RAS Presidential Address 2023 - Prof. Mike Edmunds (Cardiff University)

R O'Sullivan
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The Mechanical Universe

What would it mean to say that we understand the Universe? By the second century BCE, the Greeks were well aware of the cycles of full moons and eclipses worked out by the Babylonians from long series of naked-eye observations. They incorporated those cycles into the design of geared astronomical display devices, of which the remarkable Antikythera Mechanism is the only known survivor – although there are quite a few references to them in ancient literature. I will suggest that these devices imply a fundamental conceptual change in how we tried to make sense of the Universe, and I will trace a mechanical way of thinking that has persisted through to the present day. However, the Greeks had the problem of being able to describe planetary motions in detail but there was no satisfactory physical explanation (heliocentric orbits under gravity) until the age of Kepler and Newton. This has a rather intriguing parallel in modern cosmology – little more than a hundred years old - where we can describe in detail the parameters of the evolution of the Universe, but seem to have hit a wall in our search for a satisfactory physical explanation for its ultimate behaviour. Will we eventually have to transcend our familiar mechanical ways of thought to make progress?

Mike Edmunds is President of the Society May 2022 - May 2024, having previously served twice as a Council member and once as a Vice-President. His undergraduate and PhD degrees are from Cambridge University, but he has lived and worked in Wales since 1974. He is currently Emeritus Professor of Astrophysics at Cardiff University, having been a former Head of the School of Physics and Astronomy. His main research area has been in the chemical evolution of galaxies and the Universe – the topic for next year’s Presidential Address! He has also worked on the origin of interstellar dust, and in the history of astronomy. He is a past member of two UK Research Councils – PPARC and STFC. He confesses to having experienced fifty years of great satisfaction and joy in undergraduate teaching and public engagement.

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Venue Address

The Royal Astronomical Society,Burlington House


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