End of semester and the beginning of a new era

Friday marked the last teaching day of the semester at WIT and it also marked the last day of our college as an Institute of Technology. Today sees the first working day of the college as a constituent college of a new entity, the South East Technological University.

There has been plenty of talk in the media about the wisdom (or not) of the upgrading of the Institutes of Technology in Ireland to the status of Technological Universities. I’m not sure I have anything to add to this, except to say that my understanding of the term Technological University is that it will allow the college to continue to offer Certificates and Diplomas in practical subjects, and courses in trades, as well as the undergraduate and postgraduate degrees of a traditional university. I should also say that, as a blown-in from Dublin, it is easy to understand the desire of citizens of Waterford and the region to have a university in the region. There is a marked flight of students from the southeast to universities in the larger cities, never to return, a brain-drain that is compounded by the difficulties in attracting industry to a region. From that perspective, the designation of university status can only be a good thing.

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When I first arrived at Waterford Regional Technical College in 1996, there was much talk of the college being upgraded, following the upgrade of NIHE Limerick and NIHE Dublin to university status, as WRTC had a good reputation for its degrees in science, business and computing as well as unusually high research activity (for an RTC).  Sure enough, after several external reviews and a lengthy process, the college was redesignated an Institute of Technology, a new entity on the educational landscape in Ireland. This was seen as important recognition for the college at the time; however, within a year, all the RTCs had been similarly upgraded (not least because it became an election issue for politicians in each region).

Something similar transpired at the next stage. Over the next few years, WIT underwent innumerable external reviews, almost all of which recommended that it should be granted full university status. However, the idea did not receive a warm welcome at the HEA, which decided instead to amalgamate various IoTs and redesignate them technological universities. Ironically, Waterford (now amalgamated with IT Carlow as the South East Technological University), was one of the last of these upgrades, although it was almost certainly responsible for kick-starting the process.

Overall, I think the new designation is probably a positive thing. It is undoubtedly true that having a local university will make it easier to attract industry to the region, and help to slow the brain-drain of young people to the larger cities. My main concern is that there has been very little information from the HEA on the nuts and bolts of the change, notably on how the change will impact staff contracts. For example, staff on the standard Lecturer grade in the IoTs are currently contracted to be in class 16 hours a week (this typically means teaching 4 different modules). This teaching load is perfectly acceptable for a teaching college, but is far above the norm for universities where staff are expected to be active in research. Indeed, the difficulty in carrying out meaningful research on top of a heavy teaching load has long been a problem in the IoT sector; hopefully the new designation will see some improvement in this area.

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St Patrick’s Day in Austria

I thought I’d take advantage of this year’s double-bank holiday for Patrick’s Day to get away from it all, so I’m back in Austria once again – this time in Bad Hofgastein, one of several beautiful small towns in the famous Gastein valley.

It’s another great Austrian ski resort, plenty of variety with lovely pistes above and below the treeline and easy connections to the neighbouring resorts of Angelet and Bad Gastein. There seem to be far more skiers here from Austria and Germany than from the UK, always the sign of a local treasure. The weather has been fine most days and, more importantly, the snow cover is as good as one can expect in March.

Lunch on St Patrick’s day – not a parade in sight!

I had a great few days – my only complaint is that although the resort boasts quite a few ‘ski-touring ‘ routes, the off-piste skiing was in fact very challenging. This is because it hasn’t snowed in 3 weeks, so anywhere unprepared had quite a hard crust. In addition, there are v few snowbaorders around, a community I rely on when I’m looking for company on a mad jaunt!

One of the few doable off-piste tracks – enjoyed this one!

Last lift of the day.

By contrast, the snow on-piste is quite mushy and slow in the afternoons. I quite like this sort of snow, although a lot of people complain about it (one suspects many of them never learnt how to absorb the bumps).

For the anoraks ; as always for spring snow, I hired flexible soft skis with twin tips. Popular with free-stylers in the snow park, these skis are also really handy in soft lumpy snow, perfect for short, flexible turns close to the fall line as the main pistes turn into mogul fields late in the afternoon!

All in all, a great break, I’ll be back.

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Mid-term in Tirol

Now that the Covid threat appears to be receding, I took advantage of the mid-term break to take my first ski trip in quite a few years. I grabbed the last seat on a cheap ‘n cheerful package holiday to Niederau, a small village in Tirol.

It’s been an excellent week, plenty of snow and good weather, yet not too many people on the slopes. Niederau is a pretty small resort anyway, but I suspect the ski season is pretty quiet this year because of travel hesistancy due to Covid.

I’ve been in Niederau once before and it’s just as I remember it. Lots of nice runs, not too many people; lovely old fashioned hotel with a swimming pool that seems to be open 24 hours.

I learnt to ski as a child, so I do a few hours work in the mornings while others are at ski school, and head out to the slopes in the afternoon. Hard to beat as a holiday!

Had this run to myself all day, found it hard to leave

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Why don’t third-level colleges postpone the second semester until February?

Like many third-level colleges in Ireland, WIT is set to resume face-to-face teaching next week. Thus the college will begin the second semester of the academic year at a time when the Covid infection rate is running at over 20,000 a day, surely close to peak Omicron. To be sure, there is little question that online learning is a poor substitute for face-to-face teaching – but the obvious solution is to delay the second semester for a few weeks, rather than put the health of many thousands of staff and students at unnecessary risk. One wonders why colleges have not explored this option.

It’s not as if postponing the onset of the second college semester would impose a great hardship on students. In many countries, a long break after the first semester exams is the norm in third level colleges. Indeed, I recall a great deal of talk about a long break in January when semesterization was first introduced to third level colleges in Ireland, although it never materialized.

Perhaps the problem lies at the other end of the semester. It’s hard to see why ending lectures in May rather than April would pose an insurmountable problem. Yet, one suspects this is indeed the problem. It seems to be an inviolable law of academia that all college lectures must cease in April. I’ve never quite understood this law, although I must admit I don’t question it much; given the heavy teaching loads during the semester, almost all research is done outside the teaching weeks. But why the college as a whole must grind to a halt in April, irrespective of exceptional circumstances, is far from clear.

All in all, it seems that an opportunity for colleges to show flexibility during a difficult period has been missed. No doubt, politicians and college managements will claim inflexibility on the side of the teaching unions, while the unions will retort that no suggestion of a delay was put to them. Whatever the reason, college staff and students across the country face a daunting term with a high probability of infection, not to mention teaching classes that are severely depleted by both infections and close contacts.  

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Last day of the hols

Today marked the last day of our college Christmas break. I must say I quite enjoyed spending the break up here in Kilternan, Dublin, despite the scary onset of yet another variant of COVID-19.

One welcome surprise was that a paper I had undertaken to write (for a NASA anthology on astronomical testing of Einstein’s theories) turned out to be very satisfying and took much less time to write than I expected. Sometimes procrastination is a good thing, I suspect my subconscious had been hard at work during the teaching semester! In any event, the article was pretty much all there once I sat down at the keyboard.

Another welcome surprise was that the weather has been unusually mild for this time of year, allowing for plenty of tennis and even some surfing. Like many people, I haven’t been willing to take the risk of a ski holiday while Covid is still on the rampage and I really miss the snow. That said, I have been cutting down on ski holidays quite a bit in recent years – even without taking the flights into account, it is not the most environment-friendly of sports. Instead, I’ve been trying to replace skiing with surfing – quite a sacrifice as I’m not a very good surfer at all!

Surfing at Magharamor beach last weekend

Contrary to popular opinion, there is quite a decent surf beach just south of Dublin, I’ve been trekking down there with my longboard quite a few times recently. It’s true the conditions tend to oscillate from slightly too small to far too wild, but it’s all good exercise. That said, I really need to get myself a warmer wetsuit for the winter.

All in all, a very enjoyable break. And a change is as good as a rest – I’m quite looking forward to going back to college tomorrow to collect my exam scripts and make a start on correcting. But I’m certainly not looking forward to resuming face-to-face lecturing on Jan 14th. It seems crazy that, even in the face of a resurgent global pandemic, college management and the teacher’s union couldn’t agree to start the second semester a month later, just this once.

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Response to Covid-19 and climate change: a remarkable divergence

This article appeared in The Irish Times on 30th September 2021

As the year 2021 progressed, a remarkable divergence between the global response to the Covid-19 pandemic and to climate change became ever more apparent.
Considering Covid-19 first, there is little question that the tide has turned in this war. The use of selective lockdowns, masking and social distancing measures followed by widespread vaccination dramatically slowed the spread of the disease. Indeed, these measures proved so successful in countries like
Ireland that some commentators have taken to criticising the Government for being overly cautious in the measures it took to combat the disease.
I don’t subscribe to this view. One reason is that an exponential rate of growth, left unchecked, can quickly become unstoppable. Another is the emergence of the Delta variant, which proved highly infectious among unvaccinated people and also resulted in a significant number of breakthrough infections among the vaccinated. Indeed, it remains to be seen how severe the impact of the delta variant will be in primary school children, most of whom are unvaccinated.
As regards second- and third-level education, I was somewhat disappointed vaccination was not made mandatory for all staff and students. After all we are institutes of education!

No doubt there are complex legal reasons for this, but it certainly makes everyday life difficult, from teachers and lecturers having to deliver class through a mask to students attempting to observe social distancing in the classroom.
Overall, it could be said that the war against Covid-19 has been won, mainly due to the use of widespread vaccination. The main worry now is to ensure that similar vaccination programmes take place in the poorest nations, not least because of the possibility of the emergence of new variants that could prove to be vaccine resistant.


Global warming
As regards the climate crisis, the situation is very different. Despite a great many reports, resolutions and international meetings, there has been almost no slowing in the rise of greenhouse gas emissions, or in the rise of mean global temperature. Indeed, even the global shutdown in the year 2020-2021 had a barely discernible impact on the seemingly inexorable rise in emissions and surface temperature. Thus it appears that we are losing the war in the long-term theatre of climate change.
This a matter of great concern. It should be obvious that the longer it takes to “bend the curve” on emissions, the more severe our corrective action will need to be. In addition, many climate scientists point to the existence of likely tipping points in global warming, i.e., points of no return such as the collapse of enormous ice sheets.
Yet some commentators continue to emphasise the uncertainties in climate change, in particular the uncertainty in climate sensitivity (defined as the rise in mean global temperature produced by a doubling of the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere). This seems to me to be an odd approach, akin to asking how many cancer cells are produced by a single cigarette. Given that we have not managed to slow the rise of emissions to date, the current trajectory is clear. It is simply a question of time before we sail past a catastrophic tipping point, if action is not taken.
So what is the solution? Is there a vaccine for climate change? The good news is that the very fact that global warming is a result of human activity implies that the solution is at hand. It is a matter of making the necessary changes to human activity, from land use to the burning of fossil fuels, from the obsession with relentless economic growth to a reconsideration of unnecessary enterprises such as space tourism.
In recent years, it has become a mantra among some journalists that the solution to climate change lies in the actions of the individual. There is some truth to this but given the scale of the challenge, governments also have a vital role to play.
The transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, or from cars to public transport, are choices that can be facilitated only by strong government. Most importantly, the national governments of the world need to co-operate on action, rather than indulging in fruitless bouts of whataboutery. With this in mind, it will be interesting to see what comes out of the COP26meeting in Edinburgh in November.
Dr Cormac O’Raifeartaigh lectures in physics at Waterford Institute of Technology
and blogs at http://www.antimatter.ie

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Online International Conference on the History of Physics

Yesterday, I participated in a virtual conference on the history of physics. The event, supported by the Institute of Physics and the European Physics Society, formed part of an ongoing series of international conferences on the history of physics, a biennial series of meetings that aims to bring together professional historians and physicists with an interest in the history of their subject. I have been involved with the organization of these conferences for some time now and it was great to see this year’s version, an online conference, go off without a hitch.

There were many interesting talks spanning across several centuries of physics, such as: The Ghost of Galileo and the Spirit of Copenhagen (John Heilbron): To G or not to G : JH Poynting and the Gravitational Constant in the 19th Century (Isobel Falconer): The Marie Curie Effect (Patricia Fara): Political Opportunism and Friendly Disservice: On the Premature Nobel Prize to Otto Hahn and the Missed Nobel Prize to Lise Meitner (Karl Grandin): The Rayleigh Archive: Unpublished Correspondence with Kelvin and Others (Paul Ranford): Changes in the Measurement and Understanding of Electromotive Force (Hasok Chang).  The full programme can be found here.

I myself chaired the session containing the last two talks above. This was quite a challenging task as I felt I should come up with a few decent questions after each talk, to give members of the audience some time to type in theirs!

The last session of the conference saw a lovely tribute, in the form of poetry, reminiscences and music, to our late colleague Peter Schuster, an inspirational figure in the history of physics and one of the founders of this series of conferences. Sadly, Peter passed away quite suddenly last year.

All in all, a most enjoyable conference. Not for the first time, I found myself hoping that at least some conferences will stay online in the future!

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A year of triumph for modern science

This article of mine was pubished in The Irish Times on the last day of 2020.

The year 2020 will probably be remembered as the year of the dreadful Covid-19 virus, but it should also be remembered as a year of significant triumph for modern science. While some had predicted that a vaccine for the virus might not be found for years, several successful vaccines were in fact developed within 12 months of the first emergence of the virus.

In retrospect, the extraordinary speed of the development of a vaccine for Covid-19 can be attributed to a number of factors. The first was pressure – the devastating effects of the virus on human health and on social and economic activity gave rise to an urgent drive worldwide for a cure, with few limits on financial outlay. It seems there is much truth in the old adage that necessity is the mother of (scientific) invention.

A second factor was that researchers were working towards a clearly defined goal, using well-established research methods as a starting point. It is notable that many of the successful research teams (such as the Oxford/AstraZeneca group) were working on vaccines for similar viruses before the emergence of the pandemic.

A third factor was that the research proceeded in a co-operative fashion, using already-existing collaborative research networks between academia and the pharmaceutical industry. One of the most striking aspects of modern pharmaceutical science is the manner in which research is conducted via international collaborations between academia and industry.

One reason for this is the intense specialisation of science – in any given field, there are often only a handful of groups in each country at the forefront of research. Another reason is that the funding of pioneering research in such fields requires the deep pockets of the pharmaceutical industry.

Sadly, such a collaborative approach is rarely found in the realm of politics. Indeed, national politics reared its head as soon as the first viable vaccine for Covid-19 emerged. In the United States, citizens were treated to the spectacle of President Donald Trump declaring the discovery of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine a great success for American science and for his administration.

In the United Kingdom, several senior politicians erroneously attributed the swift approval of the vaccine by the UK regulatory authority to Brexit. The discovery of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was trumpeted as a great British triumph in many UK media outlets, with little mention of the fact that the vaccine was manufactured in Germany and distributed from Belgium.

In Russia, the Sputnik-V vaccine was distributed to the population at large before clinical trials had concluded. This approach not only presented an unnecessary risk to public health but ran the risk of undermining public confidence in the vaccine.

Widespread take-up

The confidence issue is one of particular concern to scientists and public-health officials, as widespread take-up of the vaccine is required for it to be effective in halting the spread of Covid-19. For example, a recent UK study suggested that up to 20 per cent of the UK population could be hesitant about volunteering for the vaccine; such concerns are hardly alleviated by any perceived haste in approving it.

More generally, the rise of the “anti-vaxx” movement is greatly perplexing to scientists and public health administrators. There have been many studies of the phenomenon, with links drawn to the rise of misinformation in social media. As so often, the issue appears to be one of trust. Whatever the cause, the consequences of a widespread lack of trust in scientific authority can be very serious, from climate studies to immunology.

One strand of thought is that the recent rise of the anti-vaxx movement is at least partly due to the very success of vaccination programmes. This is because it is easy to be insouciant about diseases such as polio and meningitis when the catastrophic effects of such viruses on human health are a distant memory.

If this line of reasoning is correct, we may find that take-up of the Covid-19 vaccination programme is better than expected. After all, it will be some time before any of us forget the devastating social and economic impact of this particular virus. In that case, we may look forward to 2021 as the year that the public recovered its trust in science.

Dr Cormac O’Raifeartaigh lectures in physics at Waterford Institute of Technology and blogs at antimatter.ie© 2020 irishtimes.com

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Covid-19 is not a matter of opinion or politics

This article of mine appeared in The Irish Times on 26/10/2020.

It’s hard to believe that it’s only seven months since the novel coronavirus that causes Covid-19 first emerged. Quite apart from the tragic statistic of more than a million deaths worldwide, and the many people whose health has been seriously damaged, the virus has had a devastating impact on national economies and on employment.

Early hopes that the virus would be quickly eliminated by lockdown proved optimistic. While such measures certainly slowed the infection rate, the gradual reopening of society soon caused infection rates to rise again in most countries. Since then, each country has been faced with difficult choices, from the reopening of schools and restaurants to the partial reopening of colleges and businesses.

In addition, a significant fracture has appeared in the reaction of citizens to the advice of health experts. While some argue for a “live with the virus” approach, others readily accept limitations on movement until a vaccine becomes available. It is interesting that almost all the scientists I know lie in the second group, perhaps because of our belief in the methods of science, especially in the context of unprecedented international efforts towards a common goal.

In Ireland, most citizens seem happy to follow governmental guidelines on social distancing and mask wearing. However, this is not the case in all countries. In the most glaring example, there has been a persistent reluctance in the United States on the part of both leaders and voters of a Republican hue to take basic precautions against the virus.

Thus, the news in early October that US president Donald Trump, the first lady and many of their inner circle had tested positive for the virus was not altogether surprising. After all, Trump’s disdain for social distancing and mask wearing is well known, from his insistence on reopening states with high infection rates to his hectoring of reporters wearing masks. Indeed, media coverage of a White House garden party, hosted to celebrate the nomination of a new supreme court judge, removed any doubt that the president and his staff had any regard for virus protocols. Ironically, it is now thought that this particular event may have functioned as a superspreader event.

At the time of writing, it appears that the President is enjoying a full recovery. However, it is likely that the incident did some damage to his re-election prospects. In the first instance, the incident ensures that the virus remains a central theme of the election, reminding citizens of his administration’s disastrous performance in protecting Americans from the disease. Second, Trump’s succumbing to the virus serves as a reminder that rhetoric is one thing and facts are another. It turns out that bluster was no defence against the reality of Covid-19.

Relativism

This, perhaps, is the real lesson to be learned from recent events. Not long after Trump’s election, Kellyanne Conway, in her role as counsellor to the President, shocked many Americans when she spoke of “alternative facts”. It soon transpired that this relativism was to be the hallmark of this administration. The concerns of climate scientists were simply dismissed out of hand in favour of the vested interests of the fossil-fuel industry. More generally, Trump set about appointing lobbyists from the world of commerce to key positions in government agencies tasked with the protection of the environment, a strategy which has resulted in the rollback of countless regulations put in place over the years to protect the environment from the worst ravages of industry.

But facts are facts. It turns out that greenhouse gases from industry are indeed warming the planet. Whether one choose to believe this has no impact on the phenomenon itself; it is not a matter of opinion or of politics. Similarly, the Covid-19 virus can spread very effectively from person to person if we do not take basic precautions. Whether one accepts or denies this well-established fact does not have any effect on the infection process itself.

Thus, the contraction of Covid-19 by Trump and many of his entourage may be a blow in an election campaign that was already in trouble. After all, it’s hard to imagine a more concrete example of the failure of hubris when confronted with immutable facts. Indeed, the president may even get a taste of the full impact of the virus, as experienced by many ordinary citizens, if he loses his job and his current residence in consequence.

Dr Cormac O’Raifeartaigh lectures in physics at Waterford Institute of Technology and blogs at www.antimatter.ie

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Back to school with a twist

Today marked the first day back at work for academic staff at our college, Waterford Institute of Technology. From 9 am sharp, it was back to work with a maelstrom of meetings, meetings and more meetings; all remote of course, due to fears of a second surge of the virus in Ireland.

I must say it was nice to see and hear colleagues again for the first time in months. I had a very productive summer in terms of research, but it’s nice to talk to other lecturers once again!

The big news is that, as advertised in the media, almost lectures, tutorials and practicals in our college will be conducted online this semester, starting in October. We are encouraged to stream lectures from classrooms in the college, but we can also choose to do them remotely. Truth be told, I’m quite looking forward to the experience; when you have been teaching for a number of years, it’s nice to engage in different forms of delivery. In addition, we have been putting more and more of our material online in terms of Moodle; this is really the logical progression of such things.

That said, nothing replaces the teacher-student interaction, so the intention is that our students will experience a hybrid teaching model when they return in October. How exactly that will work will be decided over the next few weeks.

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