Astronomy at Glasgow University

18 April 2010

Interview with

John Brown, Regis Professor and Astronomer Royal for Scotland

Ben -   2010 is an important year for astronomy at Glasgow University, as Professor John Brown, who holds the Regis Chair of Astronomy there and is also Astronomer Royal for Scotland, explained.

John -   Well, the Alexander Wilson Regis chair appointment in 1760 was the first astronomy professorship in Scotland.  There had been teaching of astronomy before that but it was quite a few decades ahead of Edinburgh and it was one of the earliest astronomy chairs in the UK.  Astronomy has been growing here ever since so it's a big year for us and it's a great honour that the RAS has decided to bring their National Astronomy Meeting here for that purpose.

Alexander WilsonBen -   So it's obviously quite a milestone.  What have been the big scientific achievements from Glasgow?

John -   The biggest strength here , in the astronomy group area, has always been solar  physics, you know, plasmas.  Alexander Wilson studied sun spots and discovered that sunspots weren't flat things, the surface of the sun wasn't flat.  It was hollow like a bowl and that was an amazing thing to find out because they had no idea then what the sun was.  And he did all sorts of other things, Wilson, he invented new kinds of thermometers, measured the thermal structure of our atmosphere with measurements obviously to the fundamental theory of heat.  He made specific gravity beads to measure the strength of alcohol and such, and the designed telescopes as well as the doing his astronomy.  So he's probably the most outstanding person historically.

Since then there's been quite a number of others.  There was a chap called Grant who created one of the largest star catalogues, the Glasgow star catalogue, in the mid 1800s.  Then we had James Pringle Nickel.  I'm not sure about his research but, if we had the internet and television, then he would've been world famous because he was a great, great populariser.

In More recent times we had William Smart.  He did a lot of studies of the dynamics of stars going on in the galaxy.  And then there was my mentor, Peter Sweet who was the ninth Regis Professor and the thing that he's remembered for are a thing called the Eddington Sweet Circulation; the way gases circulate inside stars.  Quite important because stars burn hydrogen and turn it into helium and the helium sinks towards the centre of the star because it's heavier, but if the star is convecting enough, the helium can get lifted up again from the centre and that affects how stars of different masses change as they get older.  So that was one thing and then the theory of how magnetic fields dissipate their energy in plasmas, called magnetic reconnection, that was what Peter Sweet did.

Ben -   So, an excellent legacy.  In what ways are Glasgow University researchers pushing the boundaries now?  Where are they leading the search?

The University of GlasgowJohn -   Well there's an Institute for Gravitational Research and they have continued this many decade long hunt to find gravitational waves, getting closer all the time, so that's exciting stuff.  For the moment, that's not really pure astronomy as such although it's getting there.  A lot of it is engineering, producing very exotic materials and mirrors.  The astrophysics is being done in a certain sense and because they haven't yet detected anything, you can put upper limits on things.  So we're getting close to true astrophysics.

In the astronomy group, theres' some very good cosmology going on, so large scale structure studies.  Basic plasma physics is being done.  We have a small plasma lab which is finding some medical applications as well as solar and astrophysical.  The main thing I do, and that my colleagues do, is study high energy radiation from the sun - flares and the sort.  We're moving forward in understanding how the sun produces very high energy particles which are related to the aurora and so on.  When the sun erupts, it sometimes gives the earth a clobber with big gas cloud.  We should be getting some quite nice northern lights displays over the next little while!

Ben -   John Brown on the rich history and modern priorities of astronomy at Glasgow University.

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