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16/04/2014

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The different ages of space weather

Cathryn Mitchell and Joe Kinrade try to amuse all comers

Cathryn Mitchell and Joe Kinrade try to amuse all comers.

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Earlier this year the University of Bath was invited by the London science museum to display an exhibition about space weather and remote fieldwork in Antarctica. In 2010 the university deployed a network of specialised GPS receivers across the Antarctic continent for long-term observation of space weather effects. This involved camping at remote sites across the central icy plateau and working outdoors in temperatures as low as -30°C.

To bring the ‘Space Weather’ experience to the science museum in July 2013, we exhibited actual camping equipment and clothing used in the Antarctic as an interactive and hands-on display. This worked particularly well for younger children who enjoyed trying on furry headwear and snow boots! The challenge for the exhibitors was to get across the scientific aspects of the research.

Complex physics

Space weather describes the interactions that occur within the complex Sun-Earth system. Our technologies and critical infrastructure are now heavily dependent on a growing family of satellites that sit in the fragile near-Earth space environment. Satellite positioning and timing systems now control a vast number of applications ranging from aircraft and marine navigation, ocean floor drilling, and tracking of endangered species.

The Northern and Southern lights of the aurorae are a spectacular phenomenon associated with space weather, but they’re only one component of a large and dynamic Sun-Earth system. The Polar Regions are essentially ‘open’ to solar radiation through the funnel effect of near-vertical geomagnetic field lines. Periods of enhanced solar activity can energise the Earth’s atmosphere, when it exhibits dynamic storm-like behaviour that affects radio signals. The physics is complex and, in order to understand this behaviour, observations have to consider processes that occur over a huge range of scale in space and time.

Different age groups

Most people are now familiar with GPS through navigation, and so for adults it was easy to explain that these signals can be disrupted by the aurora and that this can cause problems for other technological systems such as radio communications.

For teenagers already studying science subjects at school, the exhibition gave them an opportunity to see a different aspect of career progression in engineering at university. For older children below teenage years, the concept of the Earth having a magnetic field (like a big bar magnet) and aurorae was appealing. However the unifying theme for all age groups from 3-83 years old was the movie of the penguins whose appeal transcended all ages!

Personal experience

On reflection we learned a lot from the exhibition. Firstly, to a lot of people a scientist is a general scientist and should be able to answer any science question. ‘What do my dreams mean?’ for example, was perhaps the most unexpected question throughout the exhibition week. 

Secondly, young children are easy to engage but also lose interest very quickly, so it’s important to have a number of different activities to do. Once they see other children trying on Antarctic clothing they are very happy to join in, but they needed encouragement at first.

We found that the most challenging age group was 9-12 year olds – too old to try on giant gloves, but perhaps too young to see themselves as scientists or engineers of the future.

The adult visitors ranged from keen parents and grandparents, to amateur radio enthusiasts, and young couples that were out for the day in London. We had positive responses and interaction from all of these groups.

The main thing we learned was that, as scientists, it was well worth giving up our time to explain what we’re doing. The visitors really appreciated speaking to people who had personal experience of the fieldwork and science in the exhibition, and we thoroughly enjoyed sharing our stories.

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Cathryn Mitchell
Cathryn Mitchell is Professor in the Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering
Joe Kinrade
Joe Kinrade is a research assistant in the Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering
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