Archive for the Books, Talks and Reviews Category

The State of the Universe Talk – Reminder

Posted in Biographical, Books, Talks and Reviews, Sport, Talks and Reviews, The Universe and Stuff with tags on June 21, 2021 by telescoper

Just time for a quick reminder that I’m giving a talk on Wednesday (23rd June 2021). It’s at 4pm Paris Time which is 3pm Irish Time. See my original post here.

I had a sudden sense of dread that this Colloquium might clash with the Portugal-France game in the European Championship which takes place the same day but it turns out that won’t kick off until 9pm Paris Time which means that I should just about be finished before the football starts. I don’t think even I could overrun by 4 hours! Indeed I should finish before the earlier games that day, which kick off at 5pm Paris Time…

If you want to attend the Colloquium (via Zoom) you can register for it here.

The State of the Universe Talk

Posted in Biographical, Books, Talks and Reviews, Talks and Reviews, The Universe and Stuff on April 26, 2021 by telescoper

When I saw the calibre of the other speakers in the Chalonge – De Vega Series organized by Norma Sanchez- including a number of Nobel Laureates – it was with some trepidation that I accepted the invitation to give a Colloquium, but there we are. I’m on the list. If you want to attend the Colloquium (via Zoom) you can register for it here. This series was originally named after Daniel Chalonge but was renamed to honour Hector de Vega, who sadly passed away in 2015.

I used to get invited quite often to the famous Norma Sanchez Schools and Conferences in Paris and Sicily (both Erice and Palermo) but then, about a year ago. I was suddenly stopped receiving invitations. I gather that a number of other colleagues have also been abruptly “cancelled” over the years. Anyway it seems I’m back on the list, at least virtually, possibly owing to some form of administrative error.

I remember one year in Erice at the end of a talk I gave (in the OHP/Transparency era) Norma Sanchez, who was meant to be chairing the questions and discussion started writing on my transparencies, crossing out the word “theory” and replacing it with “model”. That event made quite an impression on the audience who thought it was hilarious and people who were there often remind me of it. Coincidentally, I thought of that event when I wrote Saturday’s post. Since the forthcoming colloquium is via Zoom I think I’ll be safe from any such intervention this time.

Hawking and the Mind of God

Posted in Books, Talks and Reviews, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on March 3, 2021 by telescoper

There’s a new book out about Stephen Hawking which has triggered a certain amount of reaction (see, e.g., here) so I thought I’d mention a book I wrote, largely in response to the pseudo-religious nature of some of Hawking’s later writings.

I have in the past gone on record, both on television and in print, as being not entirely positive about the “cult” that surrounds Stephen Hawking. I think a number of my colleagues have found some of my comments disrespectful and/or churlish. I do nevertheless stand by everything I’ve said. I have enormous respect for Hawking the physicist, as well as deep admiration for his tenacity and fortitude, and have never said otherwise. I don’t, however, agree that Hawking is in the same category of revolutionary thinkers as Newton or Einstein, which is how he is often portrayed.

In fact a poll of 100 theoretical physicists in 1999 came to exactly the same conclusion. The top ten in that list were:

  1. Albert Einstein
  2. Isaac Newton
  3. James Clerk Maxwell
  4. Niels Bohr
  5. Werner Heisenberg
  6. Galileo Galilei
  7. Richard Feynman
  8. Paul Dirac
  9. Erwin Schrödinger
  10. Ernest Rutherford

The idea of a league table like this is of course a bit silly, but it does at least give some insight into the way physicists regard prominent figures in their subject. Hawking came way down the list, in fact, in 300th (equal) place. I don’t think it is disrespectful to Hawking to point this out. I’m not saying he isn’t a brilliant physicist. I’m just saying that there are a great many other brilliant physicists that no one outside physics has ever heard of.

It is interesting to speculate what would have happened if the list had been restricted to living physicists. I’d guess Hawking would be in the top ten, but I’m not at all sure where…

And before I get accused of jealousy about Stephen Hawking’s fame, let me make it absolutely clear that if Hawking was like a top Premiership footballer (which I think is an appropriate analogy), then I am definitely like someone kicking a ball around for a pub team on a Sunday morning (with a hangover). This gulf does not make me envious; it just makes me admire his ability all the more, just as trying to play football makes one realise exactly how good the top players really are.

I am not myself religious but I do think that there are many things that science does not – and probably will never – explain, such as why there is something rather than nothing. I also believe that science and religious belief are not in principle incompatible – although whether there is a conflict in practice does depend of course on the form of religious belief and how it is observed. God and physics are in my view pretty much orthogonal. To put it another way, if I were religious, there’s nothing in theoretical physics that would change make me want to change my mind. However, I’ll leave it to those many physicists who are learned in matters of theology to take up the (metaphorical) cudgels with Professor Hawking.

Anyway, this is the book I wrote:.

And here is the jacket blurb:

Stephen Hawking has achieved a unique position in contemporary culture, combining eminence in the rarefied world of theoretical physics with the popular fame usually reserved for film stars and rock musicians. Yet Hawking’s technical work is so challenging, both in its conceptual scope and in its mathematical detail, that proper understanding of its significance lies beyond the grasp of all but a few specialists. How, then, did Hawking-the-scientist become Hawking-the-icon? Hawking’s theories often take him into the intellectual territory that has traditionally been the province of religion rather than science. He acknowledges this explicitly in the closing sentence of his bestseller, A Brief History of Time , where he says that his ultimate aim is to know the Mind of God . Hawking and the Mind of God examines the pseudo-religious connotations of some of the key themes in Hawking’s work, and how these shed light not only on the Hawking cult itself, but also on the wider issue of how scientists represent themselves in the media.

I’m sure you’ll understand that there isn’t a hint of opportunism in the way I’m drawing this to your attention because my book is long out of print so you can’t buy it unless you get a copy second-hand…

Diversity in Physics – LGBTQ+ STEMDay

Posted in Biographical, Books, Talks and Reviews, Cardiff, LGBT with tags , , , , on November 14, 2020 by telescoper

The nice people involved with Physics at Cardiff University, Prism Exeter and the GW4 group generally have organized a (virtual) event to celebrate Diversity and Inclusion for LGBTQ+ STEM Day 2020 which is to take place on November 18th (that’s next Wednesday). I’m very honoured to have been invited to give a keynote talk at this event, the poster for which is below, and am looking forward to it.

There’s a blog post here that gives more information about the event, including how to register in order to receive the Zoom connection.

I won’t be able to stay for the whole event as I am teaching later that day. I’d have been particularly interested in the session on Open Science…

That was the Science Week that was..

Posted in Books, Talks and Reviews, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on November 15, 2019 by telescoper

So, as advertised, this morning I gave a talk mainly to school students as part of Science Week Ireland on the subject of the cosmic web. This was a similar talk to the one I gave at DIAS a couple of weeks ago.


There was a slight confusion about rooms but we did eventually get everyone into the right lecture theatre and weren’t too late getting started. The audience was about 140, so the room was very full and most of them didn’t fall asleep. I had a nice chat afterwards with a group of them and they seemed to have enjoyed it. Anyway, in case anyone is interested here are my slides. Most of them are recycled from previous versions of this talk.

Following this morning’s exertions we had lovely seminar after lunch by Wyn Evans of Cambridge about the stellar dynamics of the Milky Way and the wonders of Gaia and soon will be going to dinner.

The Cosmic Web in Maynooth

Posted in Books, Talks and Reviews, Talks and Reviews, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on November 5, 2019 by telescoper

Next week (10th to 17th November) in Ireland is Science Week and this will be celebrated by a number of events here in Maynooth, among which is a talk by yours truly on 15th November:

Here is a short description:

How can we map the distribution of galaxies over thousands of millions of light years? What does the Universe look like on these scales? How did get to look like that? And how do we know?This talk will explain how astronomers and cosmologists have come together over the past couple of decades to make huge surveys of the Universe, revealing the existence of a complex but beautiful `Cosmic Web’ with vast chains of galaxies strung out around immense dark voids. These observational breakthroughs have been mirrored by advances in theory and computer simulation that allow us to understand how this amazing structure was born 14 billion years ago in the Big Bang and has been growing and evolving ever since. Free and open to TY, 5th and 6th year students, this talk will be of particular interest in those interested astronomy, space, physics and the Universe itself!

It is on in the morning to make it possible for school students to attend and the talk is adapted to this audience, so it won’t be the same as the one I gave in Dublin last week. The timing seems to have worked because the lecture theatre has over 200 seats in it but is already almost full. There are still a few places available so if you’re in the area you can book here.



The Cosmic Web at DIAS

Posted in Books, Talks and Reviews, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on November 1, 2019 by telescoper

Yesterday evening found me at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, complete with scary Hallowe’en beard, to give a talk.

Picture Credit: Prof. Luke Drury

It was a nice friendly audience and we had a lot of interesting discussions afterwards. As usual on such occasions I’ve put up the slides in case anyone wants to see them:

After the talk I headed back to Maynooth. It was a very rainy night, but at least some of the fireworks were going off despite the potential for damp squibs.

Dark Matter Day at DIAS

Posted in Books, Talks and Reviews, Talks and Reviews, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on October 7, 2019 by telescoper

Just a quick post to mention that I’m giving a public talk at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS) on Dark Matter Day, October 31st 2019, coincidentally the same day as Halloween. I am particularly grateful to be invited to give a talk that evening because it allows me to avoid getting involved in trick-or-treat or any of that nonsense.

Here is the nice advert the people at DIAS have made for the event:

The talk is free, but you need to sign up here as the venue is not infinitely large. You can also find some more details about the talk there.

Found in Translation…

Posted in Books, Books, Talks and Reviews, Maynooth with tags , on August 7, 2019 by telescoper

Here I am, back in Maynooth, after taking the early flight back to Dublin from rainy Cardiff. By way of a gentle re-introduction to the habit of blogging after a gap of a week or so I thought I’d mention something I discovered when I returned:

This pleasant surprise was a package from Oxford University Press containing five copies of the new Turkish edition of my book  Cosmology: A Very Short Introduction.I don’t know if there are any staff or students in Maynooth who (a) can read Turkish and (b) are interested in cosmology but if there are please contact me and you can have a copy!

(I’m particularly intrigued by how the first two words of the sub-title are to be pronounced…)

Anyway, I thought it would be nice to show some of the other translations of this book. This one is in Arabic. I was a bit confused when I first saw this edition, because books in Arabic open the opposite way to books in English, as Arabic is read from right to left rather than from left to right.


The following are in Korean, Bulgarian, Bosnian, Dutch and Czech, respectively:






Anyway, I’m due to finish the 2nd Edition  – which will be a completely new book rather than an update – by the end of next month so hopefully there will be translations of the new version in due course!

The Observer and the Eclipse

Posted in Books, Talks and Reviews, History, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on May 12, 2019 by telescoper

Not surprisingly, given that the centenary is fast approaching, pieces are appearing in the mainstream media about the 1919 Eclipse Expeditions that first measured the deflection of light by the Sun’s gravitational field. One such article, by Robin McKie, appears in today’s Observer. It’s a nice piece, though it concentrates almost entirely on Eddington’s measurements taken at Principe. In fact it was Crommelin’s measurements from Sobral that proved decisive.

Anyway, the article gives me a (very brief) mention courtesy of the piece I wrote in Nature a few weeks ago:

For many years at Cardiff I ran an undergraduate project in which the students had to reanalyze the measurements from the eclipse expeditions. That is possible because all the necessary star positions are tabulated in the paper by Dyson et al. (1920). It is undoubtedly the case that Eddington had to improvise a bit because of the unexpected problems that arose in the field, but this is actually quite normal. As a famous general put it `No plan of battle survives first contact with the enemy’. I remain convinced that Eddington didn’t do anything dodgy, but you don’t have to take my word for it: if you don’t believe me then go ahead and look at the data yourself! At the very least you will then understand what a difficult experiment this was!