The BAA at New Scientist Live, 2022 October 7–9
2023 February 7
‘This is amazing.’
‘And we can just do this anytime it’s clear?’
‘Thank you so much!’
These were some of the reactions from hundreds of New Scientist Live attendees at the BAA stand when they looked through a telescope for the first time.
The BAA has a long-standing history of encouraging observations of the night sky. Attending the annual New Scientist Live exhibition at ExCel in London has been a key thrust of this strategy – albeit interrupted over the past two years by the pandemic. With two days open to the public and one day exclusively for school-age children (primary to A-Level students), this is a prime opportunity for the BAA to encourage new observers to look through a telescope, swell the BAA coffers by selling astronomy merchandise, and encourage new faces to join the Association.
The BAA stand was set up with a team of volunteers under the auspices of Janice McClean, BAA Events & Outreach Coordinator. The centrepiece of the exhibit was a pair of eye-catching Dobsonians made by Steve Floodgate and David Grist from Crayford Manor House Astronomical Society, Dartford, who saved them from disposal and converted them into outreach instruments. Those of you who were at last year’s Winchester Weekend will have been lucky enough to have seen the Dobs; ‘Eric and Ernie’ give a very amusing presentation on their mission to save the instruments.
Those who have built a Dobsonian know that an LP (Long-Playing record for those under 50…) makes a perfect azimuth base. The larger 8-inch ƒ/6 uses an Anita Dobson LP and hence was called Anita. The smaller, 4.5-inch ƒ/5, however, uses a CD from the rapper Tinie Tempah called ‘Written in the Stars’, and is therefore known as Tinie.
The BAA has a number of 3-D models, expertly printed by Mark Radice and beautifully painted in acrylics by Steve Goldson, to help with outreach. The most important is a globe of Jupiter, complete with Great Red Spot, along with models of the Tharsis volcanoes on Mars, the Apollo 11 landing site, and a painted globe of Mars, again beautifully produced by Mark.
To encourage visitors to the stand, we planned to offer views of Jupiter (albeit indoors and in daytime). Luckily, we secured permission to mount the Jupiter globe high on the combine harvester in the Future of Farming section – far enough away for the telescope to reach focus and high enough to avoid people walking across the field of view. Passers-by of all ages were encouraged to look through the telescope at the distant globe. Once they had taken a photo through the eyepiece with their smartphones, or made a sketch to take away, they were directed to the BAA stand where they could buy merchandise or sign up for membership.
The show itself was a little smaller this year, but apparently at least 27,000 came through the doors, queuing up to 30 minutes before opening time. The schools day was a definite success, with pupils coming from as far afield at Sunderland. There were four areas including Mind and Body, Future Stage, Universe Stage and Our Planet. At the centre was an Engage Stage, heavily focused on space exploration, but dominating the whole exhibition was the enormous combine harvester already mentioned. That was one scary piece of equipment!
By tallying up observers over a few hours, we estimate over 1,000 people and perhaps as many as 1,200 looked through a telescope – many for their first time. It was remarkable to see young and old alike enthusing about observing, with their first astronomy image safely on their phone. It was a chance for them to see something you might observe in reality with a telescope, in comparison with processed images seen in magazines and websites.
We sold just under £500 of BAA stock – and even had to return to the BAA store to get more merchandise part way through the event. At the time of writing, it looks like we had an extra 17 new memberships in October. Clearly, the enthusiasm of our volunteers and the equipment on display was helping to drive footfall to the stand and will no doubt help ensure the BAA remains relevant to today’s observers.
Many thanks to all the volunteers who gave up their time, provided equipment and donated materials, before, during and after the event. It takes a special kind of astronomer to share their enthusiasm with such a mixed crowd. Thanks to Nick ‘Muscles’ Hewitt, Rita Whiting and Debra Holton (both specialists in engaging teenagers!), Diane Clarke, Mike Rushton, Nick James (and his comet model), Mike Frost, Marie-Louise Archer, and of course David Grist and Steve Floodgate.
New Scientist Live still is a great opportunity for the BAA to reach out to the unconverted and undecided, offering a different age profile to our usual events and a chance to reach a much more diverse audience. Next year it will run from October 6–8, so put a note in your diary and keep an eye out for our complimentary tickets, advertised in the BAA Newsletter.
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