Archive for Maynooth

Swan Update

Posted in Maynooth with tags , , on May 4, 2023 by telescoper

Not long ago I posted an item about the swans of Maynooth, expressing anticipation of the forthcoming cygnets. Well, they have arrived at last; seven in total. Here’s a picture I took this morning near the harbour and one a couple of days ago further along the Royal Canal.

The family probably won’t go far from their nest while the cygnets are very small, and the adults will stay very close to their little ones for quite a while, but soon they’ll be taking longer journeys and the youngsters will roam a little on their own. I spoke to two guys who work by the canal who have a little shed next to the harbour on the Royal Canal. They told me that when they’ve grown up a bit the cygnets regularly knock on the door of the shed to ask for food. They also warned me not to make any sudden movements near the Swan family, as Mr Swan can be very aggressive. All of them were very relaxed when I saw them, however.

P.S. It is interesting that the word “swan” is Germanic (cf. Schwann) while the word “cygnet” is via French cygne (cf. Latin cygnus, Greek κύκνος); the Irish word for “swan” is “eala”.

The Swans of Maynooth

Posted in Maynooth with tags , on April 25, 2023 by telescoper
The Royal Canal near Maynooth, with Maynooth railway station in the background to the left.

Most mornings I walk to work at Maynooth University along a route that includes a short section of the towpath of the Royal Canal, roughly from the Mullen Bridge to Maynooth Harbour. There is a small island there which plays home to a pair of mute swans who have been nesting there at least as long as I’ve lived in Maynooth (more than five years). Swans mate for life and they’ve found a great spot there on the little island and have no reason to move.

I took the above picture as I walked in this morning. In the foreground, you can see the male swan (the cob) who is on patrol. If you look carefully you can see a splash of white on the island which is his partner, the pen, sitting on their nest. As you can see, the water in the canal is very clear, which made for an interesting combination of reflection and transmission. I don’t know the name of the plants that grow on the bottom of the canal, and would be grateful if anyone could enlighten me.

This time of year is particularly interesting on the canal because it is about now that the annual brood of cygnets will appear. The young will stay with their parents for the best part of a year then, suddenly, around March, they’re off to find their own way in the world and make room for the next generation.

Swans are bad-tempered at the best of times but when the eggs hatch and the chicks appear, the pen will become extremely aggressive. For most of the year, the swans tolerate other birds on their island, but when they have very young cygnets they are very protective, and regularly have a go at the other birds. Crows, herons and seagulls are a particular danger.

Anyway, they should hatch very soon now, and there’s always an overload of cuteness when they go for their first trip on the water on their mother’s back, like passengers on a stately galleon.

On SciPost…

Posted in Maynooth, Open Access with tags , , , on April 24, 2023 by telescoper

On of my colleagues this morning passed on details of a recent publication to put on the Twitter feed of the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth. As far as I’m aware this is the first paper authored by a member of the Department to be published on SciPost, a Diamond Open Access journal.

I’ve known about SciPost for quite a while, but have been preoccupied with the Open Journal of Astrophysics (OJAp) and have not tracked its progress very closely, but I’m glad to see it going well. Its business model is very different from the Open Journal of Astrophysics but its commitment to publishing high-quality scientific papers free of charge for authors and readers alike is most commendable. Looking at the physics section I see that there are quite a few highly-cited papers among them, over a wide spread of topics, including high-energy physics. There are only a few papers in Astronomy, however- only three when I looked.

I’ve heard it said that one of the advantages of SciPost is that, because it allows authors to keep the copyright on their publications, they can post articles freely on arXiv for wider distribution without embargo or other restriction. That is true and laudable. The logic of the Open Journal of Astrophysics, however, is that most astrophysicists use arXiv as their primary source of research literature, so if you’re going to read it on arXiv why not dispense with the separate journal and just use an overlay?

Not all research areas are so wedded to the arXiv, however, and it is great that there’s a free alternative. I’m a little surprised that nobody has set up a particle physics overlay journal (yet), as the HEP community seems to use arXiv a lot. When I asked a particle physicist about this they said it had been discussed, but they decided that they were happy enough with SciPost as an OA platform. Fair enough. The important thing to me is to avoid the excessive Article Processing Charges (APCs) imposed by mainstream journals for OA publishing.

I note that the HEP community has SCOAP3, which pays for articles to appear in Open Access form in traditional journals. In other words it hides the cost from the scientists and effectively subsidizes the academic publishing industry. It is important that there are alternatives to traditional journals so that authors to have a choice whether to adopt the SCOAP3 route.

One final comment. On the Finance page for SciPost it states that the estimated average cost per paper published is €400. That’s at 2019 rates. It’s probably higher now. That cost is a lot less than a typical APC but is still about a factor of ten higher than the cost per paper for OJAp. SciPost has a large network of sponsors so it can cover this cost. The overlay model used by arXiv is much cheaper to run.

A Draft Strategic Plan for Maynooth (via ChatGPT)

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , on April 23, 2023 by telescoper

Senior managers at Maynooth University are currently engaged in the expensive and time-consuming process of compiling a new “Strategic Plan“. All universities seem to feel the need to have one of these, although I’ve never understood what purpose is served by such a document. They are all remarkably similar to one another in any case. Anyway, this is what ChatGPT produced for free in a matter of seconds in response to the query “please write a first draft strategic plan for Maynooth University”:


Maynooth University is a leading university in Ireland founded in 1795. The University aims to provide high-quality education to its students and prepare them for successful careers and to contribute positively to society as a whole. As a forward-thinking institution, Maynooth University recognizes the need for strategic planning to continue its legacy of excellence and ensure that it remains at the forefront of education and conduct innovative research that address the challenges of the 21st century. In order to achieve its goals, the university needs to develop a strategic plan that outlines its priorities and the steps it needs to take to achieve them.


The vision for Maynooth University is to become a world-class institution of higher education that promotes excellence in teaching, research and community engagement. The university will strive to provide a stimulating and inclusive environment that inspires its students, faculty and staff to achieve their full potential.


The mission of Maynooth University is to provide a transformative student experience that prepares graduates to be leaders in their fields. The university will contribute to the creation and dissemination of new knowledge through its research and scholarship. It will engage with local, national and international communities to promote social and economic development.


The following are the key goals of Maynooth University:

1. To enhance the quality of teaching and learning:

Maynooth University will provide its students with a challenging and engaging learning experience that equips them with the knowledge and skills required to succeed in their chosen fields. The university will invest in innovative teaching methods, modern teaching equipment, and professional development opportunities for its faculty to enhance their teaching skills and delivery.

2. To advance research and scholarship:

Maynooth University aims to become a leading research institution known for its excellence in research, innovation, and scholarship. The university will prioritize research funding and support for its faculty, students, and research teams. It will also invest in research infrastructure, facilities and equipment to support cutting-edge research across a range of disciplines.

3. To foster community engagement:

Maynooth University will strive to promote social and economic development through community engagement, public service, and outreach. The university will work with communities, government, and other stakeholders to address societal challenges and create positive social impact. Maynooth University will also prioritize outreach and engagement with schools, businesses, and cultural organizations in the region.


The following are the strategies that Maynooth University will use to achieve its goals:

  1. Develop innovative and relevant degree programs that meet the needs of employers and society.
  2. Support faculty development, recruitment, and retention to ensure that Maynooth University maintains its position as a leading research institution.
  3. Expand research partnerships, collaborations and funding through strategic alliances with other universities, government and industry.
  4. Foster a culture of interdisciplinary research, linking research with teaching and learning, and research with community engagement.
  5. Promote a sense of community and belonging among the Maynooth University community through effective communication and engagement strategies.


Maynooth University is committed to providing a world-class education, conducting innovative research, and contributing to the social and economic development of communities. The strategic plan outlines the goals and strategies that the university will undertake to achieve its vision and mission. The university will continually review and update its strategies to ensure they are aligned with changes in the higher education landscape to maintain its standing as a leading institution of higher learning.

Into the Study Break

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , on March 11, 2023 by telescoper

So here we are, then. We’ve arrived at the half-term Study Break at Maynooth University. Six weeks of Semester 2 down, six to go. There are no lectures, labs or tutorials next week. It’s not actually a holiday, but the lack of teaching duties will enable me to catch up quite a few things I’ve let slip during term. It will also give me the chance to regroup and prepare for final assault on the second half of term.

The spell of freezing weather we’ve had recently has morphed into something a little warmer and a lot wetter. The light dusting of snow we had yesterday has dissolved in the torrential rain stotting against the windows as I write this piece. I’m waiting for a lull in the downpour so I can make a quick dash to the shops before returning to the comfort of my house for the rest of the day. The weather is coming in from the West today, and I spy a little gap heading my way:

Next Friday, March 17th, is of course, St Patrick’s Day, a national holiday in Ireland. I certainly hope the weather is better for the traditional parades on that day!

I’m glad of the arrival of this break, as I’ve been running on empty for the last several days, the fatigue exacerbated by a flare-up of the arthritis in my knees. On Thursday I had to kneel down next to one of the machines in the computer lab to fix something and I had considerable difficulty getting up again. Doctors say that there’s no reliable evidence that arthritis pain correlates with the weather, but in my case it does seem to come on when the weather changes, especially when it suddenly becomes cold or damp. I’ll be due for another steroid shot soon, which should help, and hopefully the weather will improve over the next few weeks. Possibly.

Anyway, the second half of term should be a lot easier than the first. For one thing, we have another break coming up three weeks in. Good Friday is on April 7th, so that is a holiday, as is the following week. Moreover, I usually only give lectures in Computational Physics for 9 of the 12 teaching weeks in the Semester, after which the students will be working on the mini-projects which form part of the assessment for this module.

P.S. It was on 11th March 2020 that the World Health Organization officially announced the Covid-19 pandemic and it was just before the corresponding Study Break that year that the University was closed and we went into lockdown. Can that really have been three years ago?

Most Exciting Aurora Pictures Ever!

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , on February 28, 2023 by telescoper

Last night offered spectacular views of the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) all over Ireland. I took these amazing pictures, which are among the best I’ve seen, in Maynooth, County Kildare. I know that to the untrained eye they look like ordinary clouds, but an expert such as myself can clearly see dynamic patterns of brilliant green grey that appear as curtains, rays, spirals, and flickers covering the entire sky. It was a stunning, once-in-a-lifetime experience to witness this dramatic cosmic spectacle!

Reflections on Exam Marking

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on January 21, 2023 by telescoper

At long last I’ve finished my marking my examination scripts. I’ve also entered the marks onto a spreadsheet and combined them with coursework so I’m almost done with this task. They just need one more check through and I can upload the results onto the system. in good time for next week’s departmental exam board meeting. It took a lot longer than I had anticipated because we have a big first-year class this year. So much for my New Year resolution not to work at weekends…

I’m a bit tired now so I thought I’d just rehash an excerpt from something I posted a while ago on the subject of examinations and what I believe to be the over-assessment of students at modern universities.

My feelings about examinations agree pretty much with William Wordsworth, who studied at the same University as me, as expressed in this quotation from The Prelude:

Of College labours, of the Lecturer’s room
All studded round, as thick as chairs could stand,
With loyal students, faithful to their books,
Half-and-half idlers, hardy recusants,
And honest dunces–of important days,
Examinations, when the man was weighed
As in a balance! of excessive hopes,
Tremblings withal and commendable fears,
Small jealousies, and triumphs good or bad–
Let others that know more speak as they know.
Such glory was but little sought by me,
And little won.

It seems to me a great a pity that our system of education – and not only at Third Level- places such a great emphasis on examination and assessment to the detriment of real learning. In particular, the biggest problem  with physics education in many institutions is the way modular degrees have been implemented.

I’m not at all opposed to modularization in principle. I just think the way we teach modules often fails to develop any understanding of the interconnection between different aspects of the subject. That’s an educational disaster because what is most exciting and compelling about physics is its essential unity. Splitting it into little boxes, taught on their own with no relationship to the other boxes, provides us with no scope to nurture the kind of lateral thinking that is key to the way physicists attempt to solve problems. The small size of each module makes the syllabus very “bitty” and fragmented. No sooner have you started to explore something at a proper level than the module is over. More advanced modules, following perhaps the following year, have to recap a large fraction of the earlier modules so there isn’t time to go as deep as one would like even over the whole curriculum.

Students in Maynooth take 60 “credits” in a year, split into two semesters. These are usually split into 5-credit modules with an examination at the end of each semester. The first-year module I teach is different, being 7.5 credits. Projects, and other continuously-assessed work do not involve a written examination, but the system means that a typical  student will have four or five written examination papers in January and another four or five in May. Each paper is usually of two hours’ duration.

One consequence of the way modularization has been implemented throughout the sector is that the ratio of assessment to education has risen sharply over time  with a negative effect on real understanding. The system encourages students to think of modules as little bite-sized bits of education to be consumed and then forgotten. Instead of learning to rely on their brains to solve problems, students tend to approach learning by memorizing chunks of their notes and regurgitating them in the exam. I find it very sad when students ask me what derivations they should memorize to prepare for examinations. A brain is so much more than a memory device. What we should be doing is giving students the confidence to think for themselves and use their intellect to its full potential rather than encouraging rote learning.

You can contrast this diet of examinations with the regime when I was an undergraduate. My entire degree result was based on six three-hour written examinations taken at the end of my final year, rather than something like 30 examinations taken over 3 years. Moreover, my finals were all in a three-day period.

Morning and afternoon exams for three consecutive days is an ordeal I wouldn’t wish on anyone, so I’m not saying the old days were better, but I do think we’ve gone far too far to the opposite extreme. The one good thing about the system I went through was that there was no possibility of passing examinations on memory alone. Since they were so close together there was no way of mugging up anything in between them. I only got through  by figuring things out in the exam room.

I don’t want to denigrate the achievements of students who are successful under the current system.  What I’m saying is that I don’t think the education we provide does justice to their talents. That’s our fault, not theirs…


Preparing for Exams

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , on December 14, 2022 by telescoper

Just time for a very quick post today to mark the fact that this afternoon I did my last lecture of the 2022 calendar year, a revision class on special relativity. I’ll be back to do further classes in January ahead of the examinations but that’s it for me until after Christmas. It’s been a very hectic term so I’m glad it’s almost over.

Thoughts are now turning to the exams, I ended today’s lecture with some tips about examinations as the January session will be the first most students have ever had at third level. The tips I passed on today included:

  1. Try to get a good night’s sleep before the examination and arrive in plenty of time before the start.
  2. Read the entire paper before starting to answer any questions. In particular, make sure you are aware of any supplementary information, formulae, etc, given in the rubric or at the end.
  3. Start off by tackling the question you are most confident about answering, even if it’s not Question 1. This will help settle any nerves.
  4. Don’t rush! Students often lose marks by making careless errors. Check all your numerical results on your calculator at least twice and – PLEASE – remember to put the units!
  5. Don’t panic! You’re not expected to answer everything perfectly. A first-class mark is anything over 70%, so don’t worry if there are bits you can’t do. If you get stuck on a part of a question, don’t waste too much time on it (especially if it’s just a few marks). Just leave it and move on. You can always come back to it later.

Readers of this blog are welcome to add other tips through the comments box below!

Teaching and Fourier Series

Posted in Education, mathematics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on December 1, 2022 by telescoper

Now as we approach the last fortnight of term, I am nearing the end of both my modules, MP110 Mechanics 1 and Special Relativity and MP201 Vector Calculus and Fourier Series, and in each case am about to start the bit following the “and”…

In particular, having covered just about everything I need to do on Vector Calculus for MP201, tomorrow I start doing a block of lectures on Fourier Series. I have to wait until Monday to start doing Special Relativity with the first years.

As I have observed periodically, the two topics mentioned in the title of the module MP201 (Vector Calculs and Fourier Series) are not disconnected, but are linked via the heat equation, the solution of which led Joseph Fourier to devise his series in Mémoire sur la propagation de la chaleur dans les corps solides (1807), a truly remarkable work for its time that inspired so many subsequent developments.

Anyway I was looking for nice demonstrations of Fourier series to help my class get to grips with them when I remembered this little video recommended to me some time ago by esteemed Professor George Ellis. It’s a nice illustration of the principles of Fourier series, by which any periodic function can be decomposed into a series of sine and cosine functions.

This reminds me of a point I’ve made a few times in popular talks about astronomy. It’s a common view that Kepler’s laws of planetary motion according to which which the planets move in elliptical motion around the Sun, is a completely different formulation from the previous Ptolemaic system which involved epicycles and deferents and which is generally held to have been much more complicated.

The video demonstrates however that epicycles and deferents can be viewed as the elements used in the construction of a Fourier series. Since elliptical orbits are periodic, it is perfectly valid to present them in the form a Fourier series. Therefore, in a sense, there’s nothing so very wrong with epicycles. I admit, however, that a closed-form expression for such an orbit is considerably more compact and elegant than a Fourier representation, and also encapsulates a deeper level of physical understanding. What makes for a good physical theory is, in my view, largely a matter of economy: if two theories have equal predictive power, the one that takes less chalk to write it on a blackboard is the better one!

Five Years in Maynooth!

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , on December 1, 2022 by telescoper

It is 1st December 2022, which means that it’s five years to the day since I started work at Maynooth University. So much has happened in that period it seems very much longer since I first arrived here.
I’m very happy that I made the move here all those years ago. I won’t deny that the past five years have had their frustrations. The teaching and administrative workload, especially for the three years I was Head of Department, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, has been very heavy and has made it difficult to be very active in research.
Last year was a particularly tough year for the Department of Theoretical Physics, when we were forced to teach a whole year with only half the usual number of full-time teaching staff. It was very depressing not being able to deliver as a good a teaching experience as we wanted without the necessary resources. There never seems to be any shortage of funds for new senior management positions but not for the staff who actually perform the main function of a University.
Fortunately our immediate staffing problem has passed and we now have our usual number of lecturers in place. I was entitled to take a sabbatical when I reached the end of my term as Head of Department, but I deferred it because I didn’t want to leave my colleagues short-staffed again before the ship was properly steadied. I will put in a request in January to take it in 2023/24. If anyone out there feels like playing host to an old cosmologist please let me know!
On the bright side, I have great colleagues in the Department and the students are very engaged. There are few things in life more rewarding than teaching people who really want to learn. This year so far has been particularly enjoyable, if tiring because we have a large first year. I have also acquired two more PhD students and a Research Masters student.
The thing I’m probably most proud of over the past five years is, with the huge help of staff at Maynooth University Library, getting the Open Journal of Astrophysics off the ground and attracting some excellent papers. We’re still growing, though perhaps not as quickly as I’d hoped. The pandemic had something to do with that.
So, after a few years of hard and at times dispiriting slog, things are going pretty well. Meanwhile, in Brexit Britain, events have turned out exactly as I predicted, especially this:
Brexit will also doom the National Health Service and the UK university system, and clear the way for the destruction of workers’ rights and environmental protection. The poor and the sick will suffer, while only the rich swindlers who bought the referendum result will prosper. The country in which I was born, and in which I have lived for the best part of 54 years, is no longer something of which I want to be a part.
In other words I don’t regret for one minute my decision to leave Britain. Incidentally, five years is the term needed to qualify for Irish nationality by residence so if I had needed to I could now apply via that route.
I noticed looking at the similar post I wrote on this day last year that academic colleagues in the UK were on strike on that day. They are still taking industrial action, and indeed were on strike yesterday. My biggest fear for the Irish Higher Education system is that it follows the “business model” of soulless teaching factories with courses delivered by demoralized staff on casual teaching contracts. Things are definitely going that way here and this trend must be resisted.