Tag Archives: Science and society

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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Upcoming conference in Ireland on the history of physics

Just a quick post to highlight the fact that December 15th marks the deadline for submission of abstracts for the 4th International Conference on the History of Physics. The conference marks the fourth in a biennial series of meetings supported by the UK Institute of Physics and the European Physical Society that aim to bring together historians of science and physicists with an interest in the history of their subject and will take place at Trinity College Dublin on June 17th-19th. The website for the conference is here and previous iterations of the conference can be found here. This time around, a central theme of the conference will be the history of 20th century physics, from the world of the very small to the world of the very large, inspired by the centenary of the discovery of the proton and of the bending of light in a gravitational field.

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I have attended all three of the previous meetings of this conference series and they were most interesting. As the conference takes place in Ireland this time around, I have been heavily involved in the preparations, from chairing the scientific programming committee to attending regular meetings of the organizing committee at Trinity College. It’s been a most interesting experience but I never quite realised how much work goes into organising such meetings!  As you can see from the website and the poster above, we will have 8-10 invited speakers at the conference and we expect another 20-30 ‘contributed’ abstracts to be submitted by the deadline of December 15th. So, for those of you with an interest in the history of science, it’s time to get thinking about a topic!

 

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In support of Greta Thunberg

This article of mine appeared in The Irish Times last week. I reprint it here for convenience.

‘What’s your take on Greta Thunberg and her school strike?’, a colleague asked me over lunch a few days ago. ‘Wouldn’t she and her followers be better off staying in school’?

Like most people who have been writing about the problem of climate change for some years, I have nothing but admiration for Greta Thunberg.  It’s hard to believe that it is only a year since the diminutive Swede took to absenting herself from school on Friday afternoons in order to sit on the steps of the Swedish parliament, accompanied only by a handwritten placard demanding governmental action on climate change.

But does she really have science on her side?, asked my lunch companion. ‘Or is she some sort of alarmist?’

There is little question that Thunberg has science on her side. Indeed, her demand is not that anyone should listen to her but that they should listen to the climate scientists. It is telling that she began her recent address to the United Nations (an intimidating undertaking for any 16 year-old) by stating that she should not be there. Instead of submitting a written script to accompany her speech, she submitted a chapter of the most recent IPCC report.

But how did her solitary protest become such a big movement?’, my colleague asks. ‘It’s obvious that the movement has been hijacked by the usual collection of eco-loons, anachists and what have you. Who’s paying for all this?’

The growth of Greta’s solitary school strike into a worldwide movement is certainly astonishing. Last month, more than a million schoolchildren worldwide marched in protest. However, there is no evidence the movement has been hijacked or financed by anybody. It seems that a great many of Greta’s contemporaries worldwide have grasped her simple point – the chasm between what they learn in school about the effect of greenhouse gases on global climate and the fact that emissions continue to rise year on year.

‘But the emissions of countries like Ireland and Sweden are negligible in comparison with countries like China. It makes no sense for us to suffer cutbacks while they continue to emit.’

We will never make progress if each nation waits for the other to act. Also, it’s not a given that moving from fossil fuels to renewable energy leads to economic hardship. As it happens, China is now making huge investments in renewable energy.

I’ll bet many of those kids get a lift to school everyday in Daddy’s SUV. And if they’re anything like my lot, they probably have 2 showers a day.’

This is quite possibly true. However, you have to live in the world while trying to change it. While individual actions are important, actions at governmental level are vital. For example, we didn’t address the problem of the hole in the ozone layer by using less deodorant – instead we changed the product.

 ‘ Why can’t they have their marches when school is out?’

One reason is that it wouldn’t be a strike! Presumably, it would be much easier for the students (and their parents) to march on Saturdays, but it would also be much less disruptive.  After all, a postman can refuse to deliver post, and a pilot can refuse to refuse a plane. If schoolchildren want to rause awareness of an issue, they have only one weapon available to them.

‘Don’t talk to me of airplanes – the next time I fly, I can expect delays because some lunatic has glued himself to the roof. By the way, I take it you still fly to conferences?’

I attend very few conferences these days and never in the US – but that’s partly due to a lack of funding for fundamental research. In any case, it’s not the schoolkids who have been targeting aviation – that’s Extinction Rebellion.

‘Ah yes, those guys are determined to make life inconvenient. Ivan Yates compared them to the Taliban the other day’ .

Not a great comparison as Extinction Rebellion is a peaceful protest movement, not a terrorist organization that murders civilians. What XR have in common with the school strikers is a concern for the future. According to the scientists, there is no guarantee that global warming will continue at the current gradual pace. Instead, it is very possible that positive feedbacks will cause the warming to accelerate, rendering some nations uninhabitable due to persistent drought and other nations uninhabitable due to rising sea level. Now that would be inconvenient…

Dr Cormac O’Raifeartaigh lectures in physics at Waterford Institute of Technology and is a Visiting Associate Professor at the School of Physics at UCD. He blogs at www.antimatter.ie

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RTE’s Brainstorm; a unique forum for public intellectuals

I have an article today on RTE’s ‘Brainstorm’ webpage, my tribute to Stephen Hawking one year after his death.

"Hawking devoted a great deal of time to science outreach, unusual for a scientist at this level"

I wasn’t aware of the RTE brainstorm initiative until recently, but I must say it is a very interesting and useful resource. According to the mission statement on the website“RTÉ Brainstorm is where the academic and research community will contribute to public debate, reflect on what’s happening in the world around us and communicate fresh thinking on a broad range of issues”.  A partnership between RTE, University College Cork, NUI Galway, University of Limerick, Dublin City University, Ulster University, Maynooth University and the Technological University of Dublin, the idea is to provide an online platform for academics and other specialists to engage in public discussions of interesting ideas and perspectives in user-friendly language.  You can find a very nice description of the initiative in The Irish Times here .

I thoroughly approve of this initiative. Many academics love to complain about the portrayal of their subject (and a lot of other subjects) in the media; this provides a simple and painless method for such people to reach a wide audience. Indeed, I’ve always liked the idea of the public intellectual. Anyone can become a specialist in a given topic; it’s a lot harder to make a meaningful contribution to public debate. Some would say this is precisely the difference between the academic and the public intellectual. Certainly, I enjoy engaging in public discussions of matters close to my area of expertise and I usually learn something new.  That said, a certain humility is an absolute must – it’s easy to forget that detailed knowledge of a subject does not automatically bestow the wisdom of Solomon. Indeed, there is nothing worse than listing to an specialist use their expertise to bully others into submission – it’s all about getting the balance right and listening as well as informing….

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The joys of mid term

Thank God for mid-term, or ‘reading week’ as it is known in some colleges. Time was I would have spent the week on the ski slopes, but these days I see the mid-term break as a precious opportunity to catch up – a nice relaxed week in which I can concentrate on correcting assessments, preparing teaching notes and setting end-of-semester exams. There is a lot of satisfaction in getting on top of things, if only temporarily!

Then there’s the research. To top the week off nicely, I heard this morning that my proposal to give a talk at the forthcoming Authur Eddington conference  in Paris has been accepted; this is great news as the conference will mark the centenary of Eddington’s measurement of the bending of starlight by the sun, an experiment that provided key evidence in support Einstein’s general theory of relativity. To this day, some historians question the accuracy of Eddington’s result, while most physicists believe his findings were justified, so it should make for an interesting conference .

Eddinton

 

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Is science influenced by politics?

“Most scientists and historians would agree that Einstein’s quest was driven by scientific curiosity.” Photograph:  Getty Images)

“Science is always political,” asserted a young delegate at an international conference on the history of physics earlier this month. It was a very enjoyable meeting, but I noticed the remark caused a stir among many of the physicists in the audience.

In truth, the belief that the practice of science is never entirely free of politics has been a steady theme of historical scholarship for some years now, as can be confirmed by a glance at any scholarly journal on the history of science. At a conference specifically designed to encourage interaction between scientists, historians and sociologists of science, it was interesting to see a central tenet of modern scholarship openly questioned.

Famous debate

Where does the idea come from? A classic example of the hypothesis can be found in the book Leviathan and the Air-Pump by Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer. In this highly influential work, the authors considered the influence of the politics of the English civil war and the restoration on the famous debate between scientist Robert Boyle and philosopher Thomas Hobbesconcerning the role of experimentation in science. More recently, many American historians of science have suggested that much of the success of 20th century American science, from aeronautics to particle physics, was driven by the politics of the cold war.

Similarly, there is little question that CERN, the famous inter-European particle physics laboratory at Geneva, was constructed to stem the brain-drain of European physicists to the United States after the second World War. CERN has proved itself many times over as an outstanding example of successful international scientific collaboration, although Ireland has yet to join.

But do such examples imply that science is always influenced by politics? Some scientists and historians doubt this assertion. While one can see how a certain field or technology might be driven by national or international political concerns, the thesis seems less tenable when one considers basic research. In what way is the study of the expanding universe influenced by politics? Surely the study of the elementary particles is driven by scientific curiosity?

Speculation

In addition, it is difficult to definitively prove a link between politics and a given scientific advance – such assertions involve a certain amount of speculation. For example, it is interesting to note that many of the arguments in Leviathan have been seriously questioned, although these criticisms have not received the same attention as the book itself.

That said, few could argue that research into climate science in the United States suffered many setbacks during the presidency of George W Bush, and a similar situation pertains now. But the findings of American climate science are no less valid than they were at other time and the international character of scientific enquiry ensures a certain objectivity and continuity of research. Put bluntly, there is no question that resistance to the findings of climate science is often politically motivated, but there is little evidence that climate science itself is political.

Another factor concerns the difference between the development of a given field and the dawning of an entirely new field of scientific inquiry. In a recent New York Times article titled “How politics shaped general relativity”, the American historian of science David Kaiser argued convincingly for the role played by national politics in the development of Einstein’s general theory of relativity in the United States. However, he did not argue that politics played a role in the original gestation of the theory – most scientists and historians would agree that Einstein’s quest was driven by scientific curiosity.

All in all, I think there is a danger of overstating the influence of politics on science. While national and international politics have an impact on every aspect our lives, the innate drive of scientific progress should not be overlooked. Advances in science are generally propelled by the engine of internal logic, by observation, hypothesis and theory-testing. No one is immune from political upheaval, but science has a way of weeding out incorrect hypotheses over time.

Cormac O’Raifeartaigh lectures in physics at Waterford Institute of Technology and is a visiting associate professor at University College Dublin

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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.

trio

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Images from the garden party in the grounds of Lismore Castle

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