Popular Talks, workshops, and software


I enjoy giving public talks – to astronomy societies, schools, festival audiences etc. Below is my recent repertoire with a little description – requests welcome. I haven’t uploaded the talks themselves – they tend to be quite big, with lots of lovely pictures, and videos!

Making Pictures of the Sky. This is about how astronomical imaging has evolved, from naked eye astronomy, through observing with telescopes, to the photographic plate, on to electronic detectors and multiwavelength imaging, and culminating in the amazing images from the James Webb Space Telescope. The story is centred on observations and technology at the Royal Observatory Edinburgh over the last two hundred years. There is a video version of this talk at the Youtube channel of the Astronomical Society of Edinburgh. (Talks starts at about 5:15 in..)

The Sky: Why it matters and how we might lose it. This talk comes in two parts. In the first part, I ask “Is Astronomy useless”? In other words, is Astronomy just an expensive cultural pursuit, or does it have practical value? Why do governments give us any money? I argue that in fact the study of the cosmos has been at centre of technological developments for hundreds of years, and will continue to be so. In the second part I look at the growing threat to the night sky, from light pollution and satellite pollution, and what we can do about it.

Things that Go Bang in the Night. This talk is about the importance of transient events such supernovae and comets, and how we are entering a new golden age of such studies, with an emphasis on tidal disruption events, killer rocks, and merging black holes, as well as a fascinating zoo of other things. You can catch a video version of this talk at the Youtube channel of the Astronomical Society of Edinburgh.

Hunting the Dragon. This is a talk about Active Galactic Nuclei – the bizarre goings on caused by black holes gobbling matter at the centres of galaxies. It has some history, some hot new stuff, and just a teeny bit of physics.

The Universe and me. The Universe is incomprehensibly vast, incredibly violent, and seemingly complex. How do we react to all this as human beings? Will it make a difference if we find we are not alone?

Wandering Astronomers: the past, present and future of mountaintop astronomy. A story that begins in 1856 with the historic expedition of Charles Piazzi Smyth to Tenerife, carries on through the golden age of the last fifty years, with giant telescopes sprouting up on mountains all over the world, and looks to the future. Will Astronomers cease their wanderings and do everything from space?

Sun, planets and stars. A simple introduction to the solar system and beyond for primary school children.

I have also given talks about how telescopes work (“Eyes on the Sky”) and about mapping the sky (“Cosmic Explorers”). They need a bit of updating, but you are welcome to request them!

How Time Flies

Together with colleagues Alastair Bruce (now working at Dynamic Earth) and Sally Chalmers from the Historic Environment Scotland team at Edinburgh Castle, we put together an experiment workshop for primary school children on how sound and light travel, and how we use sound and light to send messages, called “How Time Flies”. This included a visit to the One O’Clock Gun, and reading a morse code flashlight message travelling all the way from the Royal Observatory to Edinburgh Castle. We are turning this workshop experience into a boxed-up resource kit that we can send to Schools around Scotland. Watch this space.

Starsight VR

Another collaborative project with Alastair Bruce is StarlightVR. The idea was to adapt the well known planetarium software Stellarium for the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, so anybody can have a 3D immersive view of the sky, with no clouds. This project took off like a rocket, entertaining hundreds of people at various events, but then kinda stalled as our lives went elsewhere. (Alastair now runs the Planetarium at Dynamic Earth.) We recently purchased the new Meta Quest headsets, and hope to re-start this project soon.