Monday, February 19, 2007

Look up to the skies and see

The last weekend I was away in the north-east of Scotland at a country house, near Edzell, called the Burn. The reason for this trip is that every year we take a group of the second year undergraduate astronomy student to somewhere where we will hopefully have clear dark skies to do some actual astronomical observations - Glasgow's just not really the place to get a great view of the stars, what with all the light pollution. Another reason for the trip is as a socialising (i.e. drinking) experience for the students to get to know each other and to hopefully encourage them to stay on to do astronomy in their honours years.

This was my fifth consecutive year of accompanying the students on the trip. There are normally about 5 or 6 staff, post-docs and post-grads that go along to supervise the students, but also for the observing and social aspects. I enjoy it, so I keep volunteering to go, plus I'm now a dab hand at assembling the telescopes we take.

We travelled up on Friday afternoon, driven by the experienced and trusty coach driver from Ann's Coaches of Kirkintilloch. The drive, given clear roads and no unexpected break-downs, takes about 2 hours 45 mins, and this was the case this time round. The Burn experience always starts with the house Bursar, Andy, giving a short history of the house and it's rules and regulations, followed by another Andy giving the more important information of the bar opening hours. One thing you can always count on at the Burn is consistency in their menu at meal times. They haven't really altered this in all my years of going there, but I find this nice and comforting. The food is prepared by "the girls" as the housekeeping/kitchen staff are affectionately referred to. Friday night, as ever, was vegetable soup, followed by mince and potatoes, with green beans. It never fails to remind me of my Grandma's cooking, as the way they do the mince mean it tastes and smells exactly the same as when she does it - I don't know what they do differently to when I make mince! Anyway, on the actual observing front Friday night wasn't particular good for us. There was pretty continuous cloud cover. Nevertheless, Ross and I did a short demonstration of how to assemble the Meade Celestron 5" telescopes we took with us, and we then got the students to follow our lead. Due to the fact that no observing could be done, we eagerly embraced the drinking option. However the Burn bar shuts at the early hour of 10pm so you have to make sure that last order is a big one and will last long enough in the night. With everyone stocked up on booze most people just sat around playing card games or chatting, but there was no extreme drunkeness as has occasionally in the past made it into the realms of infamy.

Saturday was an altogether nicer day and started off with bright sunshine. I made it down to breakfast at 9am in the morning (I've never missed breakfast at the Burn and wasn't about to start on this trip), but promptly proceeded back to bed after I've eaten as I'd only had about 4 hours sleep. After lunch of (who'd have guessed!) baked potato, some of us went on a walk along the River Esk. The river cuts a gorge close by to the house and has a really nice walk along its edge. The path along has many routes, some pretty precarious, down to the river's edge and it's always fun to scramble down these - in the past there's been some fairly risky bit's of rock climbing taken on, given that the river has some really fast rapid in it. This year a couple of the students decided to take a dip in the river despite it being bloody freezing - this is a first for a Burn trip.

That evening (after dinner of properly good fish and chips) the sky was still really clear, giving us the opportunity for some proper observing. There were only two planets up that evening (Venus and Jupiter). Unfortunately Venus wasn't showing any phase (at least that we could make out), but Saturn, as ever, was great to look at - and Titan was visible to. It's always fascinating actually looking at Saturn or Jupiter with you own eyes and seeing the rings or stripes in the atmosphere, and I can just stare at them for ages and not really get bored. The other objects that were observed quite a lot were the Orion Nebula and the Andromeda galaxy. The Orion nebula was really good when viewed through one of the larger Dobsonian telescopes we had brought. You could easily make out the trapezium of bright young stars in the centre, and a really extended amount of structured nebulosity. The Andromeda galaxy only really looks like a large fuzzy blob when viewed with the eye through a smallish telescope - if only we could adjust the exposure time of our eyes! Of the other objects we looked at the Crab nebula is closest to my heart, however it's distinctly disappointing when viewed with your eyes - I couldn't see the pulsar blinking! It was a good night observing in general, and everyone was just excited to get a good clear view of the dark night sky and appreciate what's actually up there. People got to see the band of the Milky Way properly, they got to learn a bit about how to navigate around the sky, and most people saw a few shooting stars.

After a bit of observing we had the Burn quiz. This is generally made up by the staff on the trip, and in previous years the post-grads have normally taken part in it - and won by large margins I might add. This year we put together the quiz, in part cobbled together from earlier quizzes, and partly new written by (mainly) Ross, Jen and I. This seemed to go down ok with the students. The night, of course involved more drinking, with the odd trip outside to stare at the sky for a bit longer.

I think I've written enough for now... oh, and lunch on Sunday was, of course, Chicken Kiev.