Saturday, 12 February 2011

How I ended up as an Astronomer ?

Never underestimate the importance of enthusiastic teachers who love their subject. It was this lack of enthusiasm that lead me away from my dream job at 16. I was very creative and after making my own web page had decided that Art and Computing was where my future would be......

However my art and computing teachers were no where near as excited or enthused as my Physics and Maths teachers were during my GCSE and College studies. Actually I sensed that my computing teacher hated computing and that my art teachers were just jealous that some artists in my class were alot better them. Meanwhile my physics teacher was telling us all these inspiring stories about crazy physicists with gold noses, who fly kites in thunderstorms and get hit on the head with apples etc. So, even though I had aspirations and dreams of becoming an interior designer/artist/fashion designer/graphic designer/web-page designer, I actually ended up liking Physics and Maths more. 

I enjoyed that you could work through your formulas do your calculations and you could be very confident of getting all the marks. This was just the opposite in art where I felt exceptional artists could do amazing pieces of work and the art teachers interpretation of it would be a grade E, where as in my own opnion these great artists deserved a B in the was all a bit "hand wavy"..This is why I feel maths with mechanics/physics thrown in is so awesome. You get a nice sense of achievement when you get your answer out, especially when you know the answer is a real value with physical meaning. for eg. the speed you would have to throw a creme egg to get it to escape the earths atmosphere...... its not just maths, for the sake of maths! 

So....I ended up in Astronomy specifically, as opposed to just Physics..manily because of all the pretty Hubble images of space that were about at the time. This imagery appealled to my creative side, and showed me that Physics and Astronomy was not only beautiful from equations, theory and formula point of view, but also you could see it's beauty. 

The Butterfly Nebula credit: Hubble
Looking at these images allowed my imagination to run a bit wild. The history of astronomy was also rather interesting to me; it taught me that to learn about our environment, some times the answer is far away in space.......Lots of physical laws e.g. gravity were discovered by scientists looking beyond earth, to the planets and out into the galaxy.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Black Hole Talk to St Annes

St Annes is a local girls school which is lucky enough to offer GCSE Astronomy to its pupils.

I have given a talk about black holes to a class of approximately 10 students and a teacher on 2 occasions. I gave the talk originally to fit in with the fact they had got to black holes on the syllabus, and I was asked back by the teacher to give the same talk the year after. The second time I gave the talk there were double the number of students (more due to a school show, as opposed to more students taking the GCSE).

As part of the GCSE the students study the electromagnetic spectrum and black holes.

Contents of Talk

I start with how I ended up doing a PhD in Astronomy  (see blog on this subject) . This introduction manily shows the importance of teachers, and also how at the age of about 15/16 you are changing your mind about what you want to do with your life, and what you most like learning about.

My Research is based on black holes using radio and X-ray astronomy. I therefore start most talks especially GCSE with the electromagnetic spectrum (which is on the syllabus I believe). I explain how the radio waves are the longest wavelength radiation, with low energy, and low frequency, and compare to the high frequency X-ray radiation. I then usually talk about radio waves on earth, man made from radio and TV and X-rays for looking at bones etc.

After discussing all about how black holes form, and the types of black hole and the supermassive black hole at the centre of the milkyway. I then go onto my research on a specific supermassive black hole at the centre of a galaxy called NGC 4051.

Optical Image of NGC 4051 (Caltech)

I link my research on the supermassive black holes to those smaller, binary black holes within our own galaxy by showing the students the 'fundamental plane of black holes'. This basically is a plot showing the relationship between the X-ray radiation from the disk around the black hole, and the radio radiation from the jets. The fact that a straight line can be drawn through all black holes big and small in this plot suggests there is a link between the smaller and the supermassive. This is good for astronomers as it means we can look at the near by black holes and scale up what we 'see' and make predictions about the supermassive black holes at the centre of galaxies.

I finish the talk by summarising all about black holes and my research, and why i think it is exciting. I then go on to tell them the kind of jobs available to me/astronomers, specifically in radio astronomy, LOFAR and SKA. Finally I tell them about other jobs Physics students go into, such as finance, teaching, computing etc.

Interesting questions from the students and teacher

Why do we want to know about the X-rays from black holes?

Why should we spend money on astronomy ? is it not better to spend it on things that help people on our earth? rather than worry about things millions of miles away in space?

Ways to improve the talk in the future

At end of the second talk the teacher introduced me to some Carl Sagan music. This might be nice to introduce in the future, and the girls seemed to find it quite funny.

Worm holes, and Relativity

These students also came to a SEPNET event on black holes, worm holes and time travel, which the students asked alot of crazy out there questions, such as various paradox's of general relativity, which I was definetly not aware of at GSCE level- This just shows you should not, not talk about einstein etc just because you did not understand it, and probably still don' is a very though provoking subject for the student.