Tremor: A Biography of Parkinson’s Disease

With Professor Dorothy Porter

Tuesday 16 May 2017

5.30-7.30pm at Liverpool Medical Institution & Conference Centre, 114 Mount Pleasant, Liverpool, L3 5SR

This year’s Frances Ivens annual lecture explores how and why transformations have taken place in the material, cultural and experiential history of Parkinson’s Disease from the time of its first description by James Parkinson as The Shaking Palsy in 1817.

This talk will also focus on the experiences of patients, and examines a range of creatively expressive patients, including Wilhelm von Humboldt, Mervyn Peake, John Betjeman and contemporary artists such as Johanne Vermette.

If you wish to attend the two-course dinner after the lecture, please book via the LMI Admin (£20 per person)

Visit for more information and to register your place.


Dr Tim O’Dempsey, Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine

Dr O’Dempsey at Kenema Ebola Treatment Centre, Sierra Leone, July 2014

Wednesday 8 February, 5.30pm

The recent Ebola epidemic in West Africa exploited weak health systems and, as the epidemic spread, effectively paralysed the delivery of health services in the affected regions. Unprecedented in scale and impact, by the time the epidemic was declared over on 29th December 2015, more than 28,600 suspected, probable or confirmed cases of Ebola Virus Disease (EVD), including 11,300 deaths, had been reported. The speaker will discuss the evolution of the epidemic and the role of local, national and international stakeholders, with particular reference to the epidemic in Sierra Leone.

Dr Tim O’Dempsey is Senior Clinical Lecturer in Tropical Medicine and Director of Studies for the DTM&H and Humanitarian Programmes at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. Between July 2014 and December 2015, he was seconded from LSTM to assist in the Ebola epidemic response in Sierra Leone. He provided clinical care for patients with Ebola Virus Disease, advised the Government of Sierra Leone, DFID and various international NGOs and Foreign Medical Teams involved in the response and became the WHO Clinical Lead for the Ebola response in Sierra Leone.

Refreshments from 5.00 pm, talks begin at 5.30 pm, at the Liverpool Medical Institution (LMI), 114 Mount Pleasant, L3 5SR. Why not continue the discussions over an informal supper, including wine, £13.50 (students £8).

Places must be pre-booked, via


Why the baby brain can learn two languages at the same time




Originally published as on The Conversation. For article and more click here

Any adult who has attempted to learn a foreign language can attest to how difficult and confusing it can be. So when a three-year-old growing up in a bilingual household inserts Spanish words into his English sentences, conventional wisdom assumes that he is confusing the two languages.

Research shows that this is not the case.

In fact, early childhood is the best possible time to learn a second language. Children who experience two languages from birth typically become native speakers of both, while adults often struggle with second language learning and rarely attain native-like fluency.

But the question remains: is it confusing for babies to learn two languages simultaneously?

When do babies learn language?

Research shows babies begin to learn language sounds before they’re even born. In the womb, a mother’s voice is one of the most prominent sounds an unborn baby hears. By the time they’re born, newborns can not only tell the difference between their mother’s language and another language, but also show a capability of distinguishing between languages.

Language learning depends on the processing of sounds. All the world’s languages put together comprise about 800 or so sounds. Each language uses only about 40 language sounds, or “phonemes,” which distinguish one language from another.

At birth, the baby brain has an unusual gift: it can tell the difference between all 800 sounds. This means that at this stage infants can learn any language that they’re exposed to. Gradually babies figure out which sounds they are hearing the most.

Babies learn to recognize their mother’s voice even before they are born. John Mayer, CC BY

Between six and 12 months, infants who grow up in monolingual households become more specialized in the subset of sounds in their native language. In other words, they become “native language specialists.” And, by their first birthdays, monolingual infants begin to lose their ability to hear the differences between foreign language sounds.

Studying baby brains

What about those babies who hear two languages from birth? Can a baby brain specialize in two languages? If so, how is this process different then specializing in a single language?

Knowing how the baby brain learns one versus two languages is important for understanding the developmental milestones in learning to speak. For example, parents of bilingual children often wonder what is and isn’t typical or expected, or how their child will differ from those children who are learning a single language.

My collaborators and I recently studied the brain processing of language sounds in 11-month-old babies from monolingual (English only) and bilingual (Spanish-English) homes. We used a completely noninvasive technology called magnetoencephalography (MEG), which precisely pinpointed the timing and the location of activity in the brain as the babies listened to Spanish and English syllables.

We found some key differences between infants raised in monolingual versus bilingual homes.

At 11 months of age, just before most babies begin to say their first words, the brain recordings revealed that:

  • Babies from monolingual English households are specialized to process the sounds of English, and not the sounds of Spanish, an unfamiliar language
  • Babies from bilingual Spanish-English households are specialized to process the sounds of both languages, Spanish and English.
Here’s a video summarizing our study.

Our findings show that babies’ brains become tuned to whatever language or languages they hear from their caregivers. A monolingual brain becomes tuned to the sounds of one language, and a bilingual brain becomes tuned to the sounds of two languages. By 11 months of age, the activity in the baby brain reflects the language or languages that they have been exposed to.

Is it OK to learn two languages?

This has important implications. Parents of monolingual and bilingual children alike are eager for their little ones to utter the first words. It’s an exciting time to learn more about what the baby is thinking. However, a common concern, especially for bilingual parents, is that their child is not learning fast enough.

We found that the bilingual babies showed an equally strong brain response to English sounds as the monolingual babies. This suggests that bilingual babies were learning English at the same rate as the monolingual babies.

Parents of bilingual children also worry that their children will not know as many words as children who are raised with one language.

Bilingualism does not cause confusion. jakeliefer, CC BY

To some extent, this concern is valid. Bilingual infants split their time between two languages, and thus, on average, hear fewer words in each. However, studies consistently show that bilingual children do not lag behind when both languages are considered.

Vocabulary sizes of bilingual children, when combined across both languages, have been found to be equal to or greater than those of monolingual children.

Another common concern is that bilingualism causes confusion. Part of this concern arises due to “code switching,” a speaking behavior in which bilinguals combine both languages.

For example, my four-year-old son, who speaks English, Spanish, and Slovene, goes as far as using the Slovene endings on Spanish and English words. Research shows bilingual children code-switch because bilingual adults around them do too. Code-switching in bilingual adults and children is rule-governed, not haphazard.

Unlike monolingual children, bilingual children have another language from which they can easily borrow if they can’t quickly retrieve the appropriate word in one language. Even two-year-olds modulate their language to match the language used by their interlocutor.

Researchers have shown code switching to be part of a bilingual child’s normal language development. And it could even be the beginning of what gives them the extra cognitive prowess known as the “bilingual advantage.”

Bilingual kids are at an advantage

The good news is young children all around the world can and do acquire two languages simultaneously. In fact, in many parts of the world, being bilingual is the norm rather than an exception.

It is now understood that the constant need to shift attention between languages leads to several cognitive advantages. Research has found that bilingual adults and children show an improved executive functioning of the brain – that is, they are able to shift attention, switch between tasks and solve problems more easily. Bilinguals have also been found to have increased metalinguistic skills (the ability to think about language per se, and understand how it works). There is evidence that being bilingual makes the learning of a third language easier. Further, the accumulating effect of dual language experience is thought to translate into protective effects against cognitive decline with aging and the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

So, if you want your child to know more than one language, it’s best to start at an early age, before she even starts speaking her first language. It won’t confuse your child, and it could even give her a boost in other forms of cognition.

Amy Bidgood is presenting How Do Children Learn Language this Saturday 19 November. If you would like to read about her course and enroll click here 

Disclosure statement

The research described here was supported by the National Science Foundation Science of Learning Center Program grant to the UW LIFE Center (P.K.K., PI: Grant No. SMA-0835854), the Ready Mind Project at the UW Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences, and the Washington State Life Science Discovery Fund (LSDF).

Unravelling the Earth past using stable isotopes

Unravelling the Earth past using stable isotopes
By Tsvetomila Mateeva & Nealy Carr

Everything around us is made of atoms of different elements. These tiny nanoscale particles are the building blocks of matter and life itself, the plants, the animals, the rocks, the stars the whole universe, the air we breathe and indeed you and I and everyone else. Since the dawn of time, people have wondered about the origins of the Earth, and the study of chemistry has helped answer some of these questions and given us great insight into the secrets of Planet Earth.
Science is constantly evolving and history is marked by great breakthroughs that allow us to progress and enable us to see and understand our world more and more. One such discovery was the discovery of the stable isotopes. Some of the first traces of the notion of isotopes go back to the beginning of the 20th century (around 1913), when the scientists Kasimir Fajans and Frederick Soddy, independently of each other, made the conclusion that atoms of the same element but with different masses exist. The term “isotope” we use nowadays however, was given by Frederick Soddy.
Isotopes of an element have the same atomic mass, the same number of protons and electrons, but can be lighter or heavier depending on the number of neutrons. It is this difference that enables chemists, biologists and physicists to explore, understand and answer questions that have eluded us in the past.
The application of a stable isotope approach is a powerful biogeochemical tool, and the ratio between the heavy and light isotopes of different elements are commonly used in earth science, archaeology, food safety and forensic science. For Example:

• Light isotopes of gases such as oxygen and hydrogen are well understood and used in geochemistry to trace the geographical source
• Carbon isotopes are used to differentiate organic and inorganic matter which in turns helps us reconstruct past conditions for life on Earth
• Oxygen isotopes are used as a planetary thermometer from which we can determine the temperature and climate of the past
• Boron isotopes are an indicator of the acidity or pH of our paleo oceans

Most part of us knows some TV criminal series, such as CSI, where the characters often use chemical analyses to find more information about the crime scene and determine who is guilty. Unfortunately in the real life the things don’t happen so fast and as accurately as in these series. Despite this fact, we try to apply these techniques in many cases. They could help determine the authenticity of a food – is a maple syrup a real one or is it made of corn or sugar syrup (carbon isotopes); are the vegetables you bought last week from a local farmer (hydrogen and oxygen isotopes)? The stable isotopes could give us a satisfying answer to these kinds of questions.The many applications of stable isotopes methods in the modern society.


The picture is from the august issue magazine Elements explaining the social and economic impact of the geochemistry (Ehleringer et al., 2015)

If you would like to learn more about this fascinating subject Tsvetomila & Nealy are running a brilliant short 5 week course Unravelling the Past: A Geochemical Approach from Wednesday 13 April – you can read more about this course and book your place here

What have we discovered in Gravitational Waves?

By Stephen Hughes


In 1915, ten years after the publication of the theory of special relativity, Albert Einstein published a new theoretical description of gravity, the theory of general relativity. Before general relativity, gravity was understood in terms of Newton’s law of gravitation, which gives excellent agreement between the predicted and observed positions for most of the planets in the Solar System. However, the predictions regarding the planet Mercury’s orbit around the Sun are slightly wrong. One of the first confirmations that general relativity was the correct description of gravity came from the theory accounting for this discrepancy. A theoretical model, such as general relativity, should lead to a better understanding of the phenomena it is trying to describe. There should also be predictions regarding the outcome of experiments when measurements are made. Ideally the predictions should not only explain what is already known but provide some insight into new effects. General relativity gives many predictions regarding previously unknown effects while accounting for everything that is already known from Newton’s work.

Physics Motion

In 1916 Einstein found his theory predicted the existence of gravitational waves. Many of the other predictions of general relativity have been confirmed experimentally in the early decades that followed. Einstein’s gravitational waves have eluded direct experimental confirmation for a century, leaving some uncertainty if they actually exist. During the past century many experiments have been designed to detect and study gravitational waves. The instruments used to detect gravitational waves need to be extremely sensitive to small disturbances in space-time. Gravity is the result of mass and energy curving space-time. Gravitational waves are ripples in space-time, propagating at the speed of light. When propagating through a region of space-time, the gravitational waves change the curvature of space-time by a small amount in that region. This is what the experiments try to measure. Only large scale processes, such as the collision of two stars, are likely to produce significant gravitational waves to be detected based on present instrument sensitivity. Gravitational waves carry away some of the energy from the collision. Detecting and measuring the gravitational waves gives information about the colliding masses.

In September 2015 the gravitational wave detectors comprising LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory), resumed after undergoing an upgrade designed to increase the sensitivity of the instruments. Shortly after this upgrade in February 2016 the paper ‘Observation of Gravitational Waves from a Binary Black Hole Merger’ was published in the journal Physical Review Letters. This work represents the collaborative effort of a large team of scientists, engineers and mathematicians from different countries, working together over many years. Their work documents the first direct confirmation of gravitational waves. While this is a triumphant confirmation of Einstein’s ideas about gravity it is also the beginning of a new era of astronomical observations. Traditionally objects in the Universe are observed by collecting visible light through the aperture of a telescope. Visible light represents only a small range of the electromagnetic spectrum. Observing the Universe using only visible light restricts the information that can be obtained. Extending the range to include other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum gives more information, leading to a better understanding. When viewing nebulae, the birth place of stars, while only detecting visible light, the features of these systems can be obscured by a large cloud of gas and dust surrounding the newly forming stars. However, observing the same systems with detectors sensitive to light from other regions of the electromagnetic spectrum reveals more structural detail. The gas and dust in this case are not preventing the light from leaving the system.

Space Small

Astronomers now have a new technique for observing objects and events in the Universe. These first gravitational waves measured by LIGO originated when two black holes merged together, the first time this type of event has ever been observed. There are presently several gravitational wave detectors being constructed and others planned for construction in the near future. Perhaps the most promising of these are DECIGO (DECI-hertz Interferometer Gravitational wave Observatory), and eLISA (Evolved Laser Interferometer Space Antenna), which are anticipated to be launched in 2027 and 2038 respectively. These space based instruments will be more sensitive and capable of detecting gravitational waves from a greater range of astronomical events. Since gravitational waves also travel through space-time unaffected by other events, those produced in the early Universe are still propagating through space-time today. If measured these primordial gravitational waves could lead to a better understanding of the origin of the Universe.

To learn more about Einstein’s general relativity, space-time and gravitational waves why not enrol onto 101 Years of General Relativity with Stephen Hughes starting Monday 4th April 2016 you can enrol here

An Introduction to Oceanography

With Hannah Whitby


The more we learn about oceanography, the more questions we have. I love oceanography because it is one of the only truly unknown frontiers we have left. There is still so much to learn and so much to explore. Science is continually advancing at a magnificent pace, but it is surprising how little we really know about what happens in our own oceans.

The life of an oceanographer is varied and often involves lots of travelling and field work. We are driven by a desire to discover and to understand. We collect information, perform experiments, analyse masses of data and model theoretical scenarios to work out anything and everything we can, such as: where do water masses sink? Why do icebergs travel at 90◦ to the wind? Why do some regions of the ocean have plenty of sunlight and nutrients, but hardly anything grows?

Oceanography brings together experts from all disciplines, from ecology and chemistry, to computing and engineering. Around 40% of the world’s population live within 100km of the sea; the oceans support 20% of our global protein source. We rely on the oceans heavily, from energy and fisheries to transport and ecotourism. Understanding more about tsunamis, tropical cyclones and oil spills will help to prevent, or recover, from major disasters more effectively. The oceans are a potentially infinite source of energy, food and wealth – but we must also learn how to manage them effectively, exploiting their riches sustainably.


Every bit of research helps us to piece together the bigger picture. To understand the biology, we need to understand the chemistry and the physics. Everything in the ocean is linked; temperature, oxygen, sediments, currents, life. How hot is the water from a hydrothermal vent? What causes coral reef bleaching? How long do turtles live? How old is Pacific bottom water? Many questions have been answered; others are the topics of current oceanographic research; many, many more remain to be asked.

This year I will teach a brand new course with Continuing Education that aims to describe our journey of ocean exploration, from the early days to current cutting-edge research. The course will discuss the life of an oceanographer, the main questions that have been asked over the years, and how we go about finding the answers.

Hannah will be teaching a brand new course this October Introduction to Oceanography for 5 weeks from Wednesday 7 October. If you would like to read more about this course please click here Introduction to Oceanography

Clinical Psychology with Keith Morgan

Clinical Psychology is an online course from Continuing Education.

Course Description

Psychology is the scientific study of human thought and behaviour, the field of Clinical Psychology specialises in understanding the complexities of human behaviour in particularly ‘abnormal’ behaviour by applying the insights of research in various areas (eg Developmental; Cognitive; Biological). Clinical Psychology aims to understand, prevent, and relieve psychological distress, with topics such as origins of mental illness, understanding psychological formulation and psychosis, this short course will provide an overview of key clinical areas, offering a solid foundation for budding psychologists or those interested in learning more about the field.

Aims and Objectives

​The aim of this course is to give students an introduction to Clinical Psychology. During this course we will think about how clinical psychologists understand people’s experience of mental health problems and how psychologists support people when they are experiencing psychological or emotional distress. We will consider the tensions between the classic biomedical approach and a thoroughgoing psychological approach, as well as the attempt to combine them in the biopsychosocial perspective. The course will give students an understanding of some of the key  ideas underpinning the practice of Clinical Psychology which are still being challenged. Throughout the course students will have the opportunity to apply acquired knowledge by participating in interactive learning sessions.

Learning Strategies

  1. Online Discussions:

Students will be required to participate in online discussions throughout the course and will be instructed to do so at appropriate points in the online sessions. The online discussion boards will contain prompt questions to support students to structure their discussions in line with the aims and objectives for each session. The discussion boards will be closely monitored by module staff.

  1. Lecture: 

For the online course students will be given access to online lectures or podcasts during each of the sessions.

  1. Videos:

Students will be required to watch a number of short video clips during the online course. These video clips are included to supplement the students learning. Students will be informed if videos contain any content they may find distressing and viewing video clips will not be compulsory.

  1. Wiki Project

During session two of the course students will be required to carry out a piece of independent research. Once students have completed their research they will be required to submit their pieces to a ‘Wiki Page’ which will be accessible to all other students enrolled on the course and module staff.

  1. Online Quiz:

During session two of the course, students will consolidate their learning by participating in an online quiz. It will not be compulsory for students to take part in the quiz; the quiz will act as a learning resource to supplement learning during the session.

  1. Case Based Learning: 

Over the course of the sessions students will develop skills in applying psychological theory to case materials. Students will be required to read case materials and answer a series of questions about the case as directed by module staff.

  1. Self-Directed Learning: 

The self directed learning aspect of the course will include; independent research time, completion of the assignment and any reading students wish to complete from the recommended reading list. You must not try to read everything – choose what interests you at the level you are at. (Ask me for advice on where to go for a good book on compassion-based therapy or CBT or formulation, etc, and I will help.)


Below is a schedule of the sessions students will be participating in over this course. This session plan lets students know what we will be learning each week and what will be required of them to achieve the learning outcomes set for each session.

Week One: What is Psychology? 

During this session we will define the discipline of Psychology, in particular the specialism of Clinical Psychology. We will learn about the origins of Clinical Psychology and key historical figures who influenced positive changes in mental health care.

 Week Two: Understanding Diagnosis

In this session we will explore what society considers to be ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ behaviour. We will learn how mental health problems are understood by the medical profession and discuss the differences between this and psychological approaches. During this session students will be required to conduct their own independent research around some of the limitations of a diagnostic approach.

Week Three: An Introduction to Psychological Formulation 

Following the previous session about medical diagnosis, this session introduces the concept of formulation. Students will be given the opportunity to understand how psychologists think about and understand mental health problems in the context of life experience. Students will further develop this knowledge by applying general principles of formulation to real life case studies.

Week Four: The Therapeutic Relationship 

This session will further develop previous ideas by looking at the therapeutic practice of Clinical Psychology. During this session students will develop an understanding of the importance of the therapeutic relationship in facilitating meaningful therapeutic change.

Week Five: Understanding Anxiety 

During these next two sessions students will develop an understanding of how psychological approaches are applied to specific sets of problems. This session in particular looks at anxiety problems. (Anxiety is suited to a biopsychosocial approach.)

Week Six: Understanding Psychosis 

During this session students will again apply psychological approaches to understanding specific problems. This session will look at psychosis (schizophrenia is the most common example). People who experience psychosis can have a wide range of distressing experiences, the focus of this session will be around students building an understanding of the subjective experience of psychotic phenomena. We will also note the different understanding of the classic biomedical approach that usually sees psychosis as due to internal, biological factors, and the psychological perspective that has made a very strong case for the importance of trauma in creating psychosis.


If you wish to receive credits for your participation in this course you will be required to complete the final assignment which will be applying principles of psychological thinking to a case study.

Recommended Reading


Bentall, R. (2004). Madness Explained: Psychosis and Human Nature. London, Penguin Group.

Cromby, J., Harper, D.,& Reavey, P. (2013). Psychology, Mental Health and Distress, London, Palgrave Macmillan.

Davies, J. (2013). Cracked: Why Psychiatry is Doing More Harm Than Good. London, Icon Books.

Duncan, B.L., Miller, S.D., Wampold, B.E. & Hubble, M.A. (2010) The Heart and Soul of Change. (2nd edition)  Washington:APA. [I recommend this above all others, it changed my informed view of clinical therapies upside down after 30 years!]

Gilbert,P. 2010 The Compassionate Mind.  London:Constable. [New edition due]

Johnstone, L. (2006). Formulation in Psychology and Psychotherapy: Making Sense of People’s Problems. London, Routledge.

Kinderman, P. (2014). A Prescription for Psychiatry: Why We Need a Whole New Approach to Mental Health and Wellbeing. London, Palgrave Macmillan.

McCormick, E.W.  (1996) Change for the Better: Self-Help Through Practical Psychotherapy (2nd edition).  London:Cassell. [Get latest edition.]

Weatherhead, S., & Flaherty-Jones, G. (2011). A Pocket Guide to Therapy: A ‘How To’ of the Core Models. London, SAGE Publications.

Romme, M., Escher, S., Dillon, J., Corstens, D., & Morris, M. (2009). Living with Voices: 50 Stories of Recovery. Birmingham, PCCS Books.

Recommended Reading (Accessible via University of Liverpool Library)

Adame, A. (2015) – ‘Review of Formulation: Making sense of peoples problems’

Bentall, R. and Kinderman, P. (2008) –  ‘A transdiagnostic investigation of ‘theory of mind’ and ‘jumping to conclusions’ in patients with persecutory delusions

Bentall, R. (2011) –  ‘Madness Explained

Bentall, R. (2011) –  ‘The Point is to Change Things’

Bentall, R. (2014) – What Are We to Believe About How We Believe?

Cheshire, K. (2004) –  ‘A Short Introduction to Clinical Psychology

Cutting, J. (1995) –  ‘Living with voices’

Dunkley, J.E, Bates, G.W.and Findlay, B.M (2015) – ‘Understanding the trauma of first-episode psychosis’

Frances, A. J. (2011) – ‘The Constant DSM-5- Missed Deadlines and Their Consequences: The Future Is Closing In. (cover story)

Frances, A. J. and Widiger, T. (2012) – ‘Psychiatric Diagnosis: Lessons from the DSM-IV past and autions for the DSM-5 future

Honig, A., Romme, M., Ensink, B., Escher, Sandra D., Pennings, M. and deVries, M. (1998) – ‘Auditory hallucinations’

Kinderman, P. and Lobban, F. (2000) – ‘Evolving Formulation: Sharing Complex Information with Clients’

Kinderman, P. (2005) – ‘A psychological model of mental disorder’

Kinderman, P. and Tai, S. (2007) – ‘Empirically Grounded Clinical Interventions Clinical Implications of a Psychological Model of Mental Disorder

Kinderman, P. (2007) – ‘Human Rights and Applied Psychology’

Longden, E., Corstens, D., Escher, S. and Romme, M. (2012) – ‘Voice Hearing in a biographical context: A model for formulating the relationship between voices and life history’

Rosenhan, D.L. (1973) – ‘On being sane in insane places

Selzer, R. and Ellen, S. (2014) – ‘Formulation for Beginners’

Watts, S., Turnell, A., Kladnitski, N., Newby, J. and Andrews, G. (2015) – ‘CBT systematic review

Zaitsoff, S., Pullmer, R., Cyr, M. and Aime, H. (2015) – ‘The role of the therapeutic alliance in eating disorder treatment outcomes: A systematic review’


Assessment and Certification

This course is accredited. To be awarded credit you must satisfactorily complete all elements of the course. Successful students will receive credit which will take the form of 5 units of transferable credit at FHEQ level 4 of the Credit Accumulation and Transfer Scheme (CATS). A transcript detailing the credit is available via the Liverpool Life web pages.

For further information regarding credit and certification please visit:


100 Years of General Relativity: The Brilliance of Albert Einstein by Stephen Hughes



In the 19th century Michael Faraday undertook experiments to explore the relationship between electricity and magnetism. These experiments demonstrated that a magnet moving through a wire coil causes an electric current to flow through the wire and conversely an electric current flowing through a wire coil causes a magnetic compass to deviate from pointing north. These phenomena are utilised extensively today in the generation of electricity and the conversion of electricity into circular motion (an electric motor). Faraday was a great experimentalist but it was James Clerk Maxwell who extended these principles into a complete theory of electricity and magnetism. When Maxwell applied his theory to the properties of empty space (with no positive/negative charges or north/south poles present) not everything in the equations disappeared. What remained was a description of a wave propagating at a very fast speed. This is light.


In 1905 Albert Einstein published four scientific papers. One of these papers titled ‘On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies’ outlines his theory of special relativity. Einstein was interested in Faraday’s experiments and Maxwell’s theory. Particularly the fact that it doesn’t matter if the magnet moves inside the coil or the coil moves around the magnet, as long as there is motion between the two an electric current will flow through the coil. In special relativity, Einstein uses two assumptions to establish a new foundation for physics. The original foundation leads to inconsistencies to explain this phenomenon between electricity and magnetism. In classical mechanics, as developed by Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton, there is no speed limit. Objects can travel at any speed. This original foundation also contains a concept called universal time, which involves time flowing at the same rate for all objects. If one object is travelling very fast and another is not travelling at all then both will still agree how long it took for the minute hand of a clock to make one complete revolution, one hour.

Physics motion

One assumption Einstein imposed is the speed of light is the fastest possible speed any object can travel. As a result of this restriction the concept of universal time had to be abolished. No longer would everyone agree on the time taken for the minute hand to make one complete revolution. Imagine two objects equip with clocks, one travels close to the speed of light and another stays at rest. Upon comparing the clocks we would find time has passed more slowly for the object travelling fast compared to the object that stayed at rest. If the clock for the object at rest shows that one hour has passed, then the object travelling fast would show that less than one hour has passed. Time slows down the faster you travel with the amount it slows down proportional to how fast you travel. Unstable particles, produced in space, don’t not have enough time, before they decay into other particles, to travel the distance from space to sea level where they are detected. When the time taken for these particles to decay at rest is measured in the laboratory they are found to decay more quickly. Time must slow down for the unstable particles as they travel close to the speed of light, from their perspective not enough time has passed for them to decay. These effects only become noticeable when objects travel close to the speed of light.

Einstein wanted to apply these same principles to gravity with an aim of removing the inconsistencies plaguing the motion of the planet Mercury around the Sun, as predicted by Newton’s theory of gravity. In 1915, after ten years working on this problem, Einstein presented his general theory of relativity to the scientific community. Since this time most of the predictions made by Einstein’s theory have been tested and verified. Some predictions, such as gravitational waves, have yet to be detected. General relativity is one of the greatest achievements in human history and continues to enlighten our understanding of the Universe.

Stephen will be teaching a 5-week course titled 100 Years of General Relativity from Tuesday 28 April. To join him for this one hundred year anniversary course to celebrate and explore Einstein’s theories of special and general relativity you can book your place by clicking here .


Introduction to Classical Mechanics by Stephen Hughes


Introduction to Classical Mechanics by Stephen Hughes

Gravity, a natural phenomenon that keeps our feet firmly on the ground and occasionally permits us to have our heads in the clouds, shapes the Universe by binding vast systems of planets, stars and galaxies together. It is also responsible for the Earth’s dynamic tides and causing apples to fall from trees. Yet it is the weakest of all the fundamental forces that govern how everything interacts with everything else. The other three forces are the strong force, electromagnetism and the weak force, in order of decreasing strength. The strong force binds protons and neutrons together forming the nuclei of atoms. Electromagnetism is responsible for electric charges attracting and repelling one another. This also includes the similar effects experienced by magnets. The familiar behaviour of this force is how opposites attract and likes repel. Finally the weak force, still far stronger than gravity, causes radioactive decay. Why then does gravity have such a big impact on the dynamics of the Universe? The answer to this question has two parts. Firstly the strong and weak forces act only over very short distances, about the same distance as the size of an atoms nucleus. Secondly, although electromagnetism has an infinite range it acts on objects that have either a positive or negative charge. There are usually an equal number of positive and negative charges in a given region so any overall effect cancels out. Gravity in comparison has an infinite range but acts only on objects that have mass, which is always positive. This is how gravity triumphs in governing the large scale dynamics of the Universe. Only one type of mass, positive mass, means gravity causes everything to be attracted to everything else.

When Isaac Newton described gravity mathematically he provided a method to calculate the future position of the planets, the height of the tides and eventually helped land a spacecraft on the moon. The downside to his description is that it gives no indication of how gravity works. What mechanism causes two objects with mass to be attracted towards each other? As astronomical measuring instruments improved it was observed that the predictions regarding Mercury’s position were slightly wrong. Albert Einstein had been thinking about gravity and was interested in this problem with Mercury. His new theory of gravity, general relativity, accounted for this small difference and calculated the correct position of Mercury. It does this by incorporating the strong gravitational effects experienced near to very heavy objects, like the Sun. Mercury, being the closest planet to the Sun, is affected more than any other planet in the solar system. General relativity also gives us an insight into the mechanism that makes gravity work. Space is described as distortable, compressing and stretching in the presence of mass. Space warps around an object with mass, which causes a passing object to follow the shape created by the warped space, giving an illusion of a force acting between the two objects.
Stephen will be leading a fascinating course by Continuing Education titled an Introduction to Classical Mechanics: The Origins of Science from Wednesday 1 October –