R.I.P. Jim Hartle (1939-2023)

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on May 27, 2023 by telescoper

It’s another one of the occasions on which I have to use this blog to pass on some sad news. Renowned physicist James B. Hartle has passed away.

Jim Hartle’s scientific work was concerned with the application of Einstein’s theory of general relativity to astrophysics, especially gravitational waves, relativistic stars, black holes, and cosmology, specifically the theory of the wave function of the universe. For much of his career he was interested in the earliest moments of the big bang where the subjects of quantum mechanics, gravity theory and cosmology overlap, leading among other things to the Hartle-Hawking conjecture.

Jim Hartle was one of the speakers at the very first scientific conference I attended in Cargèse, Corsica way back in 1986. I remember his lectures very well after all these years, not least because he was so witty. I remember his response when someone asked him about the existence of large dimensionless numbers in cosmology: “…it’s a property that numbers have that some of them are larger than others.”

Condolences to his family, friends and colleagues. Rest in peace, Jim Hartle (1939-2023).

Rachmaninov (×2) + Tubin at the National Concert Hall

Posted in Biographical, Music with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 27, 2023 by telescoper

Yesterday, after a nice walk through the sunny streets of Dublin, at the National Concert Hall for the final concert of the season by the National Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Mihhail Gerts, who were joined, for the second half, by the National Symphony Chorus directed by David Young and three star vocalists. The progamme consisted of two pieces by Sergei Rachmaninov (who was born 150 years ago this year) and one by Eduard Tubin (an Estonian composer who was new to me before last night).

The Isle of the Dead, by Arnold Böcklin

The first item one the menu was The Isle of the Dead, Op. 29 by Sergei Rachmaninov,  inspired by a painting of the same name by Arnold Böcklin and written around 1908. The rhythms of the opening passage evoke the motion of a boat moving across the sea to the island, from which point the piece develops among a cloud of increasingly dense harmonic layers into a dark atmosphere full of foreboding.  It’s a darkly dramatic work that I’ve enjoyed every time I heard it and last night was no exception.

There then followed the Sinfonietta on Estonian Motifs by Eduard Tubin introduced by conductor Mihhail Gerts, who is himself from Estonia. It’s a work in three movements inspired by the folk songs the composer heard as a child growing up in Estonia. I knew that much before the performance started but didn’t realize it would turn out to be such a weighty composition. The two outer movements are rhythmically complex in a way that’s reminiscent of Stravinksy (especially Petrushka) and the overall mood is far from the pastoral tranquility I’d expected: the music is rather edgy, in fact. I suppose that’s not surprising given that it was written in 1940. I enjoyed this but it is strange how much it reminded me of other composers: as well as Stravinsky, there are clear nods in the direction of Sibelius and at times it also reminded me of Arnold Bax. You might say it is a little bit derivative. I couldn’t possibly comment.

After the interval

After the wine break we had The Bells, a choral symphony for soprano, tenor, bass-baritone, chorus and large symphony orchestra by Sergei Rachmaninov (Op. 35). The words are based on a Russian translation of the poem The Bells by Edgar Allan Poe which was very popular in Russia in the early 20th century and which clearly resonated with Rachmaninov:

The sound of church bells dominated all the cities of Russia I used to know, they accompanied every Russian from childhood to the grave and no composer could escape their influence. Most of my life was lived amid vibrations of of the bells of Moscow.

Sergei Rachmaninov

The Bells is in four movements, echoing the four stanzas of the poem, and representing the journey “from childhood to the grave”, the last movement being a Lento subtitled The Mournful Iron Bells. The three soloists sing in one part each; the third movement involves orchestra and chorus only. Ukrainian tenor Valentyn Dytiuk sang in the first movement, Estonian soprano Mirjam Mesak the second and Ukrainian baritone Andrei Bondarenko the fourth. All three soloists were superb but particularly enjoyed the sinewy muscularity of Bondarenko’s baritone which gave a sense of rawness to his performance.

It was a fitting finale to the season. Congratulations to the National Symphony Orchestra for a great performance, and to the National Symphony Orchestra who were outstanding too.

Walking back to Pearse Station to get the train for Maynooth I found myself wondering when my next visit to the National Concert Hall will be. I’ll be away on sabbatical most of next year. Still, there’ll be plenty of music where I’m going…

Terms Ending

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth, Uncategorized with tags , , , on May 26, 2023 by telescoper

So here I am, on a fine early summer evening, waiting for the train into Dublin for the last performance of the season by the National Symphony Orchestra at the National Concert Hall. I’m looking forward to it very much, as the second half is a piece I’ve never heard before. I’ll write more about it tomorrow.

There’s an end of term feeling in other ways, too. The examination period ended earlier this week, and most students have now vanished for the summer. Quite a few staff members will be marking scripts at home too. Campus has been very quiet for the last few days. The train I’m now on, the 17.10 from Maynooth to Connolly, usually very busy on a Friday, is almost empty today.

The one exception to the general lack of activity on campus happened on Wednesday when a mysterious ferret appeared on Campus. It even tried to get into the Science Building, but failed (I suppose) because it didn’t have a swipe card. It seems this critter was a family pet that had got out and went on an adventure. It was spotted at various locations around the town before being collected by its owner and returned safely home.

Artist’s impression of the ferret.

Despite that flurry of excitement, I managed to finish marking my examinations and other assessments, but the grades still need to be checked. They then have to be approved by the Departmental Exam Board in early June. They then get a final dose of scrutiny at the University Examination Board. Students will have to wait almost another month to get their results. It’s quite a slow process, but it’s right to be careful.

New Publication at the Open Journal of Astrophysics

Posted in OJAp Papers, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on May 26, 2023 by telescoper

It’s time to announce yet another new paper at the Open Journal of Astrophysics. This one was published yesterday (25th May).

The latest paper is the 18th paper so far in Volume 6 (2023) and the 83rd in all. With this one we have now published more papers in 2023 than we did in all of last year. With significantly less than half the year gone, and a large number of papers in the pipeline, I think it’s quite likely we will exceed a total of 100 papers by the end of 2023.

The primary classification for this paper is Cosmology and Nongalactic Astrophysics and its title is “The Effect of Splashback on Weak Lensing Mass Estimates of Galaxy Clusters and Groups”. For the uninitiated  “Splashback” of infalling material produces features in the radial density profile of galaxy clusters. This paper discusses the effect of this on cluster masses derived from weak lensing measurements.

The authors, most of whom have multiple affiliations, are: Yuanyuan Zhang (NOIRLab, Tucson, AZ, USA), Susmita Adhikari (IISER, Pune, India), Matteo Costanzi (Univ. Trieste, Italy) and Josh Frieman, Jim Annis & Chihway Chang (Univ. Chicago, IL, USA).

Here is a screen grab of the overlay which includes the  abstract:



You can click on the image of the overlay to make it larger should you wish to do so. You can find the officially accepted version of the paper, along with all other astrophysics and cosmology research papers worth reading, on the arXiv here.

MSc in Theoretical Physics & Mathematics at Maynooth

Posted in Education, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on May 25, 2023 by telescoper

Now that the exams are over I thought I’d take the opportunity to promote our new MSc in Theoretical Physics & Mathematics. The existence of this was only announced in April and it was fully opened to applications just a couple of weeks ago. The University’s social media people have been pushing it very hard recently with, so I’m told, some success! Here are a few examples of the images that have been used in the ads:

Anyway, this (new) postgraduate course will be run jointly between the Departments of Theoretical Physics and Mathematics & Statistics, with each contributing about half the material. The duration is one calendar year (full-time) or two years (part-time) and consists of 90 credits in the European Credit Transfer System (ECTS). This will be split into 60 credits of taught material (split roughly 50-50 between Theoretical Physics and Mathematics) and a research project of 30 credits, supervised by a member of staff in a relevant area from either Department.

This new course is a kind of follow-up to the existing undergraduate BSc Theoretical Physics & Mathematics at Maynooth, also run jointly. We think the postgraduate course will appeal to many of the students on that programme who wish to continue their education to postgraduate level, though applications are very welcome from suitably qualified candidates who did their first degree elsewhere.

Postgraduate admissions in Ireland operate differently from the UK, in that there is a central system in Ireland (called PAC) that is similar to the undergraduate admissions system; in the UK PG courses are dealt with by individual institutions. You will need to apply online via PAC after the following the instructions here. The requisite PAC code for the full-time version of the course is MHQ56.

If you apply by 30th June you may be eligible for one of the University’s Taught Masters Scholarships!

The End of the Irish Civil War

Posted in History with tags , , on May 24, 2023 by telescoper
An injured Anti-Treaty soldier is supported by a fellow fighter in the Battle for Dublin that started the Irish Civil War; over 500 Anti-Treaty fighters were taken as prisoners after the battle died down in the city.

Just a very quick post to mark the fact that it was on this day a century ago, May 24th 1923, that the terrible Irish Civil War came to an end. The conflict had been stuttering to a close for some time, but the final act was a communique issued by Éamon de Valera, the political leader of the Anti-Treaty forces, which said

Soldiers of the Republic. The Republic can no longer be successfully defended by your arms. Further sacrifice on your part would now be in vain and the continuance of the struggle in arms unwise in the national interest and prejudicial to the future of our cause. Military victory must be allowed to rest for the moment with those who have destroyed the Republic. Other means must be sought to safeguard the nation’s right.

Éamon de Valera, May 24th 1923

The Irish Free State created by the Anglo-Irish Treaty lasted until 1937, when a new constitution, largely written by de Valera, was adopted. Ireland (minus the Six Counties retained by the United Kingdom in the Treaty) became a full republic in 1949.

Open Access: the Future is Diamond

Posted in Open Access with tags , , , on May 24, 2023 by telescoper

As it was foretold the Council of Europe has now released a document (PDF) that calls for “transparent, equitable, and open access to scholarly publications”.  In its conclusions, the Council calls on the Commission and the member states to support policies towards a scholarly publishing model that is not-for-profit, open access and multi-format, with no costs for authors or readers. In other words, it calls for Diamond Open Access. The covering press release includes:

If we really believe in open science, we need to make sure that researchers can make their findings available and re-usable and that high-quality scientific articles are openly accessible to anyone that needs to read them. This should be particularly the case for research that benefits from public funding: what has been paid by all should be accessible to all.

Mats Persson, Swedish Minister for Education, Ministry of Education and Research

This is clearly how Open Access should be, though I am still worried that the sizeable publishing lobby will still try to persuade research agencies and institutions to pay the existing fees on behalf of authors, which does not solve the problem but merely hides it.

I know I’m not alone in thinking that the current publishing ecosystem is doomed and will die a natural death soon enough. The replacement should be a worldwide network of institutional and/or subject-based repositories that share research literature freely for the common good. Universities and research centres should simply bypass the grotesque parasite that is the publishing industry. Indeed, I would be in favour of hastening the demise of the Academic Journal Racket by having institutions make it a disciplinary offence for any researcher to pay an APC to any journal.

We are lucky in physics and astronomy because arXiv has already done the hard work for us. With the existence of arXiv, old-style journals are no longer necessary. It is great that arXiv is being joined by similar ventures in other fields, such as BiorXiv and EarthArxiv. A list of existing repositories can be found here. I’m sure many more will follow. The future is Diamond.

What is needed is a global effort to link these repositories to each other and to peer review mechanisms. One way is through overlays as demonstrated by the Open Journal of Astrophysics, there being no reason why the idea can’t be extended beyond arXiv. Other routes are possible, of course, and I would love to see different models developed. I hope the European Council call will result in more support for Diamond Open Access. But whether this happens or not, I think the next few years are going to be very exciting.

Do “high-quality journals” always publish “high-quality papers”?

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on May 23, 2023 by telescoper

After a busy morning correcting examination scripts, I have now reached the lunch interval and thought I’d use the opportunity to share a paper I found via Stephen Curry on Twitter with the title In which fields do higher impact journals publish higher quality articles?. It’s quite telling that anyone should ask the question. It’s also telling that the paper, in a Springer journal called Scientometrics is behind a paywall. I can at least share the abstract:

The Journal Impact Factor and other indicators that assess the average citation rate of articles in a journal are consulted by many academics and research evaluators, despite initiatives against overreliance on them. Undermining both practices, there is limited evidence about the extent to which journal impact indicators in any field relate to human judgements about the quality of the articles published in the field’s journals. In response, we compared average citation rates of journals against expert judgements of their articles in all fields of science. We used preliminary quality scores for 96,031 articles published 2014–18 from the UK Research Excellence Framework 2021. Unexpectedly, there was a positive correlation between expert judgements of article quality and average journal citation impact in all fields of science, although very weak in many fields and never strong. The strength of the correlation varied from 0.11 to 0.43 for the 27 broad fields of Scopus. The highest correlation for the 94 Scopus narrow fields with at least 750 articles was only 0.54, for Infectious Diseases, and there was only one negative correlation, for the mixed category Computer Science (all), probably due to the mixing. The average citation impact of a Scopus-indexed journal is therefore never completely irrelevant to the quality of an article but is also never a strong indicator of article quality. Since journal citation impact can at best moderately suggest article quality it should never be relied on for this, supporting the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment.

There is some follow-up discussion on this paper and its conclusions here.

The big problem of course is how you define “high-quality papers” and “high-quality journals”. As in the above discussion this usually resolves itself into something to do with citation impact, which is problematic to start with but if that’s the route you want to go down then there is sufficient readily available article-level information for each paper nowadays that you don’t need any journal metrics at all. The academic journal industry won’t agree of course, as it’s in their interest to perpetuate the falsehood that such rankings matter. The fact that correlation between article “quality” measures and journal “quality” measures is weak does not surprise me. I think there are many weak papers that have passed peer review and appeared in high-profile journals. This is another reason for disregarding the journal entirely. Don’t judge the quality of an item by the wrapping, but by what’s inside it!

There is quite a lot of discussion in my own field of astrophysics about what the “leading journals” are. Different ranking methods produce different lists, not surprisingly given the arbitrariness of the methods used. According to this site, The Open Journal of Astrophysics ranks 4th out of 48 journals., but it doesn’t appear on some other lists because the academic publication industry, which acts as gate-keeper via Clarivate, does not seem not to like its unconventional approach. According to Exaly, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (MNRAS) is ranked in 13th place, while according to this list, it is 14th. No disrespect to MNRAS, but I don’t see any objective justification for calling it “the leading journal in the field”.

The top ranked journals in astronomy and astrophysics are generally review journals, which have always attract lots of citations through references like “see Bloggs 2015 and references therein”. Many of these review articles are really excellent and contribute a great deal to their discipline, but it’s not obvious they can be compared with actual research papers. At OJAp we decided to allow review articles of sufficiently high quality because we see the journal primarily as a service to the community rather than a service to the bean-counters who make the rankings.

Now, back to the exams…

Days of Invigilation

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , on May 22, 2023 by telescoper

I’ve now collected the scripts from my second examination – held on Saturday – and will spend the next day or two marking them and combining the exam grades with grades from class tests and projects to produce a final score.

When I went to collect the scripts for my first examination on Thursday at the end of the examination, I had to wait a little bit for them to be collated and sealed in their official packet. While that was going on I chatted to a member of staff who was putting out papers for the next examination. She was giving out about how students often move the desks when they leave, requiring them to be put back in position before the next examination.

The invigilator also expressed irritation about the system of ID cards. Each desk in the examination room has a card with a unique number on it placed in the right front corner (as seen by the student). During the examination, students are supposed to place their ID card on the desk so an invigilator can check the identity of the candidate. The student ID cards at Maynooth are about the same size as a credit card, as are the cards with the numbers. Apparently many students place their ID card directly over the number card, obscuring the number and requiring the invigilator to lift it up in order to do the crosscheck. As things go, it seems a mild transgression, but I suppose it makes an already boring job even longer for the invigilators.

Years ago, academic staff had to invigilate their own examinations. I had to do this in my first teaching job at Queen Mary and, later, at Nottingham but more recently the job has generally been done by support staff rather than academics. I moved from Nottingham to Cardiff in 2007 and don’t think I ever had to invigilate examinations there., so I haven’t done it for 16 years or so. Nowadays we are just expected to be “on call” to deal with any queries that arise in the Exam Hall by phone.

I’m not sorry that I no longer have to perform this task, as it was always one of my least favourite jobs, and not only because I don’t enjoy seeing people under stress. Initially I thought supervising an examination might allow me time to do something useful, but there always seemed to be some interruption, such as students wanting an extra answer book, or asking about some issue with the examination paper, or wanting to leave to go to the toilet, etc.

The most dramatic interruption I can remember was when a student who suffered from epilepsy had a seizure in the examination hall. Fortunately we invigilators had been briefed as to what to do in such an eventuality, namely to move the furniture so the student didn’t hurt themselves but otherwise not to intervene until they went to sleep – which usually happens after a minute or two. We were told that such an episode was unlikely as the student was taking medicine to prevent them occurring. It was quite when it actually happened, but happily the student recovered quickly but was perfectly OK afterwards. Apparently he had been so busy preparing for the examination that day he had forgotten to take his medication in the morning.

Having given up on the idea of doing some other work during an examination, I used to take a few crosswords to do. These are good for passing the time because you can solve a few clues at a time. Other things I used to do included walking around counting the number of right-handed and left-handed students, for example, though I never did any detailed statistical analysis of the results.

The primary purpose of invigilation is to prevent cheating or other misbehaviour, and I only ever saw a few examples of that – most of them involving calculators with, e.g., graph-plotting facilities which are not allowed.

Anyway, I’m glad I no longer have to invigilate examinations, and that makes me all the more grateful for the people who do. Here in Maynooth there are three examinations per day during the Examination Period, with a brief period between to put out the next set of papers, which means a long day for those who do this job. Hats off to the dedicated staff of the Exams Office at Maynooth who carry out this thankless task three times a year!

Defamation in Germany

Posted in Uncategorized on May 22, 2023 by telescoper

Tangentially related to yesterday’s post, I’m reminded that, some time ago, a friend of mine, based in Germany, who happens to be a lawyer (Rechtsanwältin), informed me that defamation is a criminal offence under German law. This is different from the UK and Ireland, where defamation is a matter for the civil courts. Here is a translation of Section 187 of the German criminal code (Strafgesetzbuch):

Sections 185 and 186 are related to this. The law applies to acts committed in Germany, such as sending messages by email or via social media using a computer based there.

I mention this law for two reasons. One is that to point out to readers that they have legal recourse if a person based in Germany is intentionally defaming you. The other is to suggest that, if you are based in Germany and are in the habit of committing repeated acts of intentional defamation, it may be in your best interests to desist.

I hope this clarifies the situation.