Tag Archives: Science and society

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).

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The Irish-born scientist and aristocrat Robert Boyle

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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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.

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RTE, NASA and a WARP drive

On Friday, I got a call from Mooney Goes Wild , the daily science programme on Irish national radio, asking me to participate in an interview concerning NASA’s recent interest in creating a WARP drive for space travel. I’d heard this interesting story over Christmas and I like science on the radio, so it was fun to look up a few details and take part in the discussion.

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Starship Enterprise of Star Trek uses a warp drive to traverse the immense distances of outer space

The live interview took place that very afternoon, right in the middle of our College Exam Boards (those weighty meetings when lecturers come together with external examiners to decide which students pass and which don’t). Our current physics extern, Professor Peter Mitchell of UCD, taught me as a student, so we had fun discussing the NASA project over lunch.

In the event, the interview was very interesting; I thought the RTE panel of Olan Mc Gowan, Eanna ni Lamhna, Richard Collins and Terry Flanagan asked great questions and we all enjoyed ourselves. Below is the Q&A script I prepared in advance (I always run up a draft script as it helps me organize my thoughts and it provides interviewers with a jumping-off point). The panel’s questions went a good deal further, you can hear a podcast of the interview here.

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Artist’s impression of the NASA experiment; the vacuum ring causes space behind the object to expand, propelling it forwards

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Script

We recently came across a story that NASA has begun work on the development of a WARP drive, a device that would allow spaceships to travel faster than light. Such an engine could in principle transport a spacecraft to the most distant stars in a matter of weeks, but seems the stuff of science fiction.  We contacted Dr Cormac O Raifeartaigh, a physicist at Waterford Institute of Technology, to get his opinion on this story…

PANEL: First of all, what is a warp drive?

 COR: It’s the word used for a hypothetical engine that could drive a spacecraft by distorting or ‘warping’ space. In principle, this could allow  the ship to travel faster than the speed of light, taking a shortcut to reach remote galaxies in hours instead of millions of years! (The device turns up in science fiction in order to enable people to get from one galaxy to another without dying of old age on the way…even travelling to a nearby planet  takes several years).

PANEL: How is it supposed to work? I thought faster-than-light travel was supposed to be impossible?

COR: That’s right. According to Einstein’s theory of relativity, no material body can reach the speed of light. If it comes close to this speed, the body gets bigger, and heavier, and it cannot match the speed of something with no mass (light). There is a lot of evidence to suggest that this is exactly what happens, it’s amazing to see particles like  protons accelerated at facilities like the Large Hadron Collider  up to speeds like 99.99% of the speed of light, but never quite reaching nature’s speed limit.

PANEL: So, how does the warp drive work then ?

 COR: Another prediction of relativity is that space and time are not fixed, but affected by motion and by gravity. For example, there is a huge amount of evidence that the space of our universe is continually expanding. In principle, a patch of space can move at any speed; if you could somehow  warp a bubble of space around an object ( or spaceship), then that object would travel at the speed set by the distortion..

PANEL: Has this mad idea been around for a while?

COR: Yes,in principle. The problem is that the energy required to make that bubble of warped space is far greater than any energy available. What’s new is that physicist Harold White at NASA thinks he can reduce the energy required, with a clever design; the object (spaceship) is surrounded by a thin vacuum ring of a special shape that causes the space just behind the spaceship to expand, and just in front to contract; the difference propels the spaceship very fast indeed! Of course that’s just the theory..

PANEL: Do you think it will work?

COR: No, I doubt it, even with objects on the atomic scale. However, we will learn a lot by trying, there’s nothing wrong with the principle. For example,  many cosmologists believe that our whole universe expanded at speeds far greater than light during the first instant (the theory of cosmic inflation), before settling down to today’s more sedate expansion. But as regards investment, I wouldn’t put any money in ‘warp drive’ shares just yet!

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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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Hawking, Walton and O’Raifeartaigh

I was surprised and delighted by the photograph below, prominently displayed in this week’s Irish Times magazine. In the accompanying article, journalist Arminta Wallace makes the point that the central figure in the photo is recognizable anywhere in the world, and challenges the reader to name the two Irish scientists flanking him (they are identified later in the piece).

This photo appeared in Saturday’s Irish Times under the caption Science Superstars

The scientist on Hawking’s right is the Irish physicist Ernest Walton, famous for splitting the atomic nucleus in 1932. The Cockroft-Walton experiment was the first successful accelerator experiment (and the first demonstration of E = mc2) and led to a well-deserved Nobel prize. As the prototype of all ‘atom-smashing’ experiments, Walton’s work is extremely relevant to this week’s discovery of the Higgs boson at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).

The scientist on the left is my late father, Lochlainn O’Raifeartaigh. A senior professor in the School of Theoretical Physics at the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies (DIAS), Lochlainn was a well known theorist in the field of elementary particle physics. The photo was taken at a conference at DIAS in 1983. I think it’s quite nice – it is not at all staged and one has the impression that the three physicists are enjoying a rare meeting. One sad aspect of the photo is that, even twenty years ago, there is already a marked deterioration in Hawking’s condition. That said, he has outlived the other scientists in the picture…

What would the trio have discussed? What do a leading particle theorist, a cosmologist and a Nobel experimentalist talk about over coffee? My guess is the newly-minted theory of cosmic inflation might have come up. Inflation is a theory that concerns the behaviour of the entire universe in the first fraction of a second, but it borrows heavily from ideas in particle physics. Hence it represents a convergence of cosmology ( the study of the universe at large) with particle physics (the study of the world of the extremely small). Given that the theory had only recently been posited, it’s highly likely that it was discussed by the trio with some excitement. (Of course Walton was an experimentalist but he had a lifelong interest in theory; it is often forgotten that he had a first class degree in mathematics as well as physics and he attended many conferences at the Institute over the years).

Ms Wallace draws a nice connection between the photo and the upcoming Dublin City of Science Festival. There is also a connection with science’s latest triumph, the discovery of a Higgs-like particle. First, Walton’s pioneering accelerator work laid the foundations for today’s experiments at the LHC (see above). Second,  Lochlainn made several important contributions to a theory now known as ‘supersymmetry’.  Supersymmetry is currently being put to the test at the LHC, as experimenters search for the ‘supersymmetric’ particles predicted by the theory. Thus the work of both Irish physicists remains relevant today.

You can read the Irish Times article here and more on Lochlainn’s work here. By coincidence, Lochlainn’s work will be celebrated at an international conference on theoretical physics in Munich next week.

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Discovery of the Higgs vs the discovery of the atom

Most people on the planet will hear sometime today that scientists at CERN, the particle physics laboratory in Switzerland, have announced the discovery of a new particle, almost certainly the Higgs boson. ‘Discovery’ is shorthand for 99% confidence level, so this is a great result, coming from two independent experiments at CERN. But what does it all mean?

Below is a script I used for interviews on tv (RTE 1 Six One News) and radio (RE 1 Drivetime); you can see the tv interview here

Q: How important is the discovery, what does it compare with?

It’s not unexpected, but it’s very important. I think it is quite similar to the discovery of the first experimental evidence for atoms by Jean Perrin in 1908 (following a suggestion by the young Einstein). Scientists had long suspected that matter is composed of tiny entities known of atoms but they had never been observed directly. Perrin demonstrated their existence by showing that the random motion of tiny grains of gum in water could be explained in terms of the collisions of the particles with the atoms of the liquid.

Q:What exactly is a Higgs boson, is it like an atom?

We now know that the atom consists of a minute nucleus, with tiny, sub-atomic particles called electrons orbiting the nucleus. The nucleus itself contains other sub-atomic particles of matter called proton and neutrons, themselves made up of even smaller entities called quarks. The full list of the elementary particles of matter is described by the ‘Standard Model of Particle Physics’, the modern theory of the structure of the atom and the forces that hold it together. The Higgs particle doesn’t live inside the nucleus, it is a ‘messenger particle’ predicted by the Standard Model; while all other particles predicted by the model have been detected in experiments in particle accelerators, the Higgs has remained outstanding until now.

Q: And that’s why it’s so important?

Not only that. The Higgs is also of central importance in our understanding of the atom. According to the Standard Model, particles acquire mass as a result of their interaction with the Higgs – or to be specific, their interaction with a certain type of quantum field named the Higgs field (after theoretician Peter Higgs of Edinburgh University). The Higgs particle is simply the ‘messenger particle’ associated with this field.

Q: Why is it sometimes called the God particle?

Most physicists dislike the name, but it is somewhat apt since the field associated with the Higgs particle is thought to endow all other particles with mass. Another reason is that the particle has become something of a Holy Grail in particle physics because it has proved remarkably hard to find over five decades. The discovery of the Higgs boson is an important confirmation that our view of the fundamental structure of matter is on the right track.

Q: How was the particle observed?

At the LHC, two beams of protons are slammed into each other at extremely high energy. Exotic particles are created out of the energy of collision, just as predicted by Einstein (E = mc2). These unstable bits of matter quickly decay into other particles, including Higgs bosons. The Higgs particles themselves then decay into lighter particles in a number of different ways or ‘decay channels’. These particles are detected at the giant particle detectors attached to the beam at CERN – two independent detectors  (ATLAS and CMS) have detected two different decay channels of the Higgs, hence the excitement.

Q: How definite are the results?

Each group is quoting a sigma level of 5, corresponding to 99% certainty. This certainty reflects that a new particle has been found with mass 125 GeV, consistent with a Higgs. However, further work is required to determine whether the particle has other properties consistent with a Higgs.

Q: What comes after the Higgs?

The Higgs particle closes one chapter, but opens another.This is because the Standard Model is known to be incomplete. The properties of the new particle should give great insights into new physics beyond the Standard Model. For example, evidence of more than one type of Higgs particle would be a strong hint of the existence of a whole new family of particles known as supersymmetric particles. The detection of these particles is an important test for unified field theories, theories that suggest that the four fundamental forces of nature once comprised a single force in the infant universe. Indeed, the next round of experiments should give us many important insights into the very early universe because the high-energy conditions resemble those that existed when our universe was very young.

Q: Does the Higgs have a technological application?

No. However, the technologies developed in particle experiments find important application in society. A good example is the use of accelerators in modern medicine. Another is the world-wide web, a software platform first developed at CERN in order to allow scientists to share collision data. The latest innovation is the GRID, the networking of thousands of computers worldwide in order to facilitate the analysis of huge amounts of data emerging from the LHC. Today’s result is a great triumph for the GRID, it is quite amazing that the data was analyzed so fast.

Q: To wrap up; an exciting discovery?

Huge. Expected, but huge. Compares with the discovery of the atom, or putting a man on the moon. The morale of the story is that scientists are like the Mounties – they always get there in the end.

There is a good summary of today’s result in the Guardian here

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Where is the global warming?

A few days ago, the letter below was published in The Irish Times, Ireland’s most respected newspaper:

Sir, – I’ll believe in global warming when I don’t have to turn on my central heating in mid-June. – Yours, etc,

PETER STAPLETON,

Drumshanbo,

Co Leitrim.

As the short statement contains three common misunderstandings, I thought it worthwhile to respond. My response is published in The Irish Times today :

Sir, – Peter Stapleton writes “I’ll believe in global warming when I don’t have to turn on my central heating in mid-June” (June 16th). This short statement contains three classic errors:

1. Weather is not climate. Mr Stapleton has confused a wet summer in Ireland with longterm trends in global climate.

2. There is now a great deal of evidence pointing towards a gradual increase in the average surface temperature of the earth and its oceans, an increase that is strongly linked to carbon emissions. Recent data from MET Éireann show a warming in Ireland in line with this global trend.

3. Climate change is not a question of belief, it is a question of science. The overwhelming consensus among climate scientists is that global warming has the potential to affect the lives of many millions of people, from widespread flooding in some countries to permanent drought in others.

Sadly, one suspects Mr Stapleton’s misapprehensions are shared by a great many political leaders worldwide. – Yours, etc,

CORMAC O’RAIFEARTAIGH,

Lecturer in Physics,

Waterford Institute of Technology.


All in all, I think the two letters sum up the challenges of communicating climate science. Could it be that mankind will one day face devastating cimate change, all because we couldn’t distinguish between weather and climate?

Flooding in Bangladesh: soon to be permanent?

Drought in Africa: more frequent and severe?

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Neutrino lecture at University College Cork

I gave another talk on the OPERA ‘faster-than-light’ neutrino experiment on Wednesday evening at University College Cork (UCC). I was booked months ago to give the talk as part of the UCC Public Lecture Series and it’s always a pleasure to visit the beautiful campus at UCC.

University College Cork – the nicest campus in Ireland?

Of course, I was concerned the topic might be a bit of damp squib. As everyone in physics knows, a technical fault associated with the OPERA experiment was recently uncovered. Specifically, a connector cable for GPS clock synchronisation was found to be faulty. Between this and other problems, the ‘faster-than-light’ result has been withdrawn (see here for details).

The neutrino detector at Gran Sasso

In fact, the lecture was great fun. We got a good turnout and I made a point of using exactly the same slides I used when the OPERA result was first announced (see here for details). I thought the parts of the talk where I explained the grounds for scepticism from the viewpoint of both special and general relativity (theory and experiment) looked well in retrospect, though I tried hard not to say We told you so. In conclusion, I introduced a few new slides where I discussed what lessons could be learnt from the incident e.g.

1. If your result is in conflict with well-known theory, check, check and check again before you publish (anywhere).

2. If your result is in conflict with decades of experiments, check even more carefully.

3. Never underestimate the media appetite for  ‘Einstein wrong’  stories. Everyone has heard of Einstein and everyone has heard of the speed of light -  this story was always going to be huge.

4. ‘Einstein not wrong after all’ is not such a great media story. In consequence, many members of the public will never get to hear of the correction. Bear this in mind before you go public with a result that may later have to be corrected.

Check your cables – all of them!

The slides I used for the UCC talk are here and I will upload the video in a day or two.

Update

This just in: a group working on an extremely similar neutrino experiment at Gran Sasso have announced the observation of neutrinos obeying the speed limit, as normal. This pretty much refutes the OPERA result completely. See here for details.

Update II

April 3: The head of the OPERA collaboration has resigned over the weekend, see here for details

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The Science Delusion

A few weeks ago, The Irish Times published my review of The Science Delusion by Rupert Sheldrake, the former Cambridge don and enfant terrible of science. Sheldrake was a prominent name in evolutionary biology in the 1970s but he has since become a controversial figure because of his espousal of disputed phenomena such as telepathy, precognition and extra-sensory perception.

Overall, I found the book fascinating but flawed. I didn’t feel the author offered any real evidence for his central thesis: that a strict philosophy of materialism (the belief that all reality is physical in nature) has hindered progress in science and caused working scientific hypotheses to harden into rigid dogma. Most of the evidence offered for this contention consisted of a critique of the methods of science reminiscent of practitioners of the discipline known as  science studies; almost no attempt was made to engage critically with these views or to explain why the scientific method has been so successful.

I also found that some of the basic science was flawed, especially in the sections on modern physics. Most of the material cited as evidence for ‘scientific dogma’  was not drawn from the scientific literature, but from review articles in popular science magazines. Such publications offer only a superficial version of scientific theories and I would argue that many of the ‘dogmatic principles’ identified by Sheldrake are in fact open questions in scientific research.

Meanwhile, I found the author’s own pet theory of morphic resonance a bit far-fetched. In essence, this theory posits that the fundamental constituents of nature are not matter and energy, but self-organising systems that resonate with their environments. In this worldview, atoms, molecules and cells are not unconscious material, but have patterns of behaviour and habits. Sheldrake uses this theory to examine whether the universe is alive, whether the laws of physics are habits that change and evolve, whether all biological inheritance is material, and whether the mind is really confined to the brain. He also suggests that the theory can offer an explanation for phenomena such as telepathy and precognition.

Overall, these discussions were fascinating, especially the descriptions of experiments attempted to test the theory. However, the experiments are also highly controversial; indeed, a little research shows that in many cases, the results are hotly disputed even amongst the experimenters themselves!

You can read my full review of The Science Delusion on The Irish Times website here. I was surprised to see that the book received rave reviews in both The Guardian and The Independent. However, neither review was written by a scientist. Indeed, there seems to be something of a culture divide here; Sheldrake’s views are enthusiastically embraced by people who know nothing of science, while scientists themselves are less impressed. Is that because we are fatally blinkered or could it be that we know what we are talking about?

Update

Reading the comments, I should probably make it clear that I think the answer to the above question is the latter. It seems to me that Sheldrake makes the classic error of rejecting well-established science that is backed by very strong evidence, whilst embracing highy questionable theories that are backed by very flimsy evidence…funny how these often go together

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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.

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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 Hawking-Bekenstein 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.

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