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Life, the Universe and Everything

Science in the Pub Number 70

Part of Astronomy on the Go!

With panellists Fred Watson and David Malin

Compered by Alf Conlon

Wednesday, July 16th 2003, 7:00pm

Harlequin Inn, Pyrmont

Science in the Pub comes back to its spitual home, the Harlequin Inn, with two of its favourite scientists, and attempts to answer some of the big questions of life, the universe and everything! We look at how our culture and the Universe are enmeshed, and ask whether astronomy plays a role in defining who we are and what we believe in. Our two favourite astronomers from the Anglo Australian Observatory lead the fray: Dr Fred Watson and Dr David Malin, in a discussion compered by Alf Conlon.

Fred Watson
comes from a long line of Freds, but is the first one in the family to have become an astronomer. Educated in Scotland, he has worked at both of Britain's Royal Observatories and at their overseas telescopes in Hawaii and the Canary Islands. In Australia during the 1980s, he helped to pioneer the use of fibre optics in astronomy, a technique that has today assumed world-wide importance.

Fred is now Astronomer-in-Charge of the Anglo-Australian Observatory at Coonabarabran in north-western NSW, and an adjunct professor in the University of Southern Queensland and the Queensland University of Technology. He is a well-known broadcaster and writer on astronomical topics. His new book on the history of the telescope will be published next year by Allen and Unwin.

Fred offers the following poem for Science in the Pub:

Forbidden Lines

The Universe, a largish place,
Is blessed with lots of empty space
Where things go on, behind our backs,
Things too hot for tabloid hacks.
Here, atoms, free from earthly pressure,
Cavort in rare and wanton pleasure,
And, in their frenzied celebration,
Emit forbidden radiation.

Back on Earth, it took a while
For scientists to spot the guile
With which such nuclei betray
Their games in distant nebulae.
An unknown substance, it was deemed,
Produced the spectrum lines thus seen.
They christened it `nebulium'.
(They should have guessed---it rhymes with `dumb'.)

Then, in nineteen-twenty-eight,
Someone came who put them straight.
A clever chap called Ira Bowen,
Told them things they should have knowen.
"Forbidden lines, you see, become
Permitted, when the pressure's gone.
The secret's there in vacuo---
Nebulium's just N and O".
"How brilliant!", his peers exclaimed,
"Old Ira's got nebulium tamed!"

Unfortunately, in the street,
Few people heard of Ira's feat,
And, in the folklore of the sky,
Nebulium's still riding high.
Alas, I fear, it's much the same
With all things done in science's name.
Once ideas get recognition,
They regress---to superstition.

Reference: I. S. Bowen, Astrophysical Journal, 67, 1-15, 1928.

David Malin
was with the Anglo-Australian Observatory for 26 years, and sometimes he even worked there. Occasionally, his chemistry and scientific imaging background were useful in the main aspects of astronomical photography, data gathering, data extraction, data analysis and da teda teda. He invented new ways of revealing information and even faint fingerprints on astronomical plates, a speciality which has given him an international reputation and a police profile. These novel image enhancement techniques quickly led to the discovery of two new types of galaxy which bear his name. Malin-Carter 'shell' galaxies have extremely faint but large-scale features and fingermarks that are associated with otherwise normal galaxies, while in 1987 he discovered an extremely faint, uniquely massive 'proto-galaxy' which has since been named "Malin-1", or just "Malin" for those who have trouble with numbers.

These are some of the smudgiest objects ever detected by an ground-based telescope and are the result of a photographic process that has been dubbed 'Malinisation' or 'pre-digital fingering'. Their discovery, if true, represented a significant advance in smudge detection, as well as being a major contribution to research on galaxies. These same techniques are used to make colour pictures of stars, nebulae and galaxies.

David Malin has published over 120 scientific papers and a similar number of equally obscure popular articles on astronomy and photography. He has also authored or co-authored seven books, now widely remaindered. David Malin is also a well-known and entertaining lecturer on these and on other, totally unrelated topics and has worked with Australian composers Martin Wesley-Smith and Ross Edwards on combining photographs with modern music. His latest book ("Heaven and Earth" Phaidon Press, 2002) is a large format celebration of the beauty of the scientific image. It includes at least one fingerprint.

David offers us the following thoughts:

The Sky at Night

The sky at night looks pretty dull
There's blackness everywhere, it's hardly full,
but this is an illusion, because our sight
was never designed to see the stars at night.

We know them only from the light they emit.
Astronomers don't experiment, they only sit
and stare with telescopes and fancy detectors,
sorting the sky into numerous sectors.

The stars don't smell, they are beyond our reach;
how to make sense of this, I beseech?
There's nothing like it in the natural world,
it's a great puzzle, still being unfurled.

But we know a little, and yet more each night,
as astromers struggle with feeble light
they strive to make sense of what little is seen,
and we begin to understand what is and what has been

Our bodies, this room, the beer and Fred Watson
came from the past, cosmic jetsam and flotsam
Shuffled and sorted in the long reaches of time...
You will be pleased to know...
this is the last line.

Our compere tonight, Alf Conlon enjoyed being an undergraduate at UNSW so much, he stayed as one for most of a decade, interspersing studies in information systems, philosophy and cognitive science with work for a variety of publishing and technology companies in the US and Australia. He currently mixes producing interactive media products with consulting to Australian businesses on the implications and possibilities of new media technologies.

Science in the Pub is the Eureka Award winning endeavour in science communication. Regular sessions are generally staged 3-4 times per year, (generally 7-9pm on Wednesdays) at the Harlequin Inn, 152 Harris Street, Pyrmont in Sydney. Admission costs $5 worth of raffle tickets, your chance to win one of many excellent prizes!

Visit our website at

Next Science in the Pub session
Wedesday, July 23, 7pm at the Harlequin Inn, SciPub LXXI: 'What is a Planet?'. While aimed at a professional audience, this question is sure to interest all those curious about the wanderers in the night sky.



Science in the Pub™, © 2000. Stutchbury, R, Burton, M.