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In Eddington’s footsteps…

Arthur_Stanley_Eddington

The great astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington – famous for his work on stellar evolution and for supporting Einstein’s work on Relativity – was born in Kendal, and I’m very proud to be the (current) Secretary of the town’s astronomical society, which is fittingly named after him and features him on its logo…

logocolour

Eddington’s father was the Headmaster at Kendal’s Stramongate School for a time, and although Eddington moved away from Kendal at an early age, in the summer of 1930, not long after the historic discovery of Pluto, he returned to Kendal, as a famous “celebrity” astronomer, to give a lecture at Stramongate School, which was, it was later reported in the school magazine, attended by the Mayor and local figures as well as pupils of the school. Eddington took his enthralled audience on a “tour of the universe”, using the “school lantern” which was brought out especially for the occasion,

Yesterday I was extremely proud to follow in Eddington’s footsteps, literally, by going to Stramongate School myself and giving a talk in (I think…) the same hall the great astronomer lectured in 85 years ago. No Mayor this time, no “local figures” in the audience, but a very enthusiastic group of 50 pupils and their teachers. Like Eddington I took them on a “tour of the universe”, but my ‘magic lantern’ was a state of the art computer and projector, and my ‘slides’ were jpgs put into a Powerpoint and run off an 8Gb USB stick.

When Eddington stood in front of his audience Pluto has only just been found, and there was no information known about it, or very little. I was able to show my group Hubble images of Pluto, and tel them how New Horizons will race past it in July. When Eddington gave his lecture he no doubt thrilled his audience with an account of his historic eclipse-chasing expedition eleven years earlier. I was able to tell my audience about the forthcoming March 20th solar eclipse, and invite them along to the EAS “Eclipse Watch” being held here in Kendal, where observing instruments and tools Eddington would have considered science fantasy will be on hand to show the public the Moon passing in front of the Sun in absolute safety. I stood there, in that hall, showing the kids more than a hundred stunning images – Earth shining as a sapphire blue ‘Evening Star’ in the twilight martian sky, the cliffs and jets of Comet 67P, the geysers of Enceladus, and more – and couldn’t help wondering what Eddington would have said if he’d seen them…

After the talk there were lots of wonderful questions from the kids – kids who are growing up in a world, and at a time, when robot explorers are scattered through the solar system, when we know planets orbit other stars, and when we have mapped the spiral arms of our galaxy. And as I left the school, and started the walk home, I wondered what an astronomer visiting the school in a further 85 years time would tell their audience about. It’s frustrating not knowing, but that’s how astronomy and how science works – there are always incredible discoveries for the next generation to make, new wonders for them to see and show others.

Back home I had half an hour of browsing Rosetta and MER images with the cat fast asleep and purring like a motor boat on my lap before heading out to work.

Not a bad day. Not a bad day at all.đŸ™‚

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