Friday, November 1, 2013

Lecturing on the Far side of the World

Last month I had a wonderful experience. I was the 2013 Beatrice Hill Tinsley Lecturer. This award involved me stopping off in New Zealand following a planned trip to the Southern Hemisphere (for a conference on science results from Galaxy Zoo held in Sydney, Australia and to visit collaborators in Perth, Australia) to give a series of lectures across the country.

My itinerary in September and October around the Southern hemisphere

The Beatrice Hill Tinsley Lecture series was started in 2012 by the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand. The idea of the series was to enable RASNZ to invite an international researcher in astronomy/astrophysics to New Zealand to give a series of pubic talks hosted by regional astronomy groups. New Zealand has a population of 4.4 million (half that of London) and despite having only a handful of professional astronomers this includes a very active community of amateur astronomers.

My trip started in New Plymouth, where the local astronomy society runs weekly public stargazing sessions at their small observatory. The group is in the middle of fundraising to buy a more modern telescope and was keen to use the BHT Lecture to drum up support. Beatrice Hill Tinsley went to high school in New Plymouth, and I spoke in her old school hall, after an introduction by a current New Plymouth girl, Belle Moller (yr 12) who had recently returned from NASA Space Camp in Texas.

New Plymouth took the prize for advertising with this gigantic poster in the public library. 

Following New Plymouth, I went to the nations capital to speak at the Carter Observatory in Wellington (hosted by the Wellington astronomical society).  This location was formally the national observatory of New Zealand, now hosting a delightful science museum and planetarium.  A day off in Wellington allowed me to take the chance to visit “Te Papa” (the NZ National Museum) as well as to talk a walk in some areas of native wildlife

After Wellington I flew to the South Island, where my first stop was Nelson. The extremely friendly Nelson Astronomical Society hosted my visit, and I spoke at The Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology. The skies cleared the evening of my talk and I here is where I had my best view of the Southern Skies complete with a telescopic tour of some of the best star clusters through my host’s home made telescope. 

With my host Rudy in Nelson
I continued my journey south to Dunedin, with its sometimes Anarctic weather. My hosts here gave me a behind the scenes tour of the Otago Museum (where my talk was to happen)  and showed off their society observatory, which they use for both public observing, and highly professional observations of occulations (stars disappearing behind asteroids) which they contribute to a large database. There was a chance for more sightseeing too, with a visit to the steepest street in the world and a drive down the beautiful Otago Pennisula where I was lucky enough to see both seals and penguins in the wild
With Ron Paine in front of the Dunedin Astronomy Society's Beverly-Begg Observatory

A yellow penguin on the Otago Penninsula

With the Dunedin Astronomical Society
 Next it was back up North (well very slightly) for a visit to Canterbury University Physics department in Christchurch. Here I gave a research seminar - a slight break from public talks, before jumping in the mini-bus and catching a lift 3 hours inland to the beautiful Lake Tekapo. My final talk of the trip was to be a Keynote Speech at the Aorki MackenzieStarlight Festival – a weekend of astronomically themed events to celebrate the success of the Aorki-Mackenzie Dark Sky Area. – the largest Internationally Recognised Dark Sky Reserve in the world.

We arrived on Friday, just in time to attend the opening ceremony – a delightful mix of Maori welcoming, a talk on Maori astronomy (by Keynote Speaker Dr. Pauline Harris), a show of astronomical artwork finished off with a movie about the links between the Transit of Venus and the diverse set of peoples who make New Zealand their home. 

The Starlight Festival Keynote Speakers, from left to right – Marsha Ivins (Veteran NASA Astronaut), me, and Dr. Pauline Harris (expert in Maori Astronomy)
On Saturday, veteran astronaut Marsha Ivins led off the programme with a wonderful talk on space flight, which was followed by a work shop to construct over 100 Galileoscopes, and a space themed concert (held on an ice rink) by the Christchurch Youth Sympony Orchestra. The day was finished off with a first for me – a dinner hosted at a working observatory, eating under red lights and the night sky.

100 Galileoscopes waiting to be built, and the resulting testing….

Sunday was my day to speak, and then there was just time to try out the famous Lake Tekapo Hot Springs before heading back to Christchurch to catch my flight home on Monday morning.

It was an amazing an unforgettable trip around the beautiful country that is New Zealand. 

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