Gravitational Waves – No. 2

Back in February a major milestone in experimental physics was achieved: the direct discovery of gravitational waves. The LIGO team reported that these waves emanated from two ‘black holes’ merging together. Indeed it inspired me to write a post on the topic.

Today after all these months another gravitational wave event has been reported by LIGO! The relevant paper is here.


Visualisation of black holes merging to produce gravitational waves (Source: T. Pyle/LIGO)

The event was recorded on December 26, 2015 at 03:38:53 UTC and lasted 1 second in the LIGO frequency band.

The gravitational wave signal from this event was weaker than that reported in February. But it has been deduced that in this event the black holes were about 3 times lighter and located around the same distance away (though there is a large uncertainty associated with the estimated distance). The masses deduced are still higher than that of a stable neutron star so it was concluded that the objects are black holes. New in this discovery is that the signal is strong enough to conclude that at least one of the black holes has spin i.e. it is rotating around its central axis. But the signal is not strong enough to deduce if the black holes are precessing i.e. if the axis itself is rotating relative to the orbital plane.

Several assumptions go into the reporting of such a result. For example, the inference of distance to the black holes assumes the ΛCDM cosmological model of the universe, which itself has been deduced from other astronomical observations. But once again Einstein’s general theory of relativity has stood the test of experiment and shown how to interpret the feeblest of our perceptions. The waveform predicted by relativity matches that observed. This complements the coincidental detection of the wave by LIGO’s two interferometers located in separate states in the USA.

In line with these observations, we should expect that events like these will be reported on a regular basis. The Analog world of general relativity has made a comeback, a new field of research is now Open.

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Censorship of Australian Science

At the centre stage of the last two weeks of world news has been the US presidential election. It appears now that the election, as has been the case for many decades, will be a contest between the Democratic and Republican parties and that the Democrats will be led by Hillary Clinton and Republicans by Donald Trump. I’ve noticed that the rise of the latter has brought enough concern that Terence Tao, one of the greatest living mathematicians, has devoted a blog post solely to make the point that it is about time that people publicly stand up against Trump. Similarly, computer scientist Scott Aaronson and John Baez  have written posts on the serious dilemma humanity faces with Trump’s rise.

I agree with all of this, Trump’s rise needs a serious response. We have seen his rise specifically within the Republican party, which has traditionally attracted individuals who believe success is embodied in the sorts of materialistic exploits at which Trump excels. Yet the duopoly that is the market we call the US election can easily tilt things to his favour. Back when Trump was obsessed with Obama’s birth certificate he was taken as a joke by much of the media, but now he is no longer taken as a joke, albeit that his baseless antics continue.

This news aside, I want to focus on some serious news local to Australia, where I live. On the 26th of May 2016 the report “World Heritage and Tourism in a Changing Climate” was released by UNESCO, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). From the report webpage: “The new report lists 31 natural and cultural World Heritage sites in 29 countries that are vulnerable to increasing temperatures, melting glaciers, rising seas, intensifying weather events, worsening droughts and longer wildfire seasons.” It is clearly a subject that the whole world should be concerned about, the report’s basic conclusions would be in the common interest. But at the bottom of the page in italics this is written: At the request of the Government of Australia, references to Australian sites were removed from the Report (recent information about the state of conservation of the Great Barrier Reef is available on UNESCO’s website here:


Pure marine life @ The Great Barrier Reef, Australia (Source).

This is blatant state censorship. No other nation has made the UN omit information in the report. Major news outlets like The Sydney Morning Herald, The Guardian, and the national broadcasters ABC and SBS have reported the official government statement “Recent experience in Australia had shown that negative commentary about the status of world heritage properties impacted on tourism.”

Let me say it clearly, this is a suppression of science, of academic freedom that I’ve never seen before in this country. The conclusions made by UNESCO are not opinions from controversial attention-mongering individuals. Suppressing freedom of speech from individuals or organisations within the country is in itself illegal and against democratic principles. This action is the blocking of information derived from many peer-reviewed scientific studies, not centralised to any specific institute, and going on over a lengthy period of time. The conclusions are relevant for the whole of humanity, the Great Barrier Reef has cultural and social importance for local communities as well as those communities that live on the other side of the planet. Only 7% of the Great Barrier Reef has avoided coral bleaching. It’s not just a matter about the present, it’s a matter to give the best environment for future generations.

The government’s argument is that the tourism industry will be affected negatively. Would it not increase tourism because people want to see the reef before it expires? Wouldn’t it bring the whole world together to mitigate the factors that are destroying such natural icons? I think the real reason for censorship is that the Australian federal election is  within a month (2nd of July) and the government is aware that this report may be negative for their party’s performance. They’re aware that such reports will illuminate the government’s neglect of the reef, its support for fossil fuel, mining and livestock industries that are damaging the environment, and its suppression of peaceful environmental movements that are challenging the status quo.

By openly defending its censorship of scientific information the Australian government now represents the censorship of all sciences. Any scientific information is in danger of being suppressed if it “harms the nation’s interest”, whether it be on physics, biology, chemistry, medicine or even social sciences, and regardless of the reputability and neutrality of the organisation that has produced it . Who knows how many reports have already been suppressed from smaller organisations on all sorts of scientific issues?

Over the last few years government policies have been to censor details about the treatment of refugees on offshore detention centres and the nature of asylum seeker boat arrivals. I’m absolutely opposed to these policies on humanitarian grounds. The censorship of UNESCO’s report goes further as a dictatorial intervention on international scales on an organisation that should be independent from any pressure whatsoever. If independent scientific organisations cave in then where does the public look for unbiased information?

If you too feel it your responsibility to question state censorship, just like you may consider it your responsibility to do your bit to stop Donald Trump, please spread the word on this news so it won’t happen again.

Note: The Union of Concerned Scientists put up a draft of what should have appeared in the UNESCO report.

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James Watson, DNA Pioneer, visits Sydney

James Watson gave a free lecture “Discovering the Double Helix: Going for Gold!” at the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre last Tuesday evening. Who is James Watson? From Wikipedia:

James Dewey Watson (born April 6, 1928) is an American molecular biologist, geneticist and zoologist, best known as one of the co-discoverers of the structure of DNA in 1953 with Francis Crick. Watson, Crick, and Maurice Wilkins were awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine “for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material”.’

The lecture was delivered on short notice, barely advertised, so I was lucky to find out early before all seats were taken.


Just before the lecture

The lecture room was absolutely full. The speaker who introduced Watson to the audience remarked that it was by chance that this event was happening. The story is that he heard that Watson was in Sydney, didn’t let the opportunity go away so asked Watson to speak while he was here, which he agreed to do.


Speaker introduces Watson

Watson spoke in a manner that could be expected from a late octogenarian (he turned 88 this week), slowly winding his way through the talk, reflecting on the past, filling his script continuously with humour targeted at youth and going endlessly on tangents.


Promoting his books

He described his childhood and undergraduate studies in Illinois and PhD from Indiana University, going through little pearls of wisdom he acquired on the way. He said one shouldn’t do undergraduate studies from elite universities like Harvard or Cambridge since the professors there don’t want to teach, they just want to do research. But when he was at Harvard he wrote one of the first textbooks on molecular biology and paid attention to teaching, asking students to avoid writing lecture notes and follow the book instead (they still wrote them). He was rejected from Caltech for PhD but Indiana accepted him and it was great as it had ‘the best basketball team in the country’. But his PhD thesis was ‘awful’.


PhD Advice

He said he was inspired to research genetics after reading Erwin Schrödinger’s ‘What is Life?’, though he thought the last few chapters were not worth reading.


Schrödinger’s ‘What is Life?’ inspired Watson towards DNA research

Indeed at the time there was no genetics research as we know it, since the DNA structure had not been found before Watson and Crick! According to Watson, ideas about genetic information were lead by physicists and Schrödinger had the right intuition. Watson said he visited Niels Bohr’s group in Copenhagen after his PhD, the physicists he met incorrectly thought that natural laws had to be changed to explain genetic information (which resembles the view one sometimes finds that quantum physics is required to explain consciousness). He also met Leo Szilard, discoverer of the nuclear chain reaction, and biophysicist Max Delbruck, who initiated microbiology research in the USA.


“Avoid boring people”, “Science is highly social”

Eventually he went to Cambridge to work in Cavendish Lab, lead by Lawrence Bragg, where he met Francis Crick. Watson said Crick had a very loud voice which Bragg couldn’t stand so he was made to work in a closed room with Watson, and even banned Watson and Crick from studying DNA for a year. The lecture went into the intricate details of the path to discovery, the competition with Linus Pauling and input from Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins.


Rosalind Franklin, famous for her X-ray photos of DNA

Some solid statements Watson made in the lecture:

-Linus Pauling stole a discovery from Crick one evening, made Watson realise great men also cheat

-Pauling proposed a wrong model for DNA.. Watson can’t believe he contradicted basic chemistry. Bragg subsequently allowed Watson and Crick to research DNA again to discover the right model before Pauling (Intense competition existed between Pauling and Bragg’s Cambridge group. “Like Ted Cruz, Pauling was loved by the students but hated by the faculty” (sic))

-Even though Franklin got the X-ray photos of DNA she ‘didn’t understand crystallography’ and didn’t interact with other scientists about her work, so she made the wrong judgement that DNA isn’t a helix


Franklin’s postcard to Wilkins showing her initial rejection of DNA helix

Watson eventually got to his discovery, saying that on a Saturday morning Crick came into their office and in about an hour they got the correct structure of DNA. Their results were accepted into the journal Nature and it was good times after that. Watson basically concluded with: I went for gold, I got it, I beat Pauling and that’s what matters.

Only one question was allowed from the audience after the lecture, that question was ‘Did you aim to win the Nobel Prize?’ and Watson answered that he aimed to discover DNA structure, once he did that he knew it would get a Nobel Prize, so indirectly: yes.

I’ve ignored an important detail of the lecture. Throughout the talk Watson made comments like:

-Don’t say anything you’re not sure about. I’ve said things I didn’t want to get public but the media gets hold of it..Political correctness is a big problem in the US, you have no idea how easy you have it here…right now it’s not possible for white males to win

– Leave your girlfriend if you find someone prettier. I went for the prettiest girl. DNA!…..[insert uni] had really pretty girls. [insert uni] didn’t have pretty girls.

-I never kept a diary. Diaries are for girls.

-…I think my politically views are inherited. I don’t like Hillary Clinton. Her parents were Republican, maybe that explains why she takes a lot of money.

Such comments made way for awkward silences and laughter at his rambling speech. But more seriously, Watson has been reported to have linked race with intelligence, a move which has cost him his reputation and job. The media hype around this has led him to become a scientific outcast, he even sold his Nobel Prize medal since he felt he had lost respect. He was in good humour in the lecture though, probably feeling great that he can still bring a packed house.

In a striking coincidence, almost exactly 10 years ago on the 4th April 2006, Watson gave this talk to Google:

This talk was about a year before he made the comment that has ruined his reputation. It seems his viewpoint is: there is environmental influence on our behaviour (here he focuses on autism) but this is hard to measure so we should first exhaust all means to explore genetic influences. He feels this is good for humanity since parents, or a whole culture, might be unjustly blamed for lack of intellectual progress of children when actually genes may be the cause. But I believe that environmental influence on human mind is not so hard to track for individuals, and history shows that certain communities have been suppressed more than others due to clear external factors, both natural and social. Great progress derives principally from philosophy; I’m skeptical that philosophy is genetically inherited.

Watson’s contributions to mankind are comparable to few on our planet. Back in 2004, when I was 12, I was engrossed in learning biology and requested a free poster from the Human Genome Project (initially headed by Watson) website.. I recall my joy at receiving it in the mail, a letter coming all the way from USA with a bundle of priceless information about humanity’s genetic code.

I’ll end with this piece of advice he gave in the lecture:

“Always seek help when panicking..don’t do everything yourself, be friends with people who are smarter than you so they can do the work for for you…I didn’t learn math, I had Crick. I only learnt the Krebs Cycle last year”


The famous photo of Watson (left) & Crick, inspiration for Future scientists. Watson said the model in the picture was destroyed due to lack of space in the room.

Memory of a special event.

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