Astronomy Question Time

April 18, 2007 — Leave a comment

At 7.30pm on Monday night there was a ‘Question Time’ event held in the Greenbank Lecture Theatre of the NAM 2007 venue. The format was four speakers sat in a casual arrangement on stage being asked questions which were submitted previously via email. The audience were invited to give views and opinions too.

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The image here is my own attempt in terrible lighting of the panel. From the left, Chris Lintott, Don Kurtz, Lucie Green, Jocelyn Bell Burnell.

One of the speakers, Chris Lintott (Co-presenter of BBC’s Sky at Night and Oxford Postdoctoral Researcher), also acted as chairman. The rest of the panel was made up of Don Kurtz from the University here in Central Lancashire, Jocelyn Bell Burnell of Oxford and the discoverer of pulsars, and Lucie Green a solar researcher and public outreach afficionado from the Mullard Space Science Laboratory.

The panel fielded questions aimed at a more general (or possibly more fun) audience than the average NAM session. They covered topics such as the validity of manned space exploration, the truthiness of the danger of near Earth objects and the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence.

I really liked Chris Lintott as the chair. He was quite affable and seemed to move things along at the right pace. Don Kurtz has a gruff manner and seemed to ‘deem’ his phrases rather that just ‘say’ them, which gave him an air of authority in topics where perhaps he should not have one given his expertise. Don lost me however when he said he didn’t enjoy talking to school kids for all sorts of reasons which in my humble opinion were a bit crappy.

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One of his main complaints was that when he asked kids to close their eyes and imagine an orchestra tuning up, they couldn’t do it. Why he thought this was their fault I don’t know. I had wanted to add my view at this point but the audience were very chatty on the education topic so I did not get a chance.

Lucie Green is great at public speaking and in fact I’m sure I’ve seen her on the TV before. I’m biased though because I had spoken to her earlier in the day and already decided that she was a lovely person. She gave me the lowdown on the International Heliospheric Year and also on why the movie Sunshine wasn’t accurate at all.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell is a very funny lady. At one point she asked if we would be sending the GI’s to bring democracy to the first alien world we found. She has the manner of an old-fashioned school mistress but obviously a very dry humour.

The one thing that disappointed however was that the content of the evening was very light. A wide range of questions had been asked, which was good, but the panelists seemed unwilling to be controversial or to really take risks. With so many interesting topics being discussed, you would think that a good debate might have started. However it sort of ended up being a ‘nice’ evening or light astronomy chat. This was good it itself and I enjoyed it, however truth be told, I wanted more substance.

The room was populated with many experts in many relevant fields, yet the most edgy thing anyone said was a guy suggesting that maybe we have no right to deflect a killer asteroid because maybe we’re ‘supposed’ to go extinct. I would have loved someone to explain to him why he has crazy but they didn’t. Shame.

But I’m being a blue boo. I did really enjoy the evening and I thought all the speakers were very good at what they were doing and that on the whole the topics were covered well. Also I was speaking to Chris Lintott the next day and he mentioned that Sky at Night had its fiftiteth anniversary show coming up – so look out for that one too.

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