Category Archives: Third level

A Night at the Academy Awards

I spent a most enjoyable evening last week at the Royal Irish Academy. Ireland’s premier learned society, the Academy is an all-Ireland body that promotes excellence in the sciences and the humanities, fostering links between ‘the two cultures’. Membership of the Academy is considered a high honour amongst Ireland’s academics, and former members include eminent Irish intellectuals such as William Rowan Hamilton,  Ernest Walton, Seamus Heaney and W.B. Yeats.

I was there to witness the awarding of this year’s  RIA Gold Medals for outstanding research. The medals were presented to Professor Werner Nahm, for his seminal work in theoretical physics and to Professor Desmond Clarke, for his research in the history and philosophy of science in the 17th century.  I was pleased but not surprised at Werner’s award; his research has already been recognized with  several international prizes, not least the famous Planck Medal of the German Physical Society. As Director as the School of Theoretical Physics at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS), Werner plays a key role in mathematics and physics in Ireland. (He also has a side interest in the history of science, and was one of the first people I turned to in our studies of unpublished Einstein manuscripts. In fact, Werner recently showed me a hardcopy of a little-known book at DIAS by Albert Einstein, published only in French, with annotation in the margins by the late Eamonn de Valera – all very much in keeping with the interdisciplinary spirit of the Academy!)


The main conference hall at the Royal Irish Academy


The library at the Royal Irish Academy

The evening was most enjoyable, with erudite professors of science and the humanities intermingling in the Academy’s beautiful premises on Dawson Street in Dublin – indeed part of the remit of the Academy is the promotion of links between the two disciplines. The ceremony included speeches from Jan O’ Sullivan , our Minister for Education, and  Tom Boland, director of the Higher Education Authority.

One surprise was that the event did not include acceptance speeches by the awardees. This seemed strange, given the prestige of the RIA medals (imagine a Nobel award without the speech). One would have liked to hear the recipients describe their research, thank colleagues, and comment on the challenges of academia. In particular, I thought it was a pity that there was no opportunity for two highly distinguished academics to respond to the speeches of the Minister for Education or the Director of the HEA. For example, I suspect Werner would have liked to comment on the current lack of funding for research in basic science and its impact on the study of mathematics and theoretical physics in Ireland (and on his Institute).  I have never met Professor Clarke, but it would have been most interesting to hear his views on the challenges faced by historians in Ireland.

All in all, a most enjoyable occasion. I was disappointed that the event attracted almost no media coverage afterwards, despite the presence of several press photographers on the night. Perhaps the occasion was deemed too intellectual by news editors –  what is a lifetime’s achievement in academia compared with latest adventures of Roy Keane…


There is a short article describing the event in the Weekend section of The Irish Times. However, it’s easy to miss as there are no  photographs and there doesn’t seem to be an online version.

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Academics and their holidays

Last week, I returned to the snow world for the first time in a long while. The college teaching semester starts on Monday 12th, and I managed to get my corrections done over Christmas, leaving a precious few days over. I had intended going to a conference on relativity and spacetime in Israel, but in the end I decided I was more in need of a few days holiday, not to mention some exercise!
‘Tis well for some,you might say, and indeed it is. For those who can, the week after New Year is a very good time for a snow holiday – cheaper and less crowded (and little danger of being stranded in airports). That said, I recently worked out that, during the teaching semester, I work an average 20 hours unpaid overtime per week in comparison with my previous 9-5 job . This isn’t particularly unusual for an academic involved in research but it’s important to take a break sometime to recharge the batteries.

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The village of Fieberbrunn in Tirol and neighbouring gondola

This year, I bought a last-minute package with Crystalski to Fieberbrunn, a little known resort in Tirol, Austria. The village is only a few kilometres away from the well-known resorts of St Johann and Kitzbuehel, but so far undiscovered by English-speaking tourists. I signed up for a few advanced sessions with the local ski school – skiing is a highly technical sport and one can always learn a great deal from Austrian ski instructors (not to mention hearing some German). Sure enough, we spent several days trying to absorb tips on posture from Ottmar F., a leading free-rider and scarily qualified instructor from these parts. Best of all, the course concentrated on some gentle off-piste skiing, always my weak spot.


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Off-piste with Ottmar- then back to the piste at last

It’s not the easiest of holidays – each day, I would return exhausted to the hotel and spend an hour recuperating in the pool, before doing some study in the evenings. I was happy enough to hand back transceiver and avalanche pack yesterday, that’s enough exercise for a while!
Best of all, I got the guts of my next paper written during the week – an essay on Einstein’s philosophy of cosmology for the upcoming Oxford/Cambridge compendium on the philosophy of cosmology. Not for the first time, I notice that I get more work done when I stay away from the office…

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Summer hols; summer school, swimming and that book

You must be finished for the summer? Like most academics, I get asked this question every day in summer, usually by village acquaintances convinced that college closes the day the students finish their exams.

Some lecturers in the Institutes of Technology do indeed take off from June 20th to September 1st; that is their right, given the heavy teaching load during termtime. However, for those of us who try to keep up the research, the summer months are the time to get something done, just like our colleagues in the universities.

For me, this is no chore  – the sheer bliss of being able to do quiet research without classes, meetings, staff interactions and all the rest of it. Very restful. Also, we’re having a serious heatwave in Ireland this month and I’m happy to escape to the cool, quiet office every day. So I plug away happily during the day and treat myself to a swim in my village in the evenings..


Tide’s in on Lawlor’s Strand in Dunmore East

Actually, I did give some ‘cameo’ lectures this week and last, to our summer school. We have a very nice bunch of engineering, computing and business students visiting from Kiel in Germany, and I had fun trying to condense my climate science course down to a one-hour presentation for each group. I haven’t given short presentations on climate before, it was very satisfying to prepare (see here for a copy of the talk)  The other thing I noticed was that students from the continent always seem to be very mature, polite and interested. I must look into an exchange sometime, do they have Erasmus for staff?

My main task this summer is to finish my little book on cosmology. It’s based on a course I have taught for some years and it’s been a lot of fun to write. Now I’m finding that it’s one thing to write a book and quite another to get it published! Still, I have plenty of time now to be writing book proposals and writing to publishers. In the meantime, I look forward to a swim in the sea everyday after work and a walk into the village. It’s funny to live in a village where others come for summer holidays!


Tide’s out on Lawlor’s Strand in Dunmore East


Unfortunately it’s so warm, we’re beginning to get quite a few jellyfish. Hope it cools down a little next week!


Filed under Teaching, Third level

Day II at Oxford

Today was the second day of the  Cosmology and Quantum Foundations  conference, a symposium that forms part of the  Establishing the Philosophy of Cosmology project at Cambridge and Oxford.


The workshop this morning started with a fascinating talk by Douglas Spolyar  on a model of cosmic inflation that predicts that inflation could happen at relatively low energies. The big advantage of such models that they are testable at the TeV energies, i.e., at accelerators such as the LHC; I need to read the paper before I comment further, but all the talks will soon be available on the conference website.

Laura Mersini then gave a talk on evidence for the multiverse post-Planck. This was a discussion of her thesis that the multiverse should in principle be detectable in the cosmic microwave background because of the phenomena of quantum entanglement and decoherence. She then discussed how in her view the Planck data offers support for the model in terms of the cold spot, the dark flow and other effects. It was a good thorough lecture and I understood a lot more than I did at the Cambridge conference on the philosophy of cosmology last March.  Of course, not all cosmologists agree with her thesis and there was plenty of lively discussion from the audience – as an experimentalist, I really like the way theoreticians constantly challenge each other  during their talks, it’s very interactive!

In the afternoon , it was back to the conference proper for ‘Probability and the multiverse: an Everettian view’, the second installment of Simon Saunder’s discussion of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum theory. I found this a lot more challenging than Monday’s talk, I really need to brush up on my reading on many-worlds. Max Tegmark then gave a talk on ‘Thermodynamics, information and consciousness in a quantum multiverse’, a discussion that was  full of interesting insights and provocative ideas. A central theme of his is that entropy does not always increase, but can in fact decrease on observation. I have heard this idea before but I’ve never been clear whether it is an argument that pertains to entropy as a state of information about a system, or whether it is literally true of physical entropy.  I wanted to ask this at question time, and how one might test the hypothesis,  but time ran out.

[Update: I asked Max this question over coffee. I think the answer is yes to physical entropy and he suggested an experiment that could test the idea; unfortunately, I understood about 5% of what he said, I need to read up on this!]

The last speaker of the day was Carlo Rovelli, who spoke on a new interpretation of quantum theory known as the relationary view, a hypothesis  he put forward in the 1990s. This interpretation of qt  imports a lot of ideas from special relativity, in particular applying the idea of the reference frame of the observer to the measurement problem. Thus, instead of talking about wavefunctions that collapse into one state or another, one has to consider that measurements of systems are made relative to another system – it is the relation between the systems that counts. It was fascinating to hear a description of this intriguing new idea from its creator, and tomorrow he will explain how the new theory gives a description of  quantum gravity. [Writing this, I seem to remember that one of Schrodinger’s own objections to the notion of collapsing wavefunctions involved the problem of observations of the same object from different reference frames, must look this up]

After all that, it was time for the conference dinner. I was lucky enough to be at the same table as Carlo, who is also  the author of the highly regarded book ‘The First Scientist: Anaximander and His Legacy’ and we had a great discussion on the history of science. I have never met a physicist who is not interested in the history of our subject – how things were found out is almost as interesting as the things themselves!

As a bonus, the an after-dinner talk was given by Max Tegmark who posed an intriguing question; what if mathematics is a useful way of describing nature simply because nature *is* mathematics? This question was  first raised by Pythagoras, and Max gave an extremely interesting talk on the subject. So much so that I finally realised who he reminds me of – Richard Feynman!


I had a quick walk under the Bridge of Sighs before dinner

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Filed under Cosmology (general), Third level

A day in the life

There is a day-in-the life profile of me in today’s Irish Times, Ireland’s newspaper of record. I’m very pleased with it, I like the title  – Labs, lectures and luring young people into scence  – and the accompanying photo, it looks like I’m about to burst into song! This is a weekly series where an academic describes their working week, so I give a day-to-day description of the challenge of balancing teaching and research at my college Waterford Institute of Technology in Ireland.


Is this person singing?

There is quite  a lot of discussion in Ireland at the moment concerning the role of  institutes of technology vs that of universities. I quite like the two-tier system – the institutes function like polytechnics and tend to be smaller and offer more practical programmes than the universities. However, WIT is something of an anomaly – because it  is the only third level college in a largeish city and surrounding area, it has been functioning rather like a university for many years (i.e. has a very broad range of programmes, quite high entry points and is reasonably research-active). The college is currently being considered for technological university status, but many commentators oppose the idea of an upgrade – there are fears of a domino effect amongst the other 12 institutes, giving Ireland far too many universities.

It’s hard to know the best solution but I’m not complaining – I like the broad teaching portfolio of the IoTs, and there is a lot to be said for a college where you do research if you want to, not because you have to!


I had originally said that the institutes cater for a ‘slightly lower level of student’. Oops! This is simply not true in the case of WIT, given the entry points for many of the courses I teach, apologies Jamie and Susie. Again, I think the points are a reflection of the fact that WIT has been functioning rather like a university simply because of where it is.

Comments on the article are on the Irish Times page

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Resistors in series and parallel

In the last post, we saw that for many materials, the electric current I through a device is proportional to the voltage V applied to it, and inversely proportional its resistance, i.e. I = V/R (Ohm’s law). If there is more than one device (or resistor) in a circuit, the current through each also depends on how the resistors are connected, i.e., whether they are connected in series or in parallel.

In a series circuit (below), the resistors are connected one after the other (just as in a TV series, one watches one episode after another). The same current runs through each device since there is no alternative path or branch, i.e.  I = I1 = I2. From V = IR, we see the voltage across each device will be different; in fact, the largest voltage drop will be across the largest resistance (just as the largest energy drop occurs across the largest waterfall in a river). The total voltage in a series circuit is the sum of the individual voltages, i.e. V = V1+V2. As you might expect, the total resistance (or load) of the circuit is the simply the sum of the individual resistances, R = R1 + R2.


Series circuit: the current is the same in each lamp while there may be a different voltage drop across each (V = V1+V2 +V3)

On the other hand, resistors in a circuit can be connected in parallel (see below). In this case, each device is connected directly to the terminals of the voltage source and therefore experiences the same voltage (V = V1=V2). Since I = V/R , there will be a different current through each device (unless they happen to be of equal resistance) .The total current in a parallel circuit is the sum of the individual currents, i.e. I = I1+I2. A strange aspect of parallel circuits is that the total resistance of the circuit is lowered as you add in more devices (1/R = 1/r1 + 1/r2). The physical reason is that you are increasing the number of alternate paths the current can take.


Parallel circuit: the voltage is the same across each lamp but the currents may be different (I = I1+I2)

Confusing? The simple rule is that in a series circuit, the current is everywhere the same because there are no branches. On the other hand, devices connected in parallel see an identical voltage. In everyday circuits, electrical devices such as kettles, TVs and computers are connected in parallel to each other because it is safer if each device sees the same voltage source; it also turns out to be more efficient from the point of view of power consumption (an AC voltage is used, more on this later).

In the lab, circuits often contain some devices connected in series, others in parallel. In order to calculate the current through a given device, redraw the circuit with any resistors in parallel replaced with the equivalent resistance in series, and analyse the resulting series circuit.



Assuming a resistance of 100 Ohms for each of the resistors in the combination circuit above, calculate the total resistance of the circuit. If a DC voltage of 12 V is applied, calculate the current in the circuit. (Ans: 133 Ω, 0.09 A)


Filed under Teaching, Third level

End of semester

This week is one of my favourites in the college timetable. The teaching semester finished last Friday and the hapless students are now starting their Christmas exams. It’s time to empty out the teaching briefcase and catch up on research…


Examtime in college

I recently compiled a list of this semseter’s research and outreach and was pleasantly surprised – three conference presentations, two academic papers and eight public lectures , not to mention a couple of science articles and book reviews in The Irish Times (see here for presentations and here for articles).

All of this is on top of an 18-hour teaching week, which adds up to a lot of late nights. I’ve been arguing for years that the workload in the Institutes of Technology should be more flexible; it’s very difficult to do any meaningful research if you’re teaching 18 hours a week. Another challenge is that most lecturers in the IoT sector are 3-4 to an office, with consequent staff interactions, phone calls and students coming to the door. As a result, a great many lecturers simply stop doing research, which is a terrible waste and hardly ideal for a college that teaches to degree level and beyond. I often think that, far from enhancing ‘productivity’, work practices in the IoT sector mitigate strongly against good teaching and research at third level.

In my case, I stay in college most evenings until 9 pm. That said, I enjoy the research – as I say to my students, if you find a job you truly like, you’ll never work a day in your life!

I’m particularly pleased with my recent paper on the discovery of the expanding universe. It’s my first foray into the history of cosmology, and it has already got quite a bit of attention,  thanks to a very nice conference in Arizona. I very nearly didn’t go to this conference because of teaching commitments; now I’m glad I did as it was a lot of fun and the paper has opened quite a few doors. These days, I turn down far more opportunities than I accept, it may finally be time to consider an academic move.


Slipher’s telescope at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona


Meanwhile, rumours continue to circulate in the media concerning the prospect of our college being turned into a technological university. This would certainly be a welcome development, especially if it meant reduced teaching for those engaged in research, but I’d be quite surprised. WIT has been very successful at attracting research funding in certain areas, but research activity per academic is quite low in our college in comparison with the university sector. I don’t see how we could qualify as a university without bringing in quite a lot of new research-active staff , a buy-in for which there is no money whatsoever; hopefully I’m wrong on this.

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