Schrödinger, Heuer, the Higgs boson and a European science festival in Dublin

Last week, I attended the ESOF science meeting in Dublin. The Euroscience Open Forum is a science festival held in a European city every two years; Dublin won the contract for 2012 (and built a year-long science festival around it, see here for details of the Dublin City of Science).  The stated aims of ESOF conferences are

  • to showcase the latest advances in science and technology
  • to promote a dialogue on the role of science and technology in society
  • to stimulate and provoke public interest in science and technology

I think the Dublin meeting achieved these aims in spades. It was a superb conference with a large number of interesting events, from top-level keynote talks (speakers included 5 Noble laureates) to smaller interactive seminars. The main venue was also a pleasant surprise -a beautiful light -filled and airy convention centre with a multitude of auditoria, lecture theatres and smaller conference rooms.

The new convention centre in Dublin, the main venue for ESOF 2012

One of the most interest events was ‘What is Life?- A 21st Century Perspective‘, presented at Trinity College Dublin by the Royal Irish Academy. This was a revisiting of the famous public lectures given by Schrödinger in Dublin in 1942 during his tenure at the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies. Craig Venter, celebrated for his contribution to the sequencing of the human genome, gave an overview of Schrodinger’s influence on the work of Crick and Watson in their search for the structure of DNA, and how their work led in turn to the modern science of genetics and genomics. Even the booklet accompanying the lecture contained some fascinating information, from a superb account of Schrödinger’s life and career (by Prof Luke Drury of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies), to a copy of a letter from Francis Crick to Schrödinger thanking him for his inspiration!

Craig Venter

For physicists, the big event was a lecture by Rolf-Dieter Heuer, director-general of CERN, on the recent discovery of a Higgs-like particle at the Large Hadron Collider. This was quite a coup for Dublin as it was one of Heuer’s first public lectures since the landmark discovery. In fact, he took part in three events; an evening lecture at Trinity College Dublin (hosted by Astronomy Ireland), a Q&A workshop at the Royal Irish Academy and a keynote lecture at the conference centre. All the events were packed out and deservedly so. It is not an easy task to explain almost a century of particle physics in 45 minutes, yet Heuer does it time and again with ease, whilst simultaneously conveying the excitement of the experimental work at the Large Hadron Collider. His constant emphasis on the teamwork of experimentalists, engineers and analysts gives a direct view of just why this unique inter-european project has become the NASA of the particle world. (He has a great quote on the work of the giant detectors: “it’s like looking for a needle in a field of haystacks, all made of similar needles”). Last but not least, Prof Heuer took the time to draw a connection with the groundbreaking accelerator work of the Irish physicist Ernest Walton, a connection that is often forgotten when the LHC is discussed in Ireland.

Profess0r Rolf-Dieter Heuer, DG of CERN, in Dublin at ESOF 2012

There were many other great events; Brian Greene’s lecture ‘The State of String Theory‘ was a superb performace, I don’t know another scientist who puts on quite such a show. Other highlights were Jocelyn Bell’s ‘We are made of star stuff’ and Lisa Randall’s ‘High Energies and Short Distances’. Truly, an embarrassment of riches. If you like a strong mix of brilliant physics and clear philosophy of science, get Lisa’s fabulous new book Knocking on Heaven’s Door. On a different theme, President Robinson’s lecture ‘Equity and climate science‘ described how climate change will impact on the poorest nations of the world, and reminded every scientist in the room of one of the most important scientific issues of all.

Like all conferences, the networking was almost the best part; I met colleagues I haven’t seen since my undergraduate days, not to mention a great many of my former professors. This is the real importance of such events; it’s very interesting discussing the latest developments in science with one’s former teachers! All in all, it was a superb conference for anyone with an interest in science and I hope to attend the next meeting in Copenhagen in 2014.

Taking a break with Peter Mctchell of UCD (who taught me low-temperature physics) and Lisa Randall, the Harvard string theorist

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “Schrödinger, Heuer, the Higgs boson and a European science festival in Dublin

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