Professor Charles Cockell has been awarded the 2017 Chancellor’s Award for Teaching.
The Chancellor confers four Awards annually, recognising innovation, relevance, creativity, personal dedication and impact in teaching and research. The Award for Teaching honours a colleague who has recently enhanced the University's teaching reputation through a significant contribution to improving or invigorating student learning at any level.
Professor Charles Cockell is Course Director on the Astrobiology course which seeks to give students a grounding in interdisciplinary science and the diverse disciplines including physics, astronomy, geology, biology and chemistry relevant to astrobiology. He oversees and teaches half of the Astrobiology and Search for Life SUPA course, a graduate course in astrobiology. He also teaches and runs a Massive Open On-Line Course (MOOC) on Astrobiology. This course has attracted 120,000 students since it began.
He is also directing a program of science education in prisons. Life Beyond is a four-week course that involves inmates in the design of a station for the surface of Mars with the purpose of engaging them in the future exploration of space. Next year the inmates will publish their first set of original research from HMP Glenochil and Edinburgh. Since he started at Edinburgh, he has also been running the Astrobiology Academy, a teacher training initiative which writes science lesson plans and curriculum for primary and secondary schools using astrobiology as the core material.
His research in Astrobiology seeks to understand the origin, evolution and distribution of life in the Universe. In particular, work takes place investigating life in extreme environments and understanding the diversity, processes and biosignatures of life in extremes. His work is conducted within the UK Centre for Astrobiology, a virtual astrobiology centre established in 2011 that is affiliated with the NASA Astrobiology Institute.
Professor Cockell commented "I’m very delighted to receive this award, which I hope will raise the profile of astrobiology as a useful subject to advance science education, whether that be among undergraduates or people serving terms in prison."
Research suggests that life on our planet might have originated from biological particles brought to Earth in streams of space dust.
Fast-moving flows of interplanetary dust that continually bombard our planet’s atmosphere could deliver tiny organisms from far-off worlds, or send Earth-based organisms to other planets, according to the research. The dust streams could collide with biological particles in Earth’s atmosphere with enough energy to knock them into space. Such an event could enable bacteria and other forms of life to make their way from one planet in the solar system to another and perhaps beyond. The finding suggests that large asteroid impacts may not be the sole mechanism by which life could transfer between planets, as was previously thought.
The research from the School of Physics and Astronomy calculated how powerful flows of space dust – which can move at up to 70 km a second – could collide with particles in our atmospheric system. It found that small particles existing at 150 km or higher above Earth’s surface could be knocked beyond the limit of Earth’s gravity by space dust and eventually reach other planets. The same mechanism could enable the exchange of atmospheric particles between distant planets.
Some bacteria, plants and small animals called tardigrades are known to be able to survive in space, so it is possible that such organisms – if present in Earth’s upper atmosphere – might collide with fast-moving space dust and withstand a journey to another planet.
The study, published in Astrobiology, was partly funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council.
Professor Arjun Berera, who led the study, said: “The proposition that space dust collisions could propel organisms over enormous distances between planets raises some exciting prospects of how life and the atmospheres of planets originated. The streaming of fast space dust is found throughout planetary systems and could be a common factor in proliferating life.”
Thousands of visitors enjoyed hands-on activities, talks and exhibitions at the Festival of Physics, which was organised by the Institute of Physics at George Watson’s College in Edinburgh on the 4 & 5 November.
The School of Physics and Astronomy was honoured to be part of the weekend, with staff and students involved in a range of activities for children, teenagers and adults including:
- particle physics exhibitions - where visitors got the chance to discover how a particle accelerator works, and learn more about the unanswered questions relating to the missing antimatter, dark matter and dark energy in our Universe.
- learning about the Higgs Boson from Prof Victoria Martin, a former student of Prof Peter Higgs, as she explained how it was found and what its consequences might be for the fundamentals of our universe.
- discovering the properties of complex fluids at hands-on workshops, including a workshop on how physics can be used to affect the way chocolate looks, feels and tastes, and a workshop on gin, illustrating the mechanics of distillation, the influence of ice, and what actually happens when you shake a Martini. I expect you didn’t know physics experiments could be so delicious!
If you would like to know more about particle or nuclear physics activities, enquiries [at] ph.ed.ac.uk (get in touch) with us. For information on complex fluids activities, or if you are interested in offering the Physics of Gin or Physics of Chocolate workshops at your own events, please contact our J.C.Denis [at] ed.ac.uk (Ogden Science and ECFP Outreach Officer).
Congratulations to students who received Medals, Certificates, Prizes and Scholarships at the School of Physics & Astronomy undergraduate awards ceremony.
Head of School, Professor Arthur Trew presented the awards to students in recognition of their outstanding marks and achievements in the last academic year.
Certificates & Medals
59 pre-honours students received certificates of merit for their achievement in Physics and Maths courses in years 1 & 2. A total of 23 Class Medals were awarded to the students with the highest overall mark for their degree programme.
Prizes, Bursaries & Scholarships
Eleven Prizes and Scholarships were awarded to honours students, including the Marion A S Ross Prize and Nichol Foundation Scholarship which were awarded to Maria Derda. Maria was also the recipient of the Theoretical Physics Junior Honours Medal. Four Prizes and Bursaries were awarded to pre-honours students. Scott Conn was the recipient of the Donald Fraser Bursary and Brodie Memorial Prize, as well as the Year 2 Mathematics and Year 2 Physics Medals and a Pre-Honours Certificate of Merit.
Teach Physics Outstanding Intern Award
Professor Trew was also pleased to present the winner of the Teach Physics Outstanding Intern National Award to Chloe McGeorge on behalf of The Ogden Trust. The Teach Physics Internships give undergraduate physics students an opportunity to experience teaching and gain an understanding of what a career in physics teaching would be like.
Chloe spent 5 weeks in Bishop Barrington School near Durham. Her notable achievements included working with primary school pupils during their science week, planning a physics trip and planning and delivering physics sessions.
Chloe is currently in year 5 of her MPhys Mathematical Physics degree.
Data intensive science in the UK has received a major boost thanks to an investment of almost £10million to train the next generation of experts.
The emerging field of data science uses advanced computational, statistical and programming techniques, including artificial intelligence, to extract meaningful insights from huge datasets.
Edinburgh is leading one of eight new UK Centres for Doctoral Training, the only one in Scotland. The funding will support the creation of the Scottish Data-intensive Science Triangle (ScotDIST), which will support PhD students at the Universities of Edinburgh, St Andrews and Glasgow. Some 16 postgraduate physics students have been awarded places through the initiative.
The scheme supports astronomy, particle physics, nuclear physics, and solar physics as key areas for big data research. By tackling problems such as the fundamental nature of matter, the early history of the universe or how elements are made in neutron star mergers, researchers hope to develop novel problem-solving techniques that are directly relevant to industry and commerce.
Graduates are expected to stay in research, or take up positions in industry.
Students funded through the scheme will benefit from additional technical training and six-month placements with Industrial partners.
“The new Centres for Doctoral Training are helping to equip the next generation of data scientists, who will help shape how data science is applied in research and industry.” Professor Andy Lawrence, Director of ScotDIST, School of Physics and Astronomy
The centres are funded by the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council.
Visit the Postgraduate Open Day to find out about our MSc programmes and PhD opportunities.
On 15 November, academic staff, current students and alumni will be involved in a number of events including:
- MSc and PhD information sessions
- Talks on student life
- Tours of the facilities and labs
- Information sessions on careers and funding
You will have the opportunity to find out about all our PhD and MSc opportunities, including our new MSc in Particle & Nuclear Physics. This degree brings together advanced experimental techniques, computational techniques, and theoretical understanding, and provides a platform for employment in a wide spectrum of professions that call for numeracy and data analysis skills.
Edinburgh scientists have taken part in the first detection and analysis of a powerful astronomical event – the merger of two very dense neutron stars.
The results give unprecedented insight into the processes involved when neutron stars collide in deep space. The event, some 130 million light years away, is the latest discovery made using sophisticated gravitational wave detectors.
It is the first binary neutron star collision to be observed by the international Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) collaboration, and the first gravitational wave event to be observed by conventional telescopes.
Observing the same event in different ways provides much more information about the processes involved when neutron stars collide in deep space. It has also allowed a measurement of the rate at which the universe is expanding – known to scientists as Hubble’s constant.
David Homan, a PhD student from the School of Physics and Astronomy was working at the NTT telescope in Chile when the team there was alerted to the event. Jonathan Gair, a researcher from the School of Mathematics also took part in the gravitational wave data analysis and scientific interpretation of the event. They were able to capture some of the first visible evidence of it, and to track its development over several days. Energy in the form of gravitational waves, gamma rays, X-rays, light and radio waves was detected in the aftermath of the collision, helping astronomers around the world confirm and characterise the event.
The collision offers valuable insight into elusive explosions known as gamma ray bursts. A type of gamma ray burst can occur in the aftermath of a binary neutron star collision. These emit energy equivalent to that produced by an entire galaxy in a year, in a matter of seconds.
Scientists also found evidence of a kilonova event – an outburst of visible light that astronomers had predicted may occur following a neutron star merger, as a by-product of the production of heavy chemical elements.
The international LIGO team gathers and analyses data from a pair of highly sensitive detectors in the US. Measurements from an additional gravitational wave detector in Italy, named Virgo, helped scientists pinpoint the location of recorded events. The detectors were conceived to demonstrate the existence of gravitational waves, which are ripples in spacetime created by extreme astronomical events, and for use as a revolutionary new kind of telescope.
Gravitational waves were detected for the first time in 2015, a discovery that led to the award of the 2017 Nobel Prize for Physics. Latest findings from the international collaboration have been published in a series of scientific papers including Physical Review Letters and Nature.
David Homan reported: “This is truly an exceptional discovery: a never before seen event with the potential for many new insights and discoveries. Given the size of the collaborative effort involved, from LIGO and Virgo to different observatories around the world, I am just excited to have played a small part.”
A consortium of European astronomers are involved in a project aimed at catching the spectra of transient events. Included in this is Professor Andy Lawrence from the School of Physics and Astronomy.
Professor Andy Lawrence announced: "This is the culmination of the hard work of hundreds of people over decades. But it is also the start of something new - multi-messenger astrophysics! We can learn about the Universe from light, gravitational waves and particles all at the same time.”
The UK contribution to LIGO is supported by the Science and Technology Facilities Council.
On Saturday 7th October, Edinburgh staff and students can be seen on-screen at the Edinburgh Filmhouse, in a film which recounts the life of the famous astronomer Charles Piazzi Smyth, and re-creates his famous experiments of 1856.
In the mid-nineteenth century Charles Piazzi Smyth felt sure that the right way to do astronomy was from the top of mountains, not from smoky cities like Edinburgh. With his geologist wife Jessie, he organised an expedition to Tenerife to prove he was right, living and working on top of Teide for several weeks. He made classic experiments on the sharpness of seeing, the solar spectrum, the zodiacal light, and was the first person to detect infra-red radiation from the Moon. On his return he wrote a popular best seller as well as technical reports, and Astronomy has never looked back since.
In 2016, several Edinburgh students travelled to Tenerife, met up with Spanish students, and lived on the mountain, re-creating Piazzi Smyth's experiments (with some much better equipment!). This experience was filmed as part of "A Residence Above the Clouds", a film about Piazzi Smyth by Spanish film-maker Guillermo Carnero-Rosell. The film is partly a record of our 2016 trip, partly an account of Piazzi Smyth himself, but also a blend of science, art, and music. For part of this experience we were joined by the Queen guitarist Brian May, who relived his experiences as an Astronomy student in the 1970s, measuring the zodiacal light in Tenerife.
The film is having its UK premiere at the Edinburgh Spanish Film Festival, on Saturday 7th October in the Edinburgh Filmhouse.
The School of Physics and Astronomy opened its doors to visitors and showcased the research undertaken at the Institute for Condensed Matter and Complex Systems.
The School of Physics and Astronomy was delighted to open its doors to visitors on Saturday 23rd September. As part of the Edinburgh-wide Doors Open Days event ran annually by the Cockburn association, over 500 visitors were greeted in the foyer of the James Clerk Maxwell Building by a team of thirteen PhD students and Postdoctoral staff from the Institute for Condensed Matter and Complex Systems (ICMCS).
Visitors engaged in a number of highly interactive activities, such as making slime, lava lamps, playing with a non-Newtonian fluid made of corn-starch and water, and investigating the possibility of life on Mars. In addition, research lab tours ran all day and academic staff demonstrated and explained the cutting-edge research work they undertake.
A fantastic insight into science.
The activities were amazing and the staff was very enthusiastic.
The event was organised by the Edinburgh Complex Fluid Partnership, the Ogden Trust, the UK Centre for Astrobiology and the Condensed Matter CDT, with the generous support from numerous volunteers across ICMCS. School colleagues based in the Institute for Astronomy also took part in the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh Doors Open Day event.
Researchers from Edinburgh are taking part in a flagship international experiment to study the properties of fundamental sub-atomic particles, called neutrinos, which could help explain more about how the universe works and why matter exists at all.
The UK Government is investing £65million in the partnership project, based in the United States. It will create the Long-Baseline Neutrino Facility (LBNF) and the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (DUNE) in the US. The LBNF will fire neutrinos a distance of 1300 km from the Fermilab facility in Illinois towards the DUNE detector at the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF) in South Dakota.
Scientists will detect neutrino behaviour to study differences in behaviour between neutrino particles and their antimatter counterparts, antineutrinos. If this effect, known as CP violation, were observed in neutrino oscillations, this could explain why we live in a universe dominated by physical matter.
Once constructed, the LBNF and DUNE facility will operate for at least 15 years, undertaking a broad programme of scientific research.
Scientists will also use DUNE to study the neutrinos produced when a star explodes, which could give insights into the formation of neutron stars and black holes.
Researchers will investigate whether protons - positively charged subatomic particles - exist forever or eventually decay. This result would bring scientists a step closer to fulfilling Albert Einstein’s dream of a grand unified theory.
Physicists from the School of Physics and Astronomy at Edinburgh will take part in the collaboration alongside the Universities of Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Durham, Imperial, Lancaster, Liverpool, Manchester, Oxford, Sheffield, Sussex, Warwick and UCL.
Edinburgh’s scientists will contribute to creating electronic read out systems for the detector and will participate in creating computer networks to process the vast amounts of data from the experiment.
Professor Franz Muheim reported: “This is fantastic news. We are very excited to be part of the UK consortium on this flagship experiment. This brings together expertise and cutting edge technology to address one of the most fundamental problems in science.”
UK Universities and Science Minister Jo Johnson signed the agreement with the US Energy Department in Washington, DC.
UK Science Minister, Jo Johnson said: “Our continued collaboration with the US on science and innovation is beneficial to both of our nations and through this agreement we are sharing expertise to enhance our understanding of many important topics that have the potential to be world changing.”
The UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) will manage the UK’s investment in the international facility.