Eoin O Colgain
House hunting in NY.
Salesian College Celbridge (1991-1996), Trinity College (1996-2000; 2002-2004), Imperial College London (2004-2007)
BSc, MSc, PhD
Mikage High School (Kobe, Japan, 2000-2002), Korea Institute for Advanced Study (Seoul, South Korea, 2008-2011)
Oviedo University, Asturias, Spain
Favourite thing to do in science: Sense of discovery.
I work on supergravity theories, essentially attempts to unify gravity with other forces.
I am a theoretical particle physicist in limbo somewhere between Oviedo University in Asturias, Spain and SUNY Stony Brook, Long Island, New York. I work largely on supergravity theories, solutions of which tell us something about string theory, a candidate for a quantum theory of gravity, as well as giving us valuable insights into exotic regimes of various field theories.
One of the goals of our field is to answer the question “why are we here?”
Theoretical particle physicists would like to say as much as possible about our universe as simply as possible. We exist merely because the interactions between the fundamental forces are finely balanced. If the strong nuclear force, the one holding the nucleus together had a longer range, atoms (and all of chemistry, nanoscience, etc. could not exist). Alternatively, if gravity was stronger, the universe would disappear in a big black hole.
While we have acceptable quantum theories for most of the forces, gravity is the odd one out. Without a quantum description for gravity, we will never fully understand black holes, particularly the supermassive ones that power all galaxies, including the Milky Way, or understand the origin of our universe and understand why we are here.
Supersymmetry, a mathematical symmetry between force particles and matter particles, presents a natural way to treat gravity and the other forces on an equal footing. This motivates the study of supergravity (supersymmetry + gravity) theories, though to date, supersymmetry is essentially maths and may not be a physical reality. There is a chance we will see some hint of supersymmetry at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, but if it exists, it is well hidden and has not been found in preliminary results.
My Typical Day
In the absence of seminars, I spend my day skimming through papers and using mathematics to derive new results.
Every morning over coffee, I check the Irish Times (for mild diversion) and scan the new papers on the arXiv (an online preprints archive) just to get a flavour of what other people are working on.
When I get to the office, I usually spend time calculating to derive new results for papers I am writing. Sometimes I work alone, but usually in collaboration with other people. Currently I am collaborating with a Thai scientist, a Japanese scientist and an Iranian, none of which I have met personally!
Given the international nature, we discuss our projects largely over Skype. Following discussion, we independently try to derive results, largely based on rigorous mathematics, then produce a Latex file (a way to display mathematics on computers), which we send to our collaborators to check. This process repeats itself until we write the all important paper presenting our results to the scientific community.
Alternatively, if I am working with someone in my own institute, we can spend time with chalk and blackboard pouring over the details of some equations. With coffee, this can go on for hours, it is a lot of fun and can lead to the odd heated argument (more fun!).
Big Bang theory captured this process accurately in the scene where Sheldon and Raj “buckle down and work”. This is not far from reality, just minus the Rocky soundtrack.
After work, I like to spend time running (destressing) or at home with my family.
What I'd do with the money
I would embark on a whirlwind tour of Irish schools to promote fundamental research.
While Ireland is known for literature (we have 4 Nobel prize winners), the standing of science may not be as strong. Indeed, there is only one Nobel prize winner in science (Walton, Physics 1951).
Recently, in the light of the economic crisis, governments have started to question the rational for funding basic, discovery research. In southern Ireland, the government has decided that all funding should have an economic component. Simply put, good science generates jobs and bad science does not. To a scientist this sounds absurd. If I wanted to get rich, I wouldn’t have chosen to do science and would’ve simply joined a bank in London or set up my own company.
The shift away from basic research will damage Ireland’s international reputation and certainly undermine efforts to win future Nobel prizes. As an example, this year the Nobel prize in physics went to Francois Englert and Peter Higgs for the Higgs boson that was discovered at CERN. Neglecting Northern Ireland, which is a member via the UK, southern Ireland is not a member of CERN and had no role to play in this great discovery. Ireland is one of the few European countries not involved in this successful European project and as a result, Irish scientists have fewer opportunities to work at CERN.
In this climate, where fundamental research has been pushed to the side, I would use the money to travel Irish schools to engage with the students on what type of science eco-system they want in Ireland. Do you want scientists studying science with largely a view to economic impact, i.e. commercialising research and generating jobs, or would you prefer some funding for blue-sky research? Naturally, I am in favour of the latter and would like to collect the views of the current batch of students on their hopes for the future of science on the island of Ireland.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
passionate, hard-headed, obsessive
Who is your favourite singer or band?
Listening to Queen at the moment; I was too young to appreciate them when they were active. One Queen member, Brian May, also has a PhD from Imperial in astrophysics.
What's your favourite food?
Could easily pick some obscure Japanese, Korean food (live octopus?), but my vote goes for porridge; along with coffee, it gets me out of bed.
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Hosted a talk by a Nobel prize winner (Peter Higgs) months before the announcement.
What did you want to be after you left school?
Lawyer. However, through some divine intervention, I ended up here.
Were you ever in trouble at school?
No! Or else it was so traumatic, I have blotted out the memory.
What was your favourite subject at school?
Somewhat surprisingly English, but good presentation in science is a benefit.
What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?
After a 13 year wait, I found a new example of a particular solution. We now know 2 examples.
What or who inspired you to become a scientist?
A calculation of the mass of the sun from the shifts in the Lyman series. It is amazing what one can achieve with a few simple principles, chalk and a blackboard.
If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
To 1) stop traveling, to 2) eventually teach my English, Spanish, Korean speaking son Irish, to 3) dabble in politics.
Tell us a joke.
“The universe implodes. No matter.” (Liam Williams, Edinburgh Fringe, 2013)