Tieless in Gaza

February 7, 2013

Party at Professor P’s house last night. We were celebrating our three new appointments and bonding and stuff. Three? Well, our REF gamble is going to work, don’t you know. Of course one of those three is what our American chums call “Faculty shuffle” – or perhaps electron-hole jumping in a a semiconductor is a better analogy. Professor H went orff to Imperial; Prof L left Sussex to come here; Professor C left Cardiff to fill the hole in Sussex. Professor WT had already left Cardiff City for Preston North End, so things might get exciting in Wales.

I was a bit late because I had been gulping vino at government expense at the Scottish Parliament, where there was a reception attached to an exhibition about the Large Hadron Collider. (You can see the exhibition on Parliament TV ! Check out the “Partical Physicist”) Earlier in the day, Wommers had I understand been giving the Science and Technology Committee a pitch on how good this stuff is for the Scottish Economy. He also gave a wee speech at the reception of course, but was correctly upstaged by the (late) appearance of Peter Higgs. Yesterday I referred to Peter as being “quarter house trained” but really should have explained that Peter has  got it just right. He allows himself to be paraded around and lionised wherever this is good for science, but never loses his shyness, modesty and general nice guyness. In his speech he basically told us to be proud of the engineers who built the LHC. He did also apologise for all the work that “we theoreticians” had put them too. Wommers picked up on this but added that he wasn’t so sure about “who-ever invented supersymmetry”.

More than one person raised an eyebrow at my lack of tie at this august gathering. OK, couldn’t resist the title. Never read Milton, but a big Aldous Huxley fan. Not that I am suggesting that at the reception I was in chains and pulled down the temple and all that. Just got a few sniffy looks.  Later at Professor P’s party, Dr F said that I shouldn’t go thinking of myself as a dangerous radical, otherwise I would have worn a skirt.


Guest Post : Humble Questions

July 30, 2012

Some people have this annoying habit of starting a blog post with an embarassing statement about how they haven’t posted for a while, thus drawing unecessary attention to their failings. Well, I have absolutely no intention of mentioning… oh hang on. Bugger. Already done it. Oh. Well. Anyway. LUCKILY, old chum and intellectual sparring partner Martin Elvis has supplied me with a lovely guest post. It follows on from my previous post, and is a plea for asking answerable questions. I think its spot on – how about you ?


Humble Questions
Martin Elvis, Harvard-Smithsonian CfA

Scientists are sometimes criticized for their hubris, trying to explain the whole Universe, searching for the beginning of Time, or for the God Particle that gives mass to all things. But excuse us, that was never our intent. A feature of science, why it has been successful, is that it asks humble questions.

The alchemists famously wanted to find the Universal Solvent, or to turn Base metals into Gold. It’s good to have ambitious goals, surely. “Make no small plans”, they say. Well, no. Not if you have no idea how to achieve them. Your plans should be just as big as they need to be to answer a well-posed question. It’s too easy to ask a big question. Science began when some folks decided to ask small questions: How does a ball roll down an inclined plane? What if I pump the air out of a closed container? Being happy to get answers to these questions, led on to more questions, and those to more still. And after 400 years of one tractable question after another, we have the extraordinary questions we can ask today.

Linking these questions up with mathematics was often a good way to make the questions sharper, though not always. Some technologies – gunpowder, transparent glass, printing – made progress more rapid. And publishing our answers to these questions publicly made a huge difference. But the main point was to ask tractable questions, ones that you had an idea how to answer.

For some time I’ve felt that present day philosophers are stuck with asking the same Big Questions, and have made only as much progress as the alchemists did. But now I’m worried that Big Science has run off in the same direction. We want a Theory of Everything, but 50 years of searching has produced only tantalizing clues in 6 dimensions. We want to understand Dark Energy, the ‘anti-gravity’ that accelerates the expansion of the Big Bang. But all we know how to do is to measure that acceleration more and more precisely. So far that has produced zero insight. There are an infinite number of theories that can fit the data, and there will still be an infinite number of theories if we measure the acceleration 10 times more accurately. We will want to image the Other Earths that we expect find soon, map their continents, study their vegetation. But that needs telescopes far, far, larger than we can currently build. These are not good questions. In his Op-Ed “The ‘Nightmare Scenario’ ” James Owen Weatherall (UC Irvine) says of high energy physics: “We are faced with a struggle between the questions we want to answer and the limitations of our abilities – and at some point, perhaps soon, our limitations will win the day”.

Is there really a point at which we should say “This is too hard a question. We don’t have a clue how to answer it, or the best plan we have costs so much we couldn’t do anything else. So let’s shelve it for now. Maybe in 50 years we’ll see how to get at it.” Superconductivity remained unsolved for 50 years. No-one knew how to attack it and/or they didn’t have the technology. It’s plausible that another clue to Dark Energy will come up thanks to research in some other area of astrophysics, or elsewhere. Perhaps in 50 years we’ll be able to afford much bigger telescopes in space to image new Earths. Perhaps In solving another problem, maybe in mathematics or computing rather than physics, we may see how a Unified Theory of quantum gravity can be built. Almost certainly it won’t be the tricks that worked before. Einstein and Feynman failed. New ways of thinking are needed. They may be Outsider now, but perhaps the approaches of Robert Laughlin (“A Different Universe“) or Stephen Wolfram (“A New Kind of Science“) are what we need. What now seems a weakness, may be re-imagined as a strength. 1/3 cannot be expressed as a decimal. Is that a problem, or does it point the way to irrational numbers?

This is not a cry of despair. Weatherall is too pessimistic. Building ever bigger colliders has probably hit its limit. But we will find other ways. We’ve always made these choices. Asking what the stars were made of, even though it’s an obvious question, was left alone because there was no way to address it. Then Kirchoff and Bunsen were taking their exercise along the Philosopher’s walk in Heidelberg talking about how their new spectrograph had analyzed the composition of a fire in the nearby city of Mannheim. Bunsen half joked “Why should we not do the same with regard to the Sun?”* Moment of silence. Bingo! Now we can ask what the Sun is made of, because we can see a way to find out. This was the birth of modern astrophysics. There’s still a huge amount of science we do know how to make progress on. Modest specialized telescopes found exoplanets and Dark Energy. New ones can test quantum chromodynamics, not to mention understanding galaxies and quasars. Ongoing laboratory searches could well identify the Dark Matter. Meanwhile, we leave unanswerable aside.

The trick in science has always been to ask the right questions – not too easy, not too hard. (Imre’ Lakatos, a philosopher of science, called it being able to imagine a research program.) We do best when we see how we can go forward easily; the means of doing so may not be all that cheap, though it can be. What we do have to do is to ask humble, but not too humble, questions.

* as recounted in an anonymous article in Nature in 1902 (vol.65, p.587).


Mysteries

July 2, 2012

We are all preparing ourselves mentally, of course, for the Great Higgs Announcement on Wednesday. For those who wish to know the answer so far – have we found the Higgs or not – the answer is here. V.pithy.  If you want to know what that nice Mr Willetts thinks, try the STFC version. If you want the Bluffers Guide, try the Ben Gilliland version.

But there are deeper mysteries than the Higgs Boson ! Why is this hard hatted worker so calm in the face of a flying saucer over Edinburgh ? Or is it a kind of decapitated Dalek ? ROE entries not allowed of course.


UPDATE


Aparently we HAVE found the Higgs. Woohee !

Also, we could have saved a few billion because you can BUY one here.

Wommers was rather good on Beeb Four I thought. If I heard correctly, he seemed to say that now we have done that, its dark matter and dark energy next. Roll on Euclid ! And Boulby ?


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