Einstein in the Midlands

Just back from a few days at the University of Warwick (which is actually in Coventry, a city with a such a bad rep that they didn’t want to name the University after it), at the IOP‘s Physics 2005: a Century After Einstein (a bit more information on what I discussed here).

An unexpected highlight was a discussion and video presentation with London’s Rambert Dance company, from whom the IOP have commissioned a dance in recognition of the Einstein Year. All we saw were a few videotaped glimpses of the piece in rehearsal, but as usual with the best collaborations between science and the arts, Einstein’s ideas provided context, but the dance doesn’t try to be “about” relativity, or the photoelectric effect, or Brownian motion — art, not a physics lesson. But it looks gorgeous and worth seeing when it opens in May, or tours Britain in the Autumn.

Nobel-prize winner Steve Chu talked about “Biology as a Solution to Physics Problems”: the acousto-electro-mechanics of the ear; the mechanisms of DNA transcription (and how to achieve such high rates of fidelity); and power generation once the supply of oil runs out. It was refreshing to hear that Chu, the head of a national lab (LBL), still felt free to acknowledge the existence of climate change and to critique much US foreign policy as driven by a blatant desire to control the oil supply, despite what has been reported about the stifling of dissent amongst scientists (see this post).

In my own field, most of the talks were reviews — excellent reviews, but largely on familiar subjects. Alas, having arrived late, and with four parallel sessions of talks going on at once, I wasn’t able to see a single talk in any of the other streams: Physics in Biology, Light & Matter, and Quantum Physics.

So most of the fun, and quite a bit of the intellectual stimulation, was to be had as part of the social program, especially at a fine dinner when I was lucky enough to be seated at a table half full of scientists, half of journalists from New Scientist, Nature Physics, and the IOP‘s own Physics World. In fact, all of the journalists had slowly moved from the academic track over to journalism, so we were all more in awe of them (and, yes, their publicity-making power) than they of us. Also, the fact that they were able to keep the bar open until 1am after the conference dinner was an added bonus (England’s licensing laws remain a mystery, especially to someone who once specifically chose an apartment because it was around the corner from the — now sadly departed — <a href="House of Tiki in Chicago, which shut at 5am).

Other highlights: an after dinner talk from Simon Singh featuring a backward-masked “Stairway to Heaven” as proof that yes, even physicists’ perception depends on their biases. And I seemed to be the only person who even moderately enjoyed the Einstein lecture by John Stachel.

(However, readers should note this story and take everything that happens at a conference with a grain of salt.)