Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Bloody scientists

Cafe Scientifique in Birmingham was a blast. It was held in the upstairs room of the fine Jekyll and Hyde pub. The clientele covered the range of ages, sexes and scientific understanding, and there were so many that quite a few had to stand in the corridor outside. Neal and I were lucky enough to stand next to the bar, which was ideal: next to the speaker and within easy reach of the intellectual lubrication which provided me - temporarily - with the feeling that I understood a little of what was being said.

What did I learn? The speaker was the affable and learned Prof. Shomak Raychoudhury from Birmingham University, and his subject was Black Holes: what they are, what they do and how they're detected. Apparently there are two kinds: ordinary ones we (by which I mean not me) largely understand, and the Super Massive Black Holes which seem to exist at the centre of every galaxy and defy understanding. The discussion also touched on galaxy collisions, dark matter and dark energy. We learned that CERN might theoretically create the conditions for a black hole to form, but only for such a brief period that it wouldn't count and certainly won't swallow anything up. I was quite pleased that black-body radiation, which I'd mentioned to Neal, came up in the course of the conversation, and was pleased to hear that our solar system is a freak: most stars exist in binary formations, so Star Trek got a lot right.

We chatted away happily to a range of people (including one who claims to be poisoned by wifi and mobile phones) and had our lives put into perspective by the good professor mentioning that one of his PhD students had recently discovered a new black hole. It certainly makes my PhD in Welsh literature look rather ordinary. However, I'm comforted by the memory of what happened to the student who discovered the Improbability Drive:

…just after he was awarded the Galactic Institute's Prize for Extreme Cleverness he got lynched by a rampaging mob of respectable physicists who had finally realized that the one thing they really couldn't stand was a smartarse.

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