Happy 100th Birthday, Margaret Burbidge!

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on August 12, 2019 by telescoper

I was reminded by Twitter just now that today is the 100th birthday of Margaret Burbidge, who was born on August 12th 1919. Happy Birthday Margaret!

 

This anniversary of her birth gives me an excuse to mention the classic work of Burbidge, Burbidge, Fowler and Hoyle in 1957 (a paper usually referred to as B2FH after the initials of its authors). It’s such an important contribution, in fact, that it has its own wikipedia page. One of the interesting astronomical things I’ve acquired over the years is a preprint of the B2FH paper. Younger readers will probably not realize that preprints were not always produced in the electronic form they are today. We all used to make large numbers of these and post them at great expense to (potentially) interested colleagues before publication in order to get comments. In the age of the internet people don’t really bother to make hard copies of preprints for distribution any more.

Anyway, here’s a snap of it.

It’s a hefty piece of work, and an important piece of astronomical history. One thing I’ve never done, however, is check whether the preprint differs significantly from the published version..

 

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Admissions Matters

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , on August 12, 2019 by telescoper

Well, the wait is almost over. Tomorrow is the day that students in Ireland get their Leaving Certificate results. Tomorrow’s date is Tuesday 13th August, so I hope that’s not a bad omen! A couple of days later this week, on Thursday, UK students get their A-level results.

Here in Ireland, University admissions are dealt with through the Central Applications Office (CAO) which, for UK readers, is roughly equivalent to UCAS. Earlier this year we heard Maynooth University received its highest-ever number of first_preference applications, which is a very positive sign, but we don’t know yet exactly how many of those actually made the grade needed to start here next month.

As is the case in the UK with A-level results, Irish institutions receive the Leaving Certificate results a bit before the students do, which means that on both sides of the Irish sea higher education institutions will be very busy sorting through their applications to see who has made it onto what course. This is a very stressful time for all concerned, not only the prospective students but also the university staff involved in processing the results and academics wondering how many students they will have to teach next year.

From time to time one hears suggestions that the system could be made much fairer and less stressful if students could remove some of the uncertainty by applying  to university after getting their Leaving Cert (or A-level) results rather than, as is the case now, before. UPDATE: here’s a piece in the Guardian by Angela Rayner arguing this.

The problem is that there are only two ways that I can see to achieve this:

  • have the final school examinations earlier;
  • start the university academic year later.

The unavoidable consequence of the first option would be the removal of large quantities of material from the syllabus so the exams could be held several months earlier, which would be a disaster in terms of preparing students for university.

The second option would mean starting the academic year in, say, January instead of late Septembe. This would in my opinion be preferable to 1, but would still be difficult because it would interfere with all the other things a university does as well as teaching, especially research. The summer recess (July-September), wherein much research is currently done, could be changed to an autumn one (October-December) but there would be a great deal of resistance, especially from the older establishments; I can’t see Oxbridge being willing to abandon its definitions of teaching term! And what would the students do between July and January?

Preparatory Reading

Posted in History, Literature, Politics with tags on August 12, 2019 by telescoper

With less than a month to go before I take up a position as Head of Department, I thought I’d spend some of the book tokens I got from the Everyman Crossword prize on some preparatory reading material…

Rivers of Babylon – The Melodians

Posted in Music with tags , , , , on August 11, 2019 by telescoper

Those of your of a certain age will remember that Boney M had a hit in 1978 with a number called Rivers of Babylon. I knew that that song was based on words from Psalm 19 and Psalm 137 but I didn’t know until recently that the original song was a Rastafari hymn and that the Boney M version was a cover of this beautiful rocksteady version recorded by a Jamaican band called The Melodians in 1970. Note the differences in lyric, e.g. “How can we sing King Alpha’s song…”. Anyway, I really like this version with its excellent vocal harmony and gorgeously relaxed groove.

Health and the Season

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Maynooth, Mental Health with tags , , on August 10, 2019 by telescoper

After I came out as having arthritis a few months ago, I’m sure all both my readers are agog to hear news about the state of my knees. There’s only good news to report, actually. The warmer weather seems to have brought considerable respite. I have not taken any anti-inflammatory medicine for a couple of months now, and have largely dispensed with the walking stick too (at least for the time being). I still get the odd twinge, but nothing compared to what things were like during the winter.

I ended my earlier post about this with this paragraph:

One other thing worth mentioning is that this condition does seem to be highly temperature-dependent. This last week the weather suddenly turned a lot colder and the arthritis definitely got worse. Perhaps in future I could learn to use the colour of my knees as some kind of forecasting method?

Talk to anyone who suffers from arthritis and they will tell you a similar story – it gets worse in cold and/or damp weather. Talk to any medical expert, however, and they will tell you that there’s very little hard evidence about this and what evidence there is suggests that the effect is very weak. See, for example, this paper, which has the following abstract:

It is a common observation that pain and stiffness in patients known to have arthritis get worse in cold and damp weather conditions. The objective of this article is to review the available literature on this subject and to put forward an explanation for this common clinical finding. Literature search revealed twelve relevant articles including laboratory experiments and prospective questionnaire-based human studies. Various investigators have tried to study the effect of cold weather on arthritic symptoms and have suggested different theories. The effect of temperature changes localized to the joints has shown to increase stiffness at lower temperatures and decrease stiffness at higher temperatures. The effect of these changes has been found more pronounced in elderly population with arthritis and patients with advanced disease. The evidence to support this common observation is weak; however some studies have reported a trend towards worsening of pain and stiffness with falling temperature and barometric pressure in arthritic patients.

Among the problems associated with studying such effects is the issue of how to measure `pain’ in a reliable way. It may be in the winter people are generally less upbeat about their health which may affect the way they self-report the state of their arthritis. And even if one could measure the level of pain objectively, there are obvious confounding factors: people are generally more active during the summer months, for example, which may help ease joint pain. And what aspect of the weather really matters: temperature, humidity or atmospheric pressure? These tend to be correlated in complicated ways.

All I can say is that the last couple of months have been far better for me. Whether that is because of some direct causative influence of the weather or not I can’t say.

While I am on about health and the time of year, I’ll comment on another personal matter. Seven years ago I was suffering some serious mental health problems, which resulted in me being for some time on an acute ward in a psychiatric institution. That happened in July 2012. I’ve dreaded the arrival of July every year since because it reminds me of that very bad period in my life and I worry that might bring on something similar again. This year, though, has been much better. I can’t attribute this entirely to my move here to Ireland, but the change of scene has undoubtedly contributed.

As a final comment I’ll just say that 31st July was the third anniversary of my leaving Sussex (in 2016) to return to Cardiff on a three-year part-time contract back. I was planning to take early retirement when that expired, but things seem to have turned out rather differently. Things have a habit of doing that. Then again, if life were predictable it would be very dull. Anyway, it was very nice to meet up with quite a few former colleagues from Cardiff during recent week off, including at their summer barbecue at Llandaff. It seems quite a few will be spending the next week or so marking repeat resit examinations, so let me take this opportunity to wish them all the very best!

Royal Society University – Science Foundation Ireland University Research Fellowships

Posted in Uncategorized on August 9, 2019 by telescoper

It is now time for a quick public information broadcast.

Did you know about the scheme run jointly between the  Royal Society and Science Foundation Ireland that enables early career researchers in Ireland access to University Research Fellowships?

This scheme provides five years of research funding (with the possibility of renewal) and has proved to be a stepping stone to their first permanent academic position for a great many scientists.

This scheme covers, but is not limited to, physics and astronomy. For full details of the scheme, see here.

The deadline if you want to apply to hold a URF from 2020 in Ireland is 3rd September 2019, which is less than a month away,  so please get cracking!

You could go a lot worse than applying to hold your URF in Maynooth!

Oh, and five years residency in Ireland qualifies you for citizenship. Just saying…

Repeat Message..

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on August 8, 2019 by telescoper

Back in Ireland and straight away it’s the repeat examination period at Maynooth University, which started yesterday. My first one was yesterday, actually, for just one student, and I’ve been virtuous and marked the script already.

I’ll be marking quite a few more repeat exams over the next week or so, so here’s a message for any student anywhere taking any at this time:

I thought it was worth mentioning for any university teachers out there reading this that although they are held at roughly the same time of year in the two countries there’s a difference in the way resits are handled in the institutions I’ve worked at in the United Kingdom and the way repeats work here in Maynooth which is implied by the slightly different name.

In UK institutions with which I am familiar students generally take resits when, because they have failed one or more examinations the previous May they have not accumulated sufficient credits to proceed to the next year of their course. Passing the resit allows them to retrieve lost credit, but their mark is generally capped at a bare pass. That means the student gets the credit they need for their degree but their average (which determines whether they get 1st, 2nd or 3rd class Honours) is negatively affected.

This is the case unless a student has extenuating circumstances affecting the earlier examination, such as bad health or family emergency, in which case they take the resit as a `sit’, i.e. for the first time with an uncapped mark.

Here in Maynooth, repeat examinations are generally taken for the same reason as in the UK but the mark obtained is not capped. Indeed, some students – though not many – elect to take the repeat examination even if they passed earlier in the summer, in order to increase their average mark. Another difference is that all students have to pay a fee  for each repeat they take; resits in the UK do not attract additional fees.

When I told former colleagues at Cardiff in the pub last week that repeat examinations are not capped they didn’t like the idea because they felt that it would lead to many students playing games, i.e. deliberately not taking exams in May with the intention of spreading some of their examination  load into August. There’s not much sign of students actually doing that here, to be honest, for the reason that the results from the repeat examination period are not confirmed until early September so that students that deploy this strategy do not know whether they are going to be able to start their course until a couple of weeks before term. That could cause lots of problems securing accommodation, etc, so it doesn’t seem to me to be a good ploy.

Anyway, I’d welcome comments for or against whether resits/repeats should be capped/uncapped and on what practice is adopted in your institution.