Government action flattened the COVID curve – it needs to continue

This article of mine was published in The Irish Times on July 23rd 2020.

Following the outbreak of the Covid-19 virus, I noted in my last column in April most governments around the world paid close attention to the advice of medical experts and scientists. As a result, many nations soon managed to “flatten the curve”, i.e., to slow the rate of infections to manageable levels.

Three months on, the situation is somewhat more complicated. No country can afford to stay locked down indefinitely, due to the spiralling costs of paid furlough and the threat of long-term unemployment and deep recession.

However, as shops, restaurants and businesses gradually reopen, quite a few countries have seen a return to high infection rates. Indeed, many nations, from Australia to Israel, have been forced to impose lockdowns a second time, at least at a local level.

This pattern is seen most obviously in the United States. Due to a lack of coherent leadership, many states failed to close schools, workplaces and businesses quickly enough and then re-opened them too early. The result has been a comprehensive failure to flatten the curve and the highest rate of infection worldwide.

How can governments achieve a reasonable balance between a healthy economy and a healthy population? One answer is that the question should not be framed as “either or”. After all, a healthy economy is simply not possible in the context of a high rate of infection. Thus, any attempts to re-open society for business must be done in such a way as to keep infection rates low.

For example, it seems reasonable to me that the Irish Government continues to advise against all unnecessary international travel. Quite apart from the risk of contracting the virus abroad, it’s hard to imagine a more vulnerable space than the enclosed cabin of an airplane. On the other hand, at the time of writing, we continue to allow planes to arrive from all destinations, with little real enforcement of quarantine. Tourism from the US makes up a vital part of the Irish economy, but reports of flights arriving daily from Dallas are surely a matter of concern.

Worrying reports

Similarly, it was a relief to see pubs and restaurants open up again in Ireland, albeit in a limited way. However, this was soon followed by worrying reports in the media of crowds outside pubs paying little attention to social distancing.

So how are we supposed to return to normal life in the presence of the virus? It seems to me that one effective weapon is not being used as widely as it should be – the face mask.

When the virus first struck, there were many references in the media to a few behavioural science studies that suggested that the wearing of masks might confer a false sense of security. It was some time before it emerged that the use of masks is in fact a remarkably efficient way of reducing contagion. This is particularly important in the case of Covid-19, as the virus can be transmitted by asymptomatic patients. In addition, there is growing evidence that the virus might also be transmitted via aerosols, ie small droplets that remain in the air (as opposed to large droplets from coughing and sneezing that travel only a few feet before dropping to the ground).

Thus, the widespread adoption of face masks should be an easy and efficient way of reducing the rate of infection. Yet many governments have left the wearing of masks as a matter of individual choice for too long. Given a mask protects the public from the wearer, rather than vice versa, this seems a mistake. At least, masks have been made mandatory on public transport in Ireland and face coverings must be worn in shops. Critically, I would like to see the practice enforced in shops and other public places.

As pointed out by Prof Orla Muldoon in an Irish Times article recently, there is a persistent tendency in the politics of today to place great emphasis on the responsibility of the individual, rather than on systemic action by the State. Yet the flattening of the Covid-19 curve was not driven by good personal choices, but by decisive government action. It seems to me that, until the virus subsides, intervention by the State should continue, in the form of the mandatory wearing of face masks in all public indoor arenas.

Dr Cormac O’Raifeartaigh lectures in physics at Waterford Institute of Technology and blogs at www.antimatter.ie

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Lessons from Covid-19

This article of mine was published in The Irish Times on 30/4/2020.

For scientists, environmentalists and others concerned with the issue of climate change, the COVID-19 crisis has provided many insights into the way our societies deal with a global threat.

The most striking observation is that it is clear that humans can change their social behavior, rapidly and decisively, if necessary. On the news every evening, we see pictures of deserted city centres around the world, images that would have been inconceivable just a few months ago. Of course, changes in social behaviour have occurred before, from drink-driving to smoking, but the pace and scale of the onset of social distancing has been of a different order.

A less positive observation is that the reaction to the COVID-19 crisis occurred at national, rather than international, level.  Where one might have expected action to be coordinated by global organizations such as the United Nations or the World Health Organization, each nation set its own policy, with little interaction from other countries – even for the case of member states of the European Union.

This led to a wide variety of reactions to the crisis. Some countries (including Ireland) intervened early, closing schools and businesses and enforcing social isolation before the virus took hold, despite the economic cost. In other countries, particularly those with a strong attachment to free-market ideology (such as the US and the UK), intervention came much later.

So far, it seems that the first group of countries got it right. Early intervention appears to have been effective in slowing the rate of infection, helping to avoid national health services being overwhelmed. Meanwhile countries that delayed are finding it much more difficult to ‘bend the curve’. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that governments that let science take precedence over politics and economics from the very beginning fared better.

That said, most nations followed the advice of their scientists at least to some degree. This was matched by a widespread public acceptance of science-based directives from government on social isolation. To be sure, one encounters the odd conspiracy theory on social media but there hasn’t been any great ‘COVID -19 debate’, i.e., nightly disputes in the media between epidemiologists and commentators with no expertise in the subject.

It seems that in the face of this crisis, most people are happy to defer to experts, contrary to that infamous statement by Brexiteer Michael Gove. In a time of real crisis, the general population have found a new respect for scientific expertise. Indeed, it has been quite amusing to witness some of the most virulent British tabloids castigating their government for not following scientific expertise closely enough. These same tabloids have long given a platform to contrarian views on global warming, creating a false impression of a debate that simply doesn’t exist in scientific circles. It seems that science is to be trusted in at least some spheres.

However, the United States has marked a striking exception to this pattern. Where the US might once have led the world in a time of crisis, the reaction of the Trump administration to COVID-19 has been farcical from the outset. Having initially dismissed the crisis as a hoax perpetrated by political enemies, the President then lurched from one daft opinion to another, all the while installing family members and political cronies in key positions to address the crisis. This approach was mirrored by his favourite tv station, Fox News, who featured daily commentary from ‘experts’ who knew nothing about the subject. The outcome was a comprehensive failure to take meaningful action in good time, resulting in a very high rate of infection in some the largest cities in the world.  

The failure of the US to act decisively in the face of a global threat is deeply worrying. As in the case of climate change, there seems to be a deep unwillingness to listen to the experts and take appropriate action. The implications for our climate are grave. After all, the COVID-19 crisis has a finite timeline as the virus moves through the population and vaccines are eventually developed. By contrast, carbon emissions will continue to rise in the longterm, with catastrophic consequences,  unless drastic action is taken. In a rational world, one positive outcome of the COVID-19 crisis could be a widespread rejection of politicians and media outlets who allowed politics and uninformed opinion to take precedence over science – scientists, science communicators and journalists should do their best to ensure that this lesson is learnt.

Dr Cormac O’Raifeartaigh lectures in physics at Waterford Institute of Technology and blogs at http://www.antimatter.ie

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A rude introduction to remote teaching at third level

Like so many educational institutions worldwide, our college closed ten days ago and it now seems unlikely that we will see our students in person before the Autumn. Although not unexpected, the closure happened at extremely short notice and many lecturers were caught napping. For most of us, last week was a hectic week of preparing notes, tutorials and other resources that students can use for online learning. A parallel challenge was a crash course in learning to liaise with staff and students using digital tools such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Google hangouts and Slack.

The spread of the COVID-19 virus is a very serious crisis, but I must admit that I am quite  enjoying the experience of remote teaching so far. In the first instance, I am always happy to learn new digital skills, they usually turn out to be useful in all sorts of ways. More importantly, a lot of my students seem to be quite happy to get on with studying their notes. Many of our students have complained in the past that between attending labs, lectures and tutorials, there never seems to be much time to go over their notes and reflect on the material. I certainly found this myself as an undergraduate science student in UCD and I suspect it is even more of an issue in the IoT sector. So while some of my colleagues are delivering their lectures via video link, I prefer to use the crisis to try out the so-called flipped classroom, i.e., let the students study the material first and ask questions on it afterwards.

As regards the summer exams, the college authorities haven’t yet decided how to proceed; it seems likely that the exams will be done either by online assessment or by deferring to the autumn. I hope it’s the former, I hate to think of our students having to study over the summer months. Mind you, it’s not clear yet what any of us will be able to do this summer!

Last but not least, when prep for remote teaching has settled down, I suspect I will have quite a bit more time for research. I have several unfinished articles I couldn’t find time to attend to during normal termtime, I’m looking forward to getting back to them …

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Upcoming conference in Ireland on the history of physics

Just a quick post to highlight the fact that December 15th marks the deadline for submission of abstracts for the 4th International Conference on the History of Physics. The conference marks the fourth in a biennial series of meetings supported by the UK Institute of Physics and the European Physical Society that aim to bring together historians of science and physicists with an interest in the history of their subject and will take place at Trinity College Dublin on June 17th-19th. The website for the conference is here and previous iterations of the conference can be found here. This time around, a central theme of the conference will be the history of 20th century physics, from the world of the very small to the world of the very large, inspired by the centenary of the discovery of the proton and of the bending of light in a gravitational field.

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I have attended all three of the previous meetings of this conference series and they were most interesting. As the conference takes place in Ireland this time around, I have been heavily involved in the preparations, from chairing the scientific programming committee to attending regular meetings of the organizing committee at Trinity College. It’s been a most interesting experience but I never quite realised how much work goes into organising such meetings!  As you can see from the website and the poster above, we will have 8-10 invited speakers at the conference and we expect another 20-30 ‘contributed’ abstracts to be submitted by the deadline of December 15th. So, for those of you with an interest in the history of science, it’s time to get thinking about a topic!

 

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In support of Greta Thunberg

This article of mine appeared in The Irish Times last week. I reprint it here for convenience.

‘What’s your take on Greta Thunberg and her school strike?’, a colleague asked me over lunch a few days ago. ‘Wouldn’t she and her followers be better off staying in school’?

Like most people who have been writing about the problem of climate change for some years, I have nothing but admiration for Greta Thunberg.  It’s hard to believe that it is only a year since the diminutive Swede took to absenting herself from school on Friday afternoons in order to sit on the steps of the Swedish parliament, accompanied only by a handwritten placard demanding governmental action on climate change.

But does she really have science on her side?, asked my lunch companion. ‘Or is she some sort of alarmist?’

There is little question that Thunberg has science on her side. Indeed, her demand is not that anyone should listen to her but that they should listen to the climate scientists. It is telling that she began her recent address to the United Nations (an intimidating undertaking for any 16 year-old) by stating that she should not be there. Instead of submitting a written script to accompany her speech, she submitted a chapter of the most recent IPCC report.

But how did her solitary protest become such a big movement?’, my colleague asks. ‘It’s obvious that the movement has been hijacked by the usual collection of eco-loons, anachists and what have you. Who’s paying for all this?’

The growth of Greta’s solitary school strike into a worldwide movement is certainly astonishing. Last month, more than a million schoolchildren worldwide marched in protest. However, there is no evidence the movement has been hijacked or financed by anybody. It seems that a great many of Greta’s contemporaries worldwide have grasped her simple point – the chasm between what they learn in school about the effect of greenhouse gases on global climate and the fact that emissions continue to rise year on year.

‘But the emissions of countries like Ireland and Sweden are negligible in comparison with countries like China. It makes no sense for us to suffer cutbacks while they continue to emit.’

We will never make progress if each nation waits for the other to act. Also, it’s not a given that moving from fossil fuels to renewable energy leads to economic hardship. As it happens, China is now making huge investments in renewable energy.

I’ll bet many of those kids get a lift to school everyday in Daddy’s SUV. And if they’re anything like my lot, they probably have 2 showers a day.’

This is quite possibly true. However, you have to live in the world while trying to change it. While individual actions are important, actions at governmental level are vital. For example, we didn’t address the problem of the hole in the ozone layer by using less deodorant – instead we changed the product.

 ‘ Why can’t they have their marches when school is out?’

One reason is that it wouldn’t be a strike! Presumably, it would be much easier for the students (and their parents) to march on Saturdays, but it would also be much less disruptive.  After all, a postman can refuse to deliver post, and a pilot can refuse to refuse a plane. If schoolchildren want to rause awareness of an issue, they have only one weapon available to them.

‘Don’t talk to me of airplanes – the next time I fly, I can expect delays because some lunatic has glued himself to the roof. By the way, I take it you still fly to conferences?’

I attend very few conferences these days and never in the US – but that’s partly due to a lack of funding for fundamental research. In any case, it’s not the schoolkids who have been targeting aviation – that’s Extinction Rebellion.

‘Ah yes, those guys are determined to make life inconvenient. Ivan Yates compared them to the Taliban the other day’ .

Not a great comparison as Extinction Rebellion is a peaceful protest movement, not a terrorist organization that murders civilians. What XR have in common with the school strikers is a concern for the future. According to the scientists, there is no guarantee that global warming will continue at the current gradual pace. Instead, it is very possible that positive feedbacks will cause the warming to accelerate, rendering some nations uninhabitable due to persistent drought and other nations uninhabitable due to rising sea level. Now that would be inconvenient…

Dr Cormac O’Raifeartaigh lectures in physics at Waterford Institute of Technology and is a Visiting Associate Professor at the School of Physics at UCD. He blogs at www.antimatter.ie

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September, new students, surfing and a conference

I always forget how much I enjoy the month of September. There’s always a great buzz around the college, from new students starting their college career to returning students enrolling on a new set of modules. From a lecturer’s point of view, there is also the buzz of a new cohort of science students and a new teaching timetable after a summer of quiet research.

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Back to school after a quiet summer

In addition, September is a great month in Ireland weather-wise. It’s still warm enough to play outdoor tennis and football, and the surf is back at last. Even better, there is still enough light to catch a few waves after work!

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Surfing in Tramore bay, Waterford

This weekend, it was our college’s turn to host the annual Frontiers of Physics conference. This is a wonderful annual meeting organised by the Institute of Physics in Ireland to foster links between second-level teachers and third-level lecturers. Each year, a given college uses the opportunity to highlight what research is being done in their college, before breaking up for useful workshops in the teaching of physics. You can see the conference programme here, it was a most enjoyable day.

In my own case, I gave a brief description of the research I do in the history of science. I found myself drawing on the excellent police drama ‘Line of Duty’ as an analogy. If scientists are like detectives, then historians are science are a bit like the overview team sent in to review how a given enquiry proceeded (‘cops on cops’). The slides are here and slides from the other presentations of the day will be available here.

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The feared AC-12 unit in Line of Duty – is that what science historians do?

I slipped away early from the meeting to check out the surf in Tramore, our local surf beach. Sure enough it was excellent, what a way to end the month!

 

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A conference in Paris

This week I’m in Paris, attending a conference in memory of the outstanding British astronomer and theoretician Arthur Stanley Eddington. The conference, which is taking place at the Observatoire de Paris, is designed to celebrate the centenary of Eddington’s famous measurement of the bending of distant starlight by the sun.  a key experiment that offered important early support for Einstein’s general theory of relativity. However, there are talks on lots of different topics, from Eddington’s philosophy of science to his work on the physics of stars, from his work in cosmology to his search for a unified field theory. The conference website and programme is here.

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The view from my hotel in Denfert-Rochereau

All of the sessions of the conference were excellent, but today was a particular treat with four outstanding talks on the 1919 expedition. In ‘Eddington, Dyson and the Eclipse of 1919’, Daniel Kennefick of the University of Arkansas gave a superb overview of his recent book on the subject. In ‘The 1919 May 29 Eclipse: On Accuracy and Precision’, David Valls-Gabaud of the Observatoire de Paris gave a forensic analysis of Eddington’s calculations. In ‘The 1919 Eclipse; Were the Results Robust?’ Gerry Gilmore of the University of Cambridge described how recent reconstructions of the expedition measurements gave confidence in the results; and in ‘Chasing Mare’s Nests ; Eddington and the Early Reception of General Relativity among Astronomers’, Jeffrey Crelinsten of the University of Toronto summarized the doubts expressed by major American astronomical groups in the early 1920s, as described in his excellent book.

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I won’t describe the other sessions, but just note a few things that made this conference the sort of meeting I like best. All speakers were allocated the same speaking time (30 mins including questions); most speakers were familiar with each other’s work; many speakers spoke on the same topic, giving different perspectives; there was plenty of time for further questions and comments at the end of each day. So a superb conference organised by Florian Laguens of the IPC and David Valls-Gabaud of the Observatoire de Paris.

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On the way to the conference

In my own case, I gave a talk on Eddington’s role in the discovery of the expanding universe. I have long been puzzled by the fact that Eddington, an outstanding astronomer and strong proponent of the general theory of relativity, paid no attention when his brilliant former student Georges Lemaître suggested that a universe of expanding universe could be derived from general relativity, a phenomenon that could account for the redshifts of the spiral nebulae, the biggest astronomical puzzle of the age. After considering some standard explanations (Lemaître’s status as an early-career researcher, the journal he chose to publish in and the language of the paper), I added two considerations of my own: (i) the theoretical analysis in Lemaître’s 1927 paper would have been very demanding for a 1927 reader and (ii) the astronomical data that Lemaître relied upon were quite preliminary (Lemaître’s calculation of a redshift/distance coefficient for the nebulae relied upon astronomical distances from Hubble that were established using the method of apparent magnitude, a method that was much less reliable than Hubble’s later observations using the method of Cepheid variables).

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Making my points at the Eddington Conference

It’s an interesting puzzle because it is thought that Lemaitre sent a copy of his paper to Eddington in 1927 – however I finished by admitting that there is a distinct possibility that Eddington simply didn’t take the time to read his former student’s paper. Sometimes the most boring explanation is the right one! The slides for my talk can be found here.

All in all, a superb conference.

 

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A Week at The Surf Experience

I don’t often take a sun holiday these days, but I had a fabulous time last week at The Surf Experience in Lagos, Portugal. I’m not an accomplished surfer by any measure, but there is nothing quite like the thrill of catching a few waves in the sea with the sun overhead – a nice change from the indoors world of academia.

Not for the first time, I signed up for a residential course with The Surf Experience in Lagos. Founded by veteran German surfer Dago Lipke, guests of The Surf Experience stay at the surf lodge Vila Catarina, a lovely villa in the hills above Lagos, complete with beautiful gardens and swimming pool. Sumptuous meals are provided by Dagos’s wife Connie, a wonderful cook. Instead of wandering around town trying to find a different restaurant every evening, guests enjoy an excellent meal in a quiet setting in good company, followed by a game of pool or chess. And it really is good company. Guests at TSE tend mainly to hail from Germany and Switzerland, with a sprinkling from France and Sweden, so it’s truly international – quite a contrast to your average package tour (or indeed our college staff room). Not a mention of Brexit, and an excellent opportunity to improve my German. (Is that what you tell yourself?- Ed)

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Hanging out at the pool before breakfast

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Fine dining at The Surf Experience

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A game of cards and a conversation instead of a noisy bar

Of course, no holiday is perfect and in this case I managed to pick up an injury on the first day. Riding the tiniest wave all the way back to the beach, I got unexpectedly thrown off, hitting my head off the bottom at speed. (This is the most elementary error you can make in surfing and it risks serious injury, from concussion to spinal fracture). Luckily, I walked away with nothing more than severe bruising to the neck and chest (as later established by X-ray at the local medical clinic, also an interesting experience). So no life-altering injuries, but like a jockey with a broken rib, I was too sore to get back on the horse for few days. Instead, I tried Stand Up Paddling for the first time, which I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s more exciting than it looks, must get my own board for calm days at home.

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Stand Up Paddling in Lagos with Kiteschool Portugal

Things got even better towards the end of the week as I began to heal. Indeed, the entire surf lodge had a superb day’s surfing yesterday on beautiful small green waves at a beach right next to town (in Ireland, we very rarely see clean conditions like this, the surf is mainly driven by wind). It was fantastic to catch wave after wave throughout the afternoon, even if clambering back on the board after each wasn’t much fun for yours truly.

This morning, I caught a Ryanair flight back to Dublin from Faro, should be back in the office by late afternoon. Oddly enough, I feel enormously refreshed – perhaps it’s the feeling of gradually healing. Hopefully the sensation of being continuously kicked in the ribs will disappear soon and I’ll be back on the waves in June. In the meantime, this week marks a study period for our students before their exams, so it’s an ideal time to prepare my slides for the Eddington conference in Paris later this month.

Update

I caught a slight cold on the way back, so today I’m wandering around college like a lunatic going cough, ‘ouch’ , sneeze, ‘ouch’.  Maybe it’s karma for flying Ryanair – whatever about indulging in one or two flights a year, it’s a terrible thing to use an airline whose CEO continues to openly deny the findings of climate scientists.

 

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My favourite conference; the Institute of Physics Spring Weekend

This weekend I attended the annual meeting of the Institute of Physics in Ireland. I always enjoy these meetings – more relaxing than a technical conference and a great way of keeping in touch with physicists from all over the country. As ever, there were a number of interesting presentations, plenty of discussions of science and philosophy over breakfast, lunch and dinner, all topped off by the annual awarding of the Rosse Medal, a highly competitive competition for physics postgraduates across the nation.

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The theme of this year’s meeting was ‘A Climate of Change’ and thus the programme included several talks on the highly topical subject of anthropogenic climate change. First up was ‘The science of climate change’, a cracking talk on the basic physics of climate change by Professor Joanna Haigh of Imperial College London. This was followed by ‘Climate change: where we are post the IPCC report and COP24’, an excellent presentation by Professor John Sweeney of Maynooth University on the latest results from the IPCC. Then it was my turn. In ‘Climate science in the media – a war on information?’,  I compared the coverage of climate change in the media with that of other scientific topics such as medical science and and big bang cosmology. My conclusion was that climate change is a difficult subject to convey to the public, and matters are not helped by actors who deliberately attempt to muddle the science and downplay the threat. You can find details of the full conference programme here and the slides for my own talk are here.

 

Images of my talk from IoP Ireland 

There followed by a panel discussion in which Professor Haigh, Professor Sweeney and I answered questions from the floor on climate science. I don’t always enjoy panel discussions, but I think this one was useful thanks to some excellent chairing by Paul Hardaker of the Institute of Physics.

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Panel discussion of the threat of anthopogenic climate change

After lunch, we were treated to a truly fascinating seminar: ‘Tropical storms, hurricanes, or just a very windy day?: Making environmental science accessible through Irish Sign Language’, by Dr Elizabeth Mathews of Dublin City University, on the challenge of making media descriptions of threats such as storms hurricanes and climate change accessible to deaf people. This was followed by a most informative talk by Dr Bajram Zeqiri of the National Physical Laboratory on the recent redefinition of the kilogram,  ‘The measure of all things: redefinition of the kilogram, the kelvin, the ampere and the mole’.

Finally, we had the hardest part of the day, the business of trying to select the best postgraduate posters and choosing a winner from the shortlist. As usual, I was blown away by the standard, far ahead of anything I or my colleagues ever produced. In the end, the Rosse Medal was awarded to Sarah Markham of the University of Limerick for a truly impressive poster and presentation.

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Viewing posters at the IoP 2019 meeting; image courtesy of IoP Ireland

All in all, another super IoP Spring weekend. Now it’s back to earth and back to teaching…

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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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