I spent most of the bank holiday weekend at a conference in beautiful Castletown House in County Kildare. Castletown House is well-known as a venue for classical music concerts but I had never been there for a conference before!
Castletown House in Co. Kildare
The conference was Irish Quantum Foundations, this year’s meeting of the Irish Quantum Field Group. Organised by Eoin O’Colgain of the University of Oviedo in conjunction with theoretical physicists at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, the National University of Ireland, Maynooth and Trinity College Dublin, it was most enjoyable. Of course, I’m not a quantum theorist (or any other sort of theorist) but as well as many talks on quantum field theory and string theory, there were seminars on recent advances in experimental particle physics and cosmology. You can find the programme and abstracts here – highlights for me were a seminar on the recent results from the Planck satellite by Steven Gratton of Cambridge University and a talk on recent studies of the internal structure of the proton at LHCb by Ronan McNulty of University College Dublin.
The conference also featured a public science lecture on the Higgs boson by Peter Higgs of Edinburgh University. Yes, the man himself! Peter’s visit to Ireland received quite bit of media attention and his lecture certainly didn’t disappoint. About 400 young people turned up in Maynooth University late on Friday afternoon to hear him describe how his work in quantum theory led him postulate the existence of the Higgs boson in 1964. Younger colleagues from Edinburgh then described the successful search for the Higgs at the Large Hadron Collider and how the discovery fits into modern physics. It was a very enjoyable outreach event and I think the point, that what once seemed an abstruse piece of theoretical physics went on to become a major lynchpin of modern physics , was well-made. A nice touch was that Professor Higgs was introduced by Dr Brian Dolan, a quantum theorist at Maynooth who informed the assembled students and visitors that he had studied under Higgs as a student at at Edinburgh!
Peter Higgs being congratulated by Dr Fabiola Gianotti of the ATLAS experiment at CERN , on the day of the announcement of the discovery of a Higgs-like particle at the LHC
The last talk of the conference was a memorial lecture in honour of my father, Lochlainn O’Raifeartaigh. The lecture was given by Professor Nathan Seiberg of the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton, a very appropriate choice – Nathan is a world-renowned figure in quantum field theory and string theory, particularly for his work in supersymmetry. This work is closely related to that of Lochlainn, in fact several of my father’s last papers were on the Seiberg-Witten model. Nathan gave a superb overview of some new advances in supersymmetry, carefully drawing out the connections between his own work and that of Lochlainn in many instances. Dad always said that he thought his work on supersymmetry breaking was probably his best and it’s good to know that scientific work can live on, just as music and literature do.
At question time, I asked Nathan about his thoughts on the lack of evidence for supersymmetry at the LHC so far (a lack of evidence that is leading some commentators to declare supersymmerty dead in the water). Like so many theorists, he had a very general overview:
“Even if supersymmetry is not realized in the energy range explored by the LHC, it is still and will always be important. The impact of supersymmetry on theoretical physics and on mathematics has already been huge and it will continue to be essential…there are many parallels with other theoretical ideas that did not solve the problems they were designed to solve but turned out to be crucial in other contexts.”
Of course this is true – gauge theory in particular is full of examples of advances that seemed to run into a wall, and were later found to be extremely important in other contexts. (Yang-Mills theory is a good example).
All in all, a superb conference – photos will be available on the conference website soon.
I had a very nice conversation with Peter Higgs on Friday about Lochlainn, he remembered him well and was very complimentary about his work. He also pointed out that Irish students, physicists and engineers were losing out by Ireland’s non-membership of CERN, a point he also made on national TV (see link here, the interview is 20 mins in). I got my photo taken with Peter, but it came out looking like Jackson Pollock painting!