Dr Rebecca Bowler is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Oxford. Rebecca’s research involves studying some of the early galaxies that formed within the first billion years in the life of the Universe.In this blog post, Rebecca talks about the thing that inspired her to pursue a career in astrophysics. Burnt toast, and her mum.
My mum always burns her toast. Always. It used to drive me crazy as a teenager.
It was about that time, at the end of secondary school, that
I started to get interested in astronomy. I fell upon a book called The Magic Furnace by Marcus Chown. It
explains how those Carbon atoms that make up the burnt layer on my mum’s toast
were created in the cores of stars. I was hooked.
As I studied more physics, I learnt that there was a time before a single Carbon atom was formed. After the Big Bang, the Universe was a vast, hot, empty* and somewhat boring place. Nothing as exciting as Carbon existed, because no stars had yet formed. It took a few hundred million years for things to start to get interesting again, with the formation of the first generation of stars and with this, the first illumination of the Universe with starlight. These stars were nothing like those we see in the night sky. Because of their different chemical composition they were monsters, with a single star containing hundreds or even thousands of times the mass of our Sun.
*empty of “stuff”, no planets, no stars, just some Hydrogen and Helium atoms drifting around. Plus dark matter.
Today I research the formation of the first generation of
stars and galaxies that formed after the Big Bang. Using telescopes, it is
possible to capture the light from incredibly distant galaxies. Because of
the vast scales involved, the light from some of these galaxies has travelled
for over 13 billion years to reach our telescopes. This means that by
looking at an image of a galaxy, we are seeing into the past, glimpsing how
that galaxy was many billions of years ago. Images like the Hubble Ultra
Deep Field is therefore like a time capsule for astronomers, with each point of
light pinpointing a galaxy at a different distance and hence time within the Universe.
With these observations of galaxies, it is possible to find out what the Universe was like back in the first billion years. The chemical composition of the stars is imprinted onto the light we observe. I work with telescopes around the world, including the Hubble Space Telescope, to discover early galaxies and search for the fingerprints of the first stars. Back in 2012 I visited the Gemini North Telescope in Hawaii to make observations.
Standing on the summit of the mountain, surrounded by all the humongous telescopes, I was reminded of how far I’d come since opening The Magic Furnace ten years previously. When I burnt my toast that morning after 14 hours observing through the night, I was one step closer to understanding how those Carbon atoms came to be. But I was still no closer to understanding why my mum always burns her toast.
Helen Pooley, the Museum’s Learning Officer, introduces the display in her blog, and talks about why inspiring girls and women to pursue their passions and curiosity in the sciences is important.
The History of Science Museum has many wonderful objects. We also have some great paintings of illustrious scientists on our walls. Unfortunately, there aren’t any women amongst them.
Last year, to celebrate 100 years of women getting the right to vote, we put up a series of portraits in the Basement Gallery of women, past and present, who’d made a contribution to science. We also had a display featuring the work of Ada Lovelace and some of the early female pioneers of photography alongside a programme of events for families, schools and adults.
This year the portraits are still on display in the Basement Gallery, but we have updated our displays with a particular focus on Astronomy and Space Science. We have highlighted two books associated with female astronomers, both of whom practised astronomy at times when a formal scientific education was denied to women.
The first is Caroline Herschel who was the first salaried female scientist recorded working in England and author of the 1798 Catalogue of Stars which contained her own corrections to the work of John Flamsteed, the first Astronomer Royal.
The second is Sophia Brahe, the sister of Tycho Brahe who wrote the 1572 book De nova stella. It is believed that Sophia assisted in the observations recorded in this book, which included the discovery of a new star at a time when it was thought that the heavens were unchanging.
We are also keen to highlight the work of contemporary female scientists in Oxford and are in the process of putting together a small display relating to the work of Suzanne Aigrain, Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Oxford, which we have discovered has its own interesting links to our collection.
Suzanne searches for and studies extra-solar planets – planets which orbit stars other than the Sun. One of the methods she uses is the transit method, when a planet passes in front of its host star (as seen by an observer on Earth). This method has been used to observe planets in our own solar system for centuries. We have featured in the display a manuscript produced in 1761 showing which parts of the Transit of Venus (the silhouette of Venus as it passes across the sun) would be visible from different places on Earth.
We are also really excited to host a series of blogs written by female graduate students of Astrophysics at the University of Oxford, which we hope will help inspire scientists of the future. These are going to be published on our website in the run-up to our fantastic Women and Science comedy night, presented by Jericho Comedy in the Museum on Wednesday 4th December.
this, we are planning to re-run our KS4 Study
Day on Women in Astronomy on 11th March 2020. Last year’s Women in
Science study day was overbooked so we’d advise schools to book soon to secure
Over the last year the Young Producers voluntary group at the History of Science Museum, made up of Ellie Martin and Sam Hudson, has been working with the collection of scientific instruments from the Islamic World display in the top gallery creating new designs based upon feedback from an earlier public consultation project Curate, run by the learning team, which enabled us to identify specific objectives needed for the improvement of the interpretation of the Islamic World collection.
This collection contains many unique instruments including astrolabes. The History of Science Museum holds the largest collection of astrolabes in the world, so we thought it important that these beautifully crafted scientific instruments were highlighted in a more modern and accessible way.
The current display had remained largely the same for at least 20 years and desperately needed a revamp to make it more vibrant and engaging. Previous interventions by our group had added new information cards and a map, but this time we hoped to do something more ambitious.
As a group the Young Producers narrowed down some core themes that we wanted to reinterpret with our new displays; craftsmanship, religion and science, cosmology, diversity and knowledge exchange. In groups of two or three we split our work. Our group consisted of Sam Hudson, Ellie Martin and Phoebe Homer, and together we chose to develop an intervention on the functional aspects of the instruments; specifically, how they would be used when performing daily prayer within Islam.
In the cabinet, there already existed a small section that dealt with this theme (figure 2). However, we saw a few problems with it. Firstly, despite mentioning how some astrolabes contained prayer lines and gazetteers that would help you find the times for prayer and the direction of Mecca (qibla), neither were visible. This was because the front (rete) and plates (tympans) of the astrolabes had not been removed and so obscured the visitors’ view of both. Also, as the astrolabes were fairly small, any close study of them was difficult. We also felt that the current display lacked a fundamental human element, which made it hard for the viewer to connect to the objects. For instruments that were so crucial for facilitating Islamic beliefs, we decided that this was something that needed to be altered. Lastly, we agreed that the current labels were too complicated making them inaccessible, and that the whole display needed to be more eye-catching. Our section of the case is located right next to the gallery door and we wanted to utilise this location, providing a vibrant, engaging display that will draw the visitors’ attention.
To solve the first problem, we chose two new astrolabes to add to the display. The first – astrolabe 47714 (figure 3) – could be displayed with its rete removed so that the clear prayer lines for the 5 daily prayers could be seen. The second – astrolabe 35313 (figure 4) – had a beautiful gazetteer listing the direction of Mecca for 46 locations. This could be displayed with both its rete and its tympans removed so that the gazetteer was visible on the back. Additionally, an enlarged image of 35313 was planned so that visitors could clearly see the cities marked on the gazetteer with translations of their Arabic names. For the translations we sought support from the Multaka Project, a mixed group of Syrian and other forced migrants volunteering with the History of Science Museum. They were incredibly helpful in helping with all aspects of the display and Rana Ibrahim, Collections Officer for the project, was really supportive offering advice and translation. These initial changes helped to make the display more accessible and easily understood.
To give the display a more human touch we decided to include not only historical artefacts, but some contemporary objects. This included a modern prayer mat, prayer beads, a Qur’an and a contemporary Qibla indicator (figure 5). A Qibla indicator is a modified compass (figure 6) that points the user in the direction of Mecca. By adding a contemporary version we aimed to demonstrate the continuity of Islamic practice over time.
Finally, we re-designed the back panel, on which we planned to incorporate Islamic geometric designs (which involved many failed sketching attempts!). Thanks to the creativity of the Museum’s in-house designer, Keiko Ikeuchi, we included not only patterns, but an image that demonstrates Islamic prayer. The prayer mat was our last addition to the case. In order for it to be included, conservation required it to be frozen for two weeks to kill off any insect contaminants. Once it was in, it added an aspect to the display that catches your attention immediately and worked well with the prayer beads and Qur’an placed on top.
After around six months’ work, we installed the display on the 30th August (figure 7). We hope that you agree that the space appears more vibrant and eye-catching than before. The contemporary objects were placed upon the prayer mat, along with two Qibla indicators, to give that section of the display a more casual, personal appearance. All of the labels were rewritten so that they were engaging and informative but accessible, with an enlarged and more modern font. Islamic patterns were included on the base panel and, a last-minute addition, we included a standing label about the first Muslim astronaut in space provoking the visitor to imagine how a Muslim might pray in space! We felt that this extra, fun bit of information would make a contemporary link with the new display helping visitors to engage with the content.
After such a long process, we are so happy to see our ideas become a reality. As a group we agree that the end result far exceeds what we imagined in our minds (and pages and pages of rough drawings!). Depending upon time and resources, we are hoping to add more new displays to the cabinet inspired by other groups from the Young Producers. The combined effect should bring a completely fresh interpretation to the objects, and we are all really excited to see how this project evolves. We would like to thank all of those at HSM who helped us along with way, particularly Chris Parkin (organiser of the Young Producers programme), Rana Ibrahim (Multaka Project) and Keiko Ikeuchi for the beautiful graphic designwork.