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Published on Friday 25th of September 2015 by Valerie

French conversation under the stars

What could be better after some good French conversation than to go for some star-gazing? That is exactly what some French Ignition members did last Wednesday at the Glasgow University observatory. After a few wrong turns, we finally found ourselves in a suitably deserted high point of the campus with a view over Maryhill and beyond. Not exactly high-tech I may add… The old fashion observatory dome looked like it had been built a few centuries ago and was surrounded by two antennas that wouldn’t have been out of place in the workshop of some DIY technical geek. Come to think of it, my own TV antenna looks more up-to-date! Despite all of this, the atmosphere was great as we stood at the edge of the universe, fully engaged in French conversation.

In sharp contrast to the outside, the teaching building adjacent to the dome was brand-new after having been entirely refurbished. That is where we started our visit with a presentation in French from Dr Labrosse. And French Ignition members were delighted to hear that we were the very first ones to lay our bottoms on those chairs, as the building had been entirely re-done and students hadn’t yet returned. The chairs we were sitting on were still wrapped in cellophane when we arrived. It’s hard to imagine the pleasure and pride derived from knowing you are the very first user of a chair in a public building! Dr Labrosse’s presentation was really interesting and not too technical. He told us about the different objects of study in the universe and provided us with some useful French vocabulary: Planetes, etoiles, trous noirs, etc. We also realised that the old-looking antennas were capable of much more than what we gave them credit for at first sight. One fascinating question is: We know that the universe is constantly expanding. What we don’t know is if that expansion will stop at some point and what would happen if it did. As for the end of the world, we were all glad to hear that it’s not for tomorrow!

Then we came to the moment we were all waiting for: The observatory dome. We trailed the short distance to the observatory, fully engaged in French conversation. Once inside, an odd but not unpleasant musky smell greeted us with some hand-held telescopes lying disregarded on the floor for good visual effect. We climbed to the top of the metal stairs to get to the platform and see the main telescope: a big beast that takes up most of the space and has to be counter-balanced by weights because it’s so heavy. Watch your head when the telescope is moving! Contrarily to what I’d imagined myself, only a small slit in the dome opens up (not the whole roof) and the dome rotates in line with the telescope. The telescope’s direction is programmed from a computer, depending on what you want to observe. And if you ever want to write a murder mystery, the observatory dome is an ideal place to start: Red buttons with ominous warnings, confine space, and those deadly weights that could easily send you tumbling down the spiralling metal stairs or even flying over the edge, missing the stairs altogether…

For the final part of our visit, we went to the planetarium. What a joy to be looking at the stars from the comfort of a chair and a heated building! We started with a display of what we’d be able to see of the sky right now, which was pretty much nothing: A field, some trees and one star! Then Dr Labrosse ‘removed’ the earth’s atmosphere and the magic happened: The sky came to life with stars, planets and galaxies. We learned how to locate some of the main ones, adding even more vocabulary for future astronomical French conversation. And the icing on the cake: We got to see the lunar eclipse that is due in a few days (28th of September) before it occurred, with perfect visual accuracy and without having to get up at 2 o'clock in the morning!

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