Archive for Maynooth University

Lá Saoire i mí Lúnasa

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Maynooth, Mental Health with tags , on August 1, 2022 by telescoper

Today, Monday 1st August 2022, being the first Monday in August, is a Bank Holiday in Ireland. This holiday was created by the Bank Holiday Act of 1871 when Ireland was under British rule. While the holiday was subsequently moved to the end of August in England and Wales it has remained at the start of August in Ireland. Today is also a Bank Holiday in Scotland, though the Scots have the best of both worlds and have a holiday at the end of August too.

I’ve mentioned before that 1st August marks the old Celtic festival of Lughnasadh, named after the God Lugh, on which is celebrated the beginning of the harvest season. It is also one of the cross-quarter days, lying roughly half-way between the Summer Solstice and the Autumnal Equinox (in the Northern Hemisphere).

Anyway, the University is closed today and I made the use of the long weekend to take a few days of annual leave last week, from Wednesday. I’ll be off tomorrow too. Those four days will be about it for my summer holidays, though, as our repeat examinations commence on Wednesday 3rd August and I’ll be busy doing corrections from then on. Incidentally, these examinations are called the Autumn Repeats consistent with the general interpretation here in Ireland of 1st August being the start of autumn. The weather today is certainly somewhat autumnal!

For various reasons we have a larger-than-average number of students taking repeat examinations this year. Moreover, one of our temporary lecturers left at the end of his contract at the end of June so is unavailable to mark his examinations. As Head of Department, and with several staff unavailable, it’s my responsibility to make sure that they get graded so it looks like I’ll have to mark the majority of his scripts as well as my own. And a few projects too.

At least my term as Head of Department is due to end soon. I was appointed to this position in 2019, initially for three years starting on 1st September so August 31st 2022 is my last day in office. That reminds me that I stepped down as Head of School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at Sussex on 31st July 2016, i.e. six years ago yesterday. How can it be so long?

I moved back to Cardiff in 2016 to a three-year, part-time position which would have come to an end in 2019. I supposed at the time that I would then take early retirement and that would be that. I certainly didn’t imagine then that I would move once more, this time to Ireland nor did I think I would be Head of Department anywhere.

Reflecting on my decision to leave Sussex and return to Cardiff I wrote this:

I’m not going to go into all the reasons for stepping down, but one of them is I wanted to establish a better work-life balance…. I was therefore more than happy to accept the offer of a position here on a 50% salary. In other words, I am officially a part-time member of staff. I’m planning to use the other 50% to pursue some other interests, such as writing a couple of books and running the Open Journal of Astrophysics, but generally just taking more time off the treadmill of academic life.

It didn’t quite turn out like that, but at least I did what I was appointed to do at Cardiff. It was just chance that led to the change of plan, with the opportunity of moving to Ireland coming out of the blue. Instead of taking 50% of my time off, from December 1st 2017 until July 2018 I worked 50% of the time at Maynooth, commuting to and fro across the Irish Sea: thereafter I worked here full-time.

When I was appointed Head of Department of Theoretical Physics in Maynooth in 2019 I received some (sarcastic) comments about that bit above about the “treadmill of academic life”. In truth I didn’t imagine that it would be as hard as it turned out. I wrote in 2019:

It’s about three years now since I stepped down as Head of School at the University of Sussex at which point I didn’t imagine I would be stepping up to be Head of Anything again, but to be honest this position has a smaller and much better defined set of responsibilities than the one I used to hold so I’m actually quite looking forward to it.

Of course I didn’t know then that the Covid-19 pandemic would strike in 2020, exacerbated by staff shortages and lack of support at University level, creating a huge increase in workload and stress. The job has been far harder than I imagined it would be, not least because there is no proper job description for a Head of Department at Maynooth. The “smaller and much better defined set of responsibilities” I anticipated turned out not to be the case at all. Indeed, the workload associated with being HoD has grown substantially over the last three years, with fewer resources and lower levels of support.

In short, I can’t wait for this month, and my term as Head of Department, to be over. I am not going to leave Maynooth and will continue doing teaching and research (including supervising graduate students), both of which I enjoy. But after this month time I will have served my time as Head of Department and it will be someone else’s turn to climb up on the treadmill…

Final Reminder – Professorial Position in Observational Astrophysics or Cosmology at Maynooth!

Posted in Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on July 1, 2022 by telescoper

With just a few days to go to the deadline (3rd July), I thought I would take the opportunity to remind readers that Maynooth University has a Chair (i.e. Full Professor) position in Astrophysics or Cosmology under the Strategic Academic Leadership Initiative (SALI). I blogged about this scheme here and announced this Chair position originally here.

You can find the full announcement of the competition for all the SALI positions here; you can apply for the position at Maynooth here. The position is now also advertised on the AAS Jobs Register here.

As I said, the deadline for applications is 3rd July 2022, and the provisional start date is January 2023 (although this is flexible). As well as a good salary (starting at €124,683 at current rates, rising by annual increments to €157,611) the position comes with membership of the Irish public service pension scheme, a defined benefit scheme (comparable to the older version of the UK’s USS which has now been scrapped).

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.

A 25th Birthday Celebration

Posted in History, Maynooth with tags , , , on June 16, 2022 by telescoper

Today saw a celebratory barbecue on campus to commemorate 25 years of the creation of the National University of Ireland Maynooth now known as Maynooth University, my current employer, as an independent university. The institution was set up as the result of the Universities Act 1997 which was signed into law in May 1997 and came into operation on 16th June 1997 – i.e. 25 years ago today – as a result of the subsequent Commencement Order.

I was unable to attend the event on campus today to celebrate this anniversary because of pressure of work. With a €13.2 million surplus to spend on it, the party was probably very good, but I know I’m not alone among my colleagues in finding little to celebrate in our present predicament of inadequate resources, staff shortages and overwork.

Professorial Position in Observational Astrophysics or Cosmology at Maynooth!

Posted in Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on May 30, 2022 by telescoper

With about a month to go to the deadline, I thought I would take the opportunity to remind readers that Maynooth University has a Chair (i.e. Full Professor) position in Astrophysics or Cosmology under the Strategic Academic Leadership Initiative (SALI). I blogged about this scheme here and announced this Chair position originally here.

You can find the full announcement of the competition for all the SALI positions here; you can apply for the position at Maynooth here. The position is now also advertised on the AAS Jobs Register here.

The deadline for applications is in July 2022, and the provisional start date is January 2023 (although this is flexible). As well as a good salary (starting at €124,683 at current rates, rising by annual increments to €157,611) the position comes with membership of the Irish public service pension scheme, a defined benefit scheme (comparable to the older version of the UK’s USS which has now been scrapped).

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.

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.