RTE’s Brainstorm; a unique forum for public intellectuals

I have an article today on RTE’s ‘Brainstorm’ webpage, my tribute to Stephen Hawking one year after his death.

"Hawking devoted a great deal of time to science outreach, unusual for a scientist at this level"

I wasn’t aware of the RTE brainstorm initiative until recently, but I must say it is a very interesting and useful resource. According to the mission statement on the website“RTÉ Brainstorm is where the academic and research community will contribute to public debate, reflect on what’s happening in the world around us and communicate fresh thinking on a broad range of issues”.  A partnership between RTE, University College Cork, NUI Galway, University of Limerick, Dublin City University, Ulster University, Maynooth University and the Technological University of Dublin, the idea is to provide an online platform for academics and other specialists to engage in public discussions of interesting ideas and perspectives in user-friendly language.  You can find a very nice description of the initiative in The Irish Times here .

I thoroughly approve of this initiative. Many academics love to complain about the portrayal of their subject (and a lot of other subjects) in the media; this provides a simple and painless method for such people to reach a wide audience. Indeed, I’ve always liked the idea of the public intellectual. Anyone can become a specialist in a given topic; it’s a lot harder to make a meaningful contribution to public debate. Some would say this is precisely the difference between the academic and the public intellectual. Certainly, I enjoy engaging in public discussions of matters close to my area of expertise and I usually learn something new.  That said, a certain humility is an absolute must – it’s easy to forget that detailed knowledge of a subject does not automatically bestow the wisdom of Solomon. Indeed, there is nothing worse than listing to an specialist use their expertise to bully others into submission – it’s all about getting the balance right and listening as well as informing….

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The joys of mid term

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 .

Eddinton

 

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Back to school

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.

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 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!

Update

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!

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A Christmas break in academia

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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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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