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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

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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© 2020

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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.


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

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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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Government action flattened the COVID curve – it needs to continue

This article of mine was published in The Irish Times on July 23rd 2020.

Following the outbreak of the Covid-19 virus, I noted in my last column in April most governments around the world paid close attention to the advice of medical experts and scientists. As a result, many nations soon managed to “flatten the curve”, i.e., to slow the rate of infections to manageable levels.

Three months on, the situation is somewhat more complicated. No country can afford to stay locked down indefinitely, due to the spiralling costs of paid furlough and the threat of long-term unemployment and deep recession.

However, as shops, restaurants and businesses gradually reopen, quite a few countries have seen a return to high infection rates. Indeed, many nations, from Australia to Israel, have been forced to impose lockdowns a second time, at least at a local level.

This pattern is seen most obviously in the United States. Due to a lack of coherent leadership, many states failed to close schools, workplaces and businesses quickly enough and then re-opened them too early. The result has been a comprehensive failure to flatten the curve and the highest rate of infection worldwide.

How can governments achieve a reasonable balance between a healthy economy and a healthy population? One answer is that the question should not be framed as “either or”. After all, a healthy economy is simply not possible in the context of a high rate of infection. Thus, any attempts to re-open society for business must be done in such a way as to keep infection rates low.

For example, it seems reasonable to me that the Irish Government continues to advise against all unnecessary international travel. Quite apart from the risk of contracting the virus abroad, it’s hard to imagine a more vulnerable space than the enclosed cabin of an airplane. On the other hand, at the time of writing, we continue to allow planes to arrive from all destinations, with little real enforcement of quarantine. Tourism from the US makes up a vital part of the Irish economy, but reports of flights arriving daily from Dallas are surely a matter of concern.

Worrying reports

Similarly, it was a relief to see pubs and restaurants open up again in Ireland, albeit in a limited way. However, this was soon followed by worrying reports in the media of crowds outside pubs paying little attention to social distancing.

So how are we supposed to return to normal life in the presence of the virus? It seems to me that one effective weapon is not being used as widely as it should be – the face mask.

When the virus first struck, there were many references in the media to a few behavioural science studies that suggested that the wearing of masks might confer a false sense of security. It was some time before it emerged that the use of masks is in fact a remarkably efficient way of reducing contagion. This is particularly important in the case of Covid-19, as the virus can be transmitted by asymptomatic patients. In addition, there is growing evidence that the virus might also be transmitted via aerosols, ie small droplets that remain in the air (as opposed to large droplets from coughing and sneezing that travel only a few feet before dropping to the ground).

Thus, the widespread adoption of face masks should be an easy and efficient way of reducing the rate of infection. Yet many governments have left the wearing of masks as a matter of individual choice for too long. Given a mask protects the public from the wearer, rather than vice versa, this seems a mistake. At least, masks have been made mandatory on public transport in Ireland and face coverings must be worn in shops. Critically, I would like to see the practice enforced in shops and other public places.

As pointed out by Prof Orla Muldoon in an Irish Times article recently, there is a persistent tendency in the politics of today to place great emphasis on the responsibility of the individual, rather than on systemic action by the State. Yet the flattening of the Covid-19 curve was not driven by good personal choices, but by decisive government action. It seems to me that, until the virus subsides, intervention by the State should continue, in the form of the mandatory wearing of face masks in all public indoor arenas.

Dr Cormac O’Raifeartaigh lectures in physics at Waterford Institute of Technology and blogs at

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Lessons from Covid-19

This article of mine was published in The Irish Times on 30/4/2020.

For scientists, environmentalists and others concerned with the issue of climate change, the COVID-19 crisis has provided many insights into the way our societies deal with a global threat.

The most striking observation is that it is clear that humans can change their social behavior, rapidly and decisively, if necessary. On the news every evening, we see pictures of deserted city centres around the world, images that would have been inconceivable just a few months ago. Of course, changes in social behaviour have occurred before, from drink-driving to smoking, but the pace and scale of the onset of social distancing has been of a different order.

A less positive observation is that the reaction to the COVID-19 crisis occurred at national, rather than international, level.  Where one might have expected action to be coordinated by global organizations such as the United Nations or the World Health Organization, each nation set its own policy, with little interaction from other countries – even for the case of member states of the European Union.

This led to a wide variety of reactions to the crisis. Some countries (including Ireland) intervened early, closing schools and businesses and enforcing social isolation before the virus took hold, despite the economic cost. In other countries, particularly those with a strong attachment to free-market ideology (such as the US and the UK), intervention came much later.

So far, it seems that the first group of countries got it right. Early intervention appears to have been effective in slowing the rate of infection, helping to avoid national health services being overwhelmed. Meanwhile countries that delayed are finding it much more difficult to ‘bend the curve’. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that governments that let science take precedence over politics and economics from the very beginning fared better.

That said, most nations followed the advice of their scientists at least to some degree. This was matched by a widespread public acceptance of science-based directives from government on social isolation. To be sure, one encounters the odd conspiracy theory on social media but there hasn’t been any great ‘COVID -19 debate’, i.e., nightly disputes in the media between epidemiologists and commentators with no expertise in the subject.

It seems that in the face of this crisis, most people are happy to defer to experts, contrary to that infamous statement by Brexiteer Michael Gove. In a time of real crisis, the general population have found a new respect for scientific expertise. Indeed, it has been quite amusing to witness some of the most virulent British tabloids castigating their government for not following scientific expertise closely enough. These same tabloids have long given a platform to contrarian views on global warming, creating a false impression of a debate that simply doesn’t exist in scientific circles. It seems that science is to be trusted in at least some spheres.

However, the United States has marked a striking exception to this pattern. Where the US might once have led the world in a time of crisis, the reaction of the Trump administration to COVID-19 has been farcical from the outset. Having initially dismissed the crisis as a hoax perpetrated by political enemies, the President then lurched from one daft opinion to another, all the while installing family members and political cronies in key positions to address the crisis. This approach was mirrored by his favourite tv station, Fox News, who featured daily commentary from ‘experts’ who knew nothing about the subject. The outcome was a comprehensive failure to take meaningful action in good time, resulting in a very high rate of infection in some the largest cities in the world.  

The failure of the US to act decisively in the face of a global threat is deeply worrying. As in the case of climate change, there seems to be a deep unwillingness to listen to the experts and take appropriate action. The implications for our climate are grave. After all, the COVID-19 crisis has a finite timeline as the virus moves through the population and vaccines are eventually developed. By contrast, carbon emissions will continue to rise in the longterm, with catastrophic consequences,  unless drastic action is taken. In a rational world, one positive outcome of the COVID-19 crisis could be a widespread rejection of politicians and media outlets who allowed politics and uninformed opinion to take precedence over science – scientists, science communicators and journalists should do their best to ensure that this lesson is learnt.

Dr Cormac O’Raifeartaigh lectures in physics at Waterford Institute of Technology and blogs at

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September, new students, surfing and a conference

I always forget how much I enjoy the month of September. There’s always a great buzz around the college, from new students starting their college career to returning students enrolling on a new set of modules. From a lecturer’s point of view, there is also the buzz of a new cohort of science students and a new teaching timetable after a summer of quiet research.

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Back to school after a quiet summer

In addition, September is a great month in Ireland weather-wise. It’s still warm enough to play outdoor tennis and football, and the surf is back at last. Even better, there is still enough light to catch a few waves after work!

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Surfing in Tramore bay, Waterford

This weekend, it was our college’s turn to host the annual Frontiers of Physics conference. This is a wonderful annual meeting organised by the Institute of Physics in Ireland to foster links between second-level teachers and third-level lecturers. Each year, a given college uses the opportunity to highlight what research is being done in their college, before breaking up for useful workshops in the teaching of physics. You can see the conference programme here, it was a most enjoyable day.

In my own case, I gave a brief description of the research I do in the history of science. I found myself drawing on the excellent police drama ‘Line of Duty’ as an analogy. If scientists are like detectives, then historians are science are a bit like the overview team sent in to review how a given enquiry proceeded (‘cops on cops’). The slides are here and slides from the other presentations of the day will be available here.

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The feared AC-12 unit in Line of Duty – is that what science historians do?

I slipped away early from the meeting to check out the surf in Tramore, our local surf beach. Sure enough it was excellent, what a way to end the month!


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