Archive for Maynooth

Into the Study Break

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , on March 11, 2023 by telescoper

So here we are, then. We’ve arrived at the half-term Study Break at Maynooth University. Six weeks of Semester 2 down, six to go. There are no lectures, labs or tutorials next week. It’s not actually a holiday, but the lack of teaching duties will enable me to catch up quite a few things I’ve let slip during term. It will also give me the chance to regroup and prepare for final assault on the second half of term.

The spell of freezing weather we’ve had recently has morphed into something a little warmer and a lot wetter. The light dusting of snow we had yesterday has dissolved in the torrential rain stotting against the windows as I write this piece. I’m waiting for a lull in the downpour so I can make a quick dash to the shops before returning to the comfort of my house for the rest of the day. The weather is coming in from the West today, and I spy a little gap heading my way:

Next Friday, March 17th, is of course, St Patrick’s Day, a national holiday in Ireland. I certainly hope the weather is better for the traditional parades on that day!

I’m glad of the arrival of this break, as I’ve been running on empty for the last several days, the fatigue exacerbated by a flare-up of the arthritis in my knees. On Thursday I had to kneel down next to one of the machines in the computer lab to fix something and I had considerable difficulty getting up again. Doctors say that there’s no reliable evidence that arthritis pain correlates with the weather, but in my case it does seem to come on when the weather changes, especially when it suddenly becomes cold or damp. I’ll be due for another steroid shot soon, which should help, and hopefully the weather will improve over the next few weeks. Possibly.

Anyway, the second half of term should be a lot easier than the first. For one thing, we have another break coming up three weeks in. Good Friday is on April 7th, so that is a holiday, as is the following week. Moreover, I usually only give lectures in Computational Physics for 9 of the 12 teaching weeks in the Semester, after which the students will be working on the mini-projects which form part of the assessment for this module.

P.S. It was on 11th March 2020 that the World Health Organization officially announced the Covid-19 pandemic and it was just before the corresponding Study Break that year that the University was closed and we went into lockdown. Can that really have been three years ago?

Most Exciting Aurora Pictures Ever!

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , on February 28, 2023 by telescoper

Last night offered spectacular views of the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) all over Ireland. I took these amazing pictures, which are among the best I’ve seen, in Maynooth, County Kildare. I know that to the untrained eye they look like ordinary clouds, but an expert such as myself can clearly see dynamic patterns of brilliant green grey that appear as curtains, rays, spirals, and flickers covering the entire sky. It was a stunning, once-in-a-lifetime experience to witness this dramatic cosmic spectacle!

Reflections on Exam Marking

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on January 21, 2023 by telescoper

At long last I’ve finished my marking my examination scripts. I’ve also entered the marks onto a spreadsheet and combined them with coursework so I’m almost done with this task. They just need one more check through and I can upload the results onto the system. in good time for next week’s departmental exam board meeting. It took a lot longer than I had anticipated because we have a big first-year class this year. So much for my New Year resolution not to work at weekends…

I’m a bit tired now so I thought I’d just rehash an excerpt from something I posted a while ago on the subject of examinations and what I believe to be the over-assessment of students at modern universities.

My feelings about examinations agree pretty much with William Wordsworth, who studied at the same University as me, as expressed in this quotation from The Prelude:

Of College labours, of the Lecturer’s room
All studded round, as thick as chairs could stand,
With loyal students, faithful to their books,
Half-and-half idlers, hardy recusants,
And honest dunces–of important days,
Examinations, when the man was weighed
As in a balance! of excessive hopes,
Tremblings withal and commendable fears,
Small jealousies, and triumphs good or bad–
Let others that know more speak as they know.
Such glory was but little sought by me,
And little won.

It seems to me a great a pity that our system of education – and not only at Third Level- places such a great emphasis on examination and assessment to the detriment of real learning. In particular, the biggest problem  with physics education in many institutions is the way modular degrees have been implemented.

I’m not at all opposed to modularization in principle. I just think the way we teach modules often fails to develop any understanding of the interconnection between different aspects of the subject. That’s an educational disaster because what is most exciting and compelling about physics is its essential unity. Splitting it into little boxes, taught on their own with no relationship to the other boxes, provides us with no scope to nurture the kind of lateral thinking that is key to the way physicists attempt to solve problems. The small size of each module makes the syllabus very “bitty” and fragmented. No sooner have you started to explore something at a proper level than the module is over. More advanced modules, following perhaps the following year, have to recap a large fraction of the earlier modules so there isn’t time to go as deep as one would like even over the whole curriculum.

Students in Maynooth take 60 “credits” in a year, split into two semesters. These are usually split into 5-credit modules with an examination at the end of each semester. The first-year module I teach is different, being 7.5 credits. Projects, and other continuously-assessed work do not involve a written examination, but the system means that a typical  student will have four or five written examination papers in January and another four or five in May. Each paper is usually of two hours’ duration.

One consequence of the way modularization has been implemented throughout the sector is that the ratio of assessment to education has risen sharply over time  with a negative effect on real understanding. The system encourages students to think of modules as little bite-sized bits of education to be consumed and then forgotten. Instead of learning to rely on their brains to solve problems, students tend to approach learning by memorizing chunks of their notes and regurgitating them in the exam. I find it very sad when students ask me what derivations they should memorize to prepare for examinations. A brain is so much more than a memory device. What we should be doing is giving students the confidence to think for themselves and use their intellect to its full potential rather than encouraging rote learning.

You can contrast this diet of examinations with the regime when I was an undergraduate. My entire degree result was based on six three-hour written examinations taken at the end of my final year, rather than something like 30 examinations taken over 3 years. Moreover, my finals were all in a three-day period.

Morning and afternoon exams for three consecutive days is an ordeal I wouldn’t wish on anyone, so I’m not saying the old days were better, but I do think we’ve gone far too far to the opposite extreme. The one good thing about the system I went through was that there was no possibility of passing examinations on memory alone. Since they were so close together there was no way of mugging up anything in between them. I only got through  by figuring things out in the exam room.

I don’t want to denigrate the achievements of students who are successful under the current system.  What I’m saying is that I don’t think the education we provide does justice to their talents. That’s our fault, not theirs…


Preparing for Exams

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , on December 14, 2022 by telescoper

Just time for a very quick post today to mark the fact that this afternoon I did my last lecture of the 2022 calendar year, a revision class on special relativity. I’ll be back to do further classes in January ahead of the examinations but that’s it for me until after Christmas. It’s been a very hectic term so I’m glad it’s almost over.

Thoughts are now turning to the exams, I ended today’s lecture with some tips about examinations as the January session will be the first most students have ever had at third level. The tips I passed on today included:

  1. Try to get a good night’s sleep before the examination and arrive in plenty of time before the start.
  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.
  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.

Readers of this blog are welcome to add other tips through the comments box below!

Teaching and Fourier Series

Posted in Education, mathematics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on December 1, 2022 by telescoper

Now as we approach the last fortnight of term, I am nearing the end of both my modules, MP110 Mechanics 1 and Special Relativity and MP201 Vector Calculus and Fourier Series, and in each case am about to start the bit following the “and”…

In particular, having covered just about everything I need to do on Vector Calculus for MP201, tomorrow I start doing a block of lectures on Fourier Series. I have to wait until Monday to start doing Special Relativity with the first years.

As I have observed periodically, the two topics mentioned in the title of the module MP201 (Vector Calculs and Fourier Series) are not disconnected, but are linked via the heat equation, the solution of which led Joseph Fourier to devise his series in Mémoire sur la propagation de la chaleur dans les corps solides (1807), a truly remarkable work for its time that inspired so many subsequent developments.

Anyway I was looking for nice demonstrations of Fourier series to help my class get to grips with them when I remembered this little video recommended to me some time ago by esteemed Professor George Ellis. It’s a nice illustration of the principles of Fourier series, by which any periodic function can be decomposed into a series of sine and cosine functions.

This reminds me of a point I’ve made a few times in popular talks about astronomy. It’s a common view that Kepler’s laws of planetary motion according to which which the planets move in elliptical motion around the Sun, is a completely different formulation from the previous Ptolemaic system which involved epicycles and deferents and which is generally held to have been much more complicated.

The video demonstrates however that epicycles and deferents can be viewed as the elements used in the construction of a Fourier series. Since elliptical orbits are periodic, it is perfectly valid to present them in the form a Fourier series. Therefore, in a sense, there’s nothing so very wrong with epicycles. I admit, however, that a closed-form expression for such an orbit is considerably more compact and elegant than a Fourier representation, and also encapsulates a deeper level of physical understanding. What makes for a good physical theory is, in my view, largely a matter of economy: if two theories have equal predictive power, the one that takes less chalk to write it on a blackboard is the better one!

Five Years in Maynooth!

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , on December 1, 2022 by telescoper

It is 1st December 2022, which means that it’s five years to the day since I started work at Maynooth University. So much has happened in that period it seems very much longer since I first arrived here.
I’m very happy that I made the move here all those years ago. I won’t deny that the past five years have had their frustrations. The teaching and administrative workload, especially for the three years I was Head of Department, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, has been very heavy and has made it difficult to be very active in research.
Last year was a particularly tough year for the Department of Theoretical Physics, when we were forced to teach a whole year with only half the usual number of full-time teaching staff. It was very depressing not being able to deliver as a good a teaching experience as we wanted without the necessary resources. There never seems to be any shortage of funds for new senior management positions but not for the staff who actually perform the main function of a University.
Fortunately our immediate staffing problem has passed and we now have our usual number of lecturers in place. I was entitled to take a sabbatical when I reached the end of my term as Head of Department, but I deferred it because I didn’t want to leave my colleagues short-staffed again before the ship was properly steadied. I will put in a request in January to take it in 2023/24. If anyone out there feels like playing host to an old cosmologist please let me know!
On the bright side, I have great colleagues in the Department and the students are very engaged. There are few things in life more rewarding than teaching people who really want to learn. This year so far has been particularly enjoyable, if tiring because we have a large first year. I have also acquired two more PhD students and a Research Masters student.
The thing I’m probably most proud of over the past five years is, with the huge help of staff at Maynooth University Library, getting the Open Journal of Astrophysics off the ground and attracting some excellent papers. We’re still growing, though perhaps not as quickly as I’d hoped. The pandemic had something to do with that.
So, after a few years of hard and at times dispiriting slog, things are going pretty well. Meanwhile, in Brexit Britain, events have turned out exactly as I predicted, especially this:
Brexit will also doom the National Health Service and the UK university system, and clear the way for the destruction of workers’ rights and environmental protection. The poor and the sick will suffer, while only the rich swindlers who bought the referendum result will prosper. The country in which I was born, and in which I have lived for the best part of 54 years, is no longer something of which I want to be a part.
In other words I don’t regret for one minute my decision to leave Britain. Incidentally, five years is the term needed to qualify for Irish nationality by residence so if I had needed to I could now apply via that route.
I noticed looking at the similar post I wrote on this day last year that academic colleagues in the UK were on strike on that day. They are still taking industrial action, and indeed were on strike yesterday. My biggest fear for the Irish Higher Education system is that it follows the “business model” of soulless teaching factories with courses delivered by demoralized staff on casual teaching contracts. Things are definitely going that way here and this trend must be resisted.

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.