Astronomy talk: “Black Holes made simple”

Tonight, we attended a public lecture by Prof Malcolm Longair (a very eminent British astronomer and cosmologist) (he even has his own Wikipedia entry) at the MTN Sciencentre at Canal Walk. It was the first time I’d been inside the Sciencentre, although we’d probably walked past it dozens of times.

It was fantastic that the talk, organised in partnership with Square Kilometre Array South Africa (SKA SA) was free of charge – we just had to phone in advance to book our seats.

This was a summary of the talk:

“Black holes are part of the furniture of modern astronomy. They represent the ultimate state of collapse of matter and are the source of many of the most energetic phenomena in the Universe. In this lecture, it will be shown how they arise quite naturally in the course of the evolution of stars and galaxies. The most recent data will be presented on black holes in our Galaxy and in active galaxies. These give rise to some extraordinary phenomena, such as jets of relativistic matter which are expelled into intergalactic space. The role of black holes in the evolution of galaxies will be described. The talk will be delivered at a non-technical level and will be profusely illustrated with images from many different types of telescope, including the Hubble Space Telescope, the radio Very Large Array, the Chandra and XMM-Newton Telescopes. In addition, there will be interactive demonstrations and illustrative movies.”

Here’s a bit of information about the eminent professor:

“Malcolm Longair has held many highly respected positions within the fields of physics and astronomy. He was appointed the ninth Astronomer Royal of Scotland in 1980, as well as the Regius Professor of Astronomy, University of Edinburgh, and the director of the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh. He has served on and chaired many international committees, boards and panels, working with both NASA and the European Space Agency. He has received much recognition for his work over the years, including a CBE in the millennium honours list for his services to astronomy and cosmology. His main research interests are in high energy astrophysics and astrophysical cosmology. Over recent years, these have centred on the astrophysics of the most luminous extragalactic radio sources. Most recently, he has become involved in studies of the origins of cosmic magnetism and the capabilities of the SKA in advancing these studies.”

The auditorium was packed, and the lecture was presented in a very accessible and entertaining style. I’d expected the professor to be quite staid and serious, but he cracked jokes and tried to keep the lecture quite light-hearted and easy to follow, probably because there were a number of youngsters in the audience too.

When we walked out almost two hours later, we felt surprisingly alert and invigorated, and definitely more curious about the big universe around us!

Prof Longair is giving another public lecture tomorrow, Tuesday 24 February from 13h00 to 14h00, in the New Science Lecture Theatre at the University of Cape Town. The title “Hot News from the Big Bang: Why Inflation is a Good Thing” sounds intriguing!

Here’s a summary:

“For the first time in the history of cosmology, there is general agreement concerning the values of cosmological parameters. This turns out to be a rather strange set of values and they raise a number of questions for fundamental physics. In this lecture, the most recent evidence on the values of the cosmological parameters will be summarised and potential solutions to fundamental problems discussed. It will be argued that the inflationary model of the early Universe is surprisingly successful in accounting for many of the large scale features of the Universe. It will be demonstrated how many of the most important results can be derived from simple physical arguments. The lecture will be delivered at a non-technical level and will include many spectacular images, animations and simulations.”

And in case you’re into this kind of thing, then you might be pleased to here that there’s another public lecture coming up at the MTN Science Centre on Wednesday 11 March @ 19:00, titled “How stars and planets form” and presented by Debra Shepherd.

The summary:

“Have you ever wondered how stars form? Why are there planets around our own star, the Sun? Do other stars have Earth-like planets, and if so, how many? We don’t know all the answers to these questions but we are beginning to travel the road to discovery. We will start our tour of cosmic nurseries inside dark, interstellar clouds of gas and dust – the birthplace of stars and planets. Dust obscures our view in visible light but we can use radio telescopes to peer into the depths of cloud cores. Young stars are unstable, sending out spectacular jets that eventually blast the cloud apart. Surrounding these young stars are disks of rotating material that may form a planetary system. More than 150 planets have been found around other stars but none are like the Earth (although one gets close!). Is it because Earth-like planets are very rare? Or are our telescopes and search techniques not powerful enough to see such small, rocky bodies yet? Together we will explore these questions and see some of the most breath-taking images of our Galaxy.”

And a bit of information about the speaker:

“Debra Shepherd began her career as a research engineer in 1981 with a Bachelors degree in physics. She spent 10 years as an engineer working on space-based sensors and training astronauts for Space Lab shuttle missions while getting a Masters degree in astrophysics. In 1991 she went back to school and received a doctorate in Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin. She then worked at the California Institute of Technology studying how stars more massive than our sun formed and helped to run the Owens Valley Millimeter Observatory. From there she joined the scientific staff at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO). She is now a tenured astronomer at NRAO doing astronomical research on star and planet formation and helping to test and commission software for the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) – a radio telescope array being built in Chile.”

Phone the MTN Sciencentre on 021 529 8100 to book your seat (it doesn’t cost anything).

I think it’s really cool to find out more about the rest of the vast universe, in which our planet is really just a tiny speck.

I'd love to hear your views

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