Friday, 27 June 2014

Dark Energy: The Holy Grail of Physics

by Jeremy Thomas

PGS Y12 Physicists at Prof Sarah Bridle’s Key Note Lecture on Dark Energy at NAM 2014
Year 12 Pupils from PGS were given the unique opportunity to attend a professional, scientific conference as part of a sixth form open morning at the National Astronomy Meeting 2014. This is the Royal Astronomical Society’s premier, annual scientific event and was hosted by the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation  (ICG) at the University of Portsmouth. The sixth form pupils were able to listen to the first plenary lecture of the day at the Guildhall. The topic was the search for Dark Energy, the Holy Grail of Physics now that the Higgs Boson has been found. The lecture was given by Professor Sarah Bridle of the University of Manchester’s Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics. Professor Bridle explained some of the methods being investigated, such as weak gravitational lensing of early structures in the universe, which distorts the shape of galaxies and allows the effects of Dark Energy to be detected. Following this lecture to the whole conference, Professor Bridle kindly agreed to talk exclusively to the group of visiting sixth formers, answering some of their cosmological questions in more depth, as well as explaining her own career path and dual role as both mother of two and international expert on Dark Energy. 

Following this useful session, the pupils were able to visit the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) exhibition ‘Seeing the Universe in All Its Light’, which showcases some of the amazing technological developments behind the advances in modern astronomy. The exhibits included a one quarter scale replica of the Very Large Telescope at the European Southern Observatory in Chile. Pupils recognised instantly the accommodation hostel for visiting scientists, which was used to film spectacular action sequences in the Bond movie, Quantum of Solace. Other fascinating technological developments included mini robots, which can be moved around to place tiny mirror surfaces at the exact point where light from a specific object is being collected. There was also a scale model of the James Webb Space Telescope, presently under development, and interesting spin off technologies, such as the use of adaptive optics in medical imaging, where blurring due to moving body parts is similar to the atmospheric shimmering which affects astronomical images. 

The PGS pupils gained a real insight into the cutting edge of research in cosmology and astronomy, as well as an opportunity to appreciate, first hand, how scientists collaborate across the world to seek out the answers to the questions human beings can’t help asking!


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