Posts Tagged ‘astronomy’

I’m currently attending the Worldcon sci fi convention, which this year is being held at London, at the ExCeL convention centre on the Docklands. I last went to a Worldcon in 2005, for a day flying visit when it was held in Glasgow. I vowed then that if it came back to the UK again I would attend properly, including travelling if need be to stay in a nearby hotel. And I am.

Because of a progressive MS-like illness I have to use a wheelchair for some of the time, especially on longer more intensive days. And this meant that I could apply to the con organisers for suitable accessible hotel accommodation, which for mobility challenged people was largely in the Aloft London ExCeL hotel, right by the convention centre. So that’s where my husband and I are staying. We have a wheelchair accessible room, and being so close to the con has had an unexpected benefit. I’ve been able to return from the con to lie down in the day several times: great when I’m starting to feel really wobbly, and would be impossible if our hotel was further away.

The con runs over five days, from Thursday through to Monday, 14th to 18th August 2014. The queues for registration on the morning of Thursday were massive, causing some problems. But because of my wheelchair we were told to skip the queues, go straight to the access team, and were registered with their help very quickly. This left us time to explore before our first panel, and we explored the various eateries in the convention centre. On the downside the dealers’ room would not open on the first day until 1pm – quite late given that people were queuing for registration from 9am. So this caused us to rejig our plans a little, and switch to a different first panel, to allow us time after to explore all the goodies on sale, as well as the artworks and other displays in the same room.

There are over a dozen panels on simultaneously at any given time, with many hundreds of scheduled events over the five days. This makes it quite a challenge to pick what to attend: often you find there are multiple things you want to go to at the same time. But it’s nice to be spoilt with choice, and there is some freedom for people to nip in and out of panels as needed. But being prepared helps, and my husband and I both spent some time before the convention, studying the programme carefully and marking up those panels that might be of interest to us. Even then there were some difficult decisions to make!

Our first Thursday panel was at noon, an astronomy one, with Professor Tim Horbury talking about the ESA Solar Orbiter mission, which he is actively involved with. My husband’s day job is space technology research, and I studied astronomy for two years at university, so have an active interest in it too. And this was an excellent talk, well judged time and content-wise, with excellent visuals. I found it particularly interesting to get an insight into what it is like to be a principal investigator on a research project like this, which also gave us an idea of what it must be like for my husband’s boss day to day! There was also a lively question and answer section at the end. I asked firstly a double question about how long it would take the orbiter to reach the Sun once launched, and how quickly it would start sending results and how fast they would come back. And then when the answer brought up the issue of results going online I had to ask in what data format – former computer scientist coming out in me there! Anyway that was answered well, as were the other questions.

One nice thing about the con is that speakers are given warning about when to stop, and are encouraged to wrap up about 15 minutes before the end of the panel, allowing time for this panel’s audience to leave the room, and for the next panel’s audience to come in promptly. On the downside it seemed – and this may be a misimpression on my part – that there was a shortage of con volunteers around at times. For example there was a blind con goer in our second panel, using just his white stick, who really could have done with a volunteer accompanying him, or at least being in the room and noticing when he needed help. My husband gave him some assistance, but was unable to spot any con helpers outside to take over after.

After our first panel we explored the dealers’ stalls, which by now had opened. Much to see, but I was able to resist most temptations. Though I did give in and buy – as expected! – a second beeblebear for our household: a two-headed, three-pawed teddy bear with eyepatch sold by the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy appreciation society, ZZ9 Plural Z Alpha. Normally these are only for sale to members of the society – and I am a member – but today anyone could buy them. And I got a free badge for him (“Don’t Panic!”) and had a good chat with the ZZ9 stallholders.

New beeblebear

We also took the chance to look at many of the displays and artworks on show. The artworks were generally very impressive, though I thought some artists missed a chance by not having a business card or leaflet with their name people could take away with them. Many of the artworks are being sold over the next few days, and there are some gorgeous pieces available. Likewise there are many displays of items of interest, including a large number of astronomy-related ones, which appealed to us both. And my husband took part in an ongoing experiment where people breathe out to see if they are a methane emitter or not, which provided some amusement!

After this we nipped back briefly to the hotel for me to have a lie down – braving the biblical downpour and thunder and lightning outside. Then we were back for the 4.30pm Tolkien Society talk. This is another literary society I’m a member of, and they are sponsoring a number of events at the Worldcon. This one saw David Brawn of HarperCollins, the man responsible for looking after Tolkien publishing for 20 years, reflect on the last 20 years, and how things have evolved, including their links with the Peter Jackson movies.

This was a fascinating talk for me, as an academic book historian. The audience was gifted to an eye-opening insight into the publishing world, including some of the difficult decisions they have to make, and the delicate balancing act of respecting the wishes of the Tolkien Estate. I took masses of notes during the talk, noting some of the statistics cited, as well as anecdotes. And it was particularly impressive that the speaker spoke in a very informal ad lib way, working from a minimal set of notes. On the downside he spoke for a little too long, which reduced the time for questions. But what he said was so very interesting, that I don’t think anyone in the audience minded. I asked the first of the three or so questions answered, curious to know more about the Tolkien Estate’s attitude to ebooks, saying for example that I would love to read Christopher Tolkien’s “The History of Middle Earth” series of books in an ebook form. I was rather expecting to hear that the family is not very keen on ebooks, but was delighted to learn that they have adopted them eagerly, though not as early adopters, preferring to allow the technology to settle down, and viewing them primarily as a way of supporting the reading experience. And there are problems with publishing “History” in this format, partly because of how best to handle the extensive linked notes, but more critically because of many strange characters used, which in the past ereaders did not support well. But innovations since mean that it should just be a matter of time before “History” is available in this format, alongside all the other Tolkien books, though probably after the publisher has finished dealing with all the publications linked to the current Hobbit trilogy of films.

That was our final panel of the day, and afterwards we met friends for cocktails in our hotel bar, and a good chat, which was lovely. Then dinner, and a fairly early night, after a very long, but rewarding day. I will be resting tomorrow, but my husband will be attending the con while I sleep. I will be back there with him on Saturday, for more eagerly-anticipated panels.

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I’ve recently been working through an 1820s Scottish trade directory, for a journal paper I’m developing. On the way through, while looking for book trade references, I spotted other interesting things. For example Prestwick in Ayrshire had a “florist & bird stuffer” – what a combination of jobs!

But two of the most interesting people, for me anyway, that I spotted were early telescope makers. One was listed as such in the directory: James Veitch, maker of telescopes, microsopes etc. at Inchbonny, Jedburgh, Roxburghshire. As a Borderer with an interest in the history of science I’d heard his name before, but hadn’t looked into him too much. But doing a little more online research discovered that he made wood tubed telescopes, and his customers included fellow Borderers Sir David Brewster and Sir Walter Scott.

The other telescope maker I found listed in the 1820s directory was in Kilmarnock in Ayrshire. Not only did Thomas Morton build telescopes to sell, but he had even built in Kilmarnock what was described by the directory as “A very fine observatory, some valuable machinery, and excellent telescopes”. He was still making telescopes as late as circa 1860, and his had very impressive looking metal tubes. The National Museum of Scotland has quite a collection of them.

I wonder if there were other telescope makers working in Scotland in the 1820s.

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I’ve just been reading an article in The Observer about university lectures, where two academics debate their pros and cons. And a few weeks ago I read a blog post by classicist Mary Beard on the same subject.

I was a full-time undergraduate science student at St Andrews University between 1990 and 1994. We had very variable lectures. Some were massive, hundreds of students in the lecture theatre, particularly in earlier years before students specialised for honours. Others were smaller, often a few dozen students, or even in the case of one of my honours courses just me and the lecturer!

The biggest problem I had with the traditional large-room university lectures is that they varied hugely by quality of lecturer. With an experienced lecturer they could be a lively stimulating experience, inspiring the student and communicating ideas effectively. Although the student could still end up at times fleeing from the room, running to the nearest academic bookshop to buy a textbook so they could further understand the subject! I remember doing that after the very first cosmology lecture in my first year astronomy course with Dr Carson. But with poor lecturers, especially beginning ones, it could be very different.

In my second year computer science course a new lecturer, not long after finishing his PhD, was assigned to teach the C programming course. In many ways this was the most fundamental course that we studied that year, the one we would need to understand best of all to be able to prosper in the subsequent honours years. And the lecturing was appalling. The new lecturer mumbled all the way through, and did not project himself to the class, who were only sitting a foot or two in front of him. We couldn’t understand what he was teaching, and we were not learning how to do C programming. As always loads of us had to rely on textbooks, me buying Kernighan and Ritchie to teach myself. But we should not have had to do this. In many ways I’d have been better if I hadn’t sat through those lectures – and I never missed a lecture in any course – and just taught myself.

Indeed the experience was so bad that it led to a student rebellion in the 1991/2 Second Year computer science class. A few students, me included, acted as spokespersons for the whole class, and sat through a debate (which was quite intimidating) in the John Honey building with all the computer science staff, putting our concerns. I think they took on board what we were saying, but by then it was too late for that year of students, and masses who should have carried on to honours computer science switched to other subjects instead. As a result there were only 3 honours students in my class: 2 single honours, 1 joint honours with another subject. That was the lowest number of computer science honours students at St Andrews for a very long time.

Another bad experience with lectures is where the lecturer – and this happened in one of my senior honours computer science courses – forbade us from taking notes, saying we would get the lecture slides at the end. He was really insistent about this. And of course he didn’t give us the slides, until we went round and demanded them, explaining he had promised them, and had told us not to take notes. He’d completely forgot about it. Well again what was the point of sitting through those lectures? Did we really engage properly with what he was saying?

After leaving St Andrews I started studying history part-time with the Open University. I couldn’t even attend many tutorials held locally at Dundee, so was managing on my own at home. And although the teaching there had to be primarily through pre written course books, I found it to be of generally a much higher standard than the variable lectures in my science degree.

Now small seminars, they’re a totally different matter. I’ve sat through excellent examples of those, including in teaching context, in my postgraduate history Masters at Dundee University. There you can have good quality interaction between teacher and students. But the numbers must be small. Even with a relatively poor lecturer the students can help to stimulate the discussion.

But I guess I’m not a fan of traditional one to many lectures!

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