Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Black Hole Talk to St Annes

St Annes is a local girls school which is lucky enough to offer GCSE Astronomy to its pupils.

I have given a talk about black holes to a class of approximately 10 students and a teacher on 2 occasions. I gave the talk originally to fit in with the fact they had got to black holes on the syllabus, and I was asked back by the teacher to give the same talk the year after. The second time I gave the talk there were double the number of students (more due to a school show, as opposed to more students taking the GCSE).

As part of the GCSE the students study the electromagnetic spectrum and black holes.

Contents of Talk

I start with how I ended up doing a PhD in Astronomy  (see blog on this subject) . This introduction manily shows the importance of teachers, and also how at the age of about 15/16 you are changing your mind about what you want to do with your life, and what you most like learning about.

My Research is based on black holes using radio and X-ray astronomy. I therefore start most talks especially GCSE with the electromagnetic spectrum (which is on the syllabus I believe). I explain how the radio waves are the longest wavelength radiation, with low energy, and low frequency, and compare to the high frequency X-ray radiation. I then usually talk about radio waves on earth, man made from radio and TV and X-rays for looking at bones etc.

After discussing all about how black holes form, and the types of black hole and the supermassive black hole at the centre of the milkyway. I then go onto my research on a specific supermassive black hole at the centre of a galaxy called NGC 4051.

Optical Image of NGC 4051 (Caltech)

I link my research on the supermassive black holes to those smaller, binary black holes within our own galaxy by showing the students the 'fundamental plane of black holes'. This basically is a plot showing the relationship between the X-ray radiation from the disk around the black hole, and the radio radiation from the jets. The fact that a straight line can be drawn through all black holes big and small in this plot suggests there is a link between the smaller and the supermassive. This is good for astronomers as it means we can look at the near by black holes and scale up what we 'see' and make predictions about the supermassive black holes at the centre of galaxies.

I finish the talk by summarising all about black holes and my research, and why i think it is exciting. I then go on to tell them the kind of jobs available to me/astronomers, specifically in radio astronomy, LOFAR and SKA. Finally I tell them about other jobs Physics students go into, such as finance, teaching, computing etc.

Interesting questions from the students and teacher

Why do we want to know about the X-rays from black holes?

Why should we spend money on astronomy ? is it not better to spend it on things that help people on our earth? rather than worry about things millions of miles away in space?

Ways to improve the talk in the future

At end of the second talk the teacher introduced me to some Carl Sagan music. This might be nice to introduce in the future, and the girls seemed to find it quite funny.

Worm holes, and Relativity

These students also came to a SEPNET event on black holes, worm holes and time travel, which the students asked alot of crazy out there questions, such as various paradox's of general relativity, which I was definetly not aware of at GSCE level- This just shows you should not, not talk about einstein etc just because you did not understand it, and probably still don' is a very though provoking subject for the student.

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