Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Postcard from the Edge of the Universe (2)

by Jeremy Thomas


One theory of the very early universe says that it may have undergone a sudden and rapid period of inflation, when things started to happen and life got more interesting. That sums up my first full week here too!
By Wednesday, the plan for my research project had developed, although down a different path. I am now going to sort through a dataset of candidate colliding galaxies for a new survey project called MANGA. This allows astrophysicists to measure the internal structure of galaxies in great detail, by feeding the light from small areas of a telescope field of view, down a bundle of optical fibres to a spectrometer. The light along each fibre comes only from a small portion of the galaxy, so features such as rotation rate and the mass and concentration of stars can be measured. This project has been suggested by Dr. Karen Masters, a Senior Lecturer and Research Fellow at ICG, who has a particular interest in galaxy formation and dynamics. In fact, she explained some of her research on the latest episode of BBC Sky at Night which was all about cosmic impacts:
 


 
HST image of merging galaxies Arp274 (source: NASA)

I think that Thursday was one of the most exciting days so far, probably helped by the amazing Red Arrows aerobatic display over the city. We had a grandstand view from the balcony on the top floor of the Dennis Sciama building and everybody came out to watch, including the visiting lecturer from Queen’s University Belfast, who was due to give the afternoon seminar on Superluminous Supernovae. Incidentally, thanks to Mr.Burkinshaw for including my photo of the Red Arrows, from the balcony, in last week’s blog – it is also on the Spinnaker Tower Facebook  page!
Despite the interruption by the Red Arrows, Superluminous Supernovae provided a fascinating subject for an afternoon lecture. Mr.Lister, as Head of Classics, will pleased to know that I made the link with the word ‘nova’, meaning a new star. Astronomers observed these appearing in the sky from time to time and eventually realised that they were looking at massive explosions as stars collapsed in on themselves. Some of these events were far brighter than others, and were therefore named ‘supernovae’. In fact, a supernova would be one thousand million times brighter than our Sun at the same distance away, so supernovae are used as standard candles to allow us to measure how far away distant galaxies are. If you know how bright an object should be up close, but it doesn’t look that bright, then you know it is further away – just like a street lamp in Ryde would look from Southsea seafront at night (or vice versa for those of you who actually live in Ryde). Understanding how supernovae work allows astronomers to predict their brightness, so that they can be used as one of the main tools to measure very faint galaxies way back in time. Superluminous supernovae are one hundred times brighter than normal supernovae, and astrophysicists are still trying to find out where all this extra energy comes from.

Some interesting ideas and discussions were going on towards the end of the seminar, but unfortunately I had to move on to my next appointment, which was a cream tea at the Mary Rose Museum.  There was a good reason for this though, as it was part of a networking event between local STEMNet ambassadors and teachers, organised by the INTECH science centre at Winchester. STEMNet puts volunteers working in fields related to Science, Technology,Engineering and Maths in touch with schools who would like to run STEM projects. I was there with Dr.Jen Gupta, Outreach  Officer at ICG, who gave a short presentation on the exciting outreach resources ICG can now provide, including a mobile planetarium show for schools.
The rest of the time, since my last blog, has been spent on more practical aspects of my sabbatical work. I have constructed a very useful spreadsheet of the space and cosmology related topics in all the different A-level and IB Physics specifications. This will be useful for many reasons, but will help ICG to target outreach towards useful areas of the curriculum for sixth formers. I have also attended meetings of the university’s Education Liaison and Outreach Team, to discuss arrangements for the school visits to the forthcoming National Astronomy Meeting. This will be a huge event for the staff here, with over five hundred professional astronomers attending to discuss the latest research, so it is real privilege for local pupils and teachers to be invited to attend parts of the conference. There will be a few sleepless nights next week for some people as final preparations are made, but then they are astronomers and should be used to it!

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