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…and that’s all he would say on the subject of God during last night’s lecture at the Royal Albert Hall (chaired by the dreadful Jim Al-Khalili). @ianvisits has already described the actual experience of listening to Hawking speak.

Talking about his latest book, The Grand Design, and his early life, Hawking was a surprisingly engaging, charming and humorous speaker. I would recommend anyone with even the slightest interest in science to see him lecture. There has been media controversy since The Grand Design‘s publicatication, principally around Hawking’s claims that God did not create the universe. From the BBC’s coverage:

Citing the 1992 discovery of a planet orbiting a star other than our Sun, he said: “That makes the coincidences of our planetary conditions – the single Sun, the lucky combination of Earth-Sun distance and solar mass – far less remarkable, and far less compelling as evidence that the Earth was carefully designed just to please us human beings.”

He adds: “Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. “Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”

Disappointingly for us mere mortals, Hawking chose not to expand this statement beyond clarifying that he was not making a ‘God is dead’-style claim; more indicating that God was simply a name for existing laws and phenomena. [I think…].

Not being a cosmologist, I was rather lost when Hawking went through the finer points of black holes, singularities and space-time. Fascinating for scientists and non-scientists alike however was hearing how his interests and mind developed. Born in Oxford to intellectual parents, he was unable to read until the age of 8, though he loved building systems with his trainsets and was later given the nickname ‘Einstein’ at school. He moved to and remained in North London (Highgate, Hendon and St. Albans) through his childhood and adolescence, losing the battle with his father to specialise in mathematics at the age of 17. This was the last formal tuition in maths he would receive. He would go on to be Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge.

Hawking told the audience that during his undergrad days at Oxford, his lax habits resulted in a borderline degree classification between a 2,1 and a first. Up in front of the board, he told examiners that he would remain in Oxford if he got a 2,1, and go to Cambridge if he got a first. “They gave me a first,” he said.

Citing the field as ‘ripe for development’, Hawking focused his efforts on gravitational physics while at Cambridge. He was diagnosed with motor neurone disease soon after – and credits the illness with giving him the drive needed to make his work exceptional: “When you are faced with the possibility of an early death, it makes you realise that life is worth living, and that there are lots of things you want to do.” (There was a long hush at this point).

In The Grand Design, Hawking claims to have found the unifying theory which Einstein and all subsequent physicists have been seeking. This should have been the most riveting part of the lecture, yet I found it the least convincing. Perhaps that’s why Hawking chose to distribute the book at the end of his lecture, rather than explain it to a lay audience in ten minutes. If true, however, the discovery of M Theory will end a search which has been going on for 2,000 years.

Asked whether he foresaw a time when man would know everything there is to know about the physical universe, Hawking simply replied, ‘I hope not’.

Before going to the Hawking lecture, I saw this from XKCD. Though amusing, I think the point it makes is a good one – it’s good to encourage intelligence, dangerous to revere it.


Hawking is one of those  rare scientists who has made it as a household name. I knew who he was when I was 7. I’m pretty sure I didn’t know who Freddie Mercury was when I was 7.

I’ll be heading to his lecture at the Royal Albert Hall and reporting back on that most mundane of topics, the mysteries of the universe.

We’re all used to reading about various dubious remedies where magnets are supposed to treat a variety of ailments.  It was therefore a refreshing change to actually hear about a treatment for cancer based on magnetism with genuine potential this weekend.

The venue was the Royal Institution, where, as part of Open House weekend, members of their interdisciplinary research group were talking about their work.  One of their projects is looking at trying to treat cancer with magnets.  In particular magnetic nanoparticles injected into you.

These nanoparticles are supposed to latch onto a tumour thanks to a coating of an enzyme that binds onto cancerous cells but not onto healthy ones.  The enzyme has to be tailored to the particular type of cancer.   The next step is to hold an electromagnet over the area with the tumour.

If you pass an alternating current through the electromagnet, then the north and south poles on the electromagnet will keep switching back and forth.  This in turn will alternately attract, then repel the magnetic nanoparticles near the tumour.  As the nanoparticles move back and forth they rub against each other and the friction causes them to heat up.  Get them hot enough (around 42 degrees celsius) and the cancerous cells should start dying.

Thanks to a rubbery model of a patient with nanoparticles injected just under an area on its surface I could see this heating effect on a thermal imaging camera when an electromagnet was brought close.  When the electromagnet was held over an area of the model with no nanoparticles under the surface there was no heating.

This is all rather clever.  At the moment the team at the RI is trying to develop nanoparticles that are stronger magnets.  This will potentially allow the therapy to be used on tumours deeper within the body.  They are also working on testing the idea to see if it makes the transition from promising idea to workable treatment.

Something pedlars of dubious magnetic therapies should consider doing before unleashing their quackery on the world.

Stumbling across news of the upcoming “Galileo Was Wrong” conference made me feel somewhat like Dr Watson in a Study in Scarlet who observes:

“My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.”

The fact we are now in the 21st, rather than the 19th, century makes it even more extraordinary that there are people organising a conference dedicated to the idea that the Earth is at the centre of the universe.

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Periodically, Ray Kurzweil (author, inventor and machine intelligence pioneer) will pen an article or book making bold predictions about the future.  Recently Wired carried an article with quotes from him that suggested we will have reverse engineered the brain by 2030.

Kurzweil’s claims had biologists slapping their foreheads in irritation.  This post is not about Kurzweil.  It is about the biologists slapping their foreheads, or at least about some of the tangents the threads on their blogs took

Over at Pharyngula a discussion started up about the implications if we could create exact copies of ourselves.  Quantum mechanics has something to say about these speculations and maybe about how our brains work.

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Since this is a blog about science and journalism I’m going to take the opportunity to have a moan about the nickname the “God particle”.  A name loved by the press but hated by most scientists.

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The last couple of weeks have seen a number of articles about the Higgs Boson (or the God particle as the press loves to call it). This post takes a look at why physicists think it exists and why they are so keen to find it.

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Amit Ghosh does mathsy things for an actuarial firm. He read Physics at university, and they even let him loose in the Cavendish laboratory one summer on a research project. He is @bexleylister on Twitter.

Shona Ghosh read English, then did an MA in Journalism. She knows nothing about science. She wishes she did though, so she sometimes reads New Scientist and tries to make Amit explain quantum physics to her, preferably through the medium of pictionary. She is @shonaghosh on Twitter.

They combine their thoughts on this blog.

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