Sunday, 18 March 2012

Day 7: The Wee Island

Saturday May 17th: another very early rise to catch the 0645 ferry to Coll and then Tiree.  By 0630 I was back on board the "Lord of the Isles" and settling down for another long journey.

To my great surprise, as I walked into the Observation Lounge on Deck 5 who did I meet but Grant Miller:  former GU Physics and Astronomy student, now PhD student working on exoplanets at St Andrews?!  Grant is someone whose name I've been mentioning frequently on the Island Universe tour so far, particularly in relation to the new Exoplanets Researching Physics topic being introduced in the revised Higher Physics syllabus, and which the pupils in Portree seem to be enjoying so much.  It's a great story to be able to tell the pupils that, less than decade ago, Grant was himself doing the higher - and now he's finding planets himself, as part of the SuperWASP collaboration.  What a pleasant and welcome coincidence to meet him on the ferry.  He told me that he was en route to Coll with some American friends from St Andrews to celebrate St Patrick's Day, staying in the cottage on Coll that belonged to his family (and where his ancestors had once lived). We swapped some stories about what was going on at GU, and how Grant's PhD work was going.  To add to the coincidence, the physics teacher in Tiree is Steven Wilkinson, who had been a Physics and Astro student in the same year as Grant. What are the chances of that?...I got a photo of Grant before they dismebarked at Coll; this will be handy to use in the remaining schools' talks of my tour.

The journey across to Tiree was - if anything - even more jaw-droppingly beautiful than the crossing from Barra to Oban on Friday.  The seas were calm throughout and the sun shone for most of the way - apart from one heavy (and brief) rainstorm as we passed along the Sound of Mull...

...but even that had a silver lining as I managed to get a great photo of a rainbow (with a  strong hint of a second arc) against the backdrop of the Mull hills: this will be great to use in my talks about spectroscopy, and how we use it to detect the "wobble" of stars caused by exoplanets and the redshift of distant galaxies.

We docked in Tiree at about 10.30 and I drove off and headed for the Scarinish Hotel.  

The plan was to meet Steven at about 2pm and then head over to the High School, so this gave me some time to set up the telescope (to save time that night) and get a bit of a walk.  I was also able to watch a little of the Scotland-Italy rugby game, but the less said about that the better...

The bay just in front of the hotel was straight out of a picture postcard...

...and the view from the dunes just beyond the fishing boat was stunning:  i could see Skye, Mull, Staffa, Iona, Jura, and a bunch of smaller islands - including the very distinctive "Dutchman's Cap" which I remembered from our boat trip to Staff from Fionnphort back in 2002.

Steven came by the hotel just after 2pm and we drove off to the School, passing by the airport on the way.  

The afternoon talk was designed for the younger children and we had a great range of ages - from Aidan (who was 4) to Poppy and Iona (who were in early years of Secondary, and so already doing CfE science).  Some of the Mums and Dads stayed too, as did Caroline the Deputy Head. We talked about life in the Solar System and how we find exoplanets (a chance to tell them about meeting Grant!), with a break for drinks and Jaffa Cakes halfway through. I was hugely impressed by the pupils' questions and knowledge and enthusiasm, which I think in no small way is due to Steven's efforts.  I was very pleased to hear from him that there's likely to be a big growth in the number of pupils taking Physics in their 5th year next year.

By about 4.30pm it was time to head back to Scarinish, which we did via the other side of the island, so I could say that I'd circumnavigated it during my brief stay.   The weather was now really beautiful, and from the other side of the island I could see Barra and Eriskay, and maybe a hint of South Uist too, as well as the neighbouring Coll and the small isles Eigg, Muck and Rhum. After a short stop back in my hotel room (enough time to get the Wales-France result; very glad that Wales won the Grand Slam!) and some more photos of the bay... was down to the restaurant to have dinner with Steven and Caroline.  We had a great chat about the pros and cons of teaching in a small school, and about living on small island in general.

At about 7.15pm we headed up to the room where my talk would be given. Already the skies were darkening and there wasn't a cloud in sight, so things were looking very good.  As 7.30pm approached the visitors kept on coming: Steven had to keep going to the bar to get more chairs and the room was getting ever more crowded.  Steven's initial target, that we exceed the number of visitors (nine!) who'd come along for a talk on bugs by a visiting scientist the previous year, had long been surpassed and by the time we got going at 7.45pm there were more than 37 people crammed into the room.

My talk seemed to go down well, despite (or maybe because of) the golden comedy moment when my computer projector decided not to display red colours any more - a bit awkward when you're talking about redshifts!!  We finished up just after 8.30pm and, rather than the usual Q&A session, I suggested that we immediately head for the great (and very dark!) outdoors and take advantage of Tiree's spectacular skies.

And boy were they spectacular.  I explained to the crowd that I hadn't seen anywhere this dark in the UK. There was a tiny hint of light pollution on the horizon from the direction of Tobermory, but otherwise the biggest light pollution was Venus!  This was so incredibly bright that it prevented us from getting a really sharp and clear view of the Pleiades, since otherwise I think I would have had my best chance yet of actually seeing all Seven Sisters (especially armed as I was with my new varifocal glasses).

The only problem was getting the telescope going:  it didn't seem to be finding enough GPS satellites to work out its location and orientation, and given how dark it was I didn't really want to start trying to calibrate it manually.  In truth, however, it was probably better anyway just to show
people what they could see with the naked eye - and since the crowd was so large (most people seemed to have stayed behind after my talk) they wouldn't have got much time looking through the telescope.  Fortunately Steven had brought along a powerful green laser pointer, so I was able to use that to guide people around the sky - showing them all the usual suspects: the different colours of Betelgeuse and Rigel in Orion, the Orion Nebula, the Pleiades and Beehive star clusters, the Andromeda Nebula, Sirius, Gemini, and the planets Venus, Jupiter and Mars.  We also saw loads of satellites passing overhead and a fair number of shooting stars.

We wrapped things up about 10pm, as the cold was starting to seep in, and it was time to retire to the bar. A few hours, and drinks, later I headed off to bed after one of the best dark sky observing sessions I've led in a long time.  Over the course of the day and night I'd talked to about 7% of the island's population, and was delighted that Steven's enthusiasm and persistence in organising these events - and cajoling people to come along - had paid off in such spectacular fashion.

May the force be with you

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