Cosmology and the constants of nature at Cambridge

They say the Irish know how to party and the coincidence of yesterday’s victory in the Six Nations with a St Patrick’s weekend has brought the country to a whole new level of craziness. So it’s good to arrive in beautiful, tranquil Cambridge University for  a few day of quiet contemplation of the universe. It’s also good to get away from the hoopla generated by our recent discovery of an unpublished Einstein manuscript (see last post)…


Clare bridge this evening

I’m here for the conference ‘Cosmology and the Constants of Nature’, the next installment in the Cambridge/Oxford collaborative research project on the philosophy of cosmology (see here for an overview of the project).  Readers with a rudimentary knowledge of cosmology or particle physics will recognize the theme of this week’s meeting. Are ‘constants of nature’ such as the speed of light in vacuum or the gravitational constant truly constant? Or did they have different values in the early universe ? Are they truly independent of one another? Or are there hidden connections we are unaware of? Where do their values come from? The programme looks truly impressive, with talks by Martin ReesJohn Barrow, John Ellis, John Webb, Pedro Ferreira, Thanu Padmanabhan and Joao Magueijo. See here for the conference programme and overview.

I’m looking forward to Joao’s talk ‘Variations of c and other constants’. Joao made headlines a few years ago when he suggested that a speed of light in vacuum in the early universe very different to today’s value could give rise to many of the effects predicted by cosmic inflation. It looked like an intriguing alternative to inflation, although I haven’t heard much about the proposal recently. Joao also wrote a really nice book on the subject – in fact, it was one of the things that inspired me to persuade my boss to allow me to teach a course on the history of 20th century cosmology. It seems a while ago now, who would have guessed my little course would lead to the discovery of an unknown Einstein model of the universe ?

Right now, it’s time to stop musing and catch up on the world with the ten o’ clock news. Except wait, I don’t have a tv! I’m back in Clare College, my favourite of all the Cambridge colleges. There’s no tv, but on the other hand there’s something about working away in an unpretentious student room overlooking the beautiful quad that I find very relaxing. A perfect place for a bit of thinking…or maybe write a murder mystery…


Clare College – a good place for some quiet thinking


Some truly great talks by , John BarrowJohn Ellis, and Martin Rees among others so far at the conference, but the big news is yesterday’s announcement  of the observation of B-mode polarization in the cosmic microwave background by the BICEP2 experiment. If correct, the signal is strong evidence of gravitational waves emanating from the inflationary epoch of the infant universe. A huge boost for the notion of cosmic inflation, not to mention strong empirical evidence for the phenomenon of gravitational waves predicted by general relativity…..a double whammy if ever there was one. I won’t say more on this as several cosmologists here at Cambridge who are team leaders on the European PLANCK experiment will give an impromptu seminar on the US results tomorrow. I’d best change my flight – every time I come to Cambridge something dramatic like this happens…

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Filed under Cosmology (general), History and philosophy of science

4 responses to “Cosmology and the constants of nature at Cambridge

  1. Pingback: Late Nathan Abbey save preserves a point for St Neots against Hitchin | Cambridge

  2. You will of course be aware of, Cormac. I hope Joao now says the speed of light was slower in the early universe, not faster. And that the speed of light varies in the room you’re in. If it didn’t, the lower of two NIST optical clocks wouldn’t run slower, and your pencil wouldn’t fall down. People call it the coordinate speed of light, but it’s the speed of light. Have a read of my opening post here. Note the Einstein quotations.

  3. No, I hadn’t seen that one, many thanks for the link. It’ll be very interesting to hear Joao’s talk in the light of today’s announcement on inflation..

  4. I think I’d be sympathetic, because IMHO there’s some hype around BICEP2. The CMB is very uniform, there’s only so much one can wring out of the B-mode polarization. I thought Matt Strassler’s blog on it was pretty good.

    By the by, if you get a chance to question John Webb, ask him if he agrees that the fine structure “constant” is a running constant, then ask him if he agrees with conservation of charge, then ask him whether the dividend or the divisor varies in α = e²/2εₒhc.