Archive for Maynooth University

Meanwhile, back to Covid…

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , on April 8, 2022 by telescoper

So here we are, at the end of the 9th teaching week of Semester 2 at Maynooth University. There are three more weeks of lectures before the end of term, either side of a one-week break for Easter.

It was decided weeks ago that we all have to proceed on the basis that the Covid-19 pandemic is all over.

Case numbers are still very high though:

The above picture is a bit misleading because it shows only cases confirmed by PCR tests fewer of which are being done now than previously. The HSE data hub also records daily antigen tests which are typically of the same order but higher than the PCR results. The real level of infection is therefore at least twice the level shown in the picture. That’s the bad news. The good news is that positive results from both PCR and antigen tests do seem to be falling, as do hospitalizations and ICU admissions. The mortality rate has also remained low during this phase of the pandemic. The logical inference is that wall of protection afforded by vaccines is holding despite the high level of infections. We’re clearly in a less dangerous phase of the pandemic than we were last year.

But, equally clearly, the pandemic is not all over.

The number of absences due to illness or self-isolation is high for both staff and students. I’ve noted before on this blog that although third level institutions were put under great pressure to return to on-campus teaching, many students are just not attending lectures, tutorials and laboratories in person.

As well as having to look after their own health, many students haven’t been able to secure local accommodation for this Semester, partly because of a general shortage and partly because the 21/22 academic year started late and in chaotic fashion making it impossible for first years to sort out satisfactory living arrangements. It looks like this will happen next year too.

Third-level education isn’t the only sector feeling significant residual effects of the pandemic, but it is one in which problems have been exacerbated by the unrealistic expectations of Government and University managements.

Anyway, after so much disruption we approach the end-of-year examination period with considerable trepidation. For first- and second-year students these will be the first examinations they have taken on the campus; third-years will not have taken on-campus exams since January 2020. The style of our online examinations was necessarily different to the traditional format so in the Exam Halls the students will find themselves in very unfamiliar territory. In particular, we used “open-book” exams so students could use notes, textbooks and other resources to do the examinations. This won’t be the case in May.

How will the results turn out?

We can only wait and see.

New Professorial Position in Astrophysics or Cosmology at Maynooth!

Posted in Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on March 31, 2022 by telescoper

You may recall that back in November 2021 we received word that Maynooth University had been awarded one of ten new senior professorial positions under the Strategic Academic Leadership Initiative (SALI). I blogged about this scheme here. The position we have been awarded is a Chair (Full Professorship) in Observational Astrophysics or Cosmology; you can find Maynooth University’s official response to the original announcement here.

The wheels have turned fairly slowly since the announcement but today at last the applications opened for the new Chairs, including the one in Maynooth. You can find the full announcement of the competition for all the positions here; you can apply for the position at Maynooth here. I think the advertisement will appear on a number of the standard job platforms (such as the Times Higher) too, although this is all being managed centrally. The deadline is in July 2022, and the provisional start date is January 2023 (although this is flexible).

Update: you can find an advertisement for the position on the Times Higher website here. A more complete advertisement can be found here.

The key rationale for these SALI positions is clear from the statement from Simon Harris, the Minister responsible for Third Level education in Ireland:

“Championing equality and diversity is one of the key goals of my department. The Senior Academic Leadership Initiative (SALI) is an important initiative aimed at advancing gender equality and the representation of women at the highest levels in our higher education institutions.

We have a particular problem with gender balance among the staff in Physics in Maynooth, especially in Theoretical Physics where all the permanent staff are male, and the lack of role models has a clear effect on our ability to encourage more female students to study with us.

The wider strategic case for this Chair revolves around broader developments in the area of astrophysics and cosmology at Maynooth. Currently there are two groups active in research in these areas, one in the Department of Experimental Physics (which is largely focussed on astronomical instrumentation) and the other, in the Department of Theoretical Physics, which is theoretical and computational. We want to promote closer collaboration between these research strands. The idea with the new position is that the holder will nucleate and lead a new research programme in the area between these existing groups as well as getting involved in outreach and public engagement.

It is intended that the position to appeal not only to people undertaking observational programmes using ground-based facilities (e.g. those provided by ESO, which Ireland recently joined), or those exploiting data from space-based experiments, as well as people working on multi-messenger astrophysics, gravitational waves, and so on.

Exciting as this position is in itself, it is part of wider developments and we are expecting to advertise further job opportunities in physics and astronomy very soon! I’d be happy to be contacted by any eligible person wishing to discuss this position (or indeed the general situation in Maynooth) on an informal basis.

P. S. For those of you reading this from outside Ireland the job includes a public service pension, a defined benefit scheme way better than the UK’s USS.

Half Semester Break

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , on March 12, 2022 by telescoper

So we arrive at the start of the mid-Semester study break at Maynooth University. There are no lectures next week, and there are two bank holidays (17th March, St Patrick’s Day, and 18th March, the new holiday announced earlier this year).

I was talking to some students on Thursday and I think they’re all as tired as the staff are. Many have long commutes to and from college because they weren’t able to find local accommodation, some have to work to provide income, and some have been ill with Covid-19 and are still recovering. Some staff are also having to work from home being close contacts of people with Covid-19.

Although the Minister responsible for Higher Education declared that students would return to campus, the reality is not really like that. For the above reasons (and, no doubt, others), attendance at in-person lectures has fallen to very low levels, and from what I’ve heard this is not only in the Department of Theoretical Physics. I don’t know whether it is the case at other universities in Ireland. At least I’m recording my lectures – except when there’s a power cut! – so students who can’t come in can have something to study from.

Ironically, the one module I am teaching that is quite easy to deliver online – Computational Physics – still has good attendance for the laboratory sessions, with only one or two students tuning in remotely.

At the end of this Semester, in May 2022, we have examinations on campus for the first time in two years. For students in the first and second year these will be the first university examinations they have ever taken. I for one am a bit nervous about how things will go given the difficulties facing students up to this point.

But that’s for later. For now we have a break from teaching. I have an assignment ready for my Advanced Electromagnetism students but I decided not to put it up until after Study Week as I think it’s better for them to take a bit of a break before the final six weeks of the Semester. For many in my class this will be the final six weeks of their course so it’s important to approach this period with as much energy as possible.

For myself although I have no teaching next week there are a number of things going on between Monday and Wednesday – including some conferring ceremonies – and I’m behind with quite a lot of things, so I’ll be in the office more-or-less as usual. I’ll be looking forward to a glass of wine or several on Wednesday evening though, ahead of Thursday morning’s St Patrick’s Day parade in Maynooth (weather permitting).

Making a Statement about Ukraine

Posted in Maynooth, Politics with tags , , , , , , on March 2, 2022 by telescoper

A Ukrainian student here in Maynooth gave out some ribbons for staff and students to show support by making a visible statement of solidarity. I’m proud to be wearing one:

Public statements made by institutions such as universities and research organizations aren’t going to end the war in Ukraine, but they can at least offer solidarity with the victims of war and sometimes even offer practical support.

I was very pleased to see on Friday, dust a day after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, that my own University, Maynooth, issued a statement on the conflict:

Maynooth University condemns the invasion of Ukraine and we extend our deepest sympathy at this dark hour to all our Ukrainian colleagues, students and graduates as they anxiously await word from friends and family fleeing their homes.

Also in our thoughts are members of the MU community from the entire region, whose families, lives and livelihoods are affected by the escalating tension and violence.

Maynooth University stands in solidarity with those who cherish democracy and peace, and we will undertake a process of engagement with colleagues from this region to discuss and explore ways to activate our support.  

It doesn’t say much, but it was at least timely and thoughtful. Far better than remaining silent.

The Royal Irish Academy issued a statement on Monday:

The Royal Irish Academy, as Ireland’s national academy for science, the humanities, and social sciences, is shocked and deeply concerned at the military invasion by Russia of Ukraine. The Academy notes with grave concern the damage this represents to educational and scientific institutions, academics, and international research collaboration, and to the social, economic and cultural foundations of Ukraine. The Academy expresses support and solidarity with the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. The Academy also wishes to salute the courageous position taken by many members of the Russian Academy of Sciences, who associated their signature with that of several hundred researchers and scientific journalists from their country in an open letter denouncing the aggression against Ukraine by the Russian Federation and calling for its immediate end.

In my own field, I saw a statement issued by various learned societies and organizations in the field of astronomy. It’s not as strong but at least does offer some practical supports for Ukrainian academics fleeing the war:

The European Astronomical Society (EAS), the International Astronomical Union (IAU), the American Astronomical Society (AAS), and African Astronomical Society (AfAS), the Astronomical Society of Australia (ASA), and the Korean Astronomical Society (KAS) have been observing with great concern the events unfolding in Ukraine and fear the adverse consequences for the scientific community, our colleagues, and their families. We have been receiving reports of the dire circumstances they are experiencing: their freedom, safety and even their lives are under threat.

The mission of our societies is to promote and safeguard the science of astronomy in all its aspects, including research, communication, education and development through international cooperation. We believe in free expression and free exchange of scientific ideas and in peaceful collaboration at a global level. The current events jeopardise the scientific cooperation within our European community and with the rest of the world.

We are deeply concerned for the Ukrainian community as well as for the entire region. Triggered by the life-threatening situation in which our Ukrainian colleagues find themselves, we wish to encourage members to help wherever possible in this difficult time for Ukraine. Ukrainian astronomers seeking support should contact the Institute of International Education (IIE) scholar rescue fund, which supports refugee scholars and is activating an Ukraine-specific student emergency fund.

Notice that the Royal Astronomical Society is absent from the list of signatories. Indeed it has not made any public statement whatsoever about the invasion of Ukraine. Their silence is deafening. From where I sit, as a Fellow, their policy of ignoring the conflict just looks spineless and contemptible.

UPDATE: The Royal Astronomical Society has now posted a statement (dated 2nd March):

The Royal Astronomical Society deeply regrets the illegal military invasion of Ukraine, a sovereign democratic nation, by Russia. Our thoughts and hopes go out to our fellow scientists and all the citizens of Ukraine for their safety and well-being. We will be exploring avenues for supporting our fellow scientists who are fleeing the war zone with government agencies and our sister societies.

There are a number of non-governmental organisations working to provide humanitarian relief in Ukraine itself and in neighbouring countries, including the following, who welcome donations:

British Red Cross

United Help Ukraine

Sunflower of Peace

Voices of Children

As far I know the Institute of Physics has so far refused to address the Ukraine crisis.

The Institute of Physics has also now issued a (brief) statement (dated 3rd March):

The Institute of Physics condemns Russia’s actions against Ukraine which are a violation of one of the most fundamental norms of international law that prohibits the use or threat of force by one state against another. As a member of the European Physical Society we support the statement of the Executive Committee.

Physics is a global endeavour, and we continue to support academic freedom of scientists everywhere.

We hope for a quick resolution of the crisis to bring an end to its devastating impacts on the people of Ukraine.

My regard for both these organizations has fallen considerably in the last week, to the point that I now seriously doubt whether I wish to remain a Fellow of either. If there are good reason why I should change my mind, or if either organization has made public statements that I’ve missed, I’d love to hear them, either through the comments box or privately.

P.S. The Royal Society of London is also yet to make a statement on Ukraine. I find this regrettable. Obviously, though, I am not a Fellow of that organization so am not able to resign.

UPDATE: The Royal Society has now joined with the National Academies of all the G7 Nations in making a strong statement against the Russian invasion of Ukraine:

I don’t know why it took a full week to get there, but I am pleased at last that the RAS, IOP and Royal Society have now at least said something. Every little helps.

Back to Electromagnetism

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on February 1, 2022 by telescoper

So today I gave my first lecture of the new Semester, it being a gentle reintroduction to Maxwell’s equations for a 4th-year class on Advanced Electromagnetism. They have seen these equations before but it doesn’t do any harm to spend a bit of time refreshing the memory. In what follows I do some potential theory, applications to electrostatics (method of images, multipole expansions, use of the complex potential, etc), dielectric materials and polarization, magnetostatics, relativistic formalism of electromagnetism, gauge invariance, electromagnetic radiation and energy transport, and (if time) plasma physics (if time).

When I taught this module last year I did it all remotely from home – using the blackboard shown above – but this year until further notice I’ll be doing it in person in an actual lecture theatre, though I will be recording the lectures in case any students wish to look at them again for revision, etc, and webcasting them for any students unable to attend on campus. I know there are differences of opinion on this, but I think recording of lectures should become routine practice – as it is in all UK universities I’m aware of – but that is difficult here in Maynooth because the equipment available is inadequate (by which I mean virtually non-existent). Let’s hope the necessary investment will be made at some point.

End of Term Blog

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , , on December 18, 2021 by telescoper

Yesterday was the last day of teaching at Maynooth University for 2021 and, although I didn’t have any teaching to do, I walked to the Department partly to get a bit of fresh air having been stuck at home on Thursday after my booster jab, and partly to collect a few things before the break. I also discovered that a lovely parcel of goodies had been sent to me and I was anxious to collect the items before Christmas.

I’ll be keeping myself to myself over the break, apart from the odd trip to the shops, and am glad to be doing so. We are yet to see the steep increase in Covid-19 cases associated with the omicron variant happening in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. If anything case numbers are currently declining slowly. But the new wave will undoubtedly hit Ireland soon.

UPDATE: not half an hour after I posted this, the HSE announced 7333 new cases of Covid-19 in Ireland, more than double yesterday’s figure and the highest number seen since early January. And this is before the Christmas surge.

The jury is still out on whether omicron is more or less dangerous than previous variants but it is clearly more transmissible, and I don’t see the point of taking chances, so I agree with the Irish Government on the need to take precautions. I don’t think the latest restrictions go anywhere near far enough though.

Yesterday we received at work an email from University management that said, among other things, that

At present the aim is to resume teaching on 31 January, as in Semester 1.

The phrase “as in Semester 1” means that large lectures will be online-only but everything else will be face-to-face. That is a reasonable starting point because the extent of the omicron wave is as yet unknown, but I think it’s more likely than not that in the end we’ll find ourselves doing everything online. I just hope a decision on that is made in reasonable time for us to put Plan B into action. We don’t start lectures again until January 31st and there should be enough data by then to make an informed decision.

I don’t want to sound unduly pessimistic but I don’t see any sign that we are anywhere near the end of this pandemic. With a bit of luck we might find that we’re roughly halfway through, but as long as governments allow large pools of virus to circulate, mutations will continue to occur and new variants will continue to emerge. To end this cycle will require a majority of the world’s population to be vaccinated, and I don’t see that happening soon.

Four Years in Maynooth

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , on December 1, 2021 by telescoper

 

In recent times I’ve found myself remarking quite frequently on this blog how much the Covid-19 pandemic has played havoc with my perception of the passage of time, and I come to reflect on that again now that today (1st December 2021) marks four years since I started work at Maynooth University. So much has happened in that period it seems very much longer since I first arrived here.

I started off working part-time here in Maynooth and part-time in Cardiff, commuting once a week to and fro across the Irish Sea until July 2018. That was a very tiring experience that brought it home very forcefully that I don’t have anywhere near as much energy as I did when I was younger.

I won’t deny that the past four years have had their frustrations. The teaching and administrative workload, especially since I became Head of Department in 2019, and even more so since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, has been very heavy and has made it difficult to be very active in research. That’s not helped by the lack of opportunities for funding in basic science, thanks to what I believe to be a very short-sighted policy on research funding by the Irish government.

On the other hand, I have great colleagues and the students are very engaged. There are few things in life more rewarding than teaching people who really want to learn.

I hadn’t realized when I arrived in Ireland that it would take the best part of three years to find somewhere permanent to live, but I managed to buy a house in the summer of 2020. I am very happy here despite the continuing restrictions due to the pandemic.

The thing I’m probably most proud of over the past four years is, with the huge help of staff at Maynooth University Library, getting the Open Journal of Astrophysics off the ground and attracting some excellent papers. Hopefully that will continue to grow next year.

I am also proud of having played a part in the successful application for a new SALI Chair which we will be advertising formally in the new year. That is just one of many new developments on the horizon here at Maynooth, which suggest the next few years should be very exciting for physics and astronomy at Maynooth.

So, after a few years of hard and at times dispiriting slog, things are definitely looking up. Meanwhile, in Brexit Britain, events have turned out exactly as I predicted:

The referendum campaign, followed by the callous and contemptuous attitude of the current UK Government towards EU nationals living in Britain, unleashed a sickening level of xenophobia that has made me feel like a stranger in my own country. Not everyone who voted `Leave’ is a bigot, of course, but every bigot voted for Brexit and the bigots are now calling all the shots. There are many on the far right of UK politics who won’t be satisfied until we have ethnic cleansing. Even if Brexit is stopped the genie of intolerance is out of the bottle and I don’t think it well ever be put back. Brexit will also doom the National Health Service and the UK university system, and clear the way for the destruction of workers’ rights and environmental protection. The poor and the sick will suffer, while only the rich swindlers who bought the referendum result will prosper. The country in which I was born, and in which I have lived for the best part of 54 years, is no longer something of which I want to be a part.

In other words I don’t regret for one minute my decision to leave Britain.

P.S. After I finish my term as Head of Department next year I am eligible for a sabbatical, so if anyone fancies playing host to an old cosmologist please let me know!

P.P.S. Solidarity to all my colleagues in UK universities who are, from today, taking part in strike action against pension cuts and deteriorating working conditions.

Back to Online Examinations Again

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on November 26, 2021 by telescoper

This afternoon teaching staff at Maynooth University were informed of changes to the plans for the January examination session: all examinations will now be held remotely, apart possibly from those for some final-year modules; for the latter the lecturer will decide whether they should be on campus or remote.

It’s worth mentioning that a petition set up recently by the Maynooth University Students Union urging the University to switch exams online attractive over 4,000 signatures.

As I said a while ago I think this is a very sensible move. I was chatting to some students before a lecture earlier today and I think they will all be relieved that a decision has been taken and they can make sensible plans for the Examination Period. I am teaching one module for first-year students and one for second-years this semester so both of these will definitely be going online.

We now have done three full cycles of online examinations since the pandemic started: May 2020, January 2021 and May 2021, plus two sets of repeats. I think we have a pretty good idea what we are doing with them and have got three weeks before the end of term to make any changes to the papers we have written for January. Since the online examinations are effectively open-book tests we tend to exclude bookwork – stating results which the students could easily look up – and concentrate instead on problem-solving tasks. Online examinations done this way are certainly no easier than in-person papers, and emphasize what is probably the most useful skill we try to develop.

I am glad we have some clarity on the examinations. We still have three weeks of teaching to finish before the end of term, though, and no changes have been announced to plans for lectures and tutorials. I told my class this afternoon however that as of Wednesday 8th December I will have exceeded 6 months since my second Pfizer dose. There is very little chance I will get a booster dose by then so I will be working from home from that date until the end of term. That means I’ll be doing three first-year lectures and three second-year lectures from home using my famous blackboard. I explained this decision to my second-year class today and they were supportive.

Maynooth University Library Cat Update

Posted in Maynooth with tags , on November 24, 2021 by telescoper

It has been some time since I last posted an update about Maynooth University Library Cat. It’s been rather chilly recently and he’s probably been keeping out of the cold somewhere snug. I’m not sure exactly where he goes to stay warm but I’m sure he has some favourite places here and there around campus. He lives outdoors but I’m sure he’s prepared from time to time to venture inside for warmth. On his own terms, of course. He is, after all, a cat.

I did however see him on the way to my 2pm lecture today and he was still on post when I returned an hour or so later. He was looking fluffier than usual, a normal reaction against the cold, but was his usual friendly self when I stopped to give him a stroke. He only sits in the location shown on the picture when he wants a bit of a fuss and/or to be fed. When he’s not in the mood he makes himself scarce!

Incidentally, in the distance, past the Library on the left you can see the new building on the North campus which is nearing completion…

Half Measures

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , on November 16, 2021 by telescoper

Against the backdrop of rapidly rising numbers of Covid-19 cases the Irish Government today announced the return of some restrictions, including the closure of hospitality venues no later than midnight and a return to working from home “unless absolutely necessary”. On the latter, however, it has said that “There will be no reintroduction of remote learning for schools and third-level institutions at this point”.

I think the key phrase is “at this point”. I don’t think the new measures go nearly far enough and they will have to be revisited in a week or two, at which point we will revert to remote (online) teaching. Although we haven’t been give guidance yet, I think we’ll be carrying on with in-person lectures and tutorials at Maynooth for the time being, but it’s no more than an even money bet that we’ll stay that way until the end of term. I would also suggest that the odds are very much against us actually having examinations on campus in January. We await further guidance from the University about this, so I don’t know. The timetable for the January examinations is due to be published next week so a decision will have to be made very quickly.

What I do know, though, is that my second vaccine dose was on June 8th. The Government has now announced that 50-59 year olds (which includes me) can now get a third (booster) dose six months from their last one. In my case that is December 8th. But the roll-out of boosters has been painfully slow in Ireland, and most of the over-60s haven’t had theirs yet. It’s likely to be weeks or months until I get an appointment for mine.

We might have to switch to remote teaching in a while anyway if the rules are changed but I have made the decision that if I haven’t got my booster by December 8th I’ll be working from home and switching all my lectures online. Term ends on December 17th so I’ll only have to give a few remote lectures, but for me it is a matter of principle.

By deciding that in person teaching is “absolutely essential” the Government has admitted that lecturers are frontline staff and we should accordingly get a booster dose at the appropriate time. I’ve worked countless hours of unpaid overtime during this pandemic and I’m not going to continue without adequate protection from infection.