Too many talks to remember…

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It has been a hectic but successful day, with 12 hours of cycling around Brisbane and attending talks! I started with a part-drive, part-cycle to Southbank, navigating the rain, to watch two documentaries screened for the World Science Festival. “Mapping the Future: The Power of Algorithms” was an interesting discussion of what “predictive analytics” based on “big data” can foretell of human behaviour. “The Joy of Logic” was too introductory for me, but I was interested in the quirky anecdotes about the Vienna Circle of philosophers.

Next I cycled to the University of Queensland to hear Scott Stephens, editor of the (Australian) ABC’s Religion and Ethics website, on “To See or Not to See: Recovering Moral Vision in a Media Saturated Age”. He was critical of the pettiness of media in a democratic society, citing causes including commercialisation of news, the Watergate scandal, and the media’s change from reporting on politics to deliberately influencing it. Also the rise of social media means news organisations pander to popular taste and attempting to “go viral”. I was reminded of Alain de Botton’s commentary and alternative news experiment.

Immediately afterwards I rushed off to a presentation by George Musser, an editor at Scientific American. Researchers feel popular science reporting at this level and below can be too “dumbed-down” and/or sensationalist. Musser tried to unify the roles of “scientist” and “journalist”: science is his original background, but he also defended a journalist perspective to his audience. He said hot topics include cosmology, anything with “quantum” in the title, mind/consciousness, and others (I can certainly see these emphases in the science festival). But trends change — dinosaurs used to be popular, as was water on Mars but people are sick of hearing about that.

The next talk would be a personal highlight. But first I’ll mention for completeness that last night I attended “The first scientists: Aboriginal science in Queensland” panel discussion. The room was completely packed, the most full for the science festival so far, apparently. There were interesting tidbits such as some man in remote northern Queensland who lost part of a finger to a crocodile, then wrapped it in a local bark, a natural anaesthetic; I would have preferred more concrete examples like this.

Lunch with some visitors

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This is an epic week for science in Brisbane! Lots of experts are in town for the World Science Festival. The astrophysics group from my uni, the University of Queensland, had lunch today with Josh Frieman (from Chicago) and Douglass Scott (from Vancouver). I had a great time.

From left to right: Merryn, Douglas Scott, Colin (author of Colin’s Cosmos), Sam, Tamara Davis, Josh Frieman, and Ed. A mixture of students, professors, and a postdoc; others had already left by this point.

Frieman is the director of the Dark Energy Survey (DES), a large international collaboration which is mapping the skies to measure the expansion of the universe by dark energy. Probably every local at lunch except me was a member of either the Australian version “AusDES”, and/or the Australian astrophysics organisation “CAASTRO” which also shouted lunch incidentally. (My research in relativity is a little different from these groups, being more theoretical, but they are the closest I have to a research community here, and so I was very happy to be invited! A big thank-you to Tamara who is conscientious about that.)

I had a good chat with Douglas, whom I was sitting next to. He shared with the table about one of his students who is studying modified gravity theories (that is, other than Einstein’s general relativity), and how every 3 months he knocks on Douglas’ door with another discovery about why general relativity is superior. He generously asked me about my research, and I explained my analysis of distances in relativity, though it might sound trivial. I also mentioned black hole volumes and new coordinate system(s) I had discovered, and that just recently I had been learning about rotating black holes to potentially extend these results to that situation, which I believe no-one has done before apart from a few specific cases.

I missed some fun photo opportunities with other students ;-). Sam grabbed a sneaky sip of Josh C.’s iced chocolate when it arrived. Then he made up for it by spoon-feeding Josh ice-cream in a faux-romantic moment. Sam seemed unphased by our eminent guests, but kept up his usual cheeky humour!

While Josh (Frieman) is in town for the science festival, Douglas is in Australia to visit a couple of universities. It also turned out he’s going to a music festival tonight, and I joked that his real ulterior motive had come out! He admitted he once gave a talk at Caltech partly because his favourite band was playing in Los Angeles. Tamara left for the science festival. I had a haircut this morning, thinking I should clean up in case I met some of the celebrity physicists in town but, as you can see from the top photo, a shave was beyond me at this point.