Category Archives: Opinion

In praise of theoretical science


I’m thrilled, I truly am, that they’ve detected those gravitational waves but I’m also a little upset. You see, that used to be the one serious, impressive-sounding and reasonably topical scientific topic I could hold an intelligent conversation about for at least two minutes. Now, anybody can be sufficiently expert for the purposes of showing off at a cocktail party. All they need do is read a few articles and click a couple of animated videos showing how gravitational waves ripple through, warp, distort or deform space-time (a fine variety of verbs seems to have been used) or what the coalescence of two black holes looks and sounds like. Actually, I’m curious about that, what “sound” did we exactly hear? Surely it’s some kind of projection of data into sound rather than a faint billion-year old “pop”?


The reason I had some idea of “what it’s all about, anyway?” is that I am lucky enough to have worked for seven years in a research centre, IHES, which focuses 100% on theoretical research. One day, I was volunteered to write a short article about what some IHES researchers were doing on gravitational waves for a newsletter. This was a task I was very happy to oblige with, because Thibault Damour had agreed to give me a one-to-one explanation. Professor Damour is a theoretical physicist and a leading light on all things to do with Einstein’s general relativity theory, cosmology and what we may now call gravitational astronomy because, guess what, they created a new science yesterday.

The way I understand it, Thibault Damour, and the many people who work and have worked with him, have been instrumental in providing one of the four keys that helped us unlock the actual physical detection of gravitational waves. The first one was provided by Einstein’s prediction, a century ago. The second is the mathematical constructions needed to guide detectors on where to focus their efforts, a major challenge being to filter out all the “white noise” for want of a better word. That is essentially Thibault Damour’s work, as I understand it. (Incidentally, I find it amusing that he worked some twenty years ago on this with an Italian born researcher whose first name is Alessandra* and currently works on this with an Italian researcher whose first name is Alessandro**.) The third key is of course the building of these amazing interferometers. I remember Alessandro telling me that when gravitational waves were finally detected, the powers that be would surely release the funds to build them on a massive scale to get better information, in space no less; I wonder if he will be proved right? And the fourth key  was the data crunching provided by the numerical simulations, which were closely linked to the mathematical modelling.

Yes, this project really was team work. An international team, obviously, with people who have been making their contribution to this tremendous leap in human knowledge.



** Nagar (a talented cartoonist as well as a physicist)

For the next Bond film…

Forget cat-stroking baldies and other boring moguls of that ilk. The next Bond film should have an entirely new concept for The Bad Guy and here it is:

blofeld_5403When Google was still the New Thing, I remember thinking that the Larry Page and Sergey Brin duo would provide a perfect modern twist to that perennial favourite, the Bond film villain. I mean, they looked (and still do look) so normal, so guy-next-door, so wholesome, so the-lad’s-done-good, that they were bound to be profoundly evil and their honest faces a mere façade. Obviously, they were out to control the world (and who in their right minds would correct me on that?) for their very own, shockingly nefarious purposes vengefully focused on the person of Bond (so just to be very clear, that last bit is the basic plot line for the film, this post is NOT about the politics of privacy issues, the morality of domain names and the like for real, OK?)
Amazingly, nobody has yet turned this no-brainer of an idea into a film. So I’ve made a few improvements to the concept. Why stop at a duo? I mean, surely if only one of the organisations ruling our modern world were represented, that would be downright discriminatory. I therefore suggest widening the villain circle to say, five baddies, all white, all male, all masters of technology and all based in the US. And in a mistress stroke of gender reversal, the brains behind it all is actually a screen-breakingly ugly woman or a drop-dead gorgeous one – that needs fine tuning and will ultimately be down to the casting budget, Hollywood being what it is. The point is, she’s female. So each of the five men is allocated a continent in which to wreak havoc, a former love interest of Bond’s to persecute in the vilest manner possible and a pedigree cat.