ScopeX 2007 Auditorium Report
by Dr Robert Groess
Labeled a truly "world class" event by our special ScopeX guest this year, seasoned past-editor of world renowned Astronomy and Telescope Making magazines, Richard Berry, ScopeX is firmly on a winning track. It was an honour and privilege and equally a delight to have the CEO of the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement (SAASTA), Beverley Damonse, officially open ScopeX 2007, and address the throngs of people who were eager to participate and enjoy the premier annual public astronomy event on the African continent. With the generous support from SAASTA, an event like ScopeX is bound to be a recipe for success.
And a success it was. People came in droves. The auditorium lectures were in general extremely well attended. Even well into the evening, the car park was a veritable traffic jam due to incoming vehicles, for the star party. The naysayers criticizing the ScopeX date for falling in April and not May were silenced when we were treated to a fantastic (by urban standards) sky with a crescent Moon. And what would we have done without the extraordinary and unflinching support of the Voortrekkers, who made sure there was plenty of food and drink for the entire duration of the event, even into the late hours of the evening?
As Master of Ceremonies for the auditorium lectures at ScopeX, I am able to report on the great attractor which the talks presented themselves as. Our first guest speaker was Tim Cooper, who gave a real feel for debris lurking in the Solar System – essentially the extended family of the Sun. Interstellar dust clouds which we can see in the proximity of other solar systems, such as the Trifid nebula, and M16's pillars of creation, provided a great lead-in to such animals as comets and asteroids, not to mention dwarf planets and the like, that really are the debris of the solar system – and ultimately the stuff of which you and I are made. The young learners in the auditorium sat very attentively, soaking up each and every word with great enthusiasm.
Marion West gave newcomers a detailed tour of our solar system and proceeded with her Voyage through the Universe to distant star systems and galaxies beyond. This presentation was also almost filled to capacity as people eagerly absorbed Marion's use of some nice and easy to understand analogies, such as describing certain galaxies as having fried egg edge-on profiles – giving a whole new meaning to the phrase, "sunny-side up".
Willie Koorts from the SAAO gave a splendid virtual tour of SALT. His lucid presentation style and bountiful images, made for a fantastic tour as if we were travelling back in time to the construction of SALT, to being whisked around in a helicopter with breathtaking views from above, and then being allowed to examine, first hand, how the large 1m 100kg mirror segments were made, aluminized and fitted to their respective trusses. Willie's experience with all these aspects of one of the largest telescopes on Earth, made for a thoroughly fascinating insider view on our national pride, SALT.
After having drawn many perplexed questions about, "what is the Cosmic Egg?", Case Rijsdijk changed the name of his enchanting tour of the boundaries of our cosmological knowledge, to "the Universe through a Microscope." Here we were escorted to the beginning of space and time – and challenged the boundaries of Quantum physics with General Relativity. Case has a real passion for communicating often incomprehensible concepts to the lay-public in a way which can be understood by a far broader audience. Just as many times before, it was a real honour to have Case Rijsdijk give another popular presentation for ScopeX.
As for our international guest and keynote speaker, Richard Berry's presentation was an insightful view into what was, what is and what has yet to be in the global landscape that is amateur astronomy. A part of Richard's talk focused on what is to become of our familiar monthly magazines, and the types of astronomical equipment we will be using in the years beyond. The printed media may well be on its way out. What will the electronic equivalent be like? And what about the kinds of cameras and CCD chips we will have access to 15 years down the road? Will they be a thousand-fold more sensitive, larger (tens of millions of pixels), and exploiting innovations we have not yet dreamt of?
A real thrill of his presentation, and a sobering thought at that, was speculating of what we would find one of our most cherished resources to be like 40 years from now... the night sky. This global heritage of ours may very well be as endangered as wildlife species in game reserves. Richard speculated that we may need to make bookings at dark-sky resorts in order to appreciate what our ancient ancestors had freely available to them. A positively spine-chilling view of the universe. Today, very few people have the privilege to access this natural resource. And the numbers are dwindling with the ever encroach of night lighting.
Last, but not least, Kevin Govender from the SALT Collateral Benefits Program gave an inspiring and interactive presentation on what Astronomy in South Africa means to the multitudes of people living in abject poverty, mere walking distance from such endeavour's as the R100m SALT and even more expensive Karoo Array Telescope. Those who attended, truly admired the powerful spin-offs which Kevin alluded to.
While I was mostly confined to the auditorium throughout much of the day, the ScopeX atmosphere outside was equally magnetic, with at least 66 home built telescopes proudly pervading the lawns. The commercial sponsors and donors that are fundamental to the success of ScopeX, are listed in the May edition of our monthly newsletter, Canopus and as ASSA Johannesburg chairman, I would like to thank everyone who made the difference. Many people worked behind the scenes. Too many to mention. Save to say the proof of the pudding is in the enjoyment we all had and the generally great social ambiance which made the 6th Annual ScopeX another great success.