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Education and Public Outreach (the new name for PUS)

Over the couple of years I have been involved with a fair bit of public outreach to do with astronomy. Some of this has involved planetarium shows in local primary schools, careers fairs and astronomy society talks among other things. Last Wednesday, along with two other astronomers, I went down to London for a PPARC town meeting on the subject of public outreach. It was an interesting day and we got to meet all sorts of people who are active in public outreach for either astronomy, planetary science or particle physics.

One thing many people mentioned was the sterotype of the scientist: a man, often past middle age, wearing thick glasses and a lab coat with a wild hair cut and smoking test tubes. This is often cited as a reason why many children do not chose science subjects in school. One problem is the way science is taught. The national curriculum does not help here, as is shown by this story on the BBC news today. A lot of science is taught from books (which is understandable as it is not practical for every school to have a mass spectrometer!) and experiments are often not carried out. When they are, it is often already known what the expected result will be before any data is collected and children can end up thinking that this is how science is done. They are not often taught the scientific method or to question things properly.

This comes just a week after another story which said that science was in danger of dying out in UK schools due to a shortage of physics teachers. When that story appeared in the papers last Monday it caused quite a bit of discussion in the tea room at the Observatory. The majority of opinions seemed to be that it would take an awful lot to convince people to teach science. Personally, I have a lot of admiration for teachers, I don't think it is a job that I could do. I'll stick to public outreach as long as I am allowed to do some research!

Posted by Megan on Monday 28th Nov 2005 (20:49 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

Relativity in sixty seconds

Think you could explain relativity in sixty seconds or less? That was the challenge put forward by Broadcasting House this morning. Two of the Punk Science team came in to the studio and tried to explain Einstein's famous theories in a soundbite, and listeners were invited to send in their attempts, some even tried it in the form of a haiku!

Punk Science consist of a comedian, a street artist, an actor and a drummer based at the Science Museum in London. They do regular shows explaining various aspects of science using comedy, music and live experiments. Their current show is about Einstein (as part of Einstein year) and in December they will be doing a show about aliens. Some of their shows are webcast as well so you can still watch even if you aren't in London.

Tags: relativity | Einstein
Posted by Megan on Sunday 20th Nov 2005 (10:07 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

Friday procrastination

This morning I went back to my old primary school with the Observatory's inflatable planetarium. The school has changed in the (many) years since I was a pupil there, but some of the same staff are still there. The kids were great. I did shows for three classes and they all asked some good questions and kept asking things at lunchtime while I was packing up. It somehow feels more worthwhile when the children are that interested, it feels like you've actually got them thinking. The Moon was out in the morning so I asked each class if anyone had seen it. Quite a lot of them had, so when we were inside the planetarium and the Moon appeared as a crescent in the "sky" I asked them if that was what the Moon had looked like that morning, most of them shouted "yes!" (It is actually a waning gibbous and no, before you ask, I didn't use those words to describe it!).

This afternoon has been a bit of a write-off though. The skies were clear again so out came the binoculars and telescopes and we looked at the Sun for a while. Sunspot group 822 is quite impressive and there were numerous small prominances around the limb. Sunset was fantastic. I made a cup of tea and went up on the roof to watch it, very carefully as there is still a lot of ice around from last night where places have been in shadow all day. I had a go at photographing it but my camera doesn't have a large enough field of view. With the use of the glass ball used to measure the number of hours of daylight I did manage to get the whole scene though:

Lovell telescope at sunset
The Lovell telescope at sunset, reflected in the Sun monitor CREDIT: Megan

Then the telescope came out again and we attempted to photograph Venus, saw the ISS and had a look at Mars. You might not be able to "look" through the Lovell, but that doesn't mean we never look at the sky! All in all, a good day for astronomy, but a bad day for getting any actual work done.

Posted by Megan on Friday 18th Nov 2005 (18:42 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

The observatory

Today has been another busy day, as Wednesdays often are. The weather has been amazing though, the sunrise was spectacular today and the telescope was looking particularly photogenic when I arrived this morning:

Lovell telescope in the morning
The Lovell telescope in the early morning CREDIT: Megan

The University has a small observatory (the John Meaburn Optical Observatory) on the roof of the physics building which is used for undergraduate teaching. As the weather stayed nice, I spent the evening helping some students with their observations. We had been in the observatory for a while when an impressive halo developed around the moon:

Mars and a lunar halo
Mars and a lunar halo CREDIT: Megan

Mars was sitting to one side of the Moon, right in the middle of the halo, you can see it on the right in the image above. My little camera couldn't cope with the contrast very well, so I used the roof of the dome to obscure the light coming directly from the Moon. Stuart also took a nice picture of this effect. While I was playing around taking pictures the students were using the telescope to take spectra of various objects. They looked at Vega to try and see absorption due to hydrogen, and Mars to see if they could detect absorption by carbon dioxide in it's atmosphere. Tomorrow they will have a go at reducing the data to see if the observations worked.

Dome and lunar haloLight pollution
Left: JMOO and a lunar halo. Rigth: Bad lighting on campus CREDIT: Megan

I also took some pictures of the light pollution around the campus. The above pictures show what we have to contend with. The image on the left shows the observatory dome and east Manchester with the lunar halo again. The tall lights near the centre of the frame are at the railway depot a couple of kilometres away. The image on the right shows some of the campus buildings. There are a lot of large floodlights around the campus and most are badly angled like the ones in this image.

Posted by Megan on Thursday 17th Nov 2005 (01:09 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

Light Pollution

If you're in the UK, take a look at the Independent today. On page 44 of the "Life&Culture" section there is a full-page article on light pollution with a view of London by night, and quotes from both Martin Taylor and Bob Mizon of the Campaign for Dark Skies. It doesn't appear to be on the website though.

Posted by Megan on Monday 14th Nov 2005 (13:47 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

The weather

The Lovell telescope during the weather broadcast
The Lovell telescope as a backdrop for the local weather CREDIT: Megan

The local BBC weather have started broadcasting their forecasts from locations suggested by the viewers. The first one was on Friday last week so Dianne Oxberry and the rest of the local weather team came to Jodrell. They set up their camera over on the green by the 7m telescope and shone lots of extra floodlights at the Lovell telescope so that it would show up on camera. Despite the shocking amount of light pollution, it did look very impressive (see left) although during the forecast itself you couldn't see the telescope at all as the weather map was in the way!

Quite a crowd of people gathered in the control room to watch the forecast on the TV, we all cheered when the telescope appeared!

The best bit was when the weather crew had finished. Mark, the controller that evening, had moved the telescope so that it had it's "best side" to the camera. When they had finished it had to go back to the VLBI program which had been running earlier. The really cool bit? I got to press the button! :-) The thing with radio astronomy is that you might use a telescope to look at a particular object, but someone else actually carries out the observation. This time, I pushed the button (actually it is just the "enter" key on a ancient terminal) and the moters stared up. Wow!

Posted by Megan on Monday 14th Nov 2005 (02:00 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink


At last, the countdown to the lauch of Venus Express has started and the go-ahead has been given for fueling. In two and a half hours time the Soyuz-Fregat launcher should leave the pad at Baikonur, carrying the craft into low Earth orbit for the first phase of the mission. ESA have a handy timeline so you can see what will happen at what time. They also have a webcam in the control room at ESOC, although there aren't many people there at the moment, and status updates are available as well. Finger's crossed...

Aside: I'm posting this from the observatory, it's very cold and I don't know if I'm going to stay awake for another three hours. My talk on Venus Express is at 11.30 tomorrow morning so I should get some sleep at some point, otherwise I'm not going to be very coherent!

Posted by Megan on Wednesday 09th Nov 2005 (00:58 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

Eta Carinae

The location of Eta Carinae
The location of η Carinae, click to enlarge CREDIT: Megan / Ephem

Eta (η) Carinae is a very massive star that is easily visible from the Southern hemisphere, the image on the left shows the star's location. It is fairly near the end of it's life, is very unstable and may go supernova fairly soon (in astronomical terms that is, it may be many thousands of years before it actually happens). The star sits inside a huge nebula, known as the keyhole, and appears to have two enourmous bulges coming from it. These are caused by a strong wind from the surface of the star which carry significant amounts of matter into the surrounding space. More massive stars tend to have stronger winds, and η Carinae is pretty large so it's wind is very strong. The wind streams out from the surface of the star and is collimated by a disk of material around the star which forces the material in two directions producing the bipolar structure (the bulges) seen in Hubble images.

Because it is the nearest example of such a massive star, astronomers have kept a close watch on it for many years. Some features seen in previous observations of η Carinae suggested that it had a companion star, but no direct evidence for one has ever been seen. One piece of evidence leading to this conclusion was the variation seen in x-ray emission on timescales of 5.5 years. This could be explained by a smaller companion star with a 5.5 year orbit. The winds from each star will collide at some point between the two stars and it is this region which generates the high-energy x-ray emission. As the stars orbit each other, η Carinae eclipses this region of emission as seen from Earth.

Searches have been made for emission from the companion star before, but it has never directly been observed. Now, astronomers using the Far UV Spectroscopic Explorer (FUSE)satellite have observed the system and found more evidence for the companion star. They observed that the high energy UV light dimmed two days before the last x-ray eclipse, this UV light is too energetic to be emitted by η Carinae itself as it is a relatively cool star so it must have come from the companion star, which really is pretty impressive. The stars are too close together to be directly resolved by our current telescopes, so this is the best evidence yet for the existence of this second star. NASA have a press release about this which is worth reading.

If you live in the Southern hemisphere, have a look at this object, it's quite impressive, even through binoculars. The photo below shows the Pointers (two bright stars on the left), Crux (middle) and η Carinae (red blob on right). It was a three minute exposure taken from Siding Springs with a Pentax K2 on a static tripod back in 2003.

The Pointers, Crux and Eta Carinae from Siding Springs
The Pointers, Crux and Eta Carinae from Siding Springs CREDIT:Megan

Why is the nebula red? I'll tell you later...

Posted by Megan on Sunday 06th Nov 2005 (23:59 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

Aliens in your computer

For many years now the SETI@Home project has been allowing people around the world to download data and use their computer's spare processing power to process it looking for signals which might be from another civilisation. Back in 1999 when I got my first computer I started running the software and processing bits of data. My computer never found anything, but it was fun looking. This morning I was listening to an old episode of Skepticality featuring an interview with Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer with the SETI Institute, and I decided to install the software again. It's changed quite a lot since I last used it! The SETI@Home data processing is now handled through the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC) package which also handles a collection of other distributed computing projects such as climate prediction, gavitational wave detection and finding cures for human diseases.

Posted by Megan on Sunday 06th Nov 2005 (14:24 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

Real telescopes!

Last night the sky was clear so, before I left the office, I got out the telescope (the APT) and took it out onto the roof of the main observatory building. Venus was bright in the south-west, just visible above the tree line, while Mars was obvious rising in the east. At the time Mars was still quite low so the seeing was particularly bad and I couldn't pick out much in the way of detail on the surface, but it was still very impressive. Before packing up and rushing off to catch a train home (I wanted an early night as today we had another review at the observatory, this time it was an external review by an astronomer from the US) I had a quick look for a few other things. The sky was quite good and the Milky Way was obvious overhead so I had a look for the Andromeda galaxy (M31) and the double cluster (NGC884/869) in Perseus. The double cluster is one of my favourite targets as there are so many stars in one field of view. Both are open clusters but one is noticably more compact than the other and the central regions of both can be seen in the same field of view with a low magnification eyepiece. I love showing people this object at star parties, it always causes gasps of amazement :-) As I was packing away the eyepieces I glanced up and saw a bright meteor streaking horizontally southwards from Mars, I guess it was probably a Taurid. The clear skies didn't last long though, I got soaked on the short journey from the train station back to my house.

Posted by Megan on Saturday 05th Nov 2005 (17:39 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

Venus Express has a new launch date

ESA have now announced the new launch date for Venus Express. Take off will (hopefully) be on Wednesday 9th November at 03:33 GMT from Baikonur in Kazakhstan. This is quite fun because on the same day I am giving a short talk at work and a while ago I decided that Venus Express would be a good topic. Hopefully there will be some good news...

Posted by Megan on Thursday 03rd Nov 2005 (15:06 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

Five years of the ISS

ISS from the Shuttle
A view of the ISS from the Shuttle Discovery CREDIT: NASA

Whether you think the International Space Station is a vital step for the future of human space exploration or a gigantic waste of money and resources, today marks five years of continuous human presence on board. On November 2nd 2000 a Russian Soyuz rocket carrying Bill Shephard, Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev docked with the station and it began full-time operations. The station has been continuously manned ever since. The Shuttles and Soyuz vehicles have carried nearly 100 astronauts with a variety of nationalities to the station where they have stayed for various lengths of time, performing experiments and housekeeping procedures to keep the station operational. Both NASA and ESA have articles about this. Nasa are celebrating in various ways. NASA's site has archives of the best images taken from the ISS and will even let you send a postcard to the current crew!

Posted by Megan on Wednesday 02nd Nov 2005 (21:48 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

Science and Engineering Careers Fair

Today and tomorrow there is a careers fair at the Sheffield Hallam Arena. When it was first arranged it was a science and engineering event but when I arrived this morning I found that pretty much every exhibitor was either an engineering company or professional body (such as the IMechE or IEE). Us Researchers in Residence are located in a marquee off the main floor of the arena so, apart from the schools who came up to do an activity (building a solar powered car), we didn't get many visitors. I borrowed some amplifiers from the engineering labs so I did have something to show the students, but we just can't compete with the Army and their firing range, climbing wall and "pretend you're a field medic" tent (think "operation" but life-size). Or Titan, very cool. While I've been busy, lots has been happening: Pluto has two more moons (NASA press release), the first student-designed and built satellite, SSETI, has suffered power problem (BBC story), Venus Express has a new launch date (according to the BBC, although there is no mention of it on the ESA website yet), and Eta Carina has a companion... more about this later.

Posted by Megan on Tuesday 01st Nov 2005 (21:22 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

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