Archive for Maynooth

LGBTQ+ STEM Day 2022

Posted in LGBT, Maynooth with tags , on November 18, 2022 by telescoper

So here we are once again on LGBTQ+ STEM Day!

As far as I know, there are no events planned at Maynooth to mark the occasion so for me it’s just a normal teaching day. I can nevertheless use the medium of this blog to wish all LGBTQ+ persons working in STEM subjects around the globe a very enjoyable day.

You can find out about events near you by checking here, looking for the hashtag #LGBTQSTEMDay on social media or by following the twitter account:

Astrophysics & Cosmology Masterclass Next Week!

Posted in Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on November 11, 2022 by telescoper

As next week is Science Week I thought I’d remind readers that as part of the festivities we are hosting a virtual  Masterclass in Astrophysics & Cosmology in Maynoothon Wednesday 16th November 2022  .

You may remember that we have presented such events twice before. Last year’s event was a particularly 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:

Study Break Time

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Irish Language, Maynooth with tags , , , , on October 29, 2022 by telescoper

Yesterday my Vector Calculus students gave me the above Hallowe’en gift, which was nice of them, although I did chastise them for missing the apostrophe. Of course Hallowe’en itself is not until Monday, but that is a Bank Holiday in Ireland and the rest of next week is Study Week so there are no lectures or tutorials.

Hallowe’en is, in pagan terminology, Samhain. This, a cross-quarter day – roughly halfway between the Autumnal Equinox and the Winter Solstice, represents the start of winter (“the dark half of the year“) in the Celtic calendar. Samhain is actually November 1st but in Celtic tradition the day begins and ends at sunset, so the celebrations begin on the evening of 31st.

Incidentally, Samhain is pronounced something like “sawin”. The h after the m denotes lenition of the consonant (which in older forms of Irish would have been denoted by a dot on top of the m) so when followed by a broad vowel the m is pronounced like the English “w”; when followed by a slender vowel or none “mh” is pronounced “v” or in other words like the German “w” (which makes it easier to remember). I only mention this because I will be resuming my Irish language education after the break with classes every week for the rest of the academic year. Hopefully I’ll make some progress.

This term has been very tiring so far. I have to teach a very big first-year class this year which meant adding another tutorial group. Although I stepped down as Head of Department at the end of August the powers that be delayed appointing a replacement until well into term which caused a lot of unnecessary stress for everyone. Once we got under way, though, everything has settled down reasonably well.

One thing I was a bit worried about this term was that the resumption of in-person teaching would lead to a surge in Covid-19 cases, not only in Maynooth but across the country. However there isn’t any evidence of significant increases in the latest figures (updated weekly nowadays, on Wednesdays):

Some students have come down with Covid-19 of course but not in the numbers I had feared. Also despite accommodation shortages and other difficulties, attendance at lectures and tutorials has so far held up well.

I like having the study break. I’ve never previously worked at an institution that has such a thing, but I think 12 weeks of non-stop teaching would be extremely exhausting. Anyway, after the break we have a further six weeks of teaching until December 16th, which is the official end of term, but for now I have Monday off completely and the rest of the week without teaching duties. That’s not to say I’ll be on holiday though. I have a number of tasks to catch up on, including setting examination papers for January…

That Was The (Space) Week That Was

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on October 7, 2022 by telescoper

Last night I participated in an event at Maynooth for Space Week which I think went very well. We had a big audience so the decision to move to a bigger lecture theatre was a good one. Nobody took count but I think we had as many as 400 people of all ages, including some very young kids, some students and a variety of others.

I was the last one up to speak and took a few pictures at the three talks before mine but obviously couldn’t take a picture of mine so I’ve included a pic of some of the hi-tech equipment I used for a couple of demonstrations:

If anyone wants to see the pictures I showed you can find them here:

There was an official photographer there last night so I’ll upload any pictures I come across in due course. Watch this space.

UPDATE: Here’s a picture of the four speakers

Last night’s four speakers: Créidhe O’Sullivan, Me, Emma Whelan and John Regan

Anyway, thank you to everyone for coming last night and especially to all the people who helped organize and run the event, including our student volunteers. We’re planning to do similar event for space week next year and hopefully this will become a regular feature in the calendar.

The Cancellation of Maynooth’s Student Centre

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on September 28, 2022 by telescoper

Here is a promotional video made just two years ago which describes an exciting and much needed new Student Centre at Maynooth University:

According to the Youtube page

This video is the first time we can share with you the vision for our new Student Centre. It gives you an impression of the dedication of MSU and MU in delivering a top-class student experience. We cannot wait to see the physical works begin and we will keep the student body updated as the project progresses.

Well, yesterday the student body was “updated” alright. The project has been abruptly cancelled by the Governing Authority. The reason is

The project has been adversely impacted by rapidly escalating costs, linked to technical construction issues as well as hyperinflation.

Not to be pedantic, the current economic situation in no way corresponds to “hyperinflation” as it is normally defined. However, it is true that costs are increasing especially in the construction industry and this will have put pressure on the University Management who took the easy way out by cancelling the project. I believe this to have been a very wrong, and indeed reprehensible, decision.

Students at Maynooth University voted in 2015 to pay a special levy of €150 per year specifically to fund this new Student Centre. Current students, who have just started the new academic year, will have paid this year’s levy – about 14,000 of them. All that money taken from students (many of whom struggled to afford it) has now been written off. Not surprisingly students feel that they have been fleeced. I say “not surprisingly” because they undoubtedly have been. It’s a scandal and a disgrace.

If you are on Twitter you can see some of the reaction under the hashtag #WheresMyLevy.

Here’s an example:

At very least the amounts collected should be returned. Whether that can be enforced by law is an open question.

The decision to sneak this announcement out while Ireland’s media were preoccupied with yesterday’s budget can have been taken for the purpose of burying it. The story did, however, make it onto the BBC website, and I’m sure the national media will follow. I hope this escalates to the highest levels of Government. I have written to my TD and I’m sure others will do likewise. Universities should not be allowed to treat their students like this.

UPDATE: The story is now on the main RTE News site.

MORE UPDATES: the story is now in the Irish Times, Irish Examiner, and The Journal, to name but three. There has also been lots of radio coverage. Student recruitment is going to be interesting this year...

The sum that has been wasted on this project in consultancy and architect fees up to now is so far undisclosed by Maynooth University, but I’m sure a Freedom of Information request will reveal it…

I’m afraid the decision to terminate the Student Centre is symptomatic of the current management of Maynooth University, which seems to think of students as mere commodity, and academic staff as a insubordinate servants. I could write about other reprehensible failures of governance here, but will refrain from doing so until proper procedures have been completed. Suffice to say that there’s a struggle going on for the soul of this institution, and at the moment it’s not going well.

I know this radical suggestion may prove controversial, but perhaps if university managements really want to get the best out of their staff and students then maybe they shouldn’t treat them like shit all the time?

Irish Times Supplement

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , on September 9, 2022 by telescoper

I don’t usually buy a newspaper during the week but I noticed that today the Irish Times published a special supplement to mark these momentous times so I made an exception. Yes, today is the day the full set of CAO points are published in the print edition, about a year since last year. The official low-tech results for Maynooth are here. Minimum points required for Maynooth’s most important course, MH206 Theoretical Physics and Mathematics, are 510 this year, down a little from 521 last year, but the same as two years ago. Generally speaking, as expected, the points for other courses seem roughly the same as last year.

Students now have to decide whether to accept their first-round offer or try to change course. I suspect there might be fewer this year doing that because of the accommodation shortage, but that remains to be seen…

P.S. There was another supplement in today’s Irish Times about the death of Queen Elizabeth II.

A Day for Celebrations

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , on August 31, 2022 by telescoper

It’s quite a busy day today. I spent a slice of of this morning attending the Autumn Examination Board (online). Students taking repeat exams will get their results on Friday which, coincidentally, is the same day that this year’s Leaving Certificate Examinations will come out.

I have one major task to finish today, completing the revisions of a paper to get it ready to resubmit. I’ve been struggling with this over the last few days but I think only minor changes are left to do so I should get it done after lunch. I’ll be at the Irish National Astronomy Meeting tomorrow (Thursday) and Friday so I’d like to get that done before that.

I already have two causes for celebration today. The first is that my first Maynooth PhD student’s first paper has now hit the arXiv. The second is that today is the last day of my three-year as Head of the Department of Theoretical Physics. As I wrote on the occasion of my appointment:

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.

The idea that the job would have “a smaller and much better defined set of responsibilities” turns out to have been one of the worst miscalculations of my life, entirely for reasons outside the Department and not only because of the pandemic. Suffice to say that it’s been a difficult three years. I have to say though that the staff and students in the Department have been great to work with over this period, and their support is the only thing that made the job bearable. I will of course be continuing to work with them as a teacher and researcher and will do the best I can to support my replacement, assuming the University management gets around to appointing a successor, which it has yet to do despite having many months to do so.

Now, to finish revising that paper.

The Accommodation Crisis Again

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , on August 20, 2022 by telescoper

There’s an article on the RTÉ website drawing attention to the national crisis in student accommodation. Included in the article is an example of a student at Maynooth:

Clara Battell is heading into her second year of studying Law and Criminology at Maynooth University. The Sligo student and her four friends thought they’d beat the crowd when they started looking for accommodation shortly after Christmas. However, eight months on, they’re still looking.

I checked this morning on and there are just two properties currently available to rent in Maynooth; the rest are miles away and would require the tenant(s) to have a car. One is property is a studio apartment for €1,250 per month (which is way beyond the budget of a typical undergraduate student) and the other a four-bedroom shared house suitable at €3,800 per month. And remember that new students haven’t even started looking yet as this year’s CAO offers are not out until September. Clara Battell might end up having to commute from Sligo:

I’m from Sligo, it’s a three hour train journey and the only option at this stage appears to be commuting. It’s surely not feasible, six hours every day – and you’re not getting the best out of your education if you are travelling so much. We are all a bit stuck really.

Not to mention of course the inability to participate in clubs, societies and other extra-curricular activities. Clara’s situation is by no means atypical. Some brave students may try long-distance commuting this for a week or two, but few will keep it up for the entire academic year when they know how tough it is going to be.

The reality is that a great many students will have to choose between lengthy commutes and skipping lectures. This is particularly bad at Maynooth where the University Management has failed to invest in lecture recording equipment that would at least do something to mitigate the negatives of not being able to attend campus teaching sessions. I can see attendance on campus being very low this forthcoming term, as it was last term. The reality for many students is that they will be stuck at home just like during the lockdown, but without online classes. This was entirely predictable, but little has been done. It’s extremely frustrating for staff as well as students.

I heard this week of a much-needed proposal for a new housing complex including 260 student beds in Maynooth. It’s not on campus, but within walking distance on the other side of the Moyglare Road. This is good news, but the application for planning consent has only just been lodged; a decision is not expected until November 30th. Even if permission is granted it will take years to build and remember that there are 15,000 students in Maynooth so 260 beds is a drop in the ocean.

It is important to stress what is driving this. With costs increasing but income per student falling over many years, third-level institutions have had no choice but to recruit more and more students. The same Government that has driven this requirement is also responsible for inadequate investment in housing across the country. Some people are trying to blame the current crisis on the 48,000 Ukrainian refugees now in Ireland, but all their presence has done is to expose the long-term negligence of the Government at whose door the blame must rest.

It will take at least two years, and probably much longer, to fix this crisis. The big question is whether Ireland’s University system will survive that time without disintegrating.

Examining Again

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , , on August 5, 2022 by telescoper

ChorizoGate distracted me from mentioning on here that the Repeat Examination period started on Wednesday. I usually write a post at the start of an Exam period to wish all the students good luck, but this time the first examination for which I am responsible took place yesterday morning, and I’ve already marked the scripts so in that case the die is already cast. I send my best wishes to all other students taking repeat examinations, though, including the first-years taking my paper later on this afternoon.

Today’s examination doesn’t finish until 5.30pm so I’ll have to collect the scripts on my way home to mark them over the weekend. I have another three examinations on my own modules next Wednesday but because of ongoing staffing issues I am also responsible for marking several examinations for modules I didn’t teach. I’ve got a busy week ahead so I want to finish marking today’s paper before it starts,

I also thought it was worth mentioning for any university teachers out there reading this that although they are held at roughly the same time of year in the two countries there’s a difference in the way resits are handled in the institutions I’ve worked at in the United Kingdom and the way repeats work here in Maynooth which is implied by the slightly different name.

In UK institutions with which I am familiar students generally take resits when, because they have failed one or more examinations during the year,  they have not accumulated sufficient credits to proceed to the next year of their course. Passing the resit allows them to retrieve lost credit, but their mark is generally capped at a bare pass (usually 40%). That means the student gets the credit they need for their degree but their average (which determines whether they get 1st, 2nd or 3rd class Honours) is negatively affected.

This is the case unless a student has extenuating circumstances affecting the earlier examination, such as bad health or family emergency, in which case they take the resit as a `sit’, i.e. for the first time with an uncapped mark.

Here in Maynooth, repeat examinations are generally taken for the same reasons as in the UK but the mark obtained is not capped. When I’ve told former UK colleagues that our repeat examinations are not capped they generally  don’t  like the idea because they feel that it might lead to many students playing games, i.e. deliberately not taking exams in May with the intention of spreading some of their examination load into August. There’s not much sign of students actually doing that in my Department, to be honest, for the reason that the results from the repeat examination period are not confirmed until early September so that students that deploy this strategy do not know whether they are going to be able to start their course again until a couple of weeks before term. That could cause lots of problems securing accommodation, etc, so it doesn’t seem to me to be a good strategy.

I’d welcome comments for or against whether resits/repeats should be capped/uncapped and on what practice is adopted in your institution(s).


Posted in Biographical, Maynooth with tags , on July 18, 2022 by telescoper

The extremely hot weather currently engulfing much of Europe has reached Maynooth, although the temperature here is around 30°C, which is warm by the standards of Ireland but not as extreme as the >40ºC predicted for the UK today and on the continent. Maynooth is in the part of Ireland where temperatures are predicted to be highest.

I’m told that a “heatwave” is defined in Ireland as four consecutive days with temperatures above 25ºC. That is relatively cool by some standards but not for this temperate island. Still, it looks like it will break by Wednesday.

I don’t function very well in hot weather so I’m staying indoors where it is relatively cool (although we have no air conditioning). The highest temperature I’ve ever been in was 48ºC in Aswan, Southern Egypt, where I was on holiday in the 90s. That was different though as it is basically a desert climate and was a very dry heat. I found as long as I drank plenty of water I felt OK. A few summers later when I spent a few days in New Orleans it was barely 30ºC but so unbearably humid that I found it impossible. Humidity in Maynooth today is about 40% so it’s not too bad.

Before coming to work this morning I put out lots of water in the garden for the birds, who need to drink as well as bathe. The local robin has been very vocal over the last few days as if to demand that I keep the water supply refreshed. I’m convinced this bird thinks it owns my garden and that I am its servant. Elsewhere in the garden I moved my dwarf fig to a shadier spot, it being rather frazzled.

I checked on Maynooth University Library Cat’s bowl on my way too, though he himself was nowhere to be seen, no doubt sheltering in a cool spot somewhere.

The thermoelectric wine cooler in my kitchen has been struggling noisily to maintain cellar temperature (12-14 ºC) . It’s quite old so this heatwave might well finish it off. Let’s hope the same isn’t true for too many humans…