Archive for Maynooth University

Theorists and Experimentalists in Physics

Posted in Education, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on April 22, 2021 by telescoper

Regular readers of his blog (Sid and Doris Bonkers) will know 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 have so far have been largely separate in terms of teaching and research; Experimental Physics (EP) is somewhat larger in terms of staff and student numbers than Theoretical Physics (TP).

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. In the second year of this programme students do three subjects so can continue with both Theoretical and Experimental Physics (and another) , as they can in Year 3 where they do two subjects, and in Year 4 where they can do a single Major in either TP or EP or a double Major doing a bit of both.

To confuse matters still further, the Department of Theoretical Physics only changed its name from the Department of Mathematical Physics relatively recently and some of our documentation still carries that title. Quite often I get asked 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.

The Wikipedia page for Theoretical Physics begins

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.

This 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 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 and many of the researchers in my discipline (cosmology) actually work at the interface between theory and experiment, so the distinction between theorists and experimentalists is perhaps not a very useful one.

As a matter of fact I think there’s a good case for theoretical physicists to have at least some experience of practical experimental work. There are two reasons for this:

  1. to understand about errors in measurement and how to treat them properly using statistical methods;
  2. to learn how easy it is to break expensive laboratory equipment.

In the past during Open Days I have asked the audience of prospective physics students 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 perhaps 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 some potential students at least 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. No doubt there are many prospective students who are primarily drawn to laboratory work just as there are many drawn to theoretical calculations. But there are probably others whose interests encompass both. 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.

Anyway, this year we’ve been thinking very hard about bringing about closer cooperation between the two Physics Departments at Maynooth. It remains to be seen precisely what form that closer cooperation will take but I think it’s a good idea in principle. In fact in the Open Day at Maynooth coming up on Saturday 24th April there will, for the first time ever, be a joint talk by the Departments of Theoretical Physics and Experimental Physics. I’m looking forward to seeing how that goes!

A Year of Closure

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth, Mental Health with tags , on March 12, 2021 by telescoper

Today is 12th March 2021, which means it is exactly one year since Maynooth University campus closed because of Covid-19. Last year 12th March was on a Thursday and I remember doing my Computational Physics lecture in the morning and a computer lab in the afternoon and then hearing we couldn’t go back to teaching the following day. After that, as it is this year, it was the Study Week break (which includes the St Patrick’s Day holiday). Last year we all trued to use the opportunity to move all our teaching online.

I certainly didn’t imagine that a full year later we would still be working from home. Although the current lockdown isn’t as strict as that of last Spring we’re still told not to come on campus unless it is strictly necessary, and all teaching remains online.

When the campus closed last year I was living in a small flat with no internet connection, so the only way I could do my teaching was using my mobile phone data. It wasn’t great but I did the best I could.

At least I was able to use the semi-unlocking of the lockdown in late summer to complete the purchase of a house. I’ve been much more comfortable doing teaching from here for the last six months or so, although not leaving the house except to do shopping has led to an extreme sense of isolation which is not all ameliorated by endless online meetings via Zoom and Teams. That, together with the heavy workload, is all very wearying. It further annoys me how many people think “working from home” means not “working very much” or not “working at all”. What it does mean is never getting away from your work, except when you’re asleep.

I’ve noticed over the last few months that the agoraphobia from which I’ve suffered sporadically over the years has very definitely returned. Agoraphobia can be defined as:

…an anxiety disorder characterized by symptoms of anxiety in situations where the person perceives their environment to be unsafe with no easy way to escape. These situations can include open spaces, public transit, shopping centers, or simply being outside their home.

My long-term agoraphobia has been about the threat of physical violence caused by a traumatic event in the past, but now it is more general. I see too many people not taking proper precautions (face masks, social distancing, etc) that it gets me very anxious for a new reason. Supermarkets are bad enough, but it’s more general. I’m now starting to realize that I’m going to find it difficult ever to return to a “normal” life of crowded lecture theatres and campus buildings after this pandemic ends, whenever that happens.

This morning I did a tutorial (via Teams) which was my last teaching session before the mid-term break. I was exhausted even before term started so it has been a very difficult six weeks. It’s not just the teaching, it’s also the relentless stream of demands from upstairs for other things to be done. There seems very little understanding from that direction of what life is like on the front line, to be honest.

My appointment as Head of Department for Theoretical Physics was nominally three years. I am now about halfway through that term and can’t wait for it to end.

Unfortunately there isn’t much light at the end of the Covid-19 tunnel. Case numbers in Ireland remain high, and are falling slowly at best; they have actually been increasing for the last few days. Vaccination rollout is also very slow, thanks to supply issues (chiefly with AstraZeneca).

I am now fairly confident that teaching at least for the Autumn Semester of 2021/22 will again be online, as there is little chance of staff being vaccinated by the end of the summer. I know colleagues in other Irish universities who are planning for this eventuality too.

Reminder: What is Quantum Technology? – A Public Lecture by Prof. Sir Peter Knight

Posted in Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on March 10, 2021 by telescoper

I thought I’d post a quick reminder that tomorrow, Thursday March 11th (at 7pm), the Maynooth University Faculty of Science and Engineering will present its first ever Dean’s Lecture.of the Faculty of Science and Engineering. This is a public event, consisting of a talk followed by a Q&A session. I’m told that over 350 people have signed up for this talk but there’s still room for a few more.

The topic of the talk is quantum technology and it is presented by Prof. Sir Peter Knight who is Senior Research Investigator at Imperial College London. He retired in 2010 as Deputy Rector (Research) at Imperial. He was knighted in 2005 for his work in optical physics. Knight was the 2004 President of the Optical Society of America and 2011-2013 President of the Institute of Physics. He is Editor of Contemporary Physics, Chair of the UK National Quantum Technology Programme Strategy Advisory Board, chairs the Quantum Metrology Institute at the National Physical Laboratory, was until 2010 chair of the UK Defence Scientific Advisory Council and remains a UK Government science advisor. His research centres on quantum optics and quantum technology. He has won the Thomas Young Medal and the Glazebrook Medal of the Institute of Physics, the Ives Medal and the Walther Medal and Prize of the OSA, the Royal Medal of the Royal Society and the Faraday Prize of the IET.

Here is a description of the talk:

We already live in a quantum-enabled world with devices powered by quantum mechanics affecting our everyday world (lasers, telecoms semiconductor chips, and much more). But we are now poised to exploit a hitherto largely unexplored technology capability enabled by some of the stranger aspects of quantum physics: quantum coherence and entanglement. These new capabilities include novel sensing, timing, imaging, and of course computing. I will describe these new quantum coherence capabilities and plans to develop the next generation of quantum technologies. Quantum Information Science is advancing our understanding of the physical world in remarkable ways. But it is also driving novel and disruptive technologies. I will describe plans for ensuring the advanced quantum science and demonstrator platforms in imaging, sensing, communications, and computing developed over the past five years or so will drive the formation of the quantum technology sector and embed quantum technology in a broad range of industries.

The event is free but you will need to register here.

P.S. I will have a small part in this event – welcoming people to it and generally directing traffic.

Reminder: Job in Theoretical Physics at Maynooth!

Posted in Maynooth with tags , on March 7, 2021 by telescoper

I’ve got a very busy week in front of me as we head towards the St Patrick’s Week Study Break so I thought I’d take the time to remind you all while I remember that we have a fixed-term job available in the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University, the deadline for which is a week from today. You can find the details here.

The position is for 10 months, starting in September 2021, and is to provide teaching cover for Professor Jiri Vala who will be on sabbatical next year. He originally intended to take his sabbatical this academic year, starting in September 2020, hence the previous advertisement of this post, but it was postponed for reasons of Covid-19 and the previous position was not filled.

I know it is a relatively short appointment, but it seems to me that it would provide a good opportunity for an early-career academic, perhaps someone straight out of a PhD, to gain some teaching experience.

The deadline for applications is 23.30 on Sunday March 14th, i.e. about 4 weeks away, and you should apply through the jobs portal here.

If you’d like to know any more please feel free to contact me privately.

Oh, and please feel free to pass this on to anyone who may be interested!

Postgraduate Programmes in Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University

Posted in Education, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on March 2, 2021 by telescoper

We have a (virtual) Postgraduate Open Day coming up on Tuesday 9th March at Maynooth University (for which you can register here). To go with that here is a short video of our new Postgraduate Coordinator Dr John Regan answering some frequently asked questions about the programmes we offer in the Department of Theoretical Physics:

If you have any other questions then you can register for the Open Day where we will have staff on hand to answer them in a live Q&A session.

You could also follow the Department’s Twitter feed here:

What is Quantum Technology? – A Public Lecture by Prof. Sir Peter Knight

Posted in Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on February 23, 2021 by telescoper

On Thursday March 11th (at 7pm) the Maynooth University Faculty of Science and Engineering will present its first ever Dean’s Lecture. This is a public event, consisting of a talk followed by a Q&A session.

The topic of the talk is quantum technology and it is presented by Prof. Sir Peter Knight who is Senior Research Investigator at Imperial College London. He retired in 2010 as Deputy Rector (Research) at Imperial. He was knighted in 2005 for his work in optical physics. Knight was the 2004 President of the Optical Society of America and 2011-2013 President of the Institute of Physics. He is Editor of Contemporary Physics, Chair of the UK National Quantum Technology Programme Strategy Advisory Board, chairs the Quantum Metrology Institute at the National Physical Laboratory, was until 2010 chair of the UK Defence Scientific Advisory Council and remains a UK Government science advisor. His research centres on quantum optics and quantum technology. He has won the Thomas Young Medal and the Glazebrook Medal of the Institute of Physics, the Ives Medal and the Walther Medal and Prize of the OSA, the Royal Medal of the Royal Society and the Faraday Prize of the IET.

Here is a description of the talk:

We already live in a quantum-enabled world with devices powered by quantum mechanics affecting our everyday world (lasers, telecoms semiconductor chips, and much more). But we are now poised to exploit a hitherto largely unexplored technology capability enabled by some of the stranger aspects of quantum physics: quantum coherence and entanglement. These new capabilities include novel sensing, timing, imaging, and of course computing. I will describe these new quantum coherence capabilities and plans to develop the next generation of quantum technologies. Quantum Information Science is advancing our understanding of the physical world in remarkable ways. But it is also driving novel and disruptive technologies. I will describe plans for ensuring the advanced quantum science and demonstrator platforms in imaging, sensing, communications, and computing developed over the past five years or so will drive the formation of the quantum technology sector and embed quantum technology in a broad range of industries.

The event is free but you will need to register here.

Job in Theoretical Physics at Maynooth!

Posted in Maynooth with tags , on February 17, 2021 by telescoper

Just a short post passing on the information that we have a fixed-term job available in the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University. You can find the details here.

The position is for 10 months, starting in September 2021, and is to provide teaching cover for Professor Jiri Vala who will be on sabbatical next year. He originally intended to take his sabbatical this academic year, starting in September 2020, hence the previous advertisement of this post, but it was postponed for reasons of Covid-19 and the previous position was not filled.

I know it is a relatively short appointment, but it seems to me that it would provide a good opportunity for an early-career academic, perhaps someone straight out of a PhD, to gain some teaching experience.

The deadline for applications is 23.30 on Sunday March 14th, i.e. about 4 weeks away, and you should apply through the jobs portal here.

If you’d like to know any more please feel free to contact me privately.

Oh, and please feel free to pass this on to anyone who may be interested!

The Term Ahead

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , on January 28, 2021 by telescoper

After a recent Government announcement that current Covid-19 restrictions would be extended until at least March 5th, this morning we received the expected communication from the University authorities that almost all our teaching at Maynooth University would be online until March 22nd at the earliest. This is because the half-term “study break” is from 15th to 19th March (to include St Patrick’s Day) and there would be no point in trying to get students back for one week (8th-12th March) before breaking up for the following week. In fact, if I had to bet money on it I would say we’ll probably be online all the way through to the summer, and possibly beyond, but that decision has not been made yet.

To nobody’s surprise we’re also going to have online examinations in the summer again. We’ve done two rounds of these already so are getting used to them now so that’s not a problem.

The St Patrick’s Day break was basically when we flipped – by which I mean “changed teaching methods” rather than “went mad” – last year so at least we’ve already got teaching prepared for the second half of the forthcoming semester if Level 5 restrictions do continue.

I am actually a bit annoyed at the politicians for making hints about when the restrictions might end. It is clearly far too early to be talking about that. Here are yesterday’s numbers:

If you prefer them on a linear scale here they are:

New cases have fallen significantly since the latest peak but at least part of that is due to the fact that automatic close contact tracing couldn’t cope and was abandoned. Testing positivity rate has fallen to around 8.2% (from over 20%) , hospital admissions admissions are falling, and deaths may have peaked, so the evidence suggests there is a is a reduction, but the numbers are still way too high. They need to come down to much less than a 100 before any lifting of restrictions can be contemplated. At the current rate of decline that will take many weeks.  Suggesting opening up is going to happen soon will only make people impatient and reduce compliance.

Teaching term at Maynooth starts on Monday (1st February) and I have three modules to deliver, one of them a module I’ve never given before. Because there has been so much to do behind the scenes since Christmas I don’t think I’ll ever have started a term feeling so exhausted. The cycle of academic life carries on remorselessly despite the fact that everything takes longer to do under Covid-19 restrictions. It is an effort just to keep up.

Still at least we’ve all still got jobs to do and are still getting paid. It’s time to knuckle down and focus on reaching the mid-term break in one piece and then seeing where we go thereafter.

 

There’s a Moose Loose Aboot this Hoose!

Posted in Covid-19, Maynooth, Music with tags , on January 8, 2021 by telescoper

Artist’s Impression

I am working from home at the moment owing to Covid-19 restrictions on campus activity but I have been informed by on campus staff that an unauthorized mouse bas been seen in the Department of Theoretical Physics. This is a very serious situation as access to the Science Building is for essential work only and this does not include rodents, even if they have a PhD. Furthermore, the mouse is not wearing a face mask and, from what I have heard, is not observing proper sanitary procedures.

More importantly, our Covid-19 protocols require all visitors to the Department to be in receipt of a letter authorizing their presence. I have contacted Human Rodent Resources and no such letters have been issued.

I have therefore instructed all staff and students in the Department that if they see this mouse they should instruct it to leave and that any refusal to comply will be met with disciplinary action, initially taking the form of a formal written warning but escalating if necessary to a meeting with Maynooth University Library Cat.

There now follows a  message concerning these developments from Professor Brian Dolan.

I hope this clarifies the situation.

Remote Exam Time

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on January 7, 2021 by telescoper

It’s the day before the start of the January examination period at  Maynooth University so I thought I’d do a quick post on the topic of examinations or, as they are right now, online timed assessments.

First, for readers elsewhere, full-time undergraduate students at Maynooth what is called 60 “credits” in a year, usually split into two semesters of thirty credits each. This is usually split into 5-credit modules with an examination in each module at the end of each semester. Projects, and other continuously-assessed work do not involve a written examination, but the system means that a typical student will have at least 5 written examination papers in January and at least another 5 in May.  This is very similar to the system in most UK universities that I am aware of except that a full year’s work over there is 120 credits so there’s a conversion factor of 2:1. A 5-credit module in Ireland would be a 10-credit module in the United Kingdom, for example, but otherwise the system is similar.

Each examination is usually of two hours’ duration. We’ve kept that length after moving examinations online, although students are given extra time to scan and upload their answers. The question papers themselves have been slightly adapted online use by having much less “bookwork”. Generally these asssessments are unsupervised and students are allowed to consult notes and textbooks so there is little point in asking them to copy out standard derivations and formulae. That means we can concentrate on the problem-solving aspects of theoretical physics, which are the most interesting bits (and perhaps the most challenging).

One big difference between our examinations in Theoretical Physics in Maynooth and those at other institutions I’ve taught at in the UK is that most of the papers here offer no choice of questions to be answered.  A typical format for a two-hour paper is that there are two long questions, each of which counts for 50 marks. Elsewhere  one normally finds students have a choice of two or three questions from four or five on the paper.

One  advantage of our system is that it makes it much harder for students to question-spot in the hope that they can get a good grade by only revising a fraction of the syllabus. If they’re well designed, two long questions can cover quite a lot of the syllabus for a module, which they have to in order to test all the learning outcomes. To accomplish this, questions can be split into parts that may be linked to each other to a greater or lesser extent to explore the connections between different ideas, but also sufficiently separate that a student who can’t do one part can still have a go at others. With such a paper, however, it is a  dangerous strategy for a student to focus only on selected parts of the material in order to pass.

As an examiner, the Maynooth style of examination also has the advantage that you don’t have to worry too much if one question turns out to be harder than the others. That can matter if different students attempt different questions, but not if everyone has to do everything.

But it’s not just the number of questions that’s important, it’s the duration. I’ve never felt that it was even remotely sensible for undergraduate physics examinations to be a speed test, which was often the case when I was a student. Why the need for time pressure? It’s better to be correct than to be fast, I think. I always try to set examination questions that could be done inside two hours by a student who knew the material, including plenty of time for checking so that even a student who made a mistake would have time to correct it and get the right answer. If a student does poorly in this style of examination it will be because they haven’t prepared well enough rather than because they weren’t fast enough.

The structure of the Maynooth examinations at more introductory level is rather different, with some choice. In my first year module on Mechanics & Special Relativity, for example, there is a compulsory first question worth 50 marks (split into several pieces) and then the students can pick two out of three shorter questions worth 25 marks each. This is a somewhat gentler approach than with the more advanced papers, partly adopted because we have quite a few students doing the General Science degree who taking Mathematical Physics as one of their 4 first-year subjects but will not be taking it further.

As both my examinations are not until next week, I’ll have to wait to find out how my students have done. This will be the examination taken at University level for most of my class, so let me take this opportunity to pass on a few quick tips.

  1. Try to get a good night’s sleep before the examination!
  2. Be ready well before the start and try to ensure you won’t be disturbed for the duration.
  3. If you’re doing an unsupervised examination
  4. Read the entire paper before starting to answer any questions. In particular, make sure you are aware of any supplementary information, formulae, etc, given in the rubric or at the end.
  5. Start off by tackling the question you are most confident about answering, even if it’s not Question 1. This will help settle any nerves.
  6. Don’t rush! Students often lose marks by making careless errors. Check all your numerical results on your calculator at least twice and – PLEASE – remember to put the units!
  7. Don’t panic! You’re not expected to answer everything perfectly. A first-class mark is anything over 70%, so don’t worry if there are bits you can’t do. If you get stuck on a part of a question, don’t waste too much time on it (especially if it’s just a few marks). Just leave it and move on. You can always come back to it later.

Oh, and good luck to anyone at Maynooth or elsewhere taking examinations in the next few weeks!

P.S. It snowed overnight in Maynooth, although only a centimetre or so…