Category Archives: History and philosophy of science

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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Filed under History and philosophy of science, Teaching, Uncategorized

Robert Boyle Summer School 2015

Last weekend, I attended the Robert Boyle Summer School, an annual 3-day science festival in Lismore, Co. Waterford in Ireland. It’s my favourite annual conference by some margin – a small number of talks by highly eminent scholars of 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.

Born in Lismore into a wealthy landowning family, Robert Boyle became one of the most important figures in the Scientific Revolution, well-known for his scientific discoveries, his role in the Royal Society and his influence in promoting the new ‘experimental philosophy’ in science.


The Irish-born scientist and aristocrat Robert Boyle   

As ever, the summer school took place in Lismore, the beautiful town that is the home of Lismore Castle where Boyle was born. This year, the conference commemorated the 350th anniversary of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society by considering the history of the publication of scientific work, from the first issue of  Phil. Trans. to the problem of fraud in scientific publication today.


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

The summer school opened on Thursday evening with an intriguing warm-up talk on science in modern novels. Jim Malone , Emeritus Robert Boyle Professor of Medicine at Trinity College Dublin, presented a wonderful tour of his favourite novels involving science, with particular emphasis on the novels of C.P. Snow , Ian McEwan and the Irish satirist Flann O’Brien. I must admit I have not read the novels of C.P. Snow (although I am familiar with his famous essay on the two cultures of science and literature). As for Flann O’ Brien, we were treated to a superb overview of the science in his novels, not least the wonderful and surreal novel ‘ The Third Policeman’. Nowadays, there is an annual conference in memory of Flann O’ Brien, I hope Jim gives  a presentation at this meeting! Finally, I was delighted that the novels of Ian McEwan were included in the discussion. I too enjoyed the novels ‘Saturday’ and ‘Solar’ hugely, was amazed by the author’s grasp of science and the practice of science .

Turning to the core theme of the conference, the first talk on Friday morning was ‘Robert Boyle, Philosophical Transactions and Scientific Communication’ by Professor Michael Hunter of Birkbeck College. Professor Hunter is one of the world’s foremost experts on Boyle, and he gave a thorough overview of Boyle’s use of the Phil. Trans to disseminate his findings. Afterwards, Dr. Aileen Fyfe of the University of St Andrews gave the talk ‘Peer Review: A History From 1665′ carefully charting how the process of peer review evolved from Boyle’s time to today. The main point here was that today’s process of a journal sending papers out to be refereed by experts in the field is a relatively new development. In Boyle’s day, a submitted paper was evaluated by either the Secretary of the Royal Society or by one of the Fellows. However, it seemed to me that this ‘gatekeeper’ approach still constituted review by peers and was, if anything, more restrictive than today’s peer review.


The renowned Boyle scholar Professor Michael Hunter of Birbeck College, UCL, in action

On Friday afternoon, we had the wonderful talk ‘Lady Ranelagh, the Hartlib Circle and Networks for Scientific Correspondence’  in the spectacular setting of St Carthage’s Cathedral, given by Dr.Michelle DiMeo of the Chemical Heritage Foundation.  I knew nothing of Lady Ranelagh (Robert Boyle’s elder sister) or the The Hartlib Circle  before this. The Circle was clearly an important  forerunner of the Philosophical Transactions and Lady Ranelagh’s role in the Circle and in Boyle’s scientific life has been greatly overlooked.


St Carthage’s Cathedral in Lismore


Professor DiMeo unveiling a plaque in memory of Lady Ranelagh at the Castle. The new plaque is on the right, to accompany the existing plaque in memory of Robert Boyle on the left 

On Friday evening, we had a barbecue in the Castle courtyard, accompanied by music and dance from local music group Sonas. After this, many of us trooped down to one of the village pubs for an impromptu music session (okay, not entirely impromptu, ahem). The highlight was when Sir John Pethica,  VP of the Royal Society, produced a fiddle and joined in. As did his wife, Pam – talk about Renaissance men and women!


Off to the Castle for a barbecue

On Saturday morning, Professor Dorothy Bishop of the University of Oxford gave the talk ‘How persistence of dead tree technology has stifled scientific communication ; time for a radical rethink’, a presentation that included some striking accounts of some recent cases of fraudulent publication in science – not least a case she herself played a major part in exposing! In the next talk,‘ The scientific record: archive, intellectual property , communication or filter?’ Sir John Pethica of Oxford University and Trinity College Dublin made some similar observations, but noted that the problem may be much more prevalent in some areas of science than others. This made sense to me, as my own experience of the publishing world in physics has been of very conservative editors that err on the side of caution. Indeed, it took a long time for our recent discovery of an unknown theory by Einstein to be accepted by the physics journals.

All in all, a superb conference in a beautiful setting.  Other highlights included a fascinating account of poetry in science by Professor Iggy McGovern, a Professor of Physics at Trinity College Dublin and published poet, including several examples from his own work and that of Patrick Kavanagh, and a guided tour of the Castle Gardens, accompanied by Robert Boyle and his sister. You can find the full conference programme here.

Copy of IMG_0572

Robert Boyle and his sister Lady Ranelagh picking flowers in the Castle Gardens

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Filed under History and philosophy of science, Science and society

Robert Boyle Summer School 2014

Last weekend saw the third Robert Boyle Summer School, an annual 3-day meeting in Lismore, Co, Waterford in honour of one of Ireland’s greatest scientists. Born in Lismore into an extremely wealthy family, Boyle  became one of the most important figures in the Scientific Revolution,  well-known for his scientific discoveries, his role in the rise of the Royal Society and his influence in promoting the role of the experiment in the ‘new philosophy’.


The Irish-born scientist and aristocrat Robert Boyle   



Lismore Castle, the birthplace of Robert Boyle

The summer school took place in the Heritage Centre in Lismore, the beautiful town that is the home of Lismore Castle where Boyle was born.  The talks covered a wide range of topics, from Boyle’s scientific legacy to the interplay of science and religion (like many figures of the scientific religion, Boyle was quite devout and extremely interested in the interface between science and religion). See here for the conference program.

This was the third such summer school, organised jointly by the CALMAST science outreach group at Waterford Institute of Technology  and the Lismore Heritage Centre. As the only such event on a major figure in the scientific revolution, it is beginning to attract some of the world’s top experts on this period of science (known as ‘early modern’). This year, the programme included talks by Lawrence Principe (Drew Professor of the Humanities at Johns Hopkins and author of The Scientific Revolution (OUP) and The Aspiring Adept: Robert Boyle and his Alchemical Quest); John Hedley Brooke (Professor Emeritus of Science and Religion and Oxford University , and author of Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives and Religious Values and the Rise of Science in Europe); and Terry Eagleton  (author of over forty books and Distinguished Professor of English literature at Lancaster University).


Lawrence Principe at Boyle 2014


John Hedley Brooke at Boyle 2014

It was the sort of conference I like best – a small number of inter-disciplinary talks aimed at curious academics and the public alike, with lots of time for questions and long breaks for discussion. On the last day, Boyle’s legacy was also celebrated by some talks concerning the science of today; we had a superb lecture on astrophysics from Professor Lorraine Hanlon of University College Dublin, and an outstanding seminar on inflammation and ageing by Professor  Luke O’ Neill, one of Ireland’s best known and most successful biochemists.  Other highlights were a lecture on fraud in modern science by Jim Malone, Emeritus Robert Boyle Professor of medical physics at Trinity College Dublin, and an open-air barbecue in Lismore Castle on Friday evening,including a re-enactment in costume of some famous Boyle experiments by Eoin Gill of WIT.


Eoin Gill aka Robert Boyle


Song and dance in the grounds of Lismore Castle

All in all, a superb conference in a beautiful setting.  The meeting was sponsored by Science Foundation Ireland, the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Institute of Chemisty (Ireland), the Institute of Physics (Ireland), the Robert Boyle Foundation,  i-scan, Abbott, Lismore Castle Arts and the Lismore House Hotel.


A late night music session with Luke O’ Neill  


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Filed under History and philosophy of science

Cosmology and the constants of nature at Cambridge

They say the Irish know how to party and the coincidence of yesterday’s victory in the Six Nations with a St Patrick’s weekend has brought the country to a whole new level of craziness. So it’s good to arrive in beautiful, tranquil Cambridge University for  a few day of quiet contemplation of the universe. It’s also good to get away from the hoopla generated by our recent discovery of an unpublished Einstein manuscript (see last post)…


Clare bridge this evening

I’m here for the conference ‘Cosmology and the Constants of Nature’, the next installment in the Cambridge/Oxford collaborative research project on the philosophy of cosmology (see here for an overview of the project).  Readers with a rudimentary knowledge of cosmology or particle physics will recognize the theme of this week’s meeting. Are ‘constants of nature’ such as the speed of light in vacuum or the gravitational constant truly constant? Or did they have different values in the early universe ? Are they truly independent of one another? Or are there hidden connections we are unaware of? Where do their values come from? The programme looks truly impressive, with talks by Martin ReesJohn Barrow, John Ellis, John Webb, Pedro Ferreira, Thanu Padmanabhan and Joao Magueijo. See here for the conference programme and overview.

I’m looking forward to Joao’s talk ‘Variations of c and other constants’. Joao made headlines a few years ago when he suggested that a speed of light in vacuum in the early universe very different to today’s value could give rise to many of the effects predicted by cosmic inflation. It looked like an intriguing alternative to inflation, although I haven’t heard much about the proposal recently. Joao also wrote a really nice book on the subject – in fact, it was one of the things that inspired me to persuade my boss to allow me to teach a course on the history of 20th century cosmology. It seems a while ago now, who would have guessed my little course would lead to the discovery of an unknown Einstein model of the universe ?

Right now, it’s time to stop musing and catch up on the world with the ten o’ clock news. Except wait, I don’t have a tv! I’m back in Clare College, my favourite of all the Cambridge colleges. There’s no tv, but on the other hand there’s something about working away in an unpretentious student room overlooking the beautiful quad that I find very relaxing. A perfect place for a bit of thinking…or maybe write a murder mystery…


Clare College – a good place for some quiet thinking


Some truly great talks by , John BarrowJohn Ellis, and Martin Rees among others so far at the conference, but the big news is yesterday’s announcement  of the observation of B-mode polarization in the cosmic microwave background by the BICEP2 experiment. If correct, the signal is strong evidence of gravitational waves emanating from the inflationary epoch of the infant universe. A huge boost for the notion of cosmic inflation, not to mention strong empirical evidence for the phenomenon of gravitational waves predicted by general relativity…..a double whammy if ever there was one. I won’t say more on this as several cosmologists here at Cambridge who are team leaders on the European PLANCK experiment will give an impromptu seminar on the US results tomorrow. I’d best change my flight – every time I come to Cambridge something dramatic like this happens…


Filed under Cosmology (general), History and philosophy of science

Einstein’s unfinished symphony in the media

Our recent discovery of an unpublished model of the cosmos by Albert Einstein (see last post or here for a preprint of our paper) is receiving a lot of media attention, it’s very humbling. First off the mark was Davide Castelvecchi with a very nice article in Nature. Davide’s article was quickly reproduced in various outlets, from Scientific American here to the Huffington Post here. Trawling over the internet, I see newspaper and magazine articles describing our discovery in a dozen languages. It’s nice to see historical material receiving this sort of attention, I guess everyone loves an Einstein story.


I’m also intrigued that it was the traditional media that picked up the story – with the exception of Peter Woit, no-one in the blogosphere seemed to notice our preprint or even a blogpost I wrote describing our paper. Perhaps we bloggers need the imprimateur of respected print journals more than we care to admit!

I notice one slightly misleading point in the electronic version of the Nature article is getting repeated everywhere. It’s probably not quite correct to frame Einstein’s attempt at a steady-state model of the cosmos in terms of a resistance to ‘big bang’ theories; there is no reference to the problem of origins in Einstein’s manuscript. Indeed, one of the most interesting aspects of the manuscript is that it appears to have been written in early 1931, at a time when the first tentative astronomical evidence for an expanding universe was emerging but the issue of an explosive beginning for the cosmos had yet to come into focus (e.g. the great debate between Eddington and Lemaitre later in 1931). It’s interesting that the initial mention in Nature of resistance to ‘big bang’ theories  is repeated in almost all other outlets, one can’t help wondering how many science journalists read our abstract. An honorable exception here is John Farrell at Forbes Magazine. John certainly noticed the discrepancy and no wonder – John has written an excellent book on Lemaitre.


All in all, it’s been a lot of fun so far. I’m getting quite a few emails from distinguished colleagues pointing out that Einstein’s model is trivial because it didn’t work, which is of course true. However, our view is that what Einstein is trying to do is very interesting from a philosophical point of view  – and what is even more interesting is that he apparently abandoned the project when he realised that a consistent steady-state model would require an amendment to the field equations. In short, it seems the Great Master conducted an internal debate between steady-state and evolving models of the cosmos decades before the rest of the community…


There is a very nice video describing our discovery here.


Filed under Astronomy, Cosmology (general), History and philosophy of science

Einstein’s exploration of a steady-state model of the universe

Some research news:

Last summer, in the course of our research into the Friedman-Einstein model of the cosmos (see this post or here for the article), I came across an unpublished manuscript by Einstein in which he explored a ‘steady-state’ model of the universe, i.e.,  a model of the universe in which space expands but the density of matter remains constant due to a continuous creation of matter from the vacuum. Such a model is radically different to previously known Einsteinian models of the universe, from his static model of 1917 to the evolving models he proposed in 1931 and 1932 in the wake of Hubble’s observations of the recession of the galaxies.  On the other hand, it bears some similarities to the famous  steady-state cosmic theories proposed by Hoyle, Bondi and Gold in 1948.

When was Einstein’s steady-state model written?

Several aspects of the manuscript suggest it was written in early 1931, after Hubble’s observation of the recession of the galaxies but before Einstein’s evolving models of 1931 and 1932. So it could be said that Einstein anticipated the general idea of steady-state models of the universe by almost twenty years!


Einstein giving a lecture at Caltech in 1931.His attempt at a steady-state model 
was probably penned during his stay in the USA in early 1931

A discarded model

Why was Einstein’s steady-state model never published? The bad news is that the model doesn’t work, i.e., it contains a fundamental flaw that leads to a null solution, i.e., a universe empty of matter. It only looked like a viable theory because Einstein made a mistake in his analysis. There is evidence in the manuscript that Einstein spotted the problem on revision and this is almost certainly the reason he declined to publish the manuscript. So it’s a failed model. That said,  it is very interesting that Einstein didn’t anticipate that the particular approach model he used (a variation of the de Sitter model) would lead to a null solution, and even more interesting that when the problem became apparent, he declined to try again with a more sophisticated version. We see this as an important crossroads – it seems that on realising that a successful steady-state model would require amending the field equations of relativity, Einstein plumped instead for evolving models.

Who cares?

It could be argued that steady-state models are of little interest today because observations have shown unequivocally that we live in an evolving universe  (not to mention the fact that Einstein’s version didn’t work). All of this is true, but what Einstein is attempting to do is of great interest; the standard narrative that Einstein eagerly embraced evolving models of the cosmos on learning of  Hubble’s results because they allowed him to drop the cosmological constan, no longer seems entirely accurate. In his attempt at a steady-state model in the manuscript, Einstein retains the cosmological constant and even loosely associates it with the creation of matter from the vacuum. Most interesting of all, it seems that Einstein conducted an internal debate between steady-state and evolving models of the universe decades before a similar debate took place in the wider cosmological community.

Why was the theory not found before?

The manuscript was never published and was archived in the Albert Einstein Archives as a draft of something else, Einstein’s published 1931 model of the cosmos (also known as the Friedman-Einstein model). It was while researching materials relevant to the latter paper that we discovered the model (I nearly fell off my chair).  This sort of thing happens all the time in historical research – for example, we  also discovered a number of numerical errors  in the Friedman-Einstein model that no-one seems to have noticed before.

Where to find more on this

We have submitted a paper containing a transcription, translation and analysis of Einstein’s manuscript to the European Physical Journal (H) by kind permission of the Einstein Papers Project and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A preprint of the paper can be found on the physics ArXiv at


Nature have a news article on our discovery here. It’s a nice article although the writer has confused Einstein’s reservations concerning a dynamic universe with his reservations concerning Lemaitre’s theory of origins (those come later). One of the most interesting aspects of the manuscript is that it seems to predate discussions of the issue of an origin for the cosmos. It’s interesting that Davide’s  error is repeated in outlets such as  Scientific American here and the Huffington Post here! There is a very nice video describing our discovery here


Filed under Cosmology (general), History and philosophy of science

Paradigm shift or slow dawning?

I have an article in The Irish Times today concerning the view of scientific progress articulated by Thomas Kuhn. The main point I try to make is that Kuhn’s famous idea of the paradigm shift in science  is much more popular with non-scientists than with the boffins themselves. Not because “Well, they would think that, wouldn’t they?” (Thank you, Christine), but because many of the examples cited by Kuhn in his influential book dated from antiquity rather than from modern science.

In particular, those scientists who read Kuhn notice that he paid very little attention to the manner in which false data tends to be quickly exposed by rival experimentalists, or to the way modern theorists tend to consider data in the context of all possible models. Most importantly, scientists studying the history of their own area typically find that scientific ‘revolutions’ tend to occur as extremely slow processes of discovery and acceptance – more a slow dawning than a paradigm shift. Indeed, they are really only paradigm shifts in retrospect.


Thomas Kuhn, author of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

You can read the Irish Times article here, and I have an older post on Kuhn from my Harvard days here (there is also a good discussion below that post).

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Filed under History and philosophy of science