Category Archives: History and philosophy of science

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.

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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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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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Robert Boyle summer school

I spent last weekend at a most enjoyable summer school in honour of Robert Boyle, the Waterford-born Anglo Irish aristocrat who became a major figure in the English scientific revolution. Boyle was extremely well-known in his day for his scientific discoveries, his role in the Royal Society and his discussions on the usefulness of the new scientific method (if he is less well-known today, it may be because his contributions were later eclipsed by the groundbreaking advances of his contemporary, the genius Isaac Newton).


The Irish-born scientist and aristocrat Robert Boyle


Lismore Castle, the birthplace of Robert Boyle

The summer school took place from Thursday 4th to Sunday 7th of July 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 the history and philosophy of the scientific revolution to Boyle’s own life and were of huge interest to anyone with an interest in history, science or indeed the history of science.  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. Other highlights were an open-air barbecue in Lismore Castle on Friday evening, a re-enactment in costume of some famous Boyle experiments and a tour around the famous Lismore Castle Gardens.


Song and dance in the grounds of Lismore Castle

The festival proper started with a lecture on Thursday evening by Jim Malone, the Robert Boyle professor of medical physics at Trinity College Dublin:  ‘Robert Boyle: Getting to Know the Man from Lismore’. This was a general overview of Ireland’s most famous scientist, from Boyle’s early years in Ireland to his travels in Europe in 1639-45, from the rise of the Royal Society in England to Boyle’s prolific work at Oxford in the period 1655-1668. It was a very appropriate introduction to Boyle’s great contributions to science, medicine, philosophy and theology and there were also many biographical details I hadn’t heard before, not least the astonishing number of awards and honours he turned down – clearly not a scientist motivated by fame or fortune. You can find more on Jim and his lecture on the conference website here.


On Friday morning, Dr Anna-Marie Roos of the University of Lincoln laid out the historical context of Boyle’s work in more detail in her lecture ‘Robert Boyle and Early Modern English Science’. Starting with the work of Sir Francis Bacon, she described the emergence of a new questioning of the wisdom of the ancient Greeks, a new philosophy propagated by the invisible college. She then went on to describe Boyle’s experimentation in the context of complementary investigations by colleagues such as Hooke, Wren and Halley. This talk established a detailed social context for Boyle’s investigations very carefully without in any way detracting from the great work he did. You can find more on Anna-Marie and her lecture on the conference website here.


In the afternoon, Dr Bill Eaton of Georgia Southern University gave the talk ”Boyle in Ireland; Medicine and the Mechanical Philosophy’ where he made a very interesting point on Boyle’s philosophy of science. It turns out that although Boyle spent very little time in Ireland, he did some work on dissection of animal and human cadavers with William Petty in the period 1652 to 1654 in Ireland, experiments that played a very important part in the development of his philosophy of science. Thus, while we associate Boyle’s  scientific work with his later years at Oxford, it is likely that his earlier studies in anatomy in Ireland probably played an important role in in his development as a scientist, particularly in his belief in experimentation to judge the rightness or wrongness of a hypothesis. More on Bill and his lecture here.


Song and dance at the castle barbecue

I had a sore head after the open-air barbecue at Lismore Castle on Saturday morning, but not so sore that I didn’t enjoy the superb lecture ‘For the Glory of God and For the Relief of Man’s Estate’ by Dr Allan Chapman of the University of Oxford. In many ways, this was the perfect sequel to Anna Marie’s earlier talk on historical context (see above), I never tire of Allan’s unique coupling of a huge breadth of historical knowledge with an ability to communicate key historical points in clear, simple language. To pick one important theme, Professor Chapman was at pains to trace the rise of the new philosophy to a number of earlier advances in the 15th and 16th century; from geography (the voyages to the Americas proved Aristotle wrong on many counts) to anatomy (animal dissections showed the ancients to be equally wrong on the innards of living species), from herbal medicine (tried and tested herbal remedies were far superior to ‘cures’ from ancient books) to the discovery of the invisible force of magnetism. It set Boyle’s investigations in a yet wider context and I was particularly struck by Allan’s insight that to Boyle and his colleagues, new instruments such as the microscope were very much the equivalent of new ships for the previous century’s explorers. Another great theme was Allan’s careful analysis of Boyle’s motivation, that each experiment was driven by his dual passion of investigating God’s creation and relieving the suffering of man. Allan analysed the latter in detail, explaining how Boyle and his contemporaries expected the new investigations to help combat the ever-present threat of famine. You can find more on Allan and his lecture on the conference website here.

Professor Chapman’s discussion of Boyle’s concern for the relief of man’s estate set the stage nicely for a more contemporary talk, ‘Plants for the 21st Century’, by Professor Liam Dolan of Oxford University. This was yet another tour-de-force: starting with some astonishing diagrams of plants by Boyle’s contemprary Robert Hooke, Liam went on to describe groundbreaking research in botany today, not least the use of modern genetics to meet the challenge of feeding the world’s growing population in the face of climate change. This was an overview of current attempts to modify plant genes in order to improve the resistance of crucial crops to disaster, for example the synthesis of a new strain of rice that can survive widespread and frequent flooding in Bangladesh. Similar efforts are ongoing to synthesis crops that can survive prolonged drought, a likely consequence of climate change in other parts of the world. It was a superb introduction to the fraught topic of genetic modification and it fitted very well with Boyle’s concern for the  ‘relief of man’s estate’. You can find more on Liam and his lecture here.

All in all, a superb conference in a beautiful setting. There were several other great talks, not least a discussion of Boyle’s contemporary Valentine Greatrakes  by Dr Peter Elmer and a superb talk on ageing and dementia by Professor Ian Roberston. Ireland is home to a great many excellent summer schools on literary figures and traditional musicians, but none on scientists; I suspect this festival will become be a major event in the Irish summer calender in a few years.

P.S. I should say this was the second annual Boyle summer school organised by the CALMAST science outreach group at WIT and by the Lismore Heritage Centre. It was sponsored by Science Foundation Ireland, the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Institute of Chemisty in Ireland, the Institute of Physics in Ireland, the Robert Boyle Foundation,  i-scan, Abbott, Lismore Castle Arts and the Lismore House Hotel.


Filed under History and philosophy of science, Science and society, Uncategorized

Last day at Cambridge Infinities Conference

Today was the third and last day of the ‘Infinities and Cosmology’ conference at Cambridge (there is also a workshop tomorrow, see website). Yesterday saw quite a heavy schedule, with part II of George Ellis’s ‘Infinites of Age and Size Including Global Topological Issues’, part II of Anthony Aguirre’s ‘Infinite and Finite State Spaces’ and part II of Michael Douglas’s ‘Can We Test the String Theory Landscape?’ (see previous post for an outline of these topics). We also had a fairly technical talk on ‘Singularities and Cosmic Censorship in General Relativity’ by the Cambridge mathematician Mihalis Dafermos: nuts-and-bolts talks like these are great for non-relativists like me because you get to see the mathematical tools used in GR research.


The logo for the Infinities in Cosmology conference; an artist’s impression of small universes

Today saw part II of Mihalis’s talk and the lecture ‘Infinite Computations and Spacetime’ by Mark Hogarth, a fascinating exploration of new methods of computation by exploiting relativistic spacetime . I won’t attempt to summarize either, but the lectures should soon be available on the conference website.

For me, the highlight of the day was the talk ‘At Home and At Sea in an Infinite Universe: Newtonian and Machian Theories of Motion’ by Simon Saunders,  the well-known Oxford physicist and philosopher of physics. This was a superb discussion of Newton’s cosmology, in particular the paradox of gravitational instability in the Newtonian universe of infinite size and absolute, fixed space. Did Newton realize that our solar system might possess a net acceleration, or did he assume that external gravitational forces somehow cancel out? Drawing on material from Newton’s Principia and his ‘System of the World’,  Professor Saunders argued that Newton assumed the latter, though whether he attributed such a delicate cosmic balancing act to divine intervention or to unknown forces is not clear. (The possibility of a theological argument is not so fanciful as this work was the first mathematical attempt to try to describe the universe as a whole). Later, Professor Saunders suggested that it is likely Newton declined to spend too much time on the question simply because it was untestable.


Newton’s famous Principia

There were many other interesting points in this fascinating lecture. Viewing the slides shown from Newton’s Principia, I was struck by the equivalence drawn again and again between bodies at rest and in uniform motion. This anticipates Einstein’s special theory of relativity and is again slightly in conflict with Newton’s assumption of a fixed, absolute space, as Simon pointed out. All this hints at a possible difference in Newton’s philosophy towards the universe at large versus motion on local scales – ironic as he was the first scientist to unite terrestrial and celestial motion in a single framework. I won’t comment further, but the lecture left one eager to read Simon’s recent paper on the subject.

All in all, a superb conference. It was interesting that, even with such distinguished speakers, moderators observed time limits strictly in order to allow plenty of time for questions and comments after the talks. In some ways, this was the best part; it’s not often one gets to hear to-and-fro arguments between scientists like John Barrow, George Ellis, Julian Babour and Simon Saunders, in the lecture theatre and over coffee.

Speaking of coffee, one of the best aspects of the conference was the venue. Cambridge’s Department of Applied and Theoretical Physics forms part of its Centre for Mathematical Sciences and is housed in a lovely modern open-plan building, with the smell of coffee and scones wafting throughout the atrium. What other mathematics institute can boast such a setup?  Not DIAS, I’m afraid. Indeed, I’m writing this post in the quiet atrium/canteen (no annoying background music – that wouldn’t be tolerated here). However, I’ve just realised that we are now finished for the day, so I’m off to do some sight-seeing at last.


The main atrium in the Center for Mathematical Sciences is one big coffee shop, perfect for group discussions of physics, philosophy and mathematics


The Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics forms part of the Centre for Mathematical Sciences at Cambridge


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

Cosmic fingerprints at Trinity College Dublin

I was back in my alma mater Trinity College Dublin on Monday evening in order to catch a superb public lecture, ‘ Fingerprinting the Universe’ , by Andrew Liddle, Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Edinburgh. The talk was presented by Astronomy Ireland, Ireland’s largest astronomy club and there was a capacity audience (despite the threat of snow) in the famous Schrödinger lecture theatre in the Fitzgerald Building, Trinity’s physics department.


Professor Liddle was introduced by David Moore, Chairman of Astronomy Ireland, who also presented an update of the club’s recent activities  (David and I participated in a discussion of the life and science of Sir Isaac Newton on NEWSTALK radio station the evening before, you can hear a podcast of the show here). Anyone with an interest in cosmology will be familiar with Andrew Liddle’s seminal textbook ‘ An Introduction to Modern Cosmology’, (not to mention several other books) and the ensuing lecture certainly didn’t disappoint.


Starting with a tribute to the work of both Schrödinger and Fitzgerald, Andrew gave a brief outline of today’s cosmology, showing how it has moved from a rather speculative subject to a mature field of study. He attributed this progress to key advances in three main areas: precision observations by satellite, sophisticated theoretical models and high performance computing for both analysis and simulation.

He then described five specific challenges that any successful model of the cosmos must address –  the expanding universe;  the formation of structure (galaxies etc);  the age of the universe; the composition of the universe (baryonic matter, radiation, neutrinos, dark matter and dark energy);  a consistent description of the very early universe (cosmic inflation or alternatives).

As ever, many in the audience were surprised to hear that, while dark energy is estimated to make up about 73% of the mass-energy content of the universe, we have very little idea of the nature of this phenomenon!

In the second part of the lecture, Andrew focused on the cosmic microwave background (CMB), explaining how the study of this ‘fossil radiation’  gives precious information on the early universe,  and in particular describing how tiny non-uniformities (or anisotropies) imprinted on the radiation formed the seeds of today’s galaxies (‘cosmic finger-printing’). There followed a swift description of results of CMB studies by the COBE and WMAP satellite missions, with a reminder that more recent measurements by the European Space Agency’s   PLANCK Satellite Observatory  will be announced next week. He also reminded us how, amongst other triumphs, the theory of inflation gives a very satisfactory explanation for the origin of the variations in the background radiation terms of quantum fluctuations in the very early universe. This link between inflation and galaxy formation is often under-stated in the popular literature; in answer to a query from me question time, Andrew confirmed that non-inflationary explanations for the origins of the observed variations in the microwave background have not been very successful. It’s pretty impressive that inflation can give an explanation for the origin of structure, given that this was not part of the original motivation for the theory.

ESA's Planck mission

The ESA’s PLANCK Satellite will report new measurements of the cosmic microwave background on March 21st this month

All in all, a fantastic talk, well worth the trip; afterwards, we all repaired to a nearby pub for sandwiches and further discussion of the universe over hot ports and Guinness…

P.S. In his discussion of the discovery of the expanding universe, I was pleased to see Professor Liddle refer to the work of Vesto Slipher; it seems that recent historical work on the important contribution of Slipher is finding its way into the mainstream community.


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

Frontiers of Physics 2012 at Trinity College Dublin

I spent last weekend at the Frontiers of Physics conference at Trinity College Dublin. This is an annual meeting hosted by the Institute of Physics in Ireland; the aim is to establish links with secondary schools all over the country and to present the latest developments in physics and physics teaching. This year it was Trinity’s turn to host the conference and it was excellent, not least due to the superb organisation of IoP teaching coordinators Paul Nugent and David Keenahan.

Saturday morning featured some great lectures in the historic Schrödinger lecture theatre, located in the Fitzgerald building of Trinity’s School of Physics. Visiting this building always feels like coming home for me, as I did my PhD in one of the labs downstairs and gave tutorials in the Schrödinger theatre as a postgrad. The library on the second floor of the Fitzgerald building is becoming a notable science museum, with exhibits for many great scientists associated with Trinity such as Preston, Joly, Fitzgerald and Walton. (Schrödinger himself was a Professor at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, not Trinity, but the theatre is named after the famous ‘What is Life? ‘ series of public lectures he gave there there).

The Schrödinger lecture theatre on the top floor of the Fitzgerald building

The Fitzgerald building, home to the physics department at TCD. The bubbles are a mockup of a sculpture that will honour the department’s Nobel laureate Ernest Walton

I won’t describe the lectures in detail, but three stood out for me:  ‘Tuning in the radio sun’, a description of solar astronomy at Birr Castle by Prof Peter Gallagher, head of the solar physics group at Trinity: ‘Tiny but mighty’ , a superb introductory lecture on nanotechnology by Prof Jonathan Coleman, head of the low-dimensional nanostructures group at Trinity: and ‘CERN, the LHC and the Higgs boson’  by Steve Myers, director of accelerators and technology at CERN.

Yes, that Steve Myers, the Belfast-born director of accelerators at CERN. Steve gives great talks on the nuts-and-bolts of the Large Hadron Collider and this was the main reason I was at the meeting. I’m scheduled to give yet another talk on the Higgs boson next month, so it’s important to catch lectures like this whenever I can. There’s nothing like hearing details of the experiment from the horse’s mouth and Steve certainly didn’t disappoint.

Steve Myers in action at the conference

On the teaching of physics, Dr Karen Bultitude of University College London gave an interesting lecture on ‘Gender Aware Teaching Practice’. As everyone in the discipline knows, a marked gender imbalance persists amongst students choosing physics; Karen’s main point was that all of the research done in this area indicates that making physics more ‘girly’ simply does not work, and she had some important tips for making physics more approachable for both genders. (Once more, it raises the question how a certain video at the European Comission ever saw the light of day, but let’s not go there).

After the lectures, we were treated to lunch in Trinity Dining Hall;  I think those who had not visited the college before were blown away by the Hall and by the walk across Front Square. Maybe I notice this sort of thing more after another trip to the US (see previous post), but the best was yet to come..

The Dining Hall at Trinity

Front Square at Trinity College

After lunch, we were treated to an exhibition of Walton memorabilia by  Dr Eric Finch. (Ernest Walton, a former Head of Physics at Trinity, won a Nobel prize for splitting the atomic nucleus with Cockroft in 1932). Eric had many fascinating things to show us, not least the famous letter where the brilliant young scientist describes his ‘red-letter day’ to his fiancee. Best of all, the exhibition is currently situated in Trinity’s Long Room, one of the most famous libraries in the world and a sight well worth seeing in it’s own right.

Dr Eric Finch at the Walton exhibit in the Long Room

The Long Room at TCD – it really is like this

Finally, we all trooped back to the physics department to see the Monck observatory. Since my time at the college, an observatory has been installed on the roof of the Fitzgerald building, consisting of an Atmospheric and Space Weather Monitor (outside radio antenna) and a Schmitt reflecting telescope (inside the dome, see below). Brian Espey, Professor of astrophysics at TCD,  described the operation of the telescope and we each had a peep. The observatory must be one of the most centrally located telescopes anywhere in the world- however, apparently the light pollution is not as bad as you might expect because the college is a quiet island in the centre of the city at night. I’m told the main problem is the use of floodlights for rugby practice!

The new dome on top of the Fitzgerald building

The Schmitt reflector inside the dome

The radio antenna for atmospheric measurements

All in all, a great meeting in a superb setting. The Frontiers conference takes place in a different venue each year, but it’s hard to compete with 400 years of history…

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Filed under History and philosophy of science, Institute of Physics, Teaching