Concrete Science Epiphanies

April 9, 2014

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.


WISE is Go

December 15, 2009

Its the year of infra-red astronomy … UKIRT is still going strong (for now…), but now we have Herschel, VISTA, and … WISE.

WISE launched successfully yesterday from Vandenberg. The PV phase is expected to be very short – an amazing one month – followed by a seven month sky survey. My IPAC chums tell me they intend to get the data within a year, so you ain’t got to wait long.

Just thought I’d cheer you up before tomorrow’s doom and gloom.


Tim Hawarden

November 19, 2009

We got some bad news a few days back – Tim Hawarden died, rather suddenly. This is a real loss to UK astronomy, as well as to ROE and to UKIRT. There is an obituary on the ROE web page, very nicely put together by Ian Robson. The family requested flowers from family only, but suggested an appropriate charity instead. If any other readers remember Tim, you could also consider this charity :

Pegasus Children’s Trust of South Africa,
c/o Mrs Judy Westwater, 118A Bruce Gardens,
Dalmeigh, Inverness IV3 5BE

Ian Robson has suggested we add anecdotes to the website. This is what I will shortly be sending in :

Some years back, outside a tourist shop in Kyoto, I took a swig from a can of coke, only to be stung by a bee that had just landed inside the can. I spat out the bee, but it still hurt like hell. Tim whipped out his pocket knife, looked me in the eye, and said firmly “Open your mouth wide and keep very still”. He exuded such a bold confidence I did exactly what he said. Tim  gently dug into the soft flesh in the roof of my mouth, then proudly showed me the sting on the blade of his knife. “Wow” I said, “where did you learn to do that ?” There then followed a big jolly Tim-type laugh. “Well…” he said, “I have never done that before. But it seemed better not to mention this until after I’d finished !”