Monday, 12 March 2012

Day 2: Isle of Lewis

The Story So Far...

It's 6pm on Monday March 12th, and I'm almost done with the first full day of my "Island Universe" tour.  Today I'm in Stornoway, on the Isle of Lewis, where so far I've given 4 talks, on 4 different topics, to about 340 schoolchildren from S2 to S6 (i.e. 12 to about 17 years of age).

It's been a fun, if tiring, day and my voice is holding up well.  I've even managed to fit in a flying visit to the standing stones at Calanais - of which more below.

It already feels like I've been on the road for a while, and yet it's only about 24 hours since I left the mainland at Ullapool on board the MV Isle of Lewis, on a rather dreich Sunday evening, and headed for Stornoway.

The crossing of the Minch was relatively uneventful:  the boat was a lot quieter than when we made the same crossing last summer - as part of our family holiday around the Hebrides - and most of its occupants seemed to be a bit the worse for wear after (presumably) a sleep-deprived and possibly alcohol-fuelled weekend.  No such dissipation for me, as I spent the journey putting together my talk slides so I'd be all set to hit the ground running on Monday.

Only sticky moment on the crossing was just after we'd berthed in Stornoway, and the CalMac ferry staff spent about 15 minutes trying to open the bow doors!  Fortunately the wee man in the overalls just visible in the top left of the photo below seemed to have the knack and got the mechanism to work - just as I was beginning to think there was a chance we might be stuck on board all night...

Having finally driven off the ferry I was met by my friend and former colleague Dr Guillian McArthur, who was a grad student in solar physics at Glasgow when I came back to work there in 1998 and is now a physics teacher at the Nicolson Institute.  It was good to catch up with Guillian, particularly as another of the "astros" from the late 1990s - my old office mate Scott McIntosh had been featured on the recent BBC Horizon programme on solar storms. (You can still download that programme here - at least if you're in the UK).

Monday morning I was up bright and early and off to the Nicolson Institute, where I spent the first period getting set up for the talks throughout the rest of the day.  Then it was into a rapid succession of 50 minute presentations:

  • "Putting the Iron in Irn Bru" (on stars and the chemical elements - with thanks to Prof John Brown, of whom more on Tuesday from Portree, for the idea of the talk title many moons ago).
  • "The Runaway Universe" (on cosmology, and a bit of a dry run for my public lecture at An Lanntair tonight).
  • "Gravitational Wave Astronomy" (an extra "treat" for the Advanced Higher students, and a good chance to talk about some of the content that might be finding its way into the Curriculum for Excellence Advanced Higher in a few years).
  • "ET Life: Is there Anybody Out There?" (a good cross-science topic for the Second Years, building on ideas about exoplanets they'd met in their First Year, and covering the basics of how we find exoplanets - using the physics of spectroscopy and Newton's laws that they'll meet in later years).
Overall I think it was a successful day, with seemingly lots of enthused pupils and quite a few really good questions (including one about "where does God fit into all of this?" - I figured I might get one or two of those questions in the Western Isles!)  didn't film the lectures today but am planning to film all of them (and some other topics besides) over the course of the "Island Universe" tour, so watch this space for news of where you can find the video files on You Tube and other sites.

Straight after the end of the school day I zoomed off to Calanais, to visit the megalithic stone circle that I first heard about from the legendary Professor Archie Roy in my very first ever Astronomy lecture as a callow 1st year undergrad in October 1984.  That seems like a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...

The standing stones were deserted at first, which made it quite easy to get a photo of them without any signs of civilisation (or 21st century people) in view.  I did, however, bump into one visitor who, like me, was there to take some photos.  At first she was worried that she might disturb me if I was "there for some meditation" but I assured her that astronomers don't really go in for that kind of thing at megalithic stone circles.  Turns out that she knew of Archie Roy, and also of the work of Alexander Thom - Scottish engineer and academic whose work on archaeoastronomy, and the possible alignments of megalithic monuments with astronomical events like the solstices, I had learned about through my friendship and association with Archie over the years.  It's a small world, as they say....(although I suppose the chances of randomly bumping into someone who knew Archie and Thom when you're actually visiting a stone circle are bound to be significantly enhanced!)

Now back in Stornoway, mentally gearing up for my An Lanntair talk, which I was pleased to see was advertised at the Calanais visitors centre.

Just time to build a marble rollercoaster for my talk, part of a demonstration / analogy about how the speed of galaxy rotation curves help us to deduce that there is more to galaxies than meets the eye!...More on that after my talk later tonight.

May the force be with you

postscript:  Monday March 12th, 10.30pm.  There was an audience of about 120 people at my talk in An Lanntair, so that was a fantastic start to the public lectures side of the tour.  I was also able to film the whole lecture, so will be uploading that to You Tube later in the tour. It was also a pleasure to meet some of the folks from Stornoway Astronomical Society, Andrew McKenzie from the local branch of the IET and the mother of Richard Middlemiss - one of our final year students in Physics and Astronomy at Glasgow who has worked a lot with me on science outreach and other projects and (I learned today) was School Captain on the Nicolson Institute in 2005.

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