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

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