Category Archives: Third level

Remembering Stephen Hawking

Like many physicists, I woke to some sad news early last Wednesday morning, and to a phoneful of requests from journalists for a soundbyte. In fact, although I bumped into Stephen at various conferences, I only had one significant meeting with him – he was intrigued by my research group’s discovery that Einstein once attempted a steady-state model of the universe. It was a slightly scary but very funny meeting during which his famous sense of humour was fully at play.

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Yours truly talking steady-state cosmology with Stephen Hawking

I recalled the incident in a radio interview with RTE Radio 1 on Wednesday. As I say in the piece, the first words that appeared on Stephen’s screen were “I knew..” My heart sank as I assumed he was about to say “I knew about that manuscript“. But when I had recovered sufficiently to look again, what Stephen was actually saying was “I knew ..your father”. Phew! You can find the podcast here.

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Hawking in conversation with my late father (LHS) and with Ernest Walton (RHS)

RTE TV had a very nice obituary on the Six One News, I have a cameo appearence a few minutes into the piece here.

In my view, few could question Hawking’s brilliant contributions to physics, or his outstanding contribution to the public awareness of science. His legacy also includes the presence of many brilliant young physicists at the University of Cambridge today. However, as I point out in a letter in today’s Irish Times, had Hawking lived in Ireland, he probably would have found it very difficult to acquire government funding for his work. Indeed, he would have found that research into the workings of the universe does not qualify as one of the “strategic research areas” identified by our national funding body, Science Foundation Ireland. I suspect the letter will provoke an angry from certain quarters, but it is tragically true.

Update

The above notwithstanding, it’s important not to overstate the importance of one scientist. Indeed, today’s Sunday Times contains a good example of the dangers of science history being written by journalists. Discussing Stephen’s 1974 work on black holes, Bryan Appleyard states  “The paper in effect launched the next four decades of cutting edge physics. Odd flowers with odd names bloomed in the garden of cosmic speculation – branes, worldsheets , supersymmetry …. and, strangest of all, the colossal tree of string theory”.

What? String theory, supersymmetry and brane theory are all modern theories of particle physics (the study of the world of the very small). While these theories were used to some extent by Stephen in his research in cosmology (the study of the very large), it is ludicrous to suggest that they were launched by his work.

 

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Filed under Cosmology (general), History and philosophy of science, Science and society, Teaching, Third level

Snowbound academics are better academics

Like most people in Ireland, I am working at home today. We got quite a dump of snow in the last two days, and there is no question of going anywhere until the roads clear. Worse, our college closed quite abruptly and I was caught on the hop – there are a lot of things (flash drives, books and papers) sitting smugly in my office that I need for my usual research.

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The college on Monday evening

That said, I must admit I’m finding it all quite refreshing. For the first time in years, I have time to read interesting things in my daily email; all those postings from academic listings that I never seem to get time to read normally. I’m enjoying it so much, I wonder how much stuff I miss the rest of the time.

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The view from my window as I write this

This morning, I thoroughly enjoyed a paper by Nicholas Campion on the representation of astronomy and cosmology in the works of William Shakespeare. I’ve often wondered about this as Shakespeare lived long enough to know of Galileo’s ground-breaking astronomical observations. However, anyone expecting coded references to new ideas about the universe in Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays will be disappointed; apparently he mainly sticks to classical ideas, with a few vague references to the changing order.

I’m also reading about early attempts to measure the parallax of light from a comet, especially by the great Danish astronomer Tycho de Brahe. This paper comes courtesy of the History of Astronomy Discussion Group listings, a really useful resource for anyone interested in the history of astronomy.

While I’m reading all this, I’m also trying to keep abreast of a thoroughly modern debate taking place worldwide, concerning the veracity of an exciting new result in cosmology on the formation of the first stars. It seems a group studying the cosmic microwave background think they have found evidence of a signal representing the absorption of radiation from the first stars. This is exciting enough if correct, but the dramatic part is that the signal is much larger than expected, and one explanation is that this effect may be due to the presence of Dark Matter.

If true, the result would be a major step in our understanding of the formation of stars,  plus a major step in the demonstration of the existence of Dark Matter. However, it’s early days – there are many possible sources of a spurious signal and signals that are larger than expected have a poor history in modern physics! There is a nice article on this in The Guardian, and you can see some of the debate on Peter Coles’s blog In the Dark.  Right or wrong, it’s a good example of how scientific discovery works – if the team can show they have taken all possible spurious results into account, and if other groups find the same result, skepticism will soon be converted into excited acceptance.

All in all, a great day so far. My only concern is that this is the way academia should be – with our day-to-day commitments in teaching and research, it’s easy to forget there is a larger academic world out there.

Update

Of course, the best part is the walk into the village when it finally stops chucking down. can’t believe my local pub is open!

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Dunmore East in the snow today

 

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A Night at the Academy Awards

I spent a most enjoyable evening last week at the Royal Irish Academy. Ireland’s premier learned society, the Academy is an all-Ireland body that promotes excellence in the sciences and the humanities, fostering links between ‘the two cultures’. Membership of the Academy is considered a high honour amongst Ireland’s academics, and former members include eminent Irish intellectuals such as William Rowan Hamilton,  Ernest Walton, Seamus Heaney and W.B. Yeats.

I was there to witness the awarding of this year’s  RIA Gold Medals for outstanding research. The medals were presented to Professor Werner Nahm, for his seminal work in theoretical physics and to Professor Desmond Clarke, for his research in the history and philosophy of science in the 17th century.  I was pleased but not surprised at Werner’s award; his research has already been recognized with  several international prizes, not least the famous Planck Medal of the German Physical Society. As Director as the School of Theoretical Physics at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS), Werner plays a key role in mathematics and physics in Ireland. (He also has a side interest in the history of science, and was one of the first people I turned to in our studies of unpublished Einstein manuscripts. In fact, Werner recently showed me a hardcopy of a little-known book at DIAS by Albert Einstein, published only in French, with annotation in the margins by the late Eamonn de Valera – all very much in keeping with the interdisciplinary spirit of the Academy!)

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The main conference hall at the Royal Irish Academy

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The library at the Royal Irish Academy

The evening was most enjoyable, with erudite professors of science and the humanities intermingling in the Academy’s beautiful premises on Dawson Street in Dublin – indeed part of the remit of the Academy is the promotion of links between the two disciplines. The ceremony included speeches from Jan O’ Sullivan , our Minister for Education, and  Tom Boland, director of the Higher Education Authority.

One surprise was that the event did not include acceptance speeches by the awardees. This seemed strange, given the prestige of the RIA medals (imagine a Nobel award without the speech). One would have liked to hear the recipients describe their research, thank colleagues, and comment on the challenges of academia. In particular, I thought it was a pity that there was no opportunity for two highly distinguished academics to respond to the speeches of the Minister for Education or the Director of the HEA. For example, I suspect Werner would have liked to comment on the current lack of funding for research in basic science and its impact on the study of mathematics and theoretical physics in Ireland (and on his Institute).  I have never met Professor Clarke, but it would have been most interesting to hear his views on the challenges faced by historians in Ireland.

All in all, a most enjoyable occasion. I was disappointed that the event attracted almost no media coverage afterwards, despite the presence of several press photographers on the night. Perhaps the occasion was deemed too intellectual by news editors –  what is a lifetime’s achievement in academia compared with latest adventures of Roy Keane…

Update

There is a short article describing the event in the Weekend section of The Irish Times. However, it’s easy to miss as there are no  photographs and there doesn’t seem to be an online version.

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Academics and their holidays

Last week, I returned to the snow world for the first time in a long while. The college teaching semester starts on Monday 12th, and I managed to get my corrections done over Christmas, leaving a precious few days over. I had intended going to a conference on relativity and spacetime in Israel, but in the end I decided I was more in need of a few days holiday, not to mention some exercise!
‘Tis well for some,you might say, and indeed it is. For those who can, the week after New Year is a very good time for a snow holiday – cheaper and less crowded (and little danger of being stranded in airports). That said, I recently worked out that, during the teaching semester, I work an average 20 hours unpaid overtime per week in comparison with my previous 9-5 job . This isn’t particularly unusual for an academic involved in research but it’s important to take a break sometime to recharge the batteries.

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The village of Fieberbrunn in Tirol and neighbouring gondola

This year, I bought a last-minute package with Crystalski to Fieberbrunn, a little known resort in Tirol, Austria. The village is only a few kilometres away from the well-known resorts of St Johann and Kitzbuehel, but so far undiscovered by English-speaking tourists. I signed up for a few advanced sessions with the local ski school – skiing is a highly technical sport and one can always learn a great deal from Austrian ski instructors (not to mention hearing some German). Sure enough, we spent several days trying to absorb tips on posture from Ottmar F., a leading free-rider and scarily qualified instructor from these parts. Best of all, the course concentrated on some gentle off-piste skiing, always my weak spot.

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Off-piste with Ottmar- then back to the piste at last

It’s not the easiest of holidays – each day, I would return exhausted to the hotel and spend an hour recuperating in the pool, before doing some study in the evenings. I was happy enough to hand back transceiver and avalanche pack yesterday, that’s enough exercise for a while!
Best of all, I got the guts of my next paper written during the week – an essay on Einstein’s philosophy of cosmology for the upcoming Oxford/Cambridge compendium on the philosophy of cosmology. Not for the first time, I notice that I get more work done when I stay away from the office…

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Summer hols; summer school, swimming and that book

You must be finished for the summer? Like most academics, I get asked this question every day in summer, usually by village acquaintances convinced that college closes the day the students finish their exams.

Some lecturers in the Institutes of Technology do indeed take off from June 20th to September 1st; that is their right, given the heavy teaching load during termtime. However, for those of us who try to keep up the research, the summer months are the time to get something done, just like our colleagues in the universities.

For me, this is no chore  – the sheer bliss of being able to do quiet research without classes, meetings, staff interactions and all the rest of it. Very restful. Also, we’re having a serious heatwave in Ireland this month and I’m happy to escape to the cool, quiet office every day. So I plug away happily during the day and treat myself to a swim in my village in the evenings..

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Tide’s in on Lawlor’s Strand in Dunmore East

Actually, I did give some ‘cameo’ lectures this week and last, to our summer school. We have a very nice bunch of engineering, computing and business students visiting from Kiel in Germany, and I had fun trying to condense my climate science course down to a one-hour presentation for each group. I haven’t given short presentations on climate before, it was very satisfying to prepare (see here for a copy of the talk)  The other thing I noticed was that students from the continent always seem to be very mature, polite and interested. I must look into an exchange sometime, do they have Erasmus for staff?

My main task this summer is to finish my little book on cosmology. It’s based on a course I have taught for some years and it’s been a lot of fun to write. Now I’m finding that it’s one thing to write a book and quite another to get it published! Still, I have plenty of time now to be writing book proposals and writing to publishers. In the meantime, I look forward to a swim in the sea everyday after work and a walk into the village. It’s funny to live in a village where others come for summer holidays!

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Tide’s out on Lawlor’s Strand in Dunmore East

Update

Unfortunately it’s so warm, we’re beginning to get quite a few jellyfish. Hope it cools down a little next week!

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Day II at Oxford

Today was the second day of the  Cosmology and Quantum Foundations  conference, a symposium that forms part of the  Establishing the Philosophy of Cosmology project at Cambridge and Oxford.

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The workshop this morning started with a fascinating talk by Douglas Spolyar  on a model of cosmic inflation that predicts that inflation could happen at relatively low energies. The big advantage of such models that they are testable at the TeV energies, i.e., at accelerators such as the LHC; I need to read the paper before I comment further, but all the talks will soon be available on the conference website.

Laura Mersini then gave a talk on evidence for the multiverse post-Planck. This was a discussion of her thesis that the multiverse should in principle be detectable in the cosmic microwave background because of the phenomena of quantum entanglement and decoherence. She then discussed how in her view the Planck data offers support for the model in terms of the cold spot, the dark flow and other effects. It was a good thorough lecture and I understood a lot more than I did at the Cambridge conference on the philosophy of cosmology last March.  Of course, not all cosmologists agree with her thesis and there was plenty of lively discussion from the audience – as an experimentalist, I really like the way theoreticians constantly challenge each other  during their talks, it’s very interactive!

In the afternoon , it was back to the conference proper for ‘Probability and the multiverse: an Everettian view’, the second installment of Simon Saunder’s discussion of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum theory. I found this a lot more challenging than Monday’s talk, I really need to brush up on my reading on many-worlds. Max Tegmark then gave a talk on ‘Thermodynamics, information and consciousness in a quantum multiverse’, a discussion that was  full of interesting insights and provocative ideas. A central theme of his is that entropy does not always increase, but can in fact decrease on observation. I have heard this idea before but I’ve never been clear whether it is an argument that pertains to entropy as a state of information about a system, or whether it is literally true of physical entropy.  I wanted to ask this at question time, and how one might test the hypothesis,  but time ran out.

[Update: I asked Max this question over coffee. I think the answer is yes to physical entropy and he suggested an experiment that could test the idea; unfortunately, I understood about 5% of what he said, I need to read up on this!]

The last speaker of the day was Carlo Rovelli, who spoke on a new interpretation of quantum theory known as the relationary view, a hypothesis  he put forward in the 1990s. This interpretation of qt  imports a lot of ideas from special relativity, in particular applying the idea of the reference frame of the observer to the measurement problem. Thus, instead of talking about wavefunctions that collapse into one state or another, one has to consider that measurements of systems are made relative to another system – it is the relation between the systems that counts. It was fascinating to hear a description of this intriguing new idea from its creator, and tomorrow he will explain how the new theory gives a description of  quantum gravity. [Writing this, I seem to remember that one of Schrodinger’s own objections to the notion of collapsing wavefunctions involved the problem of observations of the same object from different reference frames, must look this up]

After all that, it was time for the conference dinner. I was lucky enough to be at the same table as Carlo, who is also  the author of the highly regarded book ‘The First Scientist: Anaximander and His Legacy’ and we had a great discussion on the history of science. I have never met a physicist who is not interested in the history of our subject – how things were found out is almost as interesting as the things themselves!

As a bonus, the an after-dinner talk was given by Max Tegmark who posed an intriguing question; what if mathematics is a useful way of describing nature simply because nature *is* mathematics? This question was  first raised by Pythagoras, and Max gave an extremely interesting talk on the subject. So much so that I finally realised who he reminds me of – Richard Feynman!

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I had a quick walk under the Bridge of Sighs before dinner

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A day in the life

There is a day-in-the life profile of me in today’s Irish Times, Ireland’s newspaper of record. I’m very pleased with it, I like the title  – Labs, lectures and luring young people into scence  – and the accompanying photo, it looks like I’m about to burst into song! This is a weekly series where an academic describes their working week, so I give a day-to-day description of the challenge of balancing teaching and research at my college Waterford Institute of Technology in Ireland.

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Is this person singing?

There is quite  a lot of discussion in Ireland at the moment concerning the role of  institutes of technology vs that of universities. I quite like the two-tier system – the institutes function like polytechnics and tend to be smaller and offer more practical programmes than the universities. However, WIT is something of an anomaly – because it  is the only third level college in a largeish city and surrounding area, it has been functioning rather like a university for many years (i.e. has a very broad range of programmes, quite high entry points and is reasonably research-active). The college is currently being considered for technological university status, but many commentators oppose the idea of an upgrade – there are fears of a domino effect amongst the other 12 institutes, giving Ireland far too many universities.

It’s hard to know the best solution but I’m not complaining – I like the broad teaching portfolio of the IoTs, and there is a lot to be said for a college where you do research if you want to, not because you have to!

Update

I had originally said that the institutes cater for a ‘slightly lower level of student’. Oops! This is simply not true in the case of WIT, given the entry points for many of the courses I teach, apologies Jamie and Susie. Again, I think the points are a reflection of the fact that WIT has been functioning rather like a university simply because of where it is.

Comments on the article are on the Irish Times page

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