Archive for June, 2022

A First Course in General Relativity

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , on June 30, 2022 by telescoper

This morning I received delivery of a brand new copy of the Third Edition (left) of A First Course in General Relativity by Bernard Schutz. I bought the First edition (right) way back in 1985 when I started out as a graduate student. Not surprisingly there is a lot of additional material in the 3rd edition about gravitational waves, which had not been discovered when the first edition was published. I notice also that Bernard has lost his “F”…

 In fact I have known Bernard for quite a long time, most recently as colleagues in the Data Innovation Research Institute in Cardiff. Before that he chaired the Panel that awarded me an SERC Advanced Fellowship in the days before STFC, and even before PPARC, way back in 1993. It just goes to show that even the most eminent scientists do occasionally make mistakes…

Anyway, the arrival of this book is a double coincidence because I’ve been thinking over the last couple of days about starting to organize teaching for next academic year. This isn’t easy as we still don’t know who is going to be available. We’re interviewing tomorrow for one of our vacant positions, actually. Yesterday also the University Bookshop sent out a request for textbooks to stock ahead of next academic year.

I was reflecting on the fact that I’ve been doing research in cosmology and theoretical astrophysics since 1985 and teaching undergraduate and postgraduate students since 1990 but I’ve never taught a course on general relativity. This may or may not change next year when teaching is allocated. There are many textbooks out there but, prompted by the arrival of Bernard’s new book, I was wondering if anyone reading this blog has any other recommendations, suitable for final-year undergraduate theoretical physics students, that might complement it on the reading list for my first course in general relativity, should I happen to give one?

Suggestions, please, through the comments box below!

The Queer Variable

Posted in Biographical, LGBT, Maynooth on June 29, 2022 by telescoper

As Pride Month comes to an end I thought I’d take this opportunity to advertise The Queer Variable which is a collection of 40 interviews with people who are studying or working in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths (STEM) and who are part of the LGBTQ+ community. You can find out more about the book and download it for free as a PDF or an e-book (whatever that is) here.

I am one of the people interviewed. My interview is actually the first in the book, which suggests I might have been the first person interviewed. Most of the interviews took place between 2020 and 2021, but I seem to remember doing the interview (over a rather choppy Zoom connection) back in late 2019 when I was a mere lad of 56 years old and before the Covid-19 pandemic. That all seems a very long time ago now!

Anyway, many thanks to Alfredo Carpineti and Shaun O’Boyle for compiling this collection and making it available. I hope people will find it useful.

Incidentally, one of the sponsors of this project is Science Foundation Ireland whose Director General, Prof. Philip Nolan (former President of Maynooth University) is quoted thusly:

SFI is delighted to support this important publication, which highlights the diverse spectrum of talent and experience among our LGBTQ+ research colleagues. STEM research must benefit all of our society and therefore STEM careers must also be welcoming and accessible to all members of our society. I thank all of the contributors for sharing their powerful personal stories and for providing insights into the challenges they have faced on their career journeys. By raising their voices, they are helping break down barriers for future generations.

Well said indeed.

A Grim Centenary

Posted in History with tags , , , on June 28, 2022 by telescoper

Today marks the centenary of the “official” outbreak of the Irish Civil War. Full-scale conflict had been threatening to erupt since the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921 as many people who had fought so hard for independence were profoundly unhappy that the treaty had not delivered the Republic that was their wish. For example, members of the Dáil Éireann of the “Irish Free State” formed in 1921 still had to swear allegiance to the British Monarchy. Ireland did not formally become a Republic until 1949.

Exhausted by the War of Independence and fearful of British threats should the Treaty fail, a majority of the general population in Ireland accepted its terms, but a sizeable minority were determined in their opposition. In April 1922 anti-Treaty forces seized and occupied the Four Courts in Dublin with the aim of paralyzing the administration of the Free State. On June 22nd 1922 Field Marshal Henry Wilson was assassinated outside his home in London, allegedly by members of the anti-Treaty IRA. British authorities ordered their troops to attack Dublin in response, but the attack didn’t go ahead.

At dawn on 28th June 1922, one hundred years ago today, pro-Treaty forces began bombarding the Four Courts in Dublin with two 18-pounder field guns, borrowed from the British Army, in an attempt to dislodge the anti-Treaty forces. In a week of fighting the Four Courts were destroyed along with many important documents, and an archive going back 1,000 years.

So began a terrible Civil War which lasted almost a year.

Why we need Pride

Posted in LGBT with tags , on June 27, 2022 by telescoper

With this year’s Pride month coming to an end I was appalled to see this vile image posted on Twitter from deranged right-wing moron, anti-vax loon, failed actor and all-round nasty piece of work Laurence Fox. He’s been spouting rubbish for years of course, but this one is completely off the scale.

I’m sure even Mr Fox knows that the Nazis murdered over 10,000 gay men, forcibly castrated many others, and subjected still more to medical experimentation. You can read more about the facts here.

Laurence Fox has also tried to compare the mandatory wearing of face coverings with Nazi ideology and other nonsense, so it seems he has a persecution complex a mile wide. The trouble is that he’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are plenty of others who share his agenda of hate. Pride is an expression of solidarity and is needed just as much now than it was when it started 50 years ago.

A Second in Azed!

Posted in Biographical, Crosswords, Uncategorized with tags , on June 26, 2022 by telescoper

I was more than a little surprised this morning to find that I had won Second Prize in the latest Azed Crossword Competition in the Observer newspaper. This only the third time I’ve been among the medals (so to speak); I got a First Prize last year and a Third Prize exactly 11 years ago today.

As I’ve mentioned before, the monthly Azed Competition puzzle involves not only solving the Azed crossword but also supplying a cryptic clue for a word or phrase given only as a definition in the crossword. This competition is tough, partly because Azed is a stickler for syntactical soundness in submitted clues, and partly because many of the competitors are professional crossword setters. I’ve struggled recently to find the time and the energy to make a decent attempt at the Azed competition, but this competition puzzle was published on the last Bank Holiday Weekend so I had more time than usual to think about it. The target word was PEANUTS and my clue was

Source of allergic upset gripping one’s interior? Possibly!

Usually in a cryptic crossword clue one part of the clue provides a definition of the answer and the other a cryptic allusion to it; the solver has to identify each part. This clue is of a slightly different type called “&lit” which means that two different readings of the clue give you the definition and the cryptic allusion. The cryptic reading gives A (source of Allergic) in an anagram of UPSET containing N (oNe’s interior) indicated by the word “possibly”. UPSET is often used as a anagram indicator but not in this case. The surface reading of the clue also suggests PEANUTS.

P.S. I think the First Prize clue was very good indeed so congratulations to K. Bolton!


On the Relativity of Time

Posted in The Universe and Stuff on June 25, 2022 by telescoper

I feel seen…

(HT to Stephen Curry for implicating me in this..)

Last Open Day

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , on June 25, 2022 by telescoper
Ready to go

So here I am, then, back at home. I’m not at Dublin Pride because I had to attend an Open Day at Maynooth University. It was a lot quieter than the last one I did, in April, but a reasonable number attended. The weather forecast was rather dire but it turned out to be not bad at all, if a bit breezy. Hopefully that means there was good weather for Pride too.

I’m told there were 1000 registrations as opposed to the 5000 a couple of months ago. This one is usually a bit quieter because students have basically finished making their choices by now. A show of hands in the audience in my talk suggested the vast majority were actually 5th year students, so not planning to go to University this September.

Anyway, that completes the cycle of open days for this academic year. Since I’m stepping down as Head of Department when my term ends at the end of August, this will be the last of these I shall be responsible for. I hope.

Big thanks to Dale who helped out a lot today, setting up and dismantling the stand, and to him and the others who have helped over the year.

Another Late Start to the Academic Year

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , on June 24, 2022 by telescoper

Following on from Monday’s post about uncertainty relating to the start of next academic year, it has now been announced that this summer’s Leaving Certificate results will not be released to students until Friday 2nd September and CAO offers will be made on 8th September.

The timeline for admissions at Ireland’s third level institutions will therefore be roughly the same as last year. Although nothing has been officially announced from Maynooth yet, it seems likely that lectures for first-year students will have to commence a week later than returners just as happened last year.

This is not ideal but at least we have some basis on which to start planning. The start of the current academic year was a bit chaotic to say the least but if this year is a repeat of last at least we have some experience on what worked and what didn’t to guide us. And at least I have something reasonably concrete to say at tomorrow’s Open Day.

From the point of teaching, therefore, things are probably going to be a bit less bad than last year, at least in Maynooth. Some universities were due to start teaching on 5th September so they face a delay of 2-3 weeks.

That doesn’t mean however that things will be better for the students. They will have to wait until September until they know which course they will be on, which will cause considerable stress. On a more practical level it means that that new students will have very little time to find accommodation which is in any case in very short supply.

Now that we know the dates we will make the best plans we can for teaching, but for accommodation there doesn’t seem to be any plan at all. A crisis is looming.

Royal Society SFI University Research Fellowships

Posted in Uncategorized on June 23, 2022 by telescoper

It is now time for a quick public information broadcast, to give advanced notice of an important scheme run jointly between the  Royal Society and Science Foundation Ireland that gives early career researchers in Ireland access to University Research Fellowships. I thought I’d mention it now before the summer vacations (which apparently some people have):

This scheme provides eight years of research funding (with the possibility of renewal) and has proved to be a stepping stone to their first permanent academic position for a great many scientists. Here are a couple of items about the eligibility and duration.

Eligibility:  The scheme is open to early career Post Doctoral Researchers with between 3-8 years of actual research experience since their PhD (date on which the degree was approved by board of graduate studies) by the closing date.  You cannot apply if you hold a permanent post in the university or have held (or currently hold) an equivalent fellowship that provides the opportunity to establish independence.

Funding and Duration:  In previous years this scheme provided funding of the research fellow’s salary and research expenses for an initial period of 5 years with the possibility to apply for a further 3 years.  This time, though, applicants are asked to provide a proposal for a project lasting eight years which is subject to a mid-term review.

Key Dates: The scheme opens on 12th July 2022 and applications need to be in by 6th September 2022 at 3pm UK time. Last year the application deadline for Irish institutions was a bit later than for the UK but I don’t know if that will be the case this year as the call has not yet opened.

For further details and further developments see here.

The scheme covers a wide range of disciplines. including physics and astronomy. Of course if you want to do cosmology, the best place  to do it in Ireland is here in Maynooth but we also do, e.g. condensed matter theory and particle physics.

The deadline is not far off,  so please get cracking!

P.S. Five years residency in Ireland qualifies you for Irish citizenship. Just saying…

The Pagan University Year

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , on June 22, 2022 by telescoper

This morning we had the usual end-of-year meeting of the University Examination Board. It’s been a difficult year so it was a longer meeting than usual but it went reasonably smoothly. Marks will be released to students either tomorrow or Friday. That basically concludes the formal business for the academic year.

The proximity of this important event to yesterday’s Summer Solstice got me thinking again about the academic year and how it relates to the old pagan calendar.

In the Northern hemisphere, from an astronomical point of view, the solar year is defined by the two solstices (summer, around June 21st, and winter, around December 21st) and the equinoxes (spring, around March 21st, and Autumn, around September 21st). These four events divide the year into four roughly equal parts each of about 13 weeks.

Now, if you divide each of these intervals in two you divide the year into eight pieces of six and a bit weeks each. The dates midway between the astronomical events mentioned above are (roughly) :

  • 1st February: Imbolc (Candlemas)
  • 1st May: Beltane (Mayday)
  • 1st August: Lughnasadh (Lammas)
  • 1st November: Samhain (All Saints Day)

The names I’ve added are taken from the Celtic/neo-Pagan (and Christian terms) for these cross-quarter days. These timings are rough because the dates of the equinoxes and solstices vary from year to year. Imbolc is often taken to be the 2nd of February (Groundhog Day) and Samhain is sometimes taken to be October 31st, Halloween. But hopefully you get the point.

Incidentally, the last three of these also coincide closely with traditional Bank Holidays in Ireland, though these are always on Mondays so often happen a few days away. The first has not been a holiday but from next year there will be a new Bank Holiday that occurs on or near 1st February, which completes the set of cross-quarter-day holidays.

Anyway, it is interesting (to me) to note the extent that the academic year here in Ireland is defined by these dates.

Usually the first semester of the academic year starts on or around September 21st (Autumnal Equinox) and finishes on or Around December 21st (Winter Solstice). Half term (study week) thus includes the Halloween Bank Holiday (Samhain).

After a break for Christmas and a three-week mid-year exam period Semester Two starts on or around 1st February (Imbolc). Half-term is then around March 21st (Vernal Equinox, which roughly coincides with St Patrick’s Day March 17th) and teaching ends around May 1st (Imbolc). More exams and end of year business take us to the Summer Solstice and the (hypothetical) vacation. Most of us get to take the 1st August holiday (Lughnasadh) off at least!

So we’re basically operating on a pagan calendar.