Category for past lectures/events with recordings and/or text version available.

Friday 5th January 2024 Decoding the biographies of binary black holes with gravitational waves

Dr Isobel Romero-Shaw

Friday 5th January 2024 7.30 pm in the BRLSI, can be attended either in the BRLSI or remotely on Zoom

The image is a still from a video simulation of merging balck holes © NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

Gravitational waves — ripples in the space-time fabric of the Universe — were predicted by Albert Einstein in 1916. After 100 years of advancements in technology and theory, in 2015, the seminal first detection was made. That first signal came from two black holes, each 30 times more massive than the Sun, elegantly spiralling around each other before crashing together. That signal heralded a new era of gravitational-wave astrophysics, and almost 100 gravitational wave signals have been detected in the subsequent eight years. Yet even with this abundance of detections, there is one big unanswered question in gravitational-wave astrophysics: how do merging binary black holes form? Do the black holes live long lives in each other’s company, or meet only shortly before they merge? In this talk, we will explore the different possible formation channels for binary black holes. We will observe gravitational waves, and draw out details that contain whispers of the biographies of the binaries that produced them. Finally, we will review the most recent results as to the origins of our mergers, and look towards the data-rich future of gravitational-wave astrophysics.

Isobel is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Cambridge, where she studies gravitational waves from the collisions of black holes (and sometimes neutron stars). Previously, Isobel did her PhD at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, and has her MSci in Physics from the University of Birmingham.

Recording available here.

Friday 1st December 2023 Space debris

Hazards, Situational awareness and responsible use of space

Dr Philippe Blondel

Friday 1st December 2023 7.30 pm in the BRLSI, can be attended either in the BRLSI or remotely on Zoom

Lecture 4 of 4 on the theme ‘Conserving the Planet’ in association with the Herschel Museum of Astronomy

Image shows the distribution of space debris in orbit © ESA

Near-Earth space is littered with hundreds of millions of man-made objects rushing at very high speeds and risking collisions with each other and with every space platform. The new constellations of thousands of satellites will be at risk; they also increase the risks, through chain collisions, accidental deorbiting and other accidents. In 2021, the G7 Summit committed to “safe and sustainable use of space”. The UN Space2030 agenda recommended “enhanced information exchange on space objects”. But how do we detect objects mostly smaller than a centimetre, fast enough and far enough? This talk will present the current situation, from space collisions to intentional creation of space debris, the approaching Kessler Syndrome and the geopolitical context, in Earth and beyond. Drawing on the speaker’s direct experience, we will then look at technological solutions and policy implications.

Philippe Blondel is a remote sensing expert. Born and educated in France, his PhD was about the radar imaging of the planet Venus. He then worked in the US and the UK, mapping the oceans and designing new instruments. He enjoys seeing the applications of his research, from new commercial products to international standards, from de-risking marine renewable energies to addressing the effects of climate change on Arctic environments. Philippe edited “Solar System Update” (Springer, 2006) and he teaches planetary physics at the University of Bath. He co-authored the White Paper on “In-Space Utilisation of Asteroids” (2017) and experimented and published on imaging space debris and small targets (2018, 2019). His Knowledge Transfer activities include working with industry and participating to the UK Parliament Office of Science and Technology on “Defence of space-based assets.

A video recording of the lecture is freely available here.

Thursday 16th November 2023 Dying Stars Seeding the Universe

The Caroline Herschel Prize Lecture 2023

7.00 pm Thursday 16th November 2023 at the 10E 0.17 Lecture Theatre, University of Bath and online via Zoom

Dr Marie van der Sande
University of Leiden

Dr Marie Van de Sande discusses why a multidisciplinary approach is necessary in understanding how stars like our sun die.

Astrochemistry is a vibrant and interdisciplinary field that brings together astronomy, physics, and chemistry. While there is an enormous effort in understanding the chemistry of stellar birth and youth, the chemistry of stellar death is as important: the death throes of sun-like stars enrich the galaxy with fresh material to form the next generation of stars and planets by losing their outer layers by means of a gentle outflow. The presence of a companion star or planet is thought to produce intricate structures within the outflow, giving rise to the beautiful shapes of planetary nebulae, the later stage in the star’s life and an important part of Caroline Herschel’s surveys. This opens up the question of the fate of our own Solar System. To understand exactly how stars like our Sun die and how they are recycled into the next generation of stars and planets, a multidisciplinary approach is necessary, with astrochemistry playing a leading role.”

Background of Speaker

Dr Marie Van de Sande is an Oort Fellow at Leiden Observatory at Leiden University, the Netherlands. She studies the chemistry around dying sun-like stars by developing novel chemical models and comparing their results to observations. Marie obtained her PhD in 2018 from KU Leuven (Belgium), where she stayed on as a fellow of the Research Foundation – Flanders (FWO). She moved to the University of Leeds as a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellow in 2021 and relocated to Leiden in September this year.”

The video recording of the lecture is freely available here.

The Caroline Herschel Prize Lectureship was established in 2018 by what is now the Herschel Society, in association with the Royal Astronomical Society, to celebrate Caroline’s memory by supporting promising women astronomers early in their careers. Caroline, William’s younger sister, started out as his assistant, but in time became recognised as an important astronomer in her own right, was the first to be paid as such, and was awarded the RAS Gold Medal in 1828. The Caroline Herschel Prize Lecture is hosted by University of Bath in November in cooperation with the Society as part of the University’s public lecture series. Charles Draper, Chairman, Herschel Society.

Friday 3rd November 2023 A cluttered and noisy sky?

Meeting the challenge of satellite constellations (and why you should care)

Dr Robert Massey

Friday 3rd November 2023 7.30 pm in the BRLSI, can be attended either in the BRLSI or remotely on Zoom

Lecture 3 of 4 on the theme ‘Conserving the Planet’ in association with the Herschel Museum of Astronomy

Image shows Signal pollution in a 333-second exposure image taken from the Blanco four-meter (13′) telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory © NSF’s National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory/CTIO/AURA/DELVE.

65 years ago the Soviet Union placed the first satellite in space. There are now around 5,000 satellites in low-Earth orbit (LEO), the region up to 2,000 km above the ground, and their deployment is accelerating. 2019 saw the launch of Starlink, a satellite constellation built and launched by SpaceX, a system that on its own could soon have more than 30,000 spacecraft deployed. With other operators we could see up to 400,000 satellites in LEO by the end of this decade.

This is nothing less than a step change in our use of space. And like most paradigm shifts, it will have significant consequences. A key example is how it will affect the science of astronomy and our view of the sky. Some estimates suggest that the majority of ‘stars’ visible to the eye could be satellites, and professional and amateur astronomers alike now face significant challenges to our work. As a result our community has mobilised, working at a national, international and global level to tackle a complex problem, and to try to find a balance between the positive results of boosting communications and the impact on the space environment.

Robert Massey will set out the problem, what it means for scientists and the wider public, and what we can do about it.”

Dr Robert Massey is Deputy Executive Director of the Royal Astronomical Society. Before joining the RAS, his career took him from an undergraduate degree in Leicester and PhD research in Manchester to teaching in Brighton, and local politics in London alongside a stint as Public Astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich. In his spare time he enjoys running, cycling, hiking and cooking, and generally making the most of life in his new family home in Sussex. With a lifelong private and public passion for astronomy, he very much wants to avoid a world where satellites ruin our shared heritage of an unsullied night sky.

A link to a video recording of this lecture is available here.

Friday 13th October 2023 The Astrophysics of Earth: light-life interactions beyond photosynthesis (video recording and extended paper)

Dr Robert Fosbury

Friday 13th October 2023 7.30 pm in the BRLSI, can be attended either in the BRLSI or remotely on Zoom

Lecture 2 of 4 on the theme ‘Conserving the Planet’ in association with the Herschel Museum of Astronomy

Image shows a chart of spectra and the effect on life © Bob Fosbury

Sunlight is the dominant energy source for Earth’s biosphere. There will be evolutionary advantages for life that make the most effective use of available photons before they finally degrade to heat and radiate back into space. Photosynthesis in cyanobacteria and in plants uses water, carbon dioxide and sunlight to synthesise the sugars that build plant structures. These can be used directly as food for animals to eat but can also be captured and stored for long periods as ‘fossil fuels’.

It has taken over two centuries to gain an understanding of the how photosynthesis works and yet we are only just beginning to appreciate the ways by which light interacts with animal life. Apart from the obvious use of light for vision — the evolution of which is thought to have driven the Cambrian explosion in life’s complexity — we now know that light performs other functions, many of which require photons with colours beyond the visual range but still reaching the biosphere from the Sun. Research is revealing which colours have beneficial effects and which are damaging. Over billions of years, the biosphere has adapted to thrive under the solar spectrum modified during its transmission through the atmosphere. The introduction of artificial lighting on a huge scale over the planet during recent decades is breaking this adaptation in ways that are damaging to life, including humans. This understanding allows us to suggest new lighting strategies that should have very significant health benefits and which could be less costly than the current extravagant overuse of energy-efficient but environmentally damaging white lights.

Robert (Bob) Fosbury is currently an emeritus astronomer at the European Southern Observatory and an honorary professor at the Institute of Ophthalmology at UCL.

A link to a video recording of this lecture is available here.

A link to an extended paper on this subject titled Light-life interactions beyond photosynthesis by Robert Fosbury and Glen Jeffery is available as a PDF file here.

Friday 8th September 2023 The Right Light at Night

Steve Tonkin

Friday 8th September 2023 7.30 pm – in the BRLSI, can be attended either in the BRLSI or remotely on Zoom.

Lecture 1 of 4 on the theme ‘Conserving the Planet’ in association with the Herschel Museum of Astronomy

Image is of light polluted and pristine skies in Dorset © Bob Mizon

Light Pollution was first identified as a problem by astronomers, but its consequences reach far wider. It is now widely recognised that artificial light at night, especially bright white light, can have profoundly negative effects on human health, and this is just the tip of an iceberg of harm. The effects on wildlife have been devastating, leading directly to the death of billions of birds each year and being a major driver of the “insect apocalypse” (studies suggest that 40% of insects will be extinct within the next few decades).

The solutions are at hand, are simple to implement, will have a net saving (of money, energy use and carbon emissions) and need not compromise security or our ability to safely work, travel and associate at night. We need to act now before it is too late.

A video recording of this lecture is freely available here.

Friday 5th May 2023 The Quest for Cosmic Dawn

First Results from the James Webb Space Telescope

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has delivered the deepest and sharpest infrared image of the distant universe so far. Webb’s First Deep Field is galaxy cluster SMACS 0723, and it is teeming with thousands of galaxies – including the faintest objects ever observed in the infrared.
Image credit: NASA

Friday 5th May 2023 7.30 pm in the BRLSI and can be attended remotely on Zoom.

Richard Ellis
Professor of Astrophysics, UCL

The first billion years after the Big Bang represent the final frontier in assembling a complete picture of cosmic history. During this period early galaxies formed and the universe first became bathed in light.

How and when did all this occur? Recent progress with the James Webb Space Telescope suggests we may soon witness this dramatic period when the universe emerged from darkness. The motivation is fundamental: the origin of starlight began the chemical evolution which ultimately led to our own existence in this remarkable universe.

Richard Ellis is Professor of Astrophysics at University College London. A Welshman by birth he has held professorial positions at Durham, Cambridge and Oxford universities and spent 16 years at the California Institute of Technology where he was Director of the Palomar Observatory. Richard is a Fellow of the Royal Society and the Australian Academy of Sciences, and was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society and the Royal Medal of the Royal Society for his research achievements in cosmology and galaxy evolution. One of the most highly-cited astronomers, he has recently published a semi-autobiographical account of the progress over his career in studying distant galaxies in “When Galaxies Were Born: The Quest for Cosmic Dawn” (Princeton 2022).

“When Galaxies Were Born: The Quest for Cosmic Dawn” is available from Amazon at a cost of £23 with free delivery on this link: Anyone who brings a copy of the book to the lecture can get it signed by Richard Ellis.

A recording of the lecture is freely available here.

Friday 14th April 2023 Supermassive Black Holes

How to feed them and what happens when you do

Image is an artist’s impression of a black hole with accretion disc.
Image Credit: XMM-Newton, ESA, NASA

Friday 14th April 2023 7.30 pm in the BRLSI and can be attended remotely on Zoom.

Dr Carolin Villforth
Senior Lecturer, University of Bath

Supermassive black holes are present in the centres of practically all massive galaxies. Through most of their lives they have little impact on their surrounding galaxies. In rare cases, however, gas accretes onto the black hole, turning it into a so called active galactic nucleus. These objects can outshine entire galaxies. I will explain how gas is driven onto supermassive black holes to make them active and how an accreting black hole can impact its host galaxy.

Dr Carolin Villforth is a senior lecturer in the Astrophysics group at University of Bath. Carolin completed her Diplom in Physics at University of Heidelberg in Germany. She obtained her PhD working on variability in accreting black hole systems from University of Turku in Finland. Before moving to Bath, she held research positions at the Nordic Optical Telescope on La Palma, the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, University of Florida and University of St Andrews. Carolin studies the connection between supermassive black holes and galaxy evolution.

A recording of the lecture is freely available here.

Friday 3rd March 2023 Accuracy, Innovation and the Advance of Astronomy 1923 – 2023

Image of Laser guide stars in action at ESO’s VLT – credit: ESO/P. Horálek

Friday 3rd March 2023 7.30 pm given in person at the BRLSI and can be attended either in the BRLSI or remotely on Zoom.

Professor Mike Edmunds
President of the RAS and Emeritus Professor of Astrophysics at Cardiff University

How have advances in technology changed astronomy over the past 100 years? In this talk I will show just how closely discovery has followed technical innovation, allowing observations that would previously have seemed impossible. Obviously great advances have come with spaceflight allowing observations from outside the Earth’s atmosphere, but two other factors have also been crucial – the development of efficient detectors of electromagnetic radiation and the application of computers to both instrument control and data analysis. Driving down experimental errors in pursuit of ever-more accurate measurements has been important too. I will particularly highlight advances in cosmology, the nature of galactic nuclei and the discovery of exoplanets.

Mike Edmunds is Emeritus Professor of Astrophysics in the School of Physics and Astronomy at Cardiff University in Wales. Both his first degree (Natural Sciences) and Ph.D (Astronomy) were from the University of Cambridge. He moved to Cardiff University in 1974, where he was in succession Research Fellow, Lecturer, Senior Lecturer, Reader and Professor, serving as Head of School between 2002 and 2005. Prof. Edmunds. main areas of research have been in the determination and interpretation of the chemical composition of galaxies and the Universe, and on the origin of interstellar dust.

In recent years he has worked in the history of astronomy. He also has particular interests in physics education and public outreach. He has served on the Councils (and many committees and panels) of the UK Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council and the UK Science and Technology Council. He is a Fellow of the Institute of Physics and of the Royal Astronomical Society. He was the 2004 George Darwin lecturer on “The Elementary Universe” for the Royal Astronomical Society, and has just retired as Chair of their Astronomical Heritage Committee. He is also Chair of the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project, Chair and Member of the Institute of Physics Curriculum and Welsh Education Committees and a vice-president of the Herschel Society.

A recording of this lecture is freely available here.

Friday 3rd February 2023 Ireland and the Herschels – Some Surprising Connections

Image of Michael Burton in front of the Armagh Observatory and the Troughton Dome, where the oldest telescope in the world still in its original dome resides: credit (c) Armagh Observatory and Planetarium.

Friday 3rd February 2023 7.30 pm from Northern Ireland and can be attended either in the BRLSI or remotely on Zoom.

Professor Michael Burton
Director, Armagh Observatory and Planetarium

William Herschel’s discovery of Uranus in 1781– the first new planet found by humanity since antiquity – made him famous overnight.  It is just one of many discoveries – by William, Caroline and John – that have left their impact on science. 
Less well known are the Irish connections to their astronomical endeavours.  Inspired by the discovery of Uranus, Archbishop Richard Robinson (who knew Herschel in Bath), the Primate of All-Ireland, founded Armagh Observatory in 1790.  Armagh is now the longest running observatory in the British Isles continuously used for astronomical research.  The famous NGC Catalogue of Nebulae and Clusters of Stars was compiled in Armagh in 1888, following on from John Herschel’s General Catalogue, using a telescope that still works today. 
Motivated by Herschel’s building of the “40 foot”, the 3rd Earl of Rosse built his 6-foot diameter Leviathan at Birr Castle in Ireland in 1845, so succeeding it as the worlds’ largest telescope.  His son, the 4th Earl, followed Herschel’s discovery of infrared radiation from the Sun by making the first observation of the infrared with a telescope – finding it was also emitted by the Moon, so beginning the field of infrared astronomy.
The connections between the Herschels and Ireland are multifarious.  Armagh Observatory and Planetarium’s Director, Professor Michael Burton, will expand on some of them.  His own research career can be said to be following in the Herschels’ footsteps.  It began in Edinburgh studying cosmic sources of infrared radiation using one of the first telescopes specially built for the infrared – the UKIRT in Hawaii.  So important has the field now become that the James Webb Space Telescope – the most expensive telescope in history – was built specifically to observe the cosmos in the infrared.
In past decade Michael has been studying the structure of our Galaxy – another field started by the Herschel’s – using radio telescopes in Australia to map giant clouds of molecules where stars are forming.  His talk will also touch on this work and reflect on the profound effect the Herschel’s have had on astronomy today.

A recording of this lecture is freely available here.