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

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Day 9: Mulling over the Dark Side of the Universe

March 19th dawned wet: a return to the dreich weather of the start of last week.  Time for a quick walk down the hill to Main St Tobermory again, past the distillery...

...and a visit to the bank, before heading off to the High School.  There I met my host Donald Holmes, who had arranged two talks - with Fourth to Sixth years and then with First to Third years - in the Gym.  I got set up fairly quickly, and hooked up to the school's excellent sound system.  I was also able to set up my camcorder to record the first of the talks - on "Putting the Iron in Irn Bru".

Both Mull morning talks seemed to go down well, with lots of good questions from the younger pupils in particular.  I also arranged a visit to the primary school, which is immediately adjacent to the secondary.  We set this up for after lunch, which gave me the time to pop down to the harbour and Main St for some soup and a sandwich at the Tobermory Bakery.

Back at the Primary School for 2pm, I spent the best part of an hour trying to answer a barrage of questions from the pupils!  How wonderfully refreshing to see their enthusiasm and willingness to ask questions, and to demonstrate what they already knew (which was a lot!)   If only I'd had time to visit more primary schools on this trip - but then again Oban High School has about 30 feeder primaries, Iain Fulton told me last Friday, so the logistics would have been way too complicated in other places.

Still the rain was coming down as I drove back to Craignure in time for the 5pm ferry to Oban.  This time it was the "Lord of the Isles", which was fast becoming my home from home...We berthed in Oban about 5.50pm, and I set off for Kennacraig on the Mull of Kintyre.  Not the most pleasant drive of my tour by any stretch, which was a shame because in more pleasant weather the scenery on this leg would have been just as pretty as on the islands themselves - particularly around Ardfern, where I'd been last September for Russell's wedding (but it didn't look quite like this in the March gloom).

Safely ensconsed in Rhu House, just off the A83, by about 8.30pm, I battened down the hatches and got ready for the last leg of my epic journey:  to Islay and Bowmore High School on Tuesday.

May the Force be with you

Monday, 19 March 2012

Day 8: What's the Story?

Sunday March 18th dawned bright and sunny on Tiree (which is officially the sunniest place in the UK and was living up to its reputation).  After breakfast I packed up the car again and headed for the ferry terminal in good time to catch the 1025 ferry back to Oban.  The crossing was really wonderful, with fantastic views of the islands in the sunshine as we cruised along the Sound of Mull past the lighthouse on Ardmor Point.

Soon we were arriving at Oban again, which even on a Sunday is a bustling town because of the ferry traffic.  As the "Lord of the Isles" pulled into the dock, my next ferry, the "Isle of Mull" was already moored and getting ready for boarding... it was a case of just driving off one boat and almost straight onto another - it felt just like making a flight connection:  I hadn't thought of Oban as the London Heathrow of the high seas!

The crossing to Craignure seemed very short indeed after the long journeys from Barra and to and from Tiree, but there was still time to admire yet more stunning views as we headed out past Kerrera and yet more lighthouses (with yet another striking rainbow in the background).

Sajely landed on Mull I made the short drive to Tobermory, pausing on the way just past Salen for a quick photo of the mainland, looking out towards the Ardnamurchan peninsula.

I finally reached Tobermory (aka Balamory!) about 5.30pm, and after a short stop down on the Main St for the obligatory photograph... was off to my B&B on Breadalbane St, which coincidentally is run by Rebecca MacDonald, maths teacher at Tobermory High School.  Rebecca and Donald Holmes, the physics teacher, had between them come up with a plan for my talks on Monday morning and I gave Donald a quick call to confirm all was well.  Donald suggested that, since the primary school was immediately adjacent to the High School, perhaps I could pay them a visit too.  I figured this would be fine:  my only real constraint on Monday was to catch the 5pm ferry back from Craignure to Oban, to set me up for the last leg of my epic journey, to Islay on Tuesday.

I headed off to An Tobar, the little arts centre where I'd be giving the last of my public talks that evening.

I was a bit unsure of numbers this time, but Rebecca said that she was coming along and expected that a few of her students would be coming too.  In the end there was more than 30 people, which filled the venue, so another big success.   We even managed a little bit of star gazing straight afterwards too - although it was noticeable that the streetlights of Tobermory limited what you could see, even if they were no where near as bad as Glasgow.  (I guess anywhere was going to suffer in comparison with Tiree!)  Unfortunately the clouds rolled in too and we only managed a quick look at Mars and a few other constellations, but there were lots of great questions - particularly from the children.

On the way back to Rebecca's place the clouds suddenly cleared and I got a much better idea of just how dark the skies over Mull could be.  Not having the telescope set up, I was limited to taking a snap of Venus and Jupiter on my phone - but even that was impressive, Venus in particular managing not to be drowned out by the lights of the town.

I was a bit sad that the evening public talks were now over, but looking forward to the final two rounds of schools talks on Monday and Tuesday.

May the force be with you

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Day 7: The Wee Island

Saturday May 17th: another very early rise to catch the 0645 ferry to Coll and then Tiree.  By 0630 I was back on board the "Lord of the Isles" and settling down for another long journey.

To my great surprise, as I walked into the Observation Lounge on Deck 5 who did I meet but Grant Miller:  former GU Physics and Astronomy student, now PhD student working on exoplanets at St Andrews?!  Grant is someone whose name I've been mentioning frequently on the Island Universe tour so far, particularly in relation to the new Exoplanets Researching Physics topic being introduced in the revised Higher Physics syllabus, and which the pupils in Portree seem to be enjoying so much.  It's a great story to be able to tell the pupils that, less than decade ago, Grant was himself doing the higher - and now he's finding planets himself, as part of the SuperWASP collaboration.  What a pleasant and welcome coincidence to meet him on the ferry.  He told me that he was en route to Coll with some American friends from St Andrews to celebrate St Patrick's Day, staying in the cottage on Coll that belonged to his family (and where his ancestors had once lived). We swapped some stories about what was going on at GU, and how Grant's PhD work was going.  To add to the coincidence, the physics teacher in Tiree is Steven Wilkinson, who had been a Physics and Astro student in the same year as Grant. What are the chances of that?...I got a photo of Grant before they dismebarked at Coll; this will be handy to use in the remaining schools' talks of my tour.

The journey across to Tiree was - if anything - even more jaw-droppingly beautiful than the crossing from Barra to Oban on Friday.  The seas were calm throughout and the sun shone for most of the way - apart from one heavy (and brief) rainstorm as we passed along the Sound of Mull...

...but even that had a silver lining as I managed to get a great photo of a rainbow (with a  strong hint of a second arc) against the backdrop of the Mull hills: this will be great to use in my talks about spectroscopy, and how we use it to detect the "wobble" of stars caused by exoplanets and the redshift of distant galaxies.

We docked in Tiree at about 10.30 and I drove off and headed for the Scarinish Hotel.  

The plan was to meet Steven at about 2pm and then head over to the High School, so this gave me some time to set up the telescope (to save time that night) and get a bit of a walk.  I was also able to watch a little of the Scotland-Italy rugby game, but the less said about that the better...

The bay just in front of the hotel was straight out of a picture postcard...

...and the view from the dunes just beyond the fishing boat was stunning:  i could see Skye, Mull, Staffa, Iona, Jura, and a bunch of smaller islands - including the very distinctive "Dutchman's Cap" which I remembered from our boat trip to Staff from Fionnphort back in 2002.

Steven came by the hotel just after 2pm and we drove off to the School, passing by the airport on the way.  

The afternoon talk was designed for the younger children and we had a great range of ages - from Aidan (who was 4) to Poppy and Iona (who were in early years of Secondary, and so already doing CfE science).  Some of the Mums and Dads stayed too, as did Caroline the Deputy Head. We talked about life in the Solar System and how we find exoplanets (a chance to tell them about meeting Grant!), with a break for drinks and Jaffa Cakes halfway through. I was hugely impressed by the pupils' questions and knowledge and enthusiasm, which I think in no small way is due to Steven's efforts.  I was very pleased to hear from him that there's likely to be a big growth in the number of pupils taking Physics in their 5th year next year.

By about 4.30pm it was time to head back to Scarinish, which we did via the other side of the island, so I could say that I'd circumnavigated it during my brief stay.   The weather was now really beautiful, and from the other side of the island I could see Barra and Eriskay, and maybe a hint of South Uist too, as well as the neighbouring Coll and the small isles Eigg, Muck and Rhum. After a short stop back in my hotel room (enough time to get the Wales-France result; very glad that Wales won the Grand Slam!) and some more photos of the bay... was down to the restaurant to have dinner with Steven and Caroline.  We had a great chat about the pros and cons of teaching in a small school, and about living on small island in general.

At about 7.15pm we headed up to the room where my talk would be given. Already the skies were darkening and there wasn't a cloud in sight, so things were looking very good.  As 7.30pm approached the visitors kept on coming: Steven had to keep going to the bar to get more chairs and the room was getting ever more crowded.  Steven's initial target, that we exceed the number of visitors (nine!) who'd come along for a talk on bugs by a visiting scientist the previous year, had long been surpassed and by the time we got going at 7.45pm there were more than 37 people crammed into the room.

My talk seemed to go down well, despite (or maybe because of) the golden comedy moment when my computer projector decided not to display red colours any more - a bit awkward when you're talking about redshifts!!  We finished up just after 8.30pm and, rather than the usual Q&A session, I suggested that we immediately head for the great (and very dark!) outdoors and take advantage of Tiree's spectacular skies.

And boy were they spectacular.  I explained to the crowd that I hadn't seen anywhere this dark in the UK. There was a tiny hint of light pollution on the horizon from the direction of Tobermory, but otherwise the biggest light pollution was Venus!  This was so incredibly bright that it prevented us from getting a really sharp and clear view of the Pleiades, since otherwise I think I would have had my best chance yet of actually seeing all Seven Sisters (especially armed as I was with my new varifocal glasses).

The only problem was getting the telescope going:  it didn't seem to be finding enough GPS satellites to work out its location and orientation, and given how dark it was I didn't really want to start trying to calibrate it manually.  In truth, however, it was probably better anyway just to show
people what they could see with the naked eye - and since the crowd was so large (most people seemed to have stayed behind after my talk) they wouldn't have got much time looking through the telescope.  Fortunately Steven had brought along a powerful green laser pointer, so I was able to use that to guide people around the sky - showing them all the usual suspects: the different colours of Betelgeuse and Rigel in Orion, the Orion Nebula, the Pleiades and Beehive star clusters, the Andromeda Nebula, Sirius, Gemini, and the planets Venus, Jupiter and Mars.  We also saw loads of satellites passing overhead and a fair number of shooting stars.

We wrapped things up about 10pm, as the cold was starting to seep in, and it was time to retire to the bar. A few hours, and drinks, later I headed off to bed after one of the best dark sky observing sessions I've led in a long time.  Over the course of the day and night I'd talked to about 7% of the island's population, and was delighted that Steven's enthusiasm and persistence in organising these events - and cajoling people to come along - had paid off in such spectacular fashion.

May the force be with you

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Day 6: The Big Island

It's Friday March 16th and today I head to the biggest island on my tour: the UK Mainland!  First it's the 5-hour ferry journey from Castlebay to Oban....The ferry is the "Lord of the Isles" and after another early rise I'm all set to board about 0830 when I suddenly remember that I've left my laptop in the hotel.  I haven't done anything that careless for a very long time - but fortunately the situation is easily retrievable and I zoom on foot back up to the hotel to get it and am back in the car before the ferry starts to board......Phew!!!!

The view from the ferry as we travel back to the mainland is quite spectacular, and the weather is very pleasant so I spend most of the time up on deck.  First, there's a close up view of the castle in the bay which gives the town its name.

Then we hit the open sea beyond the bay and there's quite a swell - wouldn't like to make the journey on a stormy day!

The weather stayed fine most of the way across and, after a few hours of seeing nothing but ocean we pass quite close to Coll and Tiree (where I'm headed on Saturday)

We also got more distant views of the small islands Eigg, Muck and Rhum on the other side of the ship.  I was taking the chance on the long sea crossing to catch up on my podcasts, starting with Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo's film reviews from the previous Friday.  Coincidentally, as we were passing Eigg Mark was reviewing the new David Tennant film "The Decoy Bride" which is set on Eigg (or "The edge of Scottish remoteness", as Simon Mayo put it) although apparently it was filmed on the Isle of Man, so maybe the coincidence was somewhat diminished anyway.

By about 12.15pm we were passing the Ardnamurchan peninsula and starting the long, slow sail between the Scottish mainland and the Isle of Mull: wonderful scenery throughout - and a journey I will come to know well as I play my way back and forth along this sound on Saturday and Sunday too.

By 2.15pm we had arrived, after the longest ferry journey I'd ever taken - beating even Napoli to Palermo or Vancouver to Victoria.  In fact it had really felt a bit more like a flight, in terms of its duration and rhythm - although it was nice of course to be able to move around and go up on deck, not really an option at 36,000 feet!

Just like taking a long flight, there was a certain sense of time stopping while on board, so when we did disembark at the Oban Ferry terminal, part of me still thought it was about 0845.  Unlike e.g. a US trip, with the time zone shift, it was already mid-afternoon in Oban so I had to turn my thoughts quite quickly to the evening lecture at Oban High School.

After a quick reviving cup of tea in a coffee shop on the pier front I headed round to my hotel, the Columba Hotel, and checked in, caught up on some emailing and phoned home - and was pleased to learn that Catriona had now seen the unicycling Darth Vader on my blog - and thought it was hilarious!

Soon I was off to the High School, where I met science Faculty Head Iain Fulton, who had kindly given up his Friday evening to organise my talk.  He warned me not to expect quite such big numbers as the BBC One Show was filming in town (to do with the start of Sport Relief) and many of their pupils had been swayed from a talk on the mysteries of the Universe by the prospect of getting a few seconds on TV - a metaphor for our times if ever there were one (although I have a feeling that if I'd been Brian Cox then the odds might have tipped firmly in my favour!)   Despite Iain's caution, there was still a good crowd of more than 20 - making it feel that adding the extra lecture in Oban had been well worthwhile, particularly as we finally got the chance to do a little bit of stargazing afterwards.  The skies were very murky but Venus and Jupiter could be clearly seen in the west when we came out of the lecture, so we had a look at them through binoculars at least and everyone went away happy.  The prospects for much clearer skies (and of course darker skies!) over Tiree on Saturday night are apparently very good so I'm really looking forward to that. Tune in tomorrow to find out how that goes.

May the force be with you

Friday, 16 March 2012

Day 5: Down the Spine of the Hebrides

The Uig to Lochmaddy ferry arrived about 8pm on Wednesday night.  I then had the long(ish) drive down through North Uist and across the causeway to Benbecula, arriving at Borve Guest House in Torlum about 8.30pm.  The islands are very, very dark - no streetlights anywhere that I could see apart from a short stretch in Liniclate, close to the school where I'd be headed the next morning.  Just a pity that it was cloudy yet again!  It was good to have a quiet evening with not too much to do, especially as I'd have evening talks on the four evenings that followed, but if it had been clear I think I'd have been out there doing some stargazing of my own.

Day 5 I was up bright and early again.  My previous visit to Benbecula was in February 2010, when my wife Ruth was performing for Scottish Opera in Liniclate School and Catriona and I flew across as groupies.  My abiding memory was of Benbecula being very windy, and this time was no different:  with not a tree to be found anywhere on the island, there's really nothing to shield the Benbeculans from the brunt of the Atlantic gales.

I arrived at the school at 0845, just as all the buses were bringing people in from the Uists. (Liniclate School is the only secondary for North and South Uist as well).

I met my host Iain Hogg - another physics teacher with a strong engineering background (this must really help with building practical experiments) and originally hailing from Paisley.  We had a great chat about life, the Universe and everything as I was setting up in the theatre (same location that Ruth had used for Scottish Opera back in 2010) and by just after 9am I was ready for the first talk of the day:  "Captain Cook and the Cosmic Yardstick" for about 40 second year pupils.  I got some very interesting questions as I went along but still just about managed to get to the end before I was out of time.

Next period it was the First years (about 30 of them) and a talk on ET Life and finding exoplanets.  They were a very lively bunch, and asked really great questions, such as "if we found life out there, what would we say to them?"  This let me talk a little bit about Carl Sagan and the golden Voyager record (let's hope the Aliens haven't moved on to CD or iPod technology!) and the project I've been running with various other local authorities - see my website here.  I also got talking about what any ET life might look like, and how that would be affected by the astrophysics of their environment - which prompted the comment from one of the first years "Wouldn't there be convergent evolution?"  What could I say?...This pupil sounded like one to watch.

Final talk was in Iain Hogg's classroom - to a group of about 15 fifth and sixth year students, about "The Runaway Universe" - covering dark matter and dark energy. They were very lively too, and in their questions got into ideas about the Multiverse and evolving dark energy models: they'd clearly been thinking about this stuff before!  One of them asked me unprompted what I thought of Lee Smolin's work!!

We got a quick photo for the school newspaper, which I said I'd also post on my blog: me talking to three of the senior pupils about the Andromeda galaxy and Edwin Hubble's Cepheid observations...

After another good chat with Iain Hogg (including a Southerner's perspective on the wisdom or otherwise of using on Barra tonight my customary "Father Ted" analogy to talk about measuring galaxy distances)

it was time to move on to South Uist, Eriskay and the ferry across the Sound of Barra.

I got to the ferry in good time but found it was already docked and had a fair old line of cars already waiting to board:  a good job I'd booked in advance, I think.

The crossing to Barra was short, although the seas were a bit rougher (made worse by it being a very small boat): bumpy enough for my car alarm to go off a few times - this must drive the crew nuts...

Safely landed, I drove across the island - deciding to go anti-clockwise to Castlebay (which is aptly named - spot the palm trees too, courtesy of the Gulf Stream).

Note the rare sighting of blue sky....I was getting a bit hopeful about the chances of some observing tonight!

After a nice meal at the Castlebay Hotel it was off to the Castlebay Community Hall, where Specsavers were set up in the hall until 8pm but when I got there at 7.40pm they were already packing up: it had been a slow day in the island for selling spectacles.  I had a wee chat with the staff, suggesting we could probably have teamed up for a talk about optical telescopes, and re-arranged the room a bit by moving the resident ceilidh band's drum kit so that my slides could be seen on the end wall.

By about 7.55pm Robert Ross, physics teacher from Castlebay School (and another southerner, this time from Cambuslang!) had arrived, with 35 other islanders, of all ages. (As Robbie said, this was about 3% of the population; if I had that kind of audience in Glasgow I'd need to book Hampden or the SECC!  Not bad considering my talk was clashing with the whist drive in Vatersay too...

My talk seemed to go down well and got lots of good questions - including a great question from one of the youngest audience members (aged 10) who wanted to know what I liked most about being an astronomer!  I told him it was the chance to discover new things, and also explained about how one of our former students - Grant Miller - was busy finding new exoplanets. He seemed impressed!

After the talk was over I had loads of great questions which allowd me to give the audience a quick low down on some of my other talks too.   Alas, however, when we finished up around 9.30pm it was cloudy outside so the quest to do some stargazing goes on.

It was back to the hotel about 10pm, after a very rare experience - calling home from a payphone: try as I might I've not been able to find any mobile phone coverage anywhere on the island.

So, only the briefest of visits to Barra, but a very worthwhile stopover in this jewel of the Hebrides.

May the Force be with you

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Day 4: Happy birthday, Albert!

Wednesday March 14th  (Einstein's birthday and International Pi Day)  dawned wet and windy in Breakish at the southern end of Skye.  I headed off about 8am towards Portree, all set for another bunch of talks in the High School.  My contact was Alastair Watt - Portree High School's physics teacher, who I learned came from an engineering and RAF background (having spent some years working on Benbecula, where I would be heading later on Wednesday evening).

First up was a talk on "Putting the Iron in Irn Bru" to about sixty 3rd and 4th years.  Talking about the nuclear processes that power stars, and the importance of E = mc^2, felt just right for Einstein's birthday and the pupils seemed quite gobsmacked by the idea that we are all made out of stars!   

Next it was off to Alastair's classroom to meet his 5th year pupils who are currently doing the "Researching Physics" unit as part of the Revised Higher syllabus.  I spent a fascinating hour talking to the pupils, and seeing some of the experimental equipment they've developed to explore the physics of detecting planets around other stars - including this simple model of light source and a transiting planet, which can be used (with a lightmeter) to investigate how the size of the planet affects the brightness of the "star".

Meeting these students was a real highlight of the tour so far, and I was greatly encouraged by how much they seem to be enjoying the Researching Physics unit - as well as being highly impressed by how well they're being supported and mentored by Alastair.  It is good to have such a positive impression to report back to the Physics Qualifications Design Team.  We've come a long way from the meeting I co-organised in Edinburgh with Tania Johnston last January, where we hatched the idea of using exoplanets as an example for the RP unit.

Third period it was back to the School's main lecture theatre for a talk about "The Runaway Universe" - and another chance to wish Albert many happy returns!  This time I got a photo with the class.  (It was a wee bit too dark for my smartphone camera, really, but you can maybe make out me on the far left in my Einstein "Andy Warhol" style t-shirt which I had wheeled out for the occasion!)

Final session before lunch was a chance to talk to Alastair about other aspects of the revised Higher syllabus, and the kinds of teaching resources he'd developed to cover the cosmology and particle physics bits of "Our Dynamic Universe" and "Particles and Waves".  I was particularly impressed by his home-made particle accelerator.

After a very nice lunch at the Aros Centre, just outside Portree, it was back to the main theatre for my final talk, on Exoplanets, to all of the 2nd years.  I was very democratic - giving almost equal time and mentions to physics, chemistry and biology (this topic is ideal for that), minded that the pupils would soon be making their choices of which subjects they'd be studying for the new National 5 qualifications - which will replace Standard grades under the Curriculum for Excellence.

I finished my school day just before 3pm, having seen another 250 or so pupils over the course of the day and having had some great discussions with the pupils and teachers about the new Higher syllabus, the CfE, and how best the Universities can support them.  A good day's work all in all....

It was then off to a very nice teashop just north of Portree, for an hour or so on BT Openzone wireless access - to catch up on all the news and emails from Glasgow University, and from the LIGO Collaboration.  I also found a facebook link (from my friend Andy Newsam - another current STFC SIS Fellow) which suggests an alternative mode of transportation, and appropriate apparel, should I ever do another Hebridean astro tour! But of course I'd have to learn to play the bagpipes first...

At about 4.30pm I headed north to Uig, where it was blowing a gale as a rounded the bend and got my first view of the bay

I wondered if the incoming ferry would be delayed by the choppy seas, but at about 5.25pm the "Clansman" appeared round the headland and we were soon getting ready to board.

Finally, at 6pm, it was off to North Uist and Benbecula...Tune in tomorrow for news of my talks at Liniclate School and the journey onwards to Barra.

May the force be with you

Day 3: Over the Sea to Skye

Tuesday morning and it was time to move on to Harris.   I packed everything in the car (including a Stornoway black pudding which Guillian had very kindly bought for me as a souvenir of my visit) and headed southwards about 7.30am.  I encountered the Outer Hebrides "rush hour" just as I was crossing from Lewis to Harris...

..but managed to arrive at the Sir E. Scott Secondary School in plenty of time for their morning session - particularly as I learned that they start at the civilised time of 0930 (which apparently is to allow time for pupils to get in from the far-flung reaches of Harris).

First up was a session with about 60 First year to Third year pupils on detecting exoplanets and searching for life in the Universe.  I managed to video this lecture, so once I get the chance to edit the video files I'll post it on you tube.  

My host at Sir E. Scott was Angus Morrison, long-time friend (from their UG days) of my friend and colleague Alec Mackinnon from Glasgow University.  We swapped stories about the "old days" at Glasgow, and their mutual friend Lewis Mackenzie - coincidentally the same name as my current Masters project student who is working with me on designing software for the forthcoming transit of Venus.

Talking of which, the second group I spoke to at Sir E. Scott, who were all upper school pupils from Fourth year upwards, were a lively bunch with whom I just did an informal Q&A, during which we talked about everything from fundamentals of quantum mechanics to how we measure distances to far away galaxies.  For the first topic it gave me a chance to recommend the excellent book "How to teach quantum physics to your dog" (which I got for Christmas) and for the second topic I chatted about the "Cosmic Distance Ladder" and how ultimately that depends on us knowing the size of the Earth and the distance from the Earth to the Sun - at which point enter trigonometry!   We used the classroom to re-enact the famous Venus Transit observations of 1769, with two of the pupils taking the roles of Captain Cook and King George III, and one of the pupils getting to be Venus.  The illustration worked well, with the timings of when Venus crossed in front of the edges of the "Sun" (two Intermediate 2 pupils, Ella and Eilidh, at the back of the classroom) very different for Captain Cook and the King.  I'll try to repeat this, and film it, during one of my forthcoming talks, as I think it'll be a nice practical activity for schools to try themselves in the run up to the June 2012 Transit of Venus (of which much more to come...)

At 12.30pm it was time to move on to the ferry terminal, ready to catch the Uig ferry.

The crossing was very smooth and we got into Uig about 1530, right on schedule.  Then it was off to Portree, first to call in at the Library - location for my public lecture on Tuesday evening.  There I met Morna Maclaren, head librarian and (again, what a small world!) mother of one of our P&A staff Donald Maclaren of the MCMP Group. We scoped out a good space to use for my talk, and made sure that I could project my slides onto the wall.  Morna said that there had been a lot of interest in my talk and that "anything over 20 was a good turn out for Portree".

After a very nice meal in the Isles Inn with Prof John Brown (Astronomer Royal for Scotland), his wife Margaret and their friend Keri from Broadford (who is studying astronomy at the OU and aspiring to stay in the field - maybe working on exoplanets), it was back to the library for my talk. As 7pm approached the people kept piling in and Morna struggled to find them all seats and good view of the screen - we even had to put some folks upstairs in the "gods".  The final number attending was 97, which I was assured was a record for library events!!!   Despite one computer projector breakdown midway through the talk seemed to go down very well.  I think we could have kept the questions going for hours, but everyone seemed to go home happy.

So now it's onwards to Wednesday 14th, when I'm back in Portree High School all day, and it's time to celebrate Einstein's birthday.

May the force be with you