Archive for September, 2020

Threshold, by R.S. Thomas

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , , on September 30, 2020 by telescoper

I emerge from the mind’s
cave into the worse darkness
outside, where things pass and
the Lord is in none of them.

I have heard the still, small voice
and it was that of the bacteria
demolishing my cosmos. I
have lingered too long on

this threshold, but where can I go?
To look back is to lose the soul
I was leading upwards towards
the light. To look forward? Ah,

what balance is needed at
the edges of such an abyss.
I am alone on the surface
of a turning planet. What

to do but, like Michelangelo’s
Adam, put my hand
out into unknown space,
hoping for the reciprocating touch?

by Ronald Stuart Thomas (1913-2000)


Teaching Improvisation

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on September 29, 2020 by telescoper

The sudden switch of all our teaching online on Friday has necessitated a certain amount of improvisation. I had intended to do my introductory session on Mechanics and Special Relativity to first-year students as a kind of interactive workshop using the blackboard in Physics Hall. When we were told to move everything online I thought I’d just do yesterday’s session from my office which has quite a good blackboard and a setup I had already tested. Unfortunately however an office refurbishment project I was assured would be finished before the start of teaching but which has barely started meant that yesterday there was constant hammering and drilling in the Department. That made it impossible to do an online lecture (or do anything else) in my office. I knew there would be nobody in Physics Hall, though, so I did the lecture there to an empty room.

The camera provided in that room is fixed to a monitor at once side of the theatre and is therefore useless for capturing the blackboard, so I used my laptop camera plus a handy litter bin to raise it up. It wasn’t great but was better than nothing.

You might ask why I don’t do this from home. The answer to that is that I haven’t yet got an internet connection in the new house, so I can do online activities from there.

You might also ask why a refurbishment job, which could have been completed at any point during the summer when the building was empty, has only just started now we’ve started teaching again. If I had an answer I would tell you. I think the six people whose offices are currently unusable would like to know too, though at least they can work from home. It’s tough enough trying to keep everything together these days without this.

Fortunately today a colleague in the Department of Psychology found me a quiet place to work. It’s a small windowless cubicle normally used for experiments. At least it’s quiet. I think the next step will be a padded cell somewhere.

Memories of My First Paper

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , on September 28, 2020 by telescoper

The death of John Barrow reminded me of a post I did some years ago about my first ever publication, which was published on 15th September 1986 while I was doing my DPhil at Sussex under John’s supervision. I’m mentioning
it hereby way of a postscript to yesterday’s piece.

Here is the front page:


This was before the days of arXiv so there isn’t a copy on the preprint server, but you can access the whole article here on NASA/ADS.

All right. I know it’s a shitty little paper. But you have to start somewhere!

I’m particularly sad that, looking back, it reads as if I meant to be very critical of the Kaiser (1984) paper that inspired it. I still think that was a brilliant paper because it was based on a very original idea that proved to be enormously influential. The only point I was really making was that a full calculation of the size of the effect Nick Kaiser had correctly identified was actually quite hard, and his simple approximation was of limited quantitative usefulness. The idea was most definitely right, however.

I was just a year into my PhD  DPhil when this paper came out, and it wasn’t actually on what was meant to be the subject of my thesis work (which was the cosmic microwave background), although the material was related.

This paper provides two excellent illustrations of what a good supervisor John was. I was a bit stuck with the project that John had assigned me and eventually admitted to him that I was having problems getting anywhere. I thought he’d assume I was useless and suggest that someone else should supervise me. But no. He said he realised it was a hard problem and sometimes it’s good to think about something else when you’re stuck. So he asked me to look at cluster clustering for a bit. I told him what I found and he said I should write this up as a paper, which I did. Most importantly however the trick I used in simplifying the calculations in this paper turned out to be applicable to the first problem, hotspots in the cosmic microwave background, which led a success in the project and to my second paper. We were both delighted that everything turned out well with that original project.

My original draft of this first paper had John Barrow’s name on it, but he removed his name from the draft (as well as making a huge number of improvements to the text). At the time I assumed that he took his name off because he didn’t want to be associated with such an insignificant paper, but I later realized he was just being generous. It was very good for me to have a sole-author paper very early on. I’ve taken that lesson to heart and have never insisted – unlike some supervisors – in putting my name on my students’ work.

R.I.P. John D Barrow (1952-2020)

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags on September 27, 2020 by telescoper

My heart is filled with sorrow as I find myself having to pass on some very sad news. I have just heard of the death, yesterday, at the age of 67, of esteemed physicist, mathematician, author and polymath John Barrow. With his passing, one of cosmology’s brightest lights has gone out.

John Barrow was my thesis supervisor. Words can’t express how much I owe him for his advice and encouragement not only during my graduate studies but also throughout the 35 years that have elapsed since I started my career, as a research student at Sussex University.

John had an extraordinary mind that combined immense mathematical gifts with an encyclopedic knowledge of all kinds of literature and a wonderful flair for writing. He wrote dozens of books and a theatre play as well as hundreds of scientific articles. He was a whirlwind of ideas who had an uncanny knack of finding clever ways to crack previously unsolved problems. That he was happy to share these ideas with his students is a credit to his intellectual generosity. He inspired dozens of researchers early in their careers and continued to inspire them when they became not so young.

On a personal level, John was rather reserved and, despite his being a talented and confident public speaker, I always felt he was a rather shy person. He was a committed Christian and a regular churchgoer though he didn’t talk much about his private religious beliefs in the Department.

It is also interesting that, despite writing a number of superb popular books, giving public lectures and being a regular guest on radio programmes he steadfastly refused to appear on television. He just didn’t want to become a TV celebrity, though I suspect that if he did he would have been rather good at it.

Although I didn’t see as much of him in recent years as I would have liked, John was a member of the RAS Club which gave me the opportunity to see and talk to him fairly frequently. I always found him a very agreeable dining companion. We usually discussed sport on such occasions rather than science, actually. John was a talented middle-distance runner in his younger days and he gave me a lot of advice about training, etc, when I started running marathons. We also shared an interest in football – at which he was rather good, having had a trial for Chelsea Juniors – and we played together quite a few times in Sussex days. I remember him as a quality midfielder with a terrific engine, though he was not a natural goalscorer.

John also had a very dry and sometimes lugubrious sense of humour. I remember sending him a congratulatory email in 2003 when I found out he had been made a Fellow of the Royal Society. He replied thanking me but pointing out his joy at having been elected was tempered by the fact that the first official communication he got from Carlton House was a rather substantial bill for the subscription and a form on which to enter details to be used in an obituary.

It was through the RAS Club that I first heard, about a year ago that John was suffering from cancer. For a time he responded well to treatment but a few weeks ago I heard that his condition had deteriorated to the extent that only palliative care was possible. That news came as a shock as he always seemed so healthy and ageless that one imagined him to be indestructible. Today’s news was not unexpected but still distressing. The end came more quickly than we imagined but at least he was at home among his loved ones when he passed away.

I send heartfelt condolences to Elisabeth and the rest of John’s family, and friends and colleagues at Cambridge and elsewhere.

UPDATE: An obituary of John, written by Michael Rown-Robinson, is now available online on the Guardian website.

Rest in peace, Professor John D Barrow FRS (1952-2020).

On the Exploitation of Postgraduates

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on September 27, 2020 by telescoper

Thinking through the implications of Friday’s announcement for teaching I saw the following advice sent out to students from Maynooth University

For the next few weeks most lectures will move online. You will be invited on-campus for practical classes, tutorials and for the teaching which requires a lot of interaction.

I can’t see significant numbers of students travelling to campus for a tutorial when they have no other teaching sessions but thinking about this yesterday I was struck by the decision that tutorials should go ahead while lectures shouldn’t. Tutorials are largely given by postgraduate students and it seems extremely unfair to me that they should be required to run the risk and incur the expense of travelling to campus in order to carry out in-person teaching, when full-time staff can minimize their chances of infection by staying at home and teaching remotely.

I’ll therefore be instructing all postgraduate tutors in my Department that they are not expected to run their tutorials on campus.

Yesterday I moaned about university staff being taken for granted but the situation is even worse for postgraduate tutors, who make an invaluable and essential contribution to teaching but are often treated horrendously badly by universities.

Take for example the scandalous situation at NUI Galway, where postgraduate students are being required to undertake 120 hours of unpaid teaching duties per year. The University’s justification for this is the following

Contributing to teaching is an integral part of the training of a research Master’s or PhD student. Teaching assists you in the acquisition of generic and transferable skills, and is an important element in the formation of a research graduate.

This may well be true but it does not constitute an argument why such work should be unpaid. I would argue that an even more “important element in the formation of a research graduate” is learning not to allow oneself to be exploited.

One of the very few things I can say I achieved in my time at Sussex was to abolish the use so-called Graduate Teaching Assistantships in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences that required postgraduates to do unpaid teaching and make all such work voluntary and paid.

I am well aware of the reason why Galway is trying this on – it’s the chronic underfunding of Ireland’s universities and colleges exacerbated by rampant managerialism – but that’s no excuse for institutionalised exploitation. I wholeheartedly support the postgraduates at Galway refusing to carry out unpaid teaching duties and hope the University will withdraw this unjustified and iniquitous policy.

Third Level at Level Three and Back to Square One

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , on September 26, 2020 by telescoper

I spent a big chunk of yesterday assigning students to groups and organization rotations to allow them to attend lectures on campus at Maynooth University in a manner consistent with public health guidelines relating to Covid-19. Then, late yesterday afternoon, the Irish Government announced that all third-level institutions should move practically all* their teaching online. In effect, all higher education institutions have been raised to Level Three on the Government’s scale of restrictions.

This announcement came as a shock, not least because of the timing. Announcing drastic changes on the Friday before the Monday teaching is due to start has bounced a huge number of lecturers (including myself) into having to work all weekend to revise our plans and to contact students to tell them in time that they shouldn’t come onto campus on Monday morning. As far as I am aware there was no discussion of this move with the University sector. It’s yet another example of those in authority taking for granted the willingness of academic staff to work at weekends.

Maynooth University had anticipated some of the changes by reducing the maximum class size to 30 but the Government announcement is much more stringent than these. It seems to have been motivated by developments in universities elsewhere at which high levels of infection have arisen. The extent to which these are due to transmission in lecture halls and laboratories as opposed to student residences is unclear to me though. Many of our students are already on campus. I’m not sure that having them here but cooped up in halls will achieve very much.

Institutions like Maynooth University have spent all summer putting in stringent measures to comply with public health guidance to allow in-person teaching for the new semester. Now it is clear that was all a complete waste of time and resources. Moreover, the decision to keep students off campus is tantamount to an admission that the measures previously suggested by the HSE were inadequate.

I know colleagues at other institutions that made the decision some months ago to go online this Semester are saying “I told you so”. They’re justified in feeling a bit smug. All our attempts to bring students onto campus have achieved is to distract us from putting more time and resources into preparations for online teaching. We tried because we think the on-campus teaching is valuable to the student experience. I think it was worth a shot, but it has come to naught. We’re now back where we were in March. It’s very frustrating, to put it mildly, to have spent so long on a fool’s errand.

Anyway, all our lectures will be online from next week for the foreseeable future. The official Government line is “for two weeks”, but that’s what we were told on March 12th. I think it’s much more likely that we’re online for the entire academic year.

I’m not going to mention the considerable number of other things that went wrong last week, but I trudged home last night overwhelmed with fatigue. And term hasn’t started yet. I’m too old for all this.

* There is a possible exemption for laboratories and other practical sessions, as well as small-group tutorials. Students in experimental subjects will therefore get some tuition on campus. As for tutorials, though, I can’t really see students travelling for a tutorial when they have no lectures to attend on campus, so we’ll probably move them online too.

Government of Ireland Postdoctoral Fellowships

Posted in Maynooth with tags , on September 25, 2020 by telescoper

Looking for something to take my mind briefly off the business of preparing for next week’s start of teaching I thought I’d use the medium of this blog to advertise the Government of Ireland Postdoctoral Research Fellowships which have just been announced by the Irish Research Council.

These positions are of one or two years’ duration starting from 1st October 2021. The research relating to the fellowship can be in any discipline (including Astrophysics and Cosmology, hint hint….) and can be held in any University in the Irish Republic (including Maynooth, hint hint..). These positions are intended for early career researchers; applicants are required to have a PhD by the end of May 2021 but not have been awarded it before the end May 2016.

The deadline for completed applications is 19th November 2020.

For further information, see here.

Anyone interested in applying to hold one of these positions in Maynooth is welcome to contact me privately for advice and/or assistance!

Astronomy Photograph of the Year 2020

Posted in Art, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on September 24, 2020 by telescoper

Very busy today so I only have time to share a this stunning picture, the overall winner of the 2020 Astronomy Photographer of the Year, Andromeda Galaxy at Arm’s Length? by Nicolas Lefaudeux (France).


Photo credit: Nicolas Lefaudeux/2020 astronomy photographer of the year

Arguing the Case for Preprints

Posted in Open Access with tags , , , , on September 23, 2020 by telescoper

This is Peer Review Week 2020 as part of which I am participating tomorrow afternoon (Irish Time) in a live panel discussion/webinar called Increasing transparency and trust in preprints: Steps journals can take.

Working in a field like astrophysics, where the use of preprints as a means of disseminating information and ideas is well established, I’m always surprised that some people working in other disciplines don’t really approve of them at all. See for example, this Twitter thread. Still, even in the biosciences, preprints have their advocates and there are signs that attitudes may be changing.

That is not to say that things aren’t changing in astrophysics too. One of the interesting astronomical curiosities I’ve acquired over the years is a preprint of the classic work of Burbidge, Burbidge, Fowler and Hoyle in 1957 (a paper usually referred to as B2FH after the initials of its authors). It’s such an important contribution, in fact, that it has its own wikipedia page.

Younger readers will probably not realize that preprints were not always produced in the electronic form they are today. We all used to make large numbers of these and post them at great expense to (potentially) interested colleagues before publication in order to get comments. That was extremely useful because a paper could take over a year to be published after being refereed for a journal: that’s too long a timescale when a PhD or PDRA position is only a few years in duration. The first papers I was given to read as a new graduate student in 1985 were all preprints that were not published until well into the following year. In some cases I had more or less figured out what they were about by the time they appeared in a journal!

The B2FH paper was published in 1957 but the practice of circulating preprints persisted well into the 1990s. Usually these were produced by institutions with a distinctive design, logo, etc which gave them a professional look, which made it easier to distinguish `serious’ papers from crank material (which was also in circulation). This also suggested that some internal refereeing inside an institution had taken place before an “official” preprint was produced and this lending it an air of trustworthiness. Smaller institutions couldn’t afford all this, so were somewhat excluded from the preprint business.

With the arrival of the arXiv the practice of circulating hard copies of preprints in astrophysics gradually died out, to be replaced by ever-increasing numbers of electronic articles. The arXiv does have some gatekeeping – in the sense there are some controls on who can deposit a preprint there – but it is far easier to circulate a preprint now than it was.

It is still the case that big institutions and collaborations insist on quite strict internal refereeing before publishing a preprint – and some even insist on waiting for a paper to be accepted by a journal before adding it to the arXiv – but there’s no denying that among the wheat there is quite a lot of chaff, some of which attracts media coverage that it does not deserve. It must be admittted, however, that the same can be said of some papers that have passed peer review and appeared in high-profile journals! No system that is operated by human beings will ever be flawless, and peer review is no different.

Nowadays, in astrophysics, the single most important point of access to scientific literature is through the arXiv, which is why the Open Journal of Astrophysics was set up as an overlay journal to provide a level of rigorous peer review for preprints, not only to provide a sort of quality mark but also to improve the paper through the editorial process.

As for increasing transparency and trust in preprints, I think I’ll save some suggestions for tomorrow’s webinar. A good start, however, would be for journals to admit their own limitations and start helping rather than hindering the dissemination of information and ideas.

The Autumnal Equinox 2020

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on September 22, 2020 by telescoper

So here we are then. The Autumnal Equinox (in the Northern hemisphere) takes place this afternoon at 14.31 Irish Time (13.31 UT).

Though  the term `equinox’  refers a situation in which day and night are of equal length which implies that it’s a day rather than a specific time, the equinox is more accurately defined by a specific event when the plane defined by Earth’s equator passes through the centre of the Sun’s disk (or, if you prefer, when the centre of the Sun passes through the plane defined by Earth’s equator). Day and night are not necessarily exactly equal on the equinox, but they’re the closest they get. From now on days in the Northern hemisphere will be shorter than nights and they’ll get shorter still until the Winter Solstice.

For many people the autumnal equinox is taken to be the end of summer, though there is a saying around these parts that `Summer is Summer to Michaelmas Day’ (September 29th). Looking back over the posts I’ve written at this time of year since I started blogging in 2008, it’s noticeable how many times we’ve had a window of good weather around the autumnal equinox. In Wales such a warm spell in late September is called Haf Bach Mihangel – “the little summer of St Michael”.

Here’s a sample excerpt from the post I wrote in 2008 on this:

The weather is unsettling. It’s warm, but somehow the warmth doesn’t quite fill the air; somewhere inside it there’s a chill that reminds you that autumn is not far away.

I find this kind of weather a bit spooky because it always takes me back to the time when I left home to go to University, as thousands of fledgling students are about to do this year in their turn.

It has been quite warm here in Maynooth recently too. Last night I mowed the lawn in the evening sunshine, which may well be the last time I do that until spring. The weather turned a bit colder overnight and the weather forecast suggests the little summer may be over.

Anyway, this is Welcome Week in Maynooth and, barring any sudden changes of plan, we’re due to start teaching on Monday 28th September. I’ve been keeping an eye on the registrations of students as they come in as well as starting to get my notes, problem sheets, recordings and other teaching materials together. I have to say that hasn’t been helped by the decision to install a new fire alarm system in the Science Building this week. I had to go home early because of the constant din of the sounders being tested.

I have to admit I’m very apprehensive about the forthcoming semester and beyond. It’s impossible to predict where we will be by the next equinox in March, or even by the Solstice in December. Covid-19 cases are increasing and it doesn’t seem that anyone has a clue how to stop the `second wave’ surging through the population this autumn. The September equinox is often said to to be the start of Astronomical Autumn. This year more than ever it seems to herald that Winter is coming.