Winter Talks

The programme for 2013-2014 starts on Monday 28th October 2013.

Talks run on Monday evenings from 7:30pm-8:30pm, in the Royal Observatory Edinburgh Lecture Theatre. Booking is not required for the talks, and tickets can be bought on the door. Season tickets will be available from the start of the series.

Tickets: £3 for adults, £1.50 for children/concessions. Season tickets: £20 for adults, £10 for children/concessions.

If you would like a paper copy of the programme, please email us at with your postal address and we will send one out to you (we do not share our mailing list with any other organisations).


2013 - 2014 Programme

Change to the advertised programme

Due to unforeseen circumstances, Sam Thomson & Lee Patrick are unable to deliver their talk on 17th March. Dr Chris Evans of the UK Astronomy Technology Centre has kindly offered to step in.

Chris Evans
ESO and the E-ELT
17th March

The European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) is a revolutionary scientific project for a 40m-class telescope that will allow us to address many of the most pressing unsolved questions about our Universe.

Charles Cockell, UK Centre for Astrobiology
Life in the Cosmos - Are We Forever Isolated?
24th March

Humanity's experience for the last 40,000 years of recorded history has been that we have overcome almost all technological obstacles to our needs. This Victorian optimism has spread into space exploration in which we assume that if there is life in the Universe beyond our Solar System, it follows that we will one day visit it or communicate with it. However, with the vast spatial scales of the Universe and the possibility that these great distances are technologically insurmountable in reasonable time periods, our optimistic paradigm may fail. Is it possible that we are forever isolated?

Martin Black and friends
The Night Sky in Summer
31st March

A summary of what astronomy can be done in the Summer months.

Andy Vick
Down to earth: putting astronomy technology to other uses
7th Apri

The UK ATC has been reusing techniques and designs developed for large Astronomy instruments in a range of other problems. Andy Vick from the ATC Innovations team will present a number of projects, including
* Greenhouse gas monitoring from a high altitude aircraft
* Earth observation from very small platforms
* Ophthalmic diagnosis systems
* Networks of sensor systems

Previous Talks This Season

Martin Black and friends
The Night Sky in November
28th October

A guide to the astronomical highlights of the November night sky.

Russell Eberst
Comet ISON - Fizzle, Phantom or Famous?
4th November

Comets are among the most mysterious objects in the Solar system.
This talk surveys the history of comet observing, and takes a look at some of these fleeting visitors over past years. Russell discusses the arrival of Comet ISON, and the prospects for viewing this much-hyped object are also considered.

Marina Cortes
The Universe as we see it: From Earth to the Cosmos
11th November

Earth is the planet we inhabit and we are used to referring to it as our World. But in fact, we know that our World, the Universe, extends far beyond our blue planet and we are just a grain of sand in the innumerable vastness of planets, stars and galaxies. The study of this vastness is called Cosmology. Marina will discuss aspects of Cosmology, how the stars and galaxies that we see today formed, what do they tell us about how our Universe begun, and discuss recent topics in Modern Cosmology, such as Dark Matter and Dark Energy which constitute 95% of the total matter and energy of the Universe, and for which the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded.

Jim Dunlop
The first galaxies
18th November

After the Big Bang the Universe expanded and cooled, and for a while there was only darkness. But then gravity caused the most dense regions of the universe to collapse and form the first stars and galaxies. In this talk I will describe how recent advances in observational astronomy, especially the refurbishment of the Hubble Space Telescope, have enabled us to look back in time to within 1 billion years of the Big Bang, and directly observe the emergence of the first galaxies. I will also explain how the next generation of facilities, including the long-awaited James Webb Space Telescope, can be expected to further clarify how today's highly structured and beautiful Universe emerged from the initial chaos of creation.

Martin Black and friends
The Night Sky in December
25th November

What delights do the December skies have in store

Nick Cross
Large astronomical surveys: The sum is greater than the parts, and finding needles in haystacks
2nd December

Modern observational astronomy has become dominated by large surveys, which involve complex instruments, large support teams, but return more valuable data than could be accomplished by many little groups with the same amount of time and money.

This talk will discuss some of the exciting current surveys and ones just around the corner with emphasis on how astronomers get the best results by using a combination of different instruments together and how they use the combined data to discover rare objects or rare behaviour.

Aidan Robson, Glasgow University
The Large Hadron Collider and the Higgs Boson
9th December

In 1964, Edinburgh physicist Peter Higgs predicted the existence of a fundamental building block of nature: the Higgs boson. That particle has recently been observed for the first time, by experiments at the largest scientific instrument ever built: the Large Hadron Collider. Come and hear about the science and significance of the discovery, and what comes next.

Martin Black and friends
The Night Sky in January
16th December

The new year brings with it a host of objects to look out for in the dark nights.

Andrew Liddle
13th January

Modern theories of cosmology appear to predict that our region of space is a minuscule fragment of a huge `multiverse', where over vast distances physical properties, and perhaps the nature of physical laws themselves, can change. With any luck, this talk will explain what has drawn cosmologists to this viewpoint and indicate that there is some observational evidence supporting it. I'll also cover some rather unnerving implications of these ideas, including the possibility that the multiverse contains many, maybe even infinitely many, perfect copies of ourselves.

Andrew Davis
First Stars in the Universe
20th January

Andrew discusses the formation of the first stars in the Universe. Starting from the Big Bang, he will cover the evolution of the Universe until the first giant clouds of gas collapse and form the first stars, moving on to their death via a massive supernova explosion, and how that explosion affects us here on Earth today.

Martin Black and friends
The Night Sky in February
27th January

Vanessa Smer
Astronomy in pre-Columbian Americas
3rd February

The Mayas, native population of today's Guantemala, Honduras, Belize, El Salvador and the south east of Mexico, were great astronomers who studied several celestial objects in depth and developed their complex but incredibly accurate calendar system. With a particular interest in Venus and the Milky Way, astronomy affected many aspects of their daily living.
The Aztecs, lords of Mexico before the encounter with European civilization, developed a deep understanding of the Sun and the Moon, venerated in pyramids of the same name. They discovered the synodic revolutions of several planets, plus predicted the trajectories of comets and timing of Sun and Moon eclipses.
The Incan empire, the most representative of South America, studied all the above giving major importance to the comprehension of constellations behaviour. They applied their astronomical wisdom into agriculture. Their lunar calendar evolved into a solar calendar, then into a sidereal-lunar calendar, in accordance to the relative position of the moon with respect to the stars.
The remains of the above civilizations’ veneration for astronomy can still be seen throughout archaeology locations in Latin America, such as Chichen Itzá and Machu Picchu.

Pratika Dayal
Light after the dark ages
10th February (Venue Change)

Our Universe began with the brilliant light of the Big Bang shining through a boiling soup of electrons, protons and neutrons. As the Universe expanded, cooled and slowly went dark, electrons and protons joined to form hydrogen atoms about 300,000 years after the Big Bang. These ‘dark ages’ ended when the light from the first galaxies ushered in the era of ‘cosmic dawn’. These early galaxies changed the Universe irreversibly: they acted as the seeds for all further structure formation, and produced the first ‘dust’ (this is a coagulation of any elements heavier than hydrogen). Cosmologically, they produced the first photons that could tear apart the fragile hydrogen into its constituent electrons and protons; this process of ‘cosmic reionization' marks a cataclysmic event in the history of our Universe, turning it into the sea of hot ionized plasma it has remained since. However, only a tiny unknown fraction of the light produced by these systems could penetrate through the swirling dust clouds surrounding the cradles of star formation and the ubiquitous hydrogen fog before it reached the observer. This is the reason why galaxy evolution in the first billion years has remained an enigma so far.
The past few years have marked a golden age in the quest for early galaxies. State-of-the-art instruments such as the Hubble Space Telescope have recently provided tantalising glimpses of a time when they were just assembling in an infant Universe. After updates about these exciting new data sets, I will talk about theoretical models that try to interpret the faint light from early galaxies so as to understand their nature, and how they have evolved into the beautifully complex structures we see around us today.

Ian Robson
Supercool Astronomy Comes of Age
17th February

Supercool Astronomy is only about 30 years old and is the study of the very cold objects in space, especially the study of the dust emission that so often shrouds the secrets of star and galaxy formation. This is the realm of submillimetre astronomy and has been a huge British success story with many of the breakthroughs being undertaken by the Royal Observatory Edinburgh, especially the ‘SCUBA revolution’. The SCUBA instrument now has a pride of place in the National Museum. Submillimetre astronomy is a prime example where huge scientific achievements have been driven by major technological advances in a very space of time. The talk will discuss how submillimetre astronomy developed, the role of the UK and how it is now very trendy and totally supercool.

Martin Black and friends
The Night Sky in March
24th February

The nights may be getting shorter, but there is still plenty to search the skies for.


Prof. John Peacock
Vesto Slipher and the discovery of the expanding universe
3rd March

We have known about the expanding universe for around a century, but the story of this discovery has been obscured by a number of myths. Chief among these has been the role attributed to Edwin Hubble, and far too little credit has been given to the true pioneers in this field. More than anyone, the figure of Vesto Slipher stands out. Working in isolation at the Lowell Observatory in Arizona, he was the first to prove the true nature of galaxies and demonstrate that they are in motion (including the motion of our own Milky Way). Slipher's first results were published in 1913, and this recent centenary gives good reason to highlight Slipher's achievements, and how they were used by the astronomers who came after him.

John Davies
Infrared Astronomy
10th March

What is infrared radiation, why do astronomers care about it and why is it so difficult from the ground? We will explore how to beat the atmosphere using high mountains, aeroplanes and satellites and look at some of the missions which have opened up this window on the Universe. Finally we will preview some future plans, notably the JWST.