Stars in their eyes: Oxford spaces out

On the back of the popularity surrounding Professor Brian Cox’s ‘Stargazing Live’, recently broadcast on BBC2, the University Physics department organised an astronomy festival to encourage local interest in the subject.

Over a thousand visitors were welcomed into the department for the event held on Saturday. It offered the local community the chance to find out about all things space-related from research experts, and was the second year of the space science festival “Stargazing Oxford”.

Dr Joe Zuntz, a member of the Oxford Astrophysics department that was organising the day, said: “This is our second year running ‘Stargazing Oxford’. The first year was wildly successful; we had about 1,200 people attend.”

Dr Zuntz explained how the team were hoping to expand on their success: “Last year we had massive queues outside so we’ve upped capacity here, looking to do more and bigger things so that we can get more and more people in.”

He added: “We’re also trying to build long term relationships from this, and get people to come to our regular astronomy evenings and telescope nights rather than just coming once a year.”

Exhibits included hands-on physics, “astrocrafts”, an inflatable planetarium, rooftop and solar observation, and numerous talks in the lecture theatre.

One of the most popular activities was the chance to observe a comet being formed.  Researcher Joanna Barstow led one of the demonstrations and said: “I just made a comet. That’s basically what the nucleus of a comet would be like, although obviously much bigger; they’re several kilometres across.”

She highlighted that there will be an impressive real comet, possibly the brightest yet, to look out for at the end of this year. Barstow was also enthusiastic about the festival and added: “The best thing is that people can feel that they’re able to ask the questions that they’ve perhaps had for years but have never had the opportunity to ask an expert.”

Many students from across the University helped at the festival to ensure the day ran smoothly. Nathan King, a first year from Queen’s College, was among the volunteers and said: “There have been lots of people here and they all seem to be enjoying it. I’ve heard frequent clapping coming from inside the lecture theatres!”

Local amateur astronomy societies were on hand to encourage people to start observing from home. Andy Smith from Chipping Norton Astronomy Group said:  “The aim is to get people interested in astronomy; to get them to join the relevant local groups and get out there and have a look.”

Alexandra Browne, also from Chipping Norton Astronomy Group, was keen to stress how exciting stargazing can be. She commented: “When you see Saturn with its rings – that’s what grabs the imagination and that’s what we’re trying to get people to stare at.”

The festival attracted visitors of all ages who were inspired by their time spent inside the Oxford Physics Department. Ivan Nikolaev, a student currently in Year 12, explained why he had attended: “I find astrophysics really interesting, so much so that I’m planning to study it at University.” He added: “I’ve seen some great posters this afternoon and some fascinating set ups.”

photo/Rosie Pearce