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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Past Events

Evidence on Trial Public Lecture - The Interplay of Evidence and Theory in Astrophysics and Cosmology

19th October 2015, 18:15 to 19:15, Kingsley Barrett Room, Calman Learning Centre, Professor Michael Rowan Robinson (Imperial College, London)


Is evidence crucial to science? Surely itʼs obvious the answer is yes?

We collect evidence, try to model it with mathematical theories, and then test those theories with new observations and experiments. The redshifts of galaxies are evidence for the expansion of the universe. The cosmic microwave background radiation is indirect evidence for a hot big bang. 

But Copernicus had no evidence that the earth went round the sun (this did not come for another 300 years). Einstein was not driven by evidence to construct his theory of gravity, the General Theory of Relativity. And what is the evidence that the temperature at the centre of the sun is 15 million degrees centigrade?

In fact new theories are often not driven by evidence but by a powerful metaphysical idea. Philosophers of science have tried to characterize the scientific method and the role of evidence, but in trying to describe science we find that it is not subject to a simple set of rules or methods.

Michael Rowan-Robinson is Senior Research Investigator and Emeritus Professor of Astrophysics at Imperial College London. He was Head of Astrophysics at Imperial from 1993-2007 and President of the Royal Astronomical Society from 2006-8. 

He works in infrared and submillimetre astronomy and observational cosmology. He has worked on a series of infrared space astronomy missions, including IRAS, ISO, Spitzer and Herschel. He was awarded the Hoyle Medal of the Institute of Physics in 2008 and has an asteroid named after him. 

He is author of several books, including Cosmic Landscape, Our Universe, Ripples in the Cosmos, Nine Numbers of the Cosmos, and Night Vision. His articles and essays include ‘Aristotle, the first physicist ?’ (Physics World), ‘Reflections on Kant and Herschel: the interaction of theory and observation ?’ (in The Harmony of the Sphere), and ’Shakespeare’s Astronomy’.

This lecture is free and open to all.


Map – The Calman Learning Centre is denoted at building number: 43.

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