James Quain, “The Sundial ─ the world’s oldest clock”. Mon 13 Mar 2023

A Cork Astronomy Club public lecture held in UCC’s Civil Engineering Building

Telling the time is one of the earliest applications of astronomy, and the sundial, the earliest device to tell time of day and divide daylight into hours. James Quain, a member of Cork Astronomy Club with a lifelong interest in sundials, told how these installations work and the astronomy they are based on.

James illustrated how time is depicted, and discussed the development of sundials from the earliest known examples. 

Above: James with his Armillary Dial.

A sundial we learnt, consists of two parts: a gnomon to cast a shadow, and a dial plate.  We found out things we didn’t know we didn’t know … the extraordinary variety of sundials … James brought his own replica of a portable wooden dial as used by shepherds in the Pyrenees, and a model of the earliest known sundial consisting of two stones ─ another portable device used by the Pharaohs in 1500 BC. 

For most sundials (but not the shepherd’s dial) you need to know north.  But a solar compass from 1835 works the other way round.  It uses two very different sundials (image below), you turn it till they both agree, and hey presto, it’s facing South. The world’s largest sundial is at Jaipur in India, and the smallest consist of two metal rings that those who were rich enough in the 18th century kept in their pocket.

Finally James took grave issue with Hilaire Belloc who wroteI am a Sundial and I make a botch, of what is done much better by a watch”

Workshop, April 15th

For Club members only, James will give a workshop with work in small groups to make a paper sundial, cut out components and assemble, set up & orientation.

Go to Events Calendar

“Space flight, the human factor” – Cian O Regan, Mon 9 Jan 2023

A Cork Astronomy Club public lecture

Cian O Regan talked about human factors in space flight, problems that arise and what is being done to learn how best to cope with them. Cian is a PhD student at MTU, and his thesis will investigate these questions.

Cian wears a pilot’s cap in an aircraft cockpit, at left of lefthand photo.  The recorded behaviour of pilots in emergency situations provides useful data for his research.  Right: a hypothetical Mars astronaut controlling a drone.

Sending astronauts to the Moon and Mars will pose huge challenges for the astronauts both psychological and physical, challenges which far surpass what is encountered on the International Space Station.  How will astronauts respond and will their ability to perform their duties and to respond to emergencies be impaired?  What can be done to mitigate the ill effects?

The 5 hazards of human spaceflight are radiation, altered gravity fields, hostile and closed environments, distance from Earth, and isolation and confinement.   Human factors is a field of study to reduce error and increase productivity focussing on the interaction between the human and the machine.  

Avoid the Norman door!

We heard about a Norman door, all too common in public buildings – where the design tells you to do the opposite of what you’re supposed to do, and there has to be a sign to correct it. Normanism is to be avoided at all cost in designing spacecraft.  

There’s an optimum level of arousal to maximise human performance.  Boredom at the low end (think of a 6-month journey to Mars) and strong anxiety at the high end both impair human performance.  So is it worth sending humans at all, why not just send robots?  Because humans are so much more productive than robots ─ for now, anyway.

Human factors is the field of study to reduce error and increase productivity focussing on the interaction between the human and the machine. For space agencies these are urgent questions and Cian described what has been done so far to address them, and his own research.

The lecture was live streamed over Zoom.

Go to Events Calendar

“Tour of Duty in the High Desert at VERITAS”, Dr Josh Reynolds, 10 Oct 2022, 8 pm

Not all telescopes capture visible light. Dr Josh Reynolds, a lecturer in the Department of Physical Sciences in MTU, told us about VERITAS – a ground-based very high energy (VHE) gamma-ray instrument.  It operates at the basecamp of the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory 1.3 km above sea level in southern Arizona USA, and consists of four 12 m Imaging Atmospheric Cherenkov Telescopes (IACT) which use Cherenkov shower imaging to detect gamma-ray photons with energies above 85 GeV. 

Josh covered the history and science of VERITAS along with a personal account of tours of duty to the observatory as a VERITAS collaborator, and didn’t neglect to tell us about the poisonous toads that inhabit the site. 

Mirrors on one of the VERITAS detectors, and right, Dr. Reynolds in the VERITAS control room
in the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory

The lecture wase live streamed over Zoom.

About Dr Josh Reynolds

Dr Reynolds has been a member of the VERITAS collaboration since its inception in 2003 (as well as being a member of it progenitor, the Whipple Observatory collaboration) and a co-author of the publication that announced the discovery the Atmospheric Cherenkov Imaging Technique in 1989. He also lectures in the Department of Physical Sciences in MTU.

More about VERITAS

Dr Reynolds took this picture of VERITAS on a research visit at the beginning of September 2022

VERITAS (Very Energetic Radiation Imaging Telescope Array System) is an international astrophysics collaboration between the USA, Canada, Ireland and Germany, involving 9 founding institutions and 15 collaborating institutions (MTU is a collaborating institution). It operates a ground-based gamma-ray instrument at the Smithsonian Institution’s Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory (FLWO) in southern Arizona, USA.  This is an array of four 12m optical reflectors that uses the Imaging Atmospheric Cherenkov technique to perform gamma-ray astronomy in the GeV-TeV energy range. Very High-Energy gamma rays are associated with exotic cosmic objects such as supernovae, pulsars, quasars and black holes. Expensive, space-based observatories are normally required to detect gamma rays as they are absorbed in the atmosphere, but VERITAS is able to use the Atmospheric Cherenkov Imaging technique to observe them from the ground.  VERITAS has a prodigious research output, with 162 publications in peer-reviewed journals (44 over the last 5 years) including publications in Science, Nature and Nature Astronomy. 

Go to Events Calendar

“JWST – what’s all the fuss?”, Dr Niall Smith, 12 Sept 2022

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is on the lips of every astronomer.  Dr Niall Smith of MTU and the brains behind Cork’s Blackrock Castle Observatory told us why.  Launched on Christmas Day 2021 JWST is sending back images of the universe in previously unimaginable detail.  Crucially this telescope observes in the infrared, which is necessary when observing the early universe. Early means far away and moving fast from us, thus extremely red-shifted, hence undetectible in the visible spectrum where the Hubble Space Telescope operates. JWST will supply new information about the early universe, indeed already has done, which will change our knowledge of how it all began and where it’s headed.  

Left, the galaxy group Stephan’s Quintet captured by Webb in never-before-seen detail.
And right, Dr Naill Smith with his brainchild, Blackrock Castle Observatory

One of our favourite speakers,  we were delighted to welcome Niall to launch our new season of monthly lectures,  which after a long Covid-induced absence, will once again be held in our old home of University College Cork’s Civil Engineering building.   

The lecture was live streamed over Zoom.

Go to Events Calendar

Sunspot outreach event, Sat 9th April 2022. Tramore Valley Park, 11 a.m.

About 20 visitors gathered with Club members on Saturday 9th April for a demonstration of how to view sunspots.  The Sun is currently in an active phase of its 11-year cycle – although sadly today sunpsots were scarce … but that’s astronomy!

We brought specialist equipment, and showed how we observe and image solar spots and other features, and explained how they take 14 days to move across the face of the Sun.  Visitors saw how the Sun looks different in optical wavelengths or hydrogen-alpha.   The image above was taken by Club member Jan on 3rd April. 


The event lasted two hours, was was part of Cork’s Lifelong Learning Festival. 

Club members setting up solar observing equipment while visitors wait their turn to view sunspots. The event was blessed with fine sunshine. 

Go to Events Calendar

“Eclipses, Transits and Occultations – Some Personal Experiences” – Paul Evans, 14 Feb 2022

Cork Astronomy Club welcomed prominent Northern Ireland amateur astronomer Paul Evans, maker of highly regarded monthly sky guide videos, and Chair of the Irish Federation of Astronomy Societies.  Paul spoke to us remotely by Zoom     

Paul Evans at Meteor Crater, Arizona

Since the Solar System is essentially flat, though crucially not quite flat, it does occasionally happen that viewed from Earth, one object will pass in front of or behind another. Some of these events are of technical interest while some are truly spectacular celestial events.

Paul described some personal experiences of past events and pinpointed some opportunities for events in the future to look forward to.

About Paul

Like many of his generation Paul was inspired by the Apollo Moon missions and it was Apollo 8 which really piqued his lifelong interest in space and astronomy.

Originally from England, though his mother is from Athlone, Paul has lived in Northern Ireland since 2003 during which time he has photographed auroras, noctilucent clouds and many sky objects. His photographs have been displayed in numerous exhibitions and publications in Britain and Ireland.

Paul is a past President of the Irish Astronomincal Association and has been Chair of the Irish Federation of Astronomy Societies (to which our Club is affiliated) since April 2019.

We recommend Paul’s monthly sky guide videos, this link is to the January 2022 edition.

Go to Events Calendar

“No need for Planet 9”, Ann-Marie Madigan, public Zoom lecture, 8 Nov 2021

Cork Astronomy Club was honoured to welcome Dr Ann-Marie Madigan,    Assistant Professor of Astrophysics at University of Colorado, Boulder. There’s something odd going on in our solar system, and presence of a new planet (‘planet 9′) or a black hole have been proposed to account for it, but Dr Madigan has other ideas.        

Dr Ann-Marie Madigan

Prof Madigan’s favoured explanation is a new Kuiper belt, further out than the actual Kuiper belt, and containing about 10 Earth masses of material. If found, will it be called the Madigan Belt? You heard it here first.

Dr Madigan explained: While the planets move on nearly-circular orbits in a disk, the icy bodies beyond Neptune appear to cluster together in a highly-inclined and eccentric structure. Astronomers have invoked the presence of a new planet (‘planet 9′) or even a black hole in explanation!

In her talk she showed that these theories are unnecessary. In analogy with spiral arms and bars in galaxies, the collective gravity of individually small but collectively massive bodies can create such structure in the outer solar system. This explanation predicts that there is a (highly-inclined) disk of minor planets, more massive than the Kuiper Belt, awaiting discovery at the edge of our solar system. 

This lecture was held via Zoom.

Go to Events Calendar

Robin Catchpole Zoom lecture – How big is the universe? 13 Sep 2021

How big in the universe and how do we know?

To open our 2021-22 season of public lectures, Cork Astronomy Club welcomed Dr Robin Catchpole of the Cambridge Institute of Astronomy. He talked to us via Zoom.

The title of his lecture was “Taking the Measure of Our Universe”. Two thousand years after the ancient Greeks thought of the idea, we measured the
distance to the nearest star. Less than two hundred years later we are measuring the distance to a 1000 million stars almost a million times more accurately, opening a new era of discovery in astronomy. Soon we will measure the position of 3000 million galaxies in the hope that they might reveal the nature of the mysterious dark energy. Robin explained how this is being done and what more we know about our universe.   

One member commented: “Robin was an amazing lecturer and had me spellbound.” 

Now an astronomer at the Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge, Dr Catchpole has held posts at various observatories around the world including Senior Astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich.

He has authored and co-authored over 120 research papers and articles and used a number of telescopes including the Hubble Space Telescope. Research interests include the composition of stars, exploding stars, the structure of our Galaxy and galaxies with black holes at their centres. His current research interest is in the structure of the Bulge of our Milky Way Galaxy.

Go to Events Calendar

“How satellites revolutionised how we navigate – and tell the time”, Cillian O’Driscoll – Mon 11 Oct 2021

Cork Astronomy Club welcomed Cork-based electronics engineer Cillian O’Driscoll who drew on his work with ESA on the Galileo project, Europe’s own global navigation satellite system, to review how satellites have changed the way we navigate the globe.   The lecture was held via Zoom.

Fantastic talk from someone who clearly is a master of his subject, was the verdict of one member in the audience.

Cillian O’Driscoll

Cillian explained the mechanics of GNSS systems (that’s any satellite navigation system with global coverage) and answered many detailed questions from members.  He also delved into the political ramifications. The Galileo system is a project of the Europe Commission, he explained, although the technical work is contracted to ESA.  In the early 2000’s the US government was keen to discourage Galileo and to persuade the EU to be satisfied with GPS, which is under US military control, and used to have a built-in 100m error margin.      

Go to Events Calendar

“William Lassell 1799 – 1880, Telescopes, Planets and Drinking Beer”, Gerard Gilligan – Mon 10 May 2021

For our final lockdown lecture of the current season, Cork Astronomy Club welcomed Society for the History of Astronomy Chairman Gerard Gilligan to tell us about William Lassell, the Liverpool brewer and amateur astronomer who in 1846, using his own self built telescope, discovered Neptune’s largest moon, Triton, just 17 days after the discovery of Neptune itself. 

William Lassell (left) and Gerard Gilligan

This public lecture was held via Zoom

Go to Events Calendar