Archive for Maynooth University

Fintan O’Toole on “Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain”

Posted in Literature, Maynooth, Politics with tags , , , on December 6, 2018 by telescoper

Time for a tea break and a quick post about a very interesting event this afternoon at Maynooth featuring renowned Irish journalist and author Fintan O’Toole (whose regular columns in the Irish Times I read with great interest).

This event saw John O’Brennan, Director of the Centre for European and Eurasian Studies in Maynooth in conversation with Fintan on his new book, Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain. The book deals with the Brexit referendum, the chaos it unleashed in British politics and the challenges posed to the island of Ireland by a ‘No Deal Brexit’. In particular the book examines how a country that once had colonies is redefining itself as an oppressed nation requiring liberation; the dreams of revolutionary deregulation and privatization that drive Arron Banks, Nigel Farage and Jacob Rees-Mogg; and the silent rise of English nationalism, the force that dare not speak its name. He also discusses the fatal attraction of heroic failure, once a self-deprecating cult in a hugely successful empire that could well afford the occasional disaster: the Charge of the Light Brigade, or Franklin lost in the Arctic. Now failure is no longer heroic – it is just failure, and its terrible costs will be paid by the most vulnerable of Brexit’s supporters, and by those who may suffer the consequences of a hard border in Ireland and the breakdown of a fragile peace.

The discussion was so interesting – and Fintan O’Toole was so eloquent and amusing –  that I bought the book. The author was kind enough to sign it for me too!

There’s an extract printed on the cover that will give you a taste, but if you want more you’ll have to buy the book:

Of all the pleasurable emotions, self-pity is the one that most makes us want to be on our own…Only alone can we surrender completely to it and immerse ourselves in the steaming bath of hurt, outrage and tender regard for our terribly wronged selves. Brexit therefore makes sense of a nation that feels sorry for itself. The mystery, though, is how Britain, or more precisely England, came not to just experience this delightful sentiment but to define itself through it.

I only bought the book today so haven’t read it yet, but I will endeavour to write a review when I have.

Now back to the writing of lecture notes…

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Physics: Mathematical or Theoretical or Experimental?

Posted in Education, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on November 26, 2018 by telescoper

Fresh from doing two Open Day talks last week I thought I’d write a few words here about something that cropped up in the question-and-answer session.

For a start, I should explain that here at Maynooth University there are two Physics departments, one the Department of Theoretical Physics (of which I am a Faculty member) and the other the Department of Experimental Physics. These two units are in the same building but are largely separate in terms of teaching and research.

For instance, when students enter on our General Science degree programme they have to choose four subjects in the first year, including Mathematics (much as I did when I did my Natural Sciences degree at Cambridge back in the day). Picking `double physics’ (i.e. Experimental Physics and Theoretical Physics) uses up two of those choices, whereas Physics was a single choice in the first year of my degree.

To confuse matters still further, the Department of Theoretical Physics only recently changed its name from the Department of Mathematical Physics and some of our documentation still carries that title. I got asked several times at the weekend what’s the difference between Theoretical Physics and Mathematical Physics?

As far as Maynooth is concerned we basically use those terms interchangeably and, although it might appear a little confusing at first, having both terms scattered around our webpages means that Google searches for both `Mathematical Physics’ and `Theoretical Physics’ will find us.

It’s interesting though that Wikipedia has different pages for Mathematical Physics and Theoretical Physics. The former begins

Mathematical physics refers to the development of mathematical methods for application to problems in physics. The Journal of Mathematical Physics defines the field as “the application of mathematics to problems in physics and the development of mathematical methods suitable for such applications and for the formulation of physical theories”. It is a branch of applied mathematics, but deals with physical problems.

while the latter starts

Theoretical physics is a branch of physics that employs mathematical models and abstractions of physical objects and systems to rationalize, explain and predict natural phenomena. This is in contrast to experimental physics, which uses experimental tools to probe these phenomena.

The difference is subtle,and there is obviously a huge amount in common between these two definitions, but it is perhaps that Theoretical Physics is more focused on the use of mathematics to account for the results of experiment and observations whereas Mathematical Physics concerns itself more with the development of the necessary mathematical techniques, but I’m sure there will be readers of this blog who disagree with this interpretation.

For the record here is what Wikipedia says about Experimental Physics:

Experimental physics is the category of disciplines and sub-disciplines in the field of physics that are concerned with the observation of physical phenomena and experiments. Methods vary from discipline to discipline, from simple experiments and observations, such as the Cavendish experiment, to more complicated ones, such as the Large Hadron Collider.

I’d say that theoretical physicists are more likely than mathematical physicists to be working closely with experimentalists. I count myself as a theoretical physicist (that’s what I did in Part II at Cambridge, anyway) though I do work a lot with data.

Anyway, as an experiment, I asked the audience at my Open Day talks if they could name a famous physicist. Most popular among the responses were the names you would have guessed: Einstein, Hawking, Feynman, Dirac, Newton, Schrodinger, and some less familiar names such as Leonard Susskind and Brian Greene. Every single one of these is (or was) a theorist of some kind. This is confirmed by the fact that many potential students mention similar names in the personal statements they write in support of their university applications. For better or worse, it seems that to many potential students Physics largely means Theoretical (or Mathematical) Physics.

Although it is probably good for our recruitment that there are so many high-profile theoretical physicists, it probably says more about how little the general public knows about what physics actually is and how it really works. For me the important thing is the interplay between theory and experiment (or observation), as it is in that aspect where the whole exceeds the sum of the parts.

It might seem a bit strange to have two Physics departments in one University – though it seems to work alright in Cambridge! – but I think it works pretty well. The one problem is that there isn’t a clear entry point for `Physics’ without an adjective. Students can carry Theoretical Physics and Experimental Physics through all the way to final year and get a joint honours degree (50% theory and 50% experiment) or they can pick one to do single honours, but we might attract a few more students if the former possibility were just called `Physics’. Perhaps.

On the Second (Open) Day..

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , on November 24, 2018 by telescoper

I’ve been back on campus all morning today (Saturday 24th November) at Maynooth University for the second Open Day. I’m just taking a short break to have a sandwich and a cup of tea before rejoining the fray and giving the Subject Talk at 2.10pm on behalf of the Department of Theoretical Physics.

Yesterday’s Open Day was a very busy day. I’m given to understand that there was a record crowd  of over 3000 visitors. We were certainly not short of people to talk to at our stand in Iontas.

I think being a number of school trips contributed to the high attendance. Today has been more individual prospective students and parents. Also it’s been a bit rainy this morning so numbers might be down a bit compared to yesterday, but we’ve been busy again on the stall.

Anyway the main reason for writing this post is to thank all our student helpers including Rebekah, Eibhlin, Philip, Cai, Tigernach and Ryan for contributing over the two days and staff members Paul and Jiri for doing their stint. Their only material reward for helping has been a lunch voucher for one of the campus refectories.

UPDATE: The talk was very well attended and ended with lots and lots of questions, so I think I’ll call it a success. Now home to put my feet up and have a nice cup of tea!

Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University Open Days!

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , on November 22, 2018 by telescoper

Well, tomorrow (Friday 23rd November) and Saturday 24th November are both open days at Maynooth University. If you want to find out more about them you can look here where you will find this video which has some nice views of the campus:

I used to give Open Day talks quite frequently in a previous existence as Head of School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex and now I’m at it again, giving talks on behalf of the Department of Theoretical Physics on each Open Day. If you come along, please say hello either at the lectures (1.10pm on Friday and 2.10 on Saturday)! We also have a stall in the Iontas Building from 9.30 each day where you can meet staff and students and talk to them about the course, or anything else vaguely related to Theoretical Physics. There are other stalls, of course, but the Theoretical Physics one is obviously em>way more interesting than the others!

Looking for fun pictures to put in my talk I stumbled across this:

I think that’s the only one I need, really!

Another Day, Another Open Access Talk..

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth, Open Access with tags , , on October 26, 2018 by telescoper

So having exercised my franchise earlier this morning, I found myself in Maynooth University Library giving yet another talk about Open Access publishing as part of Open Access Week.

I’ve got a lecture at noon, which will be the last one I give before the half-term `Study Week’ which begins with a bank holiday on Monday 29th October (Lá Saoire i mí Dheireadh Fómhair). It’s very nice to have a break before Christmas like this. Also the University study week is timed to be the same as School half-term holidays, which is good for those members of staff who have kids of school age.

Well, that’s enough blogging. I need to get my vector calculus notes together. I’m doing line integrals today, by the way

The Open Journal Launch Event

Posted in Maynooth with tags , , , , on October 9, 2018 by telescoper

Tuesday afternoons are usually quite busy for me, with teaching sessions from 12-2 and 3-4 this term, but today turned into almost four consecutive hours of activity as I gave a talk on Open Science at a lunchtime event as part of Maynooth University’s Library `Publication Festival’ which, in turn, is part of `Research Week’. I talked about Open Science generally from the point of view of astrophysics for a bit, but the main purpose of the event was to launch the Open Journal of Astrophysics which also marks the debut of Maynooth Academic Publishing as an OA publisher. Fortunately I’d managed to get everything up and running before the talk so I was able to show the assembled throng the actual journal with actual papers.

Anyway, here are my slides if you’re interested.

P.S. The gentleman at the left of the picture is Professor Philip Nolan, the President of Maynooth University, who launched today’s event.

P.P.S. I’d like to point out that I did not mock the UK Prime Minister Theresa May by dancing at the podium prior to my presentation.

 

 

The One True Ranking Narrative

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on September 27, 2018 by telescoper

Yesterday saw the release of the 2019 Times Higher World University Rankings. The main table of rankings can be found here and the methodology used to concoct it here.

It seems that there’s little point in doing so, but I’ll try to reiterate the objections I made last year and the year before that and the year before that to the completely unscientific nature of these tables. My main point is that when changes to the methodology used to compile these tables are introduced no attempt is ever made to distinguish their effect from changes in the input data. This would be quite easy to do, by simply running the old methodology alongside the new on the metrics. The compilers of these tables steadfastly refuse to do this straightforward exercise, I suspect this is because they know what the result would be: that many of the changes in these tables year-on-year are the result of artificially introduced `churn’.

And then there’s the questions of whether you think the metrics used are meaningful anyway, and whether any changes not due to methodological tweaks are simply statistical noise, but I have neither the time nor the energy to go into that one now…

Notwithstanding the reasonable objections to these tables, the newspapers are full of stories constructed to explain why some universities went up, some went down and others stayed roughly the same. Most of these articles were obviously written by that well-known journalist, Phil Space.

However, not all these narratives are meaningless. The latest Times Higher World University Rankings have revealed that here in Ireland, while more famous higher education establishments such as Trinity College Dublin have fallen three places due to , my own institution (Maynooth University) is one of only two to have risen in the tables. It simply cannot be a coincidence that I moved here this year. Clearly my arrival from Cardiff has had an immediate and positive impact. There is no other credible explanation.