- Articles by Marianne Freiberger
Some of the things I overheard at Stephen Hawking's 70th birthday conference did make me wonder whether I hadn't got the wrong building and stumbled in on a sci-fi convention. "The state of the multiverse". "The Universe is simple but strange". "The future for intelligent life is potentially infinite". And — excuse me — "the Big Bang was just the decay of our parent vacuum"?!
A traditional view of science holds that every system — including ourselves — is no more than the sum of its parts. To understand it, all you have to do is take it apart and see what's happening to the smallest constituents. But the mathematician and cosmologist George Ellis disagrees. He believes that complexity can arise from simple components and physical effects can have non-physical causes, opening a door for our free will to make a difference in a physical world.
Most of us think that we have the capacity to act freely. Our sense of morality, our legal system, our whole culture is based on the idea that there is such a thing as free will. It's embarrassing then that classical physics seems to tell a different story. And what does quantum theory have to say about free will?
"Astronomers are used to large numbers, but few are as large as the odds I'd have given this celebration today," is how Astronomer Royal Martin Rees started his presentation at Stephen Hawking's birthday symposium yesterday. He was talking about the 1960s when he first met Hawking who was then already suffering motor neurone disease. But Rees' prediction has been proved wrong. Hawking turned 70
yesterday and since the time of their first meeting he has made enormous contributions to cosmology and physics.
Human reasoning is biased and illogical. At least that's what a huge body of psychological research seems to show. But now a psychological scientist from the University of Toulouse in France has come up with a new theory: that logical and probabilistic thinking is an intuitive part of decision making, only its conclusions often lose out to heuristic considerations.
Whenever you smell the lovely smell of fresh coffee or drop a tea bag into hot water you're benefiting from diffusion: the fact that particles moving at random under the influence of thermal energy spread themselves around. It's this process that wafts coffee particles towards your nose and allows the tea to spread around the water. Diffusion underlies a huge number of processes and it has been studied intensively for over 150 years. Yet it wasn't until very recently that one of the most important assumptions of the underlying theory was confirmed in an experiment.
The only good thing about a wash-out summer is that you get to see lots of rainbows. Keats complained that a mathematical explanation of these marvels of nature robs them of their magic, conquering "all mysteries by rule and line". But rainbow geometry is just as elegant as the rainbows themselves.