Category Archives: gigs

Solarsphere: two festivals in one

Last weekend saw the first Solarsphere festival, an extravaganza of music and astronomy hosted at Penmaenau Farm in Builth Wells, Wales.  And what a weekend it was!  The farm is well set up for hosting small festivals, with indoor stages, onsite catering, including a bar, and plenty of camping space.  Even the ablutions were pretty good, by festival standards!  Being the first, it was a bit of an experiment, but even so it attracted over 500 people, including many families, music fans, and a crowd of amateur astronomers.

With two stages, the entertainment was pretty evenly split across the two themes of the festival: one stage hosted the live music, the other was set up for talks on astronomy.  The festival programme was arranged so that the music and talks did not overlap, so you could listen to Devonbird in one barn and then head over to the over stage to listen to Prof John Zarnecki talk about visiting the planets with spacecraft!

The music was excellent.  Particular favourites of mine were Misty’s Big Adventure (suggested by Chris Lintott apparently), 3 Daft Monkeys, and The Higher Planes.  There were some really good astronomy talks as well, covering all kinds of subjects at an introductory level.  I gave a talk on Sunday, and felt slightly awed to be on the same bill as Lucie Green, John Zarnecki and Will Gater!

Around the site there were plenty of other things going on.  The top camping field was set aside for night-time observing (and so restricted to red torches only!), with many people bringing their own equipment and happily showing other campers interesting celestial objects.  We were fantastically lucky with the weather; having had torrential downpours across half the country on Thursday/Friday, it cleared up beautifully and we had three lovely clear nights for stargazing and Perseid-spotting.

There was also the Cosmos Planetarium, stands from the SPA and AstroCymru, custom t-shirt printing from Murgens Keep, rocketry workshops, solar observing, space art, face painting… plenty to keep festival goers (of all ages!) entertained.

And the best bit is… they’re doing it all again next year!  I’m looking forward to it already.


I’m a compulsive communicator, I can’t help it.  Having suffered from almost paralysing stage fright in my school days, I now jump at any opportunity to stand in front of a public audience and talk about science.  So when an email appeared recently asking for volunteers to speak at SciBArs (science, in the pub, for interested non-experts), I offered straight away.  I contacted Lorelly Wilson of the North-West branch of the British Science Association, describing my current public talk on my research looking at colliding galaxies, and she passed on the details.  I virtually had my hand bitten off, with three bookings within the space of a few hours!

So it was that on Monday September 1st, just three days after my initial email, I found myself at the Knutsford SciBAr presenting my talk “When Galaxies Collide!” to a diverse audience of interested people.  The evening went rather well, with lots of intelligent questions asked by the audience.  Judging from the feedback I received afterwards, the audience thoroughly enjoyed my performance.  Rather unexpectedly, one of the attendees turned out to be a physics professor from Manchester University who taught me back in my undergraduate days!

This week I travelled in the opposite direction and on September 9th I gave the same presentation to the Congleton SciBAr at the Young Pretender Beer Parlour.  Another great audience, with good food and a rather nice selection of beers, resulted in another very enjoyable evening.  As well as taking questions during the performance, I ended up talking to many members of the audience afterwards on topics ranging from black holes, aliens, the fate of the universe, how radio interferometers work, giving advice to an undergraduate physics student, talking about the history of the Observatory, and tree surgery.  Luckily there were plenty of white-backed beer mats to hand, so by the end of the evening the table was covered in science-y scribbles.

It has taken years and a lot of practise, but I’ve found ways of dealing with that stage fright.  It still amazes me when people talk to me afterwards and comment on my confident presentation style, but it shows how far I’ve developed, and public events like these have played a huge part in that process.

If you fancy hearing about what happens when galaxies collide, and seeing how this affects our own future, I’ll be giving the same talk next month at the Didsbury SciBAr, and then Macclesfield SciBAr early next year.

New blog – finally.

It’s taken me a while to get around to it, but I finally installed wordpress on here.  Not that the old marzipan software wasn’t pretty good, but the ridiculous amount of comment spam it was getting did start causing problems.  So, new blog!

The first post is a quick advert for tonight’s lecture: I’m speaking at Macclesfield Astronomical Society, about how we are now able to map areas the size of the full Moon at milli-arcsecond resolution.  (Now that wont mean a lot to most people so, to put it in context, that’s about 50 times sharper than the Hubble Space Telescope!)  This relatively new technique has opened up the sky to high-resolution surveys at radio frequencies, allowing us to probe nearby galaxies in exquisite detail, and to investigate large populations of much more distant objects.  Right now, this technique generally requires special software, large amounts of disk space, and plenty of processing time, but as computers get ever more powerful and we look towards the Square Kilometre Array with great anticipation, these techniques will become more and more commonplace.  It’s an exciting time to be in radio astronomy.