Thought for the Day

Posted in Literature, Politics on March 30, 2021 by telescoper

I don’t have time for a full post today but let me just say that I think that the move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony is bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

Comments welcome.

Yesterday was nearly Easter

Posted in History, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on March 29, 2021 by telescoper

As as Astronomist I am often asked “How do they calculate the date of Easter?”, to which my answer is usually “Look it up on Wikipedia!“.

The simple answer is that Easter Sunday is on the first Sunday after the first full Moon on or after the Vernal equinox. The Vernal Equinox took place this year on March 20th and the more observant among you will have noticed that yesterday was (a) Sunday and (b) a Full Moon. Yesterday was not Easter Sunday because the rule says Easter is on the first Sunday after the first full Moon on or after the Vernal equinox, which does not include a Full Moon on the first Sunday on or after the vernal equinox. Accordingly Easter 2021 is next Sunday 4th April. If the Full Moon had happened on Saturday, yesterday would have been Easter Sunday.

That is just as well really because next weekend is when the holidays and sporting events have been arranged.

I say “simple” answer above because it isn’t quite how the date of Easter is reckoned for purposes of the liturgical calendar.

For a start the ecclesiastical calculation of the date for Easter – the computus – assumes that the Vernal Equinox is always on March 21st, while in reality it can be a day or two either side of that. This year it was on March 20th.

On top of that there’s the issue of what reference time and date to use. The equinox is a precisely timed astronomical event but it occurs at different times and possibly on different days in different time zones. Likewise the full Moon. In the ecclesiastical calculation the “full moon” does not currently correspond directly to any astronomical event, but is instead the 14th day of a lunar month, as determined from tables (see below). It may differ from the date of the actual full moon by up to two days.

There have been years (1974, for example) where the official date of Easter does not coincide with the date determined by the simple rule given above. The actual rule is a complicated business involving Golden Numbers and Metonic cycles and whatnot.

I’m grateful to Graham Pointer on Twitter for sending this excerpt from the Book of Common Prayer that sheweth how to determine the date of Easter for any year up to 2199:

I don’t care what happens after that as I’ll be retired by then. If you apply this method to 2021 you will find it is an 8C. Next year will be a 9B. Further calculations are left as an exercise to the reader.

In the Name of the Solicitor

Posted in Biographical, Film with tags , , , , on March 28, 2021 by telescoper

Looking through the TV listings just now I saw that the 1993 film In the Name of the Father about the Guildford Four, starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Emma Thompson, was on last night. I didn’t watch it but seeing it mentioned jogged my memory about a strange incident when I lived in London which I thought I’d share.

One evening in the early 1990s – I don’t remember the exact date – I was sitting in my flat in Bethnal Green when the phone rang. At the other end of the line was Ruth, a member of the admin staff in the School of Mathematical Sciences at Queen Mary, where I was working at the time. She was obviously very upset and it took some time to get her to calm down and tell me what had happened.

Ruth’s boyfriend, an Irish guy called Stephen who lived in Stepney Green, not far from me, and whom I knew a little socially, was in Bethnal Green Police Station. It seems that earlier in the day there had been some sort of altercation in Whitechapel after which one of the two men involved had got into a car and deliberately ran another man over, resulting in his death. The Police had taken Stephen in for questioning despite the fact that (a) he was with a group of friends in a pub at the time of the incident and (b) he didn’t have a car and didn’t have a driving licence. I remember (b) quite well because I was (and still am) a non-driver too. In any case it was unthinkable that Stephen could have been involved in such a terrible thing. Being charitable to the cops, it was obviously a case of mistaken identity.

Stephen had gone voluntarily to be questioned and as far as could be discerned had not been charged but had been there some time and Ruth was getting nervous about what the Police might be up to. There was quite a lot of real or suspected IRA activity in London at that time, and the Police were notoriously hostile to Irish people, even those who weren’t involved in any of that. Ruth’s suspicion was that the cops were trying to stitch Stephen up and not unreasonably wanted to get him a solicitor. But she didn’t know any. Could I help?

Well, the only solicitor I at the time was the chap who did the conveyancing for the purchase of the flat, which wasn’t of any use, but I did have friends in Brighton who worked in the legal profession so I told Ruth I’d make a few calls and see what I could do. It didn’t take long before I got the number of a bloke who worked for a London firm called Benedict Birnberg (which I had never heard of at the time). When I explained the situation he gave me the home phone number of a solicitor colleague, one Gareth Peirce.

I called the number straight away and asked if I could speak to Gareth* Pierce. “Speaking” came a woman’s voice, which surprised me a little, as I had assumed Gareth would be a man’s name, but I went on to explain how I had got her number and what was the issue. She asked me to confirm Stephen’s full name and where he was being held and, to my surprise, said she would go straight away. It was about 9pm if I remember correctly.

About an hour later the phone rang again. It was a jubilant Ruth. Stephen had been released without charge. He was never contacted again about the alleged incident. When I spoke to him later about it he revealed that the solicitor didn’t mince any words in the process of getting him out and the police seemed rather terrified of her. It was only when I went to work the next day and talked about it at coffee-time that someone told me who Gareth Peirce was: she was rather famous, and was the solicitor played by Emma Thompson in the film In the Name of the Father.

At least for a while, this episode gave my work colleagues the entirely false impression that I was someone with immensely useful connections. In truth I had no idea who Gareth Peirce was and never actually met her. As far as I know she acted that evening on an entirely pro bono basis.

*Gareth Peirce was born Jean Webb but changed her name when young. I don’t know why.

Per Ardua ad AstraZeneca

Posted in Covid-19 with tags , , on March 28, 2021 by telescoper

The extent to which AstraZeneca’s dishonesty concerning its purchasing agreement with the EU is becoming clearer, and the company is increasingly engulfed by a PR disaster resulting from this and misleading claims about the efficacy of its Covid-19 vaccine (see here, here, here, etc). Perhaps they will now get their finger out and actually honour their contract?

Here in Ireland there is expected to be a delivery of “large volume” of doses of the Astra Zeneca vaccine next week, though I doubt it will be as large as their contractual obligations specify. We’ll see what actually happens. There isn’t much confidence in AstraZeneca around these parts I can tell you.

This morning the Covid-19 tracker app for Ireland was updated with the latest vaccination figures for Ireland (25th March) which are as follows:

  • First doses: 548,945
  • Second doses: 211,223
  • Total: 760,168

That is definitely speeding up, which is welcome. Not as fast as the UK, of course, who have been the beneficiaries of 21 million doses exported by the EU. That’s about 2/3 of the total shots administered there. The number exported from the UK to the EU is zero. Nada. Zilch. The same is true of the USA. There’s no doubt in my mind who the bad guys are.

Anyway, not to dwell on that issue I was wondering when I might get around to having a jab myself. I am not particularly high in the pecking order, but from April onwards Ireland is supposed to receive about a million doses per month. Assuming that this actually happens, and AstraZeneca doesn’t crap out yet again, I estimate they should get to me in May (2021).

Another question that occurred to me, given that under-18s are not given the current vaccines – is how many doses are needed to vaccinate the adult population of Ireland. The total population of Ireland is about 5 million but that includes quite a large number of children. Looking at the 2016 census I see that the number of people living in Ireland who are under the age of 18 is about 1.25 million. That means to fully vaccinate the entire adult population will take about 7.5 million doses. Currently about 14.6% of the adult population have received one dose, and about 5.6% have received two. We probably won’t get to anything like full vaccination of the adult population until the autumn.

Let me just correct yet another misunderstanding often presented in the UK press concerning unused vaccines. The number of doses imported to Ireland currently exceeds the number administered by over 100,000, but that does not mean that these vaccines have been refused or wasted. Because the vaccination programme here follows the manufacturers’ guidelines, and because the supplies have been unreliable (especially from AstraZeneca), there is a buffer to ensure that a second dose will always be available on the necessary timescale for anyone who has been given the first. That means that at any time there will always be some doses in storage. It wouldn’t be necessary to do this if we could trust the delivery schedule, but there you go.

I wouldn’t be too worried about the slowish pace of vaccination were it not for the fact that new Covid-19 cases in the Republic are on the way up again:

The demographic for these new cases is quite young (a median age of 32 yesterday) and the increase almost certainly arises from lax adherence to the restrictions by a subset of the population. The relatively young age distribution and the fact that those at greatest risk of death or serious illness are being vaccinated should mean that the mortality figures remain low even as cases rise. Although the increase in new cases is worrying it is nowhere near as bad in Ireland as on the Continent of Europe and elsewhere around the world (especially Brazil). More worrying still is the likelihood of vaccine-resistant strains arising through mutation. Indeed there is already some evidence that the AstraZeneca vaccine is not as effective against the B.1.351 South African variant, although this has been disputed. Let’s hope that all the AstraZeneca doses administered so far don’t turn out to be useless.

It seems to me that it’s very likely that in order to deal with variants we’ll be having regular (perhaps annual) updated vaccine shots for the foreseeable future, as the only way to stop mutations happening is to immunize a large fraction of the world’s population and that will take a considerable time.

The REF goes on

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Maynooth with tags , , , , on March 27, 2021 by telescoper

A few communications with former colleagues from the United Kingdom last week reminded me that, despite the Covid-19 pandemic, the deadline for submissions to the 2021 Research Excellence Framework is next week. It seems very strange to me to push ahead with this despite the Coronavirus disruption, but it’s yet another sign that academics have to serve the bureaucrats rather than the other way round.

I know quite a few people at quite a few institutions that are completely exhausted by the workload required to deal with the enormous exercise in paperwork that is intended to assess the quality and impact of research at UK universities.

With apologies for adding to the stack of memes based on recent events in the Suez Canal, it made me think of this:

One of the major plusses of being in Ireland is that there is no REF, so I’m able to avoid the enormous workload and stress generated by this exercise in bean-counting. That’s good because there are more than enough things on my plate right now, and more are being added every day.

My memories of the last REF in 2014 when I was Head of School at Sussex are quite painful, as it went badly for us then. I hope that the long-term investments we made then will pay off, though, and I hope things turn out better for Sussex this time especially for the Department of Physics & Astronomy for which the impact and environment components of the assessment dragged the overall score down.

Not being involved personally in the REF this time round I haven’t really paid much attention to the changes that have been adopted since 2014. One I knew about is that the rules make it harder for institutions to leave staff out of their REF return. Some universities played the system in 2014 by being very selective about whom they put in. Only staff with papers considered likely to be rated top-notch were submitted.

Having a quick glance at the documents I see two other significant differences.

One is that in 2014, with very few exceptions, all staff had to submit four research outputs (i.e. papers) to be graded. in 2021 the system is more flexible: the total number of outputs must equal 2.5 times the summed FTE (full-time equivalent) of the unit’s submitted staff, with no individual submitting more than 5 and none fewer than 1 (except in special cases related to Covid-19). Overall, then there will be fewer outputs than before, the multiplier of FTE being 2.5 (2021) instead of 4 (2014). There will still be a lot of papers, of course, not least because many Departments have grown since 2014, so the panels will have a great deal of reading to do. If that’s what they do with the papers. They’ll probably just look up citations…

The other difference relates to staff who have left an institution during the census period. In 2014 the institution to which a researcher moved got all the credit for the publications, while the institution they left got nothing. In 2021, institutions “may return the outputs of staff previously employed as eligible where the output was first made publicly available during the period of eligible employment, within the set number of outputs required.” I suppose this is to prevent the departure of a staff member causing too much damage to the institution they left and also to credit the institution where the work was done rather than specifically the individual who did it.

Thinking about the REF an amusing thought occurred to me about Research Assessment. My idea was to set up a sort of anti-REF (perhaps the Research Inferiority Framework) based not on the best outputs produced by an institutions researchers, but on the worst. The institutions producing the highest number of inferior papers could receive financial penalties and get relegated in the league tables for encouraging staff to write too many papers that nobody ever reads or are just plain wrong. My guess is that papers published in Nature might figure even more prominently in this…

Anyway, let me just take this opportunity to wish former colleagues at Cardiff and Sussex all the best for their REF submission on Wednesday 31st March. I hope it turns out well

Intel, Leixlip and Maynooth

Posted in Maynooth with tags , , , on March 26, 2021 by telescoper

With all the doom and gloom going around I thought I’d just pass on some local news that’s good for Maynooth!

Intel’s Leixlip campus – the new construction is at the top end of the image, where the cranes are.

The giant multinational silicon chip manufacturer Intel has announced that it will be creating 1600 permanent high-tech jobs when construction is completed at its enormous new campus in Leixlip. Most of these will be graduate jobs and a sizeable fraction will go to physics graduates.  Many of Maynooth’s physics graduates and postgraduates go there already of course, but this will boost their employment prospects even further. Leixlip is on the border between County Dublin and County Kildare, and is just 5 miles away from Maynooth. The construction is expected to be completed by 2023.

Incidentally, `Leixlip’ is a name of Norse origin – it means ‘Salmon’s Leap’. Apparently there was a viking settlement there, positioned because of the abundance of salmon in the River Liffey which flows through on the way to Dublin. `Leix’ is similar to, e.g., the Danish `Laks’, meaning salmon, and ‘leap’ is similar to many words in modern European languages derived from proto-Germanic sources.

Another item of good news came through my door this morning. Preliminary works have started on the extension of the DART (Dublin Area Rapid Transport) system to the West of Dublin as far as Maynooth. Currently the DART runs North-South between Malahide and Greystones:

The new DART line to Maynooth will run along the existing commuter route but will use overhead electrification so new structures will have to be built beside the track. The note I received this morning concerns preliminary ground investigations for the design phase. My house is reasonably close to the line, but not close enough for me to be disturbed by the noise from trains or other work. Of course this is all preliminary and it will take several years to complete but it’s good to see it started. When finished it should make it even easier to travel from Maynooth to Dublin and back!

After the Fludd…

Posted in Biographical, History on March 25, 2021 by telescoper

A friend just pointed out to me that the Wikipedia page of 16th century medic, mystic and occult figure Robert Fludd

… contains an unexpected link to my own Wikipedia page:

Shurely Shome Mishtake?

P. S. Sadly this has now been corrected.

That was the Astrophysics & Cosmology Masterclass that was

Posted in Education, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on March 25, 2021 by telescoper

I’m a bit late getting round to writing something on the blog today because it has been yet another hectic day. Between my usual lecture this morning and Computational Physics Laboratory session this afternoon we also had our long-awaited Astrophysics & Cosmology Masterclass (held via Zoom).

This event had been delayed twice because of Covid-19 so we were glad that it went ahead today at last!

We were a little nervous about how well it would go but as it happened I think it was a success. We had approaching a hundred schools tuning in, from Wicklow to Tralee, Longford to Monaghan, Donegal to Cork and many places between. The level of engagement was excellent. We held a question-and-answer session but were a little nervous in advance about whether we would actually get any questions. As it turned out we got a lot of questions with some very good ones among them. Reaction from students and teachers was very good.

For those who couldn’t make it to this morning’s session we did record the presentations and I’ll make the video available via YouTube in due course.

Now, I’ve been Zooming and Teaming (with a bit of Panopto thrown in) all day so if you don’t mind I’ll now go and vegetate.

New Publication at the Open Journal of Astrophysics

Posted in Open Access, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , on March 24, 2021 by telescoper

Time to announce another publication in the Open Journal of Astrophysics. This one was published yesterday, actually, but I didn’t get time to post about it until just now. It is the third paper in Volume 4 (2021) and the 34th paper in all.

The latest publication is entitled Dwarfs from the Dark (Energy Survey): a machine learning approach to classify dwarf galaxies from multi-band images and is written by Oliver Müller  of the Observatoire Astronomique de Strasbourg (France) and Eva Schnider of the University of Basel (Switzerland).

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. This one is in the Instrumentation and Methods for Astrophysics Folder, though it does overlap with Astrophysics of Galaxies too.

It seems the authors were very happy with the publication process!

Incidentally, the Scholastica platform we are using for the Open Journal of Astrophysics is continuing to develop additional facilities. The most recent one is that the Open Journal of Astrophysics now has the facility to include supplementary files (e.g. code or data sets) along with the papers we publish. If any existing authors (i.e. of papers we have already published) would like us to add supplementary files retrospectively then please contact us with a request!

Pas de lieu Rhône que nous

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on March 23, 2021 by telescoper

À propos de rien here is a French language exercise from 1877:

Without using the internet, translate the title of this blog post (“Pas de lieu Rhône que nous“) into French. Answers via the comments box please.

If you’re struggling you may click below to see a hint…

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