Monday, April 29, 2013


If you live in Helsinki come to our live webcast of the event. We will feed you.

I had intended to write today's post on anomalies in cosmology. Unfortunately, I have suffered a crisis of confidence and have decided to postpone such a post for the future. I now have both a bunch of notes on the topic, left over from the Planck conference and a half-written post, left over from the weekend. The topic is a bit controversial and when I publish some thoughts on it I want to be very careful and precise so as not to accidentally annoy anyone.

Instead, I will tell you quickly about a really cool event that is taking place this Friday.

CERN is hosting a TED-x event. What is that? Well, a TED-x event is similar to a TED event, except that it isn't organised by TED itself. It is only endorsed by TED. What is TED? OK, well, TED is an organisation that organises a set of conferences around the world. The theme of the conferences is "ideas worth spreading" and speakers are given quite short time slots (typically less then twenty minutes) to express these ideas. Consequently the talks are often very fascinating as the speakers are forced to only say what really matters, leaving all the superfluous details aside. At the main TED events the speakers are also almost universally very good at giving talks, so the quality is high.

George Smoot, the host of the webcast/show. He has also been awarded one of the most illustrious honours any scientist can, a Nobel Prize guest appearance on The Big Bang Theory.

In fact, the TED realm of YouTube is one of the most dangerous black-holes of procrastination you can find. The shortness of the talks, combined with how interesting and intellectually stimulating they are is like the perfect storm of procrastination conditions. They don't last long enough for you to think that watching just one more is a problem. They are interesting, so you don't get bored. And they stimulate your mind so you don't even feel like you're using your time poorly (always my biggest procrastination danger). Then, half the day has gone.

Anyway, I have been making an analogy between science and sports in my mind for a long time now, and first wrote about it here more than a year ago. I really think that there is the potential for fundamental research to be as popular in today's society as sports is. Seriously! You might wonder why, if this is true, science isn't as popular as sports. Football matches fill out arenas and tennis players earn millions each year, entirely from the private sector throwing money at them to do nothing that is even remotely productive, yet even the highest profile fundamental research event of 2012, the discovery of the Higgs particle, was only front page news for a day.

Chris Lintott, one of the speakers. Chris will be talking about "how to discover a planet from your sofa". Chris works on Zooniverse, which is one of the coolest things that exists. It is a huge "citizen science" project that involves complete lay-people meaningfully contributing to science from their homes. Go, check out the website, maybe you could contribute to working out how galaxies form?

I think the reason for this is entirely down to marketing. Sports pushes itself into our consciousness and science doesn't. We are allowed to watch the sports take place, yet we can only see the science results. I love this video of Brady Haran discussing this topic and agree with him entirely. When I saw that video I almost invited Brady to come to Helsinki to give a seminar on this topic, despite him not actually being a research physicist. I might still invite him, though I'm not sure what the owner of the seminar purse strings would think of it. But, the point is that I think this is crucially important to fundamental research. The possible dividends from making science more popular are immense.

So, I love the fact that CERN is hosting this event. What's more, you can watch it live, because there will be a live webcast. And you should watch it live.

Another speaker, Hiranya Peiris. Hiranya is a cosmologist and will be talking about the universe as a detective story, which I think is a very apt analogy for cosmology. I will give a free glass of sparkling wine to anyone who can guess why Hiranya is holding that poorly-tuned television (collection of sparkling wine must be made at Helsinki physics department, this Friday).

You can take a look at the programme here. Interspersed with talks about fundamental physics (from cosmology, to particle physics, to marine physics) there will be a bunch of TED-ed CERN animations describing various science concepts and even a few live music performances. I'm honestly not too sure what to expect, but I'm sure it won't be boring. One of the issues I have with science documentaries is that they only show completed, packaged science. Or, at least, they portray it that way. This is fine and I'd rather those documentaries existed than that they didn't, but to follow the analogy it would be like only showing the grand final of a sports event, three months after the event had finished. There's no excitement or drama by then. We love sports because we know the characters involved and their hopes and dreams, because we've followed them through the season(s). We know their back-story, we know their styles, we know their strengths and their weaknesses. And we want to see them in their moment of triumph, or despair.

I don't think this TEDx-CERN event will reach the levels of the utopian future that Brady and I dream of, but it is a step. It is a scientific conference, aimed not at scientists, but at everyone. People will be presenting somewhat unpackaged (i.e. it hasn't been filmed in a studio) scientific thoughts and results to a public audience, live.

Whoever you are (scientist or non-scientist), you should watch the webcast. You should also tell all your friends about it, share it on facebook, tweet about it, write blogposts about it at your blog and tell your boss to give everyone the day off work on Friday. You should especially tell your friends about it if you're a scientist, or want science to be more popular. Help CERN to get people excited/interested in this sort of thing. And help create a demand for more things like this in the future.

Yet another speaker, John Searle. I've run out of speakers whose work I know (that's why we need more events like this), but apparently John is "one of the world’s great philosophers of mind and language" and "what he says about consciousness as a biological phenomenon will challenge you!"

Finally, anyone reading this and keen to watch the event with others should go to this link. If you look on the right hand side of the page you will see the locations of institutes around the world that will be hosting their own events to show the webcast. If you live nearby, you should go to one of them. At many of these events there will be informal discussions and physicists around to talk about the science with you. The Trenches of Discovery has a small but proportionately large Finnish audience (our fourth biggest). So, if you're lucky enough to be living in Helsinki, I can tell you that if you come to our live showing of the webcast you will also be provided with free pizza, wine, sparkling wine and enthusiastic physicists to harass over the course of the evening. You can find details about that event and sign up for it here.

I will probably write a summary of the event sometime after Friday. I also promise to eventually complete that post on anomalies in cosmology, in case anyone is particularly interested.

Twitter: @just_shaun


  1. Can I claim the glass of sparkling wine?

    1. "Collection of sparkling wine must be made at Helsinki physics department, this Friday"

      Feel free, it would be good to see you so soon after your last visit.

  2. Great blog post, first of many over the next few weeks we hope. Thanks for taking the time to share what we hope will be a great event, really opening science to the people! Keep your eyes open for a shout out from TEDxCERN and if you have any questions, you can send them to us on Twitter and it might just get asked to some of the speakers!