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A new President

I just caught President Obama’s inauguration speech on our college tv. All of us were highly impressed, from the senior professors to the cleaning women (even my students were riveted). Very impressive and quite moving. I suspect Obama will make a great President and a big difference to the world. It reminded me of old footage of Kennedy, you got a glimpse of the US the rest of us used to be proud of. I suspect many nations around the world are heaving a sigh of relief..

A new President

There were several prominent references to corporate greed, to unsustainable energy consumption and to America’s reduced standing in international affairs. He sounded like he meant it. It will be interesting to see whether an intelligent man who is clearly well-motivated will be able to stand up to the vested interests of ideologues and big business…

So a new President for a new era. I notice that when Democrats get elected they talk a lot about America and American values, whereas Republican presidents talk about republican values…interesting

P.S. Forgot so say the most important bit – during the speechthe new President also said the magic words “restore science to its rightful place”. At long last…

Update: James wants to know where the rightful place of science might be (see comments).

The rightful place of science is where it can be heard by decision-makers, so that world leaders can make decisions based on the best objective scientific advice available. One of the first things the Bush administration did was to move the office of science advisor far from the inner circle of the White House (physically as well as metaphorically). He also installed political hacks and Big Business cronies to top positions in major scientific bodies such as NASA… a huge tactical error irrespective of your political viewpoint.

The result was a campaign of misinformation on science, with many consequences – the most serious of which was the effective stalling by the US of any meaningful international action on global warming for 8 years, to the incredulity of most other nations.

Already, Barack’s choice of scientific advisors has been spectacular – if you want to get a feeling for the views of US scientists on this, have a look at the blogs listed under ‘particle physics’ in the blogroll opposite..


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Young Scientist Exhibition

I spent last Friday and Saturday at the BT Young Scientist Exhibition in Dublin.  The CALMAST group at our college do a great job of communicating science to young people and I took a day out to go up and help out with physics demonstrations at their stand at the exhibition. They had super demonstrations covering all the sciences, including a robot that moves and talks, a show on Robert Boyle and simple demonstrations of the science of first aid . My own job was to demonstrate the physics of magnets, plasma balls and the like. It’s fun to do and great see the interest in young people, some kids find it utterly fascinating.


Robert Boyle (Eoin Gill) at the WIT stand (Boyle was born in Waterford)


Galileo (Astronomy Ireland)meets Boyle (WIT)


The WIT robot BENJI meets the Minister for the Environment

Such stands are really a sideshow to the main event. The Young Scientist is a highly successful science competiton for Irish secondary schools, where students from hundreds of schools submit detailed science projects. I didn’t get a chance to see all the projects, but there were some very interesting physics projects, ranging from a study of the surface brightness of disc galaxies to a mathematical model of the human face using factals. Two maths projects that caught my attention were a suggested new avenue for the solution of the Riemann Hypothesis via the Robin formulation and ‘ efficient numerical tests of of Robin’s reformulation of the Riemann hypothesis’ (the latter won 1st prize for individual project). Both these projects were from the same school – extraordinary what inspiration good secondary teachers can give. The overall winner of the competition was an ingenous method of determing the health of cattle using washing-up liqud, you can read about it here.

Of course, the real question is whether such projects and the whizz bang demonstrations next door motivate young people into choosing science as a career. I think they do to some extent as inspiration outside the classroom is often the key to a choice of career. Even if not, a lifelong curiosty about the subject can be fostered.  However, I admit it’s a difficult thing to prove..

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New Year resolution:book

My main NY resolution is that I’m thinking of changing the topic of my book. Last semester, I gave a few public talks on particle physics to mark the opening of the LHC at CERN (see ‘My Seminars’ tab for slides). More used to giving talks on the Big Bang, I couldn’t help noticing that it is definitely easier to explain the physics of the universe than the physics of the sub-atomic. Also, there seems to be that bit more interest in cosmology..I guess this is because the study of the origin of the universe has implications for religion and philosophy and so has a wide appeal.

Everybody wants to know whether the Big Bang model is just theory or established fact. And what exactly happened at time zero? (good question). There are also all those sexy topics like Black Holes, Dark Matter, the Arrow of Time etc. Of course A Brief History of Time (Hawking) catapulted cosmology into the public imagination, but I think the interest was always there…

So possibly a change of direction in the New Year. Perhaps‘The Puzzling Universe”, a short, succinct book on the origin of the universe, might be a better seller than “The Story of Atoms”. (I have no interest in writing a popular book that is not popular). Also, I can imagine a spinoff newspaper column on the subject, always a good sign..It’s true there are now lots of books on this subject at the popular level, but that’s no harm. Anyway, many of them either cover far too much (Hawking, Bryson) or are by authors who have little experience of teaching the subject at elementary level. Must ask the students, see which subject they think will sell…

One thing that worries me is that some of the best science books for the public remain relatively unknown, not sure why this is.  For example, I really enjoy the books of Paul Davies, but they are not as wide selling as they should be. Another example is Marcus Chown – I read Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You over Christmas , a really excellent book. Really good explanations of quantum physics, general relativity and whatnot, all with highly original analogies. Hmm..we’ll see.


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Pesky exams

Since Christmas Day I’ve been busy correcting exams, but I just finished today yipee! I like to get them out of the way early so I can get back to the snow-world for a few more days before college starts up again…

Most academics hate correcting exams more than anything, but I don’t really mind that much – it always takes less time than expected (unlike research) and I like any job that has a definite beginning, middle and end (with room for targets, breaks and treats along the way). I also learnt years ago that it’s easier to stay focused if I correct exams script by script. Some lecturers dislike this method and claim it makes more sense to mark in parallel – i.e. correct all the first questions, then all the second the questions etc. I have never adopted this method as I’m terrified of making a mistake when the marks are totted up at the end. I feel there’s much less chance of this happening if one goes through the script question by question, as you get a feel for how a particular student is getting on…

Anyway, I finished at midday today and celebrated by going shopping. First thing I saw was a good skisuit for €99 and snapped it up (I used to be so proud of my ski instructor jacket, but have finally tired of being slagged over my gimpy outfit!). So it’s not all work and no play. Oh no. How’s this for cool – I’m off on Wednesday to some posh hotel in Montreux (Swiss riviera) to join friends from the Frankfurt Ski Club for their annual New Year’s Ball – after which we’re all staying over for a few days’ skiing in the nearby resort. Yipee.

Lake Geneva in winter- Viola Stockinger

And yes, I’m flying into Zurich again (see post below), more gorgeous train journeys through the snow..

That said, I do feel a bit guilty about all this flying, the main reason I hope one day to convert from being a good skier to a good surfer (a sport I can do at home). Unlike Lubos Motl, I don’t have the excuse of being a global warming skeptic – I find it hard to believe that the majority of the world’s climate scientists are fools or knaves. So sorry about those polar bears…


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New evidence on black holes

This week, the media are giving great coverage to a study that confirms the existence of a super-massive Black Hole at the centre of our galaxy. The 16-year study has given new evidence of the size and distance (from us) of the BH, by tracking the movement of stars circling the centre of the Milky Way.

Undoubtedly the most spectacular aspect of our 16-year study is that it has delivered what is now considered to be the best empirical evidence that super-massive black holes do really exist,” said Professor Reinhard Genzel, head of the research team at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany.

The black hole is 27,000 light-years from Earth and four million times more massive than the Sun, according to a paper submitted to The Astrophysical Journal. Observations were made using the 3.5m New Technology Telescope and the 8.2m Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile. Both are operated by the European Southern Observatory (ESO).

According to Dr Robert Massey of the Royal Astronomical Society, the results suggest that galaxies form around giant black holes in the way that a pearl forms around grit.

Black holes  may have a role in helping galaxies to form

You can read more on this story in today’s Irish Times or on the BBC website.

Interestingly, the BBC originally ran the story as ‘BH found at center of the Milky Way, and have now changed it to ‘BH confirmed at centre of Milky Way’, reflecting the fact that the new study presents new evidence rather than first evidence of the phenomenon.

In any case, it’s exciting news – yet another phenomenon that was once thought to be a totally unrealistic prediction of theory (general relativity in this case).

P.S. It should be pointed out that Ireland is not a member of ESO – between that and CERN we’re not doing too well are we?


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Outside the universe

What is outside the universe?

A colleague asked me this question on Friday. Good to see college leaders take the time to ponder the important questions.

The stock answer is nothing – or rather, there is no outside, simply because the technical meaning of the word ‘universe’ is  all of matter, energy, space and time. So ‘outside the universe’ is a bit of an oxymoron – like asking what is north of the north pole, or what happened before the beginning of the universe.

It’s an important question and at the root of many misconceptions in cosmology. Consider for example the expansion of the universe. There is very strong evidence that our universe is expanding (see post on Hubble graph). However, this expansion is not really like the expanding balloon so beloved of science writers, because the universe is not expanding into space in the manner of a balloon inflating in a room. Instead it is space itself that is expanding (really spacetime). This is also why the theory of cosmic inflation can posit an exponential expansion of the universe (many times faster than the speed of light) in the first fraction of a second, without contradicting relativity (which forbids travel faster than the speed of light in space).

That said, the question has got more complicated recently. If inflation is right, it seems we have to accept the possibility that a great many universes may have been spawned in the first fractions of an instant – the multiverse. Hence might one ask about ‘outside a particular universe’? I think this is essentially the same question, except it is now ‘what is outside the mulitverse?’. A question which has the same answer, which is nothing .Or better, there is no outside. We think. So far.

Artist’s impression of the mulitverse


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Scientists are dull

Modern scientists are ‘dull and getting duller” according to Bruce Charlton, Professor of theoretical medicine at the University of Buckingham. His views have been summarized in the Times Higher Education Literary Supplement, or you can read the original article on his blog here.

Essentially, Charlton’s thesis is that the selection and training process of science weeds out any interesting people. In his own words

“In particular the requirement for around ten to fifteen years of postgraduate training before even having a shot at doing some independent research of one’s own choosing (but more likely with the prospect of functioning as a cog in somebody else’s research machine) is enough to deter almost anyone with a spark of vitality or self-respect.
…nowadays there is an always-expanding need for advanced planning, committee permissions, and logistical organization; combined with a proliferation of mindless and damaging bureaucracy. The timescale of scientific action and discourse has gone up from days and weeks to months and years.”

The result of all this is plain to see according to Charlton:

The editors and journalists running even the premier journals – those having the pick of modern science – themselves find science too dull to bother writing about. And they are too often correct. We can only conclude that science is dull mainly because its requirements for long-term plodding perseverance and social inoffensiveness have the effect of ruthlessly weeding-out too many smart and interesting people.”

Hmm. Some of this is undoubtably true. In a profile of yours truly in SPIN Science magazine (due next month) I myself comment that I eventually found the business of communicating scientific ideas a lot more fun than the actual getting of results, mainly because of the specialisation and patient measurement required to achieve anything specific  nowadays.

However, I disagree with Charlton in his deification of journalism:

“The smart and interesting people instead gravitate to fast-moving fields like journalism (or finance, or management, or entrepreneurship of many types) where they get hourly or daily stimulus, and have a chance of following their own inclinations and making their mark before reaching their mid forties”.

Except that a lot of journalists are irritating opinion merchants who care not a jot whether they are right or wrong. Which would you prefer –  a dull plodder who considers the evidence carefully before reaching a tentative conclusion , or a loud attention-seeker wedded to his own opinion and oblivious to scientific evidence to the contrary? There are plenty of such journalists, with opinions on everything from climate change to stem cell research and all they do is add noise to important debates.

Give me a dull plodder any day. Indeed, this is the great fallacy of the great climate change ‘debate’. Politicians and journaists state their fixed opinions on both sides with great passion, while scientists quietly go on gathering evidence. As a result, the population at large imagines there is a great debate that in fact is long over.

Finally, Charlton concludes with

“One thing is for sure, the answer is not going to come from within science.”

I disagree. I like to think the only hope is that we scientists  can persuade young people that science asks the right questions about the world, and seeks answers in the most logical manner…if that means changing the way we do research, let’s do it.

Meanwhile, me and my surfboard are off for a dull weekend on Inch beach in Co. Kerry. Wonder what excitement Professor Charlton has lined up?

That’s me in the corner – finding my religion

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Last week of term!

There’s a great atmosphere around the college this week as it’s the last week of teaching term for the first semester. As one who strongly opposed the introduction of short semesters, I have to admit there’s a great sense of closure as staff and students  reach the end of taught courses.

This morning I finished the course with 1st science and went through last year’s paper with 1st engineering. This afternoon it’s the turn of 3rd year solid-state physics – a lot more serious as we revise all the major concepts the hapless students will need to know for their exam.

Meanwhile, I’m preparing yet another public lecture (slides here) on the LHC, this time as the keynote address for our careers day in physics at the college tomorow . What careers? Well, mathematicians and theoreticians have been kept busy calculating collision events and decay schemes. Engineers and experimentalists designed the detectors and experiments. Civil engineers build the major construction projects. Last but not least, computer scientists and software engineers have been working hard on constucting new methods for dealing with the petrabytes of data – not least the latest in distributed computing – the GRID. There’s a great article on this, the Large Hadron Computer, in the November issue of Physics World.

The GRID – National nodes at tier 2, universities at tier 3.

It’s often forgotten that the world wide web was orignally developed at CERN in order to facilitate the analysis of data from particle experiments at CERN . It’ll be interesting to see if the GRID has similar application to the world at large.

P.S. No teaching next week, and I can finally get down to some writing. After, that I’m going skiing yipee.

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Steady state theory back

I’m up to my tonsils in teaching this week, so no time for a proper post. However, over at Cosmic Variance there is a very interesting discussion of a recent paper by Geoffrey Burbridge on the Arkiv ;

A Realistic Cosmological Model Based on Observations and Some Theory Developed Over the Last 90 Years

Essentially, the author is defending the steady-state model of the universe (yes, he’s a member of the original Hoyle group). I wasn’t aware that anyone was still pushing this alternative to the Big Bang, I thought everyone had accepted the evidence was overwhelming. Sean Carroll has a very nice discussion of this point, i.e. the difficulty of ever settling a scientific dabate to everyone’s satisfaction. Every reader of this blog should read it carefully.

P.S. The basic idea of the steady-state model is that matter is continuously created – most physicists consider it effectively ruled out by the simple fact that our universe is clearly different now from what it was in the past. Not to mention the small matter of the cosmic microwave background, a clear fossil of the Big Bang

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Science week, Walton and the LHC

This week is Science Week in Ireland, a week of events designed to get schoolchildren and adults interested in the world of science. There are all sort of events, lectures and activities are going on all over the country – you can see a list on the website. Here in the southeast, CALMAST, the WIT Center for the Advancement of Learning of Maths, Science, and Technology, are doing their usual super job, with exhibitions, science shows and lectures…see the program above.

My own contribution was a lecture on the LHC for secondary schools this morning (you can see the slides here). I’m giving a similar lecture to the public in the neighbouring town of Dungarvan tomorrow evening , with one crucial difference. Dungarvan is the birthplace of Ernest Walton – as in Cockcroft-Walton, the team that built the world’s first successful particle accelerator and used it to split the atomic nucleus. Their accelerator was the precursor modern accelerators and is still used as a pre-amp today (I’m told there is a mock up of the original somewhere in CERN, must check this). Anyway, I intend pitching this particular LHC lecture as Walton’s legacy.

The Cockroft-Walton experiment  was a spectacular success, given that the energy they used was relatively low. Not only did it offer a nice verification of E = mc2, it was also a convincing demonstration of quantum tunelling – George Gamow had visited the Cavendish a few months earlier, and convinced Rutherford that they might succeed at low energy. There is a nice description of this story in the book ‘The Fly in the Cathedral’ by Brian Cathcart.

Ernest Walton: Ireland’s only Nobel in physics

In between these two lectures, I’m driving to Cork to catch the highlight of the week – Anton Zeilinger is giving a talk on quantum entanglement and its applications…wow. More on this tomorrow.


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