Archive for theoretical physics

Temporary Lectureship in Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University!

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , on June 28, 2020 by telescoper

While I remember I should announce that we have fixed term ten-month full-time teaching position available in the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University.

The appointment is to provide sabbatical cover for Dr Jiri Vala.

The advert only went up last week but the deadline is just a fortnight away, on Sunday 12th July, which is pretty soon. This is because we need the person in post by September! Interviews are likely to be held in early August.

You can find the ad here or here or at the Maynooth University website here (which is also where you should apply).

Please feel free to pass this on to anyone you think might be interested!

Another Open Day Preview – General Science at Maynooth

Posted in Education, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on June 26, 2020 by telescoper

I thought I’d put up another post following on from yesterday’s post about Open Day at Maynooth coming up on Saturday 27th June which, owing to Covid-19 restrictions still being in place,  is once again a virtual event. It will take place between 10am and 2pm and be online for that period to answer queries about Theoretical and Mathematical Physics at Maynooth University. You can sign up for the event here.

Yesterday’s post was about our denominated degree programme in Theoretical Physics and Mathematics, but I also recorded a separate video for students interested in studying Mathematical Physics  (or Theoretical Physics – we use the terms interchangeably) through our General Science programme, MH201, so here’s a little presentation about how to study Mathematical physics at Maynooth that way:

Currently, most students doing Science subjects here in Maynooth enter on the General Science programme (codename)  a four-year Omnibus science course that involves doing four subjects in the first year, but becoming increasingly specialised thereafter. That’s not unlike the Natural Sciences course I did at Cambridge, except that students at Maynooth can do both Mathematical Theoretical Physics and Experimental Physics in the first year as separate choices. Other possibilities include Chemistry, Computer Science, Biology, etc.

In Year 1 students do four subjects (one of which has to be Mathematics). That is narrowed down to three in Year 2 and two in Year 3. In their final year, students can stick with two subjects for a Joint Honours (Double Major) degree, or specialise in one, for Single Honours.

I like this programme very much because it does not force the students to choose a specialism before they have had a taste of the subject, and that it is flexible enough to accommodate Joint Honours qualifications in, e.g., Theoretical Physics and Mathematics. It also allows us to enrol students onto Physics degrees who have not done Physics or Applied Mathematics as part of the Leaving Certificate.

I think Mathematical Physics has a particular value in the first year of this course, even for students who do now wish to continue with beyond that level. The material we present in the first year focusses on Mechanics, which is perfect for students to learn how to apply concepts from the Mathematics courses in calculus and linear algebra (especially vectors). It obviously complements Experimental Physics and I would recommend all students who want to do Experimental Physics to do Mathematical Physics too, but  basic mechanics comes up in a wide range of contexts in science, including Biology and Chemistry, so it is relevant for students taking a wide range of pathways through this very flexible programme.

 

 

Maynooth Open Day Preview

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on June 25, 2020 by telescoper

No sooner has the examination period finished when we have to start thinking about admissions again. There is an Open Day at Maynooth coming up on Saturday 27th June. Covid-19 restrictions still being in place this is once again a virtual event that will take place between 10am and 2pm. I will be online for that period to answer queries about Theoretical and Mathematical Physics at Maynooth University. You can sign up for the event here.

In the meantime, to whet your appetite, here is a little video introduction I recorded for the Open Dday for our Double Major BSc programme in Theoretical Physics & Mathematics (codename: MH206)

 

 

Assessment at a Distance

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on April 4, 2020 by telescoper

In the light of the Covid-19 restrictions currently in place, Maynooth University has issued updated guidance to students about the rest of the Semester.

Of particular concern to students is what will happen to their examinations, usually held in the second half of May.

Here the guidance begins:

The university examinations will not take place this semester in the usual format. The examinations will be replaced by remote assessments, including assignments, timed remote assessments and in some cases video interviews. As far as possible assessments will be completed by the scheduled dates. We plan to have resit examinations in August as usual.

There has been a lot of work and discussion going on behind the scenes to come up with ways of doing without the usual in situ examinations and the solutions proposed will no doubt vary considerably from discipline to discipline.

In the case of Theoretical Physics the vast majority of our examinations will be in the form of a timed assessment as mentioned above. What this means is that a test of similar format to the usual examinations will be made available in the form of a pdf file for students to download at home at a specific time. They must then scan and upload their answers, within a given time limit, extra time being added to formal duration of the assessment to allow for doing this.

There are two main potential difficulties with this approach.

One is that the students will not be invigilated and may cheat, either by referring to notes or other material (e.g. online) or by colluding with others. I believe the former risk can be mitigated (a) by the time limit and (b) by designing an assessment that emphasises problem-solving rather than rote learning (which, frankly, is what we should be doing anyway). Collusion is more difficult to deal with but we can at least require students to make a declaration that the submission is their own and reserve the right to interview afterwards.

The second (and, I believe more serious) source of difficulty is on the side of the student. This approach will require students to have somewhere at home where they can do the test, as well as access to the Internet and a scanning device of some sort. They will only have to download a relatively small pdf but the upload may cause problems. A scanned pdf would be easier to upload than, for example, pictures taken using a phone camera (which may be rather large files).

Still, given that there is a period of six weeks before these assessments are due to take place, I hope the vast majority of students will be able to put appropriate arrangements in place. We can also provide a dummy test so they can check that everything works satisfactorily.

These proposals are not ideal, but few things can be in the situation we are in. I do think this is a reasonable approach for our students because at least it means they can prepare using past examination papers knowing that the timed assessment will be similar in form. I think dumping an entirely new and unfamiliar kind of assessment on students now, at a time of already high stress, would have been grossly unfair.

Exam Time

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on January 12, 2020 by telescoper

Back in Maynooth into the January examination period, I await the arrival tomorrow of the first batch of examination scripts I have to mark, so I thought I’d do a quick post on the topic of examinations.

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. Each examination is usually of two hours’ duration.

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.

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 the papers here – at least at a reasonably advanced level, say Years 3 and 4 – 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 their examination is not until Wednesday, I’ll have to wait until later this week to find out how my first-years 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 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!

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

 

Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University Open Days!

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , on November 30, 2019 by telescoper

Today, Saturday 30th November 2019, is another Open Day at Maynooth University.

I used to give Open Day talks quite frequently in a previous existence as Head of School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex and now I’m at it again, giving talks on behalf of the Department of Theoretical Physics.

If you’re coming along today, please say hello either at the lecture (2.10pm)) or at the stall in the Iontas Building from 10.30 each day where you can chat about the course or anything else vaguely related to Theoretical Physics. There are other stalls, of course, but the Theoretical Physics one is obviously way more interesting than the others!

I might have time to take a few snaps during the day. If I do I’ll post them here. In the meantime here is a summary of my talk:

UPDATE: I didn’t get time to take any pictures because we were busy all morning. The subject talk in the afternoon was absolutely packed out – way more people than I’ve seen at any other open days here at Maynooth – and loads of questions at the end. Very enjoyable but rather exhausting. I think I might head home for a nap!

Open Day Friday

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth with tags , , , on November 29, 2019 by telescoper

It’s a busy day today in Maynooth with two very important jobs to do. Until lunchtime I’ll be preoccupied with an Open Day here at Maynooth University, the first of this year’s cycle. Here’s the poster advertising them (with dates included):

You’ll see that I have a new role as Poster Boy for Maynooth University, though they have understandably put me at the extreme edge of the poster (bottom right). I’ve got plenty of people helping on the stall in the Iontas Building today but I do have to give a talk to prospective students. There’s another Open Day tomorrow, for which I’ll be on the stall and doing the talk for most of the day.

Here’s a little promotional video:

Today’s  Open Day winds down by 2pm after which my second major task of the day begins. But that’s a secret, at least for the time being.

 

 

 

The Theoretical Physics Equipment Store

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , on November 22, 2019 by telescoper

This door, deep in the bowels of the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University, leads to a cupboard in which we keep all the equipment used in our Theoretical Physics lectures:

The door is not numbered as a security precaution because of the high value of the items contained in the cupboard. This is foolproof measure because it is the only door in the Department without a number on it, and is therefore impossible to identify. It is here that you will find, among other things, some items I used in my first-year Mechanics lectures:

  • a supply of light inelastic string;
  • frictionless pulleys (various sizes);
  • rigid rods of various lengths;
  • a large array of point masses;
  • smooth inclined planes at various angles;
  • a collection of perfectly elastic spheres;
  • bottles containing a variety of incompressible fluids of negligible viscosity;
  • jars of ideal gas.

I’m mindful, however, that we may lack some items that are in regular use in Theoretical Physics departments elsewhere, perhaps for more advanced topics,  so if anyone has ideas for things to be added to this store please suggest them through the comments box so I can ensure that we have them in stock for next semester.

 

 

In Praise of Omnibus Science

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on April 16, 2019 by telescoper

I’m taking a few days off at the moment so this morning I had a bit of time to catch up on various things. One news item I stumbled across points out that first-choice applications to study at Maynooth University are the highest ever. Within the overall increase of about 7% there is a growth of 17% in Science subjects, which is very good news for the Department of Theoretical Physics as well as the other Departments in the Faculty of Science and Engineering.

Anyway, this spurred me to comment on what I think is one of the strengths of Maynooth University: the Omnibus Science programme.

Currently, most students doing Science subjects here enter on the Omnibus programme, a four-year science course that involves doing four subjects in the first year, but becoming increasingly specialised thereafter. That’s not unlike the Natural Sciences course I did at Cambridge, except that students at Maynooth can do both Theoretical Physics and Experimental Physics in the first year as separate choices. Other possibilities include Chemistry, Computer Science, Biology, etc.

In Year 1 students do four subjects (one of which is Mathematics). That is narrowed down to three in Year 2 and two in Year 3. In their final year, students can stick with two subjects for a Joint Honours degree, or specialise in one, for Single Honours.

I like this programme because it does not force the students to choose a specialism before they have had a taste of the subject, and that it is flexible enough to accommodate Joint Honours qualifications in, e.g., Theoretical Physics and Mathematics. It also allows us to enrol students onto Physics degrees who have not done Physics as part of the Leaving Certificate.

I think it’s a strength that students take such a broad first year rather than locking themselves into one discipline from the start. Part of the reason is that I went to do my own degree at Cambridge expecting to end up specialising in Chemistry, but enjoyed the physics far more, eventually specialising in Theoretical Physics. I’m sure there were others who went the other way too!

One problem with the Omnibus Science programme is that the range of possible final qualifications is perhaps not as clearly advertised as it could be, so some clearer signposting would do no harm.

Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University Open Day!

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , on April 5, 2019 by telescoper

Well, tomorrow (Saturday 6th April)  is an Open Day at Maynooth University. If you want to find out more about it you can look here where you will find this video which has some nice views of the campus:

I used to give Open Day talks quite frequently in a previous existence as Head of School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex and now I’m at it again, giving a talk on behalf of the Department of Theoretical Physics this Open Day. If you come along, please come along to my talk (at 14.10 on Saturday)!

We also have a stall in the Iontas Building from 10.30, where you can meet staff and students and talk to them about the course, or anything else vaguely related to Theoretical Physics. There are other stalls, of course, but the Theoretical Physics one is obviously way more interesting than the others!

Looking for fun pictures to put in my talk I stumbled across this:

I think that’s the only one I need, really!