Thursday, April 23, 2009

Astronomers in Hatfield

This week I've been attending the RAS National Astronomy Meeting (NAM) - this year held jointly with the European Astronomy Society European Week of Astronomy and Space Science giving the new meeting title of JENAM. Last year the meeting was held in Belfast (see here for my exceptionally meagre coverage of that meeting!), but this year was held at the University of Hertfordshire in Hatfield, making it a perfect opportunity for me to combine a meeting with a trip back to my home town of St. Albans (which is right next to Hatfield, although I did spend the first eighteen months of my life living in Hatfield) - this also reduced my costs as I've been staying at my parents house and they've been giving me lifts to and from the meeting [obviously I got them to drop me off far enough away from the meeting venue, so as not to embarrass me in front of my cool astronomy friends ;-)].

Last year I noticed quite a few people were blogging the meeting, but a google blog search of this year's meeting doesn't throw up much (the usual astronomy blogging force of Chris Lintott wasn't here for one), so I'll summarise a few of the highlights I saw.

As with most major meeting's I got most out of the plenary talks. On Monday we had a great talk from Richard Harrison about the STEREO mission, which involves two spacecraft - one advancing in front of Earth's orbit and one trailing it - that monitor the Sun, and the space in between the Earth and Sun, to give a unique 3D view of solar activity and coronal mass ejections (CMEs). We got some really nice videos of data from the craft showing the two opposite views of a CME heading towards the Earth, although we didn't get to see any of the 3D images of the Sun itself. For the next two sessions of the day I went learn about Supernovae and γ-ray bursts (GRBs). Avishay Gal-Yam gave a nice overview of the different types of core-collapse supernova that happen to stars over the full range of masses. These include electron capture supernova at the lowest mass end (for which there have yet to be any completely convincing observations); accretion induced collapse (AIC) supernova from two white dwarfs ripping each other apart; supernova that don't produce an observable explosion (meaning event rates could actually be higher than observed); and really massive (of hundreds of solar masses) stellar explosions, which may not even lead to a core collapse.

On Tuesday morning there were a couple of really good plenary sessions. The first was from Tim de Zeeuw from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) talking about current and future ESO plans. There were some brilliant photos of the ESO Paranal site in Chile, home of the VLT (and the building that was blown up in Quantum of Solace), and impressive information about the Atacama Large Millimetre Array (ALMA). Most exciting was the part of the talk about the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), a planned telescope with a 42m diameter mirror(!), which I was surprised to find out has progressed very far in the planning and design and has a fantastic science case. After that we heard from Michel Mayor, one of the original discovers of the first exoplanets, who gave a very nice talk about a load of new planets discovered using radial velocity measurements, including the lowest mass (~2 Earth masses) exoplanet yet found. Later on I found out a bit about the LOFAR radio telescope and dark matter detection experiments, but the stand out talk of the afternoon, was my talk on searching for gravitational waves form pulsars! ;-)

The first plenary talk of Wednesday was given by David Southwood, director of science for ESA. I missed the first half of this talk as I'd decided to walk from my parents house rather than get a lift and I misjudged how long it would take, but arrived to hear about Mars missions. As ever David spoke his mind and didn't hold back his opinions (which is quite refreshing from someone who has to move in the political sphere, but at times verges on just being a bit too open with his views!) Later that day I mainly heard about gravitational lensing, including a talk by John McKean (a former Glasgow graduate) about detection of a water maser at a redshift of ~2.5 - the most distant water even seen - in the lensed image of a quasar. In the afternoon I went to a session on outreach done for the International Year of Astronomy (IYA09). Particularly interesting was the planned astronomy exhibit, and associated events, at the Science museum (they apparently have a massive collection of astronomical instrumentation from over the ages, but it's mainly in storage) and the events happening at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. There was also a talk about the making of the educational film The Starry Messenger that was made by people in the astronomy group at the University of Hertfordshire - it was premiered at the meeting, but I didn't see it, although if it gets released online I may well give it a watch.

Today's plenary session saw another couple of good talks. Firstly Joseph Lazio gave a nice overview of some of the science that will be possible with the Square Kilometre Array (a future radio telescope). He couldn't touch on all the things it will do, but did give a nice little introduction into it's potential for making a pulsar timing array to detect gravitational waves (something I'm particularly interested in). I then heard the status and results of a selection of ground-based γ-ray observatories. Later I saw an interesting talk by Prof. Sir Arnold Wolfendale (he's a very prominent old astronomer and one of the founders of cosmic ray astronomy, and as he's been around so long he's not afraid to be controversial and speak his mind, although for some reason he does seem to be a global warming denier) who was discussing whether certain cosmic rays sources seen by the Pierre Auger Observatory that had been tentatively identified as correlating with AGNs, are actually extragalactic or not - his opinion, backed up with some evidence, was the latter. The final talk of the week was an invited lecture by George Ellis who was discussing current topics in cosmology. His main talking point was to say that some current trends in cosmology to talk about multiverse theories as if they are a scientifically valid position to take, as opposed to being philosophical speculation - this is due to the fact that you can't think up any experiment, or make predictions, to test these theories, so they don't stand up to a standard scientific definition. He also discussed various cosmological theories that could be tested, for example that the universe could be small and have a closed topology. Finally the meeting ended with the RAS community forum, which had some interesting discussions, but wasn't particularly controversial.