Archive for the Books, Talks and Reviews Category

For the sake of a seminar..

Posted in Biographical, Books, Talks and Reviews, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on January 17, 2014 by telescoper

Just a quick post while I drink my morning coffee. Yesterday afternoon I gave a seminar here in the Kobayashi-Maskawa Institute at Nagoya University. It was actually at 5pm; I almost made a mistake when I saw it on the the high-tech digital display screen shown here (see top right) because I thought that 16 meant 1600 hours:

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Although I’ve got used to the time difference pretty well, I am still struggling to work out what day it is. The 16 stands for 16th January of course…

Anyway, it seemed to go fairly well and was pretty well attended by the students and postdocs as well as faculty. The lecture theatre was extremely well equipped with AV equipment and I got distracted quite often playing with the various gadgets. Also there were two projector screens, side by side, so the audience got my slides in stereo, so to speak.

In case you’re interested, here are the slides from my talk – complete with artistic flourishes:

For the cosmologists among you, the main protagonists here are Naoshi Sugiyama, who has a joint appointment here and at the Kavli Institute in Tokyo, Takahiko Matsubara, and Chiaki Hikage. The latter was a postdoc working with me at Nottingham and Cardiff; he then worked in Princeton before returning to Japan; Chiaki has been my host during my stay here.

After my talk, and a question-and-answer session, the staff treated me to dinner. We had some discussion about where to go during which I mentioned that I’d seen a place called Hamakin, which claimed to be a Japanese-Italian restaurant:

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I wasn’t convinced by the concept but it turned out that, although it was a new place, Takahiko had been there before and thought it was very good. We ended up there and, much to my surprise, it was excellent. It was a lot more Japanese than Italian, I have to say, but we did try an interesting take on pizza with cod roe as part of the topping. They had an English menu, with some curious choices of English words. I wasn’t really tempted by “Economic Steak”, and “Cod Ovum” suggested, by use of the Latin singular of “egg”, an extremely small portion. I still don’t know what “pastured chicken” is, either.

As a special treat some sake from a bamboo container was served for me in a bamboo cup; the bamboo is supposed to make it taste nicer but I wasn’t able to discern a difference between the special sake and normal sake. I clearly don’t have a sufficiently cultivated palate. Apologies for the pun in the title of the post too!

Today, Friday, is the last working day of my visit so I’d better get on and finish what I’m here to do because there’s another seminar this afternoon which I’d like to attend. Tomorrow, if I can get myself organized, I might take a trip on the bullet train for a day’s sightseeing in Kyoto, which I am told is a must-see city.

Toodle-pip!

Physics World Plug

Posted in Books, Talks and Reviews, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on January 7, 2014 by telescoper

Just time for a quick bit of shameless self-promotion. This month’s Edition of Physics World has an article by me as cover feature. Here’s a sneak preview, but to read the whole thing you’ll have to rush out and buy a copy! Alternatively, you can find it online here.

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Book Review: Cosmology: A Very Short Introduction by Peter Coles

Posted in Books, Talks and Reviews with tags , on January 4, 2014 by telescoper

telescoper:

Here’s a review of my book “Cosmology: A Very Short Introduction” that I found a couple of days ago. I’m reposting as an excuse to remind folk that a new edition will be out later this year, or as soon as I’ve finished writing it, because my proposal has been formally approved by Oxford University Press.

Originally posted on The Alethiophile:

It is rare for me to walk into a bookshop and walk out again without buying at least one book; more often than not, it’s two or three at a time. This was one I picked up in the summer when I went to visit the royal observatory and national maritime museum in Greenwich, as there was an exhibition on at the latter which was on the subject of cosmology. There were various options open, though I chose not to get the enormous hardback book full of images from the Hubble space telescope.

For those of you who are unaware, I studied maths at university, with a particular emphasis on mathematical physics. In my first year, I took a free elective module in cosmology. So while I do review this book as an expert in the field, I do review it as an informed and educated amateur.

Of all branches…

View original 1,172 more words

The Cosmic Web at Sussex

Posted in Books, Talks and Reviews, The Universe and Stuff with tags , on December 10, 2013 by telescoper

Yesterday I had the honour of giving an evening lecture for staff and students at the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex. The event was preceded by a bit of impromptu twilight stargazing with the new telescope our students have just purchased:

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You can just about see Venus in the second picture, just to the left of the street light.

Anyway, after briefly pretending to be a proper astronomer it was down to my regular business as a cosmologist and my talk entitled The Cosmic Web. Here is the abstract:

The lecture will focus on the large-scale structure of the Universe and the ideas that physicists are weaving together to explain how it came to be the way it is. Over the last few decades, astronomers have revealed that our cosmos is not only vast in scale – at least 14 billion light years in radius – but also exceedingly complex, with galaxies and clusters of galaxies linked together in immense chains and sheets, surrounding giant voids of (apparently) empty space. Cosmologists have developed theoretical explanations for its origin that involve such exotic concepts as ‘dark matter’ and ‘cosmic inflation’, producing a cosmic web of ideas that is, in some ways, as rich and fascinating as the Universe itself.

And for those of you interested, here are the slides I used for your perusal:

It was quite a large (and  very mixed) audience; it’s always difficult to pitch a talk at the right level in those circumstances so that it’s not too boring for the people who know something already but not too challenging for those who don’t know anything at all. A couple of people walked out about five minutes into the talk, which doesn’t exactly inspire a speaker with confidence, but overall it seemed to go down quite well.

Most of all, thank you to the organizers for the very nice reward of a bottle of wine!

Updates for Cosmology: A Very Short Introduction?

Posted in Books, Talks and Reviews, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on October 21, 2013 by telescoper

Yet another very busy day, travelling in the morning and then in meetings all afternoon, so just time for another brief post. I thought I’d take the opportunity to do a little bit of crowdsourcing…

A few days ago I was contacted by Oxford University Press who are apparently considering the possibility of a second edition of my little book Cosmology: A Very Short Introduction, which is part of an extensive series of intensive books on all kinds of subjects.

I really enjoyed writing this book, despite the tough challenge of trying to cover the whole of cosmology in less than 35,000 words and was very pleased with the way it turned out. It has sold over 25000 copies in English and has been published in several other languages.

It is meant to be accessible to the interested layperson but the constraints imposed by the format mean it goes fairly quickly through some quite difficult concepts. Judging by the reviews, though, most people seem to think it gives a useful introduction to the subject, although you can’t please all of the people all of the time!

However, the book was published way back in 2001 and, well, one or two things have happened in the field of cosmology since then.  I have in fact had a number of emails from people asking whether there was going to be a new edition to include the latest developments, but the book is part of a very large series and it was basically up to the publisher to decide whether it wanted to update some, all or none of the series.

Now it seems the powers that be at OUP have decided to explore the possibility further and have asked me to make a pitch for a new edition.  I have some ideas of things that would have to be revised – the section on Dark Energy definitely needs to be updated, and of course first WMAP and then Planck have refined our view of the cosmic microwave background pretty comprehensively?

Anyway, I thought it would be fun to ask people out there who have read it, or even those who haven’t, what they feel I should change for a new edition if there is to be one. That might include new topics or revisions of things that could be improved. Your comments are therefore invited via the famous Comments Box. Please bear in mind that any new edition will be also constrained to be no more than 35,000 words.

Oh, and if you haven’t seen the First Edition at all, why not rush out and buy a copy before it’s too late? I understand you can snap up a copy for just £3 while stocks last. I can assure you all the royalties will go to an excellent cause. Me.

Science, Religion and Henry Gee

Posted in Bad Statistics, Books, Talks and Reviews, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 23, 2013 by telescoper

Last week a piece appeared on the Grauniad website by Henry Gee who is a Senior Editor at the magazine Nature.  I was prepared to get a bit snarky about the article when I saw the title, as it reminded me of an old  rant about science being just a kind of religion by Simon Jenkins that got me quite annoyed a few years ago. Henry Gee’s article, however, is actually rather more coherent than that and  not really deserving of some of the invective being flung at it.

For example, here’s an excerpt that I almost agree with:

One thing that never gets emphasised enough in science, or in schools, or anywhere else, is that no matter how fancy-schmancy your statistical technique, the output is always a probability level (a P-value), the “significance” of which is left for you to judge – based on nothing more concrete or substantive than a feeling, based on the imponderables of personal or shared experience. Statistics, and therefore science, can only advise on probability – they cannot determine The Truth. And Truth, with a capital T, is forever just beyond one’s grasp.

I’ve made the point on this blog many times that, although statistical reasoning lies at the heart of the scientific method, we don’t do anywhere near enough  to teach students how to use probability properly; nor do scientists do enough to explain the uncertainties in their results to decision makers and the general public.  I also agree with the concluding thought, that science isn’t about absolute truths. Unfortunately, Gee undermines his credibility by equating statistical reasoning with p-values which, in my opinion, are a frequentist aberration that contributes greatly to the public misunderstanding of science. Worse, he even gets the wrong statistics wrong…

But the main thing that bothers me about Gee’s article is that he blames scientists for promulgating the myth of “science-as-religion”. I don’t think that’s fair at all. Most scientists I know are perfectly well aware of the limitations of what they do. It’s really the media that want to portray everything in simple black and white terms. Some scientists play along, of course, as I comment upon below, but most of us are not priests but pragmatatists.

Anyway, this episode gives me the excuse to point out  that I ended a book I wrote in 1998 with a discussion of the image of science as a kind of priesthood which it seems apt to repeat here. The book was about the famous eclipse expedition of 1919 that provided some degree of experimental confirmation of Einstein’s general theory of relativity and which I blogged about at some length last year, on its 90th anniversary.

I decided to post the last few paragraphs here to show that I do think there is a valuable point to be made out of the scientist-as-priest idea. It’s to do with the responsibility scientists have to be honest about the limitations of their research and the uncertainties that surround any new discovery. Science has done great things for humanity, but it is fallible. Too many scientists are too certain about things that are far from proven. This can be damaging to science itself, as well as to the public perception of it. Bandwagons proliferate, stifling original ideas and leading to the construction of self-serving cartels. This is a fertile environment for conspiracy theories to flourish.

To my mind the thing  that really separates science from religion is that science is an investigative process, not a collection of truths. Each answer simply opens up more questions.  The public tends to see science as a collection of “facts” rather than a process of investigation. The scientific method has taught us a great deal about the way our Universe works, not through the exercise of blind faith but through the painstaking interplay of theory, experiment and observation.

This is what I wrote in 1998:

Science does not deal with ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’. It deals instead with descriptions of reality that are either ‘useful’ or ‘not useful’. Newton’s theory of gravity was not shown to be ‘wrong’ by the eclipse expedition. It was merely shown that there were some phenomena it could not describe, and for which a more sophisticated theory was required. But Newton’s theory still yields perfectly reliable predictions in many situations, including, for example, the timing of total solar eclipses. When a theory is shown to be useful in a wide range of situations, it becomes part of our standard model of the world. But this doesn’t make it true, because we will never know whether future experiments may supersede it. It may well be the case that physical situations will be found where general relativity is supplanted by another theory of gravity. Indeed, physicists already know that Einstein’s theory breaks down when matter is so dense that quantum effects become important. Einstein himself realised that this would probably happen to his theory.

Putting together the material for this book, I was struck by the many parallels between the events of 1919 and coverage of similar topics in the newspapers of 1999. One of the hot topics for the media in January 1999, for example, has been the discovery by an international team of astronomers that distant exploding stars called supernovae are much fainter than had been predicted. To cut a long story short, this means that these objects are thought to be much further away than expected. The inference then is that not only is the Universe expanding, but it is doing so at a faster and faster rate as time passes. In other words, the Universe is accelerating. The only way that modern theories can account for this acceleration is to suggest that there is an additional source of energy pervading the very vacuum of space. These observations therefore hold profound implications for fundamental physics.

As always seems to be the case, the press present these observations as bald facts. As an astrophysicist, I know very well that they are far from unchallenged by the astronomical community. Lively debates about these results occur regularly at scientific meetings, and their status is far from established. In fact, only a year or two ago, precisely the same team was arguing for exactly the opposite conclusion based on their earlier data. But the media don’t seem to like representing science the way it actually is, as an arena in which ideas are vigorously debated and each result is presented with caveats and careful analysis of possible error. They prefer instead to portray scientists as priests, laying down the law without equivocation. The more esoteric the theory, the further it is beyond the grasp of the non-specialist, the more exalted is the priest. It is not that the public want to know – they want not to know but to believe.

Things seem to have been the same in 1919. Although the results from Sobral and Principe had then not received independent confirmation from other experiments, just as the new supernova experiments have not, they were still presented to the public at large as being definitive proof of something very profound. That the eclipse measurements later received confirmation is not the point. This kind of reporting can elevate scientists, at least temporarily, to the priesthood, but does nothing to bridge the ever-widening gap between what scientists do and what the public think they do.

As we enter a new Millennium, science continues to expand into areas still further beyond the comprehension of the general public. Particle physicists want to understand the structure of matter on tinier and tinier scales of length and time. Astronomers want to know how stars, galaxies  and life itself came into being. But not only is the theoretical ambition of science getting bigger. Experimental tests of modern particle theories require methods capable of probing objects a tiny fraction of the size of the nucleus of an atom. With devices such as the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers can gather light that comes from sources so distant that it has taken most of the age of the Universe to reach us from them. But extending these experimental methods still further will require yet more money to be spent. At the same time that science reaches further and further beyond the general public, the more it relies on their taxes.

Many modern scientists themselves play a dangerous game with the truth, pushing their results one-sidedly into the media as part of the cut-throat battle for a share of scarce research funding. There may be short-term rewards, in grants and TV appearances, but in the long run the impact on the relationship between science and society can only be bad. The public responded to Einstein with unqualified admiration, but Big Science later gave the world nuclear weapons. The distorted image of scientist-as-priest is likely to lead only to alienation and further loss of public respect. Science is not a religion, and should not pretend to be one.

PS. You will note that I was voicing doubts about the interpretation of the early results from supernovae  in 1998 that suggested the universe might be accelerating and that dark energy might be the reason for its behaviour. Although more evidence supporting this interpretation has since emerged from WMAP and other sources, I remain sceptical that we cosmologists are on the right track about this. Don’t get me wrong – I think the standard cosmological model is the best working hypothesis we have _ I just think we’re probably missing some important pieces of the puzzle. I don’t apologise for that. I think sceptical is what a scientist should be.

Publication Vanity

Posted in Books, Talks and Reviews, The Universe and Stuff with tags on September 7, 2013 by telescoper

Doing a spot of tidying up I came across this little cutting of a little review (from the Grauniad) of my little book on Cosmology. It’s sheer vanity to keep such things of course, let alone post them on a blog, but it can’t do the sales any harm either!

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