A tale of two Swifts
English is a wonderful language and there are many great words which make terrific project names, but occasionally great minds think alike.
So here, somewhat in the manner of a particularly detailed bird-spotter’s guide, is an explanation of the differences between the two types of Swift currently to be found at the University of Leicester.
The virtual SWIFT
The SWIFT project in our Department of Genetics is a collaboration between GENIE and the Beyond Distance Research Alliance. GENIE is a Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning; it stands for Genetics Education Networking for Innovation and Excellence. The BDRA is home to all our research into e-learning and similar cutting-edge educational ideas.
Together GENIE and the BDRA sought to address the problem of giving students experience in a working genetics laboratory before setting them loose in a real lab. Their solution was to build a virtual genetics laboratory in Second Life.
The BDRA always name their projects after animals; it’s a tradition or an old charter or something. Previous projects have been labelled with such titles as Geographical Information Research And Future-Facing Education (GIRAFFE), Participatory E-Learning: Interactivity, Community And Networking Spaces (PELICANS) and Browser-based Assessment of Decision-making using virtual patients Generated by Expert peer Review (BADGER).
So they called their Second Life project Second World Immersive Future Teaching or SWIFT.
A group of 57 undergraduate volunteers have recently completed a project to evaluate SWIFT. Their reward - in addition to the warm glow of satisfaction that comes from having advanced the brave new world of e-learning a little bit further - was the chance to win an iPad, which went to first year student Ms Ni Ni Moe Myint.
The astronomical Swift
Meanwhile, over in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, there’s a very different Swift – a NASA satellite launched in 2004 to detect massive explosions called gamma-ray bursts (GRBs). The thing about GRBs is that you have to be very lucky to spot one. They can last from less than a second to a couple of minutes but you need to be looking at precisely the right part of the sky at the right time. Mostly, all that astronomers could detect was the fading afterglow of the GRB.
Swift increases its chances of spotting a GRB through its Burst Alert Telescope (BAT) which has a very wide field of view. The moment that a gamma-ray-burst is detected – on a good day Swift can find three or four of the things – the satellite repositions itself to point its two other telescopes directly at the GRB. One of these is an ultra-violet/optical telescope, the other is an x-ray telescope which was partially constructed here at the University of Leicester.
This repositioning takes about 20-70 seconds, which is where the ‘Swift’ name comes from, rather than being a tortuous acronym. Within 90 seconds of the initial detection, Swift has captured an x-ray image and an optical/UV image is added less than four minutes later. In addition, the precise co-ordinates of the burst are transmitted to the ground and distributed instantly around the astronomical community. The University of Leicester hosts the UK Swift Science Data Centre which, together with the Italian Space Agency, Penn State University and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre, provides round-the-clock support for the mission.
The latest exciting discovery from Swift is a gamma-ray burst and a supernova happening together which opens up all sorts of possibilities. Dr Rhaana Starling presented these findings at a meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society last April, a few weeks after the observation, and is now lead author on a paper published in the Monthly Notices of the RAS.
Both Swift and SWIFT make use of the expertise of Leicester researchers and provide invaluable resources to our students, reflecting the synergy of teaching and research which makes the University of Leicester a leader in so many fields. You would have to go some way to confuse the two but if you overhear a geneticist and an astronomer arguing on campus, chances are they’re just at cross purposes…
- Discovery of the nearby long, soft GRB100316D with an associated
Supernova (DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2966.2010.17879.x)