The Comet, called Panstarrs (or C/2011 L4) was discovered by the Pan-starrs telescope back in June 2011.
Taking an estimated 106,000 years to go once around the sun, so this apparition is the first in recorded history.
Last night (Sunday 17th March) after several cloudy nights in my part of the world, the sky cleared just in time to offer a decent view of the Comet so I rushed out with my camera, to try and get some pictures. Using binoculars, I spotted the comet as a fuzzy blob, low in the slowly darkening western sky; once I found it using the binoculars, it was only a few minutes before I could see the comet with my unaided eye.
I was using very basic equipment; a Canon Digital Rebel with a couple of lenses; a sigma 70-300mm zoom lens, and a canon 50mm f1.4 lens. Along with the lenses, I used a simple remote control, which allowed me to activate the shutter without touching the camera to avoid camera shake. i’m fairly pleased with the results, which are presented below.
Picture taken at 19:17 using Sigma 70-300 at 300mm.
A picture taken at around 19:25 using the 50mm lens; 15 second exposure.
I took a series of pictures of the Comet as it slowly set in the Western sky, and, when back in the house decided to see if I could combine the images to see some more detail. To do this, I used a programme called Nebulosity which allowed me to align all of the images and “stack” them. The result is shown below.
The stacking of the images counteracts the motion of the Comet across the sky, but as a consequence means that all of the trees and clouds appear to move. It’s quite a beautiful result.
Finally, here’s a movie made from all of the pictures of the Comet I took using the 50mm lens between 19:20 and 19:40. I made this by transferring all of the images I had taken from IPhoto to IMovie For a rushed effort, I’m fairly pleased with the result.
Stay tuned for more Comet pictures, if the weather ever improves here in Ludgershall…
One of the wonderful things about the job I have is working with some extraordinary and creative people combined with many opportunities to visit some inspiring places. In this Blog, I’d like to share one example of an inspiring place and some very talented people I have been working with recently.
A few weeks ago i attended a design team meeting for The Magnet, the project to create a new science and innovation centre here in Oxford which, subject to a few last minute details, will be submitted for planning in a few days.
The meeting took place at the project architect Foster + Partners offices in Riverside/Chelsea. If you don’t know, Foster + Partners are very well respected architects who have designed some pretty impressive buildings; from “30 St. Mary Axe” (aka The Gherkin) and The British Museum Great Court in London to
the astonishing Millau Viaduct in France. While of course these buildings are impressive (and expensive), one of the main reasons for the choice of Foster + Partners as architects for the Magnet, was a very different building, namely the incredible Langley Academy, a science school near Slough on the outskirts of London. The thing that impressed us and led us to choose Foster + Partners as architects for The Magnet was this amazing school, which was delivered on a similar budget to ours. With science labs at the beating heart of the school, and a wonderful use of space, it really impressed the team choosing the project architects.
So, back to the main subject of this blog. The almost final design team meeting for the Magnet which took place at Foster + Partners inspiring headquarters in London a few weeks ago.
Our initial meeting was in a room whose walls were clad with drawings and renderings of our project. This was a fantastic environment in which to hone our ideas and challenge some of our earlier plans as a group. I am definitely going to ensure that at least one meeting room in any organisation I work in is set up this way, as it really does encourage discussion about ideas!
(Project team thinking about design)
I and several colleagues travelled to London for a final design team meeting, the main aim of which was to agree the final design of the building for the Magnet in order that we could submit a planning application to Oxford City Council for planning approval.
(project members studying a model of one of our building designs)
One of the critical elements of the design for our new building is the cladding. As The Magnet will be situated on a high profile site in Oxford immediately adjacent to an ancient monument, the way it looks is terribly important. The picture below (taken from a tower adjacent to the site) shows how it looks at the moment.
(looking down on our site from atop Nuffield Tower; the historic castle mound is on the left, and the 20th century buildings presently on our site are to the right)
Over the past three years a huge amount of effort and discussion in the design team has centred around how we can create a building that is unashamedly modern, which speaks to it’s science content and yet at the same time fits into the historic urban context.
(team meeting room at Foster + partners with project on walls)
To introduce some potential cladding elements, Chris Connell, the architect who is leading the Fosters team working on our project suggested we visit the “Materials Research Centre” so we could, as a group take a look at some of the proposed materials.
Well, what an exciting place the materials research centre proved to be! In essence, it is a large room whose contents are a library of materials that you can browse and handle.
I found it totally fascinating, and, in addition to looking at cladding materials, the Science Oxford Team had enormous fun exploring the contents of the room. For those of us working in science centres, the chance to play with aerogel filled windows or actually feel crystallised Titanium cladding was memorable.
(Dominic McDonald & Bridget Holligan from Science Oxford studying one of the options for glazing)
In summary, thanks to the talented people at Foster + Partners, and the incredibly inspiring environment they have created, I believe our project is significantly better than it otherwise would have been.
As I prepare to leave Science Oxford, I have to confess that I will miss working with the design team and see The Magnet project through to it’s opening. But I know, that whoever replaces me, is going to have enormous fun, and real personal satisfaction, working with the talented team who are bringing the The Magnet to fruition.
Over the past few months I have been thinking about the future of science centres and science museums. Some of the questions I am trying to answer questions include “is there still a role for Science Centres/Museum and if so what should a 21st Century Science Centre/Museum be like and which audiences should it serve?”
In part my thinking was stimulated by a conversation with an Oxford based Historian of Science (who shall remain nameless!) who asked me why we need science centres at all? He noted that it could be argued that an understanding of the Law is just as valuable to an informed citizenry as an understanding of science, yet we don’t have a proliferation of “law centres” which use interactive exhibits to explain law to the public.
Why (he argued) is it necessary for us to build and fund science centres when the majority of people can live and enjoy productive lives without needing to understand (for example) The Bernoulli Principle.
My counter argument was to state that in my view Science Centres and Science Museums aren’t just about “educating the masses” but can and do play the same role for Science as Art Galleries play for art and as long as we are using public funds for Opera Houses and Ballet to inspire future members of “the creative industries” I will make a strong case for building science centres to inspire interest in the world around us.
I really do believe that Science is just as much a part of our culture as art, and while I disagree with the wall building between science and arts which is implicit in CP Snow’s description of “The Two Cultures” using Snow’s language, I would argue that most sensible people agree that our society needs an appreciation of “both” science and arts. regular readers may remember I wrote something of a polemic about the funding of culture in a previous blog. Incidentally Melvyn Bragg presented an excellent programme on this subject early in 2013
My thinking about the future of science centres and museums has also been driven because I am Chair of the UK Association of Science and Discovery Centres at a time when we are determining who we serve and how we measure our impact are particularly hot topics (especially given the recent publication of two reports on Informal Learning in the UK by the Wellcome Trust) but also because I am leading the team at Science Oxford creating The Magnet, a new science and innovation centre which we hope to open before 2016.
From a personal perspective, I want to make sure that design and the content of The Magnet’s galleries and programmes reflect and incorporate the latest thinking about how visitors learn in informal environments in order to engage the widest possible community. I am pleased to say that, in line with one of the recommendations in Analysing the UK Science Education Community: The contribution of informal providers Science Oxford is already incorporating research about how people learn into many of our activities and applying these lessons in practical ways (as can be evidenced by our recent grant from the Education Endowment Fund) which will utilise informal learning techniques to improve science learning in over 40 local schools.
In passing I would note that while it is fair for the authors of the Wellcome review to criticise the seeming lack of reference to the existing academic literature when Science Centres create exhibitions or exhibits, I would point out that many centres exist on a shoestring budget, and many of the relevant papers are hidden behind pay walls. How about one of the funders of informal science (Wellcome?) creating a site (e.g. Xarchiv for science preprints) where people writing papers relevant to our community could submit for circulation? That way everyone interested in the field could see the latest thinking without having to subscribe to an expensive journal.
Despite my reservations about cost of access to research papers, In fact I am determined to incorporate research on learning, and combine it with what I have learned about running science centres over the past 23 years working in Armagh, Cocoa, Auckland, Baltimore, Manchester and Oxford to help make The Magnet become an inspiring engaging and sustainable science centre. But beyond all of the academic research, and despite my own experience, I also want to make sure that the centre’s content and potential is driven by the interests of our local community, and that’s why, from the very earliest stage in the project, our team have been consulting widely with representatives of all of the audiences we can think of.
So what should a science centre look like?
With recent events have really focused my thoughts; I have decided to put some of them down here as part of an ongoing attempt to think things through. While they certainly don’t reflect any attempt on my part to claim originality they are a distillation of the things I am thinking about.
So, what do I think a 21st Century Science Centre should be like?
Certainly, in my opinion, I’d like The Magnet to incorporate the following principles that I will try and expand upon in future Blog posts.
It should be a ‘cultural centre for science’; science focused but unafraid of interpreting science’s role in culture broadly or acting as a ‘critical friend’ for science
The interests of the community should drive it and audiences it serves it should be seen as “necessary” rather than “nice”.
It should be an organisation that incorporates academic research into how people learn into its exhibits and activities through partnership with local University or research institution in such a way that the Science Centre is used as a “living laboratory” which can be used to develop, evaluate and apply different approaches to engagement through collaboration
It should be a place for dialogue rather than deficit model communication
It should, ideally, have a broad range of income sources in order to be sustainable.
So are there any places that incorporate all of these elements? Well, in my opinion yes and no. I’d argue that any centre that doesn’t incorporate these elements wouldn’t be very successful (or sustainable!)
In the UK and Ireland it seems like we are in a “golden age” when “traditional” Museums like the Science Museum, and The Natural History Museum can attract significant public funding and millions of visitors each year new kinds of Science Centre like The Eden Project, The Science Gallery in Dublin and The Centre of the Cell and The Wellcome Collection in London are exploring new ways (and new scales) of engaging new audiences.
As a final part of today’s blog, I’d like to revisit and share some personal thoughts about how science centres and science museums present science and technology.
Let’s start with a favourite quote...
“A museum should not be a substitute for a school or a classroom but it should be a place where people come both to teach and to learn. Visitors should be able to find it refreshing and stimulating. Above all it should be honest and thus convey the understanding that science and technology have a role which is deeply rooted in human values and aspirations.”
Frank Oppenheimer, founder of the Exploratorium
To my mind this is one of the best descriptions of what a museum or a science centre can be. It undoubtedly helped kick start a new approach to museums that created the Science Centre movement that has grown from strength to strength over the past half century.
However, I do question whether our movement has fully embraced the last part of Oppenheimer’s statement “that science and technology have a role which is deeply rooted in human values and aspirations”.
I for one can’t remember many times where I have encountered human values and human aspirations on the floor of a science centre or science museum. Maybe putting scientists at the heart of The Darwin Centre in the Natural History Museum is a start, and certainly The Apollo Saturn V Centre at The Kennedy Space Centre is successful in bringing to life the story of The Apollo Programme.
However, to me, many institutions appear to be soulless and clinical rather than embracing and passionate.
For example, galleries like ‘Making the Modern World” at the Science Museum in London definitively showcase the hard technology of science, yet in my opinion they fail completely to capture the lives, the passions or the emotions of the people involved in creating the amazing objects they contain. Undoubtedly associated websites (like that for Making of the Modern World) can help tell the more extended stories behind iconic exhibits, and certainly the use of actors to interpret exhibits through costumed interpretation can be very powerful, but to my mind that’s not enough, as most visitors to most galleries in most museums would prefer to interact via social media rather than have time to visit a bespoke website, or experience costumed interpretation of a particular gallery.
And although every hands on gallery at every science centre in the world is full of excited people drawn to engaging interactive exhibits, in science centres too the humans behind the science are missing. I believe that we are missing a trick here, Science is a human endeavour, and I agree with Oppenheimer that values and aspirations are a vital part of our story.
There is research to back this up. While at MOSI in Manchester, I led an effort to create a plan for the Museum’s future, and part of that effort involved audience research into what makes a “dream gallery”. (A dream gallery was the name we used to describe a gallery that has broad appeal to a wide audience).
The research strongly suggested that if a gallery contained 4 key elements
Then it would be very successful in terms of drawing in and engaging audiences. I would suggest that while the first three elements are nearly always present in our galleries or exhibitions, it is the fourth item, the human stories, that is missing from science museums and science centres the world over.
And in my opinion, humanity is so important!
If we are serious about inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers, then we need to make our institutions relevant to the young people we wish to inspire. One way of doing this is to present scientists as real humans. Lets use these role models to inspire visitors! Some exhibitions have of course already taken this approach (e.g. The Apollo Saturn V Centre described previously) but it would be nice to see it proliferating more in our field.
If this means that sometimes we show that scientists can be flawed (e.g. Robert Millikan’s cosmetic surgery on his oil drop experiment data, or the dreadful past of Werner von Braun) then that’s OK; like all humans scientists can be good and bad and its our duty as honest practitioners to describe the full spectrum of science.
It is my view that any science centre or museum should not just paint an entirely positive picture about science, we should position ourselves as “critical friends of science” cheerleading where appropriate but also asking difficult questions too.
So, today’s thoughts for the day are;
Lets make sure we showcase scientists as well as science
Let’s tell the human stories behind science as well as showcasing the objects (museums) or investigating and explaining the scientific principles (science centres).
And on that note, it’s time to go and watch Chelsea V Arsenal.
the past few months. However, I do still have some time to enjoy the night sky, so I thought that in this Blog I can
show a few pictures I have taken over the past few weeks.
On Christmas day this year, the nearly full moon was very close to Jupiter in the sky (this is called a conjunction). So, as a project I thought it might be
fun to see if I could take a picture not just of Jupiter and the Moon, but also try and get Jupiter’s moons visible too. The main
problem with this project is the massive differences in apparent brightness of each of the objects; the nearly full moon is very bright
indeed, and although Jupiter is fairly bright, it’s moons are relatively dim. I also needed to have a lens good enough to capture Jupiter’s moons,
and in the end decided to use a 70-300mm zoom.
Here’s the “raw” picture, with the full moon lower right, and Jupiter, just visible as a spot of light in the upper left part of the frame
Below is a “stretched” version of the above picture, in which I have tried to preserve detail on the lunar surface, and show the moons of Jupiter too. In fact at the time i took the photograph,
three of Jupiter’s four major moons (called the Gallilean moons) were visible.
When not trying to observe the Moon and Jupiter, I also had a chance to play around with a solar telescope, (a Coronado Personal Solar Telescope) that I borrowed from Science Oxford.
This is an amazing piece of kit that uses a very narrow band filter centred on the wavelength of Hydrogen alpha to allow views of the solar atmosphere during the day. It is possible to get stunning views of solar prominences and detail
on the solar surface using the telescope, and I have to confess to really enjoying the chance to do some daytime astronomy during the Christmas break.
I did try and take some photographs using the telescope, but this proved very difficult. In the end i had to hold a simple digital point and shoot camera up to the telescope eyepiece
to capture any pictures at all, as I couldn’t get my SLR camera to focus.
So here are a few pictures taken early in the morning on 1st January 2013, when the sun was just rising. In the shot below you can see a fair amount of detail around
the solar limb, and an unfortunately placed TV antenna...
When zoomed in, a nice amount of detail could be seen around the solar limb; below is a prominence
The front page of this week’s Oxford Times announced Science Oxford’s plans to create a
new science and innovation centre in the city, and Science Oxford’s intent to submit a planning application
at some point in the next few months.
The project seeks to create an integrated science and innovation centre. The science centre will have three major galleries, a 130 seat
planetarium and a learning laboratory, with separate areas for teaching primary and secondary science. There will also be a roof terrace
upon which we hope to run night time stargazing events and other activities which require access to the open air. Attracting over 150,000 people
per year, it is my hope that the science centre will become a major addition to Oxford’s Cultural Scene, and an inspirational showcase of the
exciting science going on in our region. The co-located innovation centre will be home to up to fifty high tech startup companies, whose rent
will offset the running costs of the science centre.
This is a project that I have been working on for nearly four years, since I moved to Oxford
from The Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester so on a personal level, it’s really
exciting that the project has reached an important milestone. Obviously we still need to raise
£25 million to make it a reality, but that’s the next stage. First we have to persuade the people
of Oxford that our centre is something they should support. And since our project seeks to demolish
all of the existing buildings on the site, and replace them with a new building designed by the
architects Foster + Partners, we do have a challenge.
This is because, although our plans will create a building that vastly improves the setting of Oxford Castle
Mound (an ancient monument and one of the most historic sites in Oxford) one of the buildings on the site we intend to
develop is an Edwardian era former police station and council office, which for the last twenty years
has served as Oxford’s Register Office. An view of the site taken from above shows the entire site, together with surrounding cityscape.
A public exhibition and consultation about our plans for the site is opening tomorrow (Wednesday 21st November 2012), and a key reason
for staging this exhibition is to make the argument that the benefits of building the new centre far outweigh any potential harm to the cityscape
suffered by the demolition of the Register Office. While we did work hard during the design process to try and find a way of reusing the Register
Office building, unfortunately we just couldn’t make it work for our purposes.
If you are in Oxford this week I’d encourage you to come along to the exhibition, meet the design
team, and give your feedback on the project. As you can see from the pictures below, the exhibition is designed to be a “statement of intent” about
our ambition for the new centre, rather than a run of the mill planning application type consultation.
Exhibition designer Benji Wiedemann from A+B design studio who helped put the exhibition together, stands at the entrance to the exhibition.
Architects Chris Connell and James Edwards from Foster + Partners put boards into exhibition.
The model of our planned development which is the centrepiece of the exhibition.
A close up of the model showing view towards Oxford Castle Mound.
Over the next few blog entries, I will describe our plans for a new centre in more detail, and go over the history of the project so far. But for today,
can I just invite you to come and see the exhibition yourself, or, if you can’t make it to Oxford, read more about the project on our specially created
website which is now live!