Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Day 3: Over the Sea to Skye

Tuesday morning and it was time to move on to Harris.   I packed everything in the car (including a Stornoway black pudding which Guillian had very kindly bought for me as a souvenir of my visit) and headed southwards about 7.30am.  I encountered the Outer Hebrides "rush hour" just as I was crossing from Lewis to Harris...

..but managed to arrive at the Sir E. Scott Secondary School in plenty of time for their morning session - particularly as I learned that they start at the civilised time of 0930 (which apparently is to allow time for pupils to get in from the far-flung reaches of Harris).

First up was a session with about 60 First year to Third year pupils on detecting exoplanets and searching for life in the Universe.  I managed to video this lecture, so once I get the chance to edit the video files I'll post it on you tube.  

My host at Sir E. Scott was Angus Morrison, long-time friend (from their UG days) of my friend and colleague Alec Mackinnon from Glasgow University.  We swapped stories about the "old days" at Glasgow, and their mutual friend Lewis Mackenzie - coincidentally the same name as my current Masters project student who is working with me on designing software for the forthcoming transit of Venus.

Talking of which, the second group I spoke to at Sir E. Scott, who were all upper school pupils from Fourth year upwards, were a lively bunch with whom I just did an informal Q&A, during which we talked about everything from fundamentals of quantum mechanics to how we measure distances to far away galaxies.  For the first topic it gave me a chance to recommend the excellent book "How to teach quantum physics to your dog" (which I got for Christmas) and for the second topic I chatted about the "Cosmic Distance Ladder" and how ultimately that depends on us knowing the size of the Earth and the distance from the Earth to the Sun - at which point enter trigonometry!   We used the classroom to re-enact the famous Venus Transit observations of 1769, with two of the pupils taking the roles of Captain Cook and King George III, and one of the pupils getting to be Venus.  The illustration worked well, with the timings of when Venus crossed in front of the edges of the "Sun" (two Intermediate 2 pupils, Ella and Eilidh, at the back of the classroom) very different for Captain Cook and the King.  I'll try to repeat this, and film it, during one of my forthcoming talks, as I think it'll be a nice practical activity for schools to try themselves in the run up to the June 2012 Transit of Venus (of which much more to come...)

At 12.30pm it was time to move on to the ferry terminal, ready to catch the Uig ferry.

The crossing was very smooth and we got into Uig about 1530, right on schedule.  Then it was off to Portree, first to call in at the Library - location for my public lecture on Tuesday evening.  There I met Morna Maclaren, head librarian and (again, what a small world!) mother of one of our P&A staff Donald Maclaren of the MCMP Group. We scoped out a good space to use for my talk, and made sure that I could project my slides onto the wall.  Morna said that there had been a lot of interest in my talk and that "anything over 20 was a good turn out for Portree".

After a very nice meal in the Isles Inn with Prof John Brown (Astronomer Royal for Scotland), his wife Margaret and their friend Keri from Broadford (who is studying astronomy at the OU and aspiring to stay in the field - maybe working on exoplanets), it was back to the library for my talk. As 7pm approached the people kept piling in and Morna struggled to find them all seats and good view of the screen - we even had to put some folks upstairs in the "gods".  The final number attending was 97, which I was assured was a record for library events!!!   Despite one computer projector breakdown midway through the talk seemed to go down very well.  I think we could have kept the questions going for hours, but everyone seemed to go home happy.

So now it's onwards to Wednesday 14th, when I'm back in Portree High School all day, and it's time to celebrate Einstein's birthday.

May the force be with you

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