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.

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Standing on a spinning rock

December 27, 2012

Another sixties icon passes beyond the veil : Gerry Anderson has gone to join Joe 90 and Torchy the Battery Boy in the sky. Guardian obituary here. First ever episode of Supercar here, and if you want to check out the purple page-boy haircuts and metallic mini-skirts, try Episode 1 of UFO here.

Meanwhile, an update on my Patrick Moore nostalgia post. The mysterious “Gareth” turned out to be my own nineteen year old son, who for Christmas bought me that a 1964 edition of The Observers Book of Astronomy, just as I remembered it!! What a nice boy. His sister bought me a very steam-punk sextant so it was a rather nice antique astronomical christmas.

Concrete experience is very important in science. (Bear with me, there shall be A Link). Theory has to be constantly checked and re-rooted in observed fact. But the concrete is also important at a simple human level. Its good to be reminded we are doing something real; science is not an abstract game. Its wonderful when you show people Saturn through a small telescope. Suddenly its really there – its not on TV, you can see it with your own eyes. Its right there, in that direction.

The Observers Book has a chapter about equipment, and stresses the importance of a good mounting, and preferably some kind of manual or clockwork drive. As Patrick says, when people first look through a reasonably high powered telescope, they never fail to be struck by how fast the stars are moving. Indeed. Then suddenly you realise – you actually physically feel – that you are standing on a huge rock which is spinning in space.

Count one, two. That spot you occupied one second ago – its now three hundred metres over there.

Well…. maybe now we need to think about the Earth’s orbit; the local solar motion; the orbit of the Local Standard of Rest around the Galactic Centre; the motion of the Galaxy with respect to the CMB; Mach’s Principle maybe … or maybe not. That will do. We stand on a spinning rock. And you can see it with your own eyes.