The Best of Times

Well, I made it to Pisa Airport in time to sample the Club Europe lounge, which offers free wifi access (as well as other luxuries).  It seems I have a bit of time before my flight so thought I’d do a quick post about this morning’s events. I had the honour to be asked, along with Rocky Kolb, to deliver the concluding remarks for the meeting I’ve been at since Monday. Rocky and I had a quick discussion yesterday about what we should do and we agreed that we shouldn’t try to do a conventional “summary” of the workshop, but instead try something different. In the end we turned to Charles Dickens for inspiration and based the closing remarks on the following text:

IT WAS the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…

This is of course part of the famous opening paragraph of Book 1 of A Tale of Two Cities.

The idea was to use the text to discuss different perspectives on the state of the Universe, or at least of cosmology. For example, the fact that we now have huge amounts of cosmological data might lead you to view that this is the  “the best of times” for cosmology. On the other hand, this has made life much harder for theorists as everything is now so heavily constrained that it is much more difficult to generate viable alternative models than it was thirty years ago.  We also now have a standard cosmological model which some physicists believe in very strongly, whereas others are much more skeptical.  This the “epoch of belief” for some but the “epoch of incredulity” for others. Now that the field is dominated by large collaborations in which it is hard for younger researchers to establish themselves, is this a “winter of despair” or do the opportunities presented by the new era of cosmology offer a “spring of hope”.

I haven’t got time to summarize all the points that came up, but it was fun acting as a “feed” for Rocky who had a stream of amusing and insightful comments. There aren’t any “right” or “wrong” answers of course, but it seemed to be an interesting way to get people thinking about where on the “best of times/worst of times” axis they would position themselves.

My own opinion is that cosmology has changed since I started (thirty years ago) and the challenges by the current generation are different from, and in many ways tougher than, those faced by my generation, who were lucky to have been able to learn quite a lot using relatively simple ideas and techniques. Now most of the “easy” stuff has been done, but solving difficult puzzles is immensely rewarding not only for the scientific insights the answers reveal, but also for their own sake. The time to despair about a field is not when it gets tough, but when it stops being fun. I’m glad to say we’re a long way from that situation in cosmology.


3 Responses to “The Best of Times”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    How can you give objective criteria for when a field of science stops being fun? Surely that’s up to each individual?

    I do think that cosmology has the appearance of a field of science some time before a new “paradigm” appears. Interesting times ahead! But nobody knows how far ahead…

    • telescoper Says:

      You can’t give an objective criterion. It’s up to am individual what is fun. Some people even enjoy chemistry! My point was more that when you stop thinking that your research is fun, it’s probably time to do something else..

  2. Phillip Helbig Says:

    “I haven’t got time to summarize all the points that came up, but it was fun acting as a “feed” for Rocky who had a stream of amusing and insightful comments.”

    A new double act? Not long ago, you mused on what you might do when your term as Head of School is up. 🙂

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