CAPS 2014: St Andrew’s

This post may be long overdue, but it is most definitely necessary!

I have recently had the pleasure of attending my first annual Conference of Astronomy and Physics Students, which was hosted in no other than the picturesque venue of St. Andrew’s University, Scotland. This is a weekend organised by the IOP’s University Student Network, where students of physics (and related) degrees have the opportunity to give a 10 minute lecture on absolutely anything (within reason!) to an audience of fellow undergrads and postgrads. Alternatively, it’s a fantasic way of showing off your postgrad research via a poster. I was crazy enough to give a (pretty poor) lecture myself. Bluffing to a lecture theatre of older students that I know what I’m talking about was definitely a learning experience… (Joking aside, I promise I do actually understand what I talked about!).

Team shot!
Team shot!

Some lectures were, admittedly, a tad too technical for a first-year undergraduate student like myself to understand. But most of the time, I found that by piecing together the few keywords that I’m acquainted with, even a low-skilled physics fresher could grasp the main concepts of most that was talked about: quantum key distributions; manipulating the movement of electrons for biological sample analysis; an accurate analysis of students’ struggles in electromagnetism, i.e. my “favourite” (ahem) topic… Some more: the future of energy, cosmic rays, Andromeda’s GRBs (Gamma Ray Bursts), various talks about Kepler… I could go on for longer, although I don’t wish to bore you till the heat death of the universe.

The lectures were of varying levels of interest, although the one that really got me thinking about my degree choice was the one with a rather Cox-like title: “The Loss of Wonder”. The main scope of it was a criticism of today’s focus on exam performance, which is often artificial and unrepresentative of students’ true capabilities. It’s easy enough to learn “exam technique” and score A’s all throughout, but does that actually mean anything if there is no true understanding behind your work? I think we all of us are a little guilty of practicing example questions in certain topics we don’t fully understand, just to get by with a decent enough grade at the end of the exam – I am no academic saint and I’m quite sure that none of us are. But why pursue something which your heart doesn’t agree with? Far too many are disheartened by further study of maths from traumatic school experiences of fractions, indices and – God forbid – surds! Simply because they’re poorly taught and the focus is on ramming all this information into a child’s brain, with the devastating consequences of:

  1. poor understanding;
  2. potential hatred towards the subject;
  3. a loss of wonder, hence the title of Ridwan’s lecture.

So why study something like mathematics or physics in the first place? As kids, some of us (more than others) were inclined to play around with things, break things, put them back together, break them again, getting shouted at by parents for breaking said things.. etc. In other words, each of us has this childish sense of wonder which motivates us to learn how things work. Or even: why – which is where mathematics and philosophy take over physics. Sadly, secondary school education proves to be an impossible hurdle in the path of intellectual curiosity; a survival of the fittest, shall we say. It’s not most people’s fault that they “hate maths”. It’s just that the childish wonder which would have otherwise propelled their interest in the subject was wiped out by the trauma of exams.

My lecture? I chose to talk about something that one of my physics lecturers is heavily involved with: a future space mission called PLATO 2.0, or ‘PLAnetary Transits and Oscillations of Stars’ There is still a whole decade until its launch, but when it happens, it will allow scientists to study planetary and stellar parameters to high levels of accuracy by focusing the satellite’s 34 telescopes on stars of 4-16 orders of magnitude – brighter than Kepler’s targets. Focussing on brighter stars allows for RV measurements to be made on-ground to estimate the orbiting planet’s minimum mass, whilst transit photometry is used to determine radius. Together, they allow for accurate planet density measurements. PLATO wants to essentially build a bulk catalogue of parameters, including the atmospheres of the exoplanets to determine habitability, if they lie within the habitable zone of the host star. It will also directly incorporate asteroseismology to investigate stellar activity via acoustic waves. But I will save this whole PLATO malarky for another post.

If you are further interested in this mission, you can download the open source publication by clicking here.

Prof. Moira Jardine and I.
Prof. Moira Jardine and I.

During the conference, I met some fantastic people, as well as possibly finally stumbling upon a female role model in this field of academia so heavily populated by the other sex. Meet Prof. Moira Jardine: the woman I will do my best to one day become.

All in all, and despite St. Andrew’s lack of chalkboards in lecture theatres, (Warwick’s maths department scores 10/10 in this category!) CAPS was an enlightening experience. It’s thrilling to realise that so many young people are excited by science and that we are the next generation to make new discoveries and change the way the world is shaped. Let’s not muck it up.

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