Category Archives: outreach

Impact: 10,260 and counting

Looking back over my outreach activities since I moved to Australia in 2008, I seem to have reached more people than I thought.  For the three years I was in Perth I ran the outreach activities of our research group, organising many activities over the International Year of Astronomy in 2009 and beyond, and participating in many activities organised by other entities.  In 2011 my contract ended and I moved to take up a job in the Netherlands.  In a country where you don’t speak the language, direct outreach is much more difficult, but I did continue with the podcasting, radio work, and other occasional bits of science writing (not counted in the numbers here, it’s much harder to quantify these without the download statistics or listener figures).  In mid-2013 I moved back to the UK and have been running my own outreach activities independently, doing many youth groups, SciBArs, schools, festivals, and other assorted public talks and lectures.  Adding everything up (exact numbers where known, estimates otherwise), I have personally reached over 10,000 people.  Not counting the years I was in the Netherlands, that is an average of over 2,000 people a year, in my spare time.  Not too shabby.


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.

Pimms, finger food, and tales of the end of the world

Sounds like a recipe for a good evening, doesn’t it?  That was the menu on offer at the Shropshire Astronomical Society summer social held in Rodington yesterday evening.  I was invited to be the guest speaker at this event, so after lunch I jumped on a train down to Wellington where I met Mandy Bailey, a fellow SPA Council member and one of the officers of Shropshire Astronomical Society, who gave me a lift to the village hall in Rodington (not far from Knockin, the site of one of the e-MERLIN telescopes).

Now, visits to astronomical societies vary; some take you out for dinner, some go to the pub afterwards, some do neither.  This particular evening started with a bring-and-share buffet and a refreshing glass of Pimms – I was most impressed!  Once people had eaten and the mountain of food had diminished somewhat, we formed teams for an astronomical “Quizz” (the extra “z” for redshift perhaps?).  Our team, the Scatterbrains, came close to being disqualified as we had two PhDs at the table, but I did point out that most professional astronomers have pathetically bad sky-knowledge.  With questions ranging from classical composers to energy calculations to song lyrics, I don’t think we actually had much of an advantage!

Following the quiz and the answers, it was time for my talk.  Starting with a brief look at what a galaxy actually is, we moved on to look at a simulation of what happens when they collide (greatly speeded up of course, as the process takes millions of years – and research contracts are generally only three years long!).  We then used M31 as a case study to see the reasons why we use different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum for probing different aspects of galaxies, with a brief detour into how radio interferometry works and why it is such a powerful technique.  We then looked at a series of examples of galactic collisions in various stages of their interactions, including the results of several ongoing studies being carried out by me and my various collaborators.  We ended with a look at what relevance this all has for the future of our own Galaxy, and a note that the timescales are such that there’s no need to start building a rocket in your shed just yet.

Questions from the audience followed, of which there were several good ones, showing that they had certainly been paying attention!  Sadly I had to leave almost as soon as I was finished in order to catch a train home, but not before they presented me with some cider and a lovely box of chocolates, and a Shropshire AS mouse mat with a picture of the Lovell telescope!  The members of the society (the only one of its kind in Shropshire, I learned) are a very friendly bunch and the evening was thoroughly enjoyable.  After torrential rain for most of the morning, and more showers just after I arrived, the sky did clear up during the evening, promising some good observing from the village hall where the sky is reasonably dark.  I wouldn’t be surprised if some people had a very late night!

Shropshire Astronomical Society: friendly members, good food, great venue.  5 stars!

Going over galaxies with a fine-toothed comb

Last week I gave the July lecture at Macclesfield Astronomical Society at the village hall in Goostrey.  I’ve been a member of the society since I was eleven, and it still feels strange to be giving lectures there, rather than listening to other people speak!  The talk I gave on Tuesday is one I wrote some time ago, so it needed some updating to reflect the current state-of-the-art, and a bit more in the way of introductory material to make it a full-length public lecture.  The feedback I’ve had suggests that I pitched it about right, which is always reassuring!

The title of the lecture is “Going over galaxies with a fine-toothed comb”, and describes the current efforts to map nearby galaxies in astonishing detail using a technique called wide-field very long baseline interferometry – a bit of a mouthful however you look at it.  There’s a brief description over on my talks page, but if you want the full story then you’ll just have to book me for an event!

After the lecture someone asked how I manage to remember the whole script for a talk like that.  It got me thinking about how my lectures have developed over the years.  When I started doing outreach and public talks (over ten years ago now) I was exceedingly nervous and would write a script to help me remember everything I wanted to say.  As I quickly discovered, the trouble with a script is: 1) it’s tempting to read from it, which is very boring for the audience, and 2) you still forget to say things, and then get flustered when you lose your place!  So, now I don’t use a script, and I haven’t done for a long time.

The next logical question is then, how do I remember what I’m going to say?  Simple: I don’t.  I design my slides so that they tell a story in pictures.  Then all I have to do is tell the story as I step through the pictures.  The advantage of this is that I don’t need to practise – if I have to give a talk I haven’t done for years, I can just stand up and give it, without having to re-learn a script first.  I find it makes my talks more spontaneous and, hopefully, more engaging for the audience.

I have a few more bookings this year, at astronomy societies, an SPA weekend event for beginners, and he odd public SciBar, so if you would like to come and hear some of my stories head over to my events page.

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.