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Wednesday, 11 January 2012

A Very Different Kind of Talk

The Halifax Scientific Society was treated to a brilliant first indoor meeting of the year. (10th Jan.)
Dr Paul Ruffle of Manchester University presented "How I wonder what you are - the birth, life and death of stars" Paul works at the Jodrell Bank Radio Telescope, and lives in Calderdale. You can see his website at

He first put us at ease by having us all sing !

Then he asked us to estimate the number of molecules of air in a centimetre cube, like the plastic cubes everyone had been handed, then related this to the number of molecules of gas and dust in the spaces between the stars. (Hardly any, but enough to be attracted together to form new stars through pressure of gravity, because space is so vast, the number of molecules, though very few compared with our atmosphere, add up to vast amounts of mass.) Throughout, he compared his statistics with concepts we could easily get our brains round.

Then on the screen he showed wonderful animated impressions of what galaxies are like, including our own, and where we are in a conveniently quiet arm of it, and what it would be like to travel through a galaxy. The fabulously varied forms and shapes and (notional) colours of planetary nebulae came toward the end of Paul's talk, some like multi-coloured jellyfish several thousand light-years across.  After some simple to understand diagrams of how the elements develope one from another under fusion within the stars, we saw images of them being flung back into space by the violence of solar flares. New suns in the making.

Several questions were answered from the floor, until the meeting was brought to a close at 9pm.

A worry is that members might forget about collecting observations of the wildlife on our rainy planet and be tempted to immerse themselves in the wonders of astrophysics!


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