Wednesday, 4 June 2014

News from the Cheltenham Science Festival - Day 2

Today I saw two very interesting but different talks.

First was Sean Carroll talking about the Higgs boson.  Carroll was the winner of the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science books in 2013.  Hailing from Los Angeles he commented that he was delighted to be the winner of this prize, and delighted, indeed, that there was such a prize in the UK, adding that he hoped there could be similar recognition for popular science writing in the USA.

First of all I must confess that, having given up physics at the tender age of 14 I feel completely unqualified to review this talk on its scientific content, or even give a comprehensive summary of the content of the talk, for fear of getting it all wrong.  The reason I went to this talk was just that, however, in my later years I have become more interested in physics, mainly as a result of a fantastic public engagement effort on behalf of the BBC.

Given that for a non-physicist there was a high risk that the topic of the Higgs boson was going to result in my eyes glazing over due to material going completely over my head, Carroll was remarkably engaging.  He was able to pitch the talk at a level that kept the physics graduates interested whilst teaching the neanderthals like myself the fundamentals of particle physics.  I learned about the history of particle physics, from discovery of the basic components of the atom; proton, neutron and electron, through the discovery of quarks, neutrinos and many other particle names I can't now remember.  He then described the problem of 'action at a distance', that is, how does a magnet know to move near a fridge, how does a planet know how to move in relation to the sun?  He explained that Laplace was able to explain the problem of 'action at a distance' through field theory, showing that forces operate on a slope of a field that pervades space.  So, the world is made of fields that fill a space, and particles are packets of energy that we observe in a given location when the fields vibrate, move, interact.  At this point my limits of physics knowledge were considerably exceeded, but Carroll kept me engaged with his excellent accessible presentation style.  So now we moved on to types of particles, fermions which create the physical things that we can see and touch, and bosons which create the fields.  The incentive to look for the Higgs boson was to provide evidence of the Higgs Field, which gives other particles mass, and therefore enables particles to form into the physical world we see around us.  Without the Higgs field, all the other particles would just be spinning around randomly and would not form into matter, and therefore there would be no you or me or life or anything.  He concluded that that is why the Higgs boson is such a big deal.

Carroll didn't just talk about all this.  He also gave a fascinating insight into the development of the Large Hedron Collider at Cern, Switzerland, where the Higgs boson was discovered, and he recognised in his talk all the many individuals who contributed to this discovery.

Carroll made a highly inaccessible subject accessible to me and his talk was engaging, warm and had a human dimension.  It is not surprising that he won the Winton prize.

Then I went to see Vincent Walsh (UCL) discuss "Where does Creativity come from?"  Walsh is a neuroscientist (I saw him, quite accidentally, yesterday talk about developments in brain stimulation).  Given that the very question itself has a philosophical ring to it, Walsh took care to point out on a few occasions that his role was not to discuss the philosophical.  First he gave a definition of what creativity is; 'the combination of skills and concepts in a new and useful way'.  He challenged us to consider creativity as not domain specific, not confined, for example, to the arts but also something that occurs in business, sport and science.  He gave the example of Mohammed Ali, who he felt was the most creative person he knows of.  He stated that no one has every been truly creative (at genius level) without really knowing their stuff first.  Truly creative people spend a great deal of time honing their skill before their creativity really takes off.  He also pointed out that truly creative individuals never feel that they have 'made it', and creativity is a process, perhaps without an end point.

Walsh then went on to describe the case of Eadwaeard Muybridge, a photographer who achieved his 'eureka moment' and became considerably more creative following frontal lobe brain damage.  Walsh postulated that Muybridge's creativity surge was a result of the attenuation of frontal lobe processes, which control for social behaviour and reasoning.  He showed some MRI scans of brains of jazz players in improvisation mode, which showed that during the improvisation, the frontal lobe activity was reduced, suggesting that the other areas of the brain were 'freed up' to develop new patterns of activity.

Walsh then outlined four stages of creativity; 1- preparation (this is the grind, you can't be creative about stuff you don't know about), 2 - incubation (this is the down time).  Walsh highlighted that ideas happen in down time, times when you are doing nothing.  He argued that this was a vital part of the process of creativity, reinforcing that you can't be creative when you are always busy.  He gave examples of studies the showed that the brain activity is at a fairly low level just before an insight occurs.  Incubation gives rise to 3 - illumination.  This is the 'aha' moment, but we all know that that often leads to 4 - verification, the cold light of day where you have to verify your ideas and, like the first stage,  this may take time.

Things that didn't seem to matter for creativity were IQ (although above 120 was suggested), being a prodigy (Walsh pointed out that many prodigies including Mozart, the Williams sisters also had a 'crazy father'), or personality.

Finally, Walsh alluded to the importance of sleep for creativity, suggesting that, together with doing nothing, sleep created space for your brain to be creative.

Equally as engaging as Carroll but in a more informal, conversational way, Walsh's talk left me with a deep profound need to go forth and do nothing! (Or at least just for a little while!).

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