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STEM Outreach

I am an active STEM ambassador, and have given talks at several schools and large STEM events. If you would be interested in having myself or anybody else from CFSA come and give a talk at your school or event, please pop me an email - I would be happy to help.

In 2018 I participated in and won the national "I'm a scientist, get me out of here!" competition, where I did my best to answer schoolkid's questions about science. I got asked all sorts of weird and wonderful things about physics, dinosaurs, space, my tastes in music - you can see some of these questions and answers here.

I've collected a few tidbits related to my research that are hopefully interesting for the curious on this webpage. Below you can see some videos, audio clips, useful websites and resources for teachers. I hope you find them as spellbinding as I do!

If these videos haven't sated your appetite for Earth-sized raindrops and super-hot explosions, it is so easy to make your own! Just head over to where you can see live feeds of the Sun RIGHT NOW, from lots of different telescopes in different viewpoints. It's good fun to explore, notice especially you can change the date (top left) - you can access data from over 10 years ago! On the left panel there are some drop down menus to see different observatories etc - to begin with I would recommend the following: Observatory = SDO, Instrument = AIA, Measurement = 304 or 171. This will show the Sun as seen from space, looking in extreme ultra-violet light at the solar corona - the bit I study. I might be biased, but I think it's the most spectacular part of the Sun! On the right panel there are some videos that have been made today/recently, usually of interesting events such as solar flares or coronal rain. Just above the panel are some buttons to help you make your own movie. If you make any cool ones, please send me a link - I'd love to see them!

Physics isn't just about what we can see with our eyes - after all I study waves, and the main way humans interact with waves is through hearing. For example, listen to this audio clip of sound wave proxies detected in space from the GOES satellites that monitor Earth's weather. The recording here is hugely amplified and sped up so our ears can hear them, you would need ears the size of a planet to hear it otherwise! Alien is still right that in space, no-one can hear you scream...

Going back to my research, plasma physics is incredibly rich with a big zoo of waves of different frequencies and origins, existing as a mixture of sound (compressive) waves and electro-magnetic oscillations. Have a play of these audio clips which have been heard as spacecraft traverse through the Earth's Van Allen belts (where the Earth has trapped particles and fields from the solar wind) and translated from recorded electromagnetic fields into sound. Satellites like Voyager also let us hear similar waves at other planets like Jupiter and Saturn. There are some examples of well-studied phenomena such as type-III radio bursts, which sound to me like the start of the Dr Who theme tune. Hear how alien + wonderful our universe really sounds!

  • These are 'chorus waves', and are detected during aurorae or during dawn, when fast electrons interact with plasma. It often sounds like dawn birdsong - a beautiful coincidence!
  • This clip is of radio 'Whistler-mode waves'. One way these are made is after lightening strikes, when generated plasma waves bounce along the Earth's magnetic field lines between the north and south poles over and over:
  • Whistler mode waves have also been detected at Saturn and Jupiter - this suggests there is lightning on other planets! Hear the lightning on Jupiter using Voyager space probes here:
  • Some more 'chorus waves', this time from electrons being pushed to the 'dark side of the Earth' (night side):
  • Plasmaspheric hiss, whose origins are still debated. Remnants from lightening strikes? Chorus waves that have leaked? Either way it sounds a lot like white noise:
  • Astronomers observe the universe in many different frequencies, one of the most remarkable parts of the spectrum being radio. A collaboration of scientists from literally around the globe (from Japan to Europe, from Canada to Chile) observe light of wavelengths about a millimeter long using ALMA, a series of telescopes linked together using interferometry. The brilliant people at ALMA have adapted some of their data for musicians to use, it all sounds eerie and otherworldly - explore their site ALMA sounds, or have a listen to some compositions here.
  • Another phenomenon that can be interpreted through sound are the magnetic fields in space. This video depicts a recording of the solar wind, both as a spectrogram and accompanying 'sonification'. You can hear a reverse shock in the data as a frequency jump. More information can be found in this article that discusses analysis of solar wind data through listening:
  • As the solar wind ploughs into any planet's magnetic shield, it is slowed down and builds up a region called a 'bow shock' (analagous to a sonic boom) curving around the dayside of the planet, similar to how water is deflected about the bow of a ship. You can 'hear' this here as the Juno spacecraft passes Jupiter's bow shock:
  • Once the solar wind passes through the bow shock, it reaches the boundary of the Earth's magnetic field - the 'magnetopause'. This boundary is constantly shifting, generating and hosting many waves trapped near the edge. These can be 'heard' as Juno crosses through the Jovian magnetopause into its magnetosphere -I find these trapped waves particularly creepy:
  • The magnetic field trapped inside the magnetopause can also form standing waves. Some of these were measured with THEMIS spacecraft, and compared to a drum.

If you are a teacher planning a lesson based on the Sun, waves or astronomy more generally, please find here a few links to useful resources. If you know a similar site or some resources that would go in nicely with this list please let me know.

  • Some useful lesson plans and resources for teaching theoretical and space physics can be found from perimeter Coincidentally they have done a fantastic set of videos on my favourite bit of maths/physics, Noether's Theorem. I learned about it in my third year at university, and it remains the most beautiful stunning thing I have ever seen on paper. Please check it out! Also if you're bored, find out about some fun stuff.
  • Here is an adobe flash game that simulates how the Earth's magnetic field saves us from the harmful bombardment from the Sun! It is part of a website run by NOAA (US department, similar to our met office) with lots of information and resources about weather in general.
  • Here is a song by They Might Be Giants, "Why does the Sun shine?" packed with info about our solar system. WARNING - repeated listening may drive teachers insane!! Later They Might Be Giants realised a slight technical error in their first song - the Sun is not made of gas, but a plasma. So they put up a correction in musical form: "The Sun is a miasma of incandescent plasma" - also worth a listen! For younger kids, here is a musical introduction to the Sun.
  • Here is a useful collection of small animations to help teachers visually demonstrate physics and other areas, worth a scroll through if you're putting together a powerpoint.

Here is an example of the outreach I do with CFSA. We went to a local school and got pupils to create papier-mâché stars, forming our very own Hertzsprung-Russel diagram (showing how hot a star is depending on its brightness)!

Here is an example of the outreach I do with CFSA. We went to a local school and got pupils to create papier-mâché stars to create our very own Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, showing how hot a star is depending on its brightness! Some stars even have spots, coronal loops and prominences.