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The Comedy of Errors

PubhD #19: Theoretical Physics, Politics, Security Studies

25 August 15 words: Gav Squires
Three local researchers each have ten minutes to do a "pub level" talk about their research with only a whiteboard to present with
PubhD #19

Lisa's notes - Photo: Kash Farooq

First up, in front of a record audience, is Lisa who is researching quantum gravity. Specifically she is simulating space-time using computers.

So, what is quantum gravity? It's the attempt to combine general relativity with quantum theory. Quantum theory shows us wave/particle duality. Like ripples on a pond, waves can interfere with each other. If we measure a photon of light, it behaves like a particle. However, these particles can still interfere with each other, so it is both a wave and a particle at the same time.

When we talk about gravity from a general relativity point of view, we're looking at space-time. In fact, gravity is the curvature of space-time. We can see this effect in the way that light is bent around planets.

When it comes to quantum gravity, we have a problem. If we look at the path integral, which in quantum mechanics is the sampling over all possible paths, all of the calculations give infinity. This is because a photon has mass and so can effect itself.

In quantum gravity, space and time are no longer one fixed thing. So rather than looking at path integrals over all possible paths, Lisa is looking at integrals over discrete spaces. Hence, she is looking at 2D triangles, 3D pyramids and 4D tetrahedra. You can build arbitrarily flat things together to get curvature.

Most of the ways of creating these spaces are "weird" due to the amount of energy that would be required to build them. Hence Lisa has to be selective when deciding what spaces to model. She also needs a clear direction of time when creating these manifolds.

The idea is that you would shrink these discrete shapes down until you can no longer see the joins and you have just one surface which could then model reality. Lisa is hopeful that eventually real-life experiments will be conducted to test quantum gravity, otherwise her research hasn't really been physics, it has been mathematics and philosophy.

Key learning: Mario, of Super Mario Bros fame, exists in 2D space-time.

After a break for everyone to refill their glasses, Amy is up. She has been researching the 2014 Immigration Bill and how we relate ourselves to the rest of the EU.

But before we can talk about the 2014 Immigration Bill, we have to think about what came before. Who remembers the "Go Home" vans? Regardless of the rights or wrongs of the vans themselves, the fact that they were sent around areas that didn't actually have high numbers of illegal immigrants wasn't too clever.

The UK Immigration Bill was described by the government as "cleaning up Labour's mistakes.” It looked at how to export people who are already living here. It reformed the appeals process and gave powers to strip citizenship. There was some curbing of Article 8 of the Human Rights Act whereby immigrants could stay if they had children here. If you wanted to bring your spouse here from outside of the EEA, you now need to be earning at least £18,000 per year. This is up from £5,000 and goes up £2,000 for each dependent that you have.

Landlords, banks and even the DVLA now have to do immigration checks. This leads to a lot of issues with people not knowing whether or not immigrants identification is real. A lot of these new rules have knock-on effects to EU migrants as they have the same rights as people from the UK.

The UK toes the EU line far more than the government and media would have you think. For example, we gave £7M to the French to help deal with the current "migrant crisis" in Calais. Meanwhile, the EU don't really care about how we deal with immigration, they have far bigger issues. "Brexit" isn't even on their agenda, they think talk of the UK leaving the EU is just us trying to be different.


Scientists go home! - Photo: Rick Findler

Why are we acting like there will be a "Brexit" when there will be a new EU treaty in the next 3-4 years. We could put ourselves in a much better position. Rather than being a naughty outsider, we could be a central force driving change.

Here in the UK, the largest number of immigrants are from Ireland (the US and India are second and third). In fact, only 5% of immigrants are actually from the EU. Although 60-70% of FTSE 100 CEOs are Tier 1 or Tier 2 immigrants, which demonstrates how important immigrants are to our economy.

Tier 1 - generally rich oligarchs. You have to earn over £1M a year
Tier 2 - average worker
Tier 4 - Student

(There also used to be a Tier 3 which was agricultural workers)

Finally, we hear about Frontex. This is a military based organisation that protects the Mediterranean border. Despite how far away it is, the UK are the biggest funders of Frontex. It just goes to show that we really do meet with EU norms.

Key learning: There is no such thing as an illegal asylum seeker

Closing the evening is Gareth. He is researching securitisation theory and how it relates to cyber-terrorism.

Developed in the nineties, securitisation theory is where an individual or a group are able to persuade that a threat is large enough to elevate it beyond politics. For example the war on drugs or the war on terror.

Cyber-terrorism is a phrase first coined in the eighties - it is more than just regular hacking. But there is still some debate about what actually constitutes cyber terrorism. Does terrorists using the internet count? For example what about the 9/11 terrorists who bought their tickets online? A better definition is an attack on systems or data therein that generates fear.

The nearest things that we've had to a cyber-terrorism attack that would fulfil that definition are:

2007 - an attack on an Australian sewage system
2009 - US and Israeli backed hackers attacked Iranian nuclear centrifuges
2010 - an attack on a German steel works

Although a far bigger threat is squirrels. Every year they cause hundreds of power outages while cyber-terrorism has never caused a single one.

One of Gareth's key themes is the use of images used in the reporting of cyber-terrorism. Mostly there seems to be the use of the stock imagery of the hands on a keyboard. This is all probably due to the fact that the internet is hard to conceptualise and hence so is the threat which is what leads to the securitisation due to cyber-terrorism. In many ways, it's like a horror movie where the monster only feels real once you have actually seen it.

Of course we're not really helped here in the UK where we are seen as consumers of the internet rather than netizens. In fact David Cameron even said in a speech that he wanted to ban encryption. So we are left with non-democratic securitisation to "protect" us from cyber-terrorism, a threat which may never happen.

Key learning: There has never actually been a cyber-terrorism attack (unless you consider the US and Israeli governments to be terrorists).

PubhD #19 took place at The Vat and Fiddle on Wednesday 19 August 2015.

PubhD returns to The Vat and Fiddle on Wednesday 16 September 2015. The subjects will be Chemistry, Physics & Biomedicine. 

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