Sunday, 22 June 2014

Postcard from the Edge of the Universe III

by Jeremy Thomas

The lifecycle of a star is a very dynamic process, involving some of the most fundamental and spectacular aspects of Physics in our universe.  Whilst star formation is a slow process, dominated by gravity pulling all the ingredients gradually together, once a certain point is reached there is no going back and things get really exciting. Nuclear fusion in the core of the star throws out vast quantities of energy, turning matter into electromagnetic radiation, as described by Einstein’s famous equation E=mc2. Exotic particles fly out from the star, its magnetic field twisting the streams of material into contorted loops and jets randomly reaching out into space.

Life at the ICG has taken a similar turn this week, with huge amounts of energy pouring into the final arrangements for the National Astronomy Meeting (NAM) next week. Even professors have been seen sweating over stacks of handout materials and recycling the cardboard boxes they came in. There are briefings for all the volunteers needed to guide and register the 500 or more delegates and research is on hold for a while.  A number of public events are being run at NAM, in conjunction with Portsmouth Festivities, including a free exhibition all week at the Guildhall; two evening lectures and a Comedy Supernova evening with Jon Culshaw, the famous Brian Cox impersonator, at Tiger Tiger:
My own week has been busy too, in a variety of different ways. I have continued with my own projects, but also had a couple of opportunities to attend interesting and worthwhile meetings in other parts of the country. The first of these was the Annual Meeting of the Heads of Physics at the Trinity Group of Independent Schools. This is always one of my favourite meetings of the year and I shall really miss it when I finally have to relinquish my Interim Head of Physics position next year. It was held at Hampton School, on the outskirts of London, where about 25 Heads of Physics gathered to discuss relevant issues in our subject and our schools. These ranged from the continuing decline in the number of numerical problems being set in Physics GCSE and IGCSE exams, to ideas for stimulating Physics trips abroad and my own, short presentation about my sabbatical and the projects that I am working on at ICG. We had extremely useful presentations from subject officers at both the OCR and AQA exam boards, who explained the changes to A-level Physics from September 2015. Fortunately these are very few and mostly linked to a much more sensible way of assessing practical work, which will make the courses more interesting and pleasant for all concerned.
I then spent two days away, travelling to Liverpool to attend a training day for teachers at the National Schools Observatory at Liverpool John Moores University:


PGS is already registered to use the NSO telescope, at La Palma in the Canaries, but the course has helped me to develop more ideas for PGS pupils to access it. In fact, we were privileged to be able to showcase some NSO activities at PGS, on BBC Sky at Night in March 2012, when my Year 7 and Year 10 classes were filmed and featured on the programme about ‘Citizen Science’. It was nice to meet up again with Professor Mike Bode, Director of the Astrophysics Research Institute at LJMU, who was interviewed by the Sky at Night team, sitting in front of the Celestial Microscope in the quad outside the PGS science centre.

It was interesting to visit a department with a slightly different research emphasis to ICG, although many of the staff know each other and collaborate on research projects. Several people I met in Liverpool will be in Portsmouth next week for NAM. AT the Astrophysics Institute, one of the big differences is that they build instruments and even design whole telescopes. There were electronics labs and dark room test facilities as well as the control centre for the Liverpool Telescope in La Palm. We had a quick chat with a technician on the mountain top who happened to be passing the web cam at the time.


The number of engineering opportunities in astronomy had not really occurred to me until I got chatting to the project manager responsible for the next proposal, which is to build a Liverpool Telescope 2, with a 4 metre diameter mirror. Take a look at the mirror in your bathroom and then imagine one as big as the wall, but able to swing around to point at different objects in the sky within seconds, controlled remotely from Liverpool, while it sits on top of a volcano, 2500m above sea level, in the Canary Islands. The technological challenges are immense.

Those have been the highlights of this week. Next week ICG will go Supernova, as NAM gets under way, and the explosive fusion of the brightest minds in this field of research will generate new and exciting ideas and projects for the future. And, at the core of all this, will be the ICG here in Portsmouth!

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