Tag 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 (He also has a side interest in the history of science, and was one of the first people I turned to in our studies of unpublished Einstein manuscripts.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!)

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The main conference hall at the Royal Irish Academy

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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…

Update

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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Freeman Dyson and the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies

On Monday, I attended the Statutory Lecture of the School of Theoretical Physics of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS). This is an outreach lecture presented annually by DIAS and this year the lecture took place at University College Dublin. Better known abroad than at home, the Institute has a long and distinguished history of world-class research in fundamental areas of physics (see here), so it was entirely appropriate that the statutory lecture was given by Freeman Dyson, renowned physicist and Professor of Physics at the famous Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, the college on which DIAS is modeled.

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Freeman Dyson at the DIAS lecture on Monday night  

The title of Freeman’s lecture was  “Are Brains Analog or Digital?” and the abstract is below:

We know that creatures like us have two separate systems for processing information, the genome and the brain. We know that the genome is digital, and we can accurately transcribe our genomes onto digital machines. We cannot transcribe our brains, and the processing of information in our brains is still a great mystery. I will be talking about real brains and real people, asking a question that will have practical consequences when we are able to answer it. I am not able to answer it now. All I can do is to examine the evidence and explain why I consider it probable that the answer will be that brains are analog.

I won’t give more details as Professor Dyson will publish his paper on the subject quite soon. Suffice it to say that tickets for the lecture sold out days in advance and there was quite a buzz on the night. Freeman held the audience spellbound, reading from his paper without the benefit of a single slide.  One could gauge the interest generated from the huge number and variety of questions afterwards. That said, I couldn’t help noticing that the Irish media took no interest whatsoever in the occasion – one wonders if a world-famous  musician or celebrity chef would be similarly ignored.

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Professor Dyson with staff from the School of Theoretical Physics at DIAS: Werner Nahm (Senior Professor and Director ), Arthur Jaffe (Professor of Mathematics at Harvard and Chairman of the board), Freeman Dyson, Vincent Cunnane (Chair of DIAS Council) and Cecil Keaveney (Registrar)

After the lecture, some of us retired to a nearby hotel where Professor Dyson and his wife regaled us with stories from his long and interesting career. Freeman was a close colleague of my late father and was instrumental in bringing Lochlainn and the rest of our family to the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton many years ago (after this, Lochlainn returned to Ireland to take up a position at DIAS). So it was great to encounter Professor Dyson once again, this time as an adult! Not to mention that Freeman has fascinating and original views on a wide range of topics; from space travel to climate science, he remains a truly deep and original thinker.

Update

The day after the lecture, staff and friends of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies were treated to a private recital by the well-known Irish pianist Hugh Tinney. The connection is that Hugh’s late mother, Professor Sheila Tinney, was an accomplished mathematician who spent time at Princeton IAS and studied with Professor Dyson (Hugh himself studied maths at Trinity College Dublin before deciding on a career in music and was in the audience for Freeman’s lecture).

It was an extraordinary occasion. Hugh played beautifully and each piece was prefaced with a short discussion of the interface of mind, memory and music. The intimate setting made for one of the most exciting concerts I have experienced, far more fun than a formal venue such as the National Concert Hall. It didn’t hurt that the programme included three of my all-time favourite works, Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata,  Schubert’s G major Impromptu and *that* Nocturne by John Field (no.5 in B flat). The recital also had a special significance for me as it took place in the Organ Room of the Royal Irish Academy of Music, a venue I spent a great deal of time in as a young music student.

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Each piece was prefaced by a discussion of the role of mind in music

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Hugh Tinney presenting his latest CD to Professor Dyson

After the recital, we retired to dinner in a nearby restaurant. As you can imagine, one subject of conversation was the mysterious connection between maths and music. I have heard one explanation for this strange phenomenon: “People who are good at maths are good at most things!”

P.S. A video of Freeman’s lecture is now available on the DIAS website.

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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..

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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!

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

Update

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

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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.

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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!

Update

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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Last day at Cambridge Infinities Conference

Today was the third and last day of the ‘Infinities and Cosmology’ conference at Cambridge (there is also a workshop tomorrow, see website). Yesterday saw quite a heavy schedule, with part II of George Ellis’s ‘Infinites of Age and Size Including Global Topological Issues’, part II of Anthony Aguirre’s ‘Infinite and Finite State Spaces’ and part II of Michael Douglas’s ‘Can We Test the String Theory Landscape?’ (see previous post for an outline of these topics). We also had a fairly technical talk on ‘Singularities and Cosmic Censorship in General Relativity’ by the Cambridge mathematician Mihalis Dafermos: nuts-and-bolts talks like these are great for non-relativists like me because you get to see the mathematical tools used in GR research.

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The logo for the Infinities in Cosmology conference; an artist’s impression of small universes

Today saw part II of Mihalis’s talk and the lecture ‘Infinite Computations and Spacetime’ by Mark Hogarth, a fascinating exploration of new methods of computation by exploiting relativistic spacetime . I won’t attempt to summarize either, but the lectures should soon be available on the conference website.

For me, the highlight of the day was the talk ‘At Home and At Sea in an Infinite Universe: Newtonian and Machian Theories of Motion’ by Simon Saunders,  the well-known Oxford physicist and philosopher of physics. This was a superb discussion of Newton’s cosmology, in particular the paradox of gravitational instability in the Newtonian universe of infinite size and absolute, fixed space. Did Newton realize that our solar system might possess a net acceleration, or did he assume that external gravitational forces somehow cancel out? Drawing on material from Newton’s Principia and his ‘System of the World’,  Professor Saunders argued that Newton assumed the latter, though whether he attributed such a delicate cosmic balancing act to divine intervention or to unknown forces is not clear. (The possibility of a theological argument is not so fanciful as this work was the first mathematical attempt to try to describe the universe as a whole). Later, Professor Saunders suggested that it is likely Newton declined to spend too much time on the question simply because it was untestable.

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Newton’s famous Principia

There were many other interesting points in this fascinating lecture. Viewing the slides shown from Newton’s Principia, I was struck by the equivalence drawn again and again between bodies at rest and in uniform motion. This anticipates Einstein’s special theory of relativity and is again slightly in conflict with Newton’s assumption of a fixed, absolute space, as Simon pointed out. All this hints at a possible difference in Newton’s philosophy towards the universe at large versus motion on local scales – ironic as he was the first scientist to unite terrestrial and celestial motion in a single framework. I won’t comment further, but the lecture left one eager to read Simon’s recent paper on the subject.

All in all, a superb conference. It was interesting that, even with such distinguished speakers, moderators observed time limits strictly in order to allow plenty of time for questions and comments after the talks. In some ways, this was the best part; it’s not often one gets to hear to-and-fro arguments between scientists like John Barrow, George Ellis, Julian Babour and Simon Saunders, in the lecture theatre and over coffee.

Speaking of coffee, one of the best aspects of the conference was the venue. Cambridge’s Department of Applied and Theoretical Physics forms part of its Centre for Mathematical Sciences and is housed in a lovely modern open-plan building, with the smell of coffee and scones wafting throughout the atrium. What other mathematics institute can boast such a setup?  Not DIAS, I’m afraid. Indeed, I’m writing this post in the quiet atrium/canteen (no annoying background music – that wouldn’t be tolerated here). However, I’ve just realised that we are now finished for the day, so I’m off to do some sight-seeing at last.

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The main atrium in the Center for Mathematical Sciences is one big coffee shop, perfect for group discussions of physics, philosophy and mathematics

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The Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics forms part of the Centre for Mathematical Sciences at Cambridge

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Mid-term in Chamonix

Last week was mid-term and I had a few days skiing in Chamonix in the French Alps. Chamonix lies in the shadow of Mont Blanc, the highest of the Alpine peaks, and the area is famous for its challenging snowsports and mountain climbing. It was surprisingly easy to get to (1 hr 30 mins from Geneva airport) and the skiing certainly didn’t disappoint.

I stayed with my brother and his family in a tiny chalet in Les Praz, a small village just outside the town of Chamonix. The great advantage of this village is that it offers easy access to La Flègere, a large ski area on the opposite side of the valley to the crowds at Chamonix. We had one day’s skiing out of Flegère, another at Argentière, the next resort along the valley, and the final day at Le Tour, further down the valley again.

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The village of Les Praz in Chamonix

The skiing was great in each case; lots of snow, steep pistes  and clear skies almost every afternoon. An extra thrill was the fact that one could ski over the Swiss border and have lunch in Switzerland. Of the three resorts, Flegère was my favourite; plenty of trees, nice unpisted runs under the lifts and not too many people.

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The lonely skier

That said, I retain my preference for skiing in Austria. One reason is that, like many French resorts, Chamonix has relatively few gondolas, a large number of button lifts  and uncovered chairlifts. Button lifts are quite tiring on the feet after a while, while exposed chairlifts can get very cold – a concern at altitudes above 1500 m where the midday temperature is often below -10 degrees Celsius. In Austria, almost all the main resorts have installed a healthy distribution of small, efficient gondolas and covered chairlifts (in the latter case, the chairs are heated by solar panels in the plastic cover). There were also far fewer restaurants and cafes on the Chamonix slopes, which I found quite surprising for such a famous resort (coffee breaks are important for the tired skier). So while the French are justifiably proud of their resorts, I still prefer Austria!

All in all a very good ski holiday, highly recommended…

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