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Practical work

Practical work has been an integral part of the undergraduate teaching since the earliest days - see the reminiscences by Geoff Jones. It takes two forms: timetabled laboratory classes, mainly in the first and second years, and project work, mainly in the final year. The introduction of the MPhys degree in the early 1990s (first cohort entered in October 1993) led to a hybrid course, the MPhys Advanced Laboratory, for third year MPhys students, in which students had access to the lab, but there were timetabled sessions with a demonstrator present. When the Foundation Year programme (initially called Physics with a Preliminary Year, PPY) was introduced in October 1989, that also included a laboratory class.

Practical work in astronomy has also been undertaken by members of the Astronomical Society, which has existed in various forms since the earliest days, and as part of public outreach.

Physics teaching laboratories

Foundation Year

Because these laboratories were introduced long after teaching laboratory space had been first planned, there was no space for them in the physics building, and they started (and have largely remained) in what was then called Engg 3, the engineering building at the top of the hill at the eastern edge of campus (now the John Clifford West building)

First and Second Year

These were the earliest laboratories to be set up, and originally consisted ot two labs next to one another, with a small demonstrators' office in between them. One of them could be completely darkened for optics experiments. They were planned on an expansive scale, with mahogany benches and storage cupboards. At one end was the office for the chief laboratory technician.

They moved to the ground floor of Chichester 1 as part of the founding of the School of CPES in 1996, displacing the chemistry glass-blowers. There was now a single lab, somewhat smaller in total area than the previous two labs, and with one quarter that could be darkened with curtains. A storage area and demonstrators' room were located in a neighbouring corridor. It is planned to move the labs again, to the 5A corridor on the top floor of Pevensey 2, during 2012. This will, for the first time since the development of the astronomy and MPhys labs, bring all the laboratories (except the FY one) into one place.

MPhys Laboratory

This started in 1995, when the first small cohort of MPhys students reached their third year, and was housed alongside the Astrophysics lab on the Pevensey 2D corridor. Like the Astrophysics lab, it moved to the 5A corridor in Pevensey 2 in the summer of 2010.

Astronomy teaching laboratory

For many years, practical work in astronomy was carried out only during projects in the final year. However, with the introduction of the new undergraduate Physics with Astrophysics programme in October 1990, it was decided to start a first-year practical class, often referred to as the 'astrolab', as an integral part of the new first-year courses Astrophysics I and II. At first, the lab was sited in a cold and draughty pair of rooms constructed where the original entrance to the Physics 1 building had been (the draughts were because the old glass doors formed one wall and were not properly sealed). Later, it moved to a better site on the 2D corridor of Physics 1, replacing the Physics Stores when they closed, and most recently (in summer 2010) it moved to the top floor of Pevensey 2, to be close to the roof-top telescope set up in the summer of 2009 (see below). The experiments were of three sorts. A few used Sky Survey films, obtained as part of the Edinburgh Astronomy Teaching Package, and one used a set of photographic images of the dust rings around SN 1987A. Several used scripts originating from Sky & Telescope, while the rest were computer-based, using the CLEA software.

Physics practical project work

This needs some entries!!

Astronomy practical project work (including observations made by the Astronomy Society and others)

Available telescopes

Over the years, the astronomers have accumulated quite a number of portable telescopes (some more portable than others), but not very many of our telescopes have been permanently mounted. Until recently, the earliest recorded telescope was a 6-inch refractor telescope gifted to the Astronomy Society by a local amateur astronomer, Mr Edward Madge. However, very recently the department was contacted by an early chemistry student, F. R. ('Andy') Andrews, who had been a moving spirit in the Astronomy Society, and brought news of an earlier telescope. His account of these early days is here, including pictures of that first observatory. An account of what happened to Mr Madge's telescope after Dr Andrews left Sussex, with pictures of the building of Mr Madge's original observatory near Haywards Heath and of the building and inauguration of the observatory housing it at Sussex, is here. Not long afterwards, the Astronomy Society decided that it wanted a reflecting telescope with a larger aperture and, without consulting anyone on the astronomy faculty, they part-exchanged Mr Madge's telescope for a 10-inch reflector, bought from Broadhurst, Clarkson & Fuller in London. That telescope was subsequently used for student projects (see below), some of them quite ambitious. Photographs of the telescope and observatory can be found here.

[Historical note on Astronomy Society - it appears (Andy Andrews, private communication 2012) that Patrick Moore was elected Honorary President of the Astronomy Society some time in 1963-64. Since the title was never, to my knowledge, revoked, he probably retained the title of Honorary President until his death in December 2012, although I think later members of the Society were unaware of this, and the Astronomy Society itself ceased to exist as a separate entity in 1989 when the joint Physics and Astronomy subject group was formed and a joint society formed at the same time. This nearly-50-year link between Patrick and the University is worth recording. Robert Smith, 29 September 2015]

Sadly, this second observatory suffered increasingly from vandalism and had to be abandoned in 1988 after a serious break-in and theft. For a period, there was no permanently mounted telescope, while various unsuccessful attempts were made to persuade the university to fund a roof-top observatory. In the 1990s, there were two new developments. Firstly, an 8-inch Meade LX200 telescope was bought for the Astrolab and, largely thanks to the ingenuity and hard work of Mike Hardiman and Barry Farmery, it was mounted on a framework that could be raised through a sliding roof-light in the Astrolab (then in Pevensey 1) for observing. Some pictures of this telescope are here. Secondly, having purchased an 18-inch telescope from another amateur astronomer, Harold ('Dick') Robin, who lived in Tunbridge Wells, it was eventually possible to mount it in a purpose-built observatory at what was then the University's conference centre at the Isle of Thorns, in Chelwood Gate - then a dark site on the edge of the Ashdown Forest. This observatory was officially opened in September 1996 by the then Director of the Royal Greenwich Observatory, Professor Alex Boksenberg; pictures, and an account of the search for the site and its use for public outreach, can be found here. Despite the sale of the site to Cats Protection (who use it as their national headquarters), that observatory is still in use (January 2014), despite periods out of action because of technical problems, and has also been used for student projects.

In about 2008, a new 10-inch Meade telescope was bought, which was finally mounted on the roof of Pevensey 2 in the summer of 2009. After a lot of teething problems, it was finally made to work properly during 2010-11. It replaces the previous 8-inch Meade, which is no longer permanently mounted because of the move of the Astrolab from Pevensey 1 and the consequent dismantling of the telescope mounting. The 10-inch roof-top telescope was dismounted for more than a year, because of works associated with the movement of the teaching labs to the top floor of Pevensey 2, and was temporarily sited in a back garden in Woodingdean; however, problems with condensation, together with poor weather, prevented much in the way of useful observations. The telescope was reinstalled on the roof in summer 2013 and is now (January 2014) working well.

Notable projects

Some photographs relating to projects can be found here.

1977 - Photographic photometry of variable stars, by Oswald Siegmund

This project made use of a fine wooden-framed plate camera borrowed from the Royal Greenwich Observatory, mounted piggy-back on the telescope tube; the story is that it was originally an aircraft reconaissance camera from a German aircraft, obtained after WW2 as part of war reparations, but I have no independent evidence for that.

1977 - Photoelectric photometry of variable stars, by Keith Venables

For this project, a photoelectric  photometer was purchased and installed at the Newtonian focus of the telescope itself. The student also made use in the Christmas vacation of the Peoples' Photometer mounted on the 36-inch Yapp telescope at Herstmonceux, and obtained some useful data despite poor weather for most of the one-week run.

2001 - Photoelectric photometry of the Algol binary TW Cas, by Eijiro Narita

This student used the 8-inch Meade so frequently that the drive (which had plastic gear wheels) wore out and had to be replaced by a more robust system.

2002 - Observing RR Lyrae variable stars, by James Karamath

This was the first project using the 18-inch telescope at the Isle of Thorns. A copy of the report is available online at .

Publications from projects

Cotton, A. and Smith, R.C., "The theoretical spread of the main sequence due to stellar rotation", Observatory,103, 8-12, 1983.

Narita, E., Schroeder, K.-P. and Smith, R.C., "Light curve and physical parameters of the Algol-type binary TW Cas", Observatory, 121,
308-315, 2001.

Karamath, J., and Smith, R.C., "CCD observations of two RR Lyraes and a suspected RR Lyrae", Observatory, 123, 195-203, 2003.

Karamath, J. R., Jenner, A., Smith, R.C. and Lloyd, C., "Further observations and Fourier decomposition parameters of the RR Lyrae
stars TY Ari and EX UMa", Observatory, 124, 203-206, 2004.

Cano, Z. and Smith, R.C., "Does the RR Lyrae variable DY And show the Blazhko effect?", Observatory, 130, 11-16, 2010.
[Corrigendum: 130, 196, 2010] [This corrigendum was simply to print properly a figure that the printers messed up!]