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Fresh focus on the night sky
WITH the BBC’s Stargazing Live programme bringing the wonders of the universe to the masses could a new breed of astronomers be emerging? Stuart Arnold reports.
FOR many years astronomy and the study of the night sky was regarded by your average Joe as a frankly dull, impenetrable subject.
And if you wanted to watch the genre on television, well there wasn’t much choice.
The Sky At Night with its curmudgeon-like presenter, the late Sir Patrick Moore, ploughed a lone furrow in this regard, although to watch it you had stay up late and in all probability possess a science degree.
Now the BBC’s annual Stargazing Live programme, being aired this week and hosted by Professor Brian Cox and Dara O’Briain, is teaching a new generation about evidence of life on Mars and how to view the moons of Jupiter.
Its mix of jargon busting and banter, along with live events being hosted across the country, has lent a new approach to what is traditionally a serious genre.
Hosts: Professor Brian Cox and Dara O'Briain
Andy Fleming, a spokesman for the Cleveland and Darlington Astronomical Society, which regularly meets at the Wynyard Woodland Park Planetarium and Observatory, near Stockton, says this approach to the subject is helping to increase its profile.
“People like Brian Cox have created a lot of extra interest recently and he is a lot more viewer friendly than someone like Patrick Moore,” he says.
“What we have found is that attendances with our group have improved quite dramatically over the past few years and we now have quite a healthy membership who come from all over the place.
“In terms of the interest it tends to fall into two groups, young children at primary school age along with some teenagers and older people with more leisure time.
“The middle section has been traditionally the most difficult to target.
“Someone said all children are born scientists and when they are young they have got all the questions, but, unfortunately, the way it has been previously is that it is adults and the way subjects are taught that take their enthusiasm away.”
Mr Fleming says others factors such as the internet are now boosting astronomy’s appeal.
“You have the Hubble space telescope images from NASA you can look at online and people doing internet blogs on astronomy,” he says.
“There are also citizen science projects which are looking at data gathered from outer space and artificially generated signals.
“The public can join in by using computer screen savers to crunch some of the data that comes from these radio telescopes.
“It is a very interesting time to be interested in astronomy and cosmology.
“Also a lot of the things scientists are doing with the Large Hadron Collider – people think that’s particle physics – but it is all interlinked with how stars work and how planets and black holes form and how gravity works.”
Mr Fleming says his group host lectures given by both amateur and professional astronomers.
“They might talk about solar flares or the search for extra-terrestrials, lots of fascinating things,” he says.
“Afterwards there are loads of amateurs with telescopes and, if it’s a clear night, the public, who are welcome to attend, can have a look through those.
“At the moment Jupiter is very bright on a night and is the brightest object in the sky after the Moon, even with a small telescope you can get perfectly good views of it at the moment.
“There is something for everybody.”
Rachael Livermore, a PhD student in astrophysics at Durham University, is one of a team of four young researchers at the university who are trying to understand more about how galaxies are formed and evolved.
The group, which was tonight involved in a live stargazing event hosted by the BBC at Gibside, near Gateshead, also visit schools and astronomical societies to explain their work.
“By looking at the most distant galaxies we can possibly see we can see how they looked in the very early stages of the universe and try and work out how they have got to where they are now,” she says.
“We use gravitational telescopes and look at how they rotate, where their stars are forming, how much gas they have got, that kind of thing.”
Ms Livermore says she used to be an accountant, but made her hobby her job after getting bored of counting money and deciding to count particles of light instead.
“A big problem we have had in physics is a perception issue – people think it is all stuffy old men or geeks who live in their parents’ basement,” she says.
“With astronomy it is probably the best branch of physics to reach out to people as everyone is interested in space.
“Brian Cox, although he is not an astronomer, is doing a very good job at glamorising the subject and exposing physics to a wider audience and making it cool to like it, which is quite a big battle, particularly with young people.
“Hopefully, as a result more of them will come into the field and make it more diverse.”
For more information on the Cleveland and Darlington Astronomical Society visit www.cadas-astro.org.uk
For details on the planetarium and observatory at Wynyard Woodland Park, which boasts what is believed to be the largest working telescope in the North of England, go to www.wynyard-planetarium.net or contact 01740- 630544.