Tag Archives: science communication

Robert Boyle Summer School 2015

Last weekend, I attended the Robert Boyle Summer School, an annual 3-day science festival in Lismore, Co. Waterford in Ireland. It’s my favourite annual conference by some margin – a small number of talks by highly eminent scholars of 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.

Born in Lismore into a wealthy landowning family, Robert Boyle became one of the most important figures in the Scientific Revolution, well-known for his scientific discoveries, his role in the Royal Society and his influence in promoting the new ‘experimental philosophy’ in science.


The Irish-born scientist and aristocrat Robert Boyle   

As ever, the summer school took place in Lismore, the beautiful town that is the home of Lismore Castle where Boyle was born. This year, the conference commemorated the 350th anniversary of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society by considering the history of the publication of scientific work, from the first issue of  Phil. Trans. to the problem of fraud in scientific publication today.


Lismore Castle in Co. Waterford , the birthplace of Robert Boyle

The summer school opened on Thursday evening with an intriguing warm-up talk on science in modern novels. Jim Malone , Emeritus Robert Boyle Professor of Medicine at Trinity College Dublin, presented a wonderful tour of his favourite novels involving science, with particular emphasis on the novels of C.P. Snow , Ian McEwan and the Irish satirist Flann O’Brien. I must admit I have not read the novels of C.P. Snow (although I am familiar with his famous essay on the two cultures of science and literature). As for Flann O’ Brien, we were treated to a superb overview of the science in his novels, not least the wonderful and surreal novel ‘ The Third Policeman’. Nowadays, there is an annual conference in memory of Flann O’ Brien, I hope Jim gives  a presentation at this meeting! Finally, I was delighted that the novels of Ian McEwan were included in the discussion. I too enjoyed the novels ‘Saturday’ and ‘Solar’ hugely, was amazed by the author’s grasp of science and the practice of science .

Turning to the core theme of the conference, the first talk on Friday morning was ‘Robert Boyle, Philosophical Transactions and Scientific Communication’ by Professor Michael Hunter of Birkbeck College. Professor Hunter is one of the world’s foremost experts on Boyle, and he gave a thorough overview of Boyle’s use of the Phil. Trans to disseminate his findings. Afterwards, Dr. Aileen Fyfe of the University of St Andrews gave the talk ‘Peer Review: A History From 1665′ carefully charting how the process of peer review evolved from Boyle’s time to today. The main point here was that today’s process of a journal sending papers out to be refereed by experts in the field is a relatively new development. In Boyle’s day, a submitted paper was evaluated by either the Secretary of the Royal Society or by one of the Fellows. However, it seemed to me that this ‘gatekeeper’ approach still constituted review by peers and was, if anything, more restrictive than today’s peer review.


The renowned Boyle scholar Professor Michael Hunter of Birbeck College, UCL, in action

On Friday afternoon, we had the wonderful talk ‘Lady Ranelagh, the Hartlib Circle and Networks for Scientific Correspondence’  in the spectacular setting of St Carthage’s Cathedral, given by Dr.Michelle DiMeo of the Chemical Heritage Foundation.  I knew nothing of Lady Ranelagh (Robert Boyle’s elder sister) or the The Hartlib Circle  before this. The Circle was clearly an important  forerunner of the Philosophical Transactions and Lady Ranelagh’s role in the Circle and in Boyle’s scientific life has been greatly overlooked.


St Carthage’s Cathedral in Lismore


Professor DiMeo unveiling a plaque in memory of Lady Ranelagh at the Castle. The new plaque is on the right, to accompany the existing plaque in memory of Robert Boyle on the left 

On Friday evening, we had a barbecue in the Castle courtyard, accompanied by music and dance from local music group Sonas. After this, many of us trooped down to one of the village pubs for an impromptu music session (okay, not entirely impromptu, ahem). The highlight was when Sir John Pethica,  VP of the Royal Society, produced a fiddle and joined in. As did his wife, Pam – talk about Renaissance men and women!


Off to the Castle for a barbecue

On Saturday morning, Professor Dorothy Bishop of the University of Oxford gave the talk ‘How persistence of dead tree technology has stifled scientific communication ; time for a radical rethink’, a presentation that included some striking accounts of some recent cases of fraudulent publication in science – not least a case she herself played a major part in exposing! In the next talk,‘ The scientific record: archive, intellectual property , communication or filter?’ Sir John Pethica of Oxford University and Trinity College Dublin made some similar observations, but noted that the problem may be much more prevalent in some areas of science than others. This made sense to me, as my own experience of the publishing world in physics has been of very conservative editors that err on the side of caution. Indeed, it took a long time for our recent discovery of an unknown theory by Einstein to be accepted by the physics journals.

All in all, a superb conference in a beautiful setting.  Other highlights included a fascinating account of poetry in science by Professor Iggy McGovern, a Professor of Physics at Trinity College Dublin and published poet, including several examples from his own work and that of Patrick Kavanagh, and a guided tour of the Castle Gardens, accompanied by Robert Boyle and his sister. You can find the full conference programme here.

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Robert Boyle and his sister Lady Ranelagh picking flowers in the Castle Gardens

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Filed under History and philosophy of science, Science and society

Climate change, The Economist and The Irish Times

The Irish Times have kindly published an article of mine on climate change today. Two apparently contradictory facts have recently emerged that I thought worth discussing in my regular column on the IT science page:

A. The buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has increased over the last few decades, despite the warnings of climate scientists (this month, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere exceeded a value of 400 parts per million for the first time in millions of years).

B. There has been a slight slowing in the rise in average global surface temperatures in the last ten years in comparison with the preceding decade.

Some commentators have sought to reconcile these two facts by suggesting that scientists may have over-estimated our climate’s sensitivity to greenhouse gases. In particular, a recent article in The Economist making this argument has been widely cited. However, the Economist article makes heavy use of a single Norwegian study that has yet to be published (why?) and I don’t know any physicists who agree with the hypothesis , for several reasons:

(i) Climate sensitivity is a complex issue and measurements of global surface temperatures do not tell the whole story: about 90% of global warming is estimated to occur in the oceans

(ii) Heat and temperature are not the same thing: temperature response to heating can be significantly delayed, particularly in the case of large bodies of water

(iii) Sometimes significant heating can occur without any discernible change in temperature, for example when ice melts to water: just such a ‘change of state’ is happening on a massive scale at the poles and will result in inexorably lead to increased sea levels and reduced reflectivity, causing further warming



Images from the Skeptical Science website

Some climate scientists fear that we may be entering a new phase of global warming, where a dangerous amount of heat will be stored in the ecosystem without an appreciable change in temperature at first (known as latent heat). Significant temperature rise will eventually follow, but we can expect climate change skeptics to use this delay to deny the reality of climate change.

You can read my full article on the subject on the Irish Times website

Update and correction

In a follow-up letter to The Irish Times, Tony Carey points out that the figures I gave in the article for the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations are actually those for CO2 only.  He is absolutely right in this, the error crept in at the very last draft of the article, aargh. He is also right to point out that while the concentrations of other GHGs are also rising, the rate of increase has in fact slowed for these gases. Well spotted.

However, this doesn’t really affect the argument I make in my article simply because the CO2 concentration is much larger than that of the other long lived greenhouse gases. Indeed, figures for CO2 are often quoted as a proxy for all longlived greenhouse gases for this reason, although this is not strictly accurate.  The diagram below from NOAA illustrates the dominant effect of CO2 very well (turquoise line). Note that ‘radiative forcing’ relates to the effect of GHGs on climate, involving calaculations I won’t go into here. Note also that climate sensitivity is defined in terms of a doubling of CO2, because of its dominance.



Filed under Global warming

Book review: Neutrino

This week I’m reading ‘Neutrino’ by Frank Close, published by Oxford University Press in 2010.  It’s a real treat; a short, succinct account of the history of neutrino physics, from Pauli’s ‘difficult hypothesis’ of a particle that might never be detectable to Fermi’s theory of beta decay, from the successful detection of neutrinos by Cowan and Reines to the famous conflict of theory and experiment in the case of solar neutrinos.

The story is brought up to date with a superb overview of modern advances such as the detection of supernova neutrinos, the discovery of neutrino oscillation, the resolution of the puzzle of the missing solar neutrinos and the great promise of neutrino astronomy.

Neutrino (Frank Close , OUP)

I must say I think books like this do an enormous service to physics. Like John Gribbin and Paul Davies, Close is an expert in his field who presents his material as a simple, chronological story that is extremely readable. Neutrino physics is also a worthy topic as it is one of the few areas of major progress in particle physics in recent years. It’s often forgotten that the discovery of neutrino oscillation caused the first re-writing of the Standard Model for decades.

I particularly enjoyed the historical sections on Pauli and Fermi as the relative contributions of the two are often confused. I also enjoyed the description of the astonishing work of Bruno Pontecorvo and the early experiments of Ray Davis. As for John Bachall, I came away from the book feeling that he was very badly treated by the physics community; even when his calculations of solar neutrino flux were finally vindicated (having endured suspicion for many years) he was denied a Nobel prize, hard to understand why.

The book was published before this year’s ‘faster-than-light’ neutrino controversy. I’m glad for this as I always felt that story was a bit of a distraction. That said, I wish I had read Close’s book before the many talks I gave on neutrinos this year!


There is a very important international conference on neutrinos happening this week in Kyoto, Japan, see here for details of Neutrino 2012.


Filed under Particle physics, Science and society

Refuting Einstein: a media controversy in Ireland

I had a very sobering conversation about science communication with an eminent climate scientist at MIT yesterday, and it got me thinking about the incident that first prompted my interest in writing science for a wide audience.

In the late 1990s, I had just returned from a postdoctoral research position at the University of Aarhus in Denmark, and was embarking on a similar stint at Trinity College Dublin. After all that training, I had the smug feeling that I was finally evolving into a scientist; and right at that moment, a scientific ‘controversy’ broke in the British and Irish media. A distinguished Irish engineer, Dr Al Kelly , published a number of papers that claimed to show that Einstein’s special theory of relativity (SR) was fundamentally unsound, work that received a great deal of media attention. I was intrigued by the story and set about getting my hands on the publications.

Dr Al Kelly, a highly respected engineer

The first surprise was that the papers were not published in a well-known peer reviewed journal, but in the monthly Journal of the Institute of Irish Engineers. This is a respectable magazine (now known as The Engineers Journal), but not a natural forum for technical papers on fundamental physics – yet the work had already received far more media attention than any other physics research in Ireland. [Dr Kelly himself complained publicly that the more established journals refused to consider his papers on special relativity on point of principle! A great many journals do in fact refuse to consider papers on SR, simply because the subject is such a favourite target of cranks and skeptics with little scientific training].

The second surprise was that, on reading the Kelly papers, it seemed to me that the author did not have a good understanding of the basic theory of SR (for example, his definition of an inertial frame seemed strange). In addition, there was no reference to the vast amount of experimental evidence supporting the key predictions of SR – time dilation, mass increase and the universality of the speed of light in vacuum (routinely observed in particle accelerators around the world). Instead, the author attempted a refutation of SR on the basis of the  Sagnac effect, a complicated effect that pertains to rotating bodies.

The Sagnac effect: coherent light travels around a rotating loop in opposite directions and the phases of the two signals are compared at a detector

Now, an effect concerning rotating bodies is not where one would normally start with a refutation of special relativity, because a rotating body is accelerating while SR pertains to inertial frames i.e. frames moving at constant velocity relative to one another. An additional problem is that the two light beams do not in fact travel the same distance relative to an observer in the centre of the frame (see reference above). A proper relativistic treatment of the Sagnac effect is quite complicated, and involves terms from General Relativity, the theory of relativity that deals with accelerating bodies. Most importantly of all, relativistic effects do not show up as first- or second-order effects in the Sagnac effect, making it an unsuitable effect for experimental tests of relativity.

Media reaction

It was not the work itself that shocked me. Any physicist regularly receives refutations of SR in the post, ranging from the completely crazy to the highly aggressive. What shocked me was the media reaction to Kelly’s work; the story immediately became a media ‘controversy’, with feature articles in The Irish Times (Ireland’ s paper of record), the Sunday Times (a respected UK paper), the Japan Times and many others. There were regular bulletins on TV and radio, with few journalists treating the story with even a small degree of skepticism. The internet also played a role in the affair, with hundreds of blogposts by writers who knew nothing about the subject. (It put a great many Irish physicists off blogs for life). The Irish Times set the tone for the affair by using the headline ‘Refuting Einstein’ for all articles and letters on the subject, thus framing the debate as plucky Kelly vs establishment Einstein.

Professional physicists paid very little attention to the story at first. In the few instances where their opinion was sought, the ‘debate’ was portrayed as one voice against another, not as the overwhelming consensus of 100 years of scientific evidence against one engineer. Most of all, the debate was portrayed as Kelly vs Einstein – I do not recall a single journalist draw attention to the fact that physicists’ belief in relativity stems not from a belief in Einstein, but from the mountain of experimental evidence that supports the theory (a confusion of the context of discovery with the context of justification). Finally, just as the story was beginning to die down, a French physicist cited one of Kelly’s papers and Irish journalists declared Kelly ‘vindicated’. [I read the French paper and the reference was not to Kelly’s theory at all, but to an experiment he suggested].

Not long after all this, Al Kelly sadly passed away. I should stress that he was a very nice man and an accomplished engineer. His papers on the subject were published posthumously as a book, which is available on Amazon.


You rarely see a reference to the Kelly debate nowadays, but I learnt several things from the incident

1. In the eyes of science journalism, ‘Einstein wrong’ constituted a story. None of the journalists I contacted privately expressed any confidence in Kelly’s theory, but they thought it was an ‘interesting story and a good way of raising science awareness’.

2. In the few instances where professional opinion was sought, a ‘balanced’ media debate was achieved by pitting one voice against another, with no mention of scientific consensus

3. The reaction of the public was firmly anti-science. The affair dominated the letters page of The Irish Times for months and the general tone of the letters was a distrust of the establishment. All sorts of people jumped to defend the plucky Kelly, while the professionals were accused of ‘believing in relativity like a religion’.

Science journalism

All in all, the affair left me with a very skeptical view of science in the media, a view which has not changed much over the years. It seems to me that there are several problems in science journalism that are rarely aired;

motivation: the primary motivation of a journalist is to get the story, not the truth; a difference of opinion v quickly becomes a ‘controversy’

expert opinion: journalists can be quite hazy on what constitutes expert opinion; the Kelly story would only have been controversial if he was a Professor of relativity (or even a physicist)

scientific knowledge: journalists often have quite a low level of understanding of the science in question, and even of the scientific method. In particular, a great many journalists fail to grasp the difference between discovery (initial theory etc) and justification (evidence)

scientific consensus: this remains a mystery to many journalists; how it is achieved and why it is important yet never unaminous

As a result, I have become convinced that there is a need a new sort of science journalism – science communicated by scientists, not by journalists. Of course it is difficult to train scientists to write in a manner suitable for public consumption, but I suspect this is less difficult than training journalists to think like scientists. From debates on global warming to alternative medicine, there is an urgent need for scientists to be trained to speak for themselves.

A neutral debate

The one good thing about the ‘controversy’ above is that it was a neutral debate – neither business nor politics had a stake in the outcome, nor was there a prospect of Joe Citizen paying extra at the pump. This is not the case in areas such as climate science, which makes media coverage of the topic a great deal more complicated. All of the above concerns apply to media coverage of climate change – but in addition, much climate science in the media consists of op-eds by writers whose motivations are complex and whose portrayal of the subject is highly questionable. We’ll look at the communication of climate science in the next post.


I just found a copy of my own letter to The Irish Times on the controversy above; my first media publication on science! It is co-authored with astrophysicist Lorraine Hanlon, now Head of Physics at UCD.


The writer John Farrell, who wrote a very nice biography of Lemaitre, has a good article  on relativity cranks on the Salon website here.


Filed under Science and society