Archive for April, 2022

Open Day on Campus

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth on April 30, 2022 by telescoper

Today was an Undergraduate Open Day at Maynooth University and contrary to my pessimistic expectations it was extremely busy, probably the busiest I have ever attended in Maynooth. I was told that there were 4,500 people on campus for this event which compares to a more normal figure of 3,000ish. I gather one of the reasons it was so busy was that few (if any) other Irish universities are having open days on campus this year.

Busy foyer stands in the Iontas Building

The stand in Iontas was quite busy all morning and my subject talk on Theoretical and Mathematical Physics was so well attended that the room was full and people were standing at the back. I was in the last slot of the day (as usual) so nobody else was in the lecture room after my group so I invited people to stay and ask questions if they wanted to. It ended up with 45 minutes of very interesting discussion.

This is the first of these sessions we’ve done since November 2019. Since then the entire admissions process has been disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic. There is more than a little uncertainty about entrance requirement for September 2022, but I gave the best advice I could. Talking face-to-face with real people made a very pleasant change from the webinars and pre-recorded videos we’ve been doing recently.

Anyway, I think today has been a success, though a very tiring one. It’s very exhausting trying to be nice to people. I think I’ll need the rest of the holiday weekend to recover!

Full Focus JWST!

Posted in The Universe and Stuff on April 29, 2022 by telescoper

I just saw a very welcome news item announcing that after months of work by the relevant teams, the James Webb Space Telescope is at last completely aligned, in full focus and all the associated instruments are working well. Here is a composite of images demonstrating this:

For reference here is a glossary of the abbreviations:

(NIRISS is actually coupled within the same module with the Fine Guidance Sensor (FGS) so they can be regarded as parts of the same instrument.)

Anyway, congratulations to everyone involved on this impressive achievement, which is a testament to a great deal of skill and hard work. The job isn’t over yet, of course, as there is still a great deal detailed testing and science validation to be carried out. No doubt we can look forward to some really exciting images from the commissioning period in due course!

What would I do without this world – #PoetryDayIRL

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on April 28, 2022 by telescoper

what would I do without this world faceless incurious
where to be lasts but an instant where every instant
spills in the void the ignorance of having been
without this wave where in the end
body and shadow together are engulfed
what would I do without this silence where the murmurs die
the pantings the frenzies towards succour towards love
without this sky that soars
above its ballast dust

what would I do what I did yesterday and the day before
peering out of my deadlight looking for another
wandering like me eddying far from all the living
in a convulsive space
among the voices voiceless
that throng my hiddenness

by Samuel Beckett (1906-89)

Girls, Physics and “Hard Maths”

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on April 28, 2022 by telescoper

There was an appropriately hostile reaction from people who know things yesterday to bizarre comments by Katharine Birbalsingh, who is apparently a UK Government commissioner for something or other, but who seems to know very little. Birbalsingh is in charge of a school in which only 16% of the students taking physics A-level are female, whereas the national average is about 23%. She tried to explain this by saying that girls don’t like doing “hard maths” and as a consequence…

..physics isn’t something that girls tend to fancy. They don’t want to do it, they don’t like it.

There is an easy rebuttal of this line of “reasoning”. First, there is no “hard maths” in Physics A-level. Most of the mathematical content (especially calculus) was removed years ago. Second, the percentage of students taking actual A-level Mathematics in the UK who are female is more like 40% than 20%. The argument that girls are put off Physics because it includes Maths is therefore demonstrably bogus.

An alternative explanation for the figures is that schools (especially the one led by Katharine Birbalsingh, where the take-up is even worse than the national average) provide an environment that actively discourages girls from being interested in Physics by reinforcing gender stereotypes even in schools that offer Physics A-level in the first place. The attitudes of teachers and school principals undoubtedly have a big influence on the life choices of students, which is why it is so depressing to hear lazy stereotypes repeated once again.

There is no evidence whatsoever that women aren’t as good at Maths and Physics as men once they get into the subject, but plenty of evidence that the system dissuades then early on from considering Physics as a discipline they want to pursue. Indeed, at University female students generally out-perform male students in Physics when it comes to final results; it’s just that there are few of them to start with.

Anyway, I thought of a way of addressing gender inequality in physics admissions about 8 years ago. The idea was to bring together two threads. I’ll repeat the arguments here.

The first is that, despite strenuous efforts by many parties, the fraction of female students taking A-level Physics has flat-lined at around 20% for at least two decades. This is the reason why the proportion of female physics students at university is the same, i.e. 20%. In short, the problem lies within the school system.

The second line of argument is that A-level Physics is not a useful preparation for a Physics degree anyway because it does not develop the sort of problem-solving skills or the ability to express physical concepts in mathematical language on which university physics depends. In other words it not only avoids “hard maths” but virtually all mathematics and, worse, is really very boring. As a consequence, most physics admissions tutors that I know care much more about the performance of students at A-level Mathematics than Physics, which is a far better indicator of their ability to study Physics at University than the Physics A-level.

Hitherto, most of the effort that has been expended on the first problem has been directed at persuading more girls to do Physics A-level. Since all UK universities require a Physics A-level for entry into a degree programme, this makes sense but it has not been very successful.

I believe that the only practical way to improve the gender balance on university physics course is to drop the requirement that applicants have A-level Physics entirely and only insist on Mathematics (which has a much more even gender mix). I do not believe that this would require many changes to course content but I do believe it would circumvent the barriers that our current school system places in the way of aspiring female physicists, bypassing the bottleneck at one stroke.

I suggested this idea when I was Head of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at Sussex, but it was firmly rejected by Senior Management because we would be out of line with other Physics departments. I took the view that in this context being out of line was a positive thing but that wasn’t the view of my bosses so the idea sank.

In case you think such a radical step is unworkable, I give you the example of our Physics programmes in Maynooth. We have a variety of these, including Theoretical Physics & Mathematics, Physics with Astrophysics, and Mathematical Physics and/or Experimental Physics through our omnibus science programme. Not one of these courses requires students to have taken Physics in their Leaving Certificate (roughly the equivalent of A-level).

Euclid Launch Concern

Posted in Politics, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on April 27, 2022 by telescoper

I saw the following picture on Twitter. It was taken during a talk at the annual Euclid Consortium Meeting (which I am not at) and it gives a not -very-optimistic update about the timescale for the launch of Euclid.

Picture Credit: Hervé Aussel

I thought a delay in the launch was inevitable as soon as news broke of the Russian invasion of Ukraine (see here) because the original plan was to launch on a Russian Soyuz vehicle. The subsequent decision by the Russians to remove all their personnel from the launch site at Kourou (see here) made these even more likely, although according to the slide not certain.

The basic problem is that Plan B involves launching Euclid on an Ariane 6 rocket (which comes in two varieties, Ariane62 and Ariane64, with two and four payloads boosters respectively). The problems are (a) that Ariane 6 is that it hasn’t yet had its first flight and (b) Euclid isn’t the only spacecraft having to find an alternative launcher. The competition from commercial and military satellites may mean a lengthy delay to the Euclid Launch unless lobbying succeeds at a political level, which is what the last lines of the slide are about.

Being one of life’s pessimists I think a long delay is the likeliest outcome, though this is not based on any specific knowledge at all about the discussions going on and I’d be delighted to be proved wrong. I am now however seriously wondering whether Euclid will be launched before I retire!

Project Time

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth on April 26, 2022 by telescoper

For the next and final two weeks of my Computational Physics module the students are now working in groups of two or three on their mini-projects, so our twice-weekly lab sessions are much less structured and the students work in their groups with myself and a demonstrator to help out if they have problems. Somewhat to my surprise the lab was full this afternoon. I expected the students might prefer to work outside the scheduled times, but it was nice to see them working away together and managing to get some results. They hand in their projects at the end of next week, so they finish this part of their assessment before the exam session starts, a week after that.

The projects cover quite a wide range of material and the students have plenty of choice but some of the projects I offered didn’t have any takers. Anyway, I thought you might like to see the titles of the projects that are being done:

  • Electronic Energy Levels in Aluminium
  • Brownian Motion
  • El Niño
  • Action Potentials in Neurons
  • Wave Functions in the Hydrogen Atom
  • The Chaotic Inflationary Universe,
  • Polytropes and the Lane-Emden Equation
  • A Semiconductor Laser
  • The Dimension of a Strange Attractor
  • The Earth-Jupiter-Sun Interaction and Milankovitch Cycles
  • Fluid Flow through a Pipe
  • Random Polymers
  • Modelling Infectious Diseases
  • Modelling the Refraction of Light

Not all of these are to do with physics of course, but I make no apology for this as not all of our graduates will become physicists. The main point is that the projects require application of the skills taught during the module, as well as a bit of teamwork and report-writing; the latter two activities are things that theoretical physics students don’t get much practice at. I usually try to think of 4-5 new projects each year: the others are recycled.

Anyway, I look forward to reading and assessing the 14 project reports in due course!

Post Easter Post

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth with tags , , on April 25, 2022 by telescoper

So here I am, then, back in the office after the Easter break for the remaining two weeks of Semester Two. I was supposed to be on leave last week but there’s so much to do that I ended up working most days apart from the Easter weekend itself, but at least I do so from the comfort of my own home and, occasionally, garden.

I had hoped to be able to spend the latter part of this week at the annual Euclid Consortium meeting which is being held this year in Oslo. Unfortunately because this year it falls within teaching term I’ve just got too much to do so I can’t go. I hope my colleagues and friends in Euclid have an enjoyable and successful time in Oslo. I hope to make it next year, wherever it is held.

Next Monday is the May Day Holiday so we have only 9 days of teaching left before the study break and examinations. Although next weekend is a Bank Holiday weekend, the powers that be in Maynooth have decreed that Saturday will be an Open Day:

It remains to be seen how many prospective students and their families will choose to interrupt their long weekend to visit campus on Saturday April 30th but I’ll be there. I know no bounds, you see…

The most exciting thing that happened last week was that a bloke from the Gas Board came to install a new gas meter. My colleagues were skeptical that he would actually turn up at the appointed time but he did. He completed the job in about half an hour, including time for a short lecture on why I should have a carbon monoxide meter put in my kitchen. The gas meter is actually on the front of the house and the gas man was kept under close surveillance as he worked by the local robin who has clearly decided that both front and back gardens are its own private property.

Last week the same robin made further visits to the inside of my house, even tapping on the window with its beak to be let in. I am increasingly concerned that it will decide that the inside of the house also belongs to it and I’ll end up being forcibly evicted.

It is an annual tradition at Eastertide to worry about whether Newcastle United will be relegated from the Premiership but after a string of good results they look reasonably safe. The players will be relieved to have avoided a public flogging by the clubs new owners, the Saudi Royal Family.

Decision Day for the French!

Posted in Politics on April 24, 2022 by telescoper

(from Private Eye)

Update: I wouldn’t have found it exactly inspiring to have to choose between a neoliberal drone and a fascist dunderhead but would have voted for the least bad alternative, as the French electorate seems to have done.

Asleep, by Wilfred Owen

Posted in Poetry on April 23, 2022 by telescoper

Under his helmet, up against his pack,
After the many days of work and waking,
Sleep took him by the brow and laid him back.
And in the happy no-time of his sleeping,
Death took him by the heart. There was a quaking
Of the aborted life within him leaping …
Then chest and sleepy arms once more fell slack.
And soon the slow, stray blood came creeping
From the intrusive lead, like ants on track.

Whether his deeper sleep lie shaded by the shaking
Of great wings, and the thoughts that hung the stars,
High pillowed on calm pillows of God’s making
Above these clouds, these rains, these sleets of lead,
And these winds’ scimitars;
—Or whether yet his thin and sodden head
Confuses more and more with the low mould,
His hair being one with the grey grass
And finished fields of autumns that are old …
Who knows? Who hopes? Who troubles? Let it pass!
He sleeps. He sleeps less tremulous, less cold
Than we who must awake, and waking, say Alas

by Wilfred Owen (1897-1918)

I read this poem a few weeks ago. The phrase “in the happy no-time of his sleeping, Death took him by the heart” has been in my head ever sense. For a soldier in a terrible war like World War 1, or indeed that being waged right now in Ukraine, to die in your sleep must be one of the least bad ways to go.

I’ve often said that, when the time comes, I’d like to die during a seminar, peacefully in my sleep…


Ah Um! 100 Years of Mingus

Posted in Jazz with tags , on April 22, 2022 by telescoper

I discovered this morning that the great bass player, composer and bandleader Charles Mingus was born one hundred years ago today (on April 22nd 1922 in Nogales, Arizona). That gives me a great excuse to end the week by posting some music by him. The 1959 album Mingus Ah Um is one of my favourite albums not only in jazz but in any musical genre, and I think it’s a must-have for anyone interested in “modern” (i.e. post-War) jazz, so that’s what I’ve picked.

There are many great things about this album but probably the greatest of them is the extraordinary blend of thematic material and musical styles in represents. It would take a very long essay or even a book to pay appropriate homage to the kaleidoscopic variety of the shifting patterns and textures Mingus creates from ensemble and solo passages. Mingus’s compositional techniques allowed his musicians a remarkable freedom to express themselves which, together with the constant rhythmic and melodic variation, inspires them to great heights of inventiveness. Jimmy Knepper’s trombone solo on Pussy Cat Dues is really superb, as is the long sax solo on Goodbye, Porkpie Hat (a eulogy for Lester Young) which is usually attributed to Booker Ervin but I think is actually played by John Handy. Mingus himself introduces the first number Better git it in your soul, a wonderfully riotous Gospel-inspired creation, that explodes into life after his opening statements on bass.

There are not many albums that comprise traditional elements such as swing riffs, bop lines, and Gospel inflections alongside avant garde ideas like the intro and coda to Bird Calls, which sound like premonitions of the free jazz of Albert Ayler and others. A number of fine jazz composers inherited the legacy of Jelly Roll Morton (to whom Mingus doffs his cap in the last track) and Duke Ellington, including Gil Evans and Tadd Dameron, but in my view none was finer than Mingus.

Here is the whole album. Listen to the first track, and if you’re not hooked you can have your money back.