This weekend I was at the annual spring meeting of the Institute of Physics in Ireland in Wexford. I always enjoy these weekends – more relaxing than a technical conference and a great way of keeping in touch with physicists from all over Ireland. As ever, there were good seminars, a physics pub quiz and discussions of science and philosophy over breakfast, lunch and dinner (not to mention a 32-strong Wexford choir who gave superb after-dinner entertainment). At the same time, there was a serious side to the weekend with committee meetings, the Annual General Meeting and a highly competitive poster competition for postgraduates.
The theme of the seminars on Saturday was ‘Physics for Life’ and it mainly concerned advances in medicine/ biology that have resulted from research in fundamental areas of physics such as atomic and molecular physics (Bob McCullough of Queen’s University Belfast), solar physics (Louise Harra of University College London), nano-photonics (Brian MCraith of DCU) and molecule manipulation using ‘optical tweezers’ (Martin Hegner from Trinity). I won’t attempt to describe each talk, but you can find abstracts of the talks here.
My favourite was a general talk on causality in complex systems by world-famous cosmologist George Ellis: ‘Top-down action in the hierarchy of complexity’. This was a fascinating overview of the subject of causation, focusing on the influence of feedback from top-down processes on bottom-up causes. There were lots of great examples and the speaker was fully convincing in his conclusion that ‘no complex system can have a single cause’. I couldn’t help thinking how true this is of climate change. Some media pundits describe global warming phenomenon in terms that too simple; by citing man-made CO2 as the only factor in climate, they give great ammunition to climate skeptics who point to other factors. (The point is that while CO2 is not the only factor in global climate, it is now clear that the man-made increase in CO2 is a significant driver of warming.)
Top-down causality: George Ellis
Sunday saw a new IoP initiative – instead of more seminars, four well-known physicists were given the ‘This is your Life’ treatment in sequence. It was a great success, with the legendary Tony Scott of UCD interviewing Ronan Mc Nulty (on the LHCb experiment), Sile McCormaic (on her path to the world of cold atoms) and Ray Bates (reknowned Irish climatologist who was one of the first in the area of climate modelling).
Best of all, the very first interviewee was Dame Jocelyn Bell-Burnell, the Belfast-born astrophysicist famed for her discovery of radio pulsars. (She is also President of the Institute of Physics). Professor Bell gave a fascinating overview of her life in physics, from failing the 11-plus exam to Cambridge. Of particular interest was her description of the postgraduate work leading up to the famous discovery: the long build of the radio-telescope from raw materials, perservering to the end as team members drifted off, the discovery of an unknown source, convincing her supervisor she was onto something, the disappearance of the source and the stress of a possible mistake and lost thesis, the re-appearance of the source, the classification of the first pulsars….terrific stuff.
Tony Scott interviewing Jocelyn Bell-Burnell
Professor Bell’s story was reminiscent of the discovery of the microwave background by Penzias and Wilson (see post here), but with one big difference. Bell was a highly trained astrophysicist, who understood clearly that she might have discovered an important phenomenon. For this reason, it is still highly controversial that, while her supervisor Antony Hewish was awarded the Nobel prize for this work, she was not. Was it because she was still a postgraduate? Because she was a woman? Perhaps we will never know. Apparently, there was a very good BBC documentary on the story a few months ago – I misssed it but I’ll try and track it down.
As always, the most humbling part of the weekend was the postgraduate posters. The level of research made one feel seriously inadequate. You can find the results of the competition on the IoP website; choosing the winners must have been very difficult. I particularly enjoyed two posters from UCD on the LHCb experiment (an indirect measurement of luminosity using muon production rates, and the measurement the cross-section of Z boson -muon decay). Even there, Ronan had to explain to me how antiquarks arise in proton-proton collision; must revise my quark physics!
Poster session at the meeting
All in all, a super weekend, courtesy of the Institute of Physics. Now it’s back to earth and those corrections…