The last day of term

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!

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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.

 

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Is science influenced by politics?

“Most scientists and historians would agree that Einstein’s quest was driven by scientific curiosity.” Photograph:  Getty Images)

“Science is always political,” asserted a young delegate at an international conference on the history of physics earlier this month. It was a very enjoyable meeting, but I noticed the remark caused a stir among many of the physicists in the audience.

In truth, the belief that the practice of science is never entirely free of politics has been a steady theme of historical scholarship for some years now, as can be confirmed by a glance at any scholarly journal on the history of science. At a conference specifically designed to encourage interaction between scientists, historians and sociologists of science, it was interesting to see a central tenet of modern scholarship openly questioned.

Famous debate

Where does the idea come from? A classic example of the hypothesis can be found in the book Leviathan and the Air-Pump by Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer. In this highly influential work, the authors considered the influence of the politics of the English civil war and the restoration on the famous debate between scientist Robert Boyle and philosopher Thomas Hobbesconcerning the role of experimentation in science. More recently, many American historians of science have suggested that much of the success of 20th century American science, from aeronautics to particle physics, was driven by the politics of the cold war.

Similarly, there is little question that CERN, the famous inter-European particle physics laboratory at Geneva, was constructed to stem the brain-drain of European physicists to the United States after the second World War. CERN has proved itself many times over as an outstanding example of successful international scientific collaboration, although Ireland has yet to join.

But do such examples imply that science is always influenced by politics? Some scientists and historians doubt this assertion. While one can see how a certain field or technology might be driven by national or international political concerns, the thesis seems less tenable when one considers basic research. In what way is the study of the expanding universe influenced by politics? Surely the study of the elementary particles is driven by scientific curiosity?

Speculation

In addition, it is difficult to definitively prove a link between politics and a given scientific advance – such assertions involve a certain amount of speculation. For example, it is interesting to note that many of the arguments in Leviathan have been seriously questioned, although these criticisms have not received the same attention as the book itself.

That said, few could argue that research into climate science in the United States suffered many setbacks during the presidency of George W Bush, and a similar situation pertains now. But the findings of American climate science are no less valid than they were at other time and the international character of scientific enquiry ensures a certain objectivity and continuity of research. Put bluntly, there is no question that resistance to the findings of climate science is often politically motivated, but there is little evidence that climate science itself is political.

Another factor concerns the difference between the development of a given field and the dawning of an entirely new field of scientific inquiry. In a recent New York Times article titled “How politics shaped general relativity”, the American historian of science David Kaiser argued convincingly for the role played by national politics in the development of Einstein’s general theory of relativity in the United States. However, he did not argue that politics played a role in the original gestation of the theory – most scientists and historians would agree that Einstein’s quest was driven by scientific curiosity.

All in all, I think there is a danger of overstating the influence of politics on science. While national and international politics have an impact on every aspect our lives, the innate drive of scientific progress should not be overlooked. Advances in science are generally propelled by the engine of internal logic, by observation, hypothesis and theory-testing. No one is immune from political upheaval, but science has a way of weeding out incorrect hypotheses over time.

Cormac O’Raifeartaigh lectures in physics at Waterford Institute of Technology and is a visiting associate professor at University College Dublin

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A welcome mid-term break

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.

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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…

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The thrill of a good conference

One of the perks of academia is the thrill of presenting results, thoughts and ideas at international conferences. Although the best meetings often fall at the busiest moment in the teaching semester and the travel can be tiring, there is no doubt that interacting directly with one’s peers is a huge shot in the arm for any researcher – not to mention the opportunity to travel to interesting locations and experience different cultures.

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The view from my hotel in San Sebastian this morning.

This week, I travelled to San Sebastian in Spain to attend the Third International Conference on the History of Physics, the latest in a series of conferences that aim to foster dialogue between physicists with an interest in the history of their subject and professional historians of science. I think it’s fair to say the conference was a great success, with lots of interesting talks on a diverse range of topics. It didn’t hurt that the meeting took place in the Palacio Mirimar, a beautiful building in a fantastic location.

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The Palacio Mirimar in San Sebastian. 

The conference programme can be found here. I didn’t get to all the talks due to parallel timetabling, but three major highlights for me were ‘Structure or Agent? Max Planck and the Birth of Quantum Theory’ by Massimiliano Badino of the University of Verona, ‘The Principle of Plenitude as a Guiding Theme in Modern Physics’ by Helge Kragh of the University of Copenhagen, and ‘Rutherford’s Favourite Radiochemist: Bertram Borden’ by Edward Davis of the University of Cambridge.

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A slide from the paper ‘Max Planck and the Birth of Quantum Theory’

My own presentation was titled The Dawning of Cosmology – Internal vs External Histories’ (the slides are here). In it, I considered the story of the emergence of the ‘big bang’ theory of the universe from two different viewpoints, the professional physicist vs. the science historian. (The former approach is sometimes termed ‘internal history’ as scientists tend to tell the story of scientific discovery as an interplay of theory and experiment within the confines of science. The latter approach is termed  ‘external’ because the professional historian will consider external societal factors such the prestige of researchers and their institutions and the relevance of national or international contexts). Nowadays, it is generally accepted that both internal and external factors usually often a role in a given scientific advance, a  process that has been termed the co-production of scientific knowledge.

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Giving my paper in the conference room

As it was a short talk, I focused on three key stages in the development of the big bang model; the first (static) models of the cosmos that arose from relativity, the switch to expanding cosmologies in the 1930s, and finally the transition (much more gradual) to the idea of a universe that was once small, dense and hot. In preparing the paper, I found that the first stage was driven almost entirely by theoretical considerations (namely, Einstein’s wish to test his newly-minted general theory of relativity by applying it to the universe as a whole), with little evidence of co-production. Similarly, I found that the switch to expanding cosmologies was driven by almost entirely by developments in astronomy (namely, Hubble’s observations of the recession of the galaxies). Finally, I found the long rejection of Lemaître’s ‘fireworks’ universe was driven by obvious theoretical problems associated with the model (such as the problem of the singularity and the age paradox), while the eventual acceptance of the model was driven by major astronomical advances such as the discovery of the cosmic microwave background. Overall, my conclusion was that one could give a reasonably coherent account of the early development of modern cosmology in terms of the traditional narrative of an interplay of theory and experiment, with little evidence that social considerations played an important role in this particular story. As I once heard the noted historian Hasok Chang remark in a seminar, Sometimes science is the context’.

Can one draw any general conclusions from this little study? I think it would be interesting to investigate the matter further. One possibility is that social considerations become more important ‘as a field becomes a field’, i.e., as a new area of physics coalesces into its own distinct field, with specialized journals, postgraduate positions and undergraduate courses etc. Could it be that the traditional narrative works surprisingly well when considering the dawning of a field because the co-production effect is less pronounced then? Certainly, I have also found it hard to discern any major societal influence in the dawning of other theories such as special relativity or general relativity.

Coda

As a coda, I discussed a pet theme of mine; that the co-productive nature of scientific discovery presents a special problem for the science historian. After all, in order to weigh the relative impact of internal vs external considerations on a given scientific advance, one must presumably have a good understanding of each. But it takes many years of specialist training to attempt to place a scientific advance in its true scientific context, an impossible ask for a historian trained in the humanities. Some science historians avoid this problem by ‘black-boxing’ the science and focusing on social context alone. However, this means the internal scientific aspects of the story are either ignored or repeated from secondary sources, rather than offering new insights from perusing primary materials. Besides, how can one decide whether a societal influence is significant or not without considering the science? For example, Paul Forman’s argument concerning the influence of contemporaneous German culture on the acceptance of the Uncertainty Principle in quantum theory is interesting, but pays little attention to physics; a physicist might point out that it quickly became clear to the quantum theorists (many of whom were not German) that the Uncertainty Principle arose inevitably from wave-particle duality in all three formulations of the theory (see Hendry on this for example).

Indeed, now that it is accepted one needs to consider both internal and external factors in studying a given scientific advance, it’s not obvious to me what the professionalization of science history should look like, i.e., how the next generation of science historians should be trained. In the meantime, I think there is a good argument for the use of multi-disciplinary teams of collaborators in the study of the history of science.

All in all, a very enjoyable conference. I wish there had been time to relax and have a swim in the bay, but I never got a moment. On the other hand, I managed to stock up on some free issues of my favourite publication in this area, the European Physical Journal (H).  On the plane home, I had a great read of a seriously good EPJH article by S.M. Bilenky on the history of neutrino physics. Consider me inspired….

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History of Physics at the IoP

This week saw a most enjoyable conference on the history of physics at the Institute of Physics in London. The IoP has had an active subgroup in the history of physics for many years, complete with its own newsletter, but this was the group’s first official workshop for a long while. It proved to be a most enjoyable and informative occasion, I hope it is the first of many to come.

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The Institute of Physics at Portland Place in London (made famous by writer Ian McEwan in the novel ‘Solar’, as the scene of a dramatic clash between a brilliant physicist of questionable integrity and a Professor of Science Studies)

There were plenty of talks on what might be called ‘classical history’, such as Maxwell, Kelvin and the Inverse Square law of Electrostatics (by Isobel Falconer of the University of St. Andrews) and Newton’s First Law – a History (by Paul Ranford of University College London), while the more socially-minded historian might have enjoyed talks such as Psychical and Optical Research; Between Lord Rayleigh’s Naturalism and Dualism (by Gregory Bridgman of the University of Cambridge) and The Paradigm Shift of Physics -Religion-Unbelief Relationship from the Renaissance to the 21st Century (by Elisabetta Canetta of St Mary’s University). Of particular interest to me were a number of excellent talks drawn from the history of 20th century physics, such as A Partial History of Cosmic Ray Research in the UK (by the leading cosmic ray physicist Alan Watson), The Origins and Development of Free-Electron Lasers in the UK (by Elaine Seddon of Daresbury Laboratory),  When Condensed Matter became King (by Joseph Martin of the University of Cambridge), and Symmetries: On Physical and Aesthetic Argument in the Development of Relativity (by Richard Staley of the University of Cambridge). The official conference programme can be viewed here.

My own talk, Interrogating the Legend of Einstein’s “Biggest Blunder”, was a brief synopsis of our recent paper on this topic, soon to appear in the journal Physics in Perspective. Essentially our finding is that, despite recent doubts about the story, the evidence suggests that Einstein certainly did come to view his introduction of the cosmological constant term to the field equations as a serious blunder and almost certainly did declare the term his “biggest blunder” on at least one occasion. Given his awareness of contemporaneous problems such as the age of the universe predicted by cosmologies without the term, this finding has some relevance to those of today’s cosmologists who seek to describe the recently-discovered acceleration in cosmic expansion without a cosmological constant. The slides for the talk can be found here.

I must admit I missed a trick at question time. Asked about other  examples of ‘fudge factors’ that were introduced and later regretted, I forgot the obvious one. In 1900, Max Planck suggested that energy transfer between oscillators somehow occurs in small packets or ‘quanta’ of energy in order to successfully predict the spectrum of radiation from a hot body. However, he saw this as a mathematical device and was not at all supportive of the more general postulate of the ‘light quantum’ when it was proposed by a young Einstein in 1905.  Indeed, Planck rejected the light quantum for many years.

All in all, a superb conference. It was also a pleasure to visit London once again. As always, I booked a cheap ‘ n’ cheerful hotel in the city centre, walkable to the conference. On my way to the meeting, I walked past Madame Tussauds, the Royal Academy of Music, and had breakfast at the tennis courts in Regent’s Park. What a city!

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Walking past the Royal Academy on my way to the conference

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Views of London over a quick dinner after the conference

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Summer days, academics and technological universities

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?

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7th Robert Boyle Summer School

This weekend saw the 7th Robert Boyle Summer School, an annual 3-day science festival in Lismore, Co. Waterford in Ireland. It’s one of my favourite conferences – a select number of talks on the history and philosophy of science, aimed at curious academics and the public alike, with lots of time for questions and discussion after each presentation.

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The Irish-born scientist and aristocrat Robert Boyle   

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Lismore Castle in Co. Waterford , the birthplace of Robert Boyle

Born in Lismore into a wealthy landowning family, Robert Boyle became one of the most important figures in the Scientific Revolution. A contemporary of Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke, he is recognized the world over for his scientific discoveries, his role in the rise of the Royal Society and his influence in promoting the new ‘experimental philosophy’ in science.

This year, the theme of the conference was ‘What do we know – and how do we know it?’. There were many interesting talks such as Boyle’s Theory of Knowledge by Dr William Eaton, Associate Professor of Early Modern Philosophy at Georgia Southern University: The How, Who & What of Scientific Discovery by Paul Strathern, author of a great many books on scientists and philosophers such as the well-known Philosophers in 90 Minutes series: Scientific Enquiry and Brain StateUnderstanding the Nature of Knowledge by Professor William T. O’Connor, Head of Teaching and Research in Physiology at the University of Limerick Graduate Entry Medical School: The Promise and Peril of Big Data by Timandra Harkness, well-know media presenter, comedian and writer. For physicists, there was a welcome opportunity to hear the well-known American philosopher of physics Robert P. Crease present the talk Science Denial: will any knowledge do? The full programme for the conference can be found here.

All in all, a hugely enjoyable summer school, culminating in a garden party in the grounds of Lismore castle, Boyle’s ancestral home. My own contribution was to provide the music for the garden party – a flute, violin and cello trio, playing the music of Boyle’s contemporaries, from Johann Sebastian Bach to Turlough O’ Carolan. In my view, the latter was a baroque composer of great importance whose music should be much better known outside Ireland.

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Images from the garden party in the grounds of Lismore Castle

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