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Covid-19 is not a matter of opinion or politics

This article of mine appeared in The Irish Times on 26/10/2020.

It’s hard to believe that it’s only seven months since the novel coronavirus that causes Covid-19 first emerged. Quite apart from the tragic statistic of more than a million deaths worldwide, and the many people whose health has been seriously damaged, the virus has had a devastating impact on national economies and on employment.

Early hopes that the virus would be quickly eliminated by lockdown proved optimistic. While such measures certainly slowed the infection rate, the gradual reopening of society soon caused infection rates to rise again in most countries. Since then, each country has been faced with difficult choices, from the reopening of schools and restaurants to the partial reopening of colleges and businesses.

In addition, a significant fracture has appeared in the reaction of citizens to the advice of health experts. While some argue for a “live with the virus” approach, others readily accept limitations on movement until a vaccine becomes available. It is interesting that almost all the scientists I know lie in the second group, perhaps because of our belief in the methods of science, especially in the context of unprecedented international efforts towards a common goal.

In Ireland, most citizens seem happy to follow governmental guidelines on social distancing and mask wearing. However, this is not the case in all countries. In the most glaring example, there has been a persistent reluctance in the United States on the part of both leaders and voters of a Republican hue to take basic precautions against the virus.

Thus, the news in early October that US president Donald Trump, the first lady and many of their inner circle had tested positive for the virus was not altogether surprising. After all, Trump’s disdain for social distancing and mask wearing is well known, from his insistence on reopening states with high infection rates to his hectoring of reporters wearing masks. Indeed, media coverage of a White House garden party, hosted to celebrate the nomination of a new supreme court judge, removed any doubt that the president and his staff had any regard for virus protocols. Ironically, it is now thought that this particular event may have functioned as a superspreader event.

At the time of writing, it appears that the President is enjoying a full recovery. However, it is likely that the incident did some damage to his re-election prospects. In the first instance, the incident ensures that the virus remains a central theme of the election, reminding citizens of his administration’s disastrous performance in protecting Americans from the disease. Second, Trump’s succumbing to the virus serves as a reminder that rhetoric is one thing and facts are another. It turns out that bluster was no defence against the reality of Covid-19.

Relativism

This, perhaps, is the real lesson to be learned from recent events. Not long after Trump’s election, Kellyanne Conway, in her role as counsellor to the President, shocked many Americans when she spoke of “alternative facts”. It soon transpired that this relativism was to be the hallmark of this administration. The concerns of climate scientists were simply dismissed out of hand in favour of the vested interests of the fossil-fuel industry. More generally, Trump set about appointing lobbyists from the world of commerce to key positions in government agencies tasked with the protection of the environment, a strategy which has resulted in the rollback of countless regulations put in place over the years to protect the environment from the worst ravages of industry.

But facts are facts. It turns out that greenhouse gases from industry are indeed warming the planet. Whether one choose to believe this has no impact on the phenomenon itself; it is not a matter of opinion or of politics. Similarly, the Covid-19 virus can spread very effectively from person to person if we do not take basic precautions. Whether one accepts or denies this well-established fact does not have any effect on the infection process itself.

Thus, the contraction of Covid-19 by Trump and many of his entourage may be a blow in an election campaign that was already in trouble. After all, it’s hard to imagine a more concrete example of the failure of hubris when confronted with immutable facts. Indeed, the president may even get a taste of the full impact of the virus, as experienced by many ordinary citizens, if he loses his job and his current residence in consequence.

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

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Back to school with a twist

Today marked the first day back at work for academic staff at our college, Waterford Institute of Technology. From 9 am sharp, it was back to work with a maelstrom of meetings, meetings and more meetings; all remote of course, due to fears of a second surge of the virus in Ireland.

I must say it was nice to see and hear colleagues again for the first time in months. I had a very productive summer in terms of research, but it’s nice to talk to other lecturers once again!

The big news is that, as advertised in the media, almost lectures, tutorials and practicals in our college will be conducted online this semester, starting in October. We are encouraged to stream lectures from classrooms in the college, but we can also choose to do them remotely. Truth be told, I’m quite looking forward to the experience; when you have been teaching for a number of years, it’s nice to engage in different forms of delivery. In addition, we have been putting more and more of our material online in terms of Moodle; this is really the logical progression of such things.

That said, nothing replaces the teacher-student interaction, so the intention is that our students will experience a hybrid teaching model when they return in October. How exactly that will work will be decided over the next few weeks.

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Government action flattened the COVID curve – it needs to continue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worrying reports

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lessons from Covid-19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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September, new students, surfing and a conference

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

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Back to school after a quiet summer

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

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Surfing in Tramore bay, Waterford

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

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

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

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

 

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Back to school

It was back to college this week, a welcome change after some intense research over the hols. I like the start of the second semester, there’s always a great atmosphere around the college with the students back and the restaurants, shops and canteens back open. The students seem in good form too, no doubt enjoying a fresh start with a new set of modules (also, they haven’t yet received their exam results!).

This semester, I will teach my usual introductory module on the atomic hypothesis and early particle physics to second-years. As always, I’m fascinated by the way the concept of the atom emerged from different roots and different branches of science: from philosophical considerations in ancient Greece to considerations of chemistry in the 18th century, from the study of chemical reactions in the 19th century to considerations of statistical mechanics around the turn of the century. Not to mention a brilliant young patent clerk who became obsessed with the idea of showing that atoms really exist, culminating in his famous paper on Brownian motion. But did you know that Einstein suggested at least three different ways of measuring Avogadro’s constant? And each method contributed significantly to establishing the reality of atoms.

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 In 1908, the French physicist Jean Perrin demonstrated that the motion of particles suspended in a liquid behaved as predicted by Einstein’s formula, derived from considerations of statistical mechanics, giving strong support for the atomic hypothesis.  

One change this semester is that I will also be involved in delivering a new module,  Introduction to Modern Physics, to first-years. The first quantum revolution, the second quantum revolution, some relativity, some cosmology and all that.  Yet more prep of course, but ideal for anyone with an interest in the history of 20th century science. How many academics get to teach interesting courses like this? At conferences, I often tell colleagues that my historical research comes from my teaching, but few believe me!

Update

Then of course, there’s also the module Revolutions in Science, a course I teach on Mondays at University College Dublin; it’s all go this semester!

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7th Robert Boyle Summer School

This weekend saw the 7th Robert Boyle Summer School, an annual 3-day science festival in Lismore, Co. Waterford in Ireland. It’s one of my favourite conferences – a select number of talks on 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.

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The Irish-born scientist and aristocrat Robert Boyle   

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

Born in Lismore into a wealthy landowning family, Robert Boyle became one of the most important figures in the Scientific Revolution. A contemporary of Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke, he is recognized the world over for his scientific discoveries, his role in the rise of the Royal Society and his influence in promoting the new ‘experimental philosophy’ in science.

This year, the theme of the conference was ‘What do we know – and how do we know it?’. There were many interesting talks such as Boyle’s Theory of Knowledge by Dr William Eaton, Associate Professor of Early Modern Philosophy at Georgia Southern University: The How, Who & What of Scientific Discovery by Paul Strathern, author of a great many books on scientists and philosophers such as the well-known Philosophers in 90 Minutes series: Scientific Enquiry and Brain StateUnderstanding the Nature of Knowledge by Professor William T. O’Connor, Head of Teaching and Research in Physiology at the University of Limerick Graduate Entry Medical School: The Promise and Peril of Big Data by Timandra Harkness, well-know media presenter, comedian and writer. For physicists, there was a welcome opportunity to hear the well-known American philosopher of physics Robert P. Crease present the talk Science Denial: will any knowledge do? The full programme for the conference can be found here.

All in all, a hugely enjoyable summer school, culminating in a garden party in the grounds of Lismore castle, Boyle’s ancestral home. My own contribution was to provide the music for the garden party – a flute, violin and cello trio, playing the music of Boyle’s contemporaries, from Johann Sebastian Bach to Turlough O’ Carolan. In my view, the latter was a baroque composer of great importance whose music should be much better known outside Ireland.

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Images from the garden party in the grounds of Lismore Castle

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A week’s research and a New Year resolution

If anyone had suggested a few years ago that I would forgo a snowsports holiday in the Alps for a week’s research, I would probably not have believed them. Yet here I am, sitting comfortably in the library of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.

ew3          The School of Theoretical Physics at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies

It’s been a most satisfying week. One reason is that a change truly is as good as a rest – after a busy teaching term, it’s very enjoyable to spend some time in a quiet spot, surrounded by books on the history of physics. Another reason is that one can accomplish an astonishing amount in one week’s uninterrupted study. That said, I’m not sure I could do this all year round, I’d miss the teaching!

As regards a resolution for 2018, I’ve decided to focus on getting a book out this year. For some time, I have been putting together a small introductory book on the big bang theory, based on a public lecture I give to diverse audiences, from amateur astronomers to curious taxi drivers. The material is drawn from a course I teach at both Waterford Institute of Technology and University College Dublin and is almost in book form already. The UCD experience is particularly useful, as the module is aimed at first-year students from all disciplines.

Of course, there are already plenty of books out there on this topic. My students have a comprehensive reading list, which includes classics such as A Brief History of Time (Hawking), The First Three Minutes (Weinberg) and The Big Bang (Singh). However, I regularly get feedback to the effect that the books are too hard (Hawking) or too long (Singh) or out of date (Weinberg). So I decided a while ago to put together my own effort; a useful exercise if nothing else comes of it.

In particular, I intend to take a historical approach to the story. I’m a great believer in the ‘how-we-found-out’ approach to explaining scientific theories (think for example of that great BBC4 documentary on the discovery of oxygen). My experience is that a historical approach allows the reader to share the excitement of discovery and makes technical material much easier to understand. In addition, much of the work of the early pioneers remains relevant today. The challenge will be to present a story that is also concise – that’s the hard part!

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Thinking about space and time in Switzerland

This week, I spent a very enjoyable few days in Bern, Switzerland, attending the conference ‘Thinking about Space and Time: 100 Years of Applying and Interpreting General Relativity’. Organised by Claus Beisbart, Tilman Sauer and Christian Wüthrich, the workshop took place at the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Bern, and focused on the early reception of Einstein’s general theory of relativity and the difficult philosophical questions raised by the theory. The conference website can be found here and the conference programme is here .

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The university of Bern, Switzerland

Of course, such studies also have a historical aspect, and I particularly enjoyed talks by noted scholars in the history and philosophy of 20th century science such as Chris Smeenk (‘Status of the Expanding Universe Models’), John Norton (‘The Error that Showed the Way; Einstein’s Path to the Field Equations’), Dennis Lehmkuhl (‘The Interpretation of Vacuum Solutions in Einstein’s Field Equations’), Daniel Kennefick (‘A History of Gravitational Wave Emission’) and Galina Weinstein (‘The Two-Body Problem in General Relativity as a Heuristic Guide to the Einstein-Rosen Bridge and the EPR Argument’). Other highlights were a review of the problem of dark energy (something I’m working on myself at the moment) by astrophysicist Ruth Durrer and back-to-back talks on the so-called black-hole information paradox from physicist Sabine Hossenfelder and philosopher Carina Prunkl. There were also plenty of talks on general relativity such as Claus Kiefer’s recall of the problems raised at the famous 1955 Bern conference (GR0),  and a really interesting talk on Noether’s theorems by Valeriya Chasova.

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Walking to the conference through the old city early yesterday morning

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Dr Valereria Chasova giving a talk on Noether’s theorems

My own talk, ‘Historical and Philosophical Aspects of Einstein’s 1917 Model of the Universe’, took place on the first day, the slides are here. (It’s based on our recent review of the Einstein World which has just appeared in EPJH). As for the philosophy talks, I don’t share the disdain some physicists have for philosophers. It seems to me that philosophy has a big role to play in understanding what we think we have discovered about space and time, not least in articulating the big questions clearly. After all, Einstein himself had great interest in the works of philosophers, from Ernst Mach to Hans Reichenbach, and there is little question that modern philosophers such as Harvey Brown have made important contributions to relativity studies. Of course, some philosophers are harder to follow than others, but this is also true of mathematical talks on relativity!

The conference finished with a tour of the famous Einstein Haus in Bern. It’s strange walking around the apartment Einstein lived in with Mileva all those years ago, it has been preserved extremely well. The tour included a very nice talk by Professor Hans Ott , President of the Albert Einstein Society, on AE’s work at the patent office, his 3 great breakthroughs of 1905, and his rise from obscurity to stardom in the years 1905-1909.

Einstein’s old apartment in Bern, a historic site maintained by the Albert Einstein Society

All in all, my favourite sort of conference. A small number of speakers and participants, with plenty of time for Q&A after each talk. I also liked the way the talks took place in a lecture room in the University of Bern, a pleasant walk from the centre of town through the old part of the city (not some bland hotel miles from anywhere). This afternoon, I’m off to visit the University of Zurich and the ETH, and then it’s homeward bound.

Update

I had a very nice day being shown around  ETH Zurich, where Einstein studied as a student

 

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Imagine taking a mountain lift from the centre of town to lectures!

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Revolutions in Science at UCD

Earlier today , I gave my first my undergraduate lecture at University College Dublin (UCD). The lecture marked the start of a module called Revolutions in Science, a new course that is being offered to UCD students across the disciplines of science, engineering business, law and the humanities.

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As far as I know, this is the first course in the history and philosophy of science (HPS) offered at an Irish university and I’m delighted to be part of the initiative. I’ve named my component of the module Science, Society and the Universe – a description of the evolution of ideas about the universe, from the Babylonians to the ancient Greeks, from Ptolemy to Copernicus, from Newton to Einstein (it’s a version of a module I’ve taught at Waterford Institute of Technology for some years).

Hopefully, the new module will be the start of a new trend. It has long surprised me that interdisciplinary courses like this are not a staple of the university experience in Ireland. Certainly, renowned universities like Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge all have strong HPS departments with associated undergraduate modules offered to students across all disciplines. After all, such courses offer a very nice mix of history, philosophy and science, not to mention a useful glimpse into the history of ideas.

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In the meantime, I think I will really enjoy being back at my alma mater once a week. I can’t believe how UCD has developed into a really attractive campus

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