In the Dark | A blog about the Universe, and all that surrounds it
My name is Peter Coles and I’m Professor of Theoretical Astrophysics at Cardiff University in Wales and Professor of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University in Ireland. My research is in the area of cosmology and the large-scale structure of the Universe.
I had a bit of spare time before the Opera on Friday and the weather was fine so I decided to go for a walk around the park in St Stephen’s Green.
I have walked past St Stephen’s Green many times but have never been inside, or if I have it was so long ago that I’ve now forgotten.
On my way around I noticed that there are posters here and there marking the events of the 1916 Easter Rising. Here’s an example:
The artwork is a bit ‘Boy’s Comic’ style but the descriptions are fascinating especially because the Park and the area around it are pretty much unchanged in more than a hundred years since the momentous events of 1916. There are still bullet holes in the Fusiliers Arch at the North West Corner of the Green, as there are in a number of other locations around Dublin.
St Stephen’s Green is inside the area marked ‘Citizens Army’. One look at the map will tell you why this was considered an important location to control as it is at the junction of several main roads. On the other hand if you actually visit the location you will see a big problem, namely that the Green itself is surrounded on all sides by very tall buildings, including the swanky Shelbourne Hotel to the North.
When a contingent of about 120 members of the Citizens Army arrived in St Stephen’s Green on Easter Monday, 24th April 1916, they immediately began erecting barricades outside, and digging trenches inside, the Park. They did not, however, have the numbers needed to seize and hold the buildings around it except for the Royal College of Surgeons building to the West.
The following morning, Tuesday 25th April, the British moved two machine guns into position, one in the Shelbourne Hotel and the other in the United Services club, along with numerous snipers. From these vantage points British soldiers could shoot down into the Park making it impossible for the rebels to move around.
The position inside the Green being untenable the Rebels effected an orderly (but perilous) withdrawal to the Royal College of Surgeons which they had fortified for the purpose. And that’s where they stayed until the end of the Rising.
The British realised that there was no need to assault the RCS building, as the force inside was contained and offered no real threat. From the roof of the building the Rebels watched helplessly as the British systematically reduced the resistance around the Rebel Headquarters in the GPO Building to the North, using artillery fired from College Green. Smoke rose into the sky as one entire side of O’Connell Street went up in flames and the perimeter slowly tightened around the GPO.
In the morning of Thursday 27th April the occupants of the RCS were alarmed to see that British soldiers had installed another machine gun on the roof of the University Church on the South side of St Stephen’s Green along with snipers in adjacent buildings.
This was a very dangerous development that required a rapid response. A plan was devised that involved sending a squad of about 30 to break into buildings on the South side of the Green and start fires therein that would force the British to withdraw. This action is the subject of the poster shown above.
This is a photograph of the remarkable Margaret Skinnider, who is shown in the graphic leading the attempted assault. Before the Rising she was a school teacher. During the hostilities she initially acted as a scout and a runner, carrying messages to and from the GPO, but when given the chance she proved herself a crack shot with a rifle and showed conspicuous courage during the heavy fighting in and around St Stephen’s Green.
Skinnider insisted on leading the assault on Thursday 27th April despite the obviously high risk as it would involve running about 30 yards in full view of the machine gun position.
The detachment made its way out of the RCS to the South West corner of the Green safely enough but when men began breaking windows in Harcourt Street in order to gain entry to buildings there, the sound alerted the British soldiers who realised what was happening and opened fire as the Rebels made their move. Margaret Skinnider was leading from the front and she was inevitably among the casualties: she was hit three times by rifle bullets and very badly wounded.
Such was the volume of fire that the assault was abandoned and the surviving members of the squad retreated to the RCS where they remained until the general surrender on Saturday (29th April).
Skinnider was taken to hospital after the Rising ended but escaped and made her way to Scotland. She later returned to Ireland to take part in the War of Independence and subsequent Civil War. When the latter ended, in 1923, she went back to her job as a teacher in a primary school. She passed away in 1971 at the age of 79.
I heard this morning of the death at the age of 89 of Murray Gell-Mann who passed away yesterday at the age of 89. Professor Gell-Mann was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1969 for his work on elementary particle physics, specifically for the development of the quark model. It was Gell-Mann who appropriated the phrase from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (‘Three quarks for Muster Mark’) from which the word `quark’ passed into the scientific lexicon.
There will be proper tributes from people who knew the man and his science far better than I do, so I’ll just say here that he was a man who made enormous contributions to physics and who will be greatly missed.
Last night went for the first time to the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin for a performance of Mozart’s The Magic Flute by Irish National Opera in conjunction with the Irish Chamber Orchestra. It was my first INO performance and my first visit to the Gaiety Theatre (although I’m sure it won’t be the last of either of those). I’ve actually lost count of the number of times I’ve seen the Magic Flute but I hope this won’t be the last either!
The Gaiety Theatre is quite compact, which engenders a more intimate atmosphere than is often experienced at the Opera. The music being provided by a small-ish chamber orchestra also suited the venue, but more importantly gave a fresh and sprightly feeling to Mozart’s wonderful score. You would think it would be hard to make Mozart sound stodgy, but some orchestras seem to manage it. Not last night though.
The scenery is rather simple, as is needed for touring Opera playing in relatively small venues. The stage directions of the Magic Flute are in any case so outlandish that it’s virtually impossible to enact them precisely according to instructions. This production takes the sensible approach of leaving a lot to the imagination of the audience though that does mean, for example, that there is no dragon…
The costumes are a different matter. The hero Tamino begins in the drab clothes of a working man of the 19the century, as do the three ladies that he encounters early on in Act I. The enigmatic Sarastro and his followers are however dressed as the gentry of a similar period, along with a chorus of domestic servants. As Tamino works his way into the Brotherhood he becomes progressively gentrified. A central idea of the Opera is that of enlightenment values prevailing over superstition, but under the surface oppression remains, both in the form imposed by property-owners on the working poor, but also in the misogynistic behaviour of Sarastro and others, and the racist stereotyping of the `Moor’ Monastatos. This production is sung in the original German, and there were gasps from the audience when they saw some of the surtitles in English. Although Magic Flute is on one level a hugely enjoyable comic fantasy, it also holds up a mirror to attitudes of Mozart’s time – and what you see in it is not pleasant, especially when you realize that many of these are still with us.
Importantly, however, this undercurrent does detracts from the basic silliness which I believe is the real key to this Opera. It’s fundamentally daft, but it succeeds because it’s daft in exactly the same way that real life is.
In last night’s performance the two fine leads were Anna Devin was Pamina (soprano) and Nick Pritchard Tamino (tenor). The excellent Gavan Ring provided suitable comic relief and a fine baritone voice to boot. Kim Sheehan (soprano) as the Queen of the Night doesn’t have the biggest voice I’ve ever heard, but she sang her extraordinarily difficult coloratura arias with great accuracy and agility and brought a considerable pathos to her role instead of making it the pantomime villain you sometimes find. Sarastro was Lukas Jakobski (bass), memorable not only for his superb singing way down in the register, but for his commanding physical presence. Well over 2 metres tall, he towered over the rest of the cast. I think he’s the scariest Sarastro I’ve ever seen!
And finally I should congratulate the three boys: Nicholas O’Neill, Seán Hughes and Oran Murphy. These roles are extremely demanding for young voices and the three who performed last night deserved their ovation at the end.
The last performances in this run are today (Saturday 25th May, matinée and evening) so this review is too late to make anyone decide to go and see it but last night’s was recorded for RTÉ Lyric Fm for broadcast at a future date.
First thing this morning I cast my vote in Maynooth, the polling station for which is in the Presentation Girls School, a Catholic Primary School. It wasn’t amazingly busy inside but there was a steady flow of people coming through. There were 8 desks dishing out ballot papers, more desks than you usually get at a polling station in the UK. There were three ballot papers, one for the European Parliament, one for the Local Council, and one for the Constitutional Referendum.
Anyway, Polling Card in hand I eventually found the right desk. Having done my homework last night I ranked all 17 candidates for the European Parliament Elections and all 9 for the Local Council Elections, copying my preferences from a piece of paper I had taken with me. The Single Transferable Vote system must making counting quite a lengthy process so it will take some time before the results are known.
At least I got to vote, which many EU citizens in the UK were unable to do. There’s a major scandal brewing about what looks like deliberate disenfranchisement. These things shouldn’t happen in a democracy, but apparently in the United Kingdom they do.
I had a very busy morning after arriving at the Department so I’ve just discovered that Theresa May has resigned. Part of me is delighted as I thought she was callous and mean-spirited as well as being useless. Apparently she cried when she read out her resignation statement. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to burst out laughing.
The feeling of happiness that the current PM is leaving is however tempered by the very high probability that whoever replaces her will be even worse…
It’s great news for a lot of CMB people all round the world that this mission has been selected – include some old friends from Cardiff University. Congratulations to all of them!
I’m not sure when the launch date will be, but the mission will last three years and will be at Earth-Sun Lagrange point known as L2.It will be a very difficult task to extract the B-mode signal from foregrounds and instrumental artifacts so although there’s joy that it has been selected, the real work starts now!
I got here a bit later than I originally planned as some last-minute things came up this morning to do with next week’s events. I’ll have to skip tomorrow morning too, for similar reasons. When I did get going this morning I had to stand all the way from Maynooth to Connolly because the train was packed. At least it was reasonably on time though.
Among the things I have been dealing with to do with next week are submitting the final version of pedagogical piece about the Eclipse Expeditions of 2019 which should be published very soon in Contemporary Physics (at least in the online version) and writing a short piece for RTÉ Brainstorm (which will appear on Monday 27th May), and sorting out an appearance on Newstalk Radio next week. How I’ll get time to finish my exam marking in the middle of all this I don’t know!
I refused to do extra lectures after the strike was over to make up for those lost, as it seemed to me that defeated the point of the strike action, but I did make notes available for the students (which I do anyway). Students were also given access to recordings of the previous year’s lectures on the same module. I know some lecturers also adjusted their examinations and/or other assessments to exclude material that had not been covered.
It seems practice for dealing with this (admittedly difficult) situation has varied from institution to institution, and some students who feel that they missed out as a result of the strike have apparently asked to be compensated by their University. Institutions could of course pay compensation to students out of the money saved by not paying lecturers, but that wouldn’t go very far because only a small part of the £9000+ students pay in fees goes to the salaries of teaching staff. Another issue is that I recall one or two students didn’t come to lectures even before the strike started. Should they be compensated too?
Anyway I thought this might be an interesting topic for a poll, so here goes:
In order to avoid having to make a start on examination marking I was having a trawl through the arXiv this morning when I found an interesting paper by Stephens & Gleiser called An Informational Approach to Cosmological Parameter Estimation. The abstract is:
I haven’t had time to go through the manuscript in detail but while it doesn’t seem to say very much of a specific nature about the Hubble constant tension issue, it does introduce an approach which is new to me. The Jensen-Shannon Divergence is a variation on the familiar Kullback-Leibler Divergence.
Anyway, I’d be interested in comments on this from experts!
Arriving back in civilization last night I discovered that my polling card for Friday’s voting has arrived at last along with instructions on the Referendum to be held alongside the Local Council Elections and the European Parliament Elections, all held on 24th May.
I’m looking forward to casting my ballot. It is a new experience for me to vote here in Ireland. Both elections are held under Proportional Representation (Single Transferable Vote) which seems to me a very sensible system. One ranks the candidates in order of preference with votes progressively reallocated as the lowest-ranked candidates are eliminated. You can rank all the candidates or just some. In the system employed here one ranks the candidates in order of preference with votes progressively reallocated in various rounds until one ends up with the top n candidates to fill the n available seats. Surplus votes from the top candidates as well as those of eliminated candidates are reallocated to lower-preference candidates in this process.
The Local Elections involve filling 40 seats on Kildare County Council, with five councillors representing Maynooth. The nine candidates are listed here, in case you’re interested.
For the European Parliament Elections things are a bit more complicated. For the purposes of the EU elections Ireland is divided into three constituencies: Dublin, Ireland South and Midlands North West. I am in the latter, which elects four MEPs. There are 17 candidates for this constituency, listed here.
As a relative newcomer to Ireland I first sorted the candidates into three groups: (i) those that I would be happy to see elected, (ii) those that I don’t really like but could tolerate, and (iii) those that I wouldn’t like to see representing me under any circumstances. There are plenty in the latter category. There seems to be a law in Ireland that there has to be at least one deranged simpleton on every ballot paper, and there are several in this election. I will choose my lower-preference votes to ensure that none of these dickheads, especially racist gobshite Peter Casey, benefit from my vote in any way.
Although the STV system seems very sensible to me, it does lead to a rather lengthy counting process – especially if everyone does what I plan to do, i.e. rank all the candidates instead of just their favourites.
Well, my little jaunt back to Wales is almost over and I’ll soon be heading back to Maynooth for a very busy rest of the week.
The two examinations I’ve set this term are tomorrow (Engineering Maths) and Wednesday (Computational Physics). I’ll try to make a start on the marking as soon as I get my hands on the scripts, but on Thursday and Friday there is the annual Irish Quantum Foundations meeting, which this year is being hosted by Trinity College Dublin. I gave a talk at the same event last year, but this time I’m just in the audience.
Some time on Friday I have to cast my vote in the elections to the Local Council and European Parliament being held in Ireland. There is also a referendum to do with changing the law on divorce.
And after all that, on Friday evening, I’ll be paying my first ever visit to the famous Gaiety Theatre in Dublin for my first ever experience of Irish National Opera.