Cork Skeptics

Promoting Reason, Science & Critical Thinking in Cork City & Beyond

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Hmm – That’s Funny: Niall Smith at Skeptics in the Castle

Our latest meeting of Skeptics in the Castle was hosted by Dr. Niall Smith, Head of Research in Cork Institute of Technology and a founding member of Blackrock Castle Observatory. Niall holds a degree in astrophysics and is a superb science communicator.

In a wide-ranging and frequently hilarious talk, Niall spoke about the importance of experimentation to scepticism and science. Niall, a keen Carl Sagan enthusiast (“I hated Carl Sagan because he wrote so well”), spoke about extraordinary claims that no level of testing can pick up and why we can be rightly sceptical of such claims. But he also warned against unbounded skepticism, quoting Lord Kelvin whose scepticism lead him to conclude that x-rays were a hoax and that airplanes were impossible.

 His talk then turned to claims that don’t make much sense but where the experimental results were nevertheless unambiguous. A classic example is Wave Particle Duality, where light sometimes acts as a wave, and other times acts as a particle. It’s a mechanism that’s still not fully understood, yet it is verified to an exceedingly high degree of precision by modern science. He also spoke about the age of the universe – how current models cannot yet explain how the universe appears to be larger than expected and how light speed is the same no matter which direction or speed you are moving. All these are challenging results, but experimentally there is no debate – they can be shown to work every single time. They demonstrate that although we know a lot, there is a lot still yet to be understood about the nature of reality. As Niall said “just because you can’t explain it, doesn’t automatically mean you must reject it”.

Niall discussed the possibility of aliens, and wondered why any alien would want to experiment on humans after such a long journey through space – “maybe they’re really smart physicists but really stupid biologists”. He also had some interesting things to say about pseudo-scientific claims – that they rarely told us anything new about the world, whereas scientific discoveries often lead us down new and fascinating paths. Quoting Isaac Azimov, he said that science moves forwards, not through “Eureka” moments, but by someone saying “Hmm, that’s funny”.

Niall’s talk both thought provoking and entertaining, and although the room did heat up a bit, we didn’t find any dragon.

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There’s a Dragon in my Garage! A talk by Dr. Niall Smith

I have a dragon in my garage. It’s an amazing fire-breathing, flying, immortal dragon. Amazing—except, of course, I’m the only one who can see it and no experiment that any of my friends devise are capable of detecting the dragon …

In this talk, Dr. Niall Smith will look at the importance of experiments in supporting claims that have been made, and continue to be made, in a wide range of areas, from UFO abductions to the claimed hyper-expansion phase of the early universe. How much should we “believe” claims that appear to defy the laws of the universe as we currently understand them? Are there actually times when the experiments we perform result in outputs that are so bizarre that we’d be right to be skeptical – and yet the experiments are reproducible and apparently true? Niall will demonstrate one such experiment—simple to perform, yet still a mystery after over 150 years of study…

About the speaker: Dr. Niall Smith received his PhD from UCD in the area of astrophysics in 1990. Since then he has maintained an active research group (currently at Blackrock Castle Observatory) that develops new techniques to support research into surveys for extrasolar planets and surveys of quasars (the most powerful continuously-emitting objects in the universe).

Niall is also a founder member of BCO and a passionate believer in the importance of quality science education. He is presently the Head of Research at CIT and chair of the Institute’s Research & Development Committee. Niall has 22 publications in international journals, a book chapter on astrophysical photometry, is a member of the National Committee for Astronomy and Space Science and also the International Astronomical Union.

The talk will begin at 8pm on Friday April 15th, in Blackrock Castle Observatory. Everyone is welcome and the talk is free to attend. Please see our Skeptics In The Castle page for directions to the Castle.