Tag Archives: Physics & Astronomy

Life, the Universe and Everything

Professor George Ellis, a renowned cosmologist visiting on an Erskine Fellowship from the University of Cape Town, will present a series of eight lectures on big questions aimed at a broad audience, including cosmology, causality, life, aliens and the physics of the mind.

The lectures are open to everyone. The first will be held as a public lecture in C1, 8pm, Monday 8 August.

George has had a remarkable career. In addition to a string of academic honours, he also played a role in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s. (He was later awarded the Order of the Star of South Africa by Nelson Mandela.)

I got to know George on my first postdoc in Trieste, Italy, in 1988 at a time when things had got a bit too difficult for him in South Africa. For a few years George was based there at SISSA, an Institute directed then by Dennis Sciama, who in the 1960s had supervised George Ellis, Stephen Hawking, Martin Rees, and a whole generation of experts in general relativity.

George and Stephen co-wrote one of the classic texts of the field, published in 1973. (George appears as fellow student in the film dramatisations of Stephen’s life, including the 2014 movie “Theory of Everything”.)

George is truly a deep thinker, always tackling the most fundamental questions. His lectures (full list available here) will be a fascinating journey crossing the boundaries of physics, biology and philosophy.

The lectures are largely self-contained, so that students and staff can choose ones that interest them without worrying about missing others.

Astrobiology topics will be hosted by Biological Sciences (August 11, 18); cosmology by Philosophy (August 10) and Physics and Astronomy (August 12, 19) and causality and complex systems by Philosophy (August 15, 17). The last topics are discussed in George’s new book How Can Physics Underlie the Mind?: Top-Down Causation in the Human Context.

David Wiltshire

The VC and the testing machine

Dr John Campbell from the Department of Physics and Astronomy recounts a particularly memorable moment during the 1970s about the VC (at the time) and the testing machine.

In 1978 the Civil Engineering department began installing its state-of-the-art testing machine. It cost $275,000 (today about $2,000,000) and a formal ceremony was planned for its first test.

Elena Trout, a Civil Engineering student, thought some theatrics were also warranted. She approached a good friend, Steve Krenek, a PhD student in upper atmospheric physics with a theatrical bent. He agreed. After the speeches, when the Vice-Chancellor pushed the button to initiate the first test there would be one hell of a bang and smoke everywhere.

Elena took Noel Prebbles, the Chief Technical Officer in the department, into her confidence. He and Steve worked through the details. To avoid an instant laundry problem and/or a simultaneous heart attack, she also visited the VC to forewarn him. The key person not forewarned was Nigel Priestly, the academic in charge of the machine, on the grounds that he would never allow the stunt had he known.

Below the machine passed a large duct in the concrete floor, for pipes and wires. Into this was placed a small plastic bag, containing the correct proportions of acetylene and oxygen for the bang. For the smoke, a can containing blasting powder. The duct was covered with steel plates. In Steve’s words “I was a bit concerned that the force of the acetylene blast might fire a plate or two into the air and cause some damage or injury, but being a young male at the time, I thought a bit about it and decided we should take the risk”.

On the 2nd of October 1978, Steve entered the duct and crawled unseen to where a motorbike battery and wires, around the corner at a respectful distance, connected to the electrical igniters. His cue to set off the igniters was on hearing the hydraulic motor start up. This motor compressed or stretched the sample as the case may be.

The Vice-Chancellor, Bert Brownlie (the last of our academic vice-chancellors), stepped forward and pushed the starter button. A second later, as Steve’s hand was still moving towards the igniter switch, the motor stopped. Inadvertently, Burt had pushed the Down button rather than the Up button so the safety limit switch quickly turned it off. (Bert was an economist, not an engineer.) Steve had an agonising delay until the motor started again. This time he allowed three seconds before connecting the wires.

The effect was spectacular, as planned. Nigel Priestly went as white as a sheet, but fortunately the technician had thoughtfully stationed himself at Nigel’s side, and in a hoarse stage-whisper was heard repeating, “It’s all right Nigel…  It’s ALL RIGHT, Nigel…”

Steve swept up his gear, backed out of the tunnel, and made his escape. Bert was OK. Probably it was Nigel who had the instant laundry problem.

Elena Trout graduated M.E (Civil) in 1979. She has held leadership roles in transport, infrastructure and energy companies and has had significant experience in management, planning and delivery of major projects. She is today an independent company director and is also the current President of the Institution of Professional Engineers of New Zealand.

Steve Krenek’s Ph.D. thesis hand-in (1978) has gone down in University history as the most spectacular ever (see Chronicle Oct 1978). Being forewarned, I was an eye-witness to that. Steve and Anthony Lealand, our lecture demonstrations technician and later the Lucifer Firework Company and today the Firework Professionals, were noted for their fantastic stunts organised for various university events, most notably “The Science Fiction Night” in 1977. Steve went to England to work on designing satellite-based electronics for the European Space Agency. In 1983 he returned to Christchurch where he now works for Streat Instruments. Truly one of the department’s great characters.

Restoring the Townsend Teece Telescope

Graeme Kershaw has embarked on a three-year project to restore the 152-year-old Townsend Teece Telescope.  Here, he shares just what that entails.

As most people may now realise the exhibition of the badly broken and damaged parts of the Townsend Teece Telescope are on display on the ground floor of Matariki (Registry building). Along with the telescope parts is a display of many historical pictures and documents in the form of posters and a presentation.

For me, this telescope is of particular significance and importance. As a very young teenager, it was the first ‘real’ telescope I had ever looked through and I became a regular visitor to the observatory on the Friday open nights. As chance would have it, I became a member of the staff of the Dept. of Physics in early 1966 and the very first job I was given there was to build a new lens cap for the Townsend.

Over the following years I was one of the technicians who maintained the telescope and was part of a restoration project in the early 1970s. There was a charm associated with this telescope that seduced me into a caring maintenance relationship and kept me involved until 2008 when I carried out repairs to the telescopes ‘clock drive’.

I was saddened to hear that the Tower that housed the telescope was badly damaged in the September 2010 earthquakes and any attempts to recover it were deemed too dangerous. Those plans were postponed until such time that the earthquake aftershock sequence had diminished to a safe level. As we all know, that didn’t happen and the whole observatory was destroyed in the February 2011 quake.

In the months that followed, I was excited to find that the telescope, although badly damaged, was in fact repairable especially since it was found that the lens was totally undamaged. Since this is the ‘heart’ of the telescope, it was totally sensible to restore it. With this in mind, I volunteered to restore the telescope as a retirement project, starting mid-2016.

As a consequence of this decision, serious fundraising was undertaken by UC alumni, which culminated in a large sum of money being donated to the restoration fund by Prof. David Teece with the restored telescope to be renamed accordingly.

The exhibition, to me, is the beginning of an amazing journey to restore the telescope. This instrument is very near and dear to me and I now have the opportunity to return it to its former glory. This telescope needs to be returned as close as humanly possible to its original condition and only those parts that have been fatally damaged will be replicated using new materials.

Without a doubt the restoration project will challenge my skills and energy to a level seldom experienced by me over the last 50 years of my career at the University. I am very hopeful that those who literally shed tears when they saw the level of destruction will smile as they admire the views they will experience when they once again gaze in amazement at the heavens above.

The exhibition is on display in the Matariki building until 8 July.

Through the lens


Crafoord Days 2016 – symposium

Following is a post from Professor David Wiltshire, who recently attended Crafoord Days 2016 in Stockholm, including the symposium and Crafoord Prize ceremony.

Greetings from Stockholm.

The Symposium covered a diverse range of talks on all the aspects of rotating black holes. This included the history of the discovery by Roy Kerr, the astrophysics of accretion disks and jets by co-laureate Roger Blandford, simulations of accretion processes by Jonathan McKinney, simulations and visualisations of the geometrodynamics of strong field vorticity in colliding black holes by Kip Thorne, the LIGO discovery by Laura Cadonati, and more about its implications by Frans Pretorius.

Andy Fabian discussed observations of accretion disks, and Avery Broderick showed the sort of images of the central black hole in our galaxy, and the one in M87 that we might hope to have from the Event Horizon Telescope within the next several years. These are really going to nail down the Kerr solution in general relativity versus some other exotic theories. Gerard ‘t Hooft spoke about the black hole information paradox.

I covered outstanding theoretical issues, which we might hope to resolve in the next few decades. In particular, I highlighted the possibility that primordial black holes created in the quark-hadron transition at the GeV energy scale in the early universe form a significant part of the dark matter. This possibility is raised as a serious option if black holes of a mass similar to those discovered by LIGO are typical; an option which had not been thought about much prior to the LIGO discovery but which is the subject of a paper by Bird et al, in the latest Physical Review Letters.

The physics needed to make such an option viable turns out to naturally tie in with the direction of my own current research plans, which involve the treatment of back reaction in the primordial plasma – i.e., treating general relativity differently from traditional approaches in the first few fractions of a second after the Big Bang. A typical reaction to my talk was that of Roger Blandford who said he enjoyed the talk, and “it would be fun if the heretics won”.

In the evening the laureates – including also the Mathematics Crafoord laureate Yakov Eliashberg – symposium speakers, partners and invited fellows of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences – dined in their private club, looked on by portraits of Carl Linnaeus, Alfred Nobel and other less familiar characters. This was a time both to catch up with old friends – such as Andy Fabian who is a fellow at Darwin College where my wife Anneke and I met – and meet new faces, some of whom turned out to be collaborators of other people we know well, such as Gerry Gilmore. A very memorable evening indeed.