13 Journeys through Space and Time: Christmas Lectures from the Royal Institution - Colin Stuart


When Colin Stuart asked the audience how many people had listened to the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, a large number of hands went up. When asked how many had actually attended one for real, well, I put my hand up though I didn’t notice whether there was anyone else. Those of us who listened through our childhood to these lectures remember them with fondness, and certainly my interest and eventual occupation as a scientist owe much to the quality and enthusiasm of the selected speakers over the years.
Colin Stuart is an astronomy speaker and author whose books have sold more than 100,000 copies worldwide. He has written over 100 popular science articles for publications including The Guardian, New Scientist, BBC Focus and the European Space Agency. In recognition of his efforts to popularise astronomy, the asteroid (15347) Colinstuart is named after him.
The Christmas Lectures have run every year since 1825 (with a brief pause between 1939 and 1942 and between 2005 and 2006). They were the brainchild of Michael Faraday who gave the first one; his idea was that the talks should be aimed at children and should include as many practical demonstrations as possible. Colin Stuart set out to discuss thirteen of the lecture series over the years. But to a large extent, the actual content of those lectures was not the key point of interest. It was those snippets of science and the scientists that he learned about during his researches which provided the main fascination.

  • For example Robert Ball’s 1881 series. At that time Ball didn’t know what powered the Sun; the Moon, he stated, was too far away for Man ever to get there; there were canals on Mars. More fascinating was the fact that communications in those days were so slow that letters between scientists travelled too slowly to make important announcements (for example about sightings of comets). The scientists of the day devised an ingenious coding system employing a dictionary to exploit the Telegram Service to communicate this type of information.
  • Herbert Hall Turner in his 1905 lectures opined that Sun Spots were bruises inflicted on the Sun by Comets!
  • Harold Jones’s lectures on “Astronomy in our Daily Life” was the first to be recorded by Pathé. The rapt interest and enthusiasm shown by his young audience was no different from today’s youngsters.
  • In 1970, Sir George Porter used a model time machine. It was so large that a window in the Institute had to be removed to allow the model to be brought in and out using a crane!
  • The economies (or rather the lack of them) for Carl Sagan’s 1977 series drew some surprise, but the extract shown of Sagan entertaining two young audience members to afternoon tea on Mars was particularly heart-warming, just so typical of the very practical nature of all these lectures. Colin Stuart’s hunt for Sagan’s assistant, Dr Arun Aggarwal, was also charming.

Colin Stuart’s book (of the same title as this lecture) goes into a lot of detail and contains many fascinating and humorous stories about the lectures. This was a gentle, entertaining and confidently delivered lecture which our audience of about fifty enjoyed enormously.


Lecture by Professor Chris Lintott – “Is the Milky Way Galaxy Special?”


“Intriguing”, “Stimulating”, “Skilfully explained”, “Superb”, “Funny”. Just some of the comments we received after Chris Lintott’s highly entertaining, thought-provoking and informative lecture about our Milky Way galaxy and its place in the universe.
We have tried for a number of years to get this acclaimed astronomer to come to speak to us – often his commitments such as the BBC’s “Sky at Night” or “Stargazing Live” took him away from us. But this time he was able to come. And it was worth the wait!
He gave a very personal view on his approach to astronomy – basically, making interpretations of simple observations of the sky to decide things about the universe. Why, for example does the Milky Way appear the way it does? William Herschel in the 18th century was one of the first to map the stars in our galaxy, though he didn’t know he couldn’t see all of them. It took the Spitzer Infra-red Space Telescope to build a proper map, showing our place in the universe and determine that our galaxy had spiral arms – oh, and a bar (“Things are looking up” someone nearby remarked!)
But is our galaxy different? Lintott described how in 2007 he and his colleagues started to classify galaxies just on the basis of their appearance (e.g. spiral or elliptical). It turns out that humans are better than machines doing this and one student spent a whole year classifying 50,000 of them – but information was needed on another 900,000! Enter Galaxy Zoo, the crowd-sourced astronomy project which invites members of the public to assist in the morphological classification of large numbers of galaxies. The work was completed in months and duplication of observations helped clear up anomalies.
Out of this emerged the Galaxy Colour-Magnitude diagram (analogous to the Hertzprung-Russell diagram for stars) and this is where our galaxy is unusual – it’s green (most are red or blue) and it’s massive for its colour – in this regard we’ve had an unusual history. Nor is our galaxy as active as it should be, albeit it may have been more active as little as 25,000 years ago. Which is a very short time astronomically speaking. Observations of Fermi Bubbles in our galaxy suggest that the black hole at the centre may switch itself on and off on very short timescales. So maybe we are special.
On the other hand, there is data to show that about thirty other galaxies have gone from active to silent in the last 50,000 years. Maybe the Milky Way is not abnormally quiet… we’ve just caught it at a quiet phase.
The information we have at present is conflicting. We need to get Professor Lintott back again, maybe in year or so, when more data will be available. There’s no doubt everyone who attended this lecture would like that!

Celebrating 4 years of WAS Photo exhibitions

Wycombe Astronomical Society’ fourth Astro-imaging Exhibition in July 2017 was a huge success and demonstrated that our members are some of the best amateur astro-imagers around.

Five years ago the Society’s members were already gaining in confidence and competence in this very challenging field. At that time we ran a monthly competition aimed at both experienced imagers and beginners. There were difficulties, however. Often a month would go by and there was no good weather to allow imaging! The judging was often very subjective, carried out by visiting speakers some of whom had no imaging experience and hence no frame of reference for consistent judging. Beginners in particular were reluctant to show their humble first efforts and hence felt discouraged to venture further. Accordingly we abandoned the competitive element and instead decided to hold an annual exhibition in July of each year – that time of the year when short nights make imaging impracticable.

The range of equipment our members now own is formidable – some armed with expensive astrograph quality telescopes and high end CCD cameras, others with DSLRs and video cameras and more modest telescopes, yet others with point-and-shoot cameras or just i-Phones. The Society actively promotes astro-imaging among its members. We hold Practical Sessions to teach members how to attach their photographic equipment to their scopes, how to link their computers with scopes and how to carry out post-image processing using stacking and graphic manipulation software. In addition, invited speakers of international acclaim have lectured to us on the subject, including Nik Szymanek, Pete Lawrence, Chris Baker and Damien Peach.

Our first exhibition was in 2014 where we showed both electronic and printed images. Its purpose was to encourage and develop astro-imaging skills of WAS members through participation, teaching and sharing of techniques among the membership. In subsequent years, we maintained those aims but abandoned printed images (primarily on the basis of cost) and instead showed only electronic images, inviting each imager to describe what the target was and how the image was created. Images include aurora, the Moon and Sun, the planets, nebulae and galaxies – in fact anything remotely connected with astronomy! This format has stood us in good stead since, and the results of our endeavours are shown in this section of our website. It is plain to see what a high standard of images our members are creating and that our Society is working at a level that few other societies can match.

Click an exhibition image below to view the exhibition photos.

Waddesdon Star Gazing Event

A massive thank you to those that helped out at our Waddesdon event on Saturday 19th August....Richard & Carol, Mark C, Simmo, Paul, Pat, the two Adrian's and Alex. Although our numbers were few we had an excellent evenings viewing showing Waddesdon's 80 guests the night sky. Although Saturn was low down the views were good enough to generate the usual wows and "that's incredible you can see the rings". One lady told me that seeing it made her heart soar! There were long queues at each scope with people waiting to see M13, Alberio, The double cluster etc and everyone seemed interested in what they were looking at. The guests stayed around for a good hour or so going backwards and forwards between the scopes. Also, a huge thank you to Sandy who delivered another excellent lecture on the Moon. This was well received by the guests in the Power House.

Its always a pleasure helping out at Waddesdon's Stargazing evenings, they are good fun to do and a beautiful setting to do them in.



Courtesey of Trevor Hunter

Courtesy of Trevor Hunter