Tag Archives: Science and society

A tribute to Stephen Hawking

RTE radio recorded an interview with me today on the subject of Stephen Hawking. I’m told it’s to have on file so I trust they don’t know something I don’t! Whatever the reason, it’s nice to have the opportunity to pay tribute to a living legend. Below is a script I prepared the interview; we only used a small part.


Q: Who is he?

Stephen Hawking is a famous English physicist at Cambridge University known for his work in cosmology, the study of the universe. In particular, he is admired for his work on black holes and on the big bang model of the origin of the universe.

Q: Why is he so famous?

Einstein used to be the only famous scientist of modern times, but Stephen Hawking has inherited that role. I like to think that one reason is his field of study; there seems to be a public fascination with scientific concepts such as the big bang and the nature of space and time (it’s hardly a coincidence that much of Einstein’s work was in this field).

Another reason may be Hawking’s disability. He was diagnosed with motor neuron disease (ALS) in his early 20s and given two years to live. The story of a brilliant mind trapped in a crippled body has universal appeal, and the wheelchair-bound figure communicating deep ideas by voice synthesizer has become an icon of science.

Then there’s the book. In the 1980s, Hawking published A Brief History of Time, a book on the big bang aimed at the general public  – it quickly became an unprecedented science bestseller and made him a household name. Since then, he has devoted a great deal of time to science outreach, unusual for a scientist at this level.

Q: Where is he from?

He was born in London in 1942, the son of two academics, and studied physics at Oxford. He wasn’t outstanding as an undergraduate but he did well enough to be accepted for postgraduate research in Cambridge. There, he became interested in cosmology, in particular in the battle being waged at Cambridge between the ‘big bang’ and ‘eternal universe’ theories. He showed early promise as a postgraduate when he demonstrated that Fred Hoyle, a famous cosmologist and prominent exponent of the eternal universe, had made a mathematical error in his work.

Q: Can you say a little about Hawking’s science?

His work is focused mainly on phenomena such as black holes and the big bang. Such phenomena are described by Einstein’s theory of relativity, which predicts that space and time are not fixed but affected by gravity. (In the case of black holes, relativity predicts that space is so distorted by gravity that energy,even light, cannot escape. In the case of the universe at large, relativity predicts that our universe started in a tiny, extremely hot state and has been expanding and cooling ever since; the so-called big bang model).

However, relativity does not work well on very small scales; this is the realm of quantum physics. Hawking’s lifelong work concerns the attempt to obtain a better picture of the universe by combining relativity (used to describe space and time) with quantum physics (used to describe the world of the very small).

He first established his reputation by defining the problem; with the mathematician Roger Penrose, he showed that relativity predicts that, under almost all conditions, an expanding universe such as our own must begin in a singularity i.e. a point of infinite density and temperature. This is not physically realistic and suggests that relativity on its own does not provide a true picture of the universe.

In later work, Hawking focused on black holes (a black hole is something like a big bang in reverse and may therefore offer clues to the puzzle of the origin of the universe). Successfully combining general relativity with quantum physics for this special case, Hawking was able to predict that black holes are not entirely black; instead they emit some energy in the form of radiation, now known as HawkingBekenstein radiation.  Most physicists are convinced by the logic and beauty of this result but Hawking radiation will be difficult to measure experimentally as it is predicted to be extremely weak.

My favourite Hawking contribution is the no-boundary universe. Working with James Hartle, he used a combination of relativity and quantum physics to predict that our universe may not have had a definite point of beginning because time itself may not be well-defined in the intense gravitational field of the infant universe!

Q: Is Hawking another Einstein?

No. Einstein made a great many contributions to diverse areas of physics. Also, relativity fundamentally changed our understanding of space and time, with profound implications for all of science and philosophy.(For example, the big bang model is merely one prediction of relativity). It’s hard for any scientist to compete with this.

Q: Why has Hawking not been awarded a Nobel prize?

He has received many prestigious awards, but not a Nobel. It’s quite difficult for a modern theoretician to win the prize because Nobel committees put great emphasis on experimental evidence. While we now have strong evidence that black holes exist, Hawking radiation will be very difficult to detect as it is predicted to be extremely weak.

Q; What is he working on these days?

At a conference in Dublin a few years ago, Hawking suggested a possible solution to the information paradox, a controversy over whether information is lost in black holes. The jury is still out on his solution. He is also involved with the theory of the cyclic universe, a theory that suggests there many have been many bangs.

Q: What lies in the future for Hawking?

Who knows. Last month, he celebrated his 70th birthday with a prestigious conference at Cambridge, 50 years after his terminal diagnosis. However, he was too ill to attend in person, reviving fears about his health. For now, he continues to work as ever, defying the predictions of modern medicine…

P.S. What’s all this about Hawking and God?

A Brief History of Time famously concludes with the phrase ‘‘..and then we would know the mind of God’’. At the time, many commentators interpreted this statement to mean that Hawking was religious. However, he was being mischievous – it is clear from other writings that he is not a believer in the normal sense. Indeed, his most recent book, The Grand Design, provoked controversy by stating that ‘‘It is not necessary to invoke God to set the universe going.” This statement was interpreted widely as a dismissal of God – in fact, it reflects standard cosmology (something can indeed arise from ‘nothing’) and says nothing about the existence of God.


Filed under Cosmology (general), Science and society

Faster than light and the public misunderstanding of science

Yesterday evening, I gave a public lecture in Dublin on the Gran Sasso neutrino experiment, hosted by the Irish Skeptics Society. The event formed part of Maths Week Ireland, an initiative co-ordinated by CALMAST, the science outreach group at our college. We had a great audience turnout and I enjoyed the Q&A afterwards immensely. Below is the abstract and you can find the slides for the talk here.


In September 2011, a group of scientists announced that they had detected subatomic particles travelling at speeds greater than the speed of light in vacuum. The finding is in conflict with Einstein’s theory of relativity and has been met with great skepticism by mathematicians and physicists around the world. This lecture will examine the grounds for that skepticism and consider the role of skepticism in general in science and mathematics


       The Gran Sasso experiment

I suspect I was invited to speak because of a letter I had published on the subject in The Irish Times (below). Although the Gran Sasso experiment has certainly raised awareness of physics, I think the way the media are portraying this experiment as an  ‘Einstein wrong’ story is most unfortunate. It is far too soon to reach that conclusion and the overall effect is to make science seem very uncertain. It is more Public Misunderstanding of Science than PUS, in my view.


Sir, – Margaret Moore (September 29th) asks what word will be used to describe a speed faster than the speed of light. The technical term is superluminal speed. However, much of the media coverage of recent experiments at Gran Sasso has been very misleading. Almost all professional physicists (including the experimenters) consider the Gran Sasso result a curious anomaly almost certainly due to some unknown error in measurement, for several reasons:

1. Light is carried by particles of zero mass and it follows that there are fundamental theoretical reasons for supposing that the speed of light in vacuum represents a natural speed limit for particles of non-zero mass.

2. Thousands of experiments have verified that the tiniest particles of matter can be accelerated up to speeds close to, but not equal to, this limiting speed.

3. The recent Gran Sasso experiment involves measurements of time and distance of unprecedented precision, yet it was not designed for this specific purpose; thus there are many potential sources of systematic error.

It’s true that science sometimes progresses by upsetting the status quo, but scientists are a sceptical lot and extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence! –Yours, etc,


Does it matter how the experiment has been portrayed in the media? I think it does. A few years from now, journalists will be say ‘ but didn’t you guys think in 2011 that Einstein was wrong’? In fact, there has already been one editorial in the Wall St Journal urging inaction on climate change, on the basis that science is never certain, given the neutrino result (see point 5 of this article ). Exactly the wrong conclusion to draw…


I see my lecture got a short review in today’s Irish Times. It’s not a bad overview, considering the writer wasn’t at the lecture. The last sentence doesn’t make sense, however – I suspect she meant supernovae instead of black holes!

Udate II

Just caught  BBC program on the experiment (Marcus du Sautoy). Superb, superb program. Nothing like the players themselves for conveying the concepts of science..


Filed under Public lectures, Science and society

Hamilton Walk and Maths Week in Ireland

October 16th is a special day for mathematics and physics in Ireland. On this day, we commemorate the discovery of quaternions by William Rowan Hamilton, the great Irish mathematician and astronomer. Essentially, his insight was to postulate three distinct roots for the number -1, thus generalising complex numbers to four dimensions. It can be said that this discovery marks the birth of modern algebra, as quarternions opened the door to non-commutable algebra. Quaternions have found great application in modern technology, notably in compter algorithims for animation in films and computer games.

William Rowan Hamilton made a great many other contributions to mathematics and physics. For example, his formulation of a mathematical operator for the energy of a body – the Hamiltonian –  is a vital tool in quantum mechanics, the mathematical description of the quantum world. Open any modern textbook on quantum physics and you will encounter the word ‘Hamiltionian’ on almost every page.

As regards quaternions, we know exactly when Hamilton had his Eureka moment. According to his own writing, inspiration struck on the 16th october in 1843,  as he was walking with his wife from Dunsink Observatory in County Dublin (where he was Astronomer Royal) along the Royal Canal towards the city centre, in order to attend a meeting of the Royal Irish Academy, of which he was President.  He was so pleased with the breakthrough that he used his penknife to carve the new equation onto Broom bridge as they passed. The carving no longer exists but the bridge does, and the occasion is celebrated with a plaque. Every year, mathematicians and friends of mathematics congregate at Dunsink Observatory at 3pm and re-enact Hamilton’s famous walk along the canal to the bridge.


William Rowan Hamilton; the plaque displays the famous equation i2 = j2 = k2 = ijk = -1

This year, October 16th fell on a Sunday, so mathematicians and the general public arrived from far and near. The day started in Dunsink Observatory, with a brief description of Hamilton’s life and work by Fiacre O Cairbre, event organiser and lecturer in mathematics at NUI Maynooth. There followed a lovely walk along the canal in perfect weather conditions, all the way to Broom bridge to view the plaque. The outing finished with a short description of Hamilton’s breakthrough by another Maynooth mathematician, Anthony O’ Farrell, and a chorus of ‘Happy birthday, quaternions’ by all present. I think it’s great to remember our scientific heros like this;  it’s curious that even our very best scientists and mathematicians receive far less public attention that writers and musicians.


Dunsink Observatory and Broom Bridge on the Royal Canal

Each year, the Hamilton Walk is soon followed by a prestigious lecture on mathematics presented by the Royal Irish Academy and The Irish Times. Previous speakers have included Andrew Wiles, Steven Weinberg, Murray Gellman and Lisa Randall. This year, renowned string theorist Ed Witten will give a talk on quantum knots, see here.

The Hamilton walk  is one of the core activies of Maths Week Ireland, an initiative to raise awareness of maths in Ireland with events and lectures all around the country. Co-ordinated by CALMAST, a science outreach group at Waterford Institute of Technology, Maths Week has grown larger every year – you can find the program of events here. I will give a talk in Dublin on Wednesday evening, on relativity and the recent ‘faster than the speed of light’ experiment, see here .


Filed under History and philosophy of science, Science and society

STS Conference at Harvard

This week the Program on Science , Technology and Society (STS) at Harvard is hosting a major conference. The conference STS 20+ 20:  Science and Technology Studies : The Next Twenty, will run from Thursday May 7th until Saturday May 10th. The theme of the conference is “A Meeting Reflecting on the Past Twenty Years of STS Graduate Study, and Looking Ahead to the Next Twenty”. As a visiting fellow with the program, I am really looking forward to it.

You can see the conference program here. Each day is based around a different theme; Day One will deal with the theme of disciplinarity (Does STS Matter, and to Whom?), Day Two with STS theory, and Day Three with the future of the discipline (more details on this later). There will be 3-4 sessions per day, with leading thinkers in the field such as Sheila Jasanoff, Trevor Pinch, Stephen Hilgartner and Stephen Eptstein acting as Chairs and discussants.

A summary of the conference is provided by Sheila Jasanoff, the director of the STS program at Harvard, on the  conference webpage:

[This meeting is the product of a year of conversations across several continents and dozens of institutions. It weaves together the hopes, aspirations, and—yes—frustrations of STS scholars from around the world who have committed their careers to studying the central role of science and technology in our social, political, and moral lives.

The meeting is in part a stock-taking. After two decades of increased public funding for STS, what can we say about our achievements as a “thought collective”? What have we learned from speaking the truths of our field to the power of established disciplines? Which areas of work do we recognize as displaying the greatest theoretical depth and creativity? What do we impart to STS scholars-in-the-making, and what can we do to ensure that their ideas are heard more widely and that they find appropriate academic homes? The three-day program addresses these questions: first, STS and the disciplines; second, STS and its theories; third, STS’s institutional challenges and opportunities.

In part, too, the meeting is a provocation: an invitation to reflect on the conditions needed for this field to thrive and grow—in keeping with the importance of its mission. As with any provocation, the questions we hope to explore may have conflicting answers. Ideas will be generated throughout the meeting from both our physical and virtual audiences. This website, managed by a local team of scholars, is part of an effort to make the meeting as inclusive and participatory as possible, both during the event and after it.

Overall, this is a meeting to rethink questions that all STS scholars have grappled with at some point in their intellectual lives. Why do STS? What makes it interesting, distinctive, coherent, relevant, and deserving of stronger institutionalization?]

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Filed under Science and society

Harvard and Boston: first impressions

So here I am at last, taking a sabbatical from WIT to spend a year as a visiting fellow at Harvard University.  I’m not at the physics department (surprise) but at the Science, Technology and Society Program of the Kennedy School of Government, studying issues of science policy. Quite a move sideways and it’s early days so more on that later…

Harvard University is as lovely as you’d expect, beautiful redbrick buildings and quads. The main campus is almost entirely undergraduate teaching and accommodation with the famous postgraduate schools ringed around it a few blocks away. They don’t have the system of separate colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, so the campus looks more like dear old Trinity College Dublin than Oxbridge.

Harvard Gate

As far the city of Boston, I’ve got familiar with it quite quickly. I had to because the ‘campus accommodation’ I booked in adavnce turned out to be totally inappropriate in almost every way (in a different part of the city for a start). So I got to see plenty of Boston as I spent the first two weeks trudging around looking for alternate accommodation. I arrived in the middle of a heatwave and that didn’t help either. About half the city seemed to be in the same boat; the streets have been full of overheated students dragging their beds and sofas from one place to another (Americans don’t seem to believe in furnished apartments, is it something to do with the pioneer mentality?)

All of this didn’t stop me noticing that Boston is a beautiful, vibrant city, very European in many ways. Fascinating culture, diverse neighbourhoods, endless parks along the river and then of course there’s leafy Cambridge. Recently, I’ve been staying in Brookline village, a beautiful throwback to smalltown 1950s America. It’s quite a commute to work though, so this evening I’m packing my bags one last time and moving to a posh penthouse in a typical New England house in Cambridge, midway between Harvard Square and MIT (available for an unspeakable amount of money, but that’s the norm here).

Brookline village

A typical New England house in leafy Cambridge

Another big surprise is the public transport ; you can reach almost any part of the city with the superbly networked tram, subway and bus system, all integrated with one travel card – far better than the equivalent in any Irish city. It reminds me more of Germany than of Ireland. In fact, as a general first impression, Boston reminds me more of Berlin than Dublin (this is a reference to the famous ‘Boston or Berlin’ discussions so beloved of Irish politicans). It’s not just the transport, but people’s attitude and organisation. There’s something very Germanic about the way everybody is incredibily polite but firm and firmly organised. Whether you’re applying for a ID card, a phoneline or a lease, the rules are the rules; almost everything is automated, computed and done according to the book with no exceptions. Another similarity to Germany is the attitude to all things Irish – I’ve never known such a positive reaction to an Irish accent!

That said, there are some obvious differences to Europe. One is that smoking is dead here. You just can’t, even outside most cafes and pubs. Astonishing how a whole population can change their mind on an issue like this. (If finally convinced, will Americans one day take the same attitude to CO2 emissions?). Less pleasant is the issue of health insurance; my health insurance here (compulsory) is over ten times what I pay for european cover. So I can see why Obama is trying to change things. (But why an Irish health minister wants to imitate the current American health system is anyone’s guess).

Similarily, undergraduate college fees are crazily expensive. A different order of magnitude from the european system.  I know at least one CEO who works a second job at weekends in order to send his child to a good college. It’s hard to see how this doesn’t lead to a two-tier system…

All in all, my first impressions of Boston are very positive and I’m looking forward to spending time here. Best of all, the heatwave is over and ‘fall’ is approaching …to be followed by a snowy winter, can’t wait


Filed under Science and society

Climate change: the tv briefing

There was a chat program on the Irish channel TV3 last week that perfectly illustrated the difficulty of discussing complex scientific issues in a public forum (see last week’s post).  It consisted of a tv panel debate on climate change, where two respected scientists and a member of Friends of the Earth debated climate issues with two members of a new Irish political lobby group. It quickly became clear that neither the Chair nor the lobbyists knew (or accepted) anything of the basic facts of climate science. Faced with a blank rebuttal of basic physics, the scientists had an uphill struggle tryng to communicate the issue of climate change.

I thought this a fairly typical example of the problems of such media discussions. The lobbyists were clear, passionate and articulate, stating their views as if they were established facts, uncluttered by equivocation. (The first sentence uttered was “the earth is not warming” and there were many other such statements). The scientists, by comparison, sounded rather uncertain and unclear. As so often, completely uninformed opinion, unweakened by any sort of balanced view, sounded much more convincing.

It’s very hard to know what to do when one encounters such resistance to basic science. I suppose all we can do is keep repeating the basics, as clearly as we can, and hope the public and politicians can discern the difference between established facts and random opinion. As an exercise, I decided to write down the main points I myself would hope to make during the course of such a debate. This is what I would like to have said:



There are now multiple lines of evidence that show clearly that, over the last 50 years, the average surface temperature of the earth and its oceans has been steadily increasing. This rise (about 0.75 °C) may seem small compared with the normal background variation in day-to-day and seasonal temperatures. However, a gradual increase in average represents a significant physical effect; for example, the difference in the average global temperature of the last ice-age and the present is only a few degrees Celcius.

Those who study past climate cycles have considered this question in great detail and their conclusion is that the temperature rise cannot be attributed to a natural cycle, for a number of reasons. The most obvious is the rate of change; the rise in average temperature we are seeing over the last few decades corresponds to a rise  seen over thousands of years in past climate cycles. Obvious external causes, such as solar cycles or changes in solar activity, have been specifically ruled out (we are currently in a cooling part of the dominant solar cycle). Most tellingly, it has been discovered that while the lower atmosphere is steadily heating up, the top of the atmosphere (the stratosphere) is cooling down – an observation that strongly suggests a cause closer to home.

Physicists have long known that the temperature of the earth is regulated by certain gases in the atmosphere. These gases trap heat radiated from the warm earth’s surface, stopping the globe from radiating all of its heat to space (the greenhouse effect). The ‘greenhouse gases’ only account for a tiny percentage of the atmosphere but they play a vital role in regulating the planet’s temperature.  Hence global climate is highly sensitive to the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and one can expect any change to this concentration to have a significant effect on climate. (The Irish scientist John Tyndall established that the most important greenhouse gases are water vapour, carbon dioxide and methane, while major gases such as oxygen and nitrogen do not block the earth’s heat).

We now know that, since the advent of the industrial revolution, mankind has been increasing the concentration of atmospheric greenhouse gases. In particular, the burning of fossil fuels such as oil, coal and gas all release extra CO2 into the atmosphere. Direct measurements of the CO2 content of the atmosphere have been made since the 1950s and there is no doubt that there has been a steady rise since measurements began; in general, it is estimated that the current concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is over 35% higher than that of pre-industrial times. At first, it was thought that this extra CO2 would be absorbed by the oceans. Some of it is, and this causes its own problems. However, it is now known that much of the extra CO2 remains in the atmosphere.

Putting two and two together, scientists believe that the global warming we have observed in recent decades is almost certainly caused by man-made greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere, a phenomenon known as the enhanced greenhouse effect.There are now muliple lines of evidence for this hypothesis (not least direct satellite measurements of the heat radiated from earth into space that show an increasing dip in the region of the spectrum where CO2 absorbs).

Studies of past cycles suggest that as time goes on, the warming will accelerate because of feedback loops. For example, the melting of large areas of ice at the poles will significantly reduce the ability of the globe to reflect heat, causing additional warming. The oceans will lose their ability to absorb CO2 as they acidify, also causing further warming. Studies of past cycles also suggest that the rising temperature will itself lead directly to an increase in greenhouse gases such as CO2 and water vapour in the atmosphere, and eventually to the release of methane from deep sea vents and the permafrost.

For human populations, the main consequences of a warming earth will be increasing desertification and drought in the hotter regions, and an increase in sea level around the globe (the latter is because water expands when heated and because of glacier melt). The former could render large parts of Africa and Australia uninhabitable, while the latter could cause widespread and permanent flooding in low-lying countries such as Holland and Bangladesh (pop 55 and 25 million respectively).

We can certainly reduce the enhanced greenhouse effect by replacing the use of fossil fuels with renewable energy technologies such as wind, wave and solar energy that do not cause carbon emissions. Since there is a time lag associated with the effect, we need to do this as soon as possible. However, this is economically difficult as the Western standard of living is built on the cost-effectiveness of fossil fuels. Most importantly, action to curb fossil fuel use will only be effective if it is global and it is hard to persuade developing countries to curb fossil-fuel use essential for their development. So far, attempts to reach international agreement on binding targets for carbon emissions have failed. Yet is estimated that China alone has coal deposits that if fully used, could tip us into irreversible climate change within one century.


All of the above is basic, well-established science that is accepted by almost the entire scientific community. However, much debate on the topic occurs in the media. This is simply a facet of a modern media that does not distinguish between informed and random opinion (not to mention vested interest). Uniquely among scientific theories, the theory of man-made global warming also faces great political resistance from conservatives who oppose regulation in almost any form. Lobbying by conservative interests can be heavily influential, in politics and in the media , particularly in the USA. The result is a continuing confusion and lack of public engagement with the issue, a state of affairs that is making it very difficult for world governments to put in place any sort of co-ordinated mitigating action.


Filed under Global warming

Should literacy include science?

Today I have an article inThe Irish Times, the Irish newspaper of record. It is the first of a series of commissioned articles on science and society. Basically, I make the point that if Newton and Boyle were to come back today, they would be astonished at the progress science has made but dismayed at the fact that this knowledge is restricted to so few. This is a great pity for two reasons

(i) the great discoveries of science are an important part of the human experience

(ii) a great many of the challenges facing modern society involve an understanding of basic science, and more importantly, how science is done.

I’m constantly amazed at the way expert scientific opinion is drowned out in media debates by those who know nothing of the subject, from discussions of nuclear power to climate change. But is this any real surprise if neither journalists nor the public have any knowlege of the painstaking, self-correcting methods of science? Ons solution might be that science form a basic part of every child’s education.

You can read the article on the Irish Times website or here if that link is closed


There was a program on climate on TV3 last night that illustrates the point exactly: a 50/50 tv debate between 2 scientists and 2 members of a pressure group who knew nothing of the subject and repeated every well-known canard imaginable…utterly depressing


Filed under Science and society

Enigma and Katyn Forest

Wow. Caught the movie ‘Enigma’ again on tv last Sunday night. I knew the story, but Id forgotten just how good it was. I  enjoyed the film so much I bought the book on Monday in order to re-read it. What did I discover? I hadn’t read the book at all. Oh joy!

Robert Harris is an superb historical novelist and this has to be his masterpiece. Superbly written, well-informed, a fantastic plot – it simply has everything. Even the love angle is utterly convincing. As for the maths – the description of the codebreakers and their methods is superb. I think the description of the loneliness of the mathematican is the best I’ve ever come across.

Most important of all, the story just rushes along. It basically concerns the famous work at Bletchley Park in WWII, as the best and the brightest of Britain struggle desperately to break the Navy, Luftwaffe and Werhrmacht codes using a combination of guesswork and an early computer. The hero of the book is young mathematician Tom Jericho, which I presume is a stand-in for computer genius Alan Turing. Every now and then, the German ‘weather book’ changes, and they’re back to zero. The description of the codebreaking is superb, as is the serious subplot – when the Allies evesdrop on German reports of the Russian Katyn forest massacre, a British codebreaker of Polish origin decides he doesn’t want to be allied with Russia and attempts to leak the codebreaking secrets to the Germans. Clever plot – perhaps it really happened?

Apart from a great plot, it’s good to see codebreaking get recognition it deserves. Just last week, I read an article on the Battle of Britian that ignored the role of science, as usual.Yes, the pilots were brave – but important advances in both code-breaking and radar also gave the Britian an edge in that vital battle..

A  super read and a super introduction to the world of computing. Go and get it now.


Filed under Science and society

What are you doing for the summer?

What are you doing for the summer? Like most academics, I get asked this question every day in summer, usually by people who are convinced that college gates are locked the day students finish their exams.

Actually, that’s partly true. Some lecturers in the Institutes of Technology take off on June 20th and reappear on September 1st; as is their right, given the heavy teaching load during termtime. However, for those of us who try to keep up the research, the summer months are the time to get something done.

A few years ago, I used to spend my summers at my alma mater Trinity College, doing experimental work in the physics department. These days, I find myself doing more and more writing for the public about science, from particle physics to cosmology. Truth is, I always liked writing more than toiling in the lab..

This summer, I am reading up on climate science. I taught an introductory course in climate change last semester and found it utterly fascinating. It is a hugely challenging, multidiscpinary area of science that is firmly rooted in basic physics. Also, for anyone with an interest in the Public Understanding of Science, climate change certainly the hot topic; in no other field of science is there such a gap between what scientists believe (I should say what the vast majority of scientists in the field believe) and what the public believes – more on this later.

It’s great to finally have the time to sit down and read all the material, from the latest reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to recent research by groups at the Goddard Institute for Space Studies or the Hadley Centre for Climate Research. However, I am not reading up on the material just for fun – I’m frantically preparing for a year at the Science, Technology and Society Program of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Yes, I have been invited to spend next year at Harvard – don’t ask how I managed this!  My particular research topic will concern the science of climate change and the root causes of climate scepticism, so I’d better know my stuff.

Of course I won’t spend the entire summer on preparation for Harvard. I do a few hours work at home most mornings, walk into the village for lunch, and then spend the afternoons at WIT printing out papers and studying etc. Most days after work, I’ll have a long cycle and a swim, or an occasional game of tennis, so it’s not a hard life!

In August, I’ll spend 10 mad days at my favourite music festival, the Festival Interceltique de Lorient. After that, I intend hole up somewhere where I can surf in the mornings, work in the afternoons and play tunes  in the evenings – probably Doolin. And then it’s Harvard in September yipee!

Great session In Lorient last year


Filed under Science and society

Climate change: a burning question on tv

This week, RTE (the national broadcasting authority of Ireland) aired a program on climate change. ‘A burning question was an hour-long TV documentary on climate science, climate scepticism and the role of the media in this debate. The program was produced by Earth Horizon Productions, directed by Paula Kehoe and edited by Dónal Ó Céilleachair. I watched the program out of general interest and was intrigued to see my name listed in the credits (I think this arose from several discussions I had with Dónal).

I thought the program very good overall, with some reservations. It’s hard to cover such a topic in an hour, so the producers employed some media tricks that few scientists enjoy. I’m not sure cutting to a vox pop every few minutes throughout the program casts much light on the subject matter (besides, are the opinions of random individuals stopped on the street a reliable gauge of the view of the general poulation?). Secondly, the constant switching from expert to expert in a cyclic merry-go-round of byte-sized interviews tends to confuse rather than elucidate. Thirdly, I thought the program could have had more on climate skepticism (see below).

That said, the core of the program was solid. The main presenter was Duncan Stewart, an award-winning architect and environmentalist well-known for his excellent TV series Eco-Eye. There were some very good interviews, notably with heavy hitters such as former UN High Commision Mary Robinson, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and IPCC Chairman RK Pachauri.

Duncan Stewart of Earth Horizon Productions

The key scientist of the program was superb; Peter Lynch, a leading climatologist at University College Dublin, gave the lie to the old media adage that experts make poor communicators. Professor Lynch explained the basic principles of the enhanced greenhouse effect in exemplary fashion, starting with the work of pioneers such as Fourier, Tyndall and Arrhenius, and finishing with modern measurements of carbon dioxide emissions and surface temperatures. Interesting that the best way to explain science is often to describe it in chronological order of discovery!

Prof Peter Lynch of UCD

There were many other good contributions in the program; in particular from the environmental writer John Gibbons (on the societal impacts of climate), from Professor John Sweeney (Professor of Geography at UC Maynooth and member of the IPCC) and from economist and boadcaster David McWilliams (on the economics of climate change). One of the most lucid summaries was given by former UN High Commisioner Mary Robinson – describing the expected impacts of climate change on the poorest societies in the world, and the importance but difficulty of concerted international action, she left one wishing other politicians had as good a grasp of the subject.

Prof Mary Robinson, former UN High Comissioner

Justin Lewis, a Professor of Journalism and Media Studies at Cardiff University, talked a little about the role of the media in the public perception of climate science. He explained the basic problem clearly; that in the media’s attempt to present a balanced debate view, the observer is left with the impression of a great 50/50 debate between experts, rather than the overwhelming consensus that exists. This is the familiar problem of a ‘balanced debate’ in the media that pays no attention to weightings. Lewis also touched on ‘climategate’, contrasting the great publicity afforded to the hacked East Anglia emails with the minimal media attention given to the results of the subsequent enquiry (the ‘perpetrators’ have since been exonerated).

Prof Justin Lewis of Cardiff University

I thought this section very interesting, but there could have been more: for example, there was no mention of the obvious point that “Scientists Right!” is not much of a media story, while “Scientists Wrong!” is. By definition, the minority viewpoint will always get more publicity, a fact the public should be made aware of. I also thought that more time could have been spent on the analysis of the role of journalists. Given the dominance of the media in our lives, this is a key issue in the pubic perception of science (and of anything else). In particular, there was no mention of the issue of political bias. Much of the climate scepticism in the US media is driven not by business interests, but by journalists of a particular political viewpoint: the viewpoint of right-wing conservatives who oppose government regulation and taxation in all forms.

In general, I thought the program could have had more on climate skepticism, rather than simply dismissing it as ‘vested interest’. In my opinion, there are at least five distinct categories of skepticism (with many overlaps):

(i) A tiny minority of genuine scientists with no links to industry or politics (such as Freeman Dyson or Richard Lindzen), who remain unconvinced of the scale or extent of man-made warming. Such minority opinion is important, but exists for almost every scientific theory (an obvious fact that is almost never stated in the media).

(ii) A larger group of economists, political scientists and intellectuals such as Bjorn Lomborg who remain unconvinced. This community are strong on economics but they are not scientists and rarely understand the reliability (and limitations) of experimental measurements – another fact that is rarely highlighted in the media.

(iii)A huge community of commentators, journalists and bloggers who seem to have almost no appreciation of the difference between random, informed, and expert opinion. A great deal of these reject the opinion of the majority of scientists as biased and subscribe to all sorts of ‘rent-seeker’ conspiracy theories.

(iv)The vested interests of big business; as in the case of the tobacco lobby, there are still climate scientists who are paid to believe what they believe

(v)The political viewpoint of conservatives and anti-regulation interests; I suspect this last sector is much more influential than is generally realised.

Overall, I enjoyed the program very much – it’s hard to cover everything in one hour. I nearly fell off the couch when I saw my name in the credits!


Justin Lewis has a book out on climate science and the media – ‘Climate Change and the Media’ looks well worth a read


Filed under Global warming, Science and society