Tag Archives: relativity

A festschrift at UCC

One of my favourite academic traditions is the festschrift, a conference convened to honour the contribution of a senior academic. In a sense, it’s academia’s version of an Oscar for lifetime achievement, as scholars from all around the world gather to pay tribute their former mentor, colleague or collaborator.

Festschrifts tend to be very stimulating meetings, as the diverging careers of former students and colleagues typically make for a diverse set of talks. At the same time, there is usually a unifying theme based around the specialism of the professor being honoured.

And so it was at NIALLFEST this week, as many of the great and the good from the world of Einstein’s relativity gathered at University College Cork to pay tribute to Professor Niall O’Murchadha, a theoretical physicist in UCC’s Department of Physics noted internationally for seminal contributions to general relativity.  Some measure of Niall’s influence can be seen from the number of well-known theorists at the conference, including major figures such as Bob WaldBill UnruhEdward Malec and Kip Thorne (the latter was recently awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his contribution to the detection of gravitational waves). The conference website can be found here and the programme is here.




University College Cork: probably the nicest college campus in Ireland

As expected, we were treated to a series of high-level talks on diverse topics, from black hole collapse to analysis of high-energy jets from active galactic nuclei, from the initial value problem in relativity to the search for dark matter (slides for my own talk can be found here). To pick one highlight, Kip Thorne’s reminiscences of the forty-year search for gravitational waves made for a fascinating presentation, from his description of early designs of the LIGO interferometer to the challenge of getting funding for early prototypes – not to mention his prescient prediction that the most likely chance of success was the detection of a signal from the merger of two black holes.

All in all, a very stimulating conference. Most entertaining of all were the speakers’ recollections of Niall’s working methods and his interaction with students and colleagues over the years. Like a great piano teacher of old, one great professor leaves a legacy of critical thinkers dispersed around their world, and their students in turn inspire the next generation!


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Filed under Teaching, 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.


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.



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

Neutrinos and string theory at Trinity College Dublin

I gave a few more talks on the Gran Sasso neutrino experiments last week, in Waterford on Wednesday and in Trinity College Dublin on Saturday. I really enjoy giving these talks; it’s not often one gets an excuse to present the theory of relativity to the hapless public. Journalists talk about the ‘hook’ – well this is a hook from heaven. I even got a 20-minute interview on Ireland’s premier radio show Today with Pat Kenny . You can find the podcast and the slides I used for the lecture here.

There was a real buzz in the air at Saturday’s lecture, thanks to the latest results from OPERA. As you probably know, the team announced on Friday that the superluminal result has passed its first major test: a repeat experiment using a much shorter proton pulse. This time they used pulses only 3 nanoseconds long, separated by by gaps ten time larger. This is vastly shorter than before (10 microseconds) and obviates the statistical approach used for matching transmitted and received pulses used in the original experiment. Like most physicists, I am still pretty certain the result will eventually turn out to be an anomaly, but I certainly hope it survives for another few months! See here for the new OPERA paper.

The lecture was hosted by Astronomy Ireland,a very interested audience that always turn out in droves. The theatre was jammers, quite a few audience members had to stand throughout. As always, I particularly enjoyed the questions and answers afterwards. It’s also fun to be come home; as a postgraduate student, I spent many long years in the magnetic resonance lab next door!

David Moore of Astronomy Ireland presents me with something (?)

Afterwards, some of us all legged it over to another Trinity lecture theatre, to hear the annual statutory lecture of the School of Theoretical Physics of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. This year, the speaker was well-known string theorist Cumrun Vafa from Harvard. Titled ‘Geometric Physics’, the lecture was an excellent introduction to string theory today.

String theorist Cumrun Vafa from Harvard

And after all that, there was a reception to celebrate the fact that Werner Nahm, the director of the DIAS School, was recently made a fellow of the Royal Society. What a weekend


On Sunday, Werner gave a fascinating talk on ancient astronomy at the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies. After the seminar, many of us remained in the fading light in that famous seminar room, discussing the neutrino result and other experiments at CERN. As so often, I was struck by the depth and detail of knowledge the theorists had of particle experiments. I also enjoyed the way the discussion wandered into German for a while, then seamlessly back to English – only at DIAS!


Filed under Particle physics, Public lectures