If you’d like the chance to win funding for your own public engagement work, apply for the next I’m a Scientist, Get me out of here: imascientist.org.uk/scientist-apply
I’m a Scientist, Get Me Out of Here was great fun, and to be crowned winner was a wonderful feeling, but then came the really daunting part… what to spend the money on! £500 is a lot, and you really want to make it count. I had lots of different ideas but moving to the Spanish island of La Palma, Europe’s premier site for astronomy due to its clear skies, just after the competition finished made one idea stand out above the rest. Buy a small telescope and use it to share my passion for astronomy with unsuspecting people on the street – guerrilla astronomy, if you will.
La Palma is home to some of the world’s best and biggest telescopes, and yet many of the residents have never visited the observatory or looked through a telescope. So, I set out with my telescope to try and rectify the situation! The first few outings with the telescope were to local “miradores astronómicos” (astronomical viewpoints), up in the hills of La Palma alongside many of the popular walking routes. These sites which are specially designated as good locations to see the stars, seemed like the ideal place to share my passion for astronomy. Many of the people I spoke to there were tourists visiting this island from all over the world, and who had heard that one of the done things while visiting was to take in the beautiful night sky views. For many, my telescope was the first they’d ever had a chance to look through, and few were disappointed!
From the astronomical viewpoints, I shared with anyone who was passing through whatever could be seen in the sky that evening. On some nights, the telescope was so popular that people were forming queues! Luckily, I always had my laser pointer on hand to try and share some of the brighter sights with those who were waiting (including the occasional shooting star and even a passing of the International Space Station!). Perhaps the most spectacular sight was Andromeda, which to the naked eye seems nothing more than a fuzzy star, but through the telescope it becomes clear that it is a galaxy just like our own, made up of billions of stars.
After this early success, our attempts were plagued by bad weather – as is the life of an astronomer! But, having added a solar filter to the collection (to allow us to use the telescope to safely view the Sun), I could now take the telescope out day-and-night, whenever the opportunity arose. Taking the telescope into more built-up areas, where no-one was expecting to be encouraged to look up, was a lot of fun. Showing people the craters of the Moon by night, and the spots on the surface of the Sun by day, we had a great time – often catching people as they left the local bars suitably lubricated and eager to play with the telescope.
This project doesn’t end here. I’ll keep heading out with the telescope whenever I can, sharing my passion with anyone who will listen and hopefully showing them why astronomy is so much fun!