Science Festival interview with Professor Alex Murphy
Alex Murphy is Professor of Nuclear and Particle Astrophysics in the School of Physics and Astronomy. He will join a discussion about the search for elusive dark matter and dark energy, which will touch on the latest evidence and experiments.
What can the audience at your event expect?
This will be a panel discussion on dark matter and dark energy. Dark matter is a substance needed to explain the extra gravity required to hold galaxies together. We don’t know what it is, but we have a few good ideas, and we’ll discuss how we’re testing those theories. Dark energy is what’s needed at much larger scales, to explain the fact that the Universe as a whole is seen to be accelerating in its expansion. Although the nature of dark energy is even less understood, there has been a lot of progress recently. So on both fronts, we hope to bring people bang-up-to-date on some of the m
ost exciting areas of science today.
What do you hope participants will get out of coming along?
It turns out that there’s, literally, much more to the Universe than meets the eye. Hopefully we'll be able to give a decent appreciation of where science has got to in exploring these things. More than that though, I hope participants will see the logic and methodology of how we go about doing this modern scientific research.
Cosmology and astronomy have great appeal for many people. Why do you think this is the case?
It is a topic that can be quite easy to engage with – at the simplest level all you have to do is look up. For the same reason, pretty much everyone has some level of awareness of the subject, so it’s easy to have a conversation about it. Then of course there’s been spectacular progress in scientific discoveries over the past few decades, with seemingly never ending ‘wow’ moments.
What might surprise people about the ongoing research efforts into dark matter and dark energy?
If we can give an inkling of the extraordinary lengths that we go to in these experiments, I’ll be happy! People might also be surprised at the truly international nature of the research, and that the UK is genuinely at the forefront of much of the work. Most of those involved are employed in our universities, so it turns out that the staff who students see give the occasional lecture are in fact world-class scientists, computer programmers, engineers, project managers – often all at the same time.
Why is it important to take this research into the public domain?
For me there are two main reasons. Firstly, scientific innovation is continually transforming our lives. Just to keep up, we need to encourage more of our youth into scientific careers, and we need everyone to recognise this as a valuable contribution to society. We certainly don’t need thousands of blue-sky research scientists, but surveys always show that it is work like this that inspires people to a scientific career. Secondly, much of the work is funded by the UK tax payer, so it’s only fair they see what it is that they have paid for – and yes, to convince them, via government, that it’s worth doing so again!
What motivates you to take part in the Edinburgh International Science Festival?
As many others before me have found, the more I’ve learned about physics and astronomy, the more I find that many of the sub-topics of the field are deeply related. Dark matter and dark energy are probably most related to the physics of the very small – particle physics – and to the physics of the very large – cosmology. This didn’t have to be so – or did it? A deeper question! It turns out that so much more of the natural world can be understood in terms of relatively few underlying scientific principles. Having been trained to have an appreciation of how everything is related is a privilege, and is beautiful. I really hope that I can convey some of that wonder to more people, and the scale and prestige of the EISF is a fantastic opportunity to try.
Searching for Dark Matter and Dark Energy will take place at 5.30pm on Wednesday 4th April in the Auditorium at the National Museum of Scotland