Sparks of Stargazing Oxford 2014

It is Saturday afternoon, but the Department of Physics at the University of Oxford is bustling with activity. For the third year in a row, the astrophysics outreach team has organised the event known as “Stargazing Oxford” (so as to suggest its connection to the “Stargazing LIVE” programme broadcast on BBC Two) – an opportunity for visitors of any age to enter the department and meet physicists and amateur astronomers who are willing to pass on their enthusiasm and address as many questions as possible (while occasionally leaving a few ones unanswered – that is the fascination of research!).

The range of activities is broad – hands-on stalls, an inflatable planetarium, solar observation during the day and a few telescopes on the roof for the evening to cite a few – and almost every age group seems to have its representatives. As in previous years, there are many families with children. A small group of visitors is gathered around a table where it is possible to build your own magnetometer (an instrument which measures the intensity of a magnetic field): the children, helped by their parents, follow the instructions on how to build the device and listen to the explanations on the physics of it given by a volunteer. Holding a small magnet in his hands, the volunteer – probably a PhD student – attempts at uncovering the beauty of magnetism to his young audience. “You know when you have protons and electrons…” He looks up to the mother standing behind the children and she lightly shakes her head – no, the kids don’t know what the constituents of an atom are. “All right. Do you know about charges?” – another head shake from the mum. The volunteer is facing a hurdle that many science communicators must know well.

“Well, I see that I will have to improve my way of introducing magnetism,” the volunteer concludes rather cheerfully. Despite the miscommunication accident, everyone still seems to be having fun. Eventually, this is essence of an event such as “Stargazing Oxford” – an opportunity for both the hosts and the guests to be challenged with new experiences and discoveries.

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