Tag Archives: History and philosophy of science

Cosmology and the constants of nature at Cambridge

They say the Irish know how to party and the coincidence of yesterday’s victory in the Six Nations with a St Patrick’s weekend has brought the country to a whole new level of craziness. So it’s good to arrive in beautiful, tranquil Cambridge University for  a few day of quiet contemplation of the universe. It’s also good to get away from the hoopla generated by our recent discovery of an unpublished Einstein manuscript (see last post)…


Clare bridge this evening

I’m here for the conference ‘Cosmology and the Constants of Nature’, the next installment in the Cambridge/Oxford collaborative research project on the philosophy of cosmology (see here for an overview of the project).  Readers with a rudimentary knowledge of cosmology or particle physics will recognize the theme of this week’s meeting. Are ‘constants of nature’ such as the speed of light in vacuum or the gravitational constant truly constant? Or did they have different values in the early universe ? Are they truly independent of one another? Or are there hidden connections we are unaware of? Where do their values come from? The programme looks truly impressive, with talks by Martin ReesJohn Barrow, John Ellis, John Webb, Pedro Ferreira, Thanu Padmanabhan and Joao Magueijo. See here for the conference programme and overview.

I’m looking forward to Joao’s talk ‘Variations of c and other constants’. Joao made headlines a few years ago when he suggested that a speed of light in vacuum in the early universe very different to today’s value could give rise to many of the effects predicted by cosmic inflation. It looked like an intriguing alternative to inflation, although I haven’t heard much about the proposal recently. Joao also wrote a really nice book on the subject – in fact, it was one of the things that inspired me to persuade my boss to allow me to teach a course on the history of 20th century cosmology. It seems a while ago now, who would have guessed my little course would lead to the discovery of an unknown Einstein model of the universe ?

Right now, it’s time to stop musing and catch up on the world with the ten o’ clock news. Except wait, I don’t have a tv! I’m back in Clare College, my favourite of all the Cambridge colleges. There’s no tv, but on the other hand there’s something about working away in an unpretentious student room overlooking the beautiful quad that I find very relaxing. A perfect place for a bit of thinking…or maybe write a murder mystery…


Clare College – a good place for some quiet thinking


Some truly great talks by , John BarrowJohn Ellis, and Martin Rees among others so far at the conference, but the big news is yesterday’s announcement  of the observation of B-mode polarization in the cosmic microwave background by the BICEP2 experiment. If correct, the signal is strong evidence of gravitational waves emanating from the inflationary epoch of the infant universe. A huge boost for the notion of cosmic inflation, not to mention strong empirical evidence for the phenomenon of gravitational waves predicted by general relativity…..a double whammy if ever there was one. I won’t say more on this as several cosmologists here at Cambridge who are team leaders on the European PLANCK experiment will give an impromptu seminar on the US results tomorrow. I’d best change my flight – every time I come to Cambridge something dramatic like this happens…


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

Einstein’s unfinished symphony in the media

Our recent discovery of an unpublished model of the cosmos by Albert Einstein (see last post or here for a preprint of our paper) is receiving a lot of media attention, it’s very humbling. First off the mark was Davide Castelvecchi with a very nice article in Nature. Davide’s article was quickly reproduced in various outlets, from Scientific American here to the Huffington Post here. Trawling over the internet, I see newspaper and magazine articles describing our discovery in a dozen languages. It’s nice to see historical material receiving this sort of attention, I guess everyone loves an Einstein story.


I’m also intrigued that it was the traditional media that picked up the story – with the exception of Peter Woit, no-one in the blogosphere seemed to notice our preprint or even a blogpost I wrote describing our paper. Perhaps we bloggers need the imprimateur of respected print journals more than we care to admit!

I notice one slightly misleading point in the electronic version of the Nature article is getting repeated everywhere. It’s probably not quite correct to frame Einstein’s attempt at a steady-state model of the cosmos in terms of a resistance to ‘big bang’ theories; there is no reference to the problem of origins in Einstein’s manuscript. Indeed, one of the most interesting aspects of the manuscript is that it appears to have been written in early 1931, at a time when the first tentative astronomical evidence for an expanding universe was emerging but the issue of an explosive beginning for the cosmos had yet to come into focus (e.g. the great debate between Eddington and Lemaitre later in 1931). It’s interesting that the initial mention in Nature of resistance to ‘big bang’ theories  is repeated in almost all other outlets, one can’t help wondering how many science journalists read our abstract. An honorable exception here is John Farrell at Forbes Magazine. John certainly noticed the discrepancy and no wonder – John has written an excellent book on Lemaitre.


All in all, it’s been a lot of fun so far. I’m getting quite a few emails from distinguished colleagues pointing out that Einstein’s model is trivial because it didn’t work, which is of course true. However, our view is that what Einstein is trying to do is very interesting from a philosophical point of view  – and what is even more interesting is that he apparently abandoned the project when he realised that a consistent steady-state model would require an amendment to the field equations. In short, it seems the Great Master conducted an internal debate between steady-state and evolving models of the cosmos decades before the rest of the community…


There is a very nice video describing our discovery here.


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

Einstein’s exploration of a steady-state model of the universe

Some research news:

Last summer, in the course of our research into the Friedman-Einstein model of the cosmos (see this post or here for the article), I came across an unpublished manuscript by Einstein in which he explored a ‘steady-state’ model of the universe, i.e.,  a model of the universe in which space expands but the density of matter remains constant due to a continuous creation of matter from the vacuum. Such a model is radically different to previously known Einsteinian models of the universe, from his static model of 1917 to the evolving models he proposed in 1931 and 1932 in the wake of Hubble’s observations of the recession of the galaxies.  On the other hand, it bears some similarities to the famous  steady-state cosmic theories proposed by Hoyle, Bondi and Gold in 1948.

When was Einstein’s steady-state model written?

Several aspects of the manuscript suggest it was written in early 1931, after Hubble’s observation of the recession of the galaxies but before Einstein’s evolving models of 1931 and 1932. So it could be said that Einstein anticipated the general idea of steady-state models of the universe by almost twenty years!


Einstein giving a lecture at Caltech in 1931.His attempt at a steady-state model 
was probably penned during his stay in the USA in early 1931

A discarded model

Why was Einstein’s steady-state model never published? The bad news is that the model doesn’t work, i.e., it contains a fundamental flaw that leads to a null solution, i.e., a universe empty of matter. It only looked like a viable theory because Einstein made a mistake in his analysis. There is evidence in the manuscript that Einstein spotted the problem on revision and this is almost certainly the reason he declined to publish the manuscript. So it’s a failed model. That said,  it is very interesting that Einstein didn’t anticipate that the particular approach model he used (a variation of the de Sitter model) would lead to a null solution, and even more interesting that when the problem became apparent, he declined to try again with a more sophisticated version. We see this as an important crossroads – it seems that on realising that a successful steady-state model would require amending the field equations of relativity, Einstein plumped instead for evolving models.

Who cares?

It could be argued that steady-state models are of little interest today because observations have shown unequivocally that we live in an evolving universe  (not to mention the fact that Einstein’s version didn’t work). All of this is true, but what Einstein is attempting to do is of great interest; the standard narrative that Einstein eagerly embraced evolving models of the cosmos on learning of  Hubble’s results because they allowed him to drop the cosmological constan, no longer seems entirely accurate. In his attempt at a steady-state model in the manuscript, Einstein retains the cosmological constant and even loosely associates it with the creation of matter from the vacuum. Most interesting of all, it seems that Einstein conducted an internal debate between steady-state and evolving models of the universe decades before a similar debate took place in the wider cosmological community.

Why was the theory not found before?

The manuscript was never published and was archived in the Albert Einstein Archives as a draft of something else, Einstein’s published 1931 model of the cosmos (also known as the Friedman-Einstein model). It was while researching materials relevant to the latter paper that we discovered the model (I nearly fell off my chair).  This sort of thing happens all the time in historical research – for example, we  also discovered a number of numerical errors  in the Friedman-Einstein model that no-one seems to have noticed before.

Where to find more on this

We have submitted a paper containing a transcription, translation and analysis of Einstein’s manuscript to the European Physical Journal (H) by kind permission of the Einstein Papers Project and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A preprint of the paper can be found on the physics ArXiv at http://arxiv.org/abs/1402.0132


Nature have a news article on our discovery here. It’s a nice article although the writer has confused Einstein’s reservations concerning a dynamic universe with his reservations concerning Lemaitre’s theory of origins (those come later). One of the most interesting aspects of the manuscript is that it seems to predate discussions of the issue of an origin for the cosmos. It’s interesting that Davide’s  error is repeated in outlets such as  Scientific American here and the Huffington Post here! There is a very nice video describing our discovery here


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

Paradigm shift or slow dawning?

I have an article in The Irish Times today concerning the view of scientific progress articulated by Thomas Kuhn. The main point I try to make is that Kuhn’s famous idea of the paradigm shift in science  is much more popular with non-scientists than with the boffins themselves. Not because “Well, they would think that, wouldn’t they?” (Thank you, Christine), but because many of the examples cited by Kuhn in his influential book dated from antiquity rather than from modern science.

In particular, those scientists who read Kuhn notice that he paid very little attention to the manner in which false data tends to be quickly exposed by rival experimentalists, or to the way modern theorists tend to consider data in the context of all possible models. Most importantly, scientists studying the history of their own area typically find that scientific ‘revolutions’ tend to occur as extremely slow processes of discovery and acceptance – more a slow dawning than a paradigm shift. Indeed, they are really only paradigm shifts in retrospect.


Thomas Kuhn, author of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

You can read the Irish Times article here, and I have an older post on Kuhn from my Harvard days here (there is also a good discussion below that post).

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Filed under History and philosophy of science

Robert Boyle summer school

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


The Irish-born scientist and aristocrat Robert Boyle


Lismore Castle, the birthplace of Robert Boyle

The summer school took place from Thursday 4th to Sunday 7th of July in the Heritage Centre in Lismore, the beautiful town that is the home of Lismore Castle where Boyle was born.  The talks covered a wide range of topics, from the history and philosophy of the scientific revolution to Boyle’s own life and were of huge interest to anyone with an interest in history, science or indeed the history of science.  It was the sort of conference I like best – a small number of inter-disciplinary talks aimed at curious academics and the public alike, with lots of time for questions and long breaks for discussion. Other highlights were an open-air barbecue in Lismore Castle on Friday evening, a re-enactment in costume of some famous Boyle experiments and a tour around the famous Lismore Castle Gardens.


Song and dance in the grounds of Lismore Castle

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


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


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


Song and dance at the castle barbecue

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

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

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

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


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

Last day at Cambridge Infinities Conference

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


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

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

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


Newton’s famous Principia

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

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

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


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


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


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

VM Slipher and the expanding universe

In an earlier post, I mentioned an upcoming  conference in Arizona to celebrate the pioneering work of the American astronomer Vesto Slipher. As mentioned previously, 2012 marks the centenary of Slipher’s observation that light from the Andromeda nebula was Doppler shifted, a finding he interpreted as evidence of a radial velocity for the nebula. By 1917, he had established that the light from many of the distant nebulae is redshifted, i.e. shifted to lower frequency than normal. This was the first  indication that the most distant objects in the sky are moving away at significant speed, and it was an important step on the way to the discovery of the expanding universe.

Vesto Melvin Slipher (1875-1969)

The conference turned out to be very informative and enjoyable, with lots of interesting presentations from astronomers, historians and science writers. It’s hard to pick out particular talks from such a great lineup, but three highlights for me were Einstein, Eddington and the 1919 Eclipse Expedition by Peter Coles, Georges Lemaitre: A Personal Profile by John Farrell and Slipher’s redshifts as support for de Sitter’s universe? by Harry Nussbaumer. The latter compared the importance of the contributions of Slipher, Hubble, Einstein, De Sitter, Friedmann and Lemaitre (to mention but a few) and was a focal point for the conference. My own talk ‘Who discovered the expanding universe? – an open bus tour’ was quite similar to Harry’s , with some philosophy of science thrown in, while Micheal Way’s talk Dismantling Hubble’s Legacy? also touched on similar ground.  However, there was little danger of overlap since viewpoints and conclusions drawn from the material varied quite widely! You can see the conference program here.

A slide from Peter Cole’s talk on the Eddington eclipse experiment

A slide from John Farrell’s talk showing a postcard from Lemaitre to Slipher, announcing the former’s visit to the Lowell observatory

Harr Nussbaumer, author of ‘The Discovery of the Expanding Universe’,  in action

Front slide of my own presentation

The best aspect of the conference was the question and answer session after each talk. There was quite a divergence of opinion amongst the delegates concerning the relative importance of the various scientists in the story, which made for great discussions (though I suspect that much of the argument arises from differing views concerning the role of the theoretician vs the role of the experimentalist). You can see a list of speakers and abstracts for the talks here and the slides for my own talk are here.

There was plenty of material here for the relativist; indeed, quite a bit of discussion concerned the relative contributions of Friedmann and Lemaitre (told you it was a good conference). In particular, the Israeli mathematician Ari Belenkiy gave a defence of Friedmann’s work in his talk Alexander Friedmann and the Origin of Modern Cosmology, pointing out that the common assertion that Friedmann took no interest in practical matters is simply untrue, given his work in meteorology, and that the relevant astronomical data was not widely available to Europeans at the time. I must admit I share Ari’s view to some extent; I’m always somewhat in awe of a theoretician who describes all possible solutions to a problem (in this case the universe), as opposed to one solution that seems to chime with experiments of the day.

Title slide of Ari’s talk on Friedmann

The conference also included a trip to the Lowell observatory, including a view of the spectrograph used by Slipher for his groundbreaking measurements and a peep through the famous 24-inch Clark telescope which remains in operation to this day. We were also treated to a few scenes from Dava Sobel’s upcoming play based on her book on Copernicus, read by Dava herself and the eminent Harvard science historian Owen Gingerich.

The famous spectograph, perfectly preserved

Slipher’s telescope remains in use today

Dava Sobel and Professor Owen Gingerich reading from her new play at the Lowell observatory

All in all, a superb conference, definitely worth the long trip (Dublin-Chicago-Phoenix-Flagstaff). Earlier in the week, I gave a longer version of my talk at the BEYOND centre at Arizona State University in Phoenix; I was afraid some of the theoreticians in Larry Krauss’s  group might find it a bit equation-free, but they seemed to enjoy it. Larry and Paul Davies have a fantastic operation going on at the BEYOND centre, but I have to say the ambience and surroundings  at Flagstaff are probably more suitable for a European – much nicer weather!

Many thanks to Ari Belenkiy for the photographs. You can find more descriptions of the conference on John Farrell’s Forbes blog, and on Peter Coles’s  In The Dark blog.


Filed under Astronomy, Cosmology (general), Travel