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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A day out (and a solar eclipse) at Maynooth University

I  had a most enjoyable day on Friday at the mathematical physics department of Maynooth University, or NUI Maynooth, to give it its proper title. I was there to attend an international masterclass in particle physics. This project, a few years old, is a superb science outreach initiative associated with CERN, the European Centre for Particle Physics particle in Geneva, home of the famous Large Hadron Collider (LHC). If you live on planet earth, you will probably have heard that a famous particle known as the Higgs boson was recently discovered at the LHC. The idea behind the masterclasses is to give secondary school students the opportunity to “become a particle physicists for a day” by performing measurements on real data from CERN.


The day got off to a great start with a lecture on “Quarks, leptons and the forces of nature” by Dr. Paul Watts, a theoretical physicist at Maynooth. An excellent introduction to the world pf particle physics, I was amused by Paul’s cautious answer to a question on the chances of finding supersymmetric particles at the LHC. What the students didn’t know was that Paul studied under the late Bruno Zumino, a world expert on supersymmetry, and one of the pioneers of the theory. Paul’s seminar was followed by another lecture, “Particle Physics Experiments and the Little Bang” , an excellent a talk on the detection of particles at the LHC by Dr Jonivar Skullerud, another physicist at Maynooth. In between the two lectures. we all trooped outside in the hope of seeing something of today’s solar eclipse . I was not hopeful, given that the sky was heavily overcast until about 9.30. Lo and behold, the skies cleared in time and we all got a ringside view of the event through glasses supplied by Maynooth physics department! Now that’s how you impress visitors to the college… images IMG_20150320_101922

Viewing the eclipse

After lunch we had the workshop proper. Each student was assigned a computer on which software had been installed that allowed them to analyse particle events from the ALICE detector at the LHC (lead ion collisions). Basically, the program allowed the students to measure the momentum and energy of decay products of particles from the tracks produced in collisions, allowing them to calculate the mass of the parent particle and thus identify it. As so often, I was impressed how quickly the students got the hang of the program – having missed the introduction thanks to a meeting, I was by far the slowest in the room. We all then submitted our results, only to find a large discrepancy between the total number of particles we detected and the number predicted by theory! We then all returned to the conference room, and uploaded our results to the control room at the LHC. It was fun comparing our data live with other groups around Europe and discussing the results. Much hilarity greeted the fact that many of the other groups got very different results, and the explanation for that (but what many groups really wanted to know was  whether we got a good look at the eclipse in Ireland). IMG_20150320_154423

Uploading our results via a conference call with the contol room at the LHC, CERN

All in all, a wonderful way for students to get a glimpse of life in the world of the LHC, to meet active particle physics researchers, and to link up with students from other countries. See here for the day’s program.


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A Night at the Academy Awards

I spent a most enjoyable evening last week at the Royal Irish Academy. Ireland’s premier learned society, the Academy is an all-Ireland body that promotes excellence in the sciences and the humanities, fostering links between ‘the two cultures’. Membership of the Academy is considered a high honour amongst Ireland’s academics, and former members include eminent Irish intellectuals such as William Rowan Hamilton,  Ernest Walton, Seamus Heaney and W.B. Yeats.

I was there to witness the awarding of this year’s  RIA Gold Medals for outstanding research. The medals were presented to Professor Werner Nahm, for his seminal work in theoretical physics and to Professor Desmond Clarke, for his research in the history and philosophy of science in the 17th century.  I was pleased but not surprised at Werner’s award; his research has already been recognized with  several international prizes, not least the famous Planck Medal of the German Physical Society. As Director as the School of Theoretical Physics at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS), Werner plays a key role in mathematics and physics in Ireland. (He also has a side interest in the history of science, and was one of the first people I turned to in our studies of unpublished Einstein manuscripts. In fact, Werner recently showed me a hardcopy of a little-known book at DIAS by Albert Einstein, published only in French, with annotation in the margins by the late Eamonn de Valera – all very much in keeping with the interdisciplinary spirit of the Academy!)


The main conference hall at the Royal Irish Academy


The library at the Royal Irish Academy

The evening was most enjoyable, with erudite professors of science and the humanities intermingling in the Academy’s beautiful premises on Dawson Street in Dublin – indeed part of the remit of the Academy is the promotion of links between the two disciplines. The ceremony included speeches from Jan O’ Sullivan , our Minister for Education, and  Tom Boland, director of the Higher Education Authority.

One surprise was that the event did not include acceptance speeches by the awardees. This seemed strange, given the prestige of the RIA medals (imagine a Nobel award without the speech). One would have liked to hear the recipients describe their research, thank colleagues, and comment on the challenges of academia. In particular, I thought it was a pity that there was no opportunity for two highly distinguished academics to respond to the speeches of the Minister for Education or the Director of the HEA. For example, I suspect Werner would have liked to comment on the current lack of funding for research in basic science and its impact on the study of mathematics and theoretical physics in Ireland (and on his Institute).  I have never met Professor Clarke, but it would have been most interesting to hear his views on the challenges faced by historians in Ireland.

All in all, a most enjoyable occasion. I was disappointed that the event attracted almost no media coverage afterwards, despite the presence of several press photographers on the night. Perhaps the occasion was deemed too intellectual by news editors –  what is a lifetime’s achievement in academia compared with latest adventures of Roy Keane…


There is a short article describing the event in the Weekend section of The Irish Times. However, it’s easy to miss as there are no  photographs and there doesn’t seem to be an online version.

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Academics and their holidays

Last week, I returned to the snow world for the first time in a long while. The college teaching semester starts on Monday 12th, and I managed to get my corrections done over Christmas, leaving a precious few days over. I had intended going to a conference on relativity and spacetime in Israel, but in the end I decided I was more in need of a few days holiday, not to mention some exercise!
‘Tis well for some,you might say, and indeed it is. For those who can, the week after New Year is a very good time for a snow holiday – cheaper and less crowded (and little danger of being stranded in airports). That said, I recently worked out that, during the teaching semester, I work an average 20 hours unpaid overtime per week in comparison with my previous 9-5 job . This isn’t particularly unusual for an academic involved in research but it’s important to take a break sometime to recharge the batteries.

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The village of Fieberbrunn in Tirol and neighbouring gondola

This year, I bought a last-minute package with Crystalski to Fieberbrunn, a little known resort in Tirol, Austria. The village is only a few kilometres away from the well-known resorts of St Johann and Kitzbuehel, but so far undiscovered by English-speaking tourists. I signed up for a few advanced sessions with the local ski school – skiing is a highly technical sport and one can always learn a great deal from Austrian ski instructors (not to mention hearing some German). Sure enough, we spent several days trying to absorb tips on posture from Ottmar F., a leading free-rider and scarily qualified instructor from these parts. Best of all, the course concentrated on some gentle off-piste skiing, always my weak spot.


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Off-piste with Ottmar- then back to the piste at last

It’s not the easiest of holidays – each day, I would return exhausted to the hotel and spend an hour recuperating in the pool, before doing some study in the evenings. I was happy enough to hand back transceiver and avalanche pack yesterday, that’s enough exercise for a while!
Best of all, I got the guts of my next paper written during the week – an essay on Einstein’s philosophy of cosmology for the upcoming Oxford/Cambridge compendium on the philosophy of cosmology. Not for the first time, I notice that I get more work done when I stay away from the office…

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Robert Boyle Summer School 2014

Last weekend saw the third Robert Boyle Summer School, an annual 3-day meeting in Lismore, Co, Waterford in honour of one of Ireland’s greatest scientists. Born in Lismore into an extremely wealthy family, Boyle  became one of the most important figures in the Scientific Revolution,  well-known for his scientific discoveries, his role in the rise of the Royal Society and his influence in promoting the role of the experiment in the ‘new philosophy’.


The Irish-born scientist and aristocrat Robert Boyle   



Lismore Castle, the birthplace of Robert Boyle

The summer school took place 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 Boyle’s scientific legacy to the interplay of science and religion (like many figures of the scientific religion, Boyle was quite devout and extremely interested in the interface between science and religion). See here for the conference program.

This was the third such summer school, organised jointly by the CALMAST science outreach group at Waterford Institute of Technology  and the Lismore Heritage Centre. As the only such event on a major figure in the scientific revolution, it is beginning to attract some of the world’s top experts on this period of science (known as ‘early modern’). This year, the programme included talks by Lawrence Principe (Drew Professor of the Humanities at Johns Hopkins and author of The Scientific Revolution (OUP) and The Aspiring Adept: Robert Boyle and his Alchemical Quest); John Hedley Brooke (Professor Emeritus of Science and Religion and Oxford University , and author of Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives and Religious Values and the Rise of Science in Europe); and Terry Eagleton  (author of over forty books and Distinguished Professor of English literature at Lancaster University).


Lawrence Principe at Boyle 2014


John Hedley Brooke at Boyle 2014

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. On the last day, Boyle’s legacy was also celebrated by some talks concerning the science of today; we had a superb lecture on astrophysics from Professor Lorraine Hanlon of University College Dublin, and an outstanding seminar on inflammation and ageing by Professor  Luke O’ Neill, one of Ireland’s best known and most successful biochemists.  Other highlights were a lecture on fraud in modern science by Jim Malone, Emeritus Robert Boyle Professor of medical physics at Trinity College Dublin, and an open-air barbecue in Lismore Castle on Friday evening,including a re-enactment in costume of some famous Boyle experiments by Eoin Gill of WIT.


Eoin Gill aka Robert Boyle


Song and dance in the grounds of Lismore Castle

All in all, a superb conference in a beautiful setting.  The meeting was sponsored by Science Foundation Ireland, the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Institute of Chemisty (Ireland), the Institute of Physics (Ireland), the Robert Boyle Foundation,  i-scan, Abbott, Lismore Castle Arts and the Lismore House Hotel.


A late night music session with Luke O’ Neill  


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Freeman Dyson and the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies

On Monday, I attended the Statutory Lecture of the School of Theoretical Physics of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS). This is an outreach lecture presented annually by DIAS and this year the lecture took place at University College Dublin. Better known abroad than at home, the Institute has a long and distinguished history of world-class research in fundamental areas of physics (see here), so it was entirely appropriate that the statutory lecture was given by Freeman Dyson, renowned physicist and Professor of Physics at the famous Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, the college on which DIAS is modeled.


Freeman Dyson at the DIAS lecture on Monday night  

The title of Freeman’s lecture was  “Are Brains Analog or Digital?” and the abstract is below:

We know that creatures like us have two separate systems for processing information, the genome and the brain. We know that the genome is digital, and we can accurately transcribe our genomes onto digital machines. We cannot transcribe our brains, and the processing of information in our brains is still a great mystery. I will be talking about real brains and real people, asking a question that will have practical consequences when we are able to answer it. I am not able to answer it now. All I can do is to examine the evidence and explain why I consider it probable that the answer will be that brains are analog.

I won’t give more details as Professor Dyson will publish his paper on the subject quite soon. Suffice it to say that tickets for the lecture sold out days in advance and there was quite a buzz on the night. Freeman held the audience spellbound, reading from his paper without the benefit of a single slide.  One could gauge the interest generated from the huge number and variety of questions afterwards. That said, I couldn’t help noticing that the Irish media took no interest whatsoever in the occasion – one wonders if a world-famous  musician or celebrity chef would be similarly ignored.


Professor Dyson with staff from the School of Theoretical Physics at DIAS: Werner Nahm (Senior Professor and Director ), Arthur Jaffe (Professor of Mathematics at Harvard and Chairman of the board), Freeman Dyson, Vincent Cunnane (Chair of DIAS Council) and Cecil Keaveney (Registrar)

After the lecture, some of us retired to a nearby hotel where Professor Dyson and his wife regaled us with stories from his long and interesting career. Freeman was a close colleague of my late father and was instrumental in bringing Lochlainn and the rest of our family to the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton many years ago (after this, Lochlainn returned to Ireland to take up a position at DIAS). So it was great to encounter Professor Dyson once again, this time as an adult! Not to mention that Freeman has fascinating and original views on a wide range of topics; from space travel to climate science, he remains a truly deep and original thinker.


The day after the lecture, staff and friends of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies were treated to a private recital by the well-known Irish pianist Hugh Tinney. The connection is that Hugh’s late mother, Professor Sheila Tinney, was an accomplished mathematician who spent time at Princeton IAS and studied with Professor Dyson (Hugh himself studied maths at Trinity College Dublin before deciding on a career in music and was in the audience for Freeman’s lecture).

It was an extraordinary occasion. Hugh played beautifully and each piece was prefaced with a short discussion of the interface of mind, memory and music. The intimate setting made for one of the most exciting concerts I have experienced, far more fun than a formal venue such as the National Concert Hall. It didn’t hurt that the programme included three of my all-time favourite works, Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata,  Schubert’s G major Impromptu and *that* Nocturne by John Field (no.5 in B flat). The recital also had a special significance for me as it took place in the Organ Room of the Royal Irish Academy of Music, a venue I spent a great deal of time in as a young music student.

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Each piece was prefaced by a discussion of the role of mind in music


Hugh Tinney presenting his latest CD to Professor Dyson

After the recital, we retired to dinner in a nearby restaurant. As you can imagine, one subject of conversation was the mysterious connection between maths and music. I have heard one explanation for this strange phenomenon: “People who are good at maths are good at most things!”

P.S. A video of Freeman’s lecture is now available on the DIAS website.


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Hawking, Cambridge and the infant universe

I hugely enjoyed this week’s conference ‘Cosomolgy and the Constants of Nature’  at Cambridge University. There were some truly great talks by John BarrowJohn Ellis and Thanu Padmanabhan among others, not to mention Joao Magueijo describing his famous ‘variable speed of light’ theory in person. The icing on the cake was that my visit coincided with this week’s announcement of the detection of gravitational waves from the infant universe by the American BICEP2 experiment. If correct, the signal gives very significant experimental support for the theory of cosmic inflation, as well as the phenomenon of gravitational waves predicted by general relativity…..a double whammy if ever there was one.

Yesterday, I was priviliged to attend a seminar on the new results given by George Efstathiou and Anthony Challinor, team leaders on the rival Planck experiment (EU). There’s nothing like hearing a new observation dissected by a rival group and the seminar certainly didn’t disappoint. Both Cambridge physicists concluded that the BICEP 2 result is very robust, at least at face value, with the caveat that the signal needs to be reproduced at more than one frequency. The other caveat is that although the sensitivity of BICEP2 is up to ten times that of Planck,  there is a certain tension between the BICEP2 data and last year’s published data from Planck. I was particularly interested in Professor Efstathiou’s comment that the differing data of the two experiments may be a genuine effect, i.e., may represent some new physics at wide angles (Planck) that doesn’t affect the BICEP2 (small angle) measurements . The next few months should be very interesting indeed for cosmology…(see here for a rigorous discussion of the BICEP2 data by Peter Coles).

I had my own private excitement when I was introduced to Stephen Hawking for the first time. It was a very moving encounter, Professor Hawking remembered my father and his work. Stephen was also very interested in our recent discovery of Einstein’s unpublished attempt at a steady-state model of the cosmos. Indeed, his first remark to me was that steady-state cosmic models were the dominant cosmic paradigm when he started his research career at Cambridge all those years ago. He asked me to send him a copy of Einstein’s paper and I had a stressful evening trying to do so as my college email chose that day to block me for not changing my password often enough – of all days for that to happen!


I can’t quite believe this photo

All in all, it was yet another hugely productive visit to Cambridge University. Every time I come here something dramatic happens but I’m also looking forward to going home, I could do with a rest!


Farewell to Clare college


The American National Pubic Radio ran a piece on our Einstein discovery on today’s Morning Edition. I think it’s quite nice, apart from the usual emphasis on Einstein’s ‘blunders’ (why do journalists always see explorations as blunders?) Still, I’m learning not to be too precious about media stuff…


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