General Relativity Book Plug!

Posted in Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on June 8, 2023 by telescoper

Just a very quick note to advertise a new book by former colleague (now Emeritus) Professor Brian P. Dolan, who retired a couple of years ago, but is still active in research.This textbook (left) is based on the lecture notes he used to teach a final-year undergraduate course in General Relativity to Mathematical Physics students here in Maynooth.

The book’s description reads:

Einstein’s general theory of relativity can be a notoriously difficult subject for students approaching it for the first time, with arcane mathematical concepts such as connection coefficients and tensors adorned with a forest of indices. This book is an elementary introduction to Einstein’s theory and the physics of curved space-times that avoids these complications as much as possible. Its first half describes the physics of black holes, gravitational waves and the expanding Universe, without using tensors. Only in the second half are Einstein’s field equations derived and used to explain the dynamical evolution of the early Universe and the creation of the first elements. Each chapter concludes with problem sets and technical mathematical details are given in the appendices. This short text is intended for undergraduate physics students who have taken courses in special relativity and advanced mechanics.

You can order the book and/or recommend a copy to your library here.

R.I.P. Astrud Gilberto (1940-2023)

Posted in Film, Music with tags , , on June 7, 2023 by telescoper

I just read the sad news of the death, on Monday 5th June at the age of 83, of legendary Brazilian Bossa Nova and Samba singer Astrud Gilberto.

There was a time in the 1960s when the Bossa Nova seemed to be everywhere, and the reason for that was a collaboration between singer, guitarist and composer João Gilberto and tenor saxophonist Stan Getz that resulted in the award-winning album Getz/Gilberto that made the Bossa Nova go global, penetrating not only the world of jazz but the much wider cultural sphere including pop and film music. It also made a star of João Gilberto’s then wife, Astrud, who had never recorded before but sang on some of the tracks, the most famous example being The Girl From Ipanema. The popularity of this track resulted in a shorter version being released as a single which was a smash hit around the globe in 1964. Whether or not it’s true, the story goes that she was not under contract at the time the recording was made so never received any royalties for it, although the single made millions. It is said that it was Stan Getz – a wonderful musician but a notoriously horrible man – was responsible for swindling her.

Although an inexperienced singer at the time of this famous session, Astrud Gilberto had a direct, uncomplicated style and an aura of cool detachment that proved very appealing to audiences around the world, earning her a Grammy Award and turning her into a star almost overnight. Her relationship with her husband did not survive this transformation, however, and they divorced a few years later.

There was a lot more to Astrud Gilberto than that hit record, however. She started writing her own songs and her singing style matured. As a matter of fact I was lucky enough to see her perform live in London in the mid-1990s – at the Jazz Cafe in Camden, if I remember correctly – and she sang a very interesting mixture of music. I liked that later style more than the Getz/Gilberto recordings actually.

Anyway, here is a video of Astrud Gilberto singing The Girl From Ipanema in 1964 in what looks like it must be a clip from the film Get Yourself A College Girl – though I stand to be corrected if wrong! – and the music is exactly the same as the hit single so the band and the singer were obviously miming…

Rest in Peace, Astrud Gilberto (1940-2023).

Examinations, Past and Future

Posted in Biographical, Education, mathematics, Maynooth with tags , , , , , on June 7, 2023 by telescoper

No sooner is yesterday’s departmental Examination Board done and dusted (after just two and a half hours) when attention switches to school examinations. The Junior Certificate and Leaving Certificate examinations both start today, so the first thing I need to do is wish everyone taking examinations the very best of luck!

Among other things, the results of the leaving certificate examinations are important for next year’s University admissions. As we gradually dispense with the restrictions imposed during the pandemic, it seems this year we just might have the results before the start of teaching at the end of September. That will make a nice change!

In the system operating in England and Wales the standard qualification for entry is the GCE A-level. Most students take A-levels in three subjects, which gives them a relatively narrow focus although the range of subjects to choose from is rather large. In Ireland the standard qualification is the Leaving Certificate, which comprises a minimum of six subjects, giving students a broader range of knowledge at the sacrifice (perhaps) of a certain amount of depth; it has been decreed for entry into this system that an Irish Leaving Certificate subject counts as about 2/3 of an A-level subject for admissions purposes, so Irish students do the equivalent of at least four A-levels, and many do more than this. It’s also worth noting that all students have to take Mathematics at Leaving Certificate level.

Overall I prefer the Leaving Certificate over the UK system of A-levels, as the former gives the students a broader range of subjects than the latter (as does the International Baccalaureate). I would have liked to have been allowed to take at least one arts subject past O-level, for example.

For University admissions points are awarded for each paper according to the marks obtained and then aggregated into a total CAO points, CAO being the Central Applications Office, the equivalent of the UK’s UCAS. This means, for example, that our main Science pathway at Maynooth allows students to study Physics without having done it at Leaving Certificate level. This obviously means that the first year has to be taught at a fairly elementary level, but it has the enormous benefit of allowing us to recruit students whose schools do not offer Physics.

As much as I like the Leaving Certificate, I have concerns about using a simple CAO points count for determining entry into third-level courses. My main concern about is with Mathematics. Since the pandemic struck, students have been able to choose to questions from just six out of ten sections. That means that students can get very high grades despite knowing nothing about 40% of the syllabus. That matters most for subjects that require students to have certain skills and knowledge for entry into University, such as Physics.

I’ve been teaching the first year Mathematical Physics course in Maynooth for about 5 years. At the start of the module I put up a questionnaire asking the students about various mathematical concepts and asking them how comfortable they feel with them. It’s been noticeable how the fraction that are comfortable with basic differentiation and integration has been falling. That’s not a reflection on the ability of the students, just on the way they have been taught. As well as making adjustments during the pandemic for online teaching, etc, I have changed various things about the teaching, in particular adjusting the way I have introduced calculus into the module. Another problem is that we have been forced to start teaching first-years a week late because of delays to the CAO process caused by the pandemic.

I’ll be on sabbatical next academic year so I won’t be teaching the first-years (or anyone else) in September. It’s time to hand these challenges on to someone else!

Chanson d’Automne

Posted in Art, History, LGBT, Music with tags , , , on June 6, 2023 by telescoper

I’ve mentioned on here before that I had an English teacher at school who used to set interesting creative writing challenges, in which we would be given two apparently disconnected topics and asked to write something that connected them together. The inspiration was ‘Only Connect’, the epigraph of E.M. Forster’s novel Howard’s End. Since I’ve spent all afternoon in an Exam Board meeting I thought I’d do a little bit of connecting now.

Les sanglots longs
Des violons
De l’automne
Blessent mon coeur
D’une langueur

Tout suffocant
Et blême, quand
Sonne l’heure,
Je me souviens
Des jours anciens
Et je pleure;

Et je m’en vais
Au vent mauvais
Qui m’emporte
Deçà, delà,
Pareil à la
Feuille morte.

Chanson d’Automne, by Paul Verlaine (1844-1896).

I posted the above poem by Paul Verlaine for two reasons. One is that lines from the poem were broadcast on the eve of the Normandy Landings. The landings themselves began in the morning of June 6th 1944 and the excerpt – the last three lines of the first verse – formed a coded message broadcast to the French resistance by Radio Londres, 5th June 1944 at 23.15 GMT, informing them that the Allied invasion of France was imminent and that sabotage operations should commence.

The other reason is that that it was just two weeks ago that I attended a concert featuring settings by Benjamin Britten of prose poems taken from  Les Illuminations by Arthur Rimbaud. I didn’t know until that Verlaine and Rimbaud were lovers and that they lived for some time together in London. Their relationship was on the tempestuous side – at one point Verlaine fired a gun at Rimbaud, wounding him in the hand. Here’s a detail from a painting showing the two of them (Verlaine on the left, Rimbaud on the right).

It was said of Rimbaud that, as well as writing remarkable poetry, he was cute-looking, had a very dirty sense of humour, drank a bit too much, and liked lots and lots of rough sex. I think I would have liked him (although perhaps not enough to risk being shot by his jealous older boyfriend).

Anyway, this provides me with an excuse not only to commemorate D-Day but also Pride Month!


Lá Saoire i mí Mheitheamh

Posted in Biographical, Irish Language on June 5, 2023 by telescoper

Today has been (and indeed continues to be) the June Bank Holiday (Lá Saoire i mí Mheitheamh) in Ireland. It is the equivalent of the usual May Bank Holiday in the UK in that both have their origin in the old festival of Whitsuntide (or Pentecost) which falls on the 7th Sunday after Easter. Because the date of Easter moves around in the calendar so does Whit Sunday, but it is usually in late May or early June. Here in Ireland the Bank Holiday is always on the first Monday in June whereas on the other side of the Irish Sea it is on the last Monday in May.

Anyway, in a break with tradition, we have had and still are having lovely weather over the holiday long weekend. It’s not exactlly a heatwave, but as I write the temperature is a pleasant 20° C. It being warm last night, I thought it would be nice to light a big candle and sit out in the garden for a bit with a glass of wine, but I was beset by moths and had to come back inside. My concern is that the garden is bone dry, especially considering it is early June. The lawn is looking parched. Some of the plants in my garden are also struggling a bit because of the lack of rain but some others seem to be thriving so much they’re crowding out the ones that prefer the more normal damper conditions.

The Scarlet Firethorn – so called because it produces bright red berries – is growing like wildfire as well as flowering profusely. The flowers are nice, but I think past their peak so when they’re done I’ll take some remedial action. The other plants are basically wild flowers, which I like having in the garden as they tend to be rather robust. The long green leaves in the first two pictures are Montbretia, which produced bright red flowers later in the summer, and which is grown from bulbs.

My rear garden is enclosed by high walls but gets the sun in the morning, so I’ve been having breakfast and lunch out there for the last several days.

Anyway, it’s back to work tomorrow for our Departmental Examination Board so I’ll take it easy for the rest of the day off. After all, I’m an old man now…

Officially Ancient

Posted in Biographical with tags on June 4, 2023 by telescoper

So here I am, now officially ancient, although I’ll have to wait another 6 years until I qualify for a free bus pass.

I’ve always assumed I’ll feel a bit depressed when I reached 60 years old, but as it turns out it doesn’t bother me at all. I feel more grateful that I made it this far! I suppose it helps that I’m in pretty good health, we’re having lovely weather, most of the stress of the academic year is over, it’s a Bank Holiday weekend, and I have a sabbatical to look forward to.

Anyway, I’m not going to spend my birthday sitting at the computer – it’s far too nice outside – so I’ll leave it there, except to say thank you to everyone who sent birthday greetings and to ask you all if you haven’t done so already please to consider giving to my birthday fundraiser.

Birthday Fundraiser…

Posted in Biographical, Mental Health with tags , , on June 2, 2023 by telescoper

My birthday is coming up and for my birthday this year I’m asking for donations to Pieta, which is a charity working to prevent suicide and self-harm. I’ve chosen this cause because their mission means a lot to me. I hope you’ll consider contributing; every little bit will help.

You can donate here by my Facebook Fundraiser. Facebook takes care of the donation processing with no fees. If you decide to give, you can choose who can see that you donated, or donate privately. The Fundraiser will stay open for a couple of weeks or so.

If you prefer you can also donate directly to Pieta here and you can do that at any time.

Abolishing an “Industry”?

Posted in Open Access with tags , , on June 2, 2023 by telescoper

A week or so ago I mentioned that the European Council had adopted a text that calls for the EU Commission and 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.

The journal Nature has responded to the news with a piece entitled EU council’s ‘no pay’ publishing model draws mixed response and the lede:

Some academics have welcomed the proposed open access plans. But publishing industry representatives warn they are unrealistic and lack detail.

It’s not really accurate to describe the response as mixed as it is completely separated: the vested interests in the academic publishing industry are against it and everyone else is for it! It’s hardly surprising to see Nature (owned by academic publishing company Springer Nature). I found this in the text of the Nature piece:

The conclusions are concerning because they support a move that would abolish an industry

Caroline Sutton, the chief executive of the STM (a membership organization of academic publishers)

Indeed, though I would argue that what the proposals would abolish is not so much an industry as a racket. I’ve been blogging here about the Academic Journal Racket since 2009. It’s nice at last to see some real movement towards its abolition. Further on, I find:

The STM is also concerned that the move would eliminate independent European publishing companies and usher in a state-defined system that could stymie academic freedom. It warns that the amount of public funds used to build repositories of academic research papers by member states or institutions is hard to quantify.

How would free open access publishing stymie academic freedom? If anything does that it’s the extortionate publishing fees levied by publishers. And it’s a very bad argument to say that the costs of repositories is hard to quantify when everyone can see your enormous profit margins!

I was thinking about the financial strife currently afflicting many UK universities. If the UK university sector has to choose over the next few years between sacking hundreds of academic staff and ditching its voluntary subsidy to the publishing industry, I know what I would pick. In this respect I’m definitely an abolitionist.

Pride Month 2023

Posted in Biographical, LGBT on June 1, 2023 by telescoper

It’s 1st June 2023, which means that it’s the first day of Pride Month 2023. I’m looking forward to the Pride Festival with a March and Parade in Dublin later this month, of which I’m planning to attend at least part, even if I am obviously far too old for that sort of thing. Another thing that happens this month is that I turn 60!

Incidentally, this will be the 40th anniversary of the first official Dublin Pride.

With its origins as a commemoration of the Stonewall Riots of 1969, Pride remains both a celebration and protest. It’s more necessary than ever now because of the sustained abuse being aimed at trans people from all quarters, including those in political power and those sad losers who have nothing better to do that spend all day tweeting their bigotry on social media. Bigots will always be bigots, but the lowest of the low are those that masquerade as some sort of progressive while spouting their hate and prejudice. As well as a celebration and a protest, Pride is an opportunity for us all to show solidarity against those who seek to divide us.

Though many LGBTQIA+ people in many countries – even those that claim to be more liberal – still face discrimination, hostility and violence, Pride Month always reminds me of how far we’ve come in the past 50 years. Recently my own celebration of Pride is very subdued as it tends to makes me feel old and irrelevant as well as worried that we might be headed back to the bigotry and intolerance of the past; the rights we have won could so easily be taken away. But as I get older, I find I have become more and more protective towards younger LGBT+ people. I don’t want them to have to put up with the crap that I did when I was their age.

I would like to wish all LGBTQIA+ people around the world, but especially staff and students at Maynooth University, a very enjoyable and inspiring Pride 2023!

Book Review: “Quantum Supremacy” by Michio Kaku (tl;dr DO NOT BUY)

Posted in Literature, The Universe and Stuff on May 30, 2023 by telescoper

I couldn’t resist sharing this book review. I recommend you read all of it, but if you can’t be bothered, here is a taster:

“So I can now state with confidence: beating out a crowded field, this is the worst book about quantum computing, for some definition of the word “about,” that I’ve ever encountered.”


Read the rest here:

When I was a teenager, I enjoyed reading Hyperspace, an early popularization of string theory by the theoretical physicist Michio Kaku. I’m sure I’d have plenty of criticisms if I reread it today, but at the time, I liked it a lot. In the decades since, Kaku has widened his ambit to, well, pretty much […]

Book Review: “Quantum Supremacy” by Michio Kaku (tl;dr DO NOT BUY)