Friday, 4 July 2014

A Tale of Two Conferences (in One City)

by Jeremy Thomas
In a stunning new discovery last week, over 500 professional astronomers have concluded that Portsmouth IS the centre of the universe! Those of us that live and work here already know this of course, but it has now been confirmed by the delegates to the Royal Astronomical Society’s National Astronomy Meeting 2014 (NAM), hosted by the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation (ICG) at the University of Portsmouth.

I was very privileged to be able to attend this four day conference and also to be able to help with several of the associated outreach events for schools and the public. The scientific sessions covered everything from the latest results of the Dark Energy Survey, to Solar Superflares, Archaeo-Astronomy and Planetary Surface Exploration.  A wide range of disciplines was represented, with physicists, mathematicians, computer scientists, chemists, archaeologists and geologists as well as straightforward astronomers. Internationally, representatives came from all over Europe, the USA, South America and Asia showing the global interest in co-operating to seek out new knowledge and go where no one has gone before, at least intellectually.

A highlight of the public sessions was the evening Astrobiology lecture, given by Dr.Lewis Dartnell of the University of Leicester, who explained some of the methods and multi-disciplinary techniques needed to search for alien life in the solar system and further afield. Dr.Dartnell was also able to conduct a live video  interview with Major Tim Peake, the first British astronaut to be selected for training by the European Space Agency. Major Peake was in Star City, Russia but took time out to speak to the audience about his training and his forthcoming mission in 2015. Major Peake is actually an alumnus of the University of Portsmouth’s Engineering Department, from where he joined the Army Air Corps.

Major Tim Peake addressing a NAM audience by video link from Star City, Russia

 During NAM week, local school pupils were given unique opportunities to experience the conference at first hand.  Local sixth formers, including several from PGS, attended one of the conference plenary lectures, by Professor Sarah Bridle of the University of Manchester, on the Dark Energy Survey. Professor Bridle then spoke separately to the sixth form group, answering questions about her work in more detail, and addressing issues such as her career path and her dual role as top scientist and mother of two. A certain Portsmouth flavour was added to this session by the Band of the Royal Marines, who provided musical accompaniment through the open windows, from Guildhall Square where Armed Forces Day was being celebrated!
The second school session, for KS3 pupils, took place on the final day of NAM, when PGS Astronomy Club joined other schools to spend a morning investigating distant galaxies, through the online Galaxy Zoo project; building planetary landers with engineers from Portsmouth based Astrium and enjoying  the ICG’s mobile planetarium show, as well as a tour of the ‘Seeing the Universe In All Its Light’ exhibition.
In addition the scientific and public outreach activities that took place, the NAM delegates also displayed other talents not always associated with serious scientists, but showing that they are human beings too, with a wide variety of other interests. The ICG football team was victorious in the NAM football tournament, beating off opposition from seven other astronomical research groups and the silver cup now stands proudly in the ICG tea room until the next NAM. The most amazing event of the week was, though, the Cosmic Comedy Supernova with a mixed cast of professional astronomers and personalities from TV and radio providing a hilarious evening of entertainment at Tiger,Tiger in Gunwharf Quays. This included Dr.Jen Gupta, Outreach Officer at the ICG, alongside Chris Lintott, presenter of BBC Sky at Night and the inimitable John Culshaw, performing wickedly satirical impersonations of Patrick Moore, Tom Baker and Brian Cox in front of a very appreciative audience of non-celebrity scientists. Dr.Karen Masters, Senior Lecturer and researcher at ICG, found a new career opportunity as sound engineer for the evening, seeming very much at home behind the mixing desk.
My title for this piece promised two conferences, so I will finish with a brief overview of another opportunity that has been kindly afforded to me by my hosts here at ICG this week. This was an invite to the internal research conference of the Faculty of Technology at the University of Portsmouth, showcasing the latest research by those recently appointed to professorial positions as well as some of the research being conducted by the early years researchers under their guidance. There were several talks by ICG staff, such as Professor Claudia Maraston and Dr.David Bacon, who explained their research into Galaxy Population Synthesis Modelling and the latest plans for cosmological observation on a very large scale, using synthetic aperture radio telescope techniques. With the advances in high speed broadband communication and supercomputing, it is now possible to combine signals from small receiving stations all over Europe to synthesise the effect of a radio telescope as big as Western Europe. Soon this will be extended in the Southern Hemisphere with similar arrays planned in South Africa and Australia, effectively constructing a telescope with an aperture as large as the Pacific and Indian Oceans combined.
The Faculty of Technology covers a wide range of really interesting and useful research areas as well as cosmology. There were other presentations on methods to deal with pollution in urban sewage and water supply systems; computer modelling of nano-materials for engineering applications; operational research methods applied to optimising the siting of offshore wind farms and the use of statistical modelling and computer science to develop new standards for identifying patients at high risk of sudden death in hospitals. Each of these areas of research had some unique aspect linked to the location in Portsmouth, which was an interesting link to the Dean of Faculty’s introduction where he aired his misgivings over the concentration of government funding in a limited number of specialist centres of research excellence. I agree with his sentiment. Governments and their civil servants like the administrative convenience of dealing with small numbers of large scale organisations in all areas of their responsibility, but is this the best way to encourage the uninhibited creativity demonstrated by Portsmouth’s thriving research community? As my title suggests, Portsmouth has a fine tradition of creativity in both arts and science and I hope that this continues to flourish through the university, local industries, the schools and exciting future projects such as Sir Ben Ainslie’s fantastic new sailing centre of excellence.  I am sure that we will continue to play our part in Portsmouth’s creative future at PGS. 
NAM 2014 delegates enjoying a sunny lunchbreak on the steps of the Guildhall











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