Remembering Stephen Hawking

Like many physicists, I woke to some sad news early last Wednesday morning, and to a phoneful of requests from journalists for a soundbyte. In fact, although I bumped into Stephen at various conferences, I only had one significant meeting with him – he was intrigued by my research group’s discovery that Einstein once attempted a steady-state model of the universe. It was a slightly scary but very funny meeting during which his famous sense of humour was fully at play.

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Yours truly talking steady-state cosmology with Stephen Hawking

I recalled the incident in a radio interview with RTE Radio 1 on Wednesday. As I say in the piece, the first words that appeared on Stephen’s screen were “I knew..” My heart sank as I assumed he was about to say “I knew about that manuscript“. But when I had recovered sufficiently to look again, what Stephen was actually saying was “I knew ..your father”. Phew! You can find the podcast here.

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Hawking in conversation with my late father (LHS) and with Ernest Walton (RHS)

RTE TV had a very nice obituary on the Six One News, I have a cameo appearence a few minutes into the piece here.

In my view, few could question Hawking’s brilliant contributions to physics, or his outstanding contribution to the public awareness of science. His legacy also includes the presence of many brilliant young physicists at the University of Cambridge today. However, as I point out in a letter in today’s Irish Times, had Hawking lived in Ireland, he probably would have found it very difficult to acquire government funding for his work. Indeed, he would have found that research into the workings of the universe does not qualify as one of the “strategic research areas” identified by our national funding body, Science Foundation Ireland. I suspect the letter will provoke an angry from certain quarters, but it is tragically true.


The above notwithstanding, it’s important not to overstate the importance of one scientist. Indeed, today’s Sunday Times contains a good example of the dangers of science history being written by journalists. Discussing Stephen’s 1974 work on black holes, Bryan Appleyard states  “The paper in effect launched the next four decades of cutting edge physics. Odd flowers with odd names bloomed in the garden of cosmic speculation – branes, worldsheets , supersymmetry …. and, strangest of all, the colossal tree of string theory”.

What? String theory, supersymmetry and brane theory are all modern theories of particle physics (the study of the world of the very small). While these theories were used to some extent by Stephen in his research in cosmology (the study of the very large), it is ludicrous to suggest that they were launched by his work.



Filed under Cosmology (general), History and philosophy of science, Science and society, Teaching, Third level

Snowbound academics are better academics

Like most people in Ireland, I am working at home today. We got quite a dump of snow in the last two days, and there is no question of going anywhere until the roads clear. Worse, our college closed quite abruptly and I was caught on the hop – there are a lot of things (flash drives, books and papers) sitting smugly in my office that I need for my usual research.


The college on Monday evening

That said, I must admit I’m finding it all quite refreshing. For the first time in years, I have time to read interesting things in my daily email; all those postings from academic listings that I never seem to get time to read normally. I’m enjoying it so much, I wonder how much stuff I miss the rest of the time.


The view from my window as I write this

This morning, I thoroughly enjoyed a paper by Nicholas Campion on the representation of astronomy and cosmology in the works of William Shakespeare. I’ve often wondered about this as Shakespeare lived long enough to know of Galileo’s ground-breaking astronomical observations. However, anyone expecting coded references to new ideas about the universe in Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays will be disappointed; apparently he mainly sticks to classical ideas, with a few vague references to the changing order.

I’m also reading about early attempts to measure the parallax of light from a comet, especially by the great Danish astronomer Tycho de Brahe. This paper comes courtesy of the History of Astronomy Discussion Group listings, a really useful resource for anyone interested in the history of astronomy.

While I’m reading all this, I’m also trying to keep abreast of a thoroughly modern debate taking place worldwide, concerning the veracity of an exciting new result in cosmology on the formation of the first stars. It seems a group studying the cosmic microwave background think they have found evidence of a signal representing the absorption of radiation from the first stars. This is exciting enough if correct, but the dramatic part is that the signal is much larger than expected, and one explanation is that this effect may be due to the presence of Dark Matter.

If true, the result would be a major step in our understanding of the formation of stars,  plus a major step in the demonstration of the existence of Dark Matter. However, it’s early days – there are many possible sources of a spurious signal and signals that are larger than expected have a poor history in modern physics! There is a nice article on this in The Guardian, and you can see some of the debate on Peter Coles’s blog In the Dark.  Right or wrong, it’s a good example of how scientific discovery works – if the team can show they have taken all possible spurious results into account, and if other groups find the same result, skepticism will soon be converted into excited acceptance.

All in all, a great day so far. My only concern is that this is the way academia should be – with our day-to-day commitments in teaching and research, it’s easy to forget there is a larger academic world out there.


Of course, the best part is the walk into the village when it finally stops chucking down. can’t believe my local pub is open!


Dunmore East in the snow today



Filed under History and philosophy of science, Teaching, Third level

A week’s research and a New Year resolution

If anyone had suggested a few years ago that I would forgo a snowsports holiday in the Alps for a week’s research, I would probably not have believed them. Yet here I am, sitting comfortably in the library of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.

ew3          The School of Theoretical Physics at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies

It’s been a most satisfying week. One reason is that a change truly is as good as a rest – after a busy teaching term, it’s very enjoyable to spend some time in a quiet spot, surrounded by books on the history of physics. Another reason is that one can accomplish an astonishing amount in one week’s uninterrupted study. That said, I’m not sure I could do this all year round, I’d miss the teaching!

As regards a resolution for 2018, I’ve decided to focus on getting a book out this year. For some time, I have been putting together a small introductory book on the big bang theory, based on a public lecture I give to diverse audiences, from amateur astronomers to curious taxi drivers. The material is drawn from a course I teach at both Waterford Institute of Technology and University College Dublin and is almost in book form already. The UCD experience is particularly useful, as the module is aimed at first-year students from all disciplines.

Of course, there are already plenty of books out there on this topic. My students have a comprehensive reading list, which includes classics such as A Brief History of Time (Hawking), The First Three Minutes (Weinberg) and The Big Bang (Singh). However, I regularly get feedback to the effect that the books are too hard (Hawking) or too long (Singh) or out of date (Weinberg). So I decided a while ago to put together my own effort; a useful exercise if nothing else comes of it.

In particular, I intend to take a historical approach to the story. I’m a great believer in the ‘how-we-found-out’ approach to explaining scientific theories (think for example of that great BBC4 documentary on the discovery of oxygen). My experience is that a historical approach allows the reader to share the excitement of discovery and makes technical material much easier to understand. In addition, much of the work of the early pioneers remains relevant today. The challenge will be to present a story that is also concise – that’s the hard part!


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Thinking about space and time in Switzerland

This week, I spent a very enjoyable few days in Bern, Switzerland, attending the conference ‘Thinking about Space and Time: 100 Years of Applying and Interpreting General Relativity’. Organised by Claus Beisbart, Tilman Sauer and Christian Wüthrich, the workshop took place at the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Bern, and focused on the early reception of Einstein’s general theory of relativity and the difficult philosophical questions raised by the theory. The conference website can be found here and the conference programme is here .

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The university of Bern, Switzerland

Of course, such studies also have a historical aspect, and I particularly enjoyed talks by noted scholars in the history and philosophy of 20th century science such as Chris Smeenk (‘Status of the Expanding Universe Models’), John Norton (‘The Error that Showed the Way; Einstein’s Path to the Field Equations’), Dennis Lehmkuhl (‘The Interpretation of Vacuum Solutions in Einstein’s Field Equations’), Daniel Kennefick (‘A History of Gravitational Wave Emission’) and Galina Weinstein (‘The Two-Body Problem in General Relativity as a Heuristic Guide to the Einstein-Rosen Bridge and the EPR Argument’). Other highlights were a review of the problem of dark energy (something I’m working on myself at the moment) by astrophysicist Ruth Durrer and back-to-back talks on the so-called black-hole information paradox from physicist Sabine Hossenfelder and philosopher Carina Prunkl. There were also plenty of talks on general relativity such as Claus Kiefer’s recall of the problems raised at the famous 1955 Bern conference (GR0),  and a really interesting talk on Noether’s theorems by Valeriya Chasova.


Walking to the conference through the old city early yesterday morning


Dr Valereria Chasova giving a talk on Noether’s theorems

My own talk, ‘Historical and Philosophical Aspects of Einstein’s 1917 Model of the Universe’, took place on the first day, the slides are here. (It’s based on our recent review of the Einstein World which has just appeared in EPJH). As for the philosophy talks, I don’t share the disdain some physicists have for philosophers. It seems to me that philosophy has a big role to play in understanding what we think we have discovered about space and time, not least in articulating the big questions clearly. After all, Einstein himself had great interest in the works of philosophers, from Ernst Mach to Hans Reichenbach, and there is little question that modern philosophers such as Harvey Brown have made important contributions to relativity studies. Of course, some philosophers are harder to follow than others, but this is also true of mathematical talks on relativity!

The conference finished with a tour of the famous Einstein Haus in Bern. It’s strange walking around the apartment Einstein lived in with Mileva all those years ago, it has been preserved extremely well. The tour included a very nice talk by Professor Hans Ott , President of the Albert Einstein Society, on AE’s work at the patent office, his 3 great breakthroughs of 1905, and his rise from obscurity to stardom in the years 1905-1909.

Einstein’s old apartment in Bern, a historic site maintained by the Albert Einstein Society

All in all, my favourite sort of conference. A small number of speakers and participants, with plenty of time for Q&A after each talk. I also liked the way the talks took place in a lecture room in the University of Bern, a pleasant walk from the centre of town through the old part of the city (not some bland hotel miles from anywhere). This afternoon, I’m off to visit the University of Zurich and the ETH, and then it’s homeward bound.


I had a very nice day being shown around  ETH Zurich, where Einstein studied as a student


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Imagine taking a mountain lift from the centre of town to lectures!

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Revolutions in Science at UCD

Earlier today , I gave my first my undergraduate lecture at University College Dublin (UCD). The lecture marked the start of a module called Revolutions in Science, a new course that is being offered to UCD students across the disciplines of science, engineering business, law and the humanities.


As far as I know, this is the first course in the history and philosophy of science (HPS) offered at an Irish university and I’m delighted to be part of the initiative. I’ve named my component of the module Science, Society and the Universe – a description of the evolution of ideas about the universe, from the Babylonians to the ancient Greeks, from Ptolemy to Copernicus, from Newton to Einstein (it’s a version of a module I’ve taught at Waterford Institute of Technology for some years).

Hopefully, the new module will be the start of a new trend. It has long surprised me that interdisciplinary courses like this are not a staple of the university experience in Ireland. Certainly, renowned universities like Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge all have strong HPS departments with associated undergraduate modules offered to students across all disciplines. After all, such courses offer a very nice mix of history, philosophy and science, not to mention a useful glimpse into the history of ideas.


In the meantime, I think I will really enjoy being back at my alma mater once a week. I can’t believe how UCD has developed into a really attractive campus

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A new year, a new semester

I always enjoy the start of the second semester. There’s usually a great atmosphere around the college – after long weeks of quiet, it’s great to see the students back and all the restaurants, shops and canteens back open. The students themselves always seem to be in good form too. I suspect it’s the prospect of starting afresh with new modules, one of the benefits of semesterisation.

I’m particularly enjoying the start of term this year as I managed to finish a hefty piece of research before the teaching semester got under way. I’ve been working steadily on the project, a review of a key paper published by Einstein in 1917, since June 1st, so it’s nice to have it off my desk for a while. Of course, the paper will come back in due course with corrections and suggestions from the referees, but I usually enjoy that part of the process.

In the meantime, I’d forgotten how much I enjoy teaching, especially in the absence of a great cloud of research to be done in the evenings. One of the courses I’m teaching this semester is a history of the atomic hypothesis. It’s fascinating to study how the idea emerged from different roots: philosophical considerations in ancient Greece, considerations of chemical reactions in the 18th and 19th century , and considerations of statistical mechanics in the 19th century. The big problem  was how to test the hypothesis: at least until a brilliant young patent clerk suggested that the motion of small particles suspended in water might betray the presence of millions of water molecules.  Einstein’s formula was put to the test by the French physicist Jean Perrin in 1908, and it is one of Einstein’s great triumphs that by 1910, most scientists no longer talked of the ‘atomic hypothesis’, but of ‘atoms’.


In 1905, a young Albert Einstein developed a formula describing the motion of particles  suspended in a liquid, based on the hypothesis that the liquid was made up of millions of molecules. In 1908, the French physicist Jean Perrin demonstrated that the motion of such particles matched Einstein’s formula, giving strong support for the atomic hypothesis.  

For more on Perrin’s exeriment see here


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End of the second semester

It’s hard to believe we have almost reached the end of the second teaching semester. I’m always a bit sorry to see the end of classes, but I accept that it’s important that students are given time to reflect on what they have learnt. With that in mind, I don’t quite understand why exams start in early May rather than June.

As regards research, I can now get back to putting the finishing touches to a review paper I have been trying to finish for months. Mind you, thanks to the open-plan layout of offices in our college,  there will be more – not less – noise and distraction for the next few months as staff are no longer in class. Whoever came up with the idea that open-plan offices are a good idea for academics?

On top of finishing off my various teaching modules, I agreed to give a research seminar this week. The general theory of relativity, Einstein’s greatest contribution to science, is a hundred years old this month and I couldn’t resist an invitation to give a brief history of the theory, together with a summary of the observational evidence supporting many strange predictions of the theory – from black holes to the expanding universe, from the ‘big bang’ to gravitational waves. The talk took quite a bit of prep, but I think it went well and there were plenty of questions afterwards – a nice way to finish off the teaching semester.


The slides for the talk are here. Now the excitement is over and it’s back to the lonely business of writing research papers…


I gave a similar talk in University College Dublin yesterday. A tiring trip, but it’s always very satisfying to give a repeat performance.

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