Kielder Observatory trip – 26th February

Another month, another four schools, another 30 students; we seem to be making a habit of trucking people up to the Kielder Observatory. No snow this time, so our intrepid driver Steve bounced us up the track, and we managed to get some good observing in before the high cloud closed over. Luke from the Observatory then gave us a joyous romp through the exciting bits of astronomy and cosmology (absorption spectra! Woo! — no, really, I did go a bit giddy about absorption spectra), and all too soon we were back on the coach heading home.

The thin cloud layer and absent moon made for a relatively lousy night for photography, so there aren’t many shots:

Here’s Becki welcoming us to the Observatory, as we huddle in the one vaguely-warm part of the site and get properly dark-adapted:

Luke’s observing station, with 3- and 5-inch refractors set up and ready to go:

…and a group observing from that station, a few minutes later:

The 16” Reflector was in use. Here it is slewing across the sky while my shutter was open:

…and here’s an arty shot of the housing. The smudge of stars left of centre is – if I’m not mistaken – the Pleiades cluster.

Finally, my best shot of the night: Becki’s observing group out on the deck, with Orion directly above the telescope. Top left of Orion is Betelgeuse, looking much more red than Rigel, down the bottom-right of the constellation.

As ever, it’s quite a trek out to the Observatory (as Becki put it: Kielder is the most remote village in England, so the Observatory is outside the most remote village), but it’s well worth it, particularly if you’re lucky with the weather. Keep an eye on Kielder’s Events page (or this handy availability checker) and book yourself into a session!

Big thanks to the Observatory staff, and we’ll hope to be back again soon.

Pop-Sci @ The Forum and The Beacon

It’s been a busy half-term for Think Physics; we were welcomed back to The Beacon in North Shields and The Forum in Wallsend for more science pop-up shop fun.

Families of children from local schools were invited to join us for a day of science based activities: we were swamped! Big thanks for coming along. We handled meteorites, took infrared selfies, made a lot of funny noises, investigated UV light, explored the pinwheel galaxy, designed planets, and made a gigantic marble run (…and that was all before lunch!)

Families were also take on a tour of the universe in our Explore Your Universe show. The whole thing was captured by our Think Physics Twitter Photo Booth. And also by our rather less exciting human photographer – gallery below.

Stay tuned for news of our next sci-pop pop-up shop. You could even sign up for our newsletter.


My Work Experience Week

Rebecca-6My name is Rebecca; I am a year 12 student studying Maths, Chemistry and Geography. I decided to do my week work experience with Think Physics because I believe not enough information is given to students about studying and finding a career in STEM. I am the only female in my AS Chemistry class, illustrating perfectly the lack of students, particularly girls, engaging in STEM and why the work done at Think Physics is so important.

As an A-level student not studying Physics, I thought I had waved any hope of a career in engineering goodbye, but within an hour of my arrival at Think Physics Emma had already given me hope by bringing the idea of a foundation year to my attention. Something I had never thought of before, options were opening already – a brilliant start to the week. After meeting the team and settling into the office I began my research into foundation degrees, Think Physics and wind power.

My first morning was spent researching a pharmaceuticals company called MSD which has a site in Cramlington, now home to two 130m high wind turbines. Due to the nature of the A levels I had chosen to take I don’t get much opportunity to do my own research into an area so the task allowed me to build up my weaker research skills as well as find out about a fascinating company and renewable energy (a field I had been considering).  Soon it was time for lunch and some surprisingly good cafeteria food as well as a sit down in the staff lounge. Next up, going to help bring back giant tool box trolleys from a shop in town for a workshop later on the week, although it admittedly did look slightly odd three people speed walking through town with giant wheely tool boxes. The afternoon was spent packing up lots of electrical equipment into those giant tool boxes.

Tuesday was the most exciting day of the week, arriving at 9am dressed in Think Physics green, today was a day of workshops. First up, mechanical engineering with a year 5 group who made little robots. Despite children being one of my biggest fears, it was an incredibly enjoyable morning helping them to create their robotic orchestra. In the afternoon I got to go back to my own school as they were running an after school club with Think Physics for younger year groups. It was great to see how intelligent they were and how confident they had become with the electrical components used to make a chain reaction of structures they had designed – something alien to me. They all seemed to really enjoy it and I did too.

The next morning I began with some more research and blog writing. The office was a lovely work environment and felt very comfortable. That afternoon I was inputting some data for the team from some year 3 questionnaires which I found quite fascinating. It even inspired a project I intend to take up next year studying what happens throughout their time in school to put girls off science. When inputting the data I found that generally, many of the girls said they really liked science and were really good at it, which made me think about why is it that they don’t carry on and develop careers in science as much as boys will do. As I finished a bit early, I helped to make some windmills to be used later on in the week for a workshop about wind power.

Thursday, my favourite day of the placement, saw the team in a day of meetings to review the projeRebecca-2ct, so I was given the important task of creating a makedo example. This for me was a perfect opportunity to spend two hours making a rather large cardboard castle complete with an impressive opening door and working drawbridge. This was by far the highlight of the week for me and I was quite impressed and proud of the finished product. At this point a surprising amount of babies joined the team briefly. After dinner I started to cut out extra propellers for our wind workshop the next day.

An early start on Friday saw me at 8am en route to Excelsior Academy where the wind power workshop was to take place. The workshop involved calculating the power needed to put on a music festival and how to generate that electricity in an environmentally-friendly way, this is where the windmills come into things. The groups got to create small wind turbines and test them using a fan to see if they could life a weight. They then tried to modify the design to make it as efficient as possible. It was a fun way of looking at renewable energy and how it can affect us all even if we don’t necessarily think it does.

This week has been incredibly useful for me and a great experience. I really feel like I have gained a lot out of the placement in a really interesting project. I would love to come back and do it again. Although I was pretty nervous before starting the week as I wasn’t a physics student, the team have been very welcoming and adapted to my interests and shown me it isn’t just about doing physics, it is about the importance of engineering and wider STEM and giving young people the experience and information to get them to be excited about the endless career opportunities STEM creates. I highly recommend this placement to any science student willing to work hard and wanting to gain from their experiences.

Gravitational waves – The Think Physics Guide

As a project with ‘Physics’ in our title, it hardly seems possible not to be talking about gravitational waves in the office this morning. We read the reports avidly, we got all excited, and we also realised that we’re hardly the experts on this. So here’s our brief run-down of the really useful stuff we’ve found from better journalists than ourselves and more informed cosmologists:

First up, an excellent film from the New York Times, which sets out what the LIGO experiment in Louisiana and Washington has done:

The rest of the Times’ report is a good solid overview of what’s happened. Through the arms-length reporting you can glimpse the level of excitement and the significance of the work.

If animation is more your style, this primer from PhD Comics will spin you through the bumpy landscape of gravitational waves:

Hooked? Fascinated? Excited? The New Yorker has an outstanding long article about the inside story of the discovery:

“Space and time became distorted, like water at a rolling boil. In the fraction of a second that it took for the black holes to finally merge, they radiated a hundred times more energy than all the stars in the universe combined. They formed a new black hole…

The waves rippled outward in every direction, weakening as they went. On Earth, dinosaurs arose, evolved, and went extinct. The waves kept going. About fifty thousand years ago, they entered our own Milky Way galaxy, just as Homo sapiens were beginning to replace our Neanderthal cousins as the planet’s dominant species of ape. A hundred years ago, Albert Einstein, one of the more advanced members of the species, predicted the waves’ existence, inspiring decades of speculation and fruitless searching.”

It’s a beautifully-written piece, and it really captures the human aspect of this – of hundreds of physicists around the world experiencing that moment of discovery. It’s an image that’s ingrained in popular conceptions of how science works, of Archimedes leaping out of his bathtub and exclaiming ‘Eureka!’ The reality, of course, is usually very different. Science tends to proceed in small steps, miniature breakthroughs in labs and desks and computers around the world, inching forwards piece by piece. But the LIGO work appears to be a genuine breakthrough, and the excitement is both real and hard-earned.

That’s also the theme of yesterday’s BBC Radio 4 Inside Science Special:

“It is the cleanest signal you can imagine… you have to feel fantastic for those 800 scientists, who have been spending – some of them – decades of their careers working towards this first detection.”
— Dr. Andrew Pontzen, UCL

The programme also hears from the leading UK scientist on the project, Prof. Sheila Rowan of the University of Glasgow. You can get a good sense of how giddy everyone is about this by listening to her impression of the signal ‘chirp.’

Do take a look at the LIGO experiment website, but for now, the final words: