Archive for January, 2023

Solidarity with the UCU Strikers!

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , , , , on January 31, 2023 by telescoper

Tomorrow, 1st February 2023, members of the University and College Union will walk out for the first of 18 days of strike action in UK universities:

This industrial action arises from a dispute over pensions, pay, and working conditions. The strikes will affect 2.5 million students but are necessary to safeguard not only the livelihoods of academic staff against increased casualisation and salary cuts but the UK university system itself, which is being ruined by incompetent management. Regrettably, the strikes will cause considerable disruption but, frankly, there is no point in a strike that doesn’t do that.

Although I no longer work in the UK I’d like to take this opportunity to send a message of support to my former colleagues there who will be out on the picket lines tomorrow and on subsequent days.

That also goes for workers in other sectors who are also involved in industrial action in the UK at this time!

Page Charges and Monthly Notices

Posted in Open Access, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on January 31, 2023 by telescoper

Some time ago (in 2020) I reported here that the publishers of Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (known as MNRAS for short) had decided to abandon the print edition and only have online articles. This is not surprising as demand for hard copies was falling drastically.

At the time I heard from a reliable source that MNRAS was also planning to introduce page charges – fees paid by authors to publish papers in the journal – and posted a comment to that effect here. This comment led to wild accusations of “serious academic misconduct” by me from a certain individual who shall remain nameless.

Well, the “rumour” I reported in 2020 is now confirmed to be the truth (as I knew it was). At a recent meeting of the national societies affiliated to the European Astronomical Society, Royal Astronomical Society President Mike Edmunds confirmed that, in the near future, all authors publishing in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society will have to pay page charges. The timescale is “within a few years”.

This is part of a move to making all articles Open Access, largely forced by Plan S through which funding agencies require research outputs to be made freely available upon publication. Page charges are Article Processing Charges by another name.

Other notable journals, such as the Astrophysical Journal (ApJ) and Astronomy & Astrophysics (A&A), have levied page charges for as long as I can remember, though in the latter case it is complicated because there is a waiver for researchers in “member” countries. ApJ and other journals also have a waiver scheme for those who cannot afford to pay. For those who have to pay, the fee is usually about $100 per page. For a long time MNRAS was the exception and indeed the only feasible choice for people who don’t have access to funding to cover page charges, including many in the developing world. More recently, however, MNRAS introduced a charge for longer papers: £50 per page over 20 pages, so a paper of 21 pages costs £50 and one of 30 pages costs £500, etc. This will now be extended to all papers. I don’t have a figure for what MNRAS will charge in future or what waivers will be offered, but it seems likely to be similar to existing journals.

The introduction of page charges is an attempt to maintain the profitability of MNRAS after the loss of income from subscriptions, as readers will no longer be required to pay to read papers. It is therefore a transfer of cost from reader to author. I chose the ‘profitability’ because the prime purpose of MNRAS is no longer the dissemination of scientific results but the generation of income to fund other activities of the Royal Astronomical Society. Despite the move to the much cheaper digital-only publishing mode, the annual cost of an institutional subscription to this journal is currently over $10,000. Most of that is goes as profit to Oxford University Press (the actual publisher) and to the Royal Astronomical Society. Page charges are nothing to do with the actual cost of publication, but are intended to protect the publisher’s profit margins.

Much of what the RAS does with the revenue generated by journals is laudable, of course, but I don’t think it is fair to fleece researchers in order to fund its activities. I think authors can see this, and the attempt to transfer costs onto researchers will backfire. In particular, it’s a move that plays into the hands of The Open Journal of Astrophysics, which publishes papers (online only) in all the areas of Astrophysics covered by MNRAS, and more, but is entirely free both for authors and readers. If you don’t want to pay page charges, or make your library pay a subscription, then you could give it a try.

For myself, I abandoned the traditional journal system many years ago, as it is so clearly a racket.

The question for the Royal Astronomical Society, and other learned societies that fund their activities in a similar way, is whether they can find a sustainable funding model that takes proper account of the digital publishing revolution. If their revenue from publishing does fall, can they replace it? And, if not, in what form can they survive?

Guest Post: Hannelore’s Story

Posted in Harassment Bullying etc with tags , on January 30, 2023 by telescoper

In November last year I published an anonymous guest post entitled The Bullying of Hannelore by a Professor of Astronomy, recounting the bullying of a member of administrative staff (referred to pseudonymously as Hannelore) in an Astronomy Department in the UK. Among other features of the response to that post, it was remarkable how many people from different institutions contacted me to suggest that this post was about their institution, which strongly suggests that bullying of the sort described is endemic in UK universities.

This is Hannelore’s side of the story. As before, all the names have been changed and the institution is not identified. I think you should read it.

Hannelore’s Story

Hannelore has been employed by her University for over 10 years on fixed term contracts. She is also an alumna of the University.

She works with a large international astronomy collaboration, as their project manager. She supports the research of colleagues in her Department, as well as the coordination of the exams.

Four years ago, she made a mistake.

Hannelore became an active bystander to a colleague (in his absence), when she refuted allegations and insinuations the Head of Department was making about his financial mismanagement. She knew they were untrue.

Thereafter, her professional life changed.

Previously uncomplicated processes were tightened up, layers of control and approval were imposed, responsibilities removed. She was cut out of email communications, two successive applications for promotion were turned down, the locks to an office she could previously access were changed, timesheets were thrown on her office floor. Grant applications became an obstacle course, the Head of Department imposing sole approval rights and driving proposal submissions to the deadline until all of his conditions were met, with new rules and arbitrary policies emerging all the time.

Unbeknown to her, the Head of Department was also making insinuations about her work, her trustworthiness, her confidentiality and her behaviour. He was eroding her reputation, the professional relationships she had forged with others and slowly also her confidence.

Every time she reacted to the incidents, things only became worse.

A confidential report was commissioned into her behaviour. An HR professional concluded that her worries were real to her, “but imaginary”.

Within days, her Head of Department was busy leaking his ”substantial concerns” about her mental health which had been highlighted in the recent investigation, and which the Department did not have the means to address.

Seemingly exonerated, her Head of Department intensified the bullying. Within three weeks of the report, she received an end-of-contract letter. She had been put in the formal process of redundancy. This was while still supporting the Examiners in her department.

Hannelore was being dismissed from her job.

She had guaranteed funding from the European Community to support her for four years. But, it was a fixed term contract, so it still needed final approval from her Head of Department.

But, the Head of Department argued … well, anything really … so as not to sign. He said that there was no PI to support the project, that there was no space in the Department, that the project was scientifically valueless, that the grant should be transferred to another UK institution, that the Department had no “bandwidth to support a mentally unbalanced woman”.

It all became too much for her. She was very close to breaking down.

The Head of Department was also one of the Examiners.

Hannelore used the very little that was left of her resources to make sure the examinations were properly supported. In spite of prospective joblessness. In spite of belittling by the Head of Department/Examiner.

One of the other Examiners saw her distress and blew the whistle on the Head of Department’s aggressive behaviour. The redundancy process was momentarily paused.

Then, a document was written by two colleagues: a factual description for review by the academic staff of her grant’s approval process. To prevent exposure, the Head of Department gave in to matters being taken out of his hands. The funding was signed off the next day, though not by him.

Hannelore would have her job, after all.

But, the Head of Department was furious. He issued not one, not two, but three formal Grievances against each of the Professors who had helped her in her distress. He said he had not been doing any bullying — it was everyone else who had been bullying him. The three Professors all remain under investigation to this day.

Eighteen months later, Hannelore can see how the bullying has affected her.  

When bullying goes on for so long, people modify their behaviour and start to behave oddly. They lose more support. Everybody then thinks that person is odd. But it is because of the bullying.

She can see this happened to her in a mild fashion for two years, in a stronger fashion for one year and in an unacceptable fashion for the final two months, before the Head of Department was exposed.

And the University … well, they are not interested in Hannelore.

They are only concerned in avoiding a major public scandal.


The Term Ahead

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , on January 29, 2023 by telescoper

It’s the day before the start of a new Semester in Maynooth. Last week we finished all due processes relating to the First Semester examinations and the provisional results will be uploaded to “The System” next week. They’re provisional at this stage because they’re not set in stone until the final meeting of the Examination Board. Obviously I can’t discuss the results here. I could comment here about how clunky the whole process is, including multiple downloads of spreadsheets and subsequent uploads somewhere else, but I won’t bother. Nobody seems to be interesting in fixing it. Perhaps by the time I retire “The System” will have been replaced by something that doesn’t waste an enormous amount of staff time. But I doubt it.

It’s a curiosity of the teaching allocation in the Department of Theoretical Physics that I do first-year and second-year modules (MP110 Mechanics and Special Relativity and MP201 Vector Calculus & Fourier Series) in Semester 1 while in Semester 2 it’s the third and fourth year students who have to put up with my ramblings.

The menu for this term involves MP354 Computational Physics 1, which entails just one hour of lectures per week but two two-hour lab sessions. Each student attends one of these sessions, so they get 3 contact hours per week but I have to look after both sessions. Our computer lab has a small cluster of Linux machines and, this term, a brand new display screen which I am looking forward to playing with. I’m also looking forward to seeing how the infamous ChatGPT copes with the Python coding exercises I give the students to do in class: I’ve only tried one so far, without much success. This is the first module I taught at Maynooth, back in 2018, so this will be the 6th time I’ve done it.

My other class is MP465 Advanced Electromagnetism, which I’m doing for the 3rd time now. This is a standard chalk-and-talk kind of module covering a well-established syllabus, and involving two lectures per week plus a tutorial. At least I’m teaching in a classroom rather than online like when I first did this module!

In 2020/21 (during the Pandemic restrictions) I did five modules as well as being Head of Department. At this time two academic staff departures left us severely short-staffed and struggling to deliver our programmes. My workload then was unmanageable and I asked to step down. I changed my mind when were eventually allowed to recruit two lecturers and saw out my three-year term to the end. I had better not repeat here what I think of the deliberate management decisions that left us reeling and had such negative effects on staff morale and on the education of students in the Department. I just hope the damage is not irreparable.

Although I am doing the same number of modules as last term, the number of contact hours I have to do is higher (8 versus 5) because of the labs and the fact that we don’t have tutors for 4th-year modules so lecturers have to do the tutorials themselves. Four modules a year is a much heavier teaching load than a Full Professor at a UK university would be expected to carry, but it seems normal in Ireland where the funding for sciences is far less than adequate. The impact on research productivity is obvious and is systemic. There are excellent physicists in Maynooth but they are given little time or other resources. It’s a big waste of potential. That’s another “System” that needs changing, but I see little appetite for change of the required sort at institutional level. It’s all about recruiting more and more students to be taught with fewer and fewer resources.

The impact of this on staff careers is severe: teaching loads are so heavy that it’s very difficult to reach the level of research productivity required for promotion. For myself, though, the next career step will be retirement so I don’t have to worry about promotion. Fortunately too, I enjoy teaching, so I’ll just get on with it. So I’ll stop writing and get on with preparing my first week of lectures and lab sessions!

Brahms, Poulenc and Danielle de Niese

Posted in Music, Opera with tags , , , , , , on January 28, 2023 by telescoper

After a very busy week and ahead of the start of a new term on Monday, it was nice to be back in the National Concert Hall in Dublin last night for a superb concert, featuring a double bill of Brahms and Poulenc. It is quite an unusual pairing to have a symphony first, but each work we heard was about 40 minutes long, so it was actually well balanced, and the contrast worked very well indeed.

Before the interval we had came the main course in the form of the Symphony No. 3 in F Major by Johannes Brahms. This is of course quite a familiar work, but I really like concerts that mix unfamiliar material with the standard concert repertoire. It also gave me the chance to persevere with Brahms as my friends keep telling me to. It’s not that I don’t like Brahms, it’s just that I don’t find that he moves me as much as many other composers and so many people rave about him that I think I must be missing something. The 3rd Symphony is a very fine work, offering lots of variety across its four movements while maintaining a strong sense of coherence. I’m no expert on Brahms but it seems to me that the 3rd Symphony is where he really found his voice as a symphonic composer and stepped out from the shadow of Beethoven. It was performed beautifully last night under the direction of Jaime Martin and the National Symphony Orchestra.

After the wine break we returned for a rare treat in the form of La Voix Humaine, a one-act Opera for soprano and orchestra by Francis Poulenc, featuring the wonderful Danielle de Niese. The staging for this work is shown in the picture taken before most the orchestra had returned: just a chaise longue, a chair, a small table and an old-fashioned telephone.

La Voix Humaine portrays the last conversation between an anonymous woman (referred to throughout as Elle, the French word for “she”) and her lover, with whom she has just broken up. Only one character appears on stage and we only hear Elle’s side of the conversation. She sings into the telephone throughout; . the audience has to infer what her ex is saying at the other end. There are also frequent interruptions from another character who keeps intruding on the conversation, as the call appears to be on a party line, a concept that younger readers will not understand! This, together with the frequent disconnections and reconnections, provides some darkly comic relief. As you can probably imagine, it doesn’t end happily.

The performance was in French and there were no surtitles. It struck me that this work would be very difficult to translate into another language, as the music so accurately follows the natural rhythm and emphasis of spoken French. We were given the full libretto, with English translation, in the programme notes, but fortunately my memory of schoolboy French was good enough to get me a pass mark on following it without having to refer to the translation.

Poulenc’s compelling and emotionally charged music helps suggest what is being said at the other end when Elle is not singing, as well as accompanying her. The score struck me as rather cinematic, in that parts could easily be imagined as incidental music in a movie. Given the nature of the libretto, much of the music is like a the recitatives you find in operatic scores, but it is also more expansive and sensual when Elle pours out her broken heart. There are definite touches of Debussy in the orchestration, but it’s a very original approach that Poulenc uses and the National Symphony Orchestra made it come alive with great intensity.

And what can I say about Danielle de Niese? Amazingly, this was the first time she had performed La Voix Humaine in front of a live audience. She was sensational. She has a lovely voice and sang beautifully but her acting was also utterly convincing and she had a compelling stage presence. This was not just a concert performance but a genuine opera. I was straight up on my feet at the end, along with the rest of the audience. Brava!

To be honest, this was the piece I went for, rather than the Brahms, as I had never heard it before. I wasn’t disappointed. It was an intensely moving performance of a remarkable work which had me in pieces at the end. I enjoyed Brahms 3rd Symphony, but La Voix Humaine hit me in the guts. I must listen to more Poulenc.

Danielle de Niese is back at the NCH next Friday, singing Ravel and Mozart. Needless to say, after last night’s performance I’ll definitely be going!

New Publication at the Open Journal of Astrophysics

Posted in OJAp Papers, Open Access, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on January 27, 2023 by telescoper

Time to announce another new paper at the Open Journal of Astrophysics. This one was published yesterday, 26th January 2023. The latest paper is the third paper in Volume 6 (2023) as well as the 68th in all. It’s yet another in the Cosmology and NonGalactic Astrophysics folder.

The latest publication is entitled “Palatini formulation for gauge theory: implications for slow-roll inflation” and the authors are Syksy Räsänen of the University of Helsinki in Finland and Yosef Verbin (The Open University of Israel, Ra’anana, Israel). The first author has  published a previous paper on the Palatini formulation in the Open Journal of Astrophysics.

Here is a screen grab of the overlay which includes the  abstract:



You can click on the image to make it larger should you wish to do so. You can find the officially accepted version of the paper on the arXiv here.

P.S. You may be wondering about the image shown in the overlay. This paper doesn’t contain any figures or images so I tried out the collection of stock photographs that comes free with the Scholastica platform by typing in “gauge”. The result was a quite amusing collection of pictures of various kinds of dials and other gauges. I quite liked the one above so used it just for show!

Optical Illusion

Posted in Art with tags , on January 26, 2023 by telescoper

It’s not an illusion that I didn’t post yesterday. I have been very busy this week and didn’t have time to put anything on the blog. To get things going again, here is an intriguing optical illusion I saw on Twitter.

The point is that the cubes are not moving at all:

ChatGPT and Physics Education

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on January 24, 2023 by telescoper

Following on the theme of ChatGPT, I see that Phil Moriarty has done a blog post about its use in Physics Education which many of my readers will find well worth reading in full. His findings are well in accord with mine, although I haven’t had as much time to play with it as he has. In particular, it is easily defeated by figures and pictures so if you want to make your assessment ChatGPT-proof all you need to do is unlike lots of graphics. More generally, ChatGPT is trained to produce waffle so avoid questions that require students to produce waffle. This shouldn’t pose too many problems, except for disciplines in which waffle is all there is.

Phil Moriarty also done a video in the Sixty Symbols series, on that YouTube thing that young people look at, which you can view here:

I start teaching Computational Physics next week and will be seeing how ChatGPT does at the Python coding exercises I was planning to set!

Maynooth University Library Cat Update

Posted in Maynooth with tags on January 23, 2023 by telescoper

People keep asking me how Maynooth University Library Cat is getting on so on my way back from lunch today I took a picture of him on post near the Library.

He seemed a bit drowsy, no doubt because he’d recently emptied his food bowl and was having a post-prandial snooze, and wouldn’t open his eyes so here’s a closer shot when he was a bit more awake.

Anyway, our famous feline friend seems to be in good health. We’ve had a few very cold days recently. In fact once when I came to give him some food I had to break the ice on his water bowl. He’s a hardy animal though and seems to be able to cope with inclement conditions. Today it is much warmer but rather cloudy and overcast.

Lectures recommence at Maynooth next Monday so he’ll have a bit more company then. He likes to be the centre of attention. In Vietnam, the Lunar New Year celebrations at the weekend marked the Year of the Cat. In Maynooth, every year is the Year of the Cat.

ChatGPT in the Swampland

Posted in Maynooth, Open Access, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on January 22, 2023 by telescoper

My inestimable PhD student Kay Lehnert has been having a look at the capabilities of the Artificial Intelligence platform ChatGPT at writing about string theoretical ideas, specifically the swampland conjectures. It’s remarkable what this does well but also notable what it doesn’t do well at all. What he found was so interesting he wrote it up as a little paper, which you can find on the arXiv here. The abstract is:

In this case study, we explore the capabilities and limitations of ChatGPT, a natural language processing model developed by OpenAI, in the field of string theoretical swampland conjectures. We find that it is effective at paraphrasing and explaining concepts in a variety of styles, but not at genuinely connecting concepts. It will provide false information with full confidence and make up statements when necessary. However, its ingenious use of language can be fruitful for identifying analogies and describing visual representations of abstract concepts.

It took arXiv a while to decide what to do with this paper as it doesn’t fit in any of the usual categories. The arXiv sections that usually cover string theory are General Relativity and Quantum Cosmology (gr-qc) and/or high-energy physics theory (hep-th), which was where it was originally submitted, but this isn’t really a string theory paper per se. After being held by the moderators for a while it eventually it appeared in Popular Physics (physics.pop-ph), cross-listed in Artificial Intelligence (cs.AI) & Computation and Language (cs.CL); the latter two are computer science categories, obviously.

Figure 2 of the paper, which you should read if you want to know what it represents!

The reclassification of this paper was perfectly reasonable. In fact with this, as with any other arXiv paper, the thing that matters most is that it it is freely available to anyone who wants to read it and is discoverable, i.e. can easily be found via search engines. In the era of Open Access, things will generate interest if they are interesting (and accessible).

We posted the following on the Maynooth University Theoretical Physics Department Twitter account, something we do whenever a new paper by someone in the Department comes out:

Judging by the number of views (101K) by this morning, this one certainly seems to be attracting interest! Hopefully this blog post will generate even more..

Finally, there might be people reading this blog who can suggest a journal that might consider publishing an article on this sort of subject? Whatever you think about ChatGPT I think it’s generating a lot of discussion right now, so the topic is… er… topical.

Please use the box below for any suggestions.