Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Sensual Universe – Taste - “Beer in Space” - Dr Subhanjoy Mohanty - 23rd May 2012

The light of our star, Sol, beat down hard on London yesterday.  Perfect park weather.  As I cycled through Hyde Park I considered whether spending an hour in a lecture theatre learning about whether it was possible to make beer in space was a good way to spend an evening like this.  I think other people had had the same thought.  As I headed into the Clore Lecture Theatre at ICL I overheard one of the organisers saying “well, at least one person turned up”.  I was suddenly struck with a slight paranoia.  What if I was the only person who’d decided to ditch the joy of the sun and the happiness of the park to spend my time looking at slides in a darkened room?  Also, being the only person there I might be lectured to directly one-on-one about astrochemistry, which is a bit scary.

But I was determined to go.  The previous lecture in the series, “Sex in Space” by Dr Saralyn Mark was fascinating.  The concept of the lecture series is to examine “astrophysics for the five senses”, namely touch, taste, sight, hearing and smell.  The two lectures so far have pretty pop sci sounding titles, but theseare more of a framework on which to hang up-to-date space science from top astrophysicists (and astrochemists and astrobiologists).  Additionally, at the first lecture in the series, there was a wine and nibbles party afterwards with absolutely colossalglasses of wine and big bowls pretzels.  Clearly, astrophysicists know how to party.

Fortunately, the lecture hall did eventually fill up a bit more, and after a decent amount of people had filed in, the lecture began.  While the topic ostensibly was whether it would be possible to make beer from interstellar chemicals, it was actually the principles of star formation.  My understanding of this was extremely vague, I think almost entirely based on watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, which, while amazing, is about 20-30 years out of date.  I love getting a bit out of my depth in lectures like this, and Dr Mohanty didn’t shy away from using slides with structural formalae and displayed formulae, as well as using fairly complex specialist language. 

It’s very easy if you’re doing an open lecture to dumb things down too far, and it’s very frustrating if lecturers assume that any members of the public attending are complete morons.   I always figure that if someone attends a lecture about space, then chances are they’ll at least have a basic ‘popular science’ knowledge of the subject.  Fortunately, in this lecture, a nice balance was struck, everything was explained clearly and precisely without lapsing into overly obscure terminology.  I feel pretty confident that I understood the majority of what was said, and if I had to explain the basics of star formation to someone I’d be able to give it a good shot.

Two highlights of the lecture were the slides on the ‘Hubble Deep Field’ and the Kepler Orrery.  I’ve seen the Hubble Deep Field before, but I always underestimate just how spectacular it is when explained properly.  If you’re not actively learning about space, it’s very easy to forget just how mind bogglingly big it is.  The Deep Field image shows a tiny portion of the night sky, and peers deep into space and time.  We can see thousands of blobs of light.  Each one of these blobs is a galaxy, and each galaxy contains billions of stars.  I love a good explanation of the ‘Deep Field’ image as when done well it simultaneously makes you feel very insignificant, and also full of wonder.  It’s impossible not to be instantly curious about what is going on out there. 

(click for enormous)
The Kepler Orrery I hadn’t seen before, at least not in this form.  It shows various planetary systems without the stars.  It’s impressive enough as a still image, but here it was shown animated.  Just as a visual it’s brilliant, hundreds of planets, some big, some small, some slow, some fast all revolving around their stars.  It makes you consider the universe as a giant piece of clockwork, ticking away.  I like that it helps get away from a ‘Solar System-centric’ view of planetary systems, for example showing us that it’s relatively common to have gas giants in near orbit of their stars.

I only have two extremely minor criticisms of the night.  The first was the lighting.  The slides, were, unsurprisingly, mainly of space.  Space is dark, and the slides looked much better under low light.  I think the lecture was being filmed, and unfortunately the cameraman kept wanting the light to be turned up, which made the slides a bit harder to see.  I figure that the people who actually made the effort to show up should be catered for, not those watching it later.  The only other extremely minor annoyance was that throughout the presentation the font used on the slides was Comic Sans.  This is obviously a personal annoyance, but it somewhat undermines the majesty of space when such an ugly, annoying and ubiquitous font is used.   I, mean, I don’t want that much even Arial or Times New Roman would be fine,  I’d be happy with that.  Just… no Comic Sans.. please.

These are extremely minor annoyances though and I thoroughly enjoyed the lecture.  One of my favourite things about astrophysics is that enormous scales involved.  For example, when astrophysicists talk about things being ‘close’, the actual distance is inconceivable.  So when I asked “You say these clouds of dust are ‘thick’, what do you mean by ‘thick’?” and Dr Mohanty answered “Well by that I mean not thick at all”.  That is, as far as I’m concerned, the perfect astrophysicist answer. 

I’ve really enjoyed this lecture series, and I was looking forward to hearing about the next one in the series which I had assumed would be in June.  Disappointingly it’s now been bumped until autumn.  I hope this doesn’t kill off the momentum, it’s nice to have one of these a month to look forward to. 

Oh yeah, and it turns out you can make beer in space, although it probably won’t smell so great.

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