Monthly Archives: April 2013

Up in the hills above Bradford, outside the napalm factory

Last weekend I caught the train up to Bradford for EightSquaredCon, the 64th Eastercon (the main UK national SF convention, which has taken place almost every Whitsun or Easter bank holiday weekend since 1948).  The guests of honour this year were the writers Walter Jon Williams, Freda Warrington, the artist Anne Sudworth and the historian and SF critic Edward James.  I started going in 1999, having been instructed to do so by a friend of a friend who was on the organising committee that year (she said “Hello Nick, pleased to meet you. You’re going to Eastercon” and then I found myself handing over a cheque for the membership fee).  It was tremendous fun and I’ve been back every year since; I also go to a couple of other conventions most years as well, usually Picocon and Novacon, and am very much looking forward to Loncon 3, next year’s World SF Convention.

Many science fiction fans, in addition to their fondness for SF and fantasy books, television and films, are also interested in science (or, in fact, anything else that people are willing to tell them about) and so there’s usually a strong programme of science talks and panel discussions on offer over the four days of the convention.  In fact, many SF fans also have first or higher degrees (including PhDs) in science or other subjects, and are a wonderfully engaged and intelligent audience. This year I went to a fascinating panel discussion about recent developments in microbiology and genetics, another in memory of the late astronomer and broadcaster Sir Patrick Moore, as well as the annual George Hay Lecture, which this year was given by the palaeontologist and Tolkien scholar Henry Gee, who spoke entertainingly about his day job as a senior editor at Nature.

For the last few years I’ve also given a talk on something mathematical, and have been delighted by the positive feedback I’ve received.  (At last year’s talk, on unsolvable problems like squaring the circle, the room was full, with people standing at the back, and I was astonished to find out later that this was despite the fact that I’d been scheduled opposite an item where George R R Martin had been talking about the Game of Thrones television series and some of the cast had been doing sword-fighting demonstrations. If I’d known at the time, I think even I might have gone to that instead.)

This year, I talked about Pure and Applied Mathematics, and argued that the distinction between them is not very well-defined (if indeed it really means anything at all). I gave three main examples: applications of knot theory (which started out as a failed 19th century Theory of Everything) to genetics, the use of symmetry groups in molecular chemistry, and the importance of the representation theory of Lie groups and Lie algebras in particle physics.  I only finished writing the slides the day before, and the whole thing felt a bit ramshackle and disorganised to me, but a lot of people said they found it interesting.

The other programme item I participated in was a panel discussion on the Clay Mathematics Institute‘s seven Millennium Prize Problems in Mathematics.  This was moderated by Michael Abbott, a mathematics graduate who now works in software engineering (and who also did a heroic job organising the programme for the entire convention) and also included Susan Stepney, a former astrophysicist who is now professor of computer science at the University of York.  We got through the seven problems in an hour, although some of them proved easier to talk about than others: the Riemann Hypothesis is relatively straightforward to state (although obviously none of the seven are in any sense easy to solve) and Susan did a very good job of explaining P vs NP, but explaining the Hodge Conjecture or the Birch and Swinnerton-Dyer Conjecture to a nonspecialist audience (especially when I don’t really understand the details myself) isn’t very easy.  But I think we at least managed to communicate that all of these problems are very difficult and involve some extremely advanced and technical bits of mathematics.

All in all, a jolly enjoyable convention.  Next year’s Eastercon is in Glasgow and I’m quite looking forward to it already.

(The title of this post, by the way, is a line from this song, by the British band The Mekons. In addition to the Bradford and space travel references, it turns out that Jon Langford, one of the band’s founding members, is the younger brother of the Hugo-award-winning writer and SF critic David Langford.)

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