The Burke-Gaffney Observatory – Cosmoboy’s unveiling speech

11 11 2014

Ecogirl suggested that I post my speech from the press conference – so here it is!

speech“Thank you everyone for being here for this celebration!

While our Observatory Director Dave Lane is going to tell you about the Medjuck telescope and our plans for the Burke-Gaffney Observatory in detail, I just want to take a couple of minutes of your time to talk about the impact of astronomy on campus.

Everything you are is a product of your experiences and choices.

And a great education informs both of these; by exposing you to new – sometimes breathtaking – experiences, and providing you with the knowledge and frameworks you need to make good choices.

press_confThose thoughts are really what drove the renovation of the Burke-Gaffney Observatory. Any student that studies astronomy, whether in introductory courses for non-scientists or the more specialized honours program, will have a chance to use the Medjuck telescope for observing projects. Thanks to our enthusiastic telescope operators you don’t even have to know your eyepiece from your elbow to be able to use the telescope!

laneBut even more exciting is the possibility of robotic control. Dave Lane has done a remarkable job in bringing the observatory up-to-date. He can now control it entirely from home, and as you’ll see today, a social media interface is in the works. Need to get a picture of a galaxy for your ASTR1000 project? Try tweeting.

But access alone isn’t the most amazing thing about the renovation. The gorgeous new 24.5 inch Medjuck telescope is the second largest campus telescope in Canada. With a modern optical design it produces stunning images, significantly better than our beloved Ealing telescope. It is a fantastic piece of research grade equipment – indeed a model just like it has been cold tested for deployment in the Arctic. We know it works down to -35 C, so I guarantee we’ll still be running in the middle of winter!

But to give you an idea of its capabilities, just a day before one of the first viewing sessions with the new telescope, a supernova went off in a neighbouring galaxy (and for those of you that don’t know, the first supernova ever discovered in Canada was discovered from the BGO in 1995). But how far away was that supernova? 11.5 million light years. To put that in context, the light from that supernova left before the great-apes had truly started evolving on the savannah of Africa. There were no humans anywhere.

I’ll leave it to the words of seven year old girl to describe what she thought of seeing the supernova and how old it was: “That’s soooo cool!!!

But this isn’t even close to pushing the limits of the Medjuck Telescope. The most distant object it will be able to see, the not very romantically called 3C273, is 2.5 billion light years away. The light that we are now receiving from it left when the only form of life on Earth was single cell bacteria. No plants. No higher forms of life. The fossil cliffs at Joggins were still 2.2 billion years from being formed.

Just think about this for a second:

BGOYou now have a chance to put light in your eye that has travelled across almost 20% of the entire Universe. To be influenced by something that is unimaginably distant, something incredibly old. That’s a breathtaking experience. It may not be full of heart pumping adrenaline, but it makes you realize something quite profound – that even the most distant of things can have an impact on how you see the world and yourself.

And by now you’ve also realized that astronomy isn’t just about charting the skies. It’s about time-travel too. You probably didn’t think of the Medjuck Telescope as a time-machine, but in some sense that’s exactly what it is.

medjuckAbove all this, we should see the chance to have these experiences, and the knowledge that comes with them, as a gift. Thanks to the generosity of Dr Medjuck the support of the University, and hard work by dedicated individuals, we’re incredibly excited and just a little bit proud in Astronomy and Physics to be able to share these experiences both with everyone on campus, and also the community of Halifax. And through social media, perhaps soon the world!

So please, come to the BGO and be amazed.

The Universe is yours to discover.

Thank you.”


The Sound of a Binary Universe

22 07 2010

One of the disturbing things about supercomputers is that they make you feel almost omniscient. The virtual universes I create inside them are completely unambiguous. Logic is followed, equations are obeyed. Even randomness it isn’t truly random. It’s all clockwork.

So you can see everything. Every aspect of the virtual universe is characterized by a number. Where is one part of a galaxy? How fast is it moving? How old are the stars there? But the shear amount of information is overwhelming. If I did these calculations by hand it would take me 140 billion years – over ten times the age of Universe. The stack of workbooks would reach from the Sun to the orbit of Pluto. Don’t even ask how much ink I would need, or how many trees to make the books!

Converting this deluge of information into something we can grasp requires creativity. Making movies, creating three dimensional representations of the data, actually seeing the numbers “come to life” on a screen, is also addictive. Initially researchers were skeptical of whether just “looking” at the data would help, but in practice this step has informed the advance of theories over the last twenty years. Seeing the geometry will always inform how you frame the math.

The sheer beauty of some of these “visualizations” is striking. You are also free to run things forward and backwards in time, to zoom-in, to choose another viewpoint or rotate. You can choose your favourite colours and paint the screen with a vibrant wash. Truth be told, choosing colours to faithfully represent data is a black art. There are books written about it.

But sound doesn’t play a role in the birth of these movies. Little thought is given to harmony. Perhaps we just haven’t figured out how to use it properly yet. It is science after all and the pictures usually tell the story. That said, some very creative people have thought about this issue. John Dubinski, a computational astrophysicist, and John Kameel Farah, a composer, collaborated on the Gravitas project: “a visual and musical celebration of the beauty in a dynamic universe driven by gravity.”

Lots of people love the music, which is after all quite a personal thing. I’m a product of the late 80s and early 90s. Coming from the UK, my musical preferences are heavily shaped by rave culture. I may not listen to it now, but the relentless rhythms are burned into my subconscious. Just thinking of the music sparks flashbacks of strobes, lasers and giant screens showing lava lamps.

The forms in my movies, the way the galaxies move, coalesce and grow triggers a connection to these memories—it’s probably tapping into flashbacks of the massive video screens. But when I show these clips to non-scientists I feel a need to add a “trippy” soundtrack. And these movies are trips beyond our wildest imaginations! It is simply incredible that we can envisage how such complex systems as galaxies form through an extension of thought alone.

One movie sparks an intense connection. The movie is several years old now, and no longer scientifically relevant. Yet every time I watch it, the imagery and pace remind me of “Little Fluffy Clouds” by a group called “The Orb”. The music is trancelike, layered melodies that arc and break over one another. The visuals are a perfect match–clouds of dark matter collide, shock and merge with one another. The lyrics even chronicle the movies colours: “Purple and red and yellow and on fire…” While the match requires serendipity, there is also a touch of irony: the Arizona skies of the song also happen to be the best in North America for astronomy.

Another movie (warning big file!) made by a colleague flies effortless through a universe of dark matter. Travelling unimaginably faster than any starship, we get to see the distribution of galaxies on scales that are hard to comprehend. The view of this imaginary universe is one worthy of a deity—God-like is not cliché here. When watching, I can’t help but feel a fleeting sense of omniscience, and one that is perfectly accompanied by Brian Eno’s, “An Ending (Ascent).” Despite being released 25 years ago, and being played countless times, the music still makes me shiver. It is seems somehow ethereal and untouchable. Just like dark matter.

The music doesn’t add any scientific validity to the movies. Some might argue it detracts. But the thought of using a musical overlay that creates a context or even juxtaposes for emphasis, is exciting. After all, music is something that speaks to more people than science. If it helps communicate the sheer wonder of our Universe then why shouldn’t we use it?