Archive for Martin Rees

Cranks Anonymous

Posted in Biographical, Books, Talks and Reviews, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on September 22, 2009 by telescoper

Sean Carroll, blogger-in-chief at Cosmic Variance, has ventured abroad from his palatial Californian residence and is currently slumming it in a little town called Oxford where he is attending a small conference in celebration of the 70th birthday of George Ellis. In fact he’s been posting regular live commentaries on the proceedings which I’ve been following with great interest. It looks an interesting and unusual meeting because it involves both physicists and philosophers and it is based around a series of debates on topics of current interest. See Sean’s posts here, here and here for expert summaries of the three days of the meeting.

Today’s dispatches included an account of George’s own talk which appears to have involved delivering a polemic against the multiverse, something he has been known to do from time to time. I posted something on it myself, in fact. I don’t think I’m as fundamentally opposed as Geroge to the idea that we might live in a bit of space-time that may belong to some sort of larger collection in which other bits have different properties, but it does bother me how many physicists talk about the multiverse as if it were an established fact. There certainly isn’t any observational evidence that this is true and the theoretical arguments usually advanced are far from rigorous.The multiverse certainly is  a fun thing to think about, I just don’t think it’s really needed.

There is one red herring that regularly floats into arguments about the multiverse, and that concerns testability. Different bits of the multiverse can’t be observed directly by an observer in a particular place, so it is often said that the idea isn’t testable. I don’t think that’s the right way to look at it. If there is a compelling physical theory that can account convincingly for a realised multiverse then that theory really should have other necessary consequences that are testable, otherwise there’s no point. Test the theory in some other way and you test whether the  multiverse emanating from it is sound too.

However, that fairly obvious statement isn’t really the point of this piece. As I was reading Sean’s blog post for today you could have knocked me down with a feather when I saw my name crop up:

Orthodoxy is based on the beliefs held by elites. Consider the story of Peter Coles, who tried to claim back in the 1990’s that the matter density was only 30% of the critical density. He was threatened by a cosmological bigwig, who told him he’d be regarded as a crank if he kept it up. On a related note, we have to admit that even scientists base beliefs on philosophical agendas and rationalize after the fact. That’s often what’s going on when scientists invoke “beauty” as a criterion.

George was actually talking about a paper we co-wrote for Nature in which we went through the different arguments that had been used to estimate the average density of matter in the Universe, tried to weigh up which were the more reliable, and came to the conclusion that the answer was in the range 20 to 40 percent of the critical density. There was a considerable theoretical prejudice at the time, especially from adherents of  inflation, that the density should be very close to the critical value, so we were running against the crowd to some extent. I remember we got quite a lot of press coverage at the time and I was invited to go on Radio 4 to talk about it, so it was an interesting period for me. Working with George was a tremendous experience too.

I won’t name the “bigwig” George referred to, although I will say it was a theorist; it’s more fun for those working in the field to guess for themselves! Opinions among other astronomers and physicists were divided. One prominent observational cosmologist was furious that we had criticized his work (which had yielded a high value of the density). On the other hand, Martin Rees (now “Lord” but then just plain “Sir”) said that he thought we were pushing at an open door and was surprised at the fuss.

Later on, in 1996, we expanded the article into a book in which we covered the ground more deeply but came to the same conclusion as before.  The book and the article it was based on are now both very dated because of the huge advances in observational cosmology over the last decade. However, the intervening years have shown that we were right in our assessment: the standard cosmology has about 30% of the critical density.

Of course there was one major thing we didn’t anticipate which was the discovery in the late 1990s of dark energy which, to be fair, had been suggested by others more prescient than us as early as 1990. You can’t win ’em all.

So that’s the story of my emergence as a crank, a title to which I’ve tried my utmost to do justice since then. Actually, I would have liked to have had the chance to go to George’s meeting in Oxford, primarily to greet my ertswhile collaborator whom I haven’t seen for ages. But it was invitation-only. I can’t work out whether these days I’m too cranky or not cranky enough to get to go to such things. Looking at the reports of the talks, I rather think it could be the latter.

Now, anyone care to risk the libel laws and guess who Professor BigWig was?

Budget Boost?

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , on April 19, 2009 by telescoper

This Wednesday (22nd April 2009) the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling, will deliver the UK government’s budget for this year. The background is of course the economic recession and the consequent collapse of our public finances. The government will have to borrow an estimated £175 billion over the next year, and it likely that taxes will eventually have to rise considerably to balance the books in the longer term.

Rumours are abounding about what will be in the budget and what won’t. According to today’s Observer, the centrepiece is likely to be a £50 billion scheme to revitalize the housing market.  If this is the case then I think it’s a mistake. Our economy has been run for too long on the basis of money raised from inflated property valuations, and we need to take this opportunity to change to a more sustainable way of running the country. Other schemes that may emerge include a £2 billion scheme to help unemployed young people which is a better idea, but much of it would probably be wasted in bureaucracy rather than doing real good.

My own attention will be focussed on whether there is anything in Alistair Darling’s speech that indicates some help for science, particularly fundamental science like physics and astronomy. In yesterday’s Guardian the Astronomer Royal and President of the Royal Society, Lord Martin Rees argued  for an injection of cash to stimulate science and innovation. About a month ago the BBC reported on efforts by Ministers to convince the treasury of the benefit of a £1 billion stimulus package for science along these lines. However, even if the powers that be listen to this argument (which is, in my view, unlikely), any increase in science funding would not necessarily be directed towards fundamental physics. I think if there isn’t anything for those of us working in astronomy in this budget, then we’re completely screwed.

I believe the funding crisis at the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC) was precipitated by a conscious government decision to move funds away from blue skies research and into more applied, technology driven areas.  The 2007 Comprehensive Spending Review was extremely tough on STFC but quite generous to some other agencies.  Moreover, within STFC itself there seems to be a shift from science-driven to technology-driven projects,  signalled by the cancellation of projects such as Clover to save a couple of million, and the allocation of funds to projects such as Moonlite which is devoid of any scientific interest and which could end up costing as much as £150 million over the next five years or so.

The true depth of the ongoing STFC crisis is only gradually becoming apparent. It was bad enough to start with, but has been exacerbated by the fall in value of sterling against the euro since 2007 which has meant that the cost of subscriptions to CERN, ESA and ESO have risen dramatically (by about 40%). These form such a large part of STFC’s expenditure – the CERN subscription alone is £70m out of a total budget of around £800m – that it cannot absorb the increased cost and it is now looking to make swingeing cuts on top of the 25% cut in research grants already implemented.

News emerged last week that STFC has abandoned plans to fund any R&D grants for ESA’s Cosmic Vision programme, and there are dark rumours circulating that it is considering cancelling all astronomy grants this year as well as clawing back money already given to universities in previous rounds. I hope these are not true, but I fear the worst.

Cuts on this scale would be devastating, demoralising, and I honestly think would destroy the United Kingdom as a place to do astronomy. They would also signal a complete breakdown of trust between scientists and the research council that is supposed to support them, if that hadn’t happened already.

Incidentally it is noticeable that STFC hasn’t bothered to report any of these matters publically through its website. Instead, the lead story on the STFC news page is about a visit by Prince Andrew to the Rutherford Appleton Lab. No sign yet, then, of the promised improvement in communication between the STFC Executive and its community.

The way I see it, the urgent issue is not whether we get a stimulus package , but whether we even get the bit of sticking plaster that is needed to  saves physics and astronomy from utter ruin. The cost would be a small fraction of the billions lavished on profligate bankers, but I’m not at all sure that the government either appreciates or cares about the scale of the problem.

Anyway, coincidentally, next week sees the Royal Astronomical Society’s National Astronomy Meeting (NAM), which is this year held jointly with the European Astronomical Society’s JENAM at the University of Hertfordshire. I won’t be going because it has unfortunately been organized in term time apparently because European astronomers refuse to attend meetings in the vacations, at least if they’re in places like Hatfield.  STFC representatives  have been invited; it remains to be seen what, if anything, they will have to say.