Archive for Maynooth University

PhD Opportunity in Theoretical Astrophysics at Maynooth!

Posted in Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on January 18, 2023 by telescoper

Posting this again because the deadline (31st January) is coming up fast….

The Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University invites applications for a PhD in Theoretical Astrophysics starting in September 2023. The successful applicant will work in the group led by Dr. John Regan on a project examining the formation processes of massive black holes in the early Universe. Massive black holes populate the centres of all massive galaxies and are now also observed in both the centres and in off-centre locations in less massive dwarf galaxies.

For more details and instructions on how to apply, see here.

Marking Schemes

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on January 17, 2023 by telescoper

It’s 3.40pm so I’ve reached the tea interval on the first day of marking the scripts from my first-year module on Mechanics and Special Relativity. Blogging will be a bit thin until I’ve completed this task, which will take even longer than usual as we have more students on this module than in previous years, up by more than 50% on last year. At the current rate I estimate it will take me until Friday to finish.

It turned very cold here at the weekend and I realized I had run out of food for the birds so I had to dash out to the shops on Sunday and replenish my stock. When I refilled the feeders it only took a few minutes for the robin to arrive, closely followed by starlings, a magpie, some sparrows, a woodpigeon, and then some more starlings. While I was waiting for my pot of tea to brew I filled the dispensers again.

I woke up this morning to find a very hard frost in Maynooth. The temperature hasn’t risen above zero all day so the frost is still there now. I am at home while I do the marking, which gives me an excuse not to venture out into the cold (except to feed the birds). It’s nice to be in the warm, but marking at home ensures that I am not interrupted by anyone but myself and especially not a student who might wander into my office on campus with all the scripts lying around.

Some scripts (side view)

For the last two years we’ve held this examination as an online timed assessment, but now uses old-fashioned written answer books which are much easier on the eye. I still find however that I can only managed about 30 scripts in one sitting before my attention starts to wander. I’ve therefore divided them into five packets, taking a break when I’ve finished each one. Thirty is about the number of overs you get in a session of Test Match Cricket, though I don’t stick very strictly to the same timings; I don’t always have lunch at 1pm, for example.

I’ve often discussed the process of marking examinations with my colleagues and they all have different techniques. What I do is mark one question at a time rather than one script at a time. What I mean by that is that I go through every script marking all the attempts at Question 1, then I start again and do Question 2, etc. I find that this is much quicker and more efficient than marking all the questions in each script then moving onto the next script. The reason for this is that I can upload into my mind the model answer for Question 1 so that it stays there while I mark dozens of attempts at it so I don’t have to keep referring to the marking scheme. Other advantages are that it’s easier to be consistent in giving partial credit when you’re doing the same question over and over again, and that also you spot what the common mistakes are more easily.

Whichever way you do it, grading this number of examinations is a long job, a marathon not a sprint. We also owe it to the students to be as fair as possible, all of which means taking it at a steady pace.

Now, it’s 4pm and time for the resumption…

First Day Back

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , on January 3, 2023 by telescoper

So here we are, then, 3rd January 2023 and my first day back after the Christmas break. Maynooth University Campus has been largely deserted, though a few of my colleagues have been in today.

Quite a few people seem to have been down with various bugs over the holiday, including a few that have tested positive for Covid-19. We haven’t had information about actual case numbers since before Christmas but I expect a big increase when the figures are announced later this week. Hospitals are already under pressure here in Ireland so things could be quite difficult during the next few weeks.

My plans to do an in-person revision lecture were foiled by the fact that the teaching room I planned to use was locked so I adopted plan B which was to put up some lecture recordings to help the students with their revision ahead of the examination period which starts on Friday. That’s a bit early, really, as 6th January (being Epiphany) is still very much a part of the Christmas season for many people. I remember trying to arrange a meeting on January 6th years ago with a European collaboration only to be met with complete disbelief. At least the first examination for which I am responsible isn’t until Saturday.

For many of the students taking examinations in subjects I have been teaching, these will be the first University examinations and I’m sure many of them are a bit apprehensive, so I thought I’d pass on some advice.

  1. Try to get a good night’s sleep before the examination and arrive in plenty of time before the start. Spending all night cramming is unlikely to help you do well. Prepare well in advance so you’re relaxed when the time comes.
  2. 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.
  3. 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. You’re under no obligation to answer the questions in the order they are asked.
  4. 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!
  5. 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.

PhD Opportunity in Theoretical Astrophysics at Maynooth!

Posted in Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on December 8, 2022 by telescoper

The Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University invites applications for a PhD in Theoretical Astrophysics starting in September 2023. The successful applicant will work in the group led by Dr. John Regan on a project examining the formation processes of massive black holes in the early Universe. Massive black holes populate the centres of all massive galaxies and are now also observed in both the centres and in off-centre locations in less massive dwarf galaxies.

For more details and instructions on how to apply, see here.

Festive Open Day Season

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , on November 25, 2022 by telescoper
Some Incomprehensible Marketing

We have reached the end of Week 9 at Maynooth University, so there are now just three weeks to go until end of term. All of sudden the shops are filled with Christmas whatnots and thingies, and I’ve finally bowed to pressure and bought a ticket for this year’s Messiah.

As usual for this time of the year we have a pair of Open Days for undergraduate admissions. The first was today, Friday, and catered mainly for school trips whereas tomorrow’s (i.e. Saturday’s) is usually more parents with their offspring. During the pandemic these events have been online but we’re now having them on campus so that prospective students see the important features on campus in the flesh:

For the last few years, I’ve been the main person responsible for running the Theoretical Physics part of these Open Days but now that duty has passed on to the new Head of Department. It’s not that I disliked doing these events, it’s just that I think it’s better from now on to have a fresher face doing them. Today for me has therefore largely been a normal teaching day and I’m also able to have a lie-in tomorrow morning.

In past years, before the pandemic, some lectures have been cancelled to make way for Friday Open Day talks. That has included the Friday lecture of my 2nd year module on Vector Calculus which takes place in a room previously needed for admissions business on Open Days. Now, however, a new teaching building is available and many of the Open Day talks are in there so my lecture went ahead as planned. The room next door to mine was however used for the Open Day and a group of about ten schoolgirls, dressed in green blazers and plaid skirts in a manner highly reminiscent of the Derry Girls, almost came into my lecture by mistake.

I saw quite a few visitors around the campus this morning, and some came into the Science Building for a look around, but I don’t know how busy the day was in comparison to previous November events on campus. I don’t know how busy it will be tomorrow either, as I shall be putting my feet up at home.

Today wasn’t quite a normal day, however. I had lunch in Pugin Hall. I used to do that regularly before the pandemic but today was the first time I’ve been there since March 2020. Either Pugin Hall has been closed or I’ve been too busy to have anything other than a sandwich in my office.

Summer Programme for Undergraduate Research

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on October 28, 2022 by telescoper

Not long ago I posted an item about the Summer Programme for Undergraduate Research (SPUR) at Maynooth University. This past summer I had two undergraduate students doing research projects with me funded under this scheme. They were both involved with making Monte Carlo simulations of galaxy clustering and using them to test various statistical analysis tools. The Department of Theoretical Physics actually had five students on three different projects, which is quite a lot for a small Department. The University as a whole had 57 SPUR students so we had almost ten percent of the total!

Well, earlier this week there was a Research Symposium at which all the summer’s research undergraduates presented posters on their work, with prizes being awarded for the best. I couldn’t attend the Symposium because of other commitments but I was delighted to find out that both my students won prizes – that’s two out of the five awarded. Here are the pictures of them being presented with their awards at the ceremony yesterday, flanked by the Vice-for Research and Innovation, Brian Donnellan and the President, Eeva Leinonen.

The awards ceremony was held in the foyer of the new TSI building yesterday afternoon, which wasn’t an ideal choice because the acoustic is very poor and lots of students were making their way to and from lectures. I didn’t hear a word of the speeches, actually. Nevertheless it was nice to see Pawel (top prize in the Science and Engineering category) and Lisa (audience choice prize winner) collect their awards. It was a pleasure to work with both of them this summer!

Incidentally, the SPUR students are paid for the projects, which last for (usually) six weeks but can be extended. I wish we could offer these projects to every student who wanted one, actually, but we just can’t afford to do that. I don’t agree with unpaid internships as these can only be taken up by students who have access to enough income to cover living expenses over the summer, so are discriminatory. We select students based on an application form and their academic performance.

Astrophysics & Cosmology Masterclass at Maynooth

Posted in Education, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on October 24, 2022 by telescoper

Regular readers of the blog – both of them – may remember that we have twice previously presented a Masterclass in Astrophysics & Cosmology in Maynooth. Well, owing to popular demand, we’ve decided to do a re-run of the event on Wednesday 16th November 2022 during this year’s Science Week. Last year’s event was a big success, with over a hundred schools joining in, with probably over a thousand young people listening and asking questions.

Like last year’s event this year’s will be a half-day virtual event via Zoom. It’s meant for school students in their 5th or 6th year of the Irish system. There might be a few of them or their teachers who see this blog so I thought I’d share the news here. You can find more information, including instructions on how to book a place, here.

Here is the flyer for the event:

I’ll be talking about cosmology early on, and John Regan will talk about black holes later on. After the coffee break one of our students will talk about why they wanted to study astrophysics. Then I’ll say something about our degree programmes for those students who might be interested in studying astrophysics and/or cosmology as part of a science course. We’ll finish with questions either about the science or the studying!

Here is a more detailed programme:

Fortunately this year I don’t need to dash away at noon to do a lecture!

Exploring the Cosmos at Maynooth

Posted in Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on September 26, 2022 by telescoper

I’ve had a very busy day so far, what with giving my first lecture to the first-year Mathematical Physics students accidentally smashing my phone then buying a new one and trying to reinstall various necessary apps on it and now having a Euclid telecon, that all I have time to do now is post an advertisement for a special event on Maynooth Campus next Thursday (6th October) called Exploring the cosmos: from Exoplanets to Black Holes. As you will see, the title really on describes the first half. Here is the official blurb:

On the 6th of October, at 6.30pm, in the TSI Building Maynooth University will host an all-ages event to explore the vastness of space. Using stunning visualisations Maynooth University Astrophysicists will examine star and planet formation, peer back in time with our physicists trying to image the very edges of our visible universe, and take a journey into the unknown as we trace the origin and evolution of black holes.


18.30 Welcome

18.35: Emma Whelan: “Planet Hunting: How Maynooth University Astronomers are Searching for New Worlds”.

As of this month over 5000 exoplanets or new worlds have been discovered orbiting far flung stars millions of light years away from us. Emma will explore the hunt for exoplanets – planets outside our own solar system – and what scientists can learn about them. Emma will take you on a behind the scenes tour of the techniques astronomers use for finding new planets and the new insights astronomers hope the James Webb Space Telescope will bring.

18.55: John Regan: “Black Holes in Our Universe”

Black Holes are among the most exotic objects in our Universe. In this talk John will discuss the basics of black hole formation, how we can detect them today and the future of black hole hunting using gravitational wave observatories that Maynooth University is a part of. John will also discuss some of the strange effects you might encounter near a black hole – like time slowing down!

19.15: Tea & Coffee Break

19.45: Creidhe O’Sullivan: “Observations of the early Universe”

Creidhe will take us back to the origins of our universe. In her talk she will show you how scientists observe The Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) – a specific type of radiation left over from the Big Bang – and what it can tell us about the early Universe and its formation. Creidhe will also take us close to home and talk about the experiments that Maynooth University are involved with to observe the CMB.

20.05: Peter Coles: “The Cosmic Web”

Peter’s talk will focus on the large scale structure of the Universe and the ideas that physicists are weaving together to explain how it came to be the way it is. Over the last few decades astronomers have revealed that our cosmos is not only vast in scale – at least 14 billion light years in radius – but also exceedingly complex, with galaxies and clusters of galaxies linked together in a cosmic web of immense chains and sheets, surrounding giant voids of empty space. Cosmologists have developed theoretical explanations for its origin that involve exotic concepts such as dark matter and dark energy, producing a cosmic web of ideas that is in many ways as rich and fascinating as the Universe itself. Peter will also discuss the Euclid mission – a large ESA mission to map the geometry of the Universe and better understand the mysterious dark matter and dark energy, which make up most of the energy budget of the cosmos. Peter is involved in the European Space Agency’s Euclid mission.

20.30: Finish

It should be a fun evening. After two years of being restricted to online events it’s nice to be able to do public talks like this in person. If you’re around please come along. The event is free but you need to register, which you can do here.

Launchpad Saturday

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , on September 24, 2022 by telescoper

Just a quick note to say that this afternoon I attended today’s Launchpad event organized by Maynooth Access Programme (MAP) on Maynooth University Campus for a panel discussion. Launchpad is orientation designed to support and ease the transition to third level for students who are coming to Maynooth University through entry routes supported by MAP (the Mature Student Entry Route, the Higher Education Access Route (HEAR), the Disability Access Route to Education (DARE)Turn to Teaching Progressed, QQI entry, or new students with a disability). 

The panel discussion I took part in was called Do I Belong Here? The answer, at least initially, was “no” because I went to the wrong room. I blame that on the fact I was wearing my new glasses. When I did make my way to the correct lecture theatre the discussion involved people from diverse backgrounds who have experience of finding their place at university and how to make a valuable contribution by retaining their identity and getting involved with opportunities and activities. I think it went reasonably well, and I enjoyed having the chance to chat to students afterwards in the foyer of the new TSI building.

On the way home afterwards I discovered that my local supermarket is selling bottles of Barolo at half price, so I bought one to have with my dinner which now beckons!

The Week Ahead

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth with tags , , , , , on August 28, 2022 by telescoper

I’m aware that tomorrow (Monday 29th August) is a Bank Holiday across the Irish Sea, but here on the Emerald Isle we had our August Bank Holiday at the start of the month so tomorrow I’ll be working. Among the important events to take place next week is the final Examination Board of 2021/2 on Wednesday morning at which we see all the results of all the students not just those from our Department. After that final check the marks will be released to students on Friday 2nd September and they’ll be able to discuss their situation with staff on Consultation Day which is Tuesday of next week (6th September).

The term of my appointment as Head of the Department of Theoretical Physics ends on Wednesday August 31st. I did try to step down a year ago. Here is what I wrote then:

Over the last few days, in an exhausted and demoralized state, I have been looking back over the best part of two years I have been Head of the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University – most of which has coincided with the Covid-19 pandemic. Frankly, I have found the burden of administration on top of the heavy teaching load required of me to be unmanageable. Because we are a very small Department teaching a full degree course, all of us have to teach many more modules than is reasonable for for staff who are expected to do research as well. I had to teach five modules* last academic year; that would have been bad enough even without having to do everything online and without the additional and frequently onerous duties associated with the Head of Department. There is no prospect of that burden decreasing for the foreseeable future.

For reasons which now escape me I agreed to carry on for one more year until the end of the three-year term to which I was appointed. I regret that “the burden”, far from decreasing, has continued to increase, to the extent that last year we had to cope with staff shortages too.

As it happens I will be spending Thursday and Friday at the Irish National Astronomy Meeting which this year is at the historic Dunsink Observatory (just outside Dublin and not far from Maynooth). I was last there on a trip to Dublin many years ago so I am looking forward to seeing it again as well as listening to the talks. The programme seems very broad and varied, so it should be interesting. The last one of these I attended in person was in Armagh in 2019, before Covid intervened and meetings became virtual. I’m not giving a talk this time, so hopefully it will be a fairly relaxed occasion.

Knowing that I was due to step down as HoD on 31st August I booked a week’s annual leave the following week (5th-9th September inclusive). I have had very little opportunity to take holidays over the past three years, so I am looking forward to a little bit of peace and quiet before the academic term starts. Before that, however, I have two research papers which are almost finished and which I’d really like to submit by Wednesday (and another which will have to wait until I return from leave). I’ve had little time to do research over the last three years either.

This year’s Leaving Certificate results are due out on Friday 2nd September and first-round CAO offers go out on Thursday 8th August. There will then be a scramble to allocate places, but I shall be blissfully out of the way for at least part of that. I will of course be back for the start of teaching (for returning students on 19th September and for new students on 26th September). As I have mentioned before that there is a serious student accommodation crisis in Ireland which will probably disrupt the studies of many students. I have yet to hear of any steps that my institution is taking to mitigate the looming disaster. It’s going to be a very challenging Semester, even without being Head of Department.

Oh, and on Monday I will be attending a virtual briefing about the plans from my Union (IFUT) to ballot its members for industrial action, of which more anon….