Einstein’s smallest blunder

At 17.45 GMT today, I carried out the final fuel checks on our Einstein paper, took a deep breath and hit launch (okay SUBMIT).

Over the summer, I came across quite a few references to a paper Einstein wrote on cosmology in early 1931, in the wake of Hubble’s first observations of the expanding universe (Ahemperhaps you mean  in the wake of Hubble’s observation of an apparent linear relation between the recession of the spiral nebulae and their distance, an empirical result that some theorists interpreted as evidence of an expanding universe – Ed ).

Like many Einstein papers, this paper is written in German, but unlike most Einstein papers  I could not find an English translation anywhere – pretty strange, given that this is Einstein’s first official  publication in the light of the new astronomical results (and given that he wrote very few papers on cosmology). So, with permission from the Einstein Archives, I spent the summer translating the paper with a colleague and adding hysterical remarks. Sorry, historical remarks. It was a most enjoyable project, with a few surprises along the way:

(i) Einstein’s 1931 paper offers a lot of interesting insights into his thoughts on the first tentative evidence for an expanding universe, but it does not say what a lot of science historians seem to think it says

(ii) Some calculations, where Einstein estimates values for the radius of the universe and the density of matter using Hubble’s results, seem to contain a fairly obvious numerical error

(iii) The same error can be seen in writing on a blackboard preserved from a lecture Einstein gave on the paper at Oxford University in 1931


Einstein in Oxford – nice to know we all make mistakes

There has already been quite a bit of interest in our article, it seems your humble correspondent may have gotten lucky for once. Or we  might be wrong, in which case we’re going to look very silly. In the meantime, it looks like I’ll be doing a bit of traveling this year….

Update (Jan 2014)

Our article has now been published in the European Physical Journal (History). You can find the article here or a preprint on the Physics Arxiv here.

Update (Jan 2014)

Our article made the cover of EPJ!

EPJ cover


Filed under Cosmology (general)

Last day at COSMO13 in Cambridge

Today was the last day of the COSMO13 conference, a most enjoyable, if sometimes exhausting conference – so many seminars, not to mention a banquet in Trinity College last night.


The conference finished this morning with lectures on dark energy from Ofer Lahav and Edmund  Copeland, on dark energy and modified gravity by Lam Hui and Claudia de Rahm, and on inflation by Richard Easther. The conference website is here and videos of the presentations will be available here in the next few days.

UPDATE: Videos of the plenary talks and pdfs of talks from the parallel sessions are  now available here.

If I had to summarize the conference in one sentence, I think the take-home message is that recent experimental results in both cosmology (from the PLANCK satellite) and particle physics (from the LHC) are strongly supportive of our basic models, giving strong confidence that our underlying theories are on the right track. The downside is that in each case, the fit is a teeny bit too good for comfort. There is a slightly worrying lack of evidence for physics beyond the standard models so far – a lack of evidence for supersymmetric particles at the LHC (although a low-mass Higgs is in principle good news for SUSY) and a lack of non-Gaussianities and parity violation in the PLANCK measurements of the cosmic microwave background. But the future is bright, especially considering the projected increases in luminosity at the LHC and the possible detection of B-mode polarization in the CMB by PLANCK.

That said, I agree heartily with Ofer Lahav’s comment that it is extraordinary to be living through a paradigm shift in cosmology, namely the discovery of the accelerated expansion (two paradigm shifts if you include inflation). Added to which we are now in an era of precision cosmology. Indeed, measurements of the cosmic microwave background by PLANCK are now reaching such a level of precision that it isn’t always meaningful to talk about agreement or tension with astrophysical measurements – the latter have quite a lot of catching up to according to George Efstathiou!

On a personal note, it’s extraordinary to see Dad’s work on supersymmetry reaching a whole new audience in cosmology, as supersymmetry breaking in the early universe  becomes a major area of research. I can’t tell you how many young researchers eyed my badge in astonishment and then started to quizz me about O’Raifeartaigh models!

Now the conference has finally ended, it’s nice to get back to work on my paper on Einstein’s cosmology in the 1930s – some of the talks here have given me some new ideas. I managed to finish most of the paper here, I’ll always think of it as my Cambridge paper!


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Gruber prize at Cambridge

There was some excitement at the COSMO 2013 conference at Cambridge yesterday evening, with the presentation of this year’s Gruber prize for cosmology. The prize went to Viatcheslav Mukhanov and Alexei Starobinsky, two Russian theoreticians who made legendary contributions to our understanding of the formation of structure in the early universe.  After a very nice ceremony, we got a superb seminar from each; Starobinksy gave a talk on ‘Quantum Beginning of the Universe’, while Muhkanov gave a moving and often hilarious account of a scientist’s life in the old Soviet Union .


Mukhanov (L) and Starobinsky (R) accepting the Gruber prize

During the day, we had many seminars on the cosmic microwave background, notably by George Efstathiou and Jo Dunkley, and a talk by John Kovac on attempts to detect B-mode polarization in the CMB from ground-based telescopes. You can see the conference programme here. The Gruber ceremony was followed by a reception, so I didn’t get home until 10 pm.  All in all, a pretty full day.

Today, the talks are on large scale structure in the universe and quite a bit more technical (at least for your humble correspondent). On the other hand, there is quite a frisson in the room as Stephen Hawking has just arrived to catch Andreas Ringwald’s talk on axions. This evening, Professor Hawking and Brian Cox will each give a public talk as part of the conference, I’m looking forward to it.


We had three public lectures this evening. Andrew Liddle on cosmology and the Planck results, Brian Cox on the LHC and the Higgs boson, and Stephen Hawking on space and time or  ‘Fire in the Equations’. Andrew gave his usual tour de force (see here for a review of his recent Dublin lecture), Brian gave a surprisingly mathematical lecture on the standard Model of particle physics, and Stephen stole the show with a truly inspirational lecture on space, time, the meaning of it all and why scientists need to stay curious. Just the thing for a jaded conference delegate with a paper to finish before he goes home!


Brian Cox in action


Stephen Hawking musing on the meaning of the universe

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COSMO 2013 at Cambridge University

Today was the first day of the COSMO 2013 conference at Cambridge. Walking up the path to the hallowed Department of Applied Mathematics and  Theoretical Physics (DAMTP), I was gripped by my usual fear that I might meet with a frosty reception at the door; “No experimentalists, please!”


The hallowed halls of DAMTP

But it’s not that sort of conference. COSMO 2013 is a very nice mix of cosmology and particle physics, theory and experiment. You can see the conference poster and programme here.

This morning started with two contrasting plenary talks on particle physics; an experimental talk by Lars Sonneschein, and a more general talk ‘From the Higgs boson to Cosmology’ by well-known CERN theoretician John Ellis.

In his talk ‘Recent Results from the LHC’, Professor Sonnenschein gave a brief overview of recent results at the LHC, from current production rates of top anti-top quarks to the famous discovery of the Higgs boson. Much of this probably wasn’t that new to the audience given the number of Higgs talks last year, but it was good to see up-to-date information on the decay modes and coupling constants for the Higgs.The main point was that with more and more accurate measurements, there is still no evidence yet of any physics beyond the Standard Model, whether one was searching for dark matter, microscopic black holes or indeed supersymmetry (SUSY). On the other hand, there were grounds for good cheer for the experimentalists given the projections Lars gave for increased luminosity at the LHC in the next few years.

John Ellis’s talk took a very different tack. He starting by explaining why a light Higgs mass and weak couplings is a good result for supersymmetry (SUSY can stabilize a light Higgs), giving theorists yet another reason to take the theory seriously, despite the ecent narrowing of windows of possibility at the LHC (at least for minimal models). Professor Ellis then made a connection with cosmology, remarking that basic Wess-Zumino SUSY models can be shown to fit very well with many generic models of inflation;in particular, adding supersymmetry to the mix can give models that fit very comfortably within the recent PLANCK results (some fall well within the dark blue region in the famous Planck figure below). A colleague of a certain age commented to me afterwards  that he isn’t quite reconciled  with the way inflation has become the dominant paradigm in today’s cosmology; for my part, I can never get used to today’s discussions of  supersymmetry in both cosmology and particle physics, having grown up thinking of it as an obscure theory practised only by my father and a few colleagues around the world! Science truly evolves…


Prof Ellis wearing his Standard Model t-shirt


Generic SUSY versions of inflation can give models that fall within the most probable region (dark blue)

At question time afterwards, I commented that I was struck by the contrast between the two talks, i.e. the strong motivation for SUSY from theory but the lack of results so far at the LHC, and asked Professor Ellis whether he thought the first evidence for SUSY might indeed come from the cosmic microwave background rather than particle accelerators (I made a mess of the question, nervous for once!). He responded by pointing out that it took 40 years to find the Higgs in particle accelerators, thus we should not be too impatient.  This answer makes a lot of sense to me, I’m a bit dismayed at the way SUSY scepticism has quickly become almost as popular a sport as string theory scepticism. After all, theory is often decades ahead of experiment, particularly in particle physics…

There were two other plenary lectures after coffee, an overview of Dark Matter by Malcolm Fairbairn and a talk on neutrino masses by Silvia Pascoli. They were both excellent talks but there is so much going on I just can’t keep up! Also, Stephen Hawking is sitting three tables away, also working away at a computer – I’m going to tidy myself off to the afternoon sessions before someone mistakes me for a journalist and chases me out of the canteen!

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Summer hols; summer school, swimming and that book

You must be finished for the summer? Like most academics, I get asked this question every day in summer, usually by village acquaintances convinced that college closes the day the students finish their exams.

Some lecturers in the Institutes of Technology do indeed take off from June 20th to September 1st; that 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, just like our colleagues in the universities.

For me, this is no chore  – the sheer bliss of being able to do quiet research without classes, meetings, staff interactions and all the rest of it. Very restful. Also, we’re having a serious heatwave in Ireland this month and I’m happy to escape to the cool, quiet office every day. So I plug away happily during the day and treat myself to a swim in my village in the evenings..


Tide’s in on Lawlor’s Strand in Dunmore East

Actually, I did give some ‘cameo’ lectures this week and last, to our summer school. We have a very nice bunch of engineering, computing and business students visiting from Kiel in Germany, and I had fun trying to condense my climate science course down to a one-hour presentation for each group. I haven’t given short presentations on climate before, it was very satisfying to prepare (see here for a copy of the talk)  The other thing I noticed was that students from the continent always seem to be very mature, polite and interested. I must look into an exchange sometime, do they have Erasmus for staff?

My main task this summer is to finish my little book on cosmology. It’s based on a course I have taught for some years and it’s been a lot of fun to write. Now I’m finding that it’s one thing to write a book and quite another to get it published! Still, I have plenty of time now to be writing book proposals and writing to publishers. In the meantime, I look forward to a swim in the sea everyday after work and a walk into the village. It’s funny to live in a village where others come for summer holidays!


Tide’s out on Lawlor’s Strand in Dunmore East


Unfortunately it’s so warm, we’re beginning to get quite a few jellyfish. Hope it cools down a little next week!


Filed under Teaching, Third level

Robert Boyle summer school

I spent last weekend at a most enjoyable summer school in honour of Robert Boyle, the Waterford-born Anglo Irish aristocrat who became a major figure in the English scientific revolution. Boyle was extremely well-known in his day for his scientific discoveries, his role in the Royal Society and his discussions on the usefulness of the new scientific method (if he is less well-known today, it may be because his contributions were later eclipsed by the groundbreaking advances of his contemporary, the genius Isaac Newton).


The Irish-born scientist and aristocrat Robert Boyle


Lismore Castle, the birthplace of Robert Boyle

The summer school took place from Thursday 4th to Sunday 7th of July in the Heritage Centre in Lismore, the beautiful town that is the home of Lismore Castle where Boyle was born.  The talks covered a wide range of topics, from the history and philosophy of the scientific revolution to Boyle’s own life and were of huge interest to anyone with an interest in history, science or indeed the history of science.  It was the sort of conference I like best – a small number of inter-disciplinary talks aimed at curious academics and the public alike, with lots of time for questions and long breaks for discussion. Other highlights were an open-air barbecue in Lismore Castle on Friday evening, a re-enactment in costume of some famous Boyle experiments and a tour around the famous Lismore Castle Gardens.


Song and dance in the grounds of Lismore Castle

The festival proper started with a lecture on Thursday evening by Jim Malone, the Robert Boyle professor of medical physics at Trinity College Dublin:  ‘Robert Boyle: Getting to Know the Man from Lismore’. This was a general overview of Ireland’s most famous scientist, from Boyle’s early years in Ireland to his travels in Europe in 1639-45, from the rise of the Royal Society in England to Boyle’s prolific work at Oxford in the period 1655-1668. It was a very appropriate introduction to Boyle’s great contributions to science, medicine, philosophy and theology and there were also many biographical details I hadn’t heard before, not least the astonishing number of awards and honours he turned down – clearly not a scientist motivated by fame or fortune. You can find more on Jim and his lecture on the conference website here.


On Friday morning, Dr Anna-Marie Roos of the University of Lincoln laid out the historical context of Boyle’s work in more detail in her lecture ‘Robert Boyle and Early Modern English Science’. Starting with the work of Sir Francis Bacon, she described the emergence of a new questioning of the wisdom of the ancient Greeks, a new philosophy propagated by the invisible college. She then went on to describe Boyle’s experimentation in the context of complementary investigations by colleagues such as Hooke, Wren and Halley. This talk established a detailed social context for Boyle’s investigations very carefully without in any way detracting from the great work he did. You can find more on Anna-Marie and her lecture on the conference website here.


In the afternoon, Dr Bill Eaton of Georgia Southern University gave the talk ”Boyle in Ireland; Medicine and the Mechanical Philosophy’ where he made a very interesting point on Boyle’s philosophy of science. It turns out that although Boyle spent very little time in Ireland, he did some work on dissection of animal and human cadavers with William Petty in the period 1652 to 1654 in Ireland, experiments that played a very important part in the development of his philosophy of science. Thus, while we associate Boyle’s  scientific work with his later years at Oxford, it is likely that his earlier studies in anatomy in Ireland probably played an important role in in his development as a scientist, particularly in his belief in experimentation to judge the rightness or wrongness of a hypothesis. More on Bill and his lecture here.


Song and dance at the castle barbecue

I had a sore head after the open-air barbecue at Lismore Castle on Saturday morning, but not so sore that I didn’t enjoy the superb lecture ‘For the Glory of God and For the Relief of Man’s Estate’ by Dr Allan Chapman of the University of Oxford. In many ways, this was the perfect sequel to Anna Marie’s earlier talk on historical context (see above), I never tire of Allan’s unique coupling of a huge breadth of historical knowledge with an ability to communicate key historical points in clear, simple language. To pick one important theme, Professor Chapman was at pains to trace the rise of the new philosophy to a number of earlier advances in the 15th and 16th century; from geography (the voyages to the Americas proved Aristotle wrong on many counts) to anatomy (animal dissections showed the ancients to be equally wrong on the innards of living species), from herbal medicine (tried and tested herbal remedies were far superior to ‘cures’ from ancient books) to the discovery of the invisible force of magnetism. It set Boyle’s investigations in a yet wider context and I was particularly struck by Allan’s insight that to Boyle and his colleagues, new instruments such as the microscope were very much the equivalent of new ships for the previous century’s explorers. Another great theme was Allan’s careful analysis of Boyle’s motivation, that each experiment was driven by his dual passion of investigating God’s creation and relieving the suffering of man. Allan analysed the latter in detail, explaining how Boyle and his contemporaries expected the new investigations to help combat the ever-present threat of famine. You can find more on Allan and his lecture on the conference website here.

Professor Chapman’s discussion of Boyle’s concern for the relief of man’s estate set the stage nicely for a more contemporary talk, ‘Plants for the 21st Century’, by Professor Liam Dolan of Oxford University. This was yet another tour-de-force: starting with some astonishing diagrams of plants by Boyle’s contemprary Robert Hooke, Liam went on to describe groundbreaking research in botany today, not least the use of modern genetics to meet the challenge of feeding the world’s growing population in the face of climate change. This was an overview of current attempts to modify plant genes in order to improve the resistance of crucial crops to disaster, for example the synthesis of a new strain of rice that can survive widespread and frequent flooding in Bangladesh. Similar efforts are ongoing to synthesis crops that can survive prolonged drought, a likely consequence of climate change in other parts of the world. It was a superb introduction to the fraught topic of genetic modification and it fitted very well with Boyle’s concern for the  ‘relief of man’s estate’. You can find more on Liam and his lecture here.

All in all, a superb conference in a beautiful setting. There were several other great talks, not least a discussion of Boyle’s contemporary Valentine Greatrakes  by Dr Peter Elmer and a superb talk on ageing and dementia by Professor Ian Roberston. Ireland is home to a great many excellent summer schools on literary figures and traditional musicians, but none on scientists; I suspect this festival will become be a major event in the Irish summer calender in a few years.

P.S. I should say this was the second annual Boyle summer school organised by the CALMAST science outreach group at WIT and by the Lismore Heritage Centre. It was sponsored by Science Foundation Ireland, the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Institute of Chemisty in Ireland, the Institute of Physics in Ireland, the Robert Boyle Foundation,  i-scan, Abbott, Lismore Castle Arts and the Lismore House Hotel.


Filed under History and philosophy of science, Science and society, Uncategorized

Last day of Quantum Foundations conference at Oxford

Yesterday was the last day of the  Cosmology and Quantum Foundations  conference, a symposium that formed part of the  Establishing the Philosophy of Cosmology project at Cambridge and Oxford.


There was no workshop in the  morning, but there were two weighty lectures in the afternoon, ‘Inflationary Cosmology as a Laboratory for Primordial Quantum Mechanics’ by Antony Valentini and ‘Relational Quantum Mechanics: Spinfoam Cosmology’  by Carlo Rovelli.

Antony Valentini’s talk was the second installment of his thesis that we should consider the possibility that the quantum equilibrium universe we experience is simply a subset of a much larger ensemble which is deterministic, not in equilibrium, and does not obey the standard rules of quantum probability. In this model, elements of the larger ensemble made a transition  by a process of relaxation on atomic timescales to the quantum equilibrium we see today. Antony hypothesized that observational cosmology might offer a test for his model because any non-equilibrium states remaining before cosmic inflation would have become frozen during this period,  feeding into the cosmic microwave background at the end of inflation. His analysis suggested one explanation for the well-known power deficit in the CMB at long wavelengths in the Planck and WMAP data.  I have no idea what the theoreticians thought of Antony’s hypothesis, but talks like this certainly give the lie to those who accuse physicists of groupthink and of being incapable of thinking outside the box!

Carlo Rovelli then gave the second installment of his talk on his relational view of quantum mechanics (see last post). The main point here was that adding gravity to the analysis is not a complication in the case of the relational interpretation of qt because the model is fundamentally relativistic in nature (gravity is simply a curvature of spacetime in relativity). He went on to describe how the theory leads to the ‘quantum loop’ view of quantum gravity. I am not qualified to comment on the theory, but what I took out of Carlo’s talks is that the only fundamental entities in relational theory are covariant quantum fields -the wavefunction has no physical significance, any more than a mathematical operator.

All this was followed by a round table discussion between, Carlo, Antony, Simon Saunders and David Wallace. For many of us, this was a major highlight of the conference. It was a privilege to hear major proponents of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum theory (Saunders and Wallace) arguing point-by point against the relational view (Rovelli), not to mention pointed interjections from heavyweights in the audience such as John Barrow, Julian Barbour and Joe Silk. During the course of the debate, it struck me that the discussion was in some ways a modern echo of the classic debate between the Heisenberg and Schroedinger interpretations of the quantum world. I could almost see Heisenberg behind Carlo Rovelli’s chair, applauding his emphasis on the discreteness as the key property of the quantum world and his dislike of the wavefunction. In the opposite corner, Schroedinger’s view had much in common with the many-worlds camp because of his dislike of collapsing wavefunctions. Indeed, it has recently been suggested by several authors that Schroedinger’ s later work on quantum interpretation somewhat anticipates the many-worlds view (will dig out references on this).

So a splendid finish to a splendid conference; an important debate on the meaning of quantum theory between leading proponents of alternate modern interpretations of the theory, with echoes of history throughout.


It all happens at Oxford. Strolling past the Sheldonian this evening, I heard the familiar strains of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Turns out Nigel Kennedy was giving a concert with the Oxford Philomusica, so I sneaked into the foyer to hear the last few movements. You don’t hear much about Kennedy since he moved to Poland, but his performance was as electric as ever. I timed the applause at over 20 minutes, he certainly hasn’t lost his gift for communicating with the audience. However, the real surprise was the orchestra, it didn’t sound like any college orchestra to me – lovely crisp playing, fantastic articulation in the fast passages, and super pianissimos in the slow passages. Turns out the Oxford Philomusica is a relatively new initiative, a professional orchestra in residence at the university. What a great idea , I’m sure it gives a unique opportunity for the very best of the music students


Nigel Kennedy at the Sheldonian



Filed under Cosmology (general), quantum theory