Famous scientist opens Birr telescope education centre

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karen.ogrady@midlandtribune.ie

The famous Irish scientist Jocelyn Bell Burnell officially opened the new Education Centre at the radio telescope in Birr Castle Demesne on Thursday afternoon.

Professor Burnell won a Nobel Prize for discovering Pulsars back in the '60s. She told the gathering at Thursday's launch that Birr has a very special place in the story of Irish astronomy, therefore it was very appropriate that this great story is being continued in such a positive way.

“Unlike last year for the turning on of the telescope,” said Professor Peter Gallagher, director of the project, “the weather is thankfully being much kinder to us for this opening.

“Getting to this stage has been a long journey, going back to the sharing of some crazy ideas some years ago. The chief crazy ideas were building a radio telescope; and in the midlands.

“I am thrilled that Dame Jocelyn Burnell is present here today to officially open the new Education Centre. Dame Burnell is one of the rock stars of the Astronomy world and she has been an inspiration to many of us.

“She came from a very normal background, and wasn't always academically brilliant. She famously failed her 11 plus exams.

“She did her PhD in Cambridge, constructed a radio telescope (where she said, 'the first thing I learned to do in Cambridge was swing a sledgehammer!')

“She was also the first person to discover Pulsars, objects which are only about ten kilometres across, but contain the same amount of energy as hundreds or thousands of suns.”

Cllr Danny Owens, Cathaoirleach Offaly County Council, warmly welcomed Dame Burnell to the opening and he said Offaly County Council was very proud and happy to be associated with this project. He said the education centre and radio telescope are located in lovely countryside. “I am certain this new Education Centre, in these converted, former farm buildings, will prove to be an inspirational learning space for many people. Birr's great reputation in astronomy is a source of great pride to the people of the town. I-LOFAR is exciting scientifically but it's also exciting for the area in terms of creating more jobs and increasing visitor numbers.” He said €316,000 in government funding had gone towards the Education Centre. He added that Orla Martin of Offaly Local Enterprise Office had invested a considerable amount of time and effort in this project.

Professor Burnell also launched the Astronomical Midlands Schools and Public Engagement Programme. Astronomical Midlands, which has been funded by Science Foundation Ireland, will use the I-LOFAR Education Centre to connect with students, teachers and members of the public in rural communities in the Midlands.

“Astronomical Midlands,” said Professor Gallagher, “will open new conversations with groups that have had little involvement with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), using this unique new facility at Birr. This is a wonderful opportunity to carry forward the rich scientific heritage of Birr, allowing people in the Midlands to discover opportunities for further education and careers in STEM and inspire the next generation of scientific explorers.

“Astronomical Midlands will embark on three key initiatives: Space4Exploration by creating an engaging, inspirational and multi-use space in the I-LOFAR Education Centre; Space4Students, launching day-long and week-long space camps at the centre that run during school term and school holidays for students aged 10 to 14; and Space4Teachers which will create CPD (Continuing Professional Development) workshops for upper primary and lower secondary school teachers based around the National Junior Certificate themes of earth and space.

“The Irish LOFAR Consortium is proud to continue the rich heritage in astronomy at Birr Castle, taking Irish astrophysics from its pioneering days in the 19th Century to the current state-of-the-art facility in the 21st Century. The I-LOFAR Education Centre will complement the existing Science Visitor Centre at Birr Castle, which tells the story of past Irish achievements in science. The I-LOFAR Education Centre will provide an inspirational location for education workshops, and community-based STEM projects, such as CoderDojo. It will be equipped with a 3D video globe, a large video wall, numerous interactive flat screen displays, and a LOFAR radio telescope network activity wall.”

Professor Burnell said she was delighted to be present to officially open the new centre. She recalled growing up in Lurgan in the 1950s and the challenge of being a girl when you wanted to do science. “Wanting to study science and not home economics was something of a rebellious, maverick thing for girls at the time. Thankfully my parents were very supportive of me and told my school in no uncertain terms that they expected me to be allowed to join the science class. I joined the science class. There were only three girls amongst a big class of boys. I remember that when I outperformed the boys in science the teacher castigated the boys for allowing this to happen!”

She said that when she went to Cambridge she felt she didn't belong. “I think I was suffering from Imposter Syndrome. Because of my more humble background I felt out of place in this exalted place and among this exalted company. As a result I felt I had to prove myself. Therefore, I worked extremely hard. If I hadn't been so committed to hard work and to proving myself, I mightn't have discovered Pulsars. The Pulsars were very small anomalies in all the data I was accumulating.”

Professor Burnell told us that the 19th Century Birr optical telescope was associated with the first Henry Draper Catalogue. The Henry Draper Catalogue is an astronomical star catalogue published between 1918 and 1924, giving spectroscopic classifications for 225,300 stars. These classifications were based on observations made by the optical telescope in Birr.

Professor Gallagher thanked many people for their assistance with the project, including Stevie Grant and Joe Hogan for generously part funding the project. He thanked Deputy Marcella Corcoran Kennedy and Cllr John Clendennen for being very supportive, as well as Orla Martin. The Physics Department in Trinity College Dublin was also very supportive. “Joe McAuley should also be mentioned, whose DIY skills are so strongly appreciated. Lord and Lady Rosse and the staff in the Castle have also been fantastic.”

A presentation of a scarf with an I-LOFAR theme was made by local artist Hazel Greene to Professor Burnell.(pictured below)

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