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