not conduct the negotiations himself. During the negotiations Lloyd George insisted that the Irish plenipotentiaries sign the agreement on the spot otherwise there would be “war within three days”. The Irish delegation clearly assumed he wasn’t bluffing so signed it. De Valera was unhappy that they did not consult more widely (especially with him) but then if that’s what he wanted he shouldn’t have sent “plenipotentiaries” – that word means “delegates having the full power to sign agreements” – but participated directly. Valera resigned as President on 9th January 1922 and was replaced by Arthur Griffith.

The anti-Treaty side considered it to be a betrayal of the sacrifices made during the War of Independence; the pro-Treaty side thought it was a stepping-stone towards the goal of independence. As it turned out a fully-independent Irish Republic was eventually established in 1949, though the partition of Ireland is still in place.

In retrospect the narrowness of the Dáil was an indication of what was to come. In June 1922 The Irish Civil War erupted between the two factions that lasted almost a year. All wars are dreadful, but there’s something about a Civil War that is particularly dreadful: people who had fought on the same side against British rule would now fight each other.

And that brings me to the point of this rather rambling post. I moved to Ireland at the end of 2017. Like most people born and educated in England I knew very little of Irish history before coming here; topics such as the Irish Famine are simply not taught in British schools, though they certainly are in Irish schools. I missed being here through the centennial commemorations of the 1916 Easter Rising, for example, but have followed subsequent events in the “decade of centenaries” and done the best I can to read about Irish history to gain some knowledge.

What’s interesting about this is that the events of the Easter Rising and the War of Independence, although commemorated with appropriate solemnity, do form a righteous narrative relating to the heroic birth of a new nation. As we approach the centenary of the outbreak of Civil War the issues are much more complex. An Irish friend told me that when he was taught history at school, it basically stopped at the Civil War. People generally are much less willing to talk about it than the events preceding. The Civil War left deep wounds, some of which have still not healed. Perhaps the centenary will provide an opportunity to confront some of the very difficult issues arising from this period of this nation’s history.

Webb Deployment

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags on January 8, 2022 by telescoper

I’ve been busy all afternoon supervising an online examination and I’m now about to cook my dinner, which means I haven’t got time to post anything much but I will pass on the very welcome news that the James Webb Space Telescope has now completed the lengthy sequence of operations that were required to deploy a large sunshield, the primary and secondary mirrors and other bits and bobs needed to turn it into a proper observatory rather than just a basket of deployables. The whole thing should now look something like this:

Artists impression of Webb (with, by the look of it, a bit of the Cosmic Web)

There were over 300 potential single-point failures in this sequence so these last couple of weeks have been as stressful as the launch. Now commissioning work can begin.

This all gives me the excuse to have a celebratory drink just like I did on Christmas Day. Cheers!

Sneachta i Maigh Nuad

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth on January 7, 2022 by telescoper

So the exam period is upon us and I’ve spent all day dealing with lots of last-minute issues to do with that. Switching examinations online has led to Departments having to do themselves lots of things that were previously done by the Exams Office. Needless to say this transfer of workload has not been accompanied by a transfer of resources. Grumble, grumble.


Anyway I’ll just mention that, aside from the blizzard of emails and administrative tasks, today saw the first snow in Maynooth for 2022. I took the picture this morning after a light dusting. Then it snowed again, more heavily, only for that to turn to turn to rain that washed all the snow away.

Incidentally, this picture on the same day last year…

After a mild holiday season it’s been much colder recently, with a consequent increase in food consumption by the garden birds. I’ll have to replenish my supplies over the weekend. I do feel a bit sorry for the little critters in this weather, even the neighbourhood rook which is constantly trying to demolish my feeders.

Today the Irish Government has announced that Third Level institutions in Ireland will reopen on Monday without any changes in Covid-19 restrictions. We don’t actually start teaching until January 31st, for which I am grateful. I don’t even students or staff crowding into lecture theatres on Monday. Assuming, that is, that there aren’t huge numbers of absences…

A Piece of Euclid

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on January 6, 2022 by telescoper

Fame at last! A colleague from the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University told me the above piece appeared in today’s Irish Times so I rushed out and bought the paper. My rapture was rapidly modified however when I discovered that my name was given incorrectly (as Cole instead of Coles), but that was to some extent offset by the amusement it would give my colleagues to see me described as an “Experiment Physicist”. These two slips are now corrected in the online version of the article which you can find here.

I was quite surprised by the sudden appearance of the article today because I spoke to the writer, Seán Duke, about Euclid well over a year ago (May 2020). That’s the reason that some things are a bit out of date. For example, the launch of Euclid will now not take place until the first quarter of 2023. Also the piece states that the largest telescope in space is the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) which is no longer the case (as of Christmas Day 2021…).

I’ll leave it as an exercise for the student to spot any other errors. Please feel free to point them out through the Comments Box. If you’re not banned, that is…

Staff Shortages

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth on January 5, 2022 by telescoper

After two weeks of festive cooking for myself – something I was quite happy to do- this evening I thought I would mark Twelfth Night by getting a takeaway from my favourite local Thai restaurant. Sadly, however, this turned out to be impossible because they’re closed. The reason? Staff shortages caused by staff having to self-isolate due to Covid-19.

It’s not a big deal to have to make alternative arrangements for dinner, of course, but it got me thinking about all the other areas of life that are currently having the same problems. Many train services in and out of Dublin have been cancelled because of the lack of available train crew, for example. Ireland’s schools are supposed to reopen tomorrow after the Christmas break and it is likely that many teaching staff will be unavailable.

The timing of the academic term for staff Maynooth University is doing us some favours. On Friday 7th we start the examination period. Across the University, 95% of the assessments taking place are online. In my Department that is 100%, so neither students nor staff have to travel onto campus. Teaching does not start again until 31st January so we have over three weeks to see how the situation develops. Some other third-level institutions in Ireland had exams before Christmas so go straight back to teaching right now and I wonder how staff in those feelings are feeling about the prospect.

My biggest source of stress as Head of the Department of Theoretical Physics this academic year has been the fact that we have been short-staffed since the start of the year, half our teaching staff being temporary lecturers, and student numbers are well up on last year. If just one member of teaching staff were to become ill we would have serious difficulty covering the shortfall. Asymptomatic staff just having to self-isolate could teach online, of course, but someone who is ill can’t be expected to do that.

A specific worry I have for next Semester is the Computational Physics module I will be teaching. Last year we did this entirely online, which went satisfactorily; the subject lends itself fairly well to online teaching. This year however we are expected to be back in the lab. We have more than twice as many students in that class than we had last year so we’ll have to work out how to fit them safely into the relatively small teaching space we have available. We’ll certainly have to do two sessions per week but I may offer students the option of following along at home via Teams if they wish. I’ll decide that after the exams are over.

It is of course possible that the situation deteriorates very badly and we have to go fully online again. Possible, that is, but I think not likely. The Government seems determined not to countenance a return to remote working and probably won’t unless things get very much worse. As things stand, the omicron variant is running through the population like wildfire in terms of infections, but this has not led to ICU admissions or deaths on the same scale as last year.

All these issues are as nothing compared to the stress that must be felt right now by workers in the Health Services. After two years of exhausting work many health care workers are having to cover for staff absences in addition to dealing with an average of 20,000 new Covid-19 cases per day.

A Time For Perihelion

Posted in The Universe and Stuff on January 4, 2022 by telescoper

Earth’s elliptical orbit viewed at an angle (which makes it look more eccentric than it is – in reality is very nearly circular).

According to my new RAS Diary,  today (Tuesday 4th January 2022) at approximately 06:55 GMT the Earth reaches at the point on its orbit which which it is at its closest to the Sun, i.e. at its perihelion. At this time the distance from the Sun’s centre to Earth’s centre will be  147,105,052 km. This year, aphelion (the furthest distance from the Sun) is at 08:11 GMT on July 4th 2022 at which point the centre of the Earth will be 152,098,455  km from the centre of the Sun. You can find a list of times and dates of perihelion and aphelion for future years here.

At perihelion the speed of the Earth in its orbit around the Sun is greater than at aphelion (about 30.287 km/s versus 29.291 km/s). This difference, caused by the Earth’s orbital eccentricity, contributes to the difference between mean time and solar time I blogged about when discussing the Winter Solstice a couple of weeks ago.

It surprises me how many people think that the existence of the seasons has something to do with the variation of the Earth’s distance from the Sun as it moves in its orbit. The fact that perihelion occurs in the depth of winter should convince anyone living in the Northern hemisphere that this just can’t be the case, as should the fact that it’s summer in the Southern hemisphere while it is winter in the North.

The real reason for the existence of seasons is the tilt of the Earth’s axis of rotation. I used to do a little demonstration with a torch (flashlight to American readers) to illustrate this when I taught first-year astrophysics. If you shine a torch horizontally at a piece of card it will illuminate a patch of the card. Keep the torch at the same distance but tilt the card and you will see the illuminated patch increase in size. The torch is radiating the same amount of energy but in the second case that energy is spread over a larger area than in the first. This means that the energy per unit area incident on the card is decreases when the card is tilted. It is that which is responsible for winter being colder than summer. In the summer the sun is higher in the sky (on average) than in winter. From this argument you can infer that the winter solstice not the perihelion, is the relevant astronomical indicator of winter.

That is not to say that the shape of the Earth’s orbit has no effect on temperatures. It may, for example, contribute to the summer in the Southern hemisphere being hotter than in the North, although it is not the only effect. The Earth’s surface possesses a significant North-South asymmetry: there is a much larger fraction of ocean in the Southern hemisphere, for example, which could be responsible for moderating any differences in temperature due to insolation. The climate is a non-linear system that involves circulating air and ocean currents that respond in complicated ways and on different timescales not just to insolation but to many other parameters, including atmospheric composition (especially the amount of water vapour).

The dates when Earth reaches the extreme points on its orbit (apsides) are not fixed because of the variations in its orbital eccentricity so, in the short-term, the dates can vary up to 2 days from one year to another. The perihelion distance varies slightly from year to year too; it’s slightly greater this year than last year, for example.

There is however a long-term trend for perihelion to occur later in the year. For example, in 1246, the December Solstice (Winter Solstice for the Northern Hemisphere) was on the same day as the Earth’s perihelion. Since then, the perihelion and aphelion dates have drifted by an average of one day every 58 years and this trend will continue. This means that by the year 6430 the timing of the perihelion and the March Equinox will coincide, although I will probably have retired by then…

Last Day Off Again

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth on January 3, 2022 by telescoper

So I find myself almost at the end of the Christmas break as I did on the same day last year. Today being a Bank Holiday because New Year’s Day was on Saturday, tomorrow is officially my first day back at work. I don’t think I’ll be going back to my office on campus in the morning, though, as I think I can probably manage all the things I have to do from home. I haven’t looked in my mailbox since before Christmas so I imagine I’ll spend most of the day mucking that out.

Thanks to the state of the Covid-19 pandemic I will be working from home most of the time at least until Semester 2 teaching starts. Here is the situation, with cases clearly out of control, but no sign yet of an increase in mortality. We’ll see what happens when the weekly death figures are released on Wednesday.

No doubt as we get back to work there will be detailed instructions on what we can and can’t do. Semester Two of teaching in Maynooth doesn’t start for another 4 weeks so we have a bit of time to see how things progress before deciding what will happen. I expect various edicts will be issued from on high in the next few days.

I have been virtually incommunicado so am not sure how everyone else in the Department has been. I do hope nobody has fallen ill.

The January examination period starts on Friday (7th January) and ends two weeks later (Saturday 22nd January) so getting through that and getting the examinations marked is going to be the first priority. Yet again all these examinations will be in the form of online assessments. We have done this sort of examination before, which makes it a bit easier than last year, but they still cause a lot of stress for staff and students alike. I will have over a hundred scripts to mark and will have to do all of them on screen. I’m not looking forward to that at all, but it has to be done. My first exam is on Saturday afternoon (8th January) but there’s a gap of 10 days until the second one so hopefully I can get the first marked before the second is due.

I was tempted at this point to make a list of all the things I have to do tomorrow, but that would be breaking my resolution to take a complete break so I will leave that until the morning. I have done a few bits and pieces for the Open Journal of Astrophysics, though, as we embark on Vol. 5 (2022).