GENERAL MEETING REPORT 14 NOVEMBER
The evening’s lecture was dedicated to the memory of Phillip Simon. Before introducing the evening’s speaker ASV historian Rod Brown gave a short resume of Phillip Simon’s life, acknowledging his long and distinguished service to the Society and the many contributions he made. Doctor Chris Fluke then spoke on the subject “The Astronomical Tourist”.
“Our modern understanding of an expanding Universe filled with billions of galaxies, containing bizarre objects like pulsars, quasars and black holes, seems a long way from the simple night sky of our ancestors. The only difference is the passage of time. The history of astronomy is filled with the contributions of thousands of individuals, both known and unknown, from cultures all over the world. While most of us will never get to directly explore the solar system and beyond, there are many locations on Earth that can be visited either in person, or virtually thanks to Google Maps. These places put us in touch with the people who made some of the most profound discoveries about the Universe.”
Chris Fluke’s interest in astronomy goes back to when he was six years old and his parents gave him a set of Star War toys for Christmas. And when (at the age of 12) they took him to the Planetarium at the old Melbourne Museum and he realised that there was a career called astronomer, where you could study stars and planets and galaxies and the universe, and actually get paid for it, his mind was made up. Today Doctor Chris Fluke does research into new ways to explore astronomical data, using some of the most advanced imaging displays developed at the Swinburne Centre of Astrophysics and Supercomputing. “We know a surprising lot about the universe” he says, “and I think one of the most incredible things is that, as a species, we've reached a point where we can sit in front of a computer and simulate the whole universe, try and understand how it works, and then come up with models for it that agree incredibly well with the observations that are then carried out with some of the world's best telescopes.“ It is called Computational Cosmology, a clever form of “reverse engineering”.
Away from research Chris is an instructor for Swinburne Astronomy Online and is regularly involved in public education activities and as a tour-guide for the primary and secondary school AstroTour program.
The Astronomical Tour for tonight, though, was not heading to the star studded sky, “it was not the Deep Sky Observing Tourist”, but a documentary following in the footsteps of “... individuals (both known and unknown, and from cultures all over the world), who contributed to our growing understanding of the Universe over the passage of time”. We followed Chris, visiting the houses of John Goodricke (1764– 1786) who, deaf and dumb, is credited with first discovering the properties of the Cepheid variables; the Savalian Professor of Geometry, Edmund Halley (1703–1742); and the William Herschel Museum. We saw Dr Fluke standing before the silent sentinels of Stonehenge and we saw him enduring primitive railway travel on the Indian subcontinent, interpreting Rabindranath Tagore’s powerful ‘Language of Stone’. Civilisation’s fascination with astronomy is the fine thread that runs unseen between all of them, challenging man’s ingenuity over the ages. If primitive travel and lengthy journeys to remote places are not your cup of tea, you can of course use Google, modern technology’s armchair answer to budget and time restraints, and do it all in one evening. Best of all, have an astronomical tourist guide, a Dr Who, show it to you, pre-packaged as a PowerPoint presentation.
Dr Fluke did not mention science fiction’s longest running TV travel-show (Guinness Book of World Records) directly, but certain aspects of his presentation seemed to allude to the ‘Time And Relative Dimension(s) In Space’ concept (the TARDIS phone booth) of Dr Who. When the only difference in our understanding between the simple, star-studded sky of our ancestors and an expanding universe filled with billions of galaxies, black holes and quasars, is the passage of time, then it is a short step to let your fingers do the walking and let Google eliminate the need for time, too. Enter Chris Fluke’s mysterious door of the Astronomical Tourist and you step outside the conventional universe, a time-and-dimension-less state from which you can re-enter any time of your choosing, anyplace on Earth or for that matter anywhere in the universe, instantly. But beware, as you enter the door you pass under the gaze of astronomy’s historic icons, those who have made profound contributions to our understanding of the universe. Isn’t that Ibn Yunus looking over Chris’ shoulder, reminding us that time and gravity do in the end indeed measure our lives? (Ibn Yunus' Hakimi Zij [written about 1000AD] was a particularly fine and accurate astronomical handbook. His observations and mathematical calculations were considered reliable enough to be in regular use right up to the nineteenth century, and his figure of forty minutes of arc between the observed and the true (level) horizon is the earliest specific figure recorded for this refractive quantity). See what I mean about having to beware of becoming a Google tourist? It just drags you in!
The evening showed us an aspect of Chris Fluke we have not noticed before on his several previous visits to the ASV: using his computational visualisation talent of matching theories with observed phenomena, to highlight our evolving understanding of astronomy and astrophysics. Spanning from the Language of Stone to the language of the Internet, from seeing eternally fixed stars to seeing ourselves in an expanding ephemeral universe, it was a humbling experience.
The vote of thanks was given by Arthur Coombs with a show of appreciation in an environmentally friendly shopping bag. A Klink