Friday, January 24, 2014

SN 2014J

What a week for astronomy! Another example of why we should look up...even in London...on a cloudy night.

I tell students I talk to all the time that science can be done by anyone, even them. Next time you're in a classroom and something is odd, or not expected, have a look at what could be happening, because in some cases, like the discovery of a new supernova, it could be new science.

Supernova 2014J. It'll get brighter over the next couple 
of weeks.

Steve Fossey, an astronomer at the University College London was giving a quick 10 minute lesson to his students on the use of CCD cameras in astronomy, before the clouds in London rolled over. They pointed theirtelescope at the object M82, otherwise known as the cigar galaxy and saw something that "...didn't quite look right"
"One minute we're eating pizza then five minutes later we've helped to discover a supernova. I couldn't believe it," said student Tom Wright "It reminds me why I got interested in astronomy in the first place"
The more you look into this story the better it gets. I don't really want to report on all the things that have already been reported, but comment on the situation of students finding the Supernova, the unexpected circumstances and what to can mean for science, science education and awareness.

There is that old adage that scientific discoveries or less commonly followed by the phrase "I knew it" and more by "That's odd." That is almost certainly not exactly true, we scientists know what we are doing (especially if you read grant proposals!!) but we do see some strange results from time to time. Some people call it the Eureka moment, some call it frustrating, some call it their lifes work.

Hans Christian Oersted  immediately came to mind when I heard about the teacher discovering a Supernova this week. Oersted, in 1820, was lecturing on electric current through a wire, noticed that a nearby compass deflected when the current was switched on and restored to its original position when the current was switched off, making a link between electricity and magnetism. We take it for granted now almost.

I love the line "It reminded me why I got into astronomy in the first place. YES! Me too! It makes me want to go out right now and look up at the stars, but I can't because it's raining.  Although that just makes me want to get a radio telescope!

I hope this inspires a few people to one of a whole range of different things. 
  1. To consider science as a real living breathing thing that we are witnessing changing right now.
  2. That Astronomy is really exciting. Seriously, if it wasn't Steve Fossey and his students, it could've been anyone who discovered it
  3. Get involved in amateur astronomy, get a telescope, join a club even just look up and try and familiarise yourself with the night sky.
  4. Find out more and talk to others about Supernovae, or this event
This supernova is going to tell us a lot more than we already know about our universe and it is exciting to se it happen and see it talked about. I'm certainly going to keep my eyes open.

Unfortunately for us in the southern hemisphere, we wont be able to see it, but keep your eyes out in the blogosphere and news for some spectacular pictures. We have already asked those in the north to take some snaps for us, they said they'll do their best! And if you get inspired enough and you want to know more (formally), contact your local astronomer. I know a few, I can put you in touch!

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