Space on a Higher platform

11th February 2011 at 00:00

Where in the solar system would you find the planet Qatar 1-b? It's a silly question, because the answer is "nowhere". Qatar 1-b is an exoplanet. It belongs to another star system 550 light years from Earth and I didn't know it existed until Saturday, January 15. Indeed, nobody knew it existed until late last year. But more of Qatar 1-b's discovery later.

On the aforementioned Saturday, a group of university types, teachers and representatives from the Scottish Schools Equipment Research Centre, the Association for Science Education and the Institute of Physics gathered at the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh to discuss ways that we might support the astrophysics content in the new Higher, which kicks off for early adopters next session.

We were treated to a talk on developments in astronomy by a senior lecturer from Glasgow who has the wonderful talent of never making me feel stupid, despite being an order of magnitude better at physics than I will ever be.

Talk of exoplanets excited me. When I was a boy, I took it for granted that there were such bodies out there. Never once during an episode of Doctor Who or Star Trek did I consider that nobody had ever detected a body orbiting a distant sun. Now more than 500 have been observed. There is no point in giving an exact figure, because it will probably have increased between me writing this and you reading it.

Exoplanets are too far away to be seen. It will never be possible to image them with a conventional camera based on Earth or in its orbit, no matter how powerful the telescope it is hooked up to. Finding such bodies requires stunning ingenuity. Tiny dips in the light from the star as the exoplanet passes in front of it can be detected. Minute wobbles in the distant system's sun are picked up.

When the talk was finished, I was not alone in wanting to get exoplanets into the new Higher. This course has been designed to be topical and has a half-unit called Researching Physics. RP can be about anything current, and you don't get much more current in physics than extra-solar planets. It was sealed when the astronomer mentioned the name Grant Miller, one of his former students and part of the team that discovered Qatar 1-b. "He was in my Higher class seven years ago," said the lady from the Institute of Physics.

This set me off. Picture the scene. You walk into your physics class. "How many of you remember being nine years old?" They all will. "Well, seven years ago, when you were nine, a boy called Grant Miller was sitting in a Scottish Higher physics class. Now he's discovering things like this."

An artist's impression of Qatar 1-b (such things exist and they are lovely) appears on the whiteboard. Rightly, we design our courses to be useful to those who will never continue with the subject after S5, as well as those who will study it at S6 and beyond. How marvellous to tell the Grant Miller story to the latter group, who may lack the self-belief that there is a place for them in the academic universe. Qatar 1-b, at 1,100 Celsius, is cool.

Gregor Steele would have signed up for Star Trek's five-year mission when he was wee.

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