I stood before teachers and, for a minute, was at the cutting edge of astrophysics

19th April 2013 at 01:00
Physicists proved they have soul and a sense of humour at an event in Edinburgh's Royal Observatory

How many astronomers does it take to change a light bulb? Ten. One to do it and nine to bitch about how often Brian Cox is on the television.

This joke was told to me by an astronomer who, like most astronomers, astrophysicists and cosmologists I have run into, was decidedly non-bitchy. These ladies and gentlemen are too busy dealing with objects of heart-rending beauty to bother about being nasty to their fellows. Yes, that's a generalisation, and generalisations could get me thrown out the physicists' lodge, but prove me wrong to within two sigma and I'll accept my punishment.

When I got in touch with the people at the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh to suggest a new course, I therefore had no fear of any kind of battle of egos to contend with. Nevertheless, when the day of Cutting Edge Science - Astrophysics arrived, I was a little nervous.

The Cutting Edge Science programme is funded by Research Councils UK. RCUK (sing it to YMCA) bankrolls these events on the understanding that they bring teachers and researchers together. I had 20 teachers before me who wanted to be updated on the physics underlying the content of the new N4, 5, Higher and AH courses. Ready to speak to them were two researchers who had left that theory behind them long ago, perhaps in a galaxy far away. What if they covered the basics in five minutes and spent the rest of the time baffling their audience with high-end geekery that would never appear in a classroom?

I should have saved my worrying for something else. Fantastic Tania, who does the education stuff at the observatory, had briefed the staff well. We got the cutting edge, but it was used as a vehicle to cover the basics that the teachers needed. SSERC demonstrated some experiments. We made telescopes and picked up radio signals from the sun using a scrap satellite dish. There was a tour of the research labs and of the Crawford Collection, books and manuscripts covering centuries of astronomy.

Anyone ill-informed enough to think physicists lack soul should have witnessed the teachers' reactions to these treasures. When the evaluations came in, it was clear that we had run one of our most successful physics day courses of recent years. Only one thing bothered me. My own input to the day, as far as standing up and talking was concerned, was smaller than usual.

Do you see that light bulb going on above my head? I have developed a theory about the relationship between the success of a course and my own exposure at the event. If true, I can scrap any plans of becoming "The Bald Brian Cox".

Gregor Steele knows a good astrophysics experiment with light bulbs and an abused webcam.

Gregor Steele, Scottish Schools Education Research Centre.

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