Friday, 16 March 2012

Day 5: Down the Spine of the Hebrides

The Uig to Lochmaddy ferry arrived about 8pm on Wednesday night.  I then had the long(ish) drive down through North Uist and across the causeway to Benbecula, arriving at Borve Guest House in Torlum about 8.30pm.  The islands are very, very dark - no streetlights anywhere that I could see apart from a short stretch in Liniclate, close to the school where I'd be headed the next morning.  Just a pity that it was cloudy yet again!  It was good to have a quiet evening with not too much to do, especially as I'd have evening talks on the four evenings that followed, but if it had been clear I think I'd have been out there doing some stargazing of my own.

Day 5 I was up bright and early again.  My previous visit to Benbecula was in February 2010, when my wife Ruth was performing for Scottish Opera in Liniclate School and Catriona and I flew across as groupies.  My abiding memory was of Benbecula being very windy, and this time was no different:  with not a tree to be found anywhere on the island, there's really nothing to shield the Benbeculans from the brunt of the Atlantic gales.

I arrived at the school at 0845, just as all the buses were bringing people in from the Uists. (Liniclate School is the only secondary for North and South Uist as well).

I met my host Iain Hogg - another physics teacher with a strong engineering background (this must really help with building practical experiments) and originally hailing from Paisley.  We had a great chat about life, the Universe and everything as I was setting up in the theatre (same location that Ruth had used for Scottish Opera back in 2010) and by just after 9am I was ready for the first talk of the day:  "Captain Cook and the Cosmic Yardstick" for about 40 second year pupils.  I got some very interesting questions as I went along but still just about managed to get to the end before I was out of time.

Next period it was the First years (about 30 of them) and a talk on ET Life and finding exoplanets.  They were a very lively bunch, and asked really great questions, such as "if we found life out there, what would we say to them?"  This let me talk a little bit about Carl Sagan and the golden Voyager record (let's hope the Aliens haven't moved on to CD or iPod technology!) and the project I've been running with various other local authorities - see my website here.  I also got talking about what any ET life might look like, and how that would be affected by the astrophysics of their environment - which prompted the comment from one of the first years "Wouldn't there be convergent evolution?"  What could I say?...This pupil sounded like one to watch.

Final talk was in Iain Hogg's classroom - to a group of about 15 fifth and sixth year students, about "The Runaway Universe" - covering dark matter and dark energy. They were very lively too, and in their questions got into ideas about the Multiverse and evolving dark energy models: they'd clearly been thinking about this stuff before!  One of them asked me unprompted what I thought of Lee Smolin's work!!

We got a quick photo for the school newspaper, which I said I'd also post on my blog: me talking to three of the senior pupils about the Andromeda galaxy and Edwin Hubble's Cepheid observations...

After another good chat with Iain Hogg (including a Southerner's perspective on the wisdom or otherwise of using on Barra tonight my customary "Father Ted" analogy to talk about measuring galaxy distances)

it was time to move on to South Uist, Eriskay and the ferry across the Sound of Barra.

I got to the ferry in good time but found it was already docked and had a fair old line of cars already waiting to board:  a good job I'd booked in advance, I think.

The crossing to Barra was short, although the seas were a bit rougher (made worse by it being a very small boat): bumpy enough for my car alarm to go off a few times - this must drive the crew nuts...

Safely landed, I drove across the island - deciding to go anti-clockwise to Castlebay (which is aptly named - spot the palm trees too, courtesy of the Gulf Stream).

Note the rare sighting of blue sky....I was getting a bit hopeful about the chances of some observing tonight!

After a nice meal at the Castlebay Hotel it was off to the Castlebay Community Hall, where Specsavers were set up in the hall until 8pm but when I got there at 7.40pm they were already packing up: it had been a slow day in the island for selling spectacles.  I had a wee chat with the staff, suggesting we could probably have teamed up for a talk about optical telescopes, and re-arranged the room a bit by moving the resident ceilidh band's drum kit so that my slides could be seen on the end wall.

By about 7.55pm Robert Ross, physics teacher from Castlebay School (and another southerner, this time from Cambuslang!) had arrived, with 35 other islanders, of all ages. (As Robbie said, this was about 3% of the population; if I had that kind of audience in Glasgow I'd need to book Hampden or the SECC!  Not bad considering my talk was clashing with the whist drive in Vatersay too...

My talk seemed to go down well and got lots of good questions - including a great question from one of the youngest audience members (aged 10) who wanted to know what I liked most about being an astronomer!  I told him it was the chance to discover new things, and also explained about how one of our former students - Grant Miller - was busy finding new exoplanets. He seemed impressed!

After the talk was over I had loads of great questions which allowd me to give the audience a quick low down on some of my other talks too.   Alas, however, when we finished up around 9.30pm it was cloudy outside so the quest to do some stargazing goes on.

It was back to the hotel about 10pm, after a very rare experience - calling home from a payphone: try as I might I've not been able to find any mobile phone coverage anywhere on the island.

So, only the briefest of visits to Barra, but a very worthwhile stopover in this jewel of the Hebrides.

May the Force be with you

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