Archive for October, 2022

Hallowe’en in the Dark once more

Posted in Biographical, Film, Music with tags , , on October 31, 2022 by telescoper

So we have arrived at October 31st, Hallowe’en or, in pagan terms, Samhain. This, a cross-quarter day – roughly halfway between the Autumnal Equinox and the Winter Solstice – represents the start of winter (“the dark half of the year“) in the Celtic calendar. As it turns out I didn’t get any trick-or-treaters this evening. I think the torrential rain put the dampeners on any such adventures, and I could scarcely hear the fireworks for the sound of the rain stotting down on my roof.

Despite my own reservations about Hallowe’en, I’ve decided to resurrect the following little video which seems to be appropriate for the occasion. It’s made of bits of old horror B-movies but the music – by Bobby “Boris” Pickett and the Crypt-kickers is actually the second 7″ single I ever bought, way back in 1973…

On Mastodon…

Posted in Biographical with tags , , , on October 31, 2022 by telescoper

The recent takeover of Twitter by Elon Musk, and the likely removal of content moderation with all that implies for increased toxic behaviour, has led me to reconsider my use of social media. I know I’m not alone in this either. Over the weekend I noticed quite a few of my friends quitting Twitter for Mastodon so I thought I’d give it a go.

Mastodon is a microblogging service with a similar look and functionality to Twitter but there are some big differences. For a start Mastodon is not run from a single website. It is a distributed network of servers around the world running open-source software; each server is called an ‘instance’. This means that it is not owned by a single individual or company and the different instances can have different moderation policies. Any person or organization capable of operating a server running the software, and willing to take on the legal issues, can federate to the overall network.

For another thing it is community led, with each instance run by volunteers. It is free of charge, has no advertising , so none of those annoying ‘promoted tweets’, nor any creepy algorithms trying to influence your behaviour, and above all does not exist to serve the ego of a billionaire owner with sociopathic tendencies.

Then there is the moderation policy. I joined the original server `’ (where I am the usual @telescoper) which has the following rules:

Hopefully this will deter those who spend all their time on Twitter sending abuse from joining Mastodon. This server is based in Germany, hence number 5. Although I think it was included for other reasons, it reminds me that defamation is a criminal offence in Germany, punishable by a prison sentence. A certain individual who has a habit of posting defamatory messages about me on Twitter should bear this in mind…

Anyway, I’ve only just got onto the platform and am still finding my way around. I only have a handful of followers, compared to the 7000+ I have on Twitter. For the time being I’m still on Twitter, but if it goes well then I intend to leave that to the trolls and bigots. I’m sick of spending so much time blocking objectionable people and seeing decent people abused.

P.S. One thing I think would be handy would be an API that allows me to publish these blog posts automatically on Mastodon like I do on Twitter, but I haven’t seen one yet…

Changing Time Again

Posted in History with tags , , on October 30, 2022 by telescoper

Some time ago, before the Covid-19 Pandemic, the European Parliament approved a directive that would abolish `Daylight Saving Time’. Unfortunately that plan has been ‘paused’ and this year we had to go through the usual rigmarole of putting the clocks back. Fortunately most devices do this automatically, though I have never figured out how to change the time on the clock on my cooker which means that we’re now in the 5 months of the year during which it shows the correct time.

I’ve long felt that the annual ritual of putting the clocks forward in the Spring and back again in the Autumn was a waste of time effort, so I’ll be glad when this silly practice is terminated. It would be far better in my view to stick with a single Mean Time throughout the year. I’m only disappointed that this hasn’t happened already.

The marvellous poster above is from 1916, when British Summer Time was introduced. I was surprised to learn recently that the practice of changing clocks backwards and forwards in the UK is only about a hundred years old and was introduced as an emergency measure in wartime. To be honest I’m also surprised that the practice persists to this day, as I can’t see any real advantage in it. Any institution or organisation that really wants to change its working hours in summer can easily do so, but the world of work is far more flexible nowadays than it was a hundred years ago and I think very few would feel the need.

Anyway, while I am on about Mean Time, here is a another poster from 1916.

Until October 1916, clocks in Ireland were set to Dublin Mean Time, as defined at Dunsink Observatory, rather than at Greenwich. The adoption of GMT in Ireland was driven largely by the fact that the British authorities found that the time difference between Dublin and London had confused telegraphic communications during the Easter Rising earlier in 1916. Its imposition was therefore, at least in part, intended to bring Ireland under closer control. This did not go down well with Irish nationalists.

Ireland had not moved to Summer Time with Britain in May 1916 because of the Easter Rising. Dublin Mean Time was 25 minutes 21 seconds behind GMT but the change to GMT was introduced in Ireland at the same time as BST ended in the UK, hence the alteration by one hour minus 25 minutes 21 seconds, i.e. 34 minutes and 39 seconds as in the poster.

Britain will probably never scrap British Summer Time on the grounds that whatever the EU does must be bad. What will happen to Northern Ireland when Ireland scraps Daylight Saving Time is yet to be seen…

Study Break Time

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Irish Language, Maynooth with tags , , , , on October 29, 2022 by telescoper

Yesterday my Vector Calculus students gave me the above Hallowe’en gift, which was nice of them, although I did chastise them for missing the apostrophe. Of course Hallowe’en itself is not until Monday, but that is a Bank Holiday in Ireland and the rest of next week is Study Week so there are no lectures or tutorials.

Hallowe’en is, in pagan terminology, Samhain. This, a cross-quarter day – roughly halfway between the Autumnal Equinox and the Winter Solstice, represents the start of winter (“the dark half of the year“) in the Celtic calendar. Samhain is actually November 1st but in Celtic tradition the day begins and ends at sunset, so the celebrations begin on the evening of 31st.

Incidentally, Samhain is pronounced something like “sawin”. The h after the m denotes lenition of the consonant (which in older forms of Irish would have been denoted by a dot on top of the m) so when followed by a broad vowel the m is pronounced like the English “w”; when followed by a slender vowel or none “mh” is pronounced “v” or in other words like the German “w” (which makes it easier to remember). I only mention this because I will be resuming my Irish language education after the break with classes every week for the rest of the academic year. Hopefully I’ll make some progress.

This term has been very tiring so far. I have to teach a very big first-year class this year which meant adding another tutorial group. Although I stepped down as Head of Department at the end of August the powers that be delayed appointing a replacement until well into term which caused a lot of unnecessary stress for everyone. Once we got under way, though, everything has settled down reasonably well.

One thing I was a bit worried about this term was that the resumption of in-person teaching would lead to a surge in Covid-19 cases, not only in Maynooth but across the country. However there isn’t any evidence of significant increases in the latest figures (updated weekly nowadays, on Wednesdays):

Some students have come down with Covid-19 of course but not in the numbers I had feared. Also despite accommodation shortages and other difficulties, attendance at lectures and tutorials has so far held up well.

I like having the study break. I’ve never previously worked at an institution that has such a thing, but I think 12 weeks of non-stop teaching would be extremely exhausting. Anyway, after the break we have a further six weeks of teaching until December 16th, which is the official end of term, but for now I have Monday off completely and the rest of the week without teaching duties. That’s not to say I’ll be on holiday though. I have a number of tasks to catch up on, including setting examination papers for January…

Summer Programme for Undergraduate Research

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on October 28, 2022 by telescoper

Not long ago I posted an item about the Summer Programme for Undergraduate Research (SPUR) at Maynooth University. This past summer I had two undergraduate students doing research projects with me funded under this scheme. They were both involved with making Monte Carlo simulations of galaxy clustering and using them to test various statistical analysis tools. The Department of Theoretical Physics actually had five students on three different projects, which is quite a lot for a small Department. The University as a whole had 57 SPUR students so we had almost ten percent of the total!

Well, earlier this week there was a Research Symposium at which all the summer’s research undergraduates presented posters on their work, with prizes being awarded for the best. I couldn’t attend the Symposium because of other commitments but I was delighted to find out that both my students won prizes – that’s two out of the five awarded. Here are the pictures of them being presented with their awards at the ceremony yesterday, flanked by the Vice-for Research and Innovation, Brian Donnellan and the President, Eeva Leinonen.

The awards ceremony was held in the foyer of the new TSI building yesterday afternoon, which wasn’t an ideal choice because the acoustic is very poor and lots of students were making their way to and from lectures. I didn’t hear a word of the speeches, actually. Nevertheless it was nice to see Pawel (top prize in the Science and Engineering category) and Lisa (audience choice prize winner) collect their awards. It was a pleasure to work with both of them this summer!

Incidentally, the SPUR students are paid for the projects, which last for (usually) six weeks but can be extended. I wish we could offer these projects to every student who wanted one, actually, but we just can’t afford to do that. I don’t agree with unpaid internships as these can only be taken up by students who have access to enough income to cover living expenses over the summer, so are discriminatory. We select students based on an application form and their academic performance.

Maynooth University Cat Updates

Posted in Maynooth with tags , , on October 27, 2022 by telescoper

Earlier today I found myself on the South Campus of Maynooth University where I encountered Maynooth University Library Cat looking not entirely gruntled. Behind bars like that I thought he looked like he was in the doghouse!

Anyway, this meeting reminded me of some important campus cat news from earlier in the week. On Tuesday afternoon I was just about to start my usual 3pm lecture on Vector Calculus and Fourier Series in Hall H on the North Campus. It was quite warm that day and all the windows on the side of the room (which is on the ground floor) were open. As soon as I started talking about line integrals I was interrupted by a plaintive mewing from outside which turned out to come from a small white cat who made its way outside to the rearmost window, climbed in and took a seat in the back row. It was quite disconcerting to see its little head looking at me, and its appearance put me right off my stride for a bit, but fortunately it didn’t ask any difficult questions and eventually dozed off.

I’ve never seen this cat before but apparently it has been hanging around near the Phoenix restaurant, where presumably it is being fed. It has no collar and, as far as I know, no name. We have recently experienced another visitation by rodents in the Science Building and wonder if it could be persuaded to investigate on our behalf?

So now we have a black cat on the South Campus and a white cat on the North Campus, polar opposites. Perhaps one is the anti-cat of the other? I do hope they don’t annihilate each other if they ever meet!

That Tory Cabinet Reshuffle…

Posted in Art, Politics on October 26, 2022 by telescoper

The Leiden Sexual Harassment Case: Update

Posted in Harassment Bullying etc, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on October 25, 2022 by telescoper

When I wrote less than a week ago about the case of an (unnamed) Professor at Leiden University being “removed for extremely unacceptable behaviour” I did not know the identify of the culprit but predicted that “it’s just a matter of time before the identity of the Professor concerned is revealed”.

Well, Leiden University still hasn’t officially revealed the Professor concerned but this article by Dutch news agency NRC gives a name: it is Tim de Zeeuw. The Wikipedia page I linked to there has already been updated with:

In 2022, Tim de Zeeuw was suspended from the University and barred from campus after being found to have violated professional conduct policy pertaining to harassment and sexual harassment of women employees. [10] This misconduct was found to have occurred repeatedly over many years. As of 18 October 2022 he is currently suspended (with pay) and allowed to use his university affiliation on his research papers but barred from campus, interaction with students, and all administrative and department responsibilities.

There may be some frantic editing of that page, but the cat is now well and truly out of the bag. I don’t know Tim de Zeeuw personally but he is indeed an eminent scientist in the fields of galactic dynamics and galaxy formation & evolution. For many years he was also Director of the European Southern Observatory, a position of great power and influence. If he has done what he is alleged to have done, however, this distinction counts for nothing and he should be removed from his post. Indeed that should have happened some time ago but I think there may be unresolved legal issues preventing his outright dismissal.

UPDATE: Tim de Zeeuw has now issued a statement, among other things confirming he is the person at the centre of this case but not showing very much in the way of contrition…

In the Name of JWST

Posted in LGBT, Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on October 25, 2022 by telescoper

JWST – nice telescope, shame about the name

I’ve blogged before about the problematic naming of the James Webb Space Telescope. Its name was changed in 2002 from the Next Generation Space Telescope to the James Webb Space Telescope after James E. Webb, a civil servant who was NASA’s chief administrator from 1961 to 1968.

It’s not uncommon for scientific space missions like this to be named after people once the proposal has moved off the drawing board and into serious planning. That happened with the European Space Agency’s Planck and Herschel to give two examples. In any case Next General Space Telescope was clearly never anything but a working title. Yet naming this important mission after a Government official always seemed a strange decision to me. Then news emerged that James Webb had enthusiastically cooperated in a McCarthyite purge of LGBT+ people working in government institutions, part of a wider moral panic referred to by historians as the Lavender Scare. There have been high-profile protests (see, e.g., here) and a petition that received over a thousand signatures, but NASA has ruled out any change of name.

The main reason NASA give is that they found no evidence that Webb himself was personally involved in discrimination or persecution. I find that very unconvincing. He was in charge, so had responsibility for what went on in his organization. If he didn’t know then why didn’t he know? Oh, and by the way, he didn’t have anything to do with infrared astronomy either…

I still think it’s a shame that this fantastic telescope should have its image so tarnished by the adoption of an inappropriate name.

Anyway, yesterday I saw that the Royal Astronomical Society has issued a statement about this issue, which I encourage you to read in full. It begins

At its meeting in July the governing council of the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) took a decision to write to the UK Space Agency, the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA to express its concerns about the original JWST naming process, the apparent failure to investigate James Webb’s background and the dismissal of requests to rename the telescope.

Until that investigation takes place and the results are made public, the RAS now expects authors submitting scientific papers to its journals to use the JWST acronym rather than the full name of the observatory. In this case, the previous requirement for the acronym to be spelled out at first mention will not be observed. This change will also be reflected in our communications more generally.

This does at least acknowledge the problematic nature of the name and the message it sends to LGBT+ scientists around the world and it the statement as a whole is to be welcome.

I think I’ll continue to use the name James Webb Space Telescope on this blog, though, as a reminder that the name should just be changed. Even in shorthand it’s an insult.



Astrophysics & Cosmology Masterclass at Maynooth

Posted in Education, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on October 24, 2022 by telescoper

Regular readers of the blog – both of them – may remember that we have twice previously presented a Masterclass in Astrophysics & Cosmology in Maynooth. Well, owing to popular demand, we’ve decided to do a re-run of the event on Wednesday 16th November 2022 during this year’s Science Week. Last year’s event was a big success, with over a hundred schools joining in, with probably over a thousand young people listening and asking questions.

Like last year’s event this year’s will be a half-day virtual event via Zoom. It’s meant for school students in their 5th or 6th year of the Irish system. There might be a few of them or their teachers who see this blog so I thought I’d share the news here. You can find more information, including instructions on how to book a place, here.

Here is the flyer for the event:

I’ll be talking about cosmology early on, and John Regan will talk about black holes later on. After the coffee break one of our students will talk about why they wanted to study astrophysics. Then I’ll say something about our degree programmes for those students who might be interested in studying astrophysics and/or cosmology as part of a science course. We’ll finish with questions either about the science or the studying!

Here is a more detailed programme:

Fortunately this year I don’t need to dash away at noon to do a lecture!