Thank God for mid-term, or ‘reading week’ as it is known in some colleges. Time was I would have spent the week on the ski slopes, but these days I see the mid-term break as a precious opportunity to catch up – a nice relaxed week in which I can concentrate on correcting assessments, preparing teaching notes and setting end-of-semester exams. There is a lot of satisfaction in getting on top of things, if only temporarily!
Then there’s the research. To top the week off nicely, I heard this morning that my proposal to give a talk at the forthcoming Authur Eddington conference in Paris has been accepted; this is great news as the conference will mark the centenary of Eddington’s measurement of the bending of starlight by the sun, an experiment that provided key evidence in support Einstein’s general theory of relativity. To this day, some historians question the accuracy of Eddington’s result, while most physicists believe his findings were justified, so it should make for an interesting conference .
It was back to college this week, a welcome change after some intense research over the hols. I like the start of the second semester, there’s always a great atmosphere around the college with the students back and the restaurants, shops and canteens back open. The students seem in good form too, no doubt enjoying a fresh start with a new set of modules (also, they haven’t yet received their exam results!).
This semester, I will teach my usual introductory module on the atomic hypothesis and early particle physics to second-years. As always, I’m fascinated by the way the concept of the atom emerged from different roots and different branches of science: from philosophical considerations in ancient Greece to considerations of chemistry in the 18th century, from the study of chemical reactions in the 19th century to considerations of statistical mechanics around the turn of the century. Not to mention a brilliant young patent clerk who became obsessed with the idea of showing that atoms really exist, culminating in his famous paper on Brownian motion. But did you know that Einstein suggested at least three different ways of measuring Avogadro’s constant? And each method contributed significantly to establishing the reality of atoms.
In 1908, the French physicist Jean Perrin demonstrated that the motion of particles suspended in a liquid behaved as predicted by Einstein’s formula, derived from considerations of statistical mechanics, giving strong support for the atomic hypothesis.
One change this semester is that I will also be involved in delivering a new module, Introduction to Modern Physics, to first-years. The first quantum revolution, the second quantum revolution, some relativity, some cosmology and all that. Yet more prep of course, but ideal for anyone with an interest in the history of 20th century science. How many academics get to teach interesting courses like this? At conferences, I often tell colleagues that my historical research comes from my teaching, but few believe me!
Then of course, there’s also the module Revolutions in Science, a course I teach on Mondays at University College Dublin; it’s all go this semester!
There was a time when you wouldn’t catch sight of this academic in Ireland over Christmas – I used to head straight for the ski slopes as soon as term ended. But family commitments and research workloads have put paid to that, at least for a while, and I’m not sure it’s such a bad thing. Like many academics, I dislike being away from the books for too long and there is great satisfaction to be had in catching up on all the ‘deep roller’ stuff one never gets to during the teaching semester.
The professor in disguise in former times
The first task was to get the exam corrections out of the way. This is a job I quite enjoy, unlike most of my peers. I’m always interested to see how the students got on and it’s the only task in academia that usually takes slightly less time than expected. Then it was on to some rather more difficult corrections – putting together revisions to my latest research paper, as suggested by the referee. This is never a quick job, especially as the points raised are all very good and some quite profound. It helps that the paper has been accepted to appear in Volume 8 of the prestigious Einstein Studies series, but this is a task that is taking some time.
Other grown-up stuff includes planning for upcoming research conferences – two abstracts now in the post, let’s see if they’re accepted. I also spent a great deal of the holidays helping to organize an international conference on the history of physics that will be hosted in Ireland in 2020. I have very little experience in such things, so it’s extremely interesting, if time consuming.
So there is a lot to be said for spending Christmas at home, with copious amounts of study time uninterrupted by students or colleagues. An interesting bonus is that a simple walk in the park or by the sea seems a million times more enjoyable after a good morning’s swot. I’ve never really holidayed well and I think this might be why.
A walk on Dun Laoghaire pier yesterday afternoon
As for New Year’s resolutions, I’ve taken up Ciara Kelly’s challenge of a brisk 30-minute walk every day. I also took up tennis in a big way a few months ago – now there’s a sport that is a million times more practical in this part of the world than skiing.
There is always a great sense of satisfaction on the last day of the teaching semester. That great moment on a Friday afternoon when the last lecture is over, the last presentation is marked, and the term’s teaching materials can be transferred from briefcase to office shelf. I’m always tempted to jump in the car, and drive around the college carpark beeping madly. Of course there is the small matter of marking, from practicals, assignments and assessments to the end-of-semester exams, but that’s a very different activity!
The last day of term at WIT
For me, the semesterisation of teaching is one of the best aspects of life as an academic. I suppose it’s the sense of closure, of things finished – so different from research, where one paper just leads to another in a never-ending cycle. There never seems to be a good moment for a pause in the world of research, just a ton of papers I would like to write if I had the time.
In recent years, I’ve started doing a brief tally of research outputs at the end of each semester. Today, the tally is 1 book chapter, 1 journal article, 2 conference presentations and 1 magazine article (plus 2 newspaper columns). All seems ok until I remember that most of this material was in fact written over the summer. On reflection, the semester’s ‘research’ consisted of carrying out corrections to the articles above and preparing slides for conferences.
The reason for this is quite simple – teaching. On top of my usual lecturing duties, I had to prepare and deliver a module in 4th-year particle physics this term. It was a very interesting experience and I learnt a lot, but preparing the module took up almost every spare moment of my time, nuking any chances of doing any meaningful research during the teaching term. And now I hear that I will be involved in the delivery of yet another new module next semester, oh joy.
This has long been my problem with the Institutes of Technology. With contact hours set at a minimum of 16 hours/week, there is simply far too much teaching (a situation that harks back to a time when lecturers taught to Diploma level only). While the high-ups in education in our capital city make noises about the importance of research and research-led teaching, they refuse to countenance any change in this for research-active staff in the IoTs. If anything, one has the distinct impression everyone would much rather we didn’t bother. I don’t expect this situation to change anytime soon – in all the talk about technological universities, I have yet to hear a single mention of new lecturer contracts.
Today marks the end of the mid-term break for many of us in the third level sector in Ireland. While a non-teaching week in the middle of term has been a stalwart of secondary schools for many years, the mid-term break only really came to the fore in the Irish third level sector when our universities, Institutes of Technology (IoTs) and other colleges adopted the modern model of 12-week teaching semesters.
Also known as ‘reading week’ in some colleges, the break marks a precious respite in the autumn/winter term. A chance to catch one’s breath, a chance to prepare teaching notes for the rest of term and a chance to catch up on research. Indeed, it is the easiest thing in the world to let the latter slide during the teaching term – only to find that deadlines for funding, book chapters and conference abstracts quietly slipped past while one was trying to keep up with teaching and administration duties.
A quiet walk in Foxrock on the last day of the mid-term break
Which brings me to a pet peeve. All those years later, teaching loads in the IoT sector remain far too high. Lecturers are typically assigned four teaching modules per semester, a load that may have been reasonable in the early days of teaching to Certificate and Diploma level, but makes little sense in the context of today’s IoT lecturer who may teach several modules at 3rd and 4th year degree level, with typically at least one brand new module each year – all of this whilst simultaneously attempting to keep up the research. It’s a false economy if ever there was one, as many a new staff member, freshly graduated from a top research group, will simply abandon research after a few busy years.
Of course, one might have expected to hear a great deal about this issue in the governments plan to ‘upgrade’ IoTs to technological university status. Actually, I have yet to see any public discussion of a prospective change in the teaching contracts of IoT lecturers – a question of money, no doubt. But this is surely another indication that we are talking about a change in name, rather than substance…
The heatwave in the northern hemisphere may (or may not) be an ominous portend of things to come, but it’s certainly making for an enjoyable summer here in Ireland. I usually find it quite difficult to do any meaningful research when the sun is out, but things are a bit different when the good weather is regular. Most days, I have breakfast in the village, a swim in the sea before work, a swim after work and a game of tennis to round off the evening. Tough life, eh.
Counsellor’s Strand in Dunmore East
So far, I’ve got one one conference proceeding written, one historical paper revamped and two articles refereed (I really enjoy the latter process, it’s so easy for academics to become isolated). Next week I hope to get back to that book I never seem to finish.
However, it would be misleading to portray a cosy image of a college full of academics beavering away over the summer. This simply isn’t the case around here – while a few researchers can be found in college this summer, the majority of lecturing staff decamped on June 20th and will not return until September 1st.
And why wouldn’t they? Isn’t that their right under the Institute of Technology contracts, especially given the heavy teaching loads during the semester? Sure – but I think it’s important to acknowledge that this is a very different set-up to the modern university sector, and doesn’t quite square with the move towards technological universities.
This week, the Irish newspapers are full of articles depicting the opening of Ireland’s first technological university, and apparently, the Prime Minister is anxious our own college should get a move on. Hmm. No mention of the prospect of a change in teaching duties, or increased facilities/time for research, as far as I can tell (I’d give a lot for an office that was fit for purpose). So will the new designation just amount to a name change? And this is not to mention the scary business of the merging of different institutes of technology. Those who raise questions about this now tend to get cast as dismissed as resistors of progress. Yet the history of merging large organisations in Ireland hardly inspires confidence, not least because of a tendency for increased layers of bureaucracy to appear out of nowhere – HSE anyone?
One of my favourite academic traditions is the festschrift, a conference convened to honour the contribution of a senior academic. In a sense, it’s academia’s version of an Oscar for lifetime achievement, as scholars from all around the world gather to pay tribute their former mentor, colleague or collaborator.
Festschrifts tend to be very stimulating meetings, as the diverging careers of former students and colleagues typically make for a diverse set of talks. At the same time, there is usually a unifying theme based around the specialism of the professor being honoured.
And so it was at NIALLFEST this week, as many of the great and the good from the world of Einstein’s relativity gathered at University College Cork to pay tribute to Professor Niall O’Murchadha, a theoretical physicist in UCC’s Department of Physics noted internationally for seminal contributions to general relativity. Some measure of Niall’s influence can be seen from the number of well-known theorists at the conference, including major figures such as Bob Wald, Bill Unruh, Edward Malec and Kip Thorne (the latter was recently awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his contribution to the detection of gravitational waves). The conference website can be found here and the programme is here.
University College Cork: probably the nicest college campus in Ireland
As expected, we were treated to a series of high-level talks on diverse topics, from black hole collapse to analysis of high-energy jets from active galactic nuclei, from the initial value problem in relativity to the search for dark matter (slides for my own talk can be found here). To pick one highlight, Kip Thorne’s reminiscences of the forty-year search for gravitational waves made for a fascinating presentation, from his description of early designs of the LIGO interferometer to the challenge of getting funding for early prototypes – not to mention his prescient prediction that the most likely chance of success was the detection of a signal from the merger of two black holes.
All in all, a very stimulating conference. Most entertaining of all were the speakers’ recollections of Niall’s working methods and his interaction with students and colleagues over the years. Like a great piano teacher of old, one great professor leaves a legacy of critical thinkers dispersed around their world, and their students in turn inspire the next generation!