Temporary Lectureship in Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University!

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , on June 28, 2020 by telescoper

While I remember I should announce that we have fixed term ten-month full-time teaching position available in the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University.

The appointment is to provide sabbatical cover for Dr Jiri Vala.

The advert only went up last week but the deadline is just a fortnight away, on Sunday 12th July, which is pretty soon. This is because we need the person in post by September! Interviews are likely to be held in early August.

You can find the ad here or here or at the Maynooth University website here (which is also where you should apply).

Please feel free to pass this on to anyone you think might be interested!

Before Phase Three..

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Maynooth with tags , , on June 28, 2020 by telescoper

Tomorrow (on Monday 29th June) Ireland will enter Phase Three of its (accelerated) Roadmap for Reopening after the Covid-19 restrictions.

The Coronavirus situation here remains relatively stable, with new cases steady at a low level:

This is not the case for the rest of the world, however. Yesterday two grim milestones were passed: 10,000,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 worldwide and 500,000 deaths:

Much of the recent numerical growth of the pandemic is associated with North and South America. Brazil is particularly badly affected as are some of the United States. I don’t need to comment on the quality of the political leadership involved.

I am very nervous about the situation in the United Kingdom too, where I feel the reopening is being rushed. Poor leadership is partly responsible for the continuing high levels of infection there too.

Anyway, back to Phase Three in Ireland. Yesterday I bought a copy of the Irish Times and found this booklet inside:

The emphasis is on the fact that despite the low levels in Ireland Covid-19 has not gone away and we all have to be prepared to take special precautions for the foreseeable future. I would be amazed if there wasn’t another flare-up here at some point, actually, it’s just a question of when. And those optimistic about the delivery of a vaccine in the near future, I’ll remind you that there isn’t yet a vaccine for any form of Coronavirus let alone the novel form responsible for Covid-19 (SARS-CoV-2).

Anyway, on Friday I attended a virtual Question and Answer session with the President of Maynooth University, Professor Philip Nolan, about the plans for reopening campus over the Summer and into the new academic year. It is clear that lots will have to be done before staff can return fully and even then it won’t be anything like “normal”.

Incidentally the issue of face masks came up and there was some discussion about their effectiveness. Not being a medical expert I don’t really know about that, but I think one of the important things about masks in a work environment is that their visibility means that they work as a signal to remind people to be aware of Covid-19. I have discarded my home-made face masks and bought a box of proper ones and I intend to wear them whenever I am in a work setting in which anyone else is present.

On Friday evening I finally received (relatively) detailed instructions on how the return to work process will work. The Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University is still basically in Phase 1 while the university working group has been assembling this guidance. It will probably be several more weeks before we can get people back to work because there are many things still to be done: including the installation of hand sanitizers, one-way systems, screens, and new signage.

Another thing that came up during the President’s Q&A was the question of vacations for staff. Fortunately I had muted both my audio and video feeds for this as I laughed out loud. What with organising the return to work, overseeing repeat exams, recruiting a sabbatical replacement, planning teaching for next year, rewriting my own lectures for the “new normal”, etc etc, and (hopefully) moving into a new house, I can’t see any prospect of any summer holiday this year at all!

“Like a rusty squeezebox… ” – Mozart’s Serenade No 10 for Winds III. Adagio

Posted in Music with tags , , , , on June 27, 2020 by telescoper

Although it has introduced many people to the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, which is a very good thing, I have to admit that I didn’t really enjoy the film Amadeus. This is partly because not much of it is actually true and partly because, even treated as a piece of fiction, the two main protagonists are depicted far too crudely.

It is probably true that Mozart was quite a strange man as an adult but I attribute that largely to the fact that he was an infant prodigy which, together with having a very pushy and ambitious father, denied him a proper childhood. You see the same phenomenon in the modern era with child stars in Hollywood and the music industry.

The film is also very hard on Antonio Salieri who is made out to be a musical incompetent, which he certainly wasn’t. Salieri actually wrote a lot of very lovely music, though he obviously wasn’t Mozart.

One thing that the play/film does get right however is in Salieri’s description of the Adagio movement from Mozart’s Serenade No. 10 (K361) for wind instruments (and string bass):

On the page it looked nothing. The beginning simple, almost comic. Just a pulse, bassoons and basset horns, like a rusty squeezebox. Then suddenly; high above it, an oboe, a single note, hanging there unwavering, till a clarinet took over and sweetened it into a phrase of such delight! This was no composition by a performing monkey! This was a music I’d never heard. Filled with such longing, such unfulfillable longing. It seemed to me that I was hearing the very voice of God.

I stick to my opinion that Mozart wrote a lot of music that wasn’t really all that good, but I also think you should judge artists by their best work rather than their worst and Mozart wrote enough masterpieces any one of which would confirm him as a creative genius of the highest order. This piece is one of those masterpieces. The whole Serenade – seven movements, lasting almost an hour – is beautiful but this movement stands out.

The hallmark of a genius is often simplicity, isn’t it? That goes for science as well as the arts. I don’t really know what beauty really is but the essence of it often lies in simplicity too.

Now I have to make a confession and ask for help from readers. The confession is twofold: (a) I have never heard this piece in a live performance; and (b) I don’t possess a recording of it. I’d therefore like to ask my readers for recommendations as to the best version to buy on CD or download.

In the meantime here is a taster in the form of a performance by the wind musicians of the London Symphony Orchestra. Enjoy!

Maynooth University Open Day is here!

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , on June 27, 2020 by telescoper

So here I am at home answering questions online from visitors at our virtual Open Day. It’s actually pouring with rain which might have dampened the enthusiasm of visitors to a traditional Open Day but it’s been quite busy so far. Here is a video tour of the Maynooth University campus, filmed in better weather than today!

You will see that it includes an artist’s impression of the new building on the North Campus which isn’t actually finished yet.

And here is a gratuitous picture of our star attraction:

Another Open Day Preview – General Science at Maynooth

Posted in The Universe and Stuff, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on June 26, 2020 by telescoper

I thought I’d put up another post following on from yesterday’s post about Open Day at Maynooth coming up on Saturday 27th June which, owing to Covid-19 restrictions still being in place,  is once again a virtual event. It will take place between 10am and 2pm and be online for that period to answer queries about Theoretical and Mathematical Physics at Maynooth University. You can sign up for the event here.

Yesterday’s post was about our denominated degree programme in Theoretical Physics and Mathematics, but I also recorded a separate video for students interested in studying Mathematical Physics  (or Theoretical Physics – we use the terms interchangeably) through our General Science programme, MH201, so here’s a little presentation about how to study Mathematical physics at Maynooth that way:

Currently, most students doing Science subjects here in Maynooth enter on the General Science programme (codename)  a four-year Omnibus science course that involves doing four subjects in the first year, but becoming increasingly specialised thereafter. That’s not unlike the Natural Sciences course I did at Cambridge, except that students at Maynooth can do both Mathematical Theoretical Physics and Experimental Physics in the first year as separate choices. Other possibilities include Chemistry, Computer Science, Biology, etc.

In Year 1 students do four subjects (one of which has to be Mathematics). That is narrowed down to three in Year 2 and two in Year 3. In their final year, students can stick with two subjects for a Joint Honours (Double Major) degree, or specialise in one, for Single Honours.

I like this programme very much because it does not force the students to choose a specialism before they have had a taste of the subject, and that it is flexible enough to accommodate Joint Honours qualifications in, e.g., Theoretical Physics and Mathematics. It also allows us to enrol students onto Physics degrees who have not done Physics or Applied Mathematics as part of the Leaving Certificate.

I think Mathematical Physics has a particular value in the first year of this course, even for students who do now wish to continue with beyond that level. The material we present in the first year focusses on Mechanics, which is perfect for students to learn how to apply concepts from the Mathematics courses in calculus and linear algebra (especially vectors). It obviously complements Experimental Physics and I would recommend all students who want to do Experimental Physics to do Mathematical Physics too, but  basic mechanics comes up in a wide range of contexts in science, including Biology and Chemistry, so it is relevant for students taking a wide range of pathways through this very flexible programme.



Maynooth Open Day Preview

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on June 25, 2020 by telescoper

No sooner has the examination period finished when we have to start thinking about admissions again. There is an Open Day at Maynooth coming up on Saturday 27th June. Covid-19 restrictions still being in place this is once again a virtual event that will take place between 10am and 2pm. I will be online for that period to answer queries about Theoretical and Mathematical Physics at Maynooth University. You can sign up for the event here.

In the meantime, to whet your appetite, here is a little video introduction I recorded for the Open Dday for our Double Major BSc programme in Theoretical Physics & Mathematics (codename: MH206)



New Publication at the Open Journal of Astrophysics!

Posted in Open Access, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on June 25, 2020 by telescoper

Proving further the point that the The Open Journal of Astrophysics is definitely fully open we have published yet another paper. This one was actually published yesterday, which means that we had two in two days..

This one is in the Cosmology and Nongalactic Astrophysics section and is entitled Source Distributions of Cosmic Shear Surveys in Efficiency Space. The authors are Nicolas Tessore and Ian Harrison, both from the University of Manchester. The paper is concerned with the extraction of cosmological information from cosmic shear surveys.

Here is a screen grab of the overlay:

You can find the arXiv version of the paper here.

What kind of thing is GW190814?

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on June 24, 2020 by telescoper

There’s been a lot of interest in the past day or two over an event that occurred in the LIGO detectors last August, entitled GW190814. A paper has appeared declaring this to be “the observation of a compact binary coalescence involving a 22.2–24.3 M  black hole and a compact object with a mass of 2.50–2.67 M “. That would be interesting of course because the smaller object is smaller than the black holes involved in previous detections and its mass suggests the possibility that it may be a neutron star, although no electromagnetic counterpart has yet been detected.  It’s a mystery.

I was quite excited when I saw the announcement about this yesterday but my enthusiasm was dampened a bit when I saw the data from the two LIGO detectors at Hanford and Livingston in the USA and the Virgo detector in Italy.

Visually, the Livingston detection seems reasonably firm, but the paper notes that there were thunderstorms in the area at the time of  GW190814 which affected the low-frequency data. There doesn’t look like anything at all but noise in the Virgo channel. The Hanford data may show something but, according to the paper, the detector was “not in nominal observing mode at the time of GW190814” so the data from this detector require special treatment. What you see in the Hanford channel looks rather similar to the two (presumably noise) features seen to the left in the Livingston plot.

I know that – not for the first time – I’m probably going to incur the wrath of my colleagues in the gravitational waves community but I have to sound a note of caution. Before asking whether the event involves a black hole or a neutron star you have to be convinced that the event is an event at all.  Fortunately, at least some of the data relating to this have been released and will no doubt be subjected to independent scrutiny.

Now I’m going to retreat into my bunker and hide from the inevitable comments…

The Trouble with a J-1 Visa..

Posted in Biographical with tags , , on June 24, 2020 by telescoper

With the news going around about Donald Trump’s decision extend restrictions on travel to the USA, including banning the J-1 visa, I thought you might be interested to hear what happened to me when I tried to apply for a J-1 visa about 15 years ago. The following account is taken from an old post published in 2008.


When I was working at the University of Nottingham, I was given a sabbatical for one semester for the Autumn of 2005. I had already received an informal invitation from George Smoot at the University of California at Berkeley to visit, specifically from 1st August to 10th December that year. I had visited him the previous year while I was on holiday in California and enjoyed it very much, especially the good food and stupid jokes.

All I had to do was to get my visa and travel arrangements sorted out. The period of the visit was longer than the 90 days for which visa-free travel was allowed, and also the restrictions brought in after 9/11 involved stricter monitoring of scientific visitors. It was therefore necessary to apply for a J-1 visa.

For a J-1 visa for the USA you need first of all a form called a DS-2109 which, in the case of visiting scholars like me, is a kind of formal invitation issued by the host institution. I applied for this using a special form on March 10th 2005. My first problem was that Berkeley did not send the papers back to me until 12th July 2005. However, once I had it I was in a position to get the visa.

Nowadays nobody is issued a US visa without an “interview” at a US Embassy consular division. You are not allowed to book an interview until you have your DS-2109. I called the Embassy visa line (cost £1.30 per minute) and made an appointment. Unbelievably, the first available appointment was a month later, on 11th August 2005, 10 days after my sabbatical visit was supposed to start. Worse still, the instructions I received indicated a minimum of a further 5 working days should be allowed after the interview for the return of the passport with the visa.

You also have to surrender your passport at the interview with no promise of when it will be returned. They don’t even guarantee 5 days. As a matter of fact they don’t guarantee anything at all, as we shall see.

The next thing you have to do is to pay a fee called a SEVIS fee. In my case that was $100. You can do this online, so it was no problem. I paid the fee by credit card and printed out the receipt as instructed. There are then several forms to be filled in. DS-156 is the basic application form. I also needed to fill in a DS-157 and DS-158, which contain detailed information about my work history, qualifications and family circumstances. I was also told I would need to take with me to the interview evidence of my employment, bank statements, mortgage statements, and so on, presumably to prove I was not planning to gain entry to the US to work there; obviously everyone in Britain, even a University professor, really wants to leave their home and work as a waiter in America.

Finally you have to go to a bank and pay the visa application fee (£60) and get a formal receipt. Oh, and you need a photograph. Armed with all this paperwork, and my passport, I went to the Embassy in London on the morning of 11th August 2005. My appointment was scheduled at 12.45, but it’s a two-hour train journey from Nottingham to London. Incidentally, that cost me £94. I got there in good time, and actually entered the Embassy through its extensive security checks around 12.15.

The Embassy operates a take-a-ticket-and-wait system like the deli counter at a supermarket. I took a number and waited. After about an hour, my number was called. I went to a window and a lady who could hardly speak English asked for my documents. I passed them through the window. I then had my fingerprints scanned. And that was that. Except it turns out that is only Stage 1. I returned to my seat and waited for Stage 2, the interview

Three hours later I was finally called for my interview. The consular official was quite polite. He asked me some questions about my job, and work. I thought it was all going fine. It took about 15 minutes. Then he picked up my passport. It was a perfectly valid passport that I had used for a trip to Belgium a few weeks previously without any problems and it still had about two years left to run before a new one was required. He turned to the back page where the photograph was. He picked up a paper knife and stuffed it into the edge of back cover of the passport, between the plastic covering the photograph and the actual back cover, and started to waggle the knife about. He did this so violently that the photograph came loose, which it was not when I entered the Embassy.

Oh dear”, he said. “Looks like someone has tampered with your passport.” He showed me the damaged page through the glass.

I couldn’t believe my eyes. “Yes..you just did.”

Oh, anyone could have done that”, was the response. “Someone could replace your photograph with theirs, so I can’t accept this.”

I was actually shaking with anger and confusion at this point. He continued to the effect that he couldn’t issue a visa until I got a new passport. He gave me a form for the re-application and instructions on how to send everything back to the Embassy by courier. He told me if I did re-apply it would take at least 5 working days to process, but I wouldn’t need to pay another fee or have another interview. Finally, as an added bonus he stamped my ruined passport to indicate a visa had been refused.

Have a nice day”. He actually said that as I left.

Walking back from the Embassy to St Pancras station to get the train back to Nottingham my head was spinning. Had this really happened? Does the US Embassy actually think it has the right to destroy someone’s passport?

I came back to Nottingham that evening half-convinced I had dreamt the whole thing. Why would anyone do that? The passport was fairly old, but had another year or two to run. It was also a machine-readable passport, as is now required. It did not have a digital photograph printed directly on the information page, but the regulations did not actually require that to be the case. My passport was perfectly valid when I entered the Embassy, but it was now useless.

I can only guess that Consular staff had been issued with instructions not to accept passports with old-fashioned photographs in them, even if they were otherwise acceptable. However, rather than print updated guidelines the individual in charge of my application chose to mutilate my passport in order to give him an “official” reason for rejecting it.

Whatever the reason, my passport was ruined and if I was to go anywhere at all I would need a new one. I went to the Post Office the very next day, on Friday 12th August, and applied for a replacement passport. I received a shiny new one (with a digital photograph in it) the following week. As a bonus, the Passports office had noted the fact that my previous one had two years left to run so had given me a passport that wouldn’t expire until 2017.

Now I had to decide what to do. Partly because I had invested so much time and money already, and partly because I was worried about the fact that the immigration records for the US would contain information that I had been refused a visa, I decided to continue with the re-application. After all, if my record showed a refused visa it would be very unlikely I could travel to the USA without extreme difficulty at any time in the future. So I filled in all the forms again, got another photograph, got some more copies of bank statements and all the rest. I rang the Courier (SMS) and arranged for them to pick up the re-application (together with new passport) on 25th August. I paid for the return trip of my documents too. Total cost £19. The courier came and picked up the package to take to the Embassy as arranged.

Fine, I thought. Only 5 days and it will all be sorted. What a fool I was. By September 9th I still hadn’t received anything back. Without my passport I wasn’t able to travel abroad at all. I called the embassy to demand the immediate return of my passport whether it had a visa or not. I no longer cared about visiting the USA. I just wanted my papers back. The Embassy staff said that I would have to wait until it had been processed and, if I read the conditions of application, the five day processing time was never guaranteed.

I contacted the Member of Parliament for my constituency, Nick Palmer, who informed me that I should lodge a formal complaint to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office about the damage to my passport. Since UK passports remain Crown Property at all times, this is the appropriate channel for such matters. I even asked the Foreign Office to attempt the retrieval of my passport from the Embassy.

I was in such a rage I sent a few emails out to friends and colleagues who I thought might be interested in the story, some of whom forward them on. I got a number of nice replies from people all around the world with their own stories. I realized that although I was angry and frustrated, at least I wasn’t having my life torn apart, which is exactly what this kind of petty officialdom can do in different circumstances.

I don’t know which, if any, of these routes actually achieved anything but a few days later my passport arrived back by Courier. It even had a J-1 Visa in it.

Finally! Success!

But wait, there was a covering letter included with my documents. It said that although I had been given a J-1 visa , it wouldn’t be sufficient to achieve entry to the United States. I would have to take with me to the airport all the documents I had taken to the Embassy for my interview. Helpfully, they also pointed out that my DS-2109 had now expired because I should have entered the states on August 1st 2005 and it was now the middle of September. before I travelled I would therefore need to acquire a new DS-2109. Effectively I was back at square one.

Given how long it had taken to get this in the first place, I gave up. I abandoned all hope of ever taking my sabbatical in Berkeley or indeed anywhere in the USA. I had lost six weeks of my allotted time in any case.

I had to find a plan B. I contacted Dick Bond at the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics in Toronto and asked if I could go there instead. I didn’t expect him to agree because it was very short notice, but he said yes. Next day I received a formal letter of invitation by FedEx and I booked my ticket to Canada. No visa needed.

I arrived in Toronto at the end of September and spent about three months there. It was an extremely enjoyable time, during which I managed to finish my book From Cosmos to Chaos, as well as a few other things. Of course the climate was a bit different from what I would have experience at Berkeley. It got quite cold in Toronto towards Christmas, but I didn’t mind at all. My only regret is that I wasted so much time and money before deciding to go there when I could have had another six weeks in Toronto without the hassle.

Nothing ever came of any of the formal protests. I’m not surprised about that. The chap who wrecked my passport has diplomatic immunity so can’t be prosecuted. I doubt that the British Government ever even approached the US Ambassador with this matter. Given the collusion of the British in the illegal rendition and torture of prisoners by US agents, it seems unlikely that they give a toss about international law anyway.

I passed the details onto Berkeley who contacted the US Visa Department in Washington, but I never heard anything back from them either. Even less surprising.

So I now have a passport with a J-1 visa in it, but no US entry stamp. I sometimes wonder what would happen if I turned up in the States and showed it to an immigration officer, but then I doubt if I’ll be going to the USA in the foreseeable future. I’ve also been asked about this unusual state of affairs a few times on entering other countries, which gives me the chance to tell the story I’ve just posted or at leas the gyst of it. The best response was from a Canadian Immigration Officer, when I arrived in Toronto in Autumn 2005.

That’s America for you. But you’re in a civilized country now.”

I am sorry I didn’t get the chance to visit George Smoot, though I did manage to meet up with him a year later in Sweden. But that’s another story...


New Publication at the Open Journal of Astrophysics!

Posted in Open Access, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on June 23, 2020 by telescoper

Well, Maynooth University may well be still (partially) closed as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic but the The Open Journal of Astrophysics is definitely fully open.

In fact we have just published another paper! This one is in the Astrophysics of Galaxies section and is entitled A Bayesian Approach to the Vertical Structure of the Disk of the Milky Way. The authors are Phillip S Dobbie and Stephen J Warren of Imperial College, London.

Here is a screen grab of the overlay:


You can find the arXiv version of the paper here.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the Editorial team and various referees for their efforts in keeping the Open Journal of Astrophysics going in these difficult times.