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Exploring the Dynamic Universe

Exploring the Dynamic Universe
Dr Newsam in the lecture theatre.
Thursday 13th November 2008 by C. Freeman
Astrophysicist Dr Andrew Newsam spoke about his cutting edge work discovering distant galaxies when he visited Brooke Weston. Dr Newsam, who is the Director of the National Schools' Observatory, studies the distant reaches of space and charts galaxies a thousand million light years away.

He was at Brooke Weston to deliver lectures on 'Exploring the Dynamic Universe'. The first was an afternoon talk for Brooke Weston's Sixth Formers while the second was open to the public. Both were organised by Corby Rotary Club and attended by its president, Ray Bradbury.

Dr Newsam delivers a lot of lectures but says that the trick in explaining something so complex is to concentrate on the key issues. He said: 'The lecture is mainly about how we study astronomy and in particular how we look at things that change. Some of the technology that we are using, like the new kinds of telescopes, let us observe changes and that helps our understanding of what is actually going on. When explaining the concepts then the details, and certainly a lot of the subtleties, don't matter. I look at what I find really interesting and explain those bits.'

Dr Newsam, who is based at Liverpool John Moores University, only became interested in astrophysics after completing his first physics degree. The University is unique in that it is the only one with its own telescope. The equipment, located in the Canaries, is the largest robotically controlled telescope in the world. Dr Newsam travels round the country delivering talks and also observes space from telescopes sited around the globe.

He said: 'On one trip to Hawaii I discovered 50,000 galaxies; it was a great trip! Most of the objects which I discover just go into a catalogue and we don't continue studying them. It's the unusual ones that I'm interested in because you tend to learn more from them.'

Out of the 50,000 galaxies discovered in Hawaii maybe only two would be so unusual that they would merit further research. Dr Newsam said: 'I'm personally looking for galaxies which are producing too much energy. A galaxy normally has a couple of hundred thousand million stars in it so you expect the energy to be about a couple of hundred thousand million times that of the sun. If there's a lot more than that then there's something else happening: It could be enormous numbers of new stars being formed or it could be a very large black hole in the centre of the galaxy destroying matter as it falls in. If we can find those we can start looking at the physics of these extreme things; that's when you start looking at really exciting stuff.'

The lecture, which was followed by a 20 minute question and answer session, was well received by Sixth Formers and staff. Alex Christian said: 'I just found Dr Newsam very engaging and entertaining. I wasn't sure if I was going to go in there and not understand any of it but he really explained it to us.' Jessica Irwin added: 'Dr Newsam explained so that everyone understood it and he was friendly so he kept you interested. The question and answer session gave everyone a chance to ask things that they weren't quite sure about.'

Teacher Mr Tiktin said: 'Dr Newsam was young, humorous and had new things to say. He talked about gamma ray bursts and also introduced to us the idea of robotic telescopes which some of these students will now use as part of their extended project work in the last term of this academic year. At one stage a student asked him what was matter and he was then into high-level physics, but at another stage he was just asked how a telescope was designed and he gave a very simple description.'

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