Archive for theoretical physics

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.

Advertisements

Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University Open Day!

Posted in Uncategorized 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!

Physics: Mathematical or Theoretical or Experimental?

Posted in Education, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on November 26, 2018 by telescoper

Fresh from doing two Open Day talks last week I thought I’d write a few words here about something that cropped up in the question-and-answer session.

For a start, I should explain 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 are largely separate in terms of teaching and research.

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.

To confuse matters still further, the Department of Theoretical Physics only recently changed its name from the Department of Mathematical Physics and some of our documentation still carries that title. I got asked several times at the weekend 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.

It’s interesting though that Wikipedia has different pages for Mathematical Physics and Theoretical Physics. The former begins

Mathematical physics refers to the development of mathematical methods for application to problems in physics. The Journal of Mathematical Physics defines the field as “the application of mathematics to problems in physics and the development of mathematical methods suitable for such applications and for the formulation of physical theories”. It is a branch of applied mathematics, but deals with physical problems.

while the latter starts

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.

The difference is subtle,and there is obviously a huge amount in common between these two definitions, but it is perhaps that Theoretical Physics is more focused on the use of mathematics to account for the results of experiment and observations whereas Mathematical Physics concerns itself more with the development of the necessary mathematical techniques, but I’m sure there will be readers of this blog who disagree with this interpretation.

For the record here 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’d say that theoretical physicists are more likely than mathematical physicists to be working closely with experimentalists. 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.

Anyway, as an experiment, I asked the audience at my Open Day talks 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 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 many potential students 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. 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.

It might seem a bit strange to have two Physics departments in one University – though it seems to work alright in Cambridge! – but I think it works pretty well. The one problem is that there isn’t a clear entry point for `Physics’ without an adjective. Students can carry Theoretical Physics and Experimental Physics through all the way to final year and get a joint honours degree (50% theory and 50% experiment) or they can pick one to do single honours, but we might attract a few more students if the former possibility were just called `Physics’. Perhaps.

On the Second (Open) Day..

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , on November 24, 2018 by telescoper

I’ve been back on campus all morning today (Saturday 24th November) at Maynooth University for the second Open Day. I’m just taking a short break to have a sandwich and a cup of tea before rejoining the fray and giving the Subject Talk at 2.10pm on behalf of the Department of Theoretical Physics.

Yesterday’s Open Day was a very busy day. I’m given to understand that there was a record crowd  of over 3000 visitors. We were certainly not short of people to talk to at our stand in Iontas.

I think being a number of school trips contributed to the high attendance. Today has been more individual prospective students and parents. Also it’s been a bit rainy this morning so numbers might be down a bit compared to yesterday, but we’ve been busy again on the stall.

Anyway the main reason for writing this post is to thank all our student helpers including Rebekah, Eibhlin, Philip, Cai, Tigernach and Ryan for contributing over the two days and staff members Paul and Jiri for doing their stint. Their only material reward for helping has been a lunch voucher for one of the campus refectories.

UPDATE: The talk was very well attended and ended with lots and lots of questions, so I think I’ll call it a success. Now home to put my feet up and have a nice cup of tea!

Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University Open Days!

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , on November 22, 2018 by telescoper

Well, tomorrow (Friday 23rd November) and Saturday 24th November are both open days at Maynooth University. If you want to find out more about them 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 talks on behalf of the Department of Theoretical Physics on each Open Day. If you come along, please say hello either at the lectures (1.10pm on Friday and 2.10 on Saturday)! We also have a stall in the Iontas Building from 9.30 each day 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 em>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!

Jazz, STEM and the Creative Process

Posted in Art, Jazz, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on January 23, 2016 by telescoper

The Times Higher has given me yet  another reason to be disgruntled this week, in the form of an article that talks about the possible effect of the proposed Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) on “creative” subjects. What bothers me about this piece is not that it criticises the TEF – I think that’s an unworkable idea that will cause untold damage to the University system if, as seems likely, it is railroaded through for political reasons – but that the author (Nigel Carrington, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Arts London), like so many others, lazily implies that STEM disciplines are not creative. I think some of the most intensively creative people in the world are to be found in science and engineering and creativity is something we try very hard to nurture in students at Sussex University regardless of discipline.

Anyway, while feeling grumpy about this article, I remembered this video of an interview with the great jazz pianist, Bill Evans. Jazz is undoubtedly an intensely creative form, not only because it requires spontaneous real-time conversion of ideas into sounds. Evans talks with great passion and insight about creativity in music-making, but the striking thing about what he says at the  very beginning about the need to analyse your subject at a very elementary level before proceeding in order to create something that’s “real” applies equally well to, e.g. theoretical physics as it does to jazz.

In the following section he reiterates this point, but also stresses the discipline imposed by a particular form and why this does not limit creativity but makes it stronger.

It’s better to do something simple that is real. It’s something you can build on. because you know what you’re doing. Whereas, if you try to approximate something very advanced and don’t know what you’re doing, you can’t build on it.

No matter how far I might diverge or find freedom in this format, it only is free insofar that it has reference to the strictness of the original form. That’s what gives it its strength.

In much the same way, theoretical physics is not made less creative because it has to obey the strict rules of mathematics but more so. This is true also in the fine arts: the more limited the canvas the more creative the artist must be, but it also applies to, e.g. engineering design. Self-teaching is important in STEM subjects too: the only really effective way of learning, e.g. physics, is by devoting time to working through ideas in your own mind, not by sitting passively in lectures.

All subjects require technical skill, but there is more to being a great jazz musician than mastery of the instrument just as there’s more to being a research scientist than doing textbook problems. So here’s to creativity wherever it is found, and let’s have a bit more appreciation for the creative aspects of science and engineering!

 

 

 

Physics & Astronomy at Sussex – The Videos!

Posted in Brighton, Education with tags , , on January 20, 2016 by telescoper

So the annual University admissions cycle is getting into gear, which means I’ll be spending quite a few Saturdays giving talks and chatting to prospective students and their parents. As we prepare for  the first of Applicant Visit Days at the University of Sussex (on Saturday 23rd January) we’ve produced a number of videos featuring current students in the Department of Physics & Astronomy. I thought I’d share a couple here.

First here’s Anjelah, a student on our 4-year MPhys degree in Theoretical Physics. She still seems quite keen, despite having taken my Theoretical Physics module in her second year!

Here’s Joe, a 4-year MPhys (Physics) student:

And here’s another by Linn, who is on the BSc in Physics with Astrophysics degree:

You’ll notice that both of them talk about our dedicated study spaces, which the students really like. We’re one of the few Physics & Astronomy Departments in the UK – in fact the only that I know of – that has turned over the management of a large suite of rooms over to our students. We don’t just allow them to use the rooms 24 hours a day; we also give them a budget for furniture and books and they basically decide what they want and how to arrange it all. We also provide a constant supply of free tea and coffee (although I have to admit that I do pop in there from time to time and help myself too).