, , , ,

I know, I know, I started this as a blog about palaeoart and already we’ve deviated a lot. I haven’t lost my way, though – I just had to share this.

Tonight I attended Science in the Pub. The last one I caught was so good and the subject material this month (symmetry & quantum physics) was so weird I defy anyone to find it dull. I admit at the outset that a large portion of this stuff completely eludes me but I have this overwhelming urge to try to understand.

The speaker was Dr John Hamilton – he did very well despite his nerves. We didn’t make him nervous – Dr Jordan Nash, co-discoverer of the Higgs boson, did. Dr Hamilton started with a curious caveat: he wasn’t going to talk much about string theory or gravity (although he did describe gravity in some very interesting ways later).

What followed was a whistle-stop tour of Group Theory, Noether’s Theorem, Internal Symmetry, Gauge Symmetry, and a shout out to Maxwell’s Equation.

Highlights include (do let me know if I misquoted):

  • “If the forces were a cladogram, with Electromagnetism being Humans, Weak nuclear being another ape and Strong nuclear being a reptile, gravity is a Martian
  • “Strong nuclear force is bat-shit crazy”
  • “You can’t just put ‘dark’ at the beginning of something and pretend you understand it”
  • in describing the effect of Higgs: “the photon is Hans Solo – going alone without the force”
  • “Trying to get the LHC to test quantum gravity is like trying to understand weak nuclear force by watching a football match”
  • Not sure the conjunction of string theory and the anthropic principle to explain our being here is particularly healthy, or even science.
  • “Predictions made by Super Symmetry constantly being disproved… but you may never hear the last of it” (I wonder if people said the same about the Ether)

I also appreciated his introduction of the people involved in the history of the science: just as a great storyteller such as Bill Bryson can take the names we know so well and weave a tale with them so that you actively want to find out more about them (or avoid them like the plague), so too did Hamilton in his introduction of Évariste Galois (presented his Group Theory the day before a duel to the death that he lost) and Amelie Emmy Noether (was brought into the teaching profession covertly by Hilbert amid stern opposition. Details like this aren’t irrelevant to the subject material – they serve to remind us of the humanity involved in science: that Planck is not just the name of a constant but also a man who overcame the tragic deaths of at least 3 of his children (two during labour, one executed by the Nazis) and the loss of all his research to Allied fire. Science does not require a person to have any sort of character – positive or negative – and there are plenty of examples of both. We, the science-engaging public, are only human. Very few of us are lucky enough to have a brain that can maintain name, place, date figures by their own merit and we retain much more when we learn that the pioneers of our modern understanding of science were only human too.

To round off the event, we demonstrated one thing conclusively: that there is a direct inverse correlation between the amount of alcohol consumed and the scientist’s ability to catch a spinning coin:

Paolo's mum searching for dark matter