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Life, the Universe and Everything

Science in the Pub Number 74

With panellists Charley Lineweaver and John Dickey

Compered bySimon Ellingsen

Friday, August 20th 2004, 7:30-10:00pm

Bridie O'Reilly's Pub

124, Davey Street, Hobart

National Science Week 2004 is focusing on space. A regular feature of national science week, Science in the Pub returns to Tasmania at Bridie O’Reilly’s, 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. Two internationally renowned astrophysicists lead the fray: Dr Charley Lineweaver (University of NSW) and Prof. John Dickey (University of Tasmania), in a discussion compered by Simon Ellingsen.


Charley Lineweaver
is the son of a high school biology teacher. He grew up with giant models of DNA and real skeletons in his closet. Inspired by Carl Sagan, and Richard Feynmann, he obtained a PhD in physics and astronomy from the University of California at Berkeley in 1994. He was a member of the COBE team, led by George Smoot, which discovered the temperature fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background radiation. His area of expertise includes cosmology (determination of the age and composition of the universe) and more recently cosmobiology: using our new knowledge of cosmology to constrain life in the Universe. He has been to 65 countries, speaks four languages and was a semi-professional soccer player. He is currently a Research Astronomer in the School of Physics at the University of New South Wales and will soon take up a position in the new Planetary Science Institute at the Australian National University.

John Dickey
was born and raised in the State of Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia, a metropolis that is almost never visited or even mentioned by anybody except for its 13 million residents. As a teen he wasted his time building amateur radio transmitters, but he was so unsuccessful that in five years of trying nobody ever responded to his transmissions. This led to a deep hatred of all man-made radio interference that persists to this day.

Lured away from home by the “summer of love” in San Francisco, Dickey enrolled as an undergraduate in Physics at Stanford University in 1968. While there he led a hippie lifestyle in remote Half Moon Bay, California, and he experimented with various substances, including but not limited to cosmic rays and high energy electrons at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. He moved on to Cornell University in 1972, where he was sent as a research assistant to the huge Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. He was immediately and irrevocably hooked on radio astronomy, and so ended the remote possibility that he might ever have a productive career or contribute anything to society. While at Cornell he worked briefly with Carl Sagan and Frank Drake searching for signals from extraterrestrials, but he was lured away by the more sexy topic of studying the temperature of cool clouds in the interstellar medium.

After getting his Doctorate in 1977, Dickey went on to work at the Five College Radio Astronomy Observatory and the U.S. National Radio Astronomy Observatory, and then to the University of Minnesota, where he chugged placidly down the tenure track, coming to rest as a full professor in 1989. This would have been the end of the story, as it is for most academics, if he had not been roused by the call of the Southern Sky. Starting in 1992, Dickey came more and more frequently to Australia to use the Compact Array telescope in Narrabri to study the Magellanic Clouds and the inner parts of the Milky Way, that are visible only from the Southern Hemisphere. With advancing age, he found it more and more difficult to remember which side of the equator he was on, and thus which side of the road he should be steering for. The only solution was to head for Tasmania, where most of the roads are so narrow that it doesn’t matter which side you’re on.

Our compere tonight is Simon Ellingsen, a lecturer in the School of Maths & Physics at the University of Tasmania. He currently mixes the entertainment of small children and dogs with trying to understand the processes behind the formation of the largest stars in our Galaxy. He has spent much of the past decade searching for and studying alcohol in space, which may or may not be a good grounding for Science in the Pub.

Our poems tonight, firstly from Charley, inspired by some Olympics bush poetry:

Of Beer and Life
Get up you bum and have a scrub
it's time for Science in the Pub
We'll guzzle beer and have some laughs
and drunk ponder our epitaphs
The Earth meanders down a stream
as we bail and eat ice cream
We dream and die, then evaporate
8 gold medals! Let's celebrate
And after the party, too hoarse to shout
we'll wonder what life is all about.

Next, John's classicaly inspired verse:

An Astronomer’s Ballad
Oh East is East and West is West, and ever the twain shall fight,
And North and South have different skies for astronomers at night,
But there is neither East nor West to the Milky Way's line of sight,
For she wraps us all in her spiral arms beside the river of light.

With apologies to Kipling’s “Ballad of East and West”


Science in the Pub is the Eureka Award winning endeavour in science communication. Sessions are generally staged 3-4 times per year. Admission costs $5 worth of raffle tickets, your chance to win one of many excellent prizes!

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Next Science in the Pub session:

Friday Oct 22, Imperial Hotel, Coonabarabran



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