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Murray Edwards College
University of Cambridge

Science at Cambridge: The Laboratory of the Night Skies

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    15 Oct
    4D Helen Piatkowski (1) The 10-inch telescope and me in our garden.


    My name is Helen and I’m about to start studying Natural Sciences (Physical) at Murray Edwards College. Never thinking I stood a chance of getting a place, I honestly can’t believe I’m only a few weeks away from going to Cambridge. Studying natural sciences will give me a broad understanding before specialising in the third year; my current plan is to choose astrophysics and hopefully continue into research. A range of modules in the first year allows me to pick topics that interest me and perhaps focus on those most beneficial for studying astrophysics. Murray Edwards runs an offer holder overnight stay where I was able to sleep in student accommodation, attend lectures, go to a formal hall and meet other students as well as my Director of Studies. This was a wonderful opportunity to soak in the atmosphere of the college and get to know the other offer holders. It was a comfort to find that I was not the only person who was worried they might struggle with their course!

    Discovering that Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who first detected radio pulsars, attended Murray Edwards is a huge motivation for me. It will be incredible to study and live at the same college as such brilliant woman as her.

    M81 and M82 photographed with our 10-inch telescope M81 and M82 photographed with our 10-inch telescope


    Nothing is more fascinating than science and I am thrilled to have the opportunity to study it throughout my degree. Science stretches your imagination to the limit. Let’s take an example that is right there in front of all of us to see. Go out on a clear night and you will see stars. One of the stars you might know is the Pole Star, or Polaris, which is a whopping 3,784,211,360,000,000 kilometres away. What a ridiculous distance! Due to the immense scale of space the lightyear is used as a unit of distance measurement and is equivalent to 9,460,528,400,000 kilometres. 

    Andromeda galaxy circled in red. Andromeda galaxy circled in red.


    If you're lucky enough to have little light pollution on a dark night you will be able to see a faint band of glowing misty-like light stretching across the night sky.  This is part of the Milky Way (our own galaxy) which is a crazy 150,000 lightyears in diameter and contains around 100,000,000,000 stars.  Then, if you happen to own some binoculars and look at the right place in the constellation of Andromeda you can see a small faint smudge of light which is the Andromeda Galaxy - labelled in the image.  This galaxy is a staggering 2.5 million lightyears away and is one of our closest neighbours within our "Local Group" of galaxies.

    Crab Nebula (M1) photographed with our 10-inch telescope Crab Nebula (M1) photographed with our 10-inch telescope


    One step further, with a small telescope you can even see objects that are a billion lightyears away. You need to have a strong imagination to even have a chance of comprehending these enormous distances. The excitement for me is that this generates so many questions, plus the laboratory is out there in front of us all and easily accessible.

    Providing a beautiful backdrop for my studies, Cambridge’s great facilities and support from my college and peers will, I’m sure, bring out my best. Small group tutorials will really help me get to grips with course content. Becoming much more independent and stretching myself further is a part of college life to which I’m really looking forward.

    Helen Piatkowski
    Undergraduate student

    Setting up the 8-inch telescope for a recent outreach event with the Guildford Astronomical Society Setting up the 8-inch telescope for a recent outreach event with the Guildford Astronomical Society