It’s 5:30pm on a cold and overcast February Friday night. But that doesn’t stop over 500 revellers wrapping up warm and coming to STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) for Stargazing at RAL: an evening of science, exploration and delicious onion bhaji burgers.
STFC RAL is the UK’s largest science facility and home to some of the world’s most awesome science experiments. Some dangerous stuff happens on site. There are highly powerful lasers, high-speed neutrons and muons, and scientists wandering around so deep in thought that they bump into things (and each other). But after some extensive risk analysis, it was deemed safe to let 500 people – including lots of little people – explore the campus.
The Stargazing at RAL event is all about giving people the chance to get hand-on with science. Big and little people alike learned how to use a planisphere, a handy device for identifying what you see in the night sky. They operated an infra-red camera, learning how astronomers use various wavelengths of light to observe different phenomena in our Universe. This was complemented by activities with ultra-violet light, where children painted pictures with UV-reactant paint and made bracelets that change colour in sunlight.
The most popular activities were undoubtedly rocket building and launching, comet and planet-making, and tinkering with telescopes. We received this feedback:
“Thank you for a lovely evening on Friday at RAL. We had an amazing time! One of our favourite activities was making our own planets. We also liked looking at the meteorites. Everything was BRILLIANT! We hope we can come again. Thank you everyone!”
An aspiring scientist who wanted to understand our model of the expanding Universe inside out.
Attendees had the chance to visit some of STFC’s coolest experiments, including Diamond and ISIS. Scientists demonstrated how these ground-based experiments help us learn about the Solar System and Universe. And visitors got to inspect meteorite fragments!
The news of the discovery of gravitational waves broke only the day before the event, but that didn’t stop Bob Bingham from delivering a fascinating talk on the subject. Aron Kisdi gave a great presentation on the Exploration of Planets, while Ed Polehamton provided an excellent introduction to the night sky in his inflatable planetarium.
The evening remained largely overcast but a special guest did make a brief appearance – the Moon! We didn’t have to ask our partners at Newbury Astronomical Society twice: they trained their telescopes on the spectacle for a fleeting glimpse. And after a spell out in the cold, attendees could warm their cockles with STFC RAL’s world-famous onion bhaji burger. Yum.
STFC funds some of the UK’s most exciting scientific research. But it is also deeply committed to inspiring the next generation of scientists. Events like Stargazing at RAL offer people an opportunity to get really hands-on with science and to explore some of the country’s most exciting experiments. Perhaps a future Nobel laureate attended one of the STFC Stargazing events?