Frontiers conference 2009

I spent last weekend at the Frontiers conference of the Irish branch of the Institute of Physics. This is a conference aimed at establishing links with secondary schools all over the country and bringing physics teachers up to date with the latest developments in physics and physics teaching. I attended Frontiers for the first time at University College Dublin last year and enjoyed it immensely (see September 2008 post). This year it was WIT’s turn to host the conference and I think it went very well, thanks to the superb organisational skills of Paul Nugent, David Keenahan, Alison Hackett and Eilish Mc Loughlin of the Institute of Physics and WIT physicist Gabriel Gallagher.

The weekend started with a dinner for the conference speakers and organisers in the Tower Hotel on the Friday night. It’s always great to catch up with other physicists in an informal setting and the occasion didn’t disappoint. In particular, I was amazed to discover that well-known science communicator and Northern Ireland Space Office director Robert Hill and I share a colourful past: many years ago Robert used to play 1st trumpet with the National Youth Orchestra of Ireland while I scraped away in the 1st violins!

Saturday morning kicked off with a series of three lectures: you can see the conference program here.

First up to the podium was Prof David Hughes, a highly distinguished astronomer and science communicator from the University of Sheffield, with a talk entitled ‘Telescopes: their history, development and future’. This was a masterly presentation on the evolution of the telescope over the centuries and its effect on science. The seminar covered the whole gamut – from Galileo’s use of a primitive telescope to observe the moons of Jupiter and the phases of Venus, and its impact on the geocentric model of the solar system, to Hubble’s use of the 100-inch Hooker telescope on Mt Wilson to establish the existence of distant galaxies and the subsequent discovery of the expanding universe (the first plank of evidence for the Big Bang model). I really liked the way the speaker emphasised the impact of each technological step in the development of the telescope: from refracting lenses to reflecting pyrex mirrors, from simple drawing to photographic images, from cumbersome mechanical mountings to computer-controlled giants, from simple photography to the modern CCD camera. (Interesting stat: for the last four centuries, the physical size of telescopes has doubled every 50 years). This was a masterclass in science communication and the audience was enthralled.


David Hughes with an image of the Hooker telescope in the background

David Hughes2

It’s astonishing how astronomy still revolutionizes cosmology from time to time: throughout David’s talk I kept thinking of the recent measurements of distant supernovae that led to the discovery of a universe expansion that is currently acclerating (see post on dark energy here). Interestingly, David was quite cautious about this result in discussion, pointing out that it depends critically on our understanding of Type 1 supernovae – it’s just possible that the effect arises from a lack of understanding of these stars, although there is some coobborating evidence of dark energy from recent measurements of the cosmic microwave background.

In the second talk of the day, Eoin Gill of the WIT science communication group CALMAST gave a talk on ‘The life and legacy of Robert Boyle’. It’s often forgotten just how important the work of this Irish scientist was, from his theory of ‘corpuscules’ to his famous work on gases. Eoin gave a great talk on Boyle, giving an overview of his life and times and the impact of his scientific discoveries. As regards the former, many were surprised to hear that the Irish have a mixed view of one their most famous scientists because of his family background. Robert Boyle was able to indulge his passion for science due to vast wealth inherited from his father, the Earl of Boyle: unfortunately the latter was a notorious Englishman who made his fortune by stealing land from the Irish and redistributing it to English nobility!


Robert Boyle (aka Eoin Gill) in action

Robert Boyle 2

The high points of the talk were the simple but effective demonstrations. Taking his cue from the famous demonstrations employed by Boyle himself at Royal Society lectures, Eoin showed several neat demonstrations of the vacuum that could be done in the classroom – snuffing out candles in a sealed container attached to a simple pump, the elimination of noise from a bell in the same container, the impossibility of pulling apart spheres separated by a vacuum and many others.

The third talk of the morning was my own presentation on ‘Walton, the LHC and the Higgs boson’. This was a 40-min overview of the forthcoming experiments at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN and their importance in the study of the elementary particles, along with a few words on the role of the Waterford-born scientist Ernest Walton in the evolution of accelerator physics.



Ronan McNulty of University College Dublin gave an excellent short talk on his group’s involvement in the LHCb experiment at last year’s conference, so this was an attempt at a more general overview of experimental particle physics. Part one dealt with the how, what and why of the LHC: how particles are created and detected, the relevence of such experiments for particle physics and cosmology and a few specifics on the proton beams and the detectors. (I also tried to emphasise the fact that relativistic effects such as mass-energy equivalence, time dilation and length contraction are routinely measured in particle experiments as I feel this point is often forgotten). The second part consisted of a whirlwind introduction to the Standard Model, from the discovery of quarks to electroweak unification. In the 3rd part, I sketched the role of the Higgs boson in the model and the difficulties of detection. I touched on the possiblity of physics beyond the standard model at the LHC (supersymmetric particles and the implication for grand unified theories) before finishing up with a few words on cosmology – the search for dark matter particles and the study of matter/antimatter decay in the LHCb experiment.

You can find the slides from the talk here and a video will be available on the conference website next week. My only regret is that the conference had been running 15 minutes late all morning so there was no time for questions  – the best part of any talk. Also,  I never got time to show Kate McAlpine’s LHC rap, it would have gone down a bomb!


After lunch, Robert Hill , the director of the Northern Ireland Space Office, gave a workshop on useful astronomy software and website resources for teachers. As the former science communicator for the Armagh Planetarium and founder of the Astrogazers Ireland Schools Network, Robert knows a thing or two about getting young people interested in astronomy and science and this was a highly useful workshop, fnishing with a great 3-D show on the universe. I won’t give more details, but examples of the sort of invaluable web resources he gave are

Astronomy Ireland

Armagh Planetarium

The Hubble Site

The Faulkes Telescope Project


Finally, there was a workshop on making videos for educational proposes by Jonathan Sanderson. Jonathan is a highly experienced producer of TV science shows (he has produced series on science for the BBC, ITV and RTE) and he gave us an overview of the SciCast project: this is a nationwide effort in the UK to get students to discover the wonder of science by making short films of simple scientific demonstrations. Jonathan had some great tips on how to get the students to work in teams for the production of such films and then showed us some classic examples from the existing SciCast collection. So far, there are more than three hundred films in the SciCast collection, you can view the collection here!

Video workshop2

A masterclass in science film directing

All in all, it was a great conference, with plenty of items of interest for any science educator. There were also plenty of useful freebies such as astronomy posters, polarising sheets, SPIN science magazine, flash memory sticks and a DVD on the universe produced by the ESA. Professional photos of the event and videos of the talks will be available on the conference website in a few days.


Filed under Particle physics, Public lectures, Teaching

4 responses to “Frontiers conference 2009

  1. I don’t know If I said it already but …This blog rocks! I gotta say, that I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say I’m glad I found your blog. Thanks, :)

    A definite great read..Jim Bean

  2. cormac

    tnx Dave, links are great