Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Astronomy's New Messengers: LIGO at the USA Science and Engineering Festival

Greetings from East Tennessee State University, where I am visiting this week as part of my 2012 "Star Wars Day" activities, giving a talk on the "Physics of Star Wars" next Friday (May the 4th) at the Gray Fossil Museum.

Since last Thursday I've been in Washington DC for the USA Science and Engineering Festival, presenting our LIGO exhibit on gravitational wave astronomy, together with my LSC colleagues Marco Cavaglia, Peter Shawhan, Dennis Ugolini, Cregg Yancey and Andrea Taracchini.

The crowds were pretty vast, particularly on Saturday, and the Festival Supremo Larry Bock (@USAScienceFest) has confirmed that it was the 2nd largest crowd ever at the Convention Center in DC.

Peter Shawan and I were there to set up our display on Thursday morning.  Unlike the 2010 Festival, when we had the full-blown "touring" LIGO exhibit in DC (and had to spend many long hours assembling and dismantling it), this time we were going with a much more streamlined exhibit: a tabletop laser interferometer (thanks to Dennis Ugolini and Trinity University in Texas)...

...our perenially popular Black Hole Hunter game...

...and our new LIGO pop-up banner (this is me being interviewed in front of it by the American Physical Society).

And here in front of the banner is Marco Cavaglia (who's been chair of the Education and Public Outreach Group of the LSC since its inception in 2008, but who will hand over the reins to Szabi Marka straight after the Festival on May 1st).

Friday was a Festival "sneak peek", when many schools groups would visit.  We had a steady stream of visitors all through the morning, including some very keen school pupils who got wind of the LIGO yo-yos on offer as a prize for completing the Advanced Level of the Black Hole Hunter game.

We were also kept busy because of our great Festival location, not far from the US Air Force fighter plane (!)

and next door to the Planetary Society, and their CEO Bill Nye the Science Guy (photographed here with Dennis).

All credit to Bill Nye, he spent about 3 hours on Saturday and Sunday signing autographs and always made the time to chat to the people who had waited in line to meet him.  

It was quite surprising how even young kids knew who he was, as I understand he's not been on TV for a while, but apparently many of his video clips are still used in schools (including his "consider the following" segments - which were very good, even if the jingle threatened to drive us nuts once we'd heard it a few thousand times!).

We had a surprise guest at the exhibit on Saturday; fortunately he seemed to approve!

And Marco tracked down another Festival guest, who was very popular indeed but we still managed to get a photo.

All in all we had a very successful weekend, I think, and (just like in 2010) it was fascinating to see how other organisations and institutions presented their research and discoveries - giving us some great ideas for how better to tell the story of LIGO next time!  There are lots more photos from the Festival below.

May the force be with you!

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Transi(en)ts in transit

Greetings from London, and the latest entry in my (increasingly maritime themed!) blog.  I'm in transit to Washington DC for the 2nd USA National Science and Engineering Festival, where I'll be part of the team representing the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Observatory (why not follow us on tiwtter - @LIGO) with our travelling gravitational-wave astronomy exhibit - or at least parts of it; we didn't fancy this time spending 3 hours assembling and dis-assembling it, as we had to do at the first Festival in October 2010.  One new addition we have for the exhibit this year is a pop-up stand, which is basically a giant version of the LIGO bookmarks designed by Brooke Rankin for the 2009 and 2010 World Science Festival:

I've been in London since Monday for a 2-day discussion meeting at the Royal Society on New Windows on Transients Across the Universe.  By "transients" we generally mean anything that goes "bang" over a short time - things like exploding stars (supernovae) or gamma-ray bursts, at least some types of which could be major sources of gravitational waves that we hope to detect in the not-too distant future.  It was a very good meeting, with lots of interesting projects either going on already or planned for the next 10 - 20 years.  The meeting is being followed by a more specialist workshop at the Kavli Royal Society International Centre in Buckinghamshire (close to Milton Keynes).  So by going to DC I miss out on a visit to Milton Keynes, but speaking as someone who grew up in East Kilbride (aka Polo Mint City) I can live with that.

While in transit in London, however, I was delighted to get the chance to give a talk on the forthcoming Transit of Venus at the Royal Observatory Greenwich.  Given the history of ROG in connection with earlier transits, and the great quest to measure accurately the size of the Solar System, it was an honour to give a talk on the subject. In fact my talk was arranged for the famous Octagon Room, where Astronomers Royal of the past did their stuff:

The ongoing maritime theme comes from the history of Greenwich, its role in the thefascinating story of the Longitude Prize and the proximity of the Observatory to the Cutty Sark and the National Maritime Museum.  Getting to Greenwich these days is also probably easiest by boat, so by late afternoon Tuesday I had taken myself down to the Embankment (pausing en route only to note that, according to the clock in Trafalgar Square, it was 94 days, 4 hrs, 38 mins and 27 secs until the start of the Olympics)

and caught a Thames Clipper service along to Greenwich Pier.  The trip along was filled with impressive sights (even if not quite a patch on the Hebrides!) including the London Eye, Tower Bridge, the Cutty Sark and lots more.

Once up at the Observatory I had a wee while to admire the view over the City, and the Millennium Dome with the Olympic Park nestling behind, before it was time to head up to the Octagon Room.

There I was met by my host Sara, who runs the public programmes at the ROG and National Maritime Museum.  The Octagon Room was just as I’d remembered it from previous visits and it was nicely set up for my talk.

The only problem was the bright sunshine shining through the windows!  After working out the best place to put the screen, to allow for the Sun moving westwards during my talk (surely a problem an astronomer could solve!) we were all set.

There was a good crowd of about 25 people, including several members of the local Flamsteed Astronomy Society, who told me about their plans to get up early and observe the transit on June 6th.  I’m hoping we can hook up with them from our all-night event in Glasgow.

After my talk, and some time for questions (some really good ones - the Flamsteed Society really know their stuff), I headed back down to catch the ferry back to central London – and enjoyed some more excellent (if rather blurry in the photos) views of the city skyline.  

Not exactly the dark skies of Tiree,though: the light pollution is pretty appalling, and increasingly so with the addition of more tall buildings such as the (otherwise very impressive) Shard. Makes you realise we have a long way to go before our cities become havens for naked eye astronomy, although to be fair as I walked back along the Mall and past Buckingham Palace you could see the Moon and Venus (although not a lot else!...)

So now it’s time to set off for Washington and the Science Festival.  More news of the LIGO exhibit from there.

May the force be with you

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Exploring the Dark Side of Bute

April 14th 2012 and it was time to head for the islands again!   I'd been asked by Sylvia Jardine, president of the Bute Astronomical Club, to visit the Isle of Bute, in the Firth of Clyde, to help them with an exciting new project they are planning.  Note quite as exciting as my friend and fellow astronomer Steve Owen's expedition (and 6-day ferry journey!) to St Helena, but a nice postscript to my recent Hebridean odyssey.

The Bute Astronomical Club's proposal, being spearheaded together with the Bute Conservation Trust, is to build a Science and Heritage Centre and Observatory, together with an outdoor activity centre, at Meikle Kilmory Farm on the west side of the island.  The land is owned by the Mount Stuart estate, which has a long history of connections with astronomy.

Celestial ceiling in Mount Stuart House, Isle of Bute

Before any of that, however, first of all it was off to Glasgow Airport to collect Prof Joan Centrella, Deputy Head of the Astrophysics Division of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and world-leading expert on black holes.  Joan is visiting Glasgow and other SUPA institutions for 4 weeks, to give some lectures on numerical relativity - explaining for non-specialists the recent breakthroughs that have allowed us for the first time to model fully the mergers of black holes, which she has pioneered with her collaborator John Baker, and for which they have recently won various awards.

Joan's flight arrived just about on time, so before she could check into her hotel we paid a visit to Offshore on Gibson St, which is currently previewing an exhibition on multimessenger astronomy which I have put together for Glasgow Science Festival 2012.  I'll write much more about the exhibition in a later blog post, and it will soon also have its own dedicated web content, but one of the exhibition images is based on Joan's work simulating black hole mergers, so it was great to let Joan herself preview it in Offshore's basement gallery.

By lunchtime it was off to Wemyss Bay, in time to catch the 1405 ferry to Rothesay.  After all the long ferry journeys of my Island Universe tour for National Science and Engineering Week, the 35 minute crossing to Bute was going to seem exceedingly short, but the weather was good and there was still enough time to capture yet more stunning scenery, looking northwards along Loch Striven.

Sylvia met me at the ferry terminal and we drove over to the far side of the island, and the proposed site which overlooks St Ninian's Bay.   The middle of an April Saturday afternoon isn't perhaps the best time to site test a potential astronomical observatory, but thanks to the wonder of stellarium and my newly installed compass app, I was able to get a good sense of what would be visible and when from the proposed site:

The answer appears to be "a lot"!   The Meikle Kilmory site has a wide open sky, with a very low horizon towards the west and north (looking out towards Arran, the Mull of Kintyre and the hills of Argyll).  The horizon is fairly low in the east and south too - although the hills on that side should do a good job of blocking the streetlights of Rothesay, helping making this a pretty dark site (ok, not as good as Tiree, but then where is?!).  

So all in all it looks like this could be a very good dark sky site.  I look forward to helping bring the plans to fruition - and who knows, hopefully visiting a new observatory on Bute in a couple of years.

Together with the exciting developments at the Galloway Forest Park Dark Sky Observatory, in which I'm also trying to play my part, and of course the existing great observatories, like the Highlands Astronomical Society's JSL Observatory in Culloden, things are really looking up for public astronomy in Scotland!

After a nice meal at the Esplanade Hotel, it was back onto the ferry for the short crossing back to the mainland - with just enough time to catch a shot of the Arran hills and the Ailsa Craig in the distance...

...and to pass the MV Isle of Bute making the return journey in the other direction.

May the force be with you

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Day 10: The Water of Life

March 20th, and my Island Universe tour is almost over.  Only one more stop, and after all the schools talks I've given discussing the prospects for finding water - and life - elsewhere in the Universe, it seems appropriate (if slightly cheesy) that my final leg takes me to Islay: home of nine distilleries making Scotland's very own water of life.

I set off from Kennacraig on the 7am ferry, and am very struck by both the remoteness of the ferry port (compared with the relative metropolis of Ullapool where my odyssey began) and the impressive new ship I am about to board - the Finlaggan.

Onboard the ship was equally impressive:  spacious and open car deck, modern and comfortable interior fittings, and even free wireless internet!  Having grown quite fond of the "Lord of the Isles", which had transported me reliably to and from the western extremes of the Hebrides last week, this still felt as if I had stepped into the 21st century.  It was also striking to note the dedication plaque on board, however:

which I guess tells its own story about the recent history of shipbuilding on the clyde - although I hear the World's first "hybrid" ferries are currently under construction.

The journey passed quickly and by about 9am we were pulling into Port Askaig, on the Sound of Islay, facing the coast of Jura.

Next it was a short 15 minute drive to Bowmore, on the far side of the island, where Islay High School is situated, immediately adjacent to Bowmore Distillery.  There I met the physics teacher Phil Kitching, who had organised a series of talks with three different groups:  the "certificate class" (Islay HS has small enough numbers that they can teach all the students taking standard grades, highers and advanced highers in Physics together), the second years and the first years.  I covered the (now) familiar ground with these three groups:  a talk on dark matter and dark energy, one on stars and the formation of the chemical elements and one on detecting exoplanets and the search for ET Life.  The third group (the 1st years) were missing their French class to come along and their French teacher came with them too, which gave us a chance to think a little about what language we might use to communicate with any alien lifeforms we might find (although it must be said I don't think it'll be French!).

Over the course of the day I also met with Ian Stuart, Head of Technology and Deputy Head of the High School, and was fascinated to find out more about the school's radical policy on ICT which sees every pupil equipped with a laptop / tablet computer and much of the teaching delivered via wireless intranet.  This really seems to work well and it was very interesting to hear how much the school saves on photocopying costs as a result!

I also had the pleasure of meeting Tristan, one of the 6th year students, who has clearly been doing a lot of reading and thinking of his own.  He had a wide range of questions for me, on everything from neutrino oscillations to majorana particles to the Einstein Field equations.  I did my best to answer them, or at least to give him some more pointers for how to better follow them up.  I was very pleased to hear from Phil later on that Tristan is planning to study physics after he leaves school and I'm hoping that we might see him at Glasgow next year.

After lunch, and a short stroll round the harbour at Bowmore

it was off next to the Bowmore Distillery:

Phil had arranged a tour for us, which seemed a perfect way to round off my trip.   Although I've been on many a distillery tour in my time I always find them interesting, especially with regard to the subtle and important differences in the production methods employed by each company.  In the case of Bowmore they were proud of the fact that they still carry out a lot of their own malting and we were shown around the malting floor to begin with.

During the tour we crossed the courtyard and saw the classic pagoda towers, although one of the chimneys had been blown off during the gales of January 2nd (which brought down some slates from our roof back in Glasgow too).

The tour ended with a visit to the stills themselves

then to the storeroom 

and then back to the visitors centre and a quick dram.  I also had a look in the shop, and found the latest example in my ongoing quest to track down whiskies which are as old as I am.  (Sadly my ability to actually buy these ended many years ago, on the night of my PhD viva when I had a glass of 26 year-old Springbank!)

I then zoomed back to Port Askaig, admiring the Paps of Jura along the way (Phil had told me that he lives on Jura - which has a primary school which his kids go to, but he has to take the ferry across the Sound of Islay back and forth every day).  We got an even better view of the Jura mountains on the ferry (this time the slightly older MV Hebridean Isles) on the way back.

An hour or so later we had passed the Finlaggan on its way back to Islay and we got a wonderful view of it disappearing off into the sunset...

We landed about 7.15pm and I made the short drive back up to Tarbert, where I was stopping off for the night before heading back to Glasgow first thing in the morning.

So my tour was finally over:  27 talks on 9 islands across 9 days (and a few more islands traversed too: North Uist, South Uist, Eriskay...). I'd spoken to nearly 1600 people - aged 4 to 84 - and met some wonderfully dedicated, enthusiastic and talented teachers.  I'd seen some of the darkest skies I've ever witnessed in the northern hemisphere on the far-flung outpost of Tiree.  I'd  also seen some of the most spectacular coastal scenery in the world, right here on our doorstep.    I can't think of a better way to have spent National Science and Engineering Week.  I was reminded of the tales I'd read in my various biographies of his life, of how Albert Einstein had given lecture tours around the world that involved long sea voyages to get him there.  I'd been given a glimpse of that world for myself - in the microcosm of the Scottish islands.  I'm glad to be going home of course but the memories of my Island Universe tour will stay with me for a very long time.

May the force be with you