Archive for the Cardiff Category

Changes in the Calendar

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Education, Maynooth on May 7, 2023 by telescoper

As I often do on a Sunday morning, I just sat down to look at my timetable for the forthcoming week. Until Friday 12th this is “Study Week” and my Outlook calendar is noticeably less cluttered than recently because teaching ended on Friday 5th May. Although I had a lecture and a tutorial on Friday morning I did find Campus was already much quieter than usual. Many students at Maynooth University rent rooms here for only part of the week and Fridays are generally quiet because some students leave on Thursday evening if they don’t have classes on Fridays, and I suppose some that do usually have Friday classes will have had them cancelled as the lecturer had finished the syllabus. My two classes on Friday were actually for revision, actually.

At any rate the cloisters of St Patrick’s House looked rather empty on Friday as I headed for a quick lunch in Pugin Hall before the final-year project presentations in the afternoon.

Incidentally, colleagues in other departments have reported a drastic decline in lecture attendance over the last few weeks. I can’t say I’ve noticed that myself but my classes are by no means statistically representative.

I will be doing two more revision classes next week, one for Advanced Electromagnetism and one for Computational Physics. don’t know how many will attend these but it’s the students’ last chance to ask me questions before the examinations, which are on Thursday 18th May and Saturday 20th May respectively. Friday 12th May marks the start of the Examination Period – for some reason this always starts on a Friday – during which many teaching rooms are unavailable so we don’t usually do revision classes beyond Study Week.

I won’t be teaching either of these modules next academic year. In fact I won’t be teaching anything next year, as I’ll be off on sabbatical. I’ll miss the teaching and am particularly sad that I won’t see the class in my 3rd year module again, unless some of them remain for Masters or PhD studies, as they will complete their studies next year while I am away. Since I am officially on leave from 1st September 2023, my final teaching-related responsibility for this year will be marking the repeat examinations in August.

In case anyone asks, I don’t know who’ll be delivering the modules I did this year, but the handover shouldn’t be too hard as there are complete sets of notes for all of them (and plenty of problem sets).

I don’t know which modules I’ll be giving when I return either, but I hope there’s an opportunity for a bit of a reshuffle. In particular, I’ve been doing Computational Physics for six years now and maybe it’s time for a fresh pair of hands on that one. It’s not that I dislike it at all – in fact I like it – but I think there are good arguments for a refresh every now and again. I’ve always taken the view that anyone employed in a physics department should be able to teach any subject up to the 3rd year so I don’t particularly mind what happens next. At any rate it would be nice to have a go at a few different things before I retire. Who knows, I might even get to teach some astrophysics or cosmology at some point?

It’s not just about undergraduate teaching, of course. Study Week or not I still have the regular meetings with my research students, a cosmology discussion group and a Euclid telecon. But my main objective between now and the arrival of my examination scripts to mark is to finish two manuscripts that are very late. I’ve no excuse for that other than poor time management by myself.

Looking further ahead, the launch of Euclid is scheduled for the first half of July and I hope to find time to organize some sort of public event related to this. I’m also attending the Euclid Consortium annual meeting in Copenhagen at the end of June. I’ve also been invited to contribute to the UK National Astronomy Meeting, which is in early July this year, in Cardiff…

Student Feedback and Lecture Recordings

Posted in Cardiff, Education, Maynooth with tags , , on April 19, 2023 by telescoper

This afternoon we had a very interesting meeting about teaching in the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University, involving teaching faculty and student representatives from each year of each of the courses we offer.

It was nice that most of the feedback gathered by the student reps from their peer groups was positive. For one thing, they really like the blackboard-based teaching we use to deliver most of our modules. Most of the negative comments, however, related directly to lack of resources.

A particular concern, expressed unanimously by all the student reps at the meeting, was the lack of lecture recordings. I don’t think I am alone among the teaching staff in the Department in saying that I wish we could offer lecture recordings as routine. Unfortunately, however, and much to my disappointment, the Senior Management at Maynooth University has discouraged lecture recording as a matter of policy and has not invested in the technology required to make this possible so it is not practicable anyway.

My two previous employers – the University of Sussex and Cardiff University – both had systems in place long before the Covid-19 pandemic and all lectures were recorded as standard . I blogged about this 8 years ago, in fact. In my view the benefits of lecture capture far outweigh the disadvantages, and we should incorporate recordings of lectures as part of our standard teaching provision, as a supplement to learning rather than to replace face-to-face sessions. Every student learns in a different way and we should therefore be doing as much as we possibly can to provide a diverse range of teaching resources so that each can find the combination that suits them best. Technology allows us to do this far better now than in the past.

Some really enjoy live in-person lecture sessions, especially the ability to interact with the lecturer and the shared experience with other students, but others don’t like them as much. Others have reasons (such as disability) for not being able to attend in-person lectures, so providing recordings can help them. Others still have difficulty attending all lectures because of a dratic shortage of student accommodation. Why not in any case provide recordings for everyone? That seems to me to be a more inclusive approach.

The problem with lecture capture in Maynooth is that we will need to improve the cameras and recording equipment in the large lecture rooms to make it possible for lectures with a significant mathematical content. The existing setups in teaching rooms do not easily allow the lecturer to record material on a whiteboard or blackboard. In Cardiff, for example, the larger rooms have more than one camera, usually one on the lectern and one on the screen or whiteboard (which has to be placed further away and therefore needs to be of higher resolution). In Maynooth we only have small podium cameras in the teaching rooms. In fact I have far better facilities in my study at home – provided at my own expense – than my employer is prepared to provide on campus.

My home teaching room

I’m baffled and frustrated by Maynooth’s decision in this matter, which is generating a great deal of negativity amongst faculty and students alike. I hope The Management can be persuaded to change its mind. Persisting with the current policy would send a clear message that teaching and learning are not valued at Maynooth. Maybe they just aren’t?

P.S. The single most common inquiry I have received about the new MSc course announced recently has been whether it is possible to take it remotely. Given our lack of recording facilities, regrettably the answer to this is “no”.

Simons Observatory News

Posted in Cardiff, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on October 18, 2022 by telescoper

It seems a lot longer than four years ago that I drew the attention of readers of this blog to the science case for the Simons Observatory, the next big thing in ground-based studies of the cosmic microwave background.

The Simons Observatory Site in Chile, as it appeared four years ago

Obviously a couple of years of pandemic have intervened, amongst other things, but I was delighted to read yesterday that the UK has invested £18M in the Simons Observatory, which will enable further development of the facility at Cerro Toco, high above the Atacama Desert in Chile.

Simons Observatory in May 2022

The project was already a large international collaboration led from the USA, but the new funds from UKRI mean that six UK institutions will now join. These are (in alphabetical order): Cambridge; Cardiff; Imperial College London; Manchester; Oxford; and Sussex. Although I’m not involved in this project myself I know many people at these institutions (two of which I have worked at) and elsewhere who will be absolutely thrilled to be able to participate in this exciting project. Congratulations to them!

It would have been great if Ireland had been able to get involved in the Simons Observatory, but sadly fundamental science of this type is not a priority for the powers that be in Irish science funding. This is unfortunate because I think membership of international consortia like this would enable a small country to punch above its weight in science. Still, at least the UK PI, Prof. Michael Brown (Manchester), is an Irishman…

What a difference a fortnight makes…

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff with tags , , on September 30, 2022 by telescoper

Regular readers of this blog (Sid and Doris Bonkers) will recall that a couple of weeks ago I complained about a ridiculous gas bill. Well, a fortnight (and a lot of hassle) later, SSE have at last decided to use the real meter reading instead of the absurd estimate, with the result that my bill has changed slightly:

That’s a difference of £86,444.90. I’d call that a result.

The story doesn’t end there, however, as I have yet to persuade SSE to actually give me the (almost) thousand pounds they owe me. They seem to think they should just keep it as an interest free loan to offset future payments.

Why you shouldn’t pay by Direct Debit

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff with tags , on September 17, 2022 by telescoper

When I visited Cardiff recently one of the things I did was read the electricity and gas meters (and take photographs of both as proof of the accuracy of the readings. It was only when logged onto the SSE website to enter the numbers that I realised a bill had already been issued (on 1st September) for the amount above.

I know gas has got more expensive, but really…

The bill above is based on an ESTIMATED reading for three months in the summer for an empty house. The energy company know that the house is unoccupied but nevertheless chose to produce an estimate of the amount of gas used that is orders of magnitude higher than any amount I have ever used there, even when the house was occupied in the depths of winter. The reading I took shows that the amount of gas used since the last reading was minimal. I uploaded the reading as soon as I could but am yet to receive a corrected bill.

Why they have come up with such a ridiculous figure is beyond me, but it did make me glad that I don’t pay this bill by direct debit. If I did so I would have been charged automatically which would have emptied my bank account (and more) and caused all kinds of problem with payments for other services.

A Cardiff Visit

Posted in Art, Cardiff with tags , , , on September 7, 2022 by telescoper

So here I am, then, in Cardiff, for an overdue visit to try to sort out some things to do with the my house and the hopefully forthcoming sale thereof. I decided to treat myself to a stay in a nice hotel for a couple of days while I am here. I have been stuck at home a lot over the last three years or so and I thought it would be nice just have someone else cook my breakfast and make my bed for a change!

It’s been raining off and on while I ran various errands hither and yon so at lunchtime I popped into the excellent National Museum in Cardiff. Entry to this establishment is free, as it is to all the similar public museums and galleries in Ireland.

Not many people know what a rich treasury of art you can find in the National Museum. Did you know, for example, that the famous La Parisienne by Pierre-Auguste Renoir is here in Cardiff?

The impressionist collection is very fine indeed, although only part of the collection is on display. Here are two very different post-impressionist works by Paul Cézanne: Still Life With Teapot and Provençal Landscape.

The second of these has to be seen up close to be fully appreciated: the paint looks like it has been combed onto the canvas with different colours going in different directions in such a way that messes with the viewer’s perception of depth.

Here is one from the modern collection. It is by Andre Stitt and is called Municipal Wall Relief for a Residential Housing Complex in a Parallel Universe:

I also experienced the installation Vertigo Sea by John Akomfrah, a moving and at times harrowing visual account of the sea and the dark side of humanity’s relationship with it, from whaling and pollution to slave killings and the trafficking of refugees. There’s some stunning contemporary footage in this work, juxtaposed with archive recordings spread out over three screens. Here’s a short trailer that gives you an idea:

When I lived in Cardiff I hardly ever visited the collection in the National Museum of Wales. Indeed the few times I entered the building were for various meetings and other functions. It was nice to see it as a tourist!

Anyway, I still have a couple more things to do so that will do for now!

How big were the biggest galaxies in the early Universe?

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on August 23, 2022 by telescoper

Once upon a time (over a decade ago when I was still in Cardiff), I wrote a paper with PhD student Ian Harrison on the biggest (most massive) galaxy clusters. I even wrote a blog post about it. It was based on an interesting branch of statistical theory called extreme value statistics which I posted about in general terms here.

Well now the recent spate of observations of high-redshift galaxies by the James Webb Space Telescope has inspired Chris Lovell (who was a student at Cardiff back in the day then moved to Sussex to do his PhD and is now at the University of Hertfordshire) and Ian Harrison (who is back in Cardiff as a postdoc after a spell in the Midlands), and others at Cambridge and Sussex, to apply the extreme value statistics idea not to clusters but to galaxies. Here is the abstract:

The basic idea of galaxy formation in the standard ΛCDM cosmological model is that galaxies form in dark matter haloes that grow hierarchically so that the typical size of galaxies increases with time. The most massive haloes at high redshift should therefore be less massive than the most massive haloes at low redshift, as neatly illustrated by this figure, which shows the theoretical halo mass function (solid lines) and the predicted distribution of the most massive halo (dashed lines) at a number of redshifts, for a fixed volume of 100 Mpc3.

The colour-coding is with redshift as per the legend, with light blue the highest (z=16).

Of course we don’t observe the halo mass directly and the connection between this mass and the luminosity of a galaxy sitting in it is likely to be complicated because the formation of the stars that produce the light is a rather messy process; the ratio of mass to light is consequently hard to predict. Moreover we don’t even have overwhelmingly convincing measurements of the redshifts yet. A brief summary of the conclusions of this paper, however, is that is some of the big early galaxies recently observed by JWST seem to be a big too big for comfort if we take their observed properties at face value. A lot more observational work will be needed, however, before we can draw definite conclusions about whether the standard model is consistent with these new observations.

Lá Saoire i mí Lúnasa

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Maynooth, Mental Health with tags , on August 1, 2022 by telescoper

Today, Monday 1st August 2022, being the first Monday in August, is a Bank Holiday in Ireland. This holiday was created by the Bank Holiday Act of 1871 when Ireland was under British rule. While the holiday was subsequently moved to the end of August in England and Wales it has remained at the start of August in Ireland. Today is also a Bank Holiday in Scotland, though the Scots have the best of both worlds and have a holiday at the end of August too.

I’ve mentioned before that 1st August marks the old Celtic festival of Lughnasadh, named after the God Lugh, on which is celebrated the beginning of the harvest season. It is also one of the cross-quarter days, lying roughly half-way between the Summer Solstice and the Autumnal Equinox (in the Northern Hemisphere).

Anyway, the University is closed today and I made the use of the long weekend to take a few days of annual leave last week, from Wednesday. I’ll be off tomorrow too. Those four days will be about it for my summer holidays, though, as our repeat examinations commence on Wednesday 3rd August and I’ll be busy doing corrections from then on. Incidentally, these examinations are called the Autumn Repeats consistent with the general interpretation here in Ireland of 1st August being the start of autumn. The weather today is certainly somewhat autumnal!

For various reasons we have a larger-than-average number of students taking repeat examinations this year. Moreover, one of our temporary lecturers left at the end of his contract at the end of June so is unavailable to mark his examinations. As Head of Department, and with several staff unavailable, it’s my responsibility to make sure that they get graded so it looks like I’ll have to mark the majority of his scripts as well as my own. And a few projects too.

At least my term as Head of Department is due to end soon. I was appointed to this position in 2019, initially for three years starting on 1st September so August 31st 2022 is my last day in office. That reminds me that I stepped down as Head of School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at Sussex on 31st July 2016, i.e. six years ago yesterday. How can it be so long?

I moved back to Cardiff in 2016 to a three-year, part-time position which would have come to an end in 2019. I supposed at the time that I would then take early retirement and that would be that. I certainly didn’t imagine then that I would move once more, this time to Ireland nor did I think I would be Head of Department anywhere.

Reflecting on my decision to leave Sussex and return to Cardiff I wrote this:

I’m not going to go into all the reasons for stepping down, but one of them is I wanted to establish a better work-life balance…. I was therefore more than happy to accept the offer of a position here on a 50% salary. In other words, I am officially a part-time member of staff. I’m planning to use the other 50% to pursue some other interests, such as writing a couple of books and running the Open Journal of Astrophysics, but generally just taking more time off the treadmill of academic life.

It didn’t quite turn out like that, but at least I did what I was appointed to do at Cardiff. It was just chance that led to the change of plan, with the opportunity of moving to Ireland coming out of the blue. Instead of taking 50% of my time off, from December 1st 2017 until July 2018 I worked 50% of the time at Maynooth, commuting to and fro across the Irish Sea: thereafter I worked here full-time.

When I was appointed Head of Department of Theoretical Physics in Maynooth in 2019 I received some (sarcastic) comments about that bit above about the “treadmill of academic life”. In truth I didn’t imagine that it would be as hard as it turned out. I wrote in 2019:

It’s about three years now since I stepped down as Head of School at the University of Sussex at which point I didn’t imagine I would be stepping up to be Head of Anything again, but to be honest this position has a smaller and much better defined set of responsibilities than the one I used to hold so I’m actually quite looking forward to it.

Of course I didn’t know then that the Covid-19 pandemic would strike in 2020, exacerbated by staff shortages and lack of support at University level, creating a huge increase in workload and stress. The job has been far harder than I imagined it would be, not least because there is no proper job description for a Head of Department at Maynooth. The “smaller and much better defined set of responsibilities” I anticipated turned out not to be the case at all. Indeed, the workload associated with being HoD has grown substantially over the last three years, with fewer resources and lower levels of support.

In short, I can’t wait for this month, and my term as Head of Department, to be over. I am not going to leave Maynooth and will continue doing teaching and research (including supervising graduate students), both of which I enjoy. But after this month time I will have served my time as Head of Department and it will be someone else’s turn to climb up on the treadmill…

The Kindness of Faces

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Film, Television with tags , on July 28, 2022 by telescoper
Bernard Cribbins

Another bit of sad news arrived today. The much-loved character actor, singer and comedian Bernard Cribbins has passed away at the age of 93. He was a remarkably versatile performer who appeared in scores of films and TV programmes over the years, including numerous stints on Jackanory, on which he revealed himself to be a superb reader of children’s stories, and providing all the voices for the TV series of The Wombles. Rest in peace, Bernard Cribbins (1928-2022).

Reading about his death and looking at pictures of him taken during his long and varied career got me thinking about something I’ve wondered about many times over the years, namely what is it about certain faces that makes them appear kind?

I know it’s a subjective judgment whether or not someone has a kind face but it does seem that many people do agree on it. I certainly think Bernard Cribbins had a kind face and it stayed with him all through his long career. Among actors, Tom Hanks is another prominent example. His face has clearly influenced the roles he has been cast in. No doubt you can think of others.

This is not just about showbusiness of course. I have met many people in the course of my life who have what I’d describe as kind faces, but what exactly is it about their faces that makes them so? It seems to involve a certain shape – softer features perhaps, not too angular – with rounder eyes and an easy smile. Other than those vague considerations I really don’t know. I have looked back through the personal library of kind faces in my memory and they don’t really have much in common at all. Whatever it is, it’s not the same thing that makes a face handsome or beautiful or sexy, though those are also of course subjective. For me there has to be a hint of danger for someone to be very sexy; a kind face is perhaps too bland.

Anyway, I remember many years ago talking with a (female) graduate student in a pub in Cardiff about this subject. In fact we started talking about which men in the Department we thought were the most handsome – I’d better keep quiet about that bit – but got onto a more general discussion. She had – and presumably still has – what I’d call a kind face, and I told her so when the subject came up. She was very aware that people thought that too and wasn’t entirely pleased about it. She said her face made people assume she was extremely emphatic and proceed to burden her with their personal problems even if she didn’t know them very well. I’d never thought of that downside before then.

In Macbeth, Duncan says “There’s no art / to find the mind’s construction in the face”, and there’s no necessary connection between a kindly disposition and a kind face. No doubt there are successful criminals, con-artists and the like, who trade on their apparently kind faces to manipulate their victims. On the other hand, in a world that can be incomprehensibly cruel, it can be nice to see a kind face even if it’s just a superficial relief.

Any theories on what makes a kind face and/or other examples of people who have such please use through the box below.

Life and Chemical Imbalances

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Maynooth, Mental Health with tags , , , , , on July 21, 2022 by telescoper

Although it has weighed on my mind in recent weeks, and I have mentioned it on this blog a couple of times, I’ve managed to avoid writing too much about the fact that exactly ten years ago I was languishing in the high-dependency unit of a psychiatric hospital. Today I saw that there’s an article doing the rounds about mental health issues so I thought I’d use it as a pretext for getting some of the memories of that time off my chest.

The article I mentioned above has the rather misleading title Depression is probably not caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain – new study. What the article argues is that there isn’t a simple cause-and-effect relationship between depression and the chemical serotonin. There may well be a biochemical explanation of depressive illness that involves serotonin, but it’s obviously very complicated. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. Very few things in neuroscience are simple.

Unfortunately some people are misrepresenting the piece by claiming that it proves that a widely-used class of anti-depressant drugs known as Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs; the best-known of which, Fluoxetine, is known by the trade name Prozac). This class also includes Citalopram and Paroxetine (trade name: Seroxat), both of which I have been on. The latter is not available on the National Health Service through a General Practitioner, but must instead be prescribed by a consultant psychiatrist because of rather serious side-effects.

I refer you to an explanatory article Dean Burnett who explains that nobody really knows how these SSRI anti-depressants work, and why it is not surprising that they can have unexpected side effects. I hope that the articles I mentioned above help make it clearer what is involved being on medication of this sort. These drugs are in widespread use, but ignorance about them is spread even wider.

Anti-depressants are not only prescribed for the treatment of clinical depression but also for, e.g., anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. It is for these things rather than depression per se that I have taken SSRIs. Nobody really knows why anti-depressants work against depression (although there is clinical evidence that they do), and there is even less understanding why (and, in some cases, evidence that) they are effective for these other conditions. Like many treatments they seem to have been discovered empirically, by trial and error.

As Dean Burnett explains in his article, SSRIs work by increasing the level of Serotonin (a monoamine neurotransmitter). However, taking an SSRI increases the level of Serotonin almost immediately whereas the effect on depression takes weeks to register. While low Serotonin levels may play a part in depressive illness, they’re clearly not the whole story.

Ten years ago, in the summer of 2012, I experienced awful problems largely as a result of trying to come off the medication I had been on since the previous autumn. The withdrawal symptoms then included shaking fits, insomnia, visual and auditory hallucinations, nausea, and hypervigilance.

The effect of this extreme collection of withdrawal symptoms was that I didn’t eat or sleep for a couple of weeks. My mental and physical health deteriorated steadily until my GP referred me to a psychiatric hospital just outside Cardiff. When I arrived there they took one look at me and put me in a high-dependency unit, under close supervision.

I think they thought I was suicidal but I really wasn’t. I was just so exhausted that I didn’t really care what happened next. I was however put on a kind of `suicide watch’, the reason for this being that, apparently, even while sedated, I kept trying to pull the tube out of my arm. I was being fed via a drip because I was ‘Nil by Mouth’ by virtue of uncontrollable vomiting. I guess the doctors thought I was trying to sabotage myself, but I wasn’t. Not consciously anyway. I think it was probably just irritating me. In fact I don’t remember doing it at all, but that period is very much a blur altogether. Anyway, I then found myself in physical restraints, so I couldn’t move my arms, to stop me pulling the tube out.

Those days are painful to recall but I was eventually moved to a general ward and shortly after that I was deemed well enough to go home. Fortunately, I recovered well enough to return to work (after taking a short break in Copenhagen). I signed up for 6 weeks of talking therapy. I had to wait some time before a slot became available, but had appointments once a week after that.

At the end of the summer of 2012, I was offered the job of Head of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at Sussex University. I moved from Cardiff to Brighton in early 2013 to take up this new position. I hadn’t been there for long when my old problem returned. The stress of the job obviously played a role in this, and I soon realized that I couldn’t keep going without help from medication. It was then that I was tried out on Paroxetine, the dose being gradually increased until I was at the maximum recommended level (60mg daily).

While this medication was effective in controlling the panic disorder, it had some unpleasant side-effects, including: digestive problems; dizziness; difficulty in concentrating; fatigue; and the weirdest of all, a thing called depersonalisation, which I still experience (in a relatively mild form) from time to time.

I found myself living a kind of half-life, functioning reasonably well at work but not having the energy or enthusiasm to do very much else outside of working hours. Eventually I got fed up with it. I felt I had to choose between staying in my job as Head of School (which meant carrying on taking the drugs indefinitely) or leaving to do something else (which would mean I might be able to quit the drugs). I picked the latter. The desire to come off medication wasn’t the only factor behind my decision to stand down from my job at Sussex, but it played a big part.

I knew however that Paroxetine is associated with notoriously difficult withdrawal symptoms so, mindful of my previous experience in 2012, I followed the medical instructions to the letter, gradually cutting down my dose over a couple of months during the course of the Autumn in 2016. I still had significant withdrawal symptoms, especially the insomnia, but not as bad as before.

In 2016 had no idea that I would move to Ireland in 2017. I’m glad to say, though, that despite the isolation and stress caused by the pandemic, and workload issues generally, I’ve managed without any form of anti-depressants since then, though it hasn’t always been easy. Let’s just say that I am greatly looking forward to reaching the end of my term as Head of Department of Theoretical Physics at the end of next month…