At home with NI physicists

6 March 2017

On the closing day of the 2017 Northern Ireland Science Festival two of the most distinguished local physicists were celebrated - Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell and the late John Bell.

During the afternoon in the Whitla Hall at Queen’s University Belfast, Jocelyn Bell Burnell was in conversation with author, broadcaster and physicist, Professor Jim Al-Khalili.

Born in Belfast, Bell Burnell is an astrophysicist,  best known for her discovery of pulsars - rotating neutron stars that appear to ‘pulse’ since the beam of light they emit can only be seen when it faces the Earth. Her observation, made together with her supervisor, Antony Hewish, is considered to be one of the greatest astronomical discoveries of the twentieth century. During the event she discussed her life and work giving fascinating insights complemented by highly entertaining stories from Prof Al-Khalili on his theoretical work on neutrons.

The afternoon continued with the inaugural John Bell lecture which was delivered by Jim Al-Khalili on Quantum Biology.

Born in 1928 in Tates Avenue, Belfast, John Stewart Bell attended the Belfast Technical College which was the fore runner for Belfast Met. Trained as a technician he worked in the physics department at Queen’s University Belfast where he used his earnings to fund his degree studies at QUB. He took his PhD at Birmingham University and then worked at CERN - becoming one of the world's leading physicists, breathing new life into the foundations of quantum theory. Considered one of the world’s greatest scientists, John Bell, explored at a very deep level the quantum nature of light and particles which paved the way for the modern revolution in quantum computing and communication.

Prof Al-Khalili noting that John Bell was one of his science heroes, delved into the fascinating field of quantum biology, examining the impact of recent research and what this means for our understanding of what life really is. The event,  was attended by relatives of Bell as well as the Lord Mayor of Belfast, Alderman Brian Kingston.

Earlier in the festival, IOP members and Prof Bell Burnell visited a local gallery, Art Is Ann, which featured artist, Dr Josephine McCormick, who has recently created a series of works visually rendering the voices of significant scientists, and embedded them within her Art works.   This enables viewers to have an immersive experience of breakthrough moments in scientific history. Scientists featured in the exhibition included Bell Burnell and John Bell.

During the Festival, IOP Ireland also brought the Physics Buskers to the Foyle Arena and St George’s Market in Belfast. The Physics Busking project is  jointly organized by the CASTeL group at Dublin City University and IOP Ireland and is supported by a grant from the SFI Discover Science and Engineering programme.

Final Frontier was the science related theme of the Tenx9 story telling event which included Sheila Gilheany of IOP. Over 200 attended the evening hearing a very human side of science.

The chair of the board of the Northern Ireland Science Festival is Dr Liz Conlon, education and outreach advisor with the Institute of Physics, who worked with many other organisations to bring together over 170 events and a conservative audience figure of at least 70,000 across the 11 days of the festival.

More images are available on Flickr.