Thursday, 5 June 2014

Postcard from the Edge of the Universe

by Jeremy Thomas
Week 1

The edge of the universe turns out to be remarkably quiet. I have been given a desk, in an office on the top floor of the Dennis Sciama building, home of the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation at the University of Portsmouth. I am sharing with two others, one a Marie Curie Research Fellow in Astrophysics and the other a Senior Lecturer in Applied Physics and Mathematical Engineering. However, they are not around very much and so it really is very quiet compared to the constant hustle of PGS.

It does feel a bit like entering an episode of the Big Bang Theory, as you can see from the photo of the whiteboard above my desk! I haven’t met anyone quite like Sheldon Cooper yet, but there is still time.
It’s taken a couple of days to get things organised and to make the adjustment to this new way of life. My daily routine is entirely my own, with no bells, no timetable and no set breaktimes and lunchtimes. I’m wearing a t-shirt (with a Physics slogan of course) and I might even be really radical and not shave occasionally! However, this is going to be quite a discipline in itself, because I want to achieve something concrete in the next few weeks and will have to make sure that I don’t squander the time available. This is a life skill that PGS pupils will have to get used to when they leave that rigid school day behind. Which reminds me, I mustn’t spend too much time on this blog...
So, what have I been doing so far? Well, after getting my PC up and running and putting a few Physics books on my desk, I got my diary organised and planned out a few things I need to do. I also learnt to use the coffee machine, not an easy task as there are several Italians working here and they take their coffee very seriously. On my second day, I gave a lunchtime seminar to the department, to introduce myself and to explain why I was here. I gave an outline of how much space science and cosmology we try to teach in school and showed some resources and exam questions. There was much hilarity at the recent AQA GCSE exam question which asks how a ‘Black Dwarf’ star is formed. In a room full of astrophysicists and cosmologists, at least three of them Professors, only one person had ever heard the term used before! Yet, it is in the AQA syllabus, textbook and exam questions. Hmm, whose idea was that? It turns out that a Black Dwarf could, theoretically form if a White Dwarf, the core of a collapsed star, cooled down for about 20 billion years to a very,very low temperature. As the universe is only 12-14 billion years old, this has never happened, so there are no Black Dwarf stars. Somebody should tell AQA.

I hope that there will be many more discussions like this over the next few weeks and that I get enough time to tell you about them in a regular blog. Professor Bob Nichol has also offered me the opportunity to conduct a short research project of my own, carrying out some initial classification and statistical analysis of a brand new dataset of radio galaxies at a very high red shift. Yes, they don’t even use light years as a measure of distance here, but red shifts. I think this means that these galaxies are a long way back in time, so we are looking at them when they were very young and the universe itself was not very old. I think I’ll go and read a bit about this now, so I can look reasonably intelligent in the tea room!


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