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New Scientist “The Universe” Masterclass Review

After failing to attend this year’s award-winning New Scientist Live science festival, I was grateful to discover the “Universe” masterclass was just around the corner. 

For those who don’t know, New Scientist (first published 1956) is a UK-based science and technology magazine widely read by both scientists and non scientists. Since moving to the UK I’ve become a fan of the magazine, adding it to my repertoire of those I already subscribe to. I think it’s a fantastic way to keep track of what’s going on at the frontier of science, and I particularly like the fact that they invite experts to host talks at themed events, i.e. previous events include “The Quantum World” (2015), “Relativity and Beyond” (2016), and “The Revolution in Genetics” (2017). They’re making science — and leading experts in various scientific fields — accessible to the general public. Getting people interested in science is a cause close to my heart, so this gets two thumbs up from me.

My interests are very much focussed on physics: specifically astrophysics and quantum mechanics. There was no sudden point where I became interested in these things. I think it was just always part of my wider fascination with the earth and space beyond it. I’m in love with what I like to call “everyday magic”: the invisible physical processes constantly occurring around us and shaping our world. The billions of neutrinos passing through my thumb this very second; the structures of dark matter supergluing the galaxies together; the little particles that wink in and out of existence all the time. Something about it all deeply excites my soul. There are so many layers to the world around us; science is the tool of excavation.

And yet, so much evades our understanding. I remember confronting more problems than solutions when I started self-studying theoretical physics a little more “seriously”. I was around 15, spending the occasional lunch break in the school laboratory, pestering my physics teacher to teach me beyond the mainstream curriculum and lamenting the fact that so much goddamn maths was involved in the good stuff. (I was always decent at maths but I never liked it.) But as challenging and intimidating as it gets, I have yet to find a discipline more humbling and inspiring.

When I saw an advert for “The Universe” masterclass in a copy of New Scientist, it was a no-brainer. I lobbed my money at the promise of six expert physicists covering topics including the Big Bang, astroparticle physics, dark energy, dark matter, and gravitational waves. Today, I’m happy to confirm it was entirely worth it.

This truly was a quality event; the speakers were knowledgeable as expected, but it was their enthusiasm I won’t forget. They took to the stage with genuine passion, using well-placed humour to make complex ideas fun and put them well within the grasp of a mixed-ability audience. Eugene Lim’s highly informative talk on the Big Bang was punctuated with jokes and analogies, my favourite being his comparison of the exponential expansion of the universe to the spike in rabbit numbers in Australia, as well as his comment that “it’s like my physiotherapist says: stretching is always the answer” (describing the stretching of space) when putting forward a case for the inflationary Big Bang theory.

Dr. Chamkaur Ghag’s talk on dark matter was equally fascinating; it was particularly interesting to hear about his own experiences working in the Boulby Underground Laboratory and the experiments he works on there. I especially enjoyed the image of “cosmic snooker” he used to depict attempts to get a bit of dark matter to hit the nucleus of a xenon particle.

The question & answer session took place after all the talks, and it was probably my highlight of the day. Questions from the audience like “what is the universe expanding into?”, “how has AI changed the way you collect data?” and “what problem would you most like to see solved?” certainly spawned more questions from the answers given and stimulated interesting debate. When asked why aliens hadn’t contacted us yet, Nial Tanvir brilliantly suggested that they just hadn’t received enough funding.* (*Before his serious response, of course).

I was most interested in the mini debate that occurred between our speakers and New Scientist features editor Richard Webb over emerging criticism of LIGO’s discovery of gravitational waves. Having read the New Scientist article about this myself just the week before, it was fantastic to see physicists arguing a different side to the guy who commissioned it! Both sides were respectful, considered, and asked each other questions throughout. I’d say it wasn’t so much a debate as an ‘open consideration of the facts’ between two parties. Richard Webb was doubtful over LIGO’s findings based largely on the fact that they used an “illustrative” data plot. The others hadn’t seemed to realise this, but still argued the case for LIGO: Eugene Lim said the data had been “independently verified”, someone jokingly referred to the group of scientists challenging the LIGO discovery as “maverick researchers”, and ultimately they all agreed that LIGO’s discovery aligned with observations of gravitational waves in binary pulsars (this won the Nobel prize in 1993) and other things that, together, are all just too consistent to be coincidence.

The heartwarming question of “when did you decide to become a scientist?” evoked some funny and relatable quips from our physicists. It was the perfect way to end a day of furious note-taking and wide-eyed wonder before promptly retiring my brain for the rest of the evening. Physics couldn’t answer all of our questions, but having the opportunity to talk to and think about the possibilities with the experts themselves was such a huge privilege. There is, after all, nothing more humbling than realising how much there is left to learn.

And that’s why I think everyone should look into science at some point. Being made to feel starkly aware of and curious about my place in the universe is very important to me. I think if more people looked regularly at space and the stars and the strange physics that happens on minute and cosmic levels, the world would be a different place. Wonderful things happen within and around us every day. Learning to see this “everyday magic” fosters a unique appreciation for the mathematical miracle that is life, and makes our view of the world instantly richer.

So I wonder, as CS Lewis once wrote, “is any man such a dull clod that he can look at the moon through a good telescope without asking himself what it would be like to walk among those mountains under that black, crowded sky?” I hope not. 

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