Where galaxies and understanding collide

Galaxy collisions, solar flares and creatures which live on “frozen fart gas” – just a few topics covered in the Your Universe festival at University College London (UCL), run for the first time this year and which ended yesterday. Through a series of free talks and exhibitions organised by UCL to celebrate the International Year of Astronomy 2009 celebrating 400 years since Galileo first looked up at the sky with a telescope, complex topics such as how galaxies collide and the magnetic poles of the Earth were made accessible thanks to enthusiastic speakers and great visuals.
The fact that, instead of being outside on such a warm, sunny weekend, the audiences chose to spend it inside a lecture theatre is testament to how enthralling the talks were. I went to one session on Saturday, and all four on Sunday (unfortunately I couldn’t go to more), and had the chance to listen to talks given by a range of speakers including Dr Mark Westmoquette and Dr Lewis Dartnell as they brought the universe to life with the aid of stunning imagery and videos.

Left: A visitor views the sun in 3D. Right: An exhibit shows how light is broken down into its component colours through a spectroscope
Westmoquette took us through the images caught by the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), including one of the Hubble Deep Space field, a view stretching to the visible horizon of the universe approximately 12 billion light years away. Through these vibrant pictures, Westmoquette showed us how stars are formed in dense clouds of gas, and, in a second lecture on the Sunday, how galaxies actually collide (although stars contained in the galaxies very rarely do – an intriguing thought which certainly appeared to have the audience transfixed).
Dr Westmoquette shows the aftermath of a colliding galaxy, seen from the HST
The final talk of the festival was given by Dartnell in a session which, as organiser Dr Francisco Diego said, brought together Galileo and Darwin, who is also being commemorated this year. In his talk ‘Astrobiology: the search for life beyond Earth’, Dartnell delved into the new pioneering field of astrobiology, which fuses biology and physics among other scientific disciplines in its quest for signs of life on other planets and moons.
In it, Dartnell covered issues such as what are the ideal conditions for life, how in one of the most inhospitable environments on earth, a creature is able to survive on frozen methane, or “frozen fart gas” in cruder terms, and what an alien might look like. Just in case you were wondering, according to Dartnell, the chances of extraterrestrial life resembling Spock or Chewbacca is more than a little unlikely, to put it mildly – sorry to disappoint.
But in such a new and exciting field, which is just in its infancy, the possibilities for future avenues of research is vast, and will hopefully help inch us further towards the illusive goal of finding out how life began on our own planet.

The exhibition, which included a 3D sun and a demonstration showing the timeline of the universe since the Big Bang, enabled visitors to get interactive with science, with assistants on hand to answer any queries.

The Your Universe festival was a fantastic opportunity to meet the experts, and all for free. Fingers crossed it’ll be back next year.

Top image courtesy of the Hubble Space Telescope. All other images taken by myself of the UCL exhibition and talks.
© Melanie Hall 2017