Sunday 13 December 2009

International Year of Astronomy round-up at the RAS

At Burlington House last Friday, the Royal Astronomical Society got together for two specialist discussion meetings: "Solar Wind-Magnetosphere-Ionosphere Interactions within the Solar System" and "The International Year of Astronomy". I had an absolutely terrific time at the latter. It was a round-up of various things that have been going on during an exceptionally busy year, which I'm now very sorry is so nearly over. But never mind, because the overriding message amounted to: "Don't Stop Now!"

There were, not counting introductions and summaries, 14 short talks by various people involved. I heard for the first time about several cornerstone projects, such as UNAWE which aims to bring astronomy to very young children in underprivileged environments, and the Galileo Teacher Training Programme, to encourage science teachers to become ambassadors and encourage each other to include astronomy in their lessons. Great projects have been put together, such as careers advice for teenagers run by the Guildford Astronomical Society, including female speakers to encourage girls; telescopes set up on the pavements (called "public astronomy events" here in the UK, not "sidewalk astronomy"!), and huge and beautiful space pictures touring the country. Media interest in the International Year of Astronomy was excellent; success in schools was varied; collaboration between science communicators and other organisations has got a massive boost; interesting new facts such as that there is a star called Whasat and that Thomas Harriot actually beat Galileo to using a telescope to observe the skies have been dug up; and many members of the public are, hopefully, more familiar with astronomy than they were before!

MoonWatch in Schools was not a great success. School staff were too hampered by health and safety problems, CRB checks, and so on - it may be that the problem was working out of hours, and that it would be easier to do in the school day. Privately I suspected also that the teachers were simply too stressed and tired to do anything beyond the obligatory minimum demanded by the government. I also got a good snigger by thinking "So much for the promise that all schools would be open until 8pm by autumn 2008" - which seriously was the plan in autumn 2007. The speaker, Steve Owen, went on to tell us that over 200 schools were invited to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich - and not a single one replied, even just to say "no thanks"! I was reminded of a science teachers' meeting at one of the schools I trained at in Cornwall: they had a spare £1600 and wondered what to do with it. They rejected the ideas of new books, science equipment, or a trip anywhere, in favour of a TV to put in the (extremely crowded) corridor to show the pupils science lessons! I suggested getting involved in the Faulkes Telescope Project and got laughed into silence - they clearly hadn't even heard of it, but thought ignorance of anything not demanded by the National Curriculum was tough or clever or something. It was shortly after this that I decided this seriously was not a profession I'd survive in long enough to do any good . . .

On the other hand, about a quarter of secondary schools now have their own telescope! The Society for Popular Astronomy and Dr Helen Walker especially did a great job, Robin Scagell told us, of organising this. Before 2009, very few schools had a telescope, and this made practical astronomy work nigh on impossible. Secondary schools were a priority because primary school children are already enthusiastic and easy to inspire - while secondary school pupils receive far less attention, and are also at the age of making career choices. Secondary school teachers also seldom have much astronomy background, so a free DVD and education pack was provided for them. There was a DVD aimed at inspiring the children, including an interview with Helen and Sir Patrick. Amateurs and professionals were gathered who could act as outside help contacts for teachers.

An ex-headmaster helped with the distribution; SPA had a budget of £15,000 which did not cover enough, but very fortunately the STFC was able to provide another £50,000. The children of the schools were now very proud of their school owning a telescope, and about a third of these set up their own astronomy club. Teachers were asked what they would do with their telescope, and they asked the children for suggestions. (Can you imagine how relieved I felt that interest and enthusiasm is not wiped out of schools everywhere!) Solar observations were not recommended because this is simply too risky. The true value, however, will not become clear for many years: we will know for sure when the children affected by the scheme go to university.

The Royal Observatory of Greenwich appears to have had a great year. In 2008 they had 1.3 million visitors; they predict 2 million by the end of 2009! This includes 17,000 schoolchildren. Most people, the speaker Marek Kekula told us, come to stand with one foot on either side of the meridian - but there is a lot to see while you are there, so one can spring plenty of astronomy on you unexpectedly. The RGO's staff includes professional astronomers, who quickly pick up information: within 12 hours of the discovery of Saturn's new ring, it was incorporated into their planetarium show.

Marek was particularly adamant that astronomy now has a higher profile in the public, that astronomers have developed better communication skills, and we must not lose our momentum. This was a common theme that day. Another was the thrill adults felt from what they were learning - they were often much more excited than their children, who were used to new things every day and who already knew a lot! And yet another was how successful double-events can be: one astronomy, one something else. For instance, live music or sci-fi meetings combined with an astronomy night, or astronomy parades hijacking St Patrick's Day in Ireland. (Apparently it had to be "real" astronomy - little green men, including alien leprechauns, were forbidden . . .)

Then Helen - who I'd finally got to meet after a few months of working for, and who is ever so friendly - got up to talk about She is an Astronomer. We heard some statistics, such as that 13.36% of astronomers in the IAU are women - the figure is only 11.2% in the UK, and 24% in France. It is quite high in Italy, apparently - because science is a low-status job. The thing I found most interesting about her talk was the advice that female astronomers would give to younger ones. It included: find a supportive partner; "train him" (that got a laugh); break your job down into small manageable chunks; get a life; get a mentor. They advised young women not to try to multitask and be good at lots of things, but to find what you are especially good at and stick to it; to be prepared, if your partner is also an astronomer, for the "two-body problem" - the frequent lack of two posts to be near each other, so one of you will often be out of work. They also said to keep your family, especially your children, educated and inspired about what you are doing - children, she reported, are often very supportive of your long absences if they know you are working on something terribly exciting.

Getting a mentor, she said, is often very important. I could well imagine that, for as I blundered unqualified and inexperienced into the world of astronomy it made all the difference in the galaxy that Chris Lintott believed I could do it and, when he had time, would answer my many questions. So Helen aims to set up e-mentoring. I am hoping that the forum can be an informal place to help start that off: indeed, I am pushing for some of the smart questions on that forum, such as getting the IAU resolution working, to be made more public and get more people to post their thoughts and hopefully make friends!

Our next speaker was not an astronomer at all, but Keith Muir, head of tourism, recreation and environment at Galloway Forest Park! This has just won the Dark Sky Park award: the first in the UK, and the fourth in Europe, and it has attracted a great deal of attention and tourism as a result. (Apparently the phrase "Dark Skies" is very popular with journalists.) They cannot enforce dark skies, but had to ask the residents if they minded - these residents were very positive. It was emphasised that this was not about switching lights off, but about obtaining the right sort, and using them the right way. For this reason they are trying to get a good deal with manufacturers on such lights. Chris asked a question after this talk: so many astronomy societies were after him, asking how they could get similar recognition for places in which they used their own telescopes; how did one get such an award and support? One way to get such an award, we were told, was including a lot of public outreach. But far from being an extra burden, it has been a success all round.

We had a great story of how Newbury Astronomy Society took over the world with Twitter, and the making of two terrific videos - these items, I think, deserve a blog post of their own. Chris's talk, he warned us, was "a soapbox waiting to happen". It was a comparison between "old media", such as books and TV, and "new media", i.e. the Internet. (This is my favourite explanation for how differently they work.) For Chris, the International Year of Astronomy has been finding astronomy in unexpected places. Some interesting new projects are planned, for example "Buried Data" will be a website where scientists feeling guilty about the piles of unread data on their desks can upload it for the public to deal with, presumably Galaxy Zoo style! (One of my favourite moments during the day was when someone uploaded some citizen science projects, and mentioned the zoo without even defining it - it's a familiar thing now.) The risk of new media, however, is not reaching anyone new. Unexpected things can appear on the telly, but people choose where they look on the Internet. On the other hand, anything that appears in old media has to bypass journalists anyway . . . As Newbury Astronomical Society proved, Twitter can be a great help to say the least. More about that in another post, I think.

After this the day finished - and things looked highly promising: people now have the confidence to see just how much can be achieved; other people have got interested and are willing to work with us astronomers and science communicators; we must not lose the momentum.

Then it was time for the free open meeting. Some of the topics of the day were discussed in more detail - other talks were new, such the RAS Keith Runcorn thesis prizewinner. This was Dr David Jess, who has been studying the paradox of the ridiculously (at least, unexpectedly) hot corona, around 2000 km above the Sun's surface. Two mechanisms have been suggested which heat it. One is that microflares and nanoflares, undetectable from Earth, may play a major role in transferring energy; another is wave heating, the convection of energy up to great heights which then dissipates as heat. The theories may not be as different as they look - and "in" theories about the Sun change periodically! Sadly, this was about as much as I understood. But there was a tense and interesting moment when a member of the audience asked Ian Robson, an evening speaker, about the STFC. We had just heard that there is "evidence that astronomy is a force in the UK for science motivation and the astronomical community for science education" - the audience member stated that the STFC are capable of doing great damage, including undoing all the good the International Year of Astronomy has done. Ian Robson turned to another audience member and said, "Are you listening?" As it happened, an STFC member got up to respond! He said that times were extremely difficult and that a great many STFC members knew of, and absolutely loathed, "the damage we're doing".

Never a dull moment, eh?