Glasgow · Science

A week of talks

This week was a busy week and was filled with talks. I’m not sure why but these things do seem to come in clusters.

I started on Monday evening by attending the Engineering Society’s Autumn Lecture by Prof Jim Hough, who spoke about detecting gravitational waves. Jim ran the Institute for Gravitational Research when I was an undergrad and Sheila, my PhD supervisor took over the Institute just as I was starting my PhD there. He’s still the assistant director of the IGR and always very busy, still, he somehow made time to read my thesis and give me heaps of advice on it.

I’ve been to a lot of gravitational waves talks now, both aimed at a general audience, like this one, and at academics. Even so, I seem to learn something new every time and Jim is a particularly great speaker with an enormous depth of knowledge. He’s in the enviable position of being able to tell a great deal of good stories that not everyone knows yet.

Then, on Tuesday I did something totally different. I attended a lunchtime talk by Prof Wendy Olsen from the University of Manchester. She was here to discuss her new paper; Work of Women is Affected by Norms about Gender Roles in India and Bangladesh.

Now this is something I know absolutely nothing about but it piqued my interest. What, may I ask, is the point in being an academic if you can’t attend interesting sounding talks for the simple reason that they do sound interesting. Prof Olsen’s talk was fascinating, and I’m definitely going to keep an eye out for her paper so I can try to understand the issue in more detail later on.

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Following my trend of fantastic talks, on Wednesday I was lucky enough to catch a Colloquium by Prof Sean Carroll from Caltech. Prof Carroll has been in Glasgow delivering a lecture series all this week but I hadn’t managed to pick up tickets. However, as a member of the school of physics and astronomy I did get to go to this extra talk and I’m glad that I made it along. His title was Quantum Mechanics and Cosmology in Large Universes and made me think about quantum theory in a way I never have before.

These days, five years after my last lecture with the word “quantum” in the course title, I always worry that lectures on this theme will go over my head. Prof Carroll was kind enough to pitch it perfectly so that I could follow the arguments, although I suspect my depth of understanding will stay flimsy unless I rededicate myself to some truly terrifying mathematics (unlikely to happen). For those who want enough information to go on a mind boggling journey via google, his abstract was,

Modern physics frequently envisions scenarios in which the universe is very large indeed: large enough that any allowed local situation is likely to exist more than once, perhaps an infinite number of times. Multiple copies of you might exist elsewhere in space, in time, or on other branches of the wave function. Such duplication is inevitable the Everett (Many-Worlds) formulation of quantum mechanics, and has a beneficial effect: it leads to a simple derivation of the Born Rule for quantum probabilities. Duplication can be a bad thing in cosmology, where it leads to Boltzmann Brains and the cosmological measure problem. An improved understanding of quantum fluctuations shows that Boltzmann Brains can be easily avoided if they don’t correspond to decoherent branches of the wave function.

Aye. I mean, easy for him to say, right? Seriously, though, it was fascinating and entertaining and if he returns to Glasgow I’ll definitely make the effort to see him speak again.

I took a breather on Thursday to prepare for my own talk which I delivered on Friday. I’d been asked to speak at the Science and Engineering Colleges’ Advice Evening. It’s designed to welcome new graduate students into the college and give them all the information they might need to make the first few moths go smoothly. I was asked to give a talk with the title, “Glasgow: The City and its People” and I happily obliged (and was rewarded with a glass of wine).

Now my calendar is looking astonishingly talk-free, until next Friday, when I’ll spend my afternoon listening to talks at a workshop about Science Outreach. Bring it on.

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