Saturday, June 29, 2013

PM, Colloquium and Bill Phillips

WCIT Colloquium at House of Lords
What a week!  On Mon went to a dinner function with the PM. Grant Shapps was on our table who was quietly impressive and the PM in good form.

Weds however was a much bigger day from our PoV as we held the 5th Colloquium on the Ethical and Spirtual Implications of the Internet at the House of Lords. We have been organising these under the auspices of the WCIT since 1997 with essentially the same format: two initial speakers one from the business world and one from the ethical/spiritual and then an interactive discussion. This year we had Vittorio Colao and Rowan Williams as the initial speakers, and Onora O'Neill chairing it. An amazing line-up and some very distinguished participants.  Chatham House Rule so I can't blog the details but there will be a suitable report on the WCIT website and we are considering how best to follow it up.

Bill Phillips at the RI
Then yesterday Bill Phillips was in town, giving a wonderful Friday Evening Discourse at the RI. Although he had kindly written an endorsement for Questions of Truth we had never met and it was great to meet him and present him with a signed copy.  It was also a great pleasure to meet his delightful daughter.

His talk involved much splashing about of Liquid Nitrogen but also of course had the serious purposes of making us think about atomic clocks and getting us to understand a bit the physics and purposes of ultra-cold atoms. It's striking how old some of this is. The future Lord Kelvin wrote his paper proposing a temperature scale beginning at Absolute Zero in 1848 and the concept of the Atomic Fountain was proposed by Zacharias at MIT in 1953.

Two of the most enjoyable parts of Bill's narrative were when he related how in 1988 they found that the temperatures of their optically cooled atoms were 6x lower than predicted "A serious violation of Murphy's Law" and when he described clocks with an accuracy of 3 parts in 10-16 as "good enough for Government Work".  He was also wonderfully effective in responding to questions from the audience, including a young kid of about 10 who asked a very good question about neutron stars.

He did however begin with the statement that Einstein realised that "time is what clocks measure."  I've long thought that there is a fundamental misconception about the nature of time, supposing that it is linear when in fact it is clearly branching in some sense - the topology of time is essentially given by modal logic. John Lucas's classic great book A Treatise on Time and Space should be much more widely studied. When we finally get the right concepts to deal with the problems of fundamental physics I strongly suspect that they will be rooted in a deeper understanding of the nature of time.

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