Out of this World: An Evening with the Planets

This post was contributed by Henry Rummins, Communications Manager at Birkbeck, University of London

1.-SpaceIt is a question which humans have pondered for thousands of years when looking up at the night sky and seeing the thousands of dots of light which gradually twinkle into view: what is out there, beyond our world?

It was these questions, too, which led Dr Louise Alexander, now a post-Doctoral researcher at the UCL/Birkbeck Centre for Planetary Sciences, to follow her curiosity and begin a journey which would begin at introductory classes at UCL to a Master’s degree and PhD at Birkbeck to her current destination, analysing rock samples brought back from the Apollo 12 mission to the moon, to determine lunar geology.

Her story was one of six presented on the evening in a showcase of planetary wonders hosted by Steve Cross, Head of Public Engagement at UCL, comedian and founder of Science Showoff, looking at aspects of the solar system ranging from our closest neighbour, the moon, to distant Pluto and beyond. Yet while the planets were the stars of the show, the stories of all the researchers in planetary science reminded us that reflecting on the cosmos often brings that questioning back down to Earth, and what it means to be human; to look up and the night sky, and wonder.

It was a theme which ran through Clara Sousa Silva’s look at Twinkle, a space mission that will analyse light reflected from planets outside the solar system to reveal the chemical composition of their atmospheres, as well as, it’s hoped, their weather and history, giving crucial clues to worlds outside the solar system and potentially spotting clues for life elsewhere.

As well as the science behind the project, she also looked at how to encourage more women into studying science in school through to university level, and subsequently pursing research as a career option, illustrating her point with some sobering facts on the current low level of female participation in the sector.

A fly-by of planetary science made up the evening’s contribution from Dr Pete Grindrod, who busted some of the most widely believed myths about Mars, with a look at the origins of planets and the Rosetta comet mission by Geraint Jones and a look at missions to Jupiter by Lucia Ray making up the trio.

The evening rounded off with the first performance of a new piece of music interpreting the celestial dance between Pluto and its moon Charon, called Pluto and Charon – A Planetary Waltz. The piece – commissioned by the Centre for Planetary Sciences at UCL/Birkbeck – was accompanied by grainy footage of Charon orbiting Pluto, enhancing the original piece played as a piano duet between Valentina Pravodelov and Kerry Yong. It ended the evening where we started: stimulating the excitement and curiosity of wondering, what’s out there?

An Evening with the Planets was presented by The Centre for Planetary Sciences at UCL/Birkbeck

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