Gamma rays, telescopes and pathways to impact
“People are interested in black holes and mysterious cosmic particles, but it is more than that: we are in the privileged position of being paid by the public to research science in a fascinating area of physics; I think that we have an obligation to explain to people what we are doing.” - Dr Paula Chadwick, Gamma Ray scientist, University of Durham
“Thinking through and creating pathways to impact for a telescope that does not yet exist is no different to scientists in other disciplines thinking about the potential pathways for their research before they start their project,” says Dr Paula Chadwick. “In some respects my task is easier because I already know what the end product will be in three to four years time,” she adds.
Dr Paula Chadwick, a gamma ray astronomer at Durham University, is a member of the global consortium building the Cherenkov Telescope Array (CTA), an initiative to build the next generation of ground-based very high-energy gamma ray instruments. The UK collaboration consists of scientists in 12 institutions that includes Durham University and is led by the University of Leicester. Durham is responsible for co-ordinating outreach activities in the UK.
This preparatory part of project has two main pathway strands: public outreach and industrial knowledge exchange. Dr Chadwick explains the approach: “The main thing was to corral what members were already doing with what we would like to do and bring it together into a coherent programme.”
Research in particle astrophysics demands new technological solutions and the members of the UK CTA collaboration are familiar with working with private companies to help develop and manufacture new technologies. These ventures often results in technological innovations which then find their way into industrial or mainstream application. For example, technology designed to assist gamma ray research is helping to produce atmospheric calibration instruments for airports and radio communication technology developed for the Pierre Auger Observatory is now used by a spinout company to improve safety on railways in the UK and abroad.
Working closely with their respective university knowledge exchange offices the CTA project members are investigating opportunities for potential collaborations with industry including developing a new generation cheap, rapidly pulsing LED systems and high-speed amplifiers. There are also economic impact opportunities for UK businesses through bidding for contracts for the construction phase of the CTA project. As part of their pathways activities, the CTA UK project members will be hosting meetings for UK businesses to ensure they know about these opportunities and have the chance to participate.
As astrophysicists exploring topics like dark matter, particle acceleration and supernovae, the team’s research, and this area of science more generally, is of great interest to public audiences: from schoolchildren through to documentary makers and festival audiences. The pathways to impact for the CTA project included a strong public engagement element.
Dr Chadwick says, “Public engagement is important in a project like this. People are interested black holes and mysterious cosmic particles, but it is more than that: we are in the privileged position of being paid by the public to research science in a fascinating area of physics; I think that we have an obligation to explain to people what we are doing.”
Along with other particle astrophysicists around the UK, she is involved with a national project called CORUS, which aims to place cosmic ray detectors in schools. Children can get involved with experiments and data collection learning about how cosmic rays vary depending on atmospheric conditions as well as learning about the supporting technology such as optical fibres and how to detect light.
“Communication is fundamental. If you can communicate to members of the public, you can improve how you communicate with colleagues. Helping to establish the CORUS network in the UK is a great vehicle to raise awareness of the CTA project during its build phase and to engage young people in the science. For the younger researchers involved in this project it is a fantastic opportunity to build their communication skills,” says Dr Chadwick.
There are plans for a public website and CTA leaflets to be distributed at science festivals and other public events. The UK team have also approached a TV production company about a documentary of the making of the telescopes. Working with the National Space Centre in Leicester, the team are exploring the possibility of creating a touring planetarium show based on gamma ray astronomy, to bring the CTA project to a much wider audience. This aspect is potentially very expensive and will be bid for later in the project when plans are more developed and other partners have been recruited.
She concludes: “For me, the most rewarding element of public engagement is the enthusiasm you get from interacting with people who know little about what you do and find it fascinating; like any job, working at the coal face day-in day-out can be dispiriting; public engagement helps keep the fire burning.”
Institution:University of Durham