Observer Training

The astronomy department in St Andrews has its own observatory, consisting of a large research telescope (The James Gregory Telescope - the largest operational optical telescope in the UK) and a couple of smaller teaching telescopes. As part of my transition from biology into astronomy, I learnt how to observe using these small telescopes (and even upgraded to using the larger one on occasions) and eventually gained a good working knowledge of the (northern) night sky. Learning then turned into teaching when I became involved in the department's telescope training course, teaching undergraduate astronomers how to use these small telescopes. By passing a "telescope driving test" students gain a key to access the teaching telescopes whenever they want to.

The observatory is also open to the public on certain nights of the year. This involves running interactive displays for very large groups of people. Various interesting objects (Jupiter, the Andromeda Galaxy, the Moon, etc.) are viewed (either directly through the telescopes or via large projection screens) and explained to members of the public. I have also been involved in various astrophotography projects (largely in the form of telescope-operation; the photographic expertise being provided by Joe Llama), involving everything from simple still photographs to capturing the movements of comets and chasing the (rare) Scottish northern lights (see below).

Home-made Comets

One of the public outreach events I've been running for the past few years is the "Comet Guys" act. This involves making "kitchen comets" from dry ice (frozen carbon dioxide), sand, soil and various other ingredients. The dry ingredients are mixed together in a mixing bowl (with some help from the audience), then water and dry ice are added to fuse everything together into something that looks like a dirty snowball. It's a fun way of explaining what comets are made of, why they form tails when they are warmed up by the Sun and what they might look like on the inside.

Full instructions, along with a list of all the ingredients can be found here.