Simon Foster’s the brains behind the majority of the physics and centre for plastic electronics outreach that goes on at Imperial. Whether he’s creating clouds from dry ice, magnetising frogs or igniting a Reuben’s tube, Foster’s the doctor for you. Simon’s here today to talk to students from Hackney BSix Brooke House 6th Form College as part of the University Extension Programme who I’ve been hanging about with for the past few months. The students arrived at midday where they were met by some of Imperial’s President’s Ambassadors (Christiana, Victoria and Opeoluwa) and toured the campus.
Simon is the Sultan of Solar. He’s got more equipment than an undergraduate teaching laboratory, college-wide swipe card access (the dream!) and he’s got a TV show on Sky. Fresh from his stint on the World Service demo-ing (ON AIR!) the greenhouse effect. Simon presents a 30 minute whirlwind talk, which takes us from convection currents in a bubbling pot of tomato soup to the surface of the sun. He covers spectroscopy, seismology, Galileo, Einstein, magnetic fields, cosmic rays, the Doppler Effect. Using an over berried blueberry muffin to describe nuclear fission, Simon takes us on a journey from the centre of the sun to the solar explorer’s worst nightmare: coronal mass ejections. He uses CDs at clever angles to split the white light in the Whitely suite into a spectrum of colours (a rainbow!). A sunspot is a small area of concentrated magnetic field on the surface of the sun, which inhibit the convectional flow and cool the sun’s photosphere. The sun’s been getting spotty for a very long time and was even documented in ancient Chinese scriptures. Actually, one of Simon’s slides compares Galileo’s 1613 prediction of sun spots to satellite images from today. Sun spots occur periodically over an 11 year cycle, with the sun getting super active in a ‘solar maximum’ and pretty lazy during the ‘solar minimum’. Over 30 years we’d expect to observe tens of thousands of sun spouts, but during a weird period in the 1600’s scientists only saw 50. It coincided with a ‘little ice age’, where England experienced the coldest winter on record. Simon shows the impact of magnetic fields on charged particles by breaking out his biggest, baddest magnet and putting it near an old cathode ray tube. He shows us how two satellites (STEREO A and B) are working to localise solar flares, collecting data and doing in situ particle experiments. STEREO is another awesome science acronym like LASER or SCUBA, and means Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory. (Not like STEM, which is increasingly becoming my least favourite acronym). STEREO lets scientists from NASA monitor the ‘dark side’ of the sun and attempts to shield us, and travelling space people, from massive bursts of solar wind. What’s their best advice for the astronauts? Load your front cone with ‘human waste’ and other super dense media and hide behind it. Well. That’s why we need BSix 6th Form Students to come and work on a better solution!
We had 8 presentations from groups and individual Hackney students, covering General and Special Relativity, Quantum Computing, Tachyons, Approaching the Speed of Light (I ‘c’!), Hydrogen Fuel Cells, Lasers, Searching for Aliens and Magnetic Fridges. We had some really awesome explanations of the curvature of light in space-time and why it’s hard to approach the speed of light. The Lorrentz factor can be used to transform space-time coordinates in one reference frame to a second reference frame moving at a speed of ‘v’. Keji’s explanation of it was my favourite: “well, if v=c, this would be 0 and you’d be dividing by 0 which just isn’t a thing”. We learn’t about the potential environmental side effects of hydrogen fuel cells (and pesky oxygen radicals, which seem to disturb EVERYONE’s science), imaginary massless particles called tachyons, Jonah’s journeys into density functional theory, and Dyson spheres. We even heard about magnetic fridges, which will hopefully offer refrigeration to the developing world. Tobias’ enthusiasm and knowledge on Quantum Computing was unreal- Simon was so impressed he wanted to get the Controlled Quantum Dynamics Doctoral Training Centre (CQD DTC) students in to take notes. Data storage on computers occurs in binary digits (bits). We heard about how quantum bits (‘Q-bits’) are tricky beasts to tame, just looking at them makes them totally break down and lose their identity. When I look at the impenetrable wikipedia page on quantum computing my identity breaks down just a little… But I’ve got the feeling that Tobias will rise to the challenge, and I really hope he considers doing at Imperial in the CQD! He even got a cheeky mention of data compression in- mega stuff.
So thank you Hackney for producing such enthusiastic and inquisitive students. Thank you Simon for inspiring me to be everything I am today- and all of the other students who’s lives you change every day. Thank you Christiana, Victoria and Opeoluwa for taking the students on their campus tours. Thank you Naomi and Laura for being so committed to the University Extension scheme. And, as ever, thanks Imperial, for being the most amazing place on earth.