Concrete Science Epiphanies

The title is a kinda cultural reference to Musique Concrete, don’t you know. Maybe should be read in French.  Sea-onss kon-krett. Pretentious, Moi?

Anyhoo. I have always loved that moment when Jane Public looks through a real telescope and sees the rings of Saturn. Suddenly its real. Not on TV. Seen with her own eyes. There is a physical context. She had to walk up some stairs to the roof, queue up, bend at an awkward angle, and squint. Mental processing is good, but physicality is also good. It helps the scientific understanding, and it has a separate cultural impact which has its own importance. Its a kind of epiphany, an awakening.

I encountered two more such epiphanies yesterday. Here in Edinbrr its Science Festival time. (In Edinburgh, if you miss a Festival, don’t worry. There will be another one along in a minute.)  During the day I donned my STFC tee-shirt and helped out at the STFC roadshow, Seeing The Universe In All Its Light. This has all sorts of groovy things, but the bit I loved best is dead simple. We had a bunch of TV remote controls and pointed them at people’s camera phones. You can see the IR beam, which you can’t see with your naked eye. People almost gasp. There are invisible things in the Universe, but they are really there. You don’t need a million pound device. I can see it with with my own phone.

Wind forward to the evening, where I was part of the SCART Connection, a strange event that presented the results of pairing up scientists from the School of Physics and Astronomy with artists from the Edinburgh College of Art to see what they would come up with. This involved microscopic pictures of sludge crystals, sculptures of Ice-2,  Fibonacci spirals, a social soundscape project, and yours truly pontificating about cosmic violence to the accompaniment of electronic music by a local composer.  All very weird and wonderful. One thing that struck me was people’s reactions to a movie of those tiny sludge crystals. You could see them jiggling – Brownian motion in action. When told that this was caused by buffeting by atoms, their eyes bulged. Atoms? I can see them in a movie made by a guy from the Art College? Wooaahh.

37 Responses to Concrete Science Epiphanies

  1. Jim Geach says:

    Seeing Brownian motion for the first time in a school science lesson still sticks in my mind.

  2. Khilona Natha says:

    I live in South Africa and we have limited access to technologies that allow us to see into outer space. However, astronomy and anything space related have always intrigued me. I find the Blood Moon that occurs during a lunar eclipse the most fascinating. Although I am still slightly confused as to how does that happen?? It occurred on the 17 April, but was not visible to us. Like you say, watching videos on YouTube isn’t like experiencing the real deal.

    • andyxl says:

      Khilona – I don’t know which part of South Africa you are from, but there are some pretty cool astronomy activities in SA. Check out the SAAO web site, and also the plans for SKA . I know this is hi-tech, but they organise some really good public outreach activities too. Also, take a look at Florian Breuer’s amazing photos. That Milky Way is there for you too. No technology needed except eyes.

      • Khilona Natha says:

        Where I live, there isn’t much around. Though I will definitely look at the information you sent me. I have done a school project on the SKA, and honestly it sounds extremely exciting!!! Thank you so much for taking the time to reply to me😀

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