Category Archives: Public lectures

The big bang: is it true?

On Monday evening, I gave a big bang talk to the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. I really like the way there is a single graduate school for both arts and science at Harvard, what a great interdisciplinary mix. The school has its own activity center, Dudley House ; the house is non-residential but modeled on the residential houses at Harvard, with its own building (Lehman Hall) complete with coffee shop, canteen, senior common room, games room, and a beautiful and quiet library with a fantastic view of Harvard Square.  It is served by two faculty masters, an administrative staff and graduate student fellows who organize activities for the School’s 4,000 Masters and PhD candidates. In truth, I spend a good deal of time at Dudley House – perhaps it’s the wide variety of disciplines that makes for such interesting conversations.

Dudley House, home of the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

The talk was titled The Big Bang; Is It True? and it was great fun, with a drinks reception, a really nice dinner, a 40-min spiel from me and then almost an hour of questions from the audience. There were postgrads there from history, literature, psychology, philosophy, astronomy and other fields. Apparently, tickets sold out within hours of the posters going up, it shows the interest in the subject.

Of course, no scientist can give a definitive answer to the question I posed. Instead, I laid out a brief history of the discovery of the evidence supporting the big bang model (the expanding universe, the composition of the elements and the cosmic microwave background), followed by an outline of recent puzzles that have arisen from modern studies of the microwave background. I like a quasi-chronological approach to such talks, I think it makes the discoveries and concepts easier to understand, and at the same time it gives the audience a great feel for the surprises nature has in store for scientists. As for truth, the audience can decide for themselves.

You can see the full slideshow at

I really enjoyed the questions and discussion afterward; not for the first time, it struck me that you get very interesting questions and comments from a wide interdisciplinary audience (it doesn’t hurt if they are Harvard PhD candidates). There was also plenty of time to touch on one of my favourite themes; that a great many scientific discoveries come as a complete surprise to the discoverers. Far from being ‘constructed’ in order to support pet theories, scientific findings are often undesirable, unexpected data that no-one knows what to make of  at first – an aspect of science that proponents of the social construction of scientific knowledge often fail to address, in my view.

All in all, it was great to interact with postgrads from so many different disciplines, I wish I could do this more often.


One of the most challenging questions came from Prof Sam Schweber, a well-known Harvard physicist and historian of science. Sam couldn’t make the talk, but he emailed me his question: What happened before the bang?

I think the answer is twofold:
1. The standard answer is that the big bang model is situated within the context of general relativity, the modern theory of gravity. Since relativity predicts that space and time form part of the universe (and are affected by motion and by mass for example), we expect that time is born at the bang along with everything else – there is no ‘before’ just as there is no north of the north pole.

2. However, cosmologists are less cocksure of this answer nowadays. This is because fundamental problems in describing the moment of the bang (the singularity) have, far from going away, got worse. The problem is due to the inapplicability of the modern theory of gravity to phenomena on the atomic or quantum scale i.e. due to the absence of a successful theory of quantum gravity. Since we have no real way of modeling the singularity, we cannot rule out the prospect of exotic phenomena such as multiple bangs. The problem is compounded by the fact that, while recent observational evidence offers support for some type of cosmic inflation close to the birth of the universe, there is (so far) no way of selecting a particular model of inflation – which leaves the door open for models such as the cyclic universe. In other words, we cannot rule out the possibility of a ‘before’ until we have a clearer picture of what happened at the bang itself.


Filed under Cosmology (general), Public lectures

‘Black Holes, the Hadron Collider and the God Particle’

We got a massive turnout on Monday evening for a public lecture I gave on the Large Hadron Collider at Trinity College Dublin. I was invited to give the talk by Astronomy Ireland and it was a great time to give it as there is still plenty of interest in the Collider because of the black hole ‘controversy’, and because last week saw the first offical conference on results from the LHC. Indeed, there has been very little media attention given to the fact that, in the space of a few months,  all four detectors at the LHC have been busily rediscovering the elementary particles of the Standard Model that took so many years to first detect, from pions, muons and kaons right up to W and Z bosons.

A lot of physicists might have a problem with the populist title ‘Black holes, the Hadron Collider and the God particle’; however the title was worked out with Astronomy Ireland, an organisation that knows a thing or two about attracting a wide audience! Also, I think controversies such as the black hole controversy are best tackled head on i.e. by describing early on in the talk what a black hole is and why one doesn’t expect to create one at the LHC  (in particle physics, one gets only a minute amount of mass  from a very large amount of energy since  m = E/c2 ). I also touched on micro-black holes and Hawking radiation; overall I had the distinct feeling the audience enjoyed this part of the talk no end!

As for the term ‘God particle’, I happen to be one of the few physicists who likes this name for the Higgs boson. Yes, it was probably originally ‘that goddamn particle’ due to its elusiveness,  but I think ‘God particle’ neatly gets across the importance of the particle; after all it is the interaction of the other particles with the Higgs field that is thought to determine their mass, according to the Standard Model.

I divided the talk into three parts; first, an overview of the LHC – how, what, why etc. Then I devoted the central part to a brief history of particle physics, from the discovery of the nucleus to protons and neutrons, from the hypothesis of quarks to the electroweak interaction and the Standard Model. In the third part, I described extensions to the SM such as supersymmetry and Grand Unified Theory and went over our expectations of the LHC experiments, from the possible detection of the Higgs boson to supersymmetric particles, from candidates for dark matter to the search for assymetries in matter/antimatter decay at LHCb.

The LHCb experiment is of particular interest to an Irish audience, as a group at University College Dublin are heavily involved, despite Ireland’s non-membership of CERN.

Finally, I can never resist showing a couple of slides on the basics; not only do experiments at accelerators give us information on the elemental structre of matter and the interaction of the fundamental forces, they also give us supporting evidence for our underlying theories of modern physics, from the observed mass-increase of particles (predicted by special relativity) to the detection of antiparticles (predicted by quantum theory). You can see the full set of slides for the talk here and a video is available here.

All in all, there was a great atmosphere at the talk and I really enjoyed the occasion. There were plenty of questions afterwards, from queries on black holes to the prospect of detecting extra dimensions. I was also asked about a recent study of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) that may cast doubt on the hypothesis of dark matter (based on a revision of measurements of perturbations in the  CMB). I haven’t studied this report yet, but I gave the answer that I always give in public fora: let’s see if other groups replicate the findings before pay too much attention. After all, the postulate of dark matter comes not primarily from measurements of the CMB, but from thousands of measurements of the movement of stars, galaxies, galaxy-clusters and halos. That said, it’s certainly an interesting paper…


I really enjoy giving such talks on particle physics, there are so many fascinating subjects to cover; special relativity, quantum theory, quarks, the fundamental interactions, symmetry breaking, antimatter, dark matter etc. Yet while there are quite a few excellent books for the public on cosmology, there are remarkably few on particles physics… might be fun to try to put one together one day.

Update II

Apparently, U.S. newspapers are full of stories on the discovery of the God particle at the Tevatron. It seems these stories are based on an unpublished paper (see discussion on Not Even Wrong) – I wouldn’t pay too much attention just yet.


Filed under Particle physics, Public lectures

Einstein, de Valera and the Institutes for Advanced Study

Is there a collective noun for a roomful of professors? A great many of the most senior figures of Irish academia turned up in Trinity College Dublin on Saturday night to hear the annual statutory lecture of the School of Theoretical Physics of the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies.

The lecture, titled “No excuses in paradise: the past, present and future of the institutes for advanced studies” (see poster here) was a fascinating talk on the history and purpose of the Institutes for Advanced Study at Princeton, Dublin, Paris and elsewhere. It was given by Professor Peter Goddard, the current director of the famous Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton in the US. This institute, one of the most prestigious research centres in the world, has hosted staff such as Einstein, Godel, Oppenheimer, Freeman Dyson and Ed Witten and became the prototype for similar institutes around the world. Peter Goddard himself is extremely well-known as one of the early pioneers of string theory.

The  speaker started by tracing the initial idea by the American educationalist Abraham Flexner in the 1920s to seek funding for an Institute of Advanced Study in the US that could compete with research centres in Germany such as that in Gottingen. The plan was to create an elite American ‘graduate university’ –  a university that did not teach at undergraduate level but focused on research and on the training of researchers. Of course such an institute could only be staffed by the best of the best, and Einstein, already a world figure in science, was approached on one of his periodic visits to Caltech. Worried about the rise of the Nazis, Einstein quickly agreed. You can read more about this story here, but Prof Goddard showed a wonderful slide showing the famous issue of the New York Times with the headline: ‘Einstein to set up new school’.

Einstein in his office at IAS

The speaker then explained how during the war the Irish premier Eamon de Valera, a former mathematician, decided a similar institute would be of benefit in Ireland. Due to economic constraints, it was settled that the institute would deal with theoretical physics (as there were great advances being made in this field and it required no expensive equipment) and with Celtic studies (also not very expensive and of national interest). On the advice of Einstein, de Valera approached Schroedinger, the father of wave mechanics, to persuade him to come to Ireland to direct the institute.

This part of the story was well-known to an Irish audience but the speaker gave a very nice sketch of the history – Schroedinger did come in 1940 and spent many years at the Dublin IAS, followed by other prestigious theoreticians such as Heitler, Lanzcos and Synge. The institute became a great success internationally, attracting regular visits by famous physicists such as Paul Dirac. Indeed, some nice slides concerning Dirac’s visits were shown, not least a menu demonstrating the attraction of Ireland during wartime. Another slide showed a comment by Dirac, expressing surprise that the Irish Prime Minister had time to sit through a whole mathematics conference! All in all, it was a lovely overview of the history of the Dublin IAS and included a nice reference to Lochlainn’s work (it turns out Goddard collaborated quite a bit with Lochlainn in the early days of supersymmetry) .

Nobel laureates Dirac, Heisenberg and Schrodinger in Sweden

The speaker then explained how the American idea was imported back to continental Europe, notably at IHES in Bures-sur-Yvette just outside Paris (set up in 1958). This institute is also highly regarded in the world of academia, thanks to the work of mathematicians such as Alain Connes and the late Louis Michel. There are also informal links between the institutes – many of the professors in the audience had spent time at more than one (in my own family we have fond memories of years spent at both the Princeton and Paris institutes as well as Dublin).

The lecture finished with a brief discussion of the role of such research institutes. In a world dominated by the technological application of science, it is sometimes hard to persuade people of the importance of enquiry for it’s own sake – ‘the usefulness of useless knowledge’. Of course, one answer to this is that we don’t know which part of scientific enquiry will prove technologically useful (look at Boolean algebra or the development of the web at CERN). However, a deeper answer is that knowledge and the pursuit of knowledge will always be important for their own sake. The professor summed up with the best quote of the night: ‘the thing about a scholar’s paradise is that there are no excuses for failing to do something important!’

So have the institutes been a success overall and should they continue? As a student, I often heard certain university staff mutter darkly that precious little work went on there – however such comments rarely came from staff at the highest levels. It’s worth noting that Saturday’s speaker was introduced by Professor Samson Shatashvili, the well-known string theorist who directs the Hamilton Mathematics Institute , a research institute that functions within Trinity College. Prof Goddard didn’t compare the role of such institutes with the institutes for advanced study directly, but I think his historical account demonstrated that the latter still have an important role to play. As regards the Dublin IAS, I should have said that the lecture above took place in the middle of a conference to celebrate the 60th birthday of Professor Werner Nahm, a noted theorist at the Dublin IAS. A measure of the stature of Werner, and of the continuing prestige of DIAS, can be seen from the list of speakers in the conference program here. Another indication of the continuing success of DIAS was the preponderance of well-known international figures on Saturday night such as Shatashvili, Nahm, Goddard and Frohlich – not to mention the mathematician Micheal Atiyah and a quiet man in the back row who I later realised was Peter Higgs (yes, he of the elusive boson).

The school of theoretical physics (DIAS) on Burlington  Road


Filed under History and philosophy of science, Public lectures

Science week in Ireland: was Einstein wrong?

This week is Science Week in Ireland, with science events taking place all over the country. There are talks and demonstrations on every aspect of science you can think of, from a demonstration of animal magic at Killaloe in County Limerick to astronomy at the Crawford Observatory of University College Cork.

This evening, I will give a public lecture on the Big Bang in Trinity College, hosted by Astronomy Ireland. We’re still in the International Year of Astronomy, celebrating the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s use of the telescope to establish the heliocentric model of the solar system, so it’s highly appropriate to have a lecture describing another paradigm shift in science brought to us by astronomy: the discovery of the expanding universe and the big bang model that followed. I’m delighted to be giving the lecture as Astronomy Ireland do a fantastic job of promoting astronomy and science around the country, with night-classes in astronomy, public viewings of astronomical events and regular public science lectures. It’s also fun to tell the story of the discovery of the big bang model to people with an interest in astronomy, as many of them already know most of the facts, but from a slightly different perspective. Indeed, much of what we know of cosmology really comes from astronomical observation. You can find a poster, a summary of the lecture and the slides I will use here.

As I write this post, I’m sitting in the RTE canteen having done an interview promoting the lecture on Today with Pat Kenny, the flagship radio show of RTE, the Irish broadcasting corporation. (The last time I was at RTE I was auditioning for deputy work with the  Concert Orchestra but that’s another story!). I think the interview went well, it was certainly good fun. Unlike a lot of scientists I quite enjoy talking to the media, it’s a challenge getting deep ideas across in a short interview without sounding completely incomprehensible! I also find this particular radio show very good and listen in whenever I can.

Astronomy Ireland marketed the lecture as ‘The Big Bang: Was Einstein Wrong? which is quite a good hook, so the interview touched on this quite a bit. Of course the answer is YES, it refers to a famous Einstein gaffe. When E. applied the general theory of relativity, his new theory of space, time and gravity, to the entire universe, it predicted a universe that was changing in time (space and time expanding). No evidence for such a thing existed at the time, so Einstein then introduced an extra term into the equations of relativity to force the universe to be static. Such fudge-factors are always risky in science and sure enough it turned out to be a big mistake. In 1929, the American astronomer Edwin Hubble established unequivocally that faraway galaxies are rushing away from one another and mathematicians realised that the universe is indeed expanding. Einstein immediately dropped the spurious term (known as the cosmological constant), declaring it his ‘greatest blunder’. You can listen to a podcast of the interview here, I hope I got the point across!


Einstein: right about relativity, but missed the prediction of the expanding universe

On Tuesday evening, I’ll give a repeat of the lecture in Waterford,in the main Auditorium of our college. On Wednesday, there is a talk on on the legacy of Charles Darwin at Waterford City Hall, which should be very good, I hope to attend myself. Both these lectures have been organised by CALMAST, the science communication group at WIT. All in all, it’s going be a busy week.

Update: I can see why media interviews are important, we had to change venue to the largest lecture theatre in trinity last night as we got a turnout of about 500! I think the lecture went well, I certainly enjoyed it.







Filed under Cosmology (general), Public lectures, Science and society

Frontiers conference 2009

I spent last weekend at the Frontiers conference of the Irish branch of the Institute of Physics. This is a conference aimed at establishing links with secondary schools all over the country and bringing physics teachers up to date with the latest developments in physics and physics teaching. I attended Frontiers for the first time at University College Dublin last year and enjoyed it immensely (see September 2008 post). This year it was WIT’s turn to host the conference and I think it went very well, thanks to the superb organisational skills of Paul Nugent, David Keenahan, Alison Hackett and Eilish Mc Loughlin of the Institute of Physics and WIT physicist Gabriel Gallagher.

The weekend started with a dinner for the conference speakers and organisers in the Tower Hotel on the Friday night. It’s always great to catch up with other physicists in an informal setting and the occasion didn’t disappoint. In particular, I was amazed to discover that well-known science communicator and Northern Ireland Space Office director Robert Hill and I share a colourful past: many years ago Robert used to play 1st trumpet with the National Youth Orchestra of Ireland while I scraped away in the 1st violins!

Saturday morning kicked off with a series of three lectures: you can see the conference program here.

First up to the podium was Prof David Hughes, a highly distinguished astronomer and science communicator from the University of Sheffield, with a talk entitled ‘Telescopes: their history, development and future’. This was a masterly presentation on the evolution of the telescope over the centuries and its effect on science. The seminar covered the whole gamut – from Galileo’s use of a primitive telescope to observe the moons of Jupiter and the phases of Venus, and its impact on the geocentric model of the solar system, to Hubble’s use of the 100-inch Hooker telescope on Mt Wilson to establish the existence of distant galaxies and the subsequent discovery of the expanding universe (the first plank of evidence for the Big Bang model). I really liked the way the speaker emphasised the impact of each technological step in the development of the telescope: from refracting lenses to reflecting pyrex mirrors, from simple drawing to photographic images, from cumbersome mechanical mountings to computer-controlled giants, from simple photography to the modern CCD camera. (Interesting stat: for the last four centuries, the physical size of telescopes has doubled every 50 years). This was a masterclass in science communication and the audience was enthralled.


David Hughes with an image of the Hooker telescope in the background

David Hughes2

It’s astonishing how astronomy still revolutionizes cosmology from time to time: throughout David’s talk I kept thinking of the recent measurements of distant supernovae that led to the discovery of a universe expansion that is currently acclerating (see post on dark energy here). Interestingly, David was quite cautious about this result in discussion, pointing out that it depends critically on our understanding of Type 1 supernovae – it’s just possible that the effect arises from a lack of understanding of these stars, although there is some coobborating evidence of dark energy from recent measurements of the cosmic microwave background.

In the second talk of the day, Eoin Gill of the WIT science communication group CALMAST gave a talk on ‘The life and legacy of Robert Boyle’. It’s often forgotten just how important the work of this Irish scientist was, from his theory of ‘corpuscules’ to his famous work on gases. Eoin gave a great talk on Boyle, giving an overview of his life and times and the impact of his scientific discoveries. As regards the former, many were surprised to hear that the Irish have a mixed view of one their most famous scientists because of his family background. Robert Boyle was able to indulge his passion for science due to vast wealth inherited from his father, the Earl of Boyle: unfortunately the latter was a notorious Englishman who made his fortune by stealing land from the Irish and redistributing it to English nobility!


Robert Boyle (aka Eoin Gill) in action

Robert Boyle 2

The high points of the talk were the simple but effective demonstrations. Taking his cue from the famous demonstrations employed by Boyle himself at Royal Society lectures, Eoin showed several neat demonstrations of the vacuum that could be done in the classroom – snuffing out candles in a sealed container attached to a simple pump, the elimination of noise from a bell in the same container, the impossibility of pulling apart spheres separated by a vacuum and many others.

The third talk of the morning was my own presentation on ‘Walton, the LHC and the Higgs boson’. This was a 40-min overview of the forthcoming experiments at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN and their importance in the study of the elementary particles, along with a few words on the role of the Waterford-born scientist Ernest Walton in the evolution of accelerator physics.



Ronan McNulty of University College Dublin gave an excellent short talk on his group’s involvement in the LHCb experiment at last year’s conference, so this was an attempt at a more general overview of experimental particle physics. Part one dealt with the how, what and why of the LHC: how particles are created and detected, the relevence of such experiments for particle physics and cosmology and a few specifics on the proton beams and the detectors. (I also tried to emphasise the fact that relativistic effects such as mass-energy equivalence, time dilation and length contraction are routinely measured in particle experiments as I feel this point is often forgotten). The second part consisted of a whirlwind introduction to the Standard Model, from the discovery of quarks to electroweak unification. In the 3rd part, I sketched the role of the Higgs boson in the model and the difficulties of detection. I touched on the possiblity of physics beyond the standard model at the LHC (supersymmetric particles and the implication for grand unified theories) before finishing up with a few words on cosmology – the search for dark matter particles and the study of matter/antimatter decay in the LHCb experiment.

You can find the slides from the talk here and a video will be available on the conference website next week. My only regret is that the conference had been running 15 minutes late all morning so there was no time for questions  – the best part of any talk. Also,  I never got time to show Kate McAlpine’s LHC rap, it would have gone down a bomb!


After lunch, Robert Hill , the director of the Northern Ireland Space Office, gave a workshop on useful astronomy software and website resources for teachers. As the former science communicator for the Armagh Planetarium and founder of the Astrogazers Ireland Schools Network, Robert knows a thing or two about getting young people interested in astronomy and science and this was a highly useful workshop, fnishing with a great 3-D show on the universe. I won’t give more details, but examples of the sort of invaluable web resources he gave are

Astronomy Ireland

Armagh Planetarium

The Hubble Site

The Faulkes Telescope Project


Finally, there was a workshop on making videos for educational proposes by Jonathan Sanderson. Jonathan is a highly experienced producer of TV science shows (he has produced series on science for the BBC, ITV and RTE) and he gave us an overview of the SciCast project: this is a nationwide effort in the UK to get students to discover the wonder of science by making short films of simple scientific demonstrations. Jonathan had some great tips on how to get the students to work in teams for the production of such films and then showed us some classic examples from the existing SciCast collection. So far, there are more than three hundred films in the SciCast collection, you can view the collection here!

Video workshop2

A masterclass in science film directing

All in all, it was a great conference, with plenty of items of interest for any science educator. There were also plenty of useful freebies such as astronomy posters, polarising sheets, SPIN science magazine, flash memory sticks and a DVD on the universe produced by the ESA. Professional photos of the event and videos of the talks will be available on the conference website in a few days.


Filed under Particle physics, Public lectures, Teaching

The Alchemist Cafe

I gave a talk on Wednesday evening at the Science Gallery in Trinity College Dublin, as part of the Alchemist Cafe series. It was great to be back at the Gallery, I’ve fond memories of participating in the RAW debates there last year (see blog posts on the debates here).

The Alchemist Cafe is the Irish branch of the international Cafe Scientifique movement: the idea is to get a scientist or engineer to give an informal talk on a scientific topic in a cafe/bar setting, with plenty of questions and discussion afterwards. You can find abstracts and videos of previous talks on their website above.

I gave a short spiel titled ‘The Big Bang: Fact or Fiction?”. I thought it would be fun to go over the three basic planks of evidence for the model and then discuss some modern results (from the accelerating universe to WMAP measurements of the cosmicrowave background). The rest of the session was given over to questions and discussion.

It seemed to work well, I thought the Science Gallery cafe a particularly good setting. One whole side of the cafe is a glass window onto the street and we projected the images I used onto the opposite wall, with the audience in between. It made for a nice relaxed atmosphere.

The Naughton Institute and the Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin

al caf 1

Photos courtesy of The Alchemist Cafe

There were plenty of good questions, on topics as diverse as unified field theory and dark energy. I wish I’d taken note of the questions, must check with the organisers if someone did. Turnout was a big surprise – a few friends turned up at 8.05 and couldn’t get in! It’s amazing the public interest in cosmology, I guess everyone has heard of the Big Bang and Hawking’s A Brief History of Time.

All in all, it was a great experience. There will be a video of the event on the Alchemist Cafe site in a few days and I’ve uploaded the slides I used on the My Seminars page.

P.S. The Gallery is currently exhibiting INFECTIOUS, an excellent show on the spread of infectious diseases: well worth seeing and highly relevant given the news on swine flu…


Filed under Public lectures, Science and society

Angels, demons and antimatter

I’m re-reading Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons in preparation for the film release later this month. I’m quite enjoying it – if you’re going to write a fast-paced thriller, why not have lots of science and religion in it? Not many thrillers feature antimatter as a core part of the plot. Also, it’s great to see CERN feature in a book aimed primarily at an American market. In fact, the first 150 pages or so of the book are set in CERN.

However, it has to be said that much of the science is disappointing. First, there are the usual stereotypes – the CERN director is portrayed as a cold scientific type with few morals or empathy. The lab is full of all sorts of gadgetry incomprehensible to the hero Langton, a Harvard professor of religious iconology. More seriously, some of the science is poorly researched and inaccurate.

For example, a very basic component of the plot makes no sense. An anti-religious group is suspected of murdering a CERN scientist because he has discovered that ‘‘matter can be created out of pure energy, contradicting modern science and giving support for creationism”. Except that the creation of matter from pure energy is a standard prediction of both relativity and quantum physics (E = mc2) and we have been producing it in accelerator experiments for years. There are no implications for religion!

Such misconceptions run throughout the book. Elsewhere, it is explicitly stated that particle physics is about smashing things together in order to see what’s inside. This is completely wrong – in experimental particle physics, exotic new particles are created out of the energy of reaction (e.g. antiquarks do not exist inside protons, they are created out of the energy of proton-proton collisions). Much of the discussion of antimatter also contains errors – for example the ‘antimatter bomb’ of the plot makes little sense. While antimatter can and is created in accelerator experiments, only the tiniest amounts have ever been successfully stored (i.e. atoms of antimatter, not micrograms). Statements like ‘‘the electron is the antiparticle of the proton” don’t help either.

That said, I like the idea of a bestselling novel featuring antimatter heavily. Also, the ‘struggle’ between science and religion, a central theme of the book, is an interesting theme for a bestseller – although it’s a pity that the emphasis is on the extreme views on either side of the debate.

As you know, the film is about to be released, with the usual heavy promotion. Sadly, I hear that the science in the film version is cut quite drastically – the CERN angle is limited to a few shots at the very beginning, Langton never visits the facility, and the CERN director, a central character of the novel, doesn’t feature in the film. Almost all scientists in the film are show wearing white coats, reducing their role to that of lab technicians..oh dear.

In summary, it’s easy to take potshots at science in novels like this. Overall, I’m glad to see science mentioned at all. Pity much of it is left out in the film..

Update: The particle physics community in the US have organised a series of public lectures on the science behind Angels&Demons in order to coincide with the release of the film. You can read more about this here and see the lecture timetable here.

I’m hoping to get involved in a similar lecture at the Science Gallery in Trinity College Dublin. I think it’s a good idea to tap into the anticipated public interest in antimatter. That said, I think such a lecture should also include a certain amount of discussion of science and religion, as this is a major theme of the book. More on this later…

Update II:

I just read that The Irish Times and the Royal Irish Academy are hosting a public a panel discussion on Angels, Demons and Antimatter at the RIA on June 2nd. The panel includes some very good particle physicists like Alex Montwill and Ronan Mc Nulty of UCD, well worth a visit for anyone in Dublin. You can find details of the event and book tickets on the RIA website.


Filed under Public lectures, Science and society