Saturday, February 15, 2014

Happy 450th Birthday to Galileo

Today, Feb 15th 2014 is 450 years since the birth of Galileo Galilei.

By chance, last week I had the opportunity to visit the house Galileo lived in in the last years of his life near Arcetri Observatory in Florence.

I was actually visiting the Observatory where I had been invited to give a seminar.


Here's the explanation (in English) of the historic nature of the site. 


From the roof of the observatory you can see across the valley to the Villa il Gioiello where Galileo lived from 1631-1642. It's the yellowish building just left of centre.

Simone Bianchi was my host at Arcetri, and was kind enough to offer to take me over to the house. The house is not regularly open to the public, and the details of its future use are still being debated. 

A famous number by the front door. 



Here's an 18th century monument to Galileo from when the house was first becoming famous.


A plaque above the door from the time the University of Florence bought the house. The house has been under renovation for some time and is currently very nicely kept (but almost completely empty). 


Here's me in the room which is believed to have been Galileo's study during the time he was working on the proofs of his last book "Discourse and Mathematical Demonstrations Relating to Two New Sciences"


Here's the view from the upper balcony. This level was through to house the household staff at the time of Galileo. 


The walk between the observatory and the house was partly along a beautiful planet walk installed by the observatory. They host regular public tours when visitors can explore this walk, as well as the historic telescope and other instruments on the site (although unfortunately not the Galileo house). 


It was a nice visit, and has inspired me to re-read Dava Sobel's "Galileo's Daughter" which is about his time in this house, and well worth a read. 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

British Astronomers

I had cause to Google "British Astronomers" yesterday, and was so horrified by the result I felt I needed to post it. Actually once I think about it it's not a surprise at all, but the raw numbers still shocked me.

The top line is a list (with images) of the results "most mentioned on the web". I did a screen shot of that below.

It's William Herschel, Patrick Moore, Isaac Newton, Edmond Halley, John Flamsteed, Caroline Herschel, George Airy, John Herschel, James Bradley (?), Arthur Stanley Eddington, Jeremiah Horrocks, Nevil Maskelyne, John Adams (?), Fred Hoyle, Richard van der Riet Woolley (?), Frank Watson Dyson (?), William Parsons, Martin Rees, Harold Spencer Jones (?) and Jocelyn Bell.



Only two out of the 20 (10%) are alive, only two (10%) are women.

I put question marks above on names which were not immediately recognisable to me (this I take as my failing not Google's, but I was curious why they're there). It turns out that most of them are former Astronomer Royals whose wikipedia article begins "XX is an English Astronomer who was Astronomer Royal from XX-XX". John Adams I should have known - he's the person who (a the same time as but independently of Le Verrier) predicted the existence of Neptune from deviations in Uranus's orbit.

Is it time to add some more recent British astronomers to the list? Perhaps some more women (where is Cecilia Payne-Gaposhkin in this?). It seems we can help to do this by editing Wikipedia which is a good thing to do anyway.

Curiously Googling either "English Astronomers" or "American Astronomers" does not return the series of images ("Italian Astronomers" does - but missing Galileo!).


Thursday, December 5, 2013

Media Training with Sandi Toksvig

The lovely Sandi Toksvig is the Chancellor of the University of Portsmouth. In her tenure so far she has been a very active Chancellor, meeting many members of the University and really trying to help as much as she can. She decided that one thing she could offer would be a day of media training for six lucky members of the University academic staff.

I had the great privilege of being invited along to attend that day, which happened yesterday. I took my place along with Nick Pamment from the Institute of Criminal Justice who specialised in Youth Crime and Wildlife Crime (no link); Bridget Waller, a Evolutionary Psychologist who specialises in how animals communicate socially; Tamsin Bradly, a Sociologist who studies gender based violence, especially in India and Africa; and Stephen Williams from the Portsmouth Business School who is an expert in workplace rights (and my apologies to any of them if I've mangled their expertise!).

It was a wonderfully diverse group of people, and an amazing day to be part of.

In the morning we each did two radio style interviews with Sandi, followed by two TV interviews (one a talking head style, the other a "conversation on the sofa" style). It was fascinating to see Sandi in action, taking on the role of interviewers with different agendas or personalities (from bored, to combative).

I learned some interesting things about preparing for interviews (take notes, but don't look at them), how to relax (e.g. to sit in an open position, with arms on the table in front of you, or on the arms of your chair), and the games people sometimes play (e.g. how can I drop a reference to Rugby into a conversation about Cricket). It was also a wonderful confidence building exercise.

I also learned that in astronomy/cosmology we really have it easy with media interviews. There's nothing controversial about what I am likely to talk about (except why it's funded, but I've been asked that so much I really have the answer down). The most challenging this is likely to be remembering to mention the name of your University in the interview.

Anyway it was a fantastic day, and I encourage anyone offered a similar experience to invest the time.

A photo the press office Tweeted of Sandi interviewing me on camera.
The whole group in the UoP TV studio (including our technical assistants from CCi). 



Friday, November 1, 2013

Lecturing on the Far side of the World


Last month I had a wonderful experience. I was the 2013 Beatrice Hill Tinsley Lecturer. This award involved me stopping off in New Zealand following a planned trip to the Southern Hemisphere (for a conference on science results from Galaxy Zoo held in Sydney, Australia and to visit collaborators in Perth, Australia) to give a series of lectures across the country.

My itinerary in September and October around the Southern hemisphere


The Beatrice Hill Tinsley Lecture series was started in 2012 by the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand. The idea of the series was to enable RASNZ to invite an international researcher in astronomy/astrophysics to New Zealand to give a series of pubic talks hosted by regional astronomy groups. New Zealand has a population of 4.4 million (half that of London) and despite having only a handful of professional astronomers this includes a very active community of amateur astronomers.

My trip started in New Plymouth, where the local astronomy society runs weekly public stargazing sessions at their small observatory. The group is in the middle of fundraising to buy a more modern telescope and was keen to use the BHT Lecture to drum up support. Beatrice Hill Tinsley went to high school in New Plymouth, and I spoke in her old school hall, after an introduction by a current New Plymouth girl, Belle Moller (yr 12) who had recently returned from NASA Space Camp in Texas.

New Plymouth took the prize for advertising with this gigantic poster in the public library. 

Following New Plymouth, I went to the nations capital to speak at the Carter Observatory in Wellington (hosted by the Wellington astronomical society).  This location was formally the national observatory of New Zealand, now hosting a delightful science museum and planetarium.  A day off in Wellington allowed me to take the chance to visit “Te Papa” (the NZ National Museum) as well as to talk a walk in some areas of native wildlife

After Wellington I flew to the South Island, where my first stop was Nelson. The extremely friendly Nelson Astronomical Society hosted my visit, and I spoke at The Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology. The skies cleared the evening of my talk and I here is where I had my best view of the Southern Skies complete with a telescopic tour of some of the best star clusters through my host’s home made telescope. 


With my host Rudy in Nelson
I continued my journey south to Dunedin, with its sometimes Anarctic weather. My hosts here gave me a behind the scenes tour of the Otago Museum (where my talk was to happen)  and showed off their society observatory, which they use for both public observing, and highly professional observations of occulations (stars disappearing behind asteroids) which they contribute to a large database. There was a chance for more sightseeing too, with a visit to the steepest street in the world and a drive down the beautiful Otago Pennisula where I was lucky enough to see both seals and penguins in the wild
With Ron Paine in front of the Dunedin Astronomy Society's Beverly-Begg Observatory

A yellow penguin on the Otago Penninsula

With the Dunedin Astronomical Society
 Next it was back up North (well very slightly) for a visit to Canterbury University Physics department in Christchurch. Here I gave a research seminar - a slight break from public talks, before jumping in the mini-bus and catching a lift 3 hours inland to the beautiful Lake Tekapo. My final talk of the trip was to be a Keynote Speech at the Aorki MackenzieStarlight Festival – a weekend of astronomically themed events to celebrate the success of the Aorki-Mackenzie Dark Sky Area. – the largest Internationally Recognised Dark Sky Reserve in the world.

We arrived on Friday, just in time to attend the opening ceremony – a delightful mix of Maori welcoming, a talk on Maori astronomy (by Keynote Speaker Dr. Pauline Harris), a show of astronomical artwork finished off with a movie about the links between the Transit of Venus and the diverse set of peoples who make New Zealand their home. 

The Starlight Festival Keynote Speakers, from left to right – Marsha Ivins (Veteran NASA Astronaut), me, and Dr. Pauline Harris (expert in Maori Astronomy)
On Saturday, veteran astronaut Marsha Ivins led off the programme with a wonderful talk on space flight, which was followed by a work shop to construct over 100 Galileoscopes, and a space themed concert (held on an ice rink) by the Christchurch Youth Sympony Orchestra. The day was finished off with a first for me – a dinner hosted at a working observatory, eating under red lights and the night sky.


100 Galileoscopes waiting to be built, and the resulting testing….





Sunday was my day to speak, and then there was just time to try out the famous Lake Tekapo Hot Springs before heading back to Christchurch to catch my flight home on Monday morning.

It was an amazing an unforgettable trip around the beautiful country that is New Zealand.