Halloween public lectures 3: Red sprites and the artistic side of atmospheric chemistry

Posted by mjs76 at Oct 25, 2011 04:21 PM |
This Monday, learn about an amazing phenomenon above thunderclouds.

On Monday 31 October the University of Leicester offers an eclectic triple bill of public lectures which will not only educate and inform you but will also save you the trouble of constantly answering the door to children demanding sweets.

Not many scientific disciplines can be defined so clearly that their inception is known to within one minute, but the study of sprites began at 0414 GMT on 6 July 1989. Researchers from the University of Minnesota were testing a low-light camera in preparation for a rocket launch and accidentally captured footage of a thunderstorm from above. On two frames, extraordinary columns of light rose up from the clouds towards the edge of the atmosphere.

This was the first documented evidence of a phenomenon which had often been reported but, because of its ultra-transient nature – just a few milliseconds – had been largely ignored or even dismissed as some esoteric Fortean oddity, no more real than Bigfoot. In the subsequent 22 years, research into these ‘red sprites’ has uncovered a whole grimoire of appropriately Halloween-esque upper atmosphere phenomena including blue jets, elves, trolls, gnomes, pixies… For atmospheric chemists, this had the same sort of impact that the discovery of Buckminsterfullerene had for organic chemists four years earlier; opening up a whole, previously unimagined field of research where every paper breaks fertile new ground.

Peter McLeish, who will present a public lecture on ‘A New Phenomenon called Red Sprites’ for the Leicester Physics Centre (part of our Department of Physics and Astronomy) on Monday is not, however, an atmospheric chemist. He is a Canadian artist with a Masters in Fine Arts who has for several years now been using art to present scientific ideas and education. Working with Walter A Lyons, former President of the American Meteorological Association, McLeish presents talks and has also created a 42-minute planetarium film, The Hundred Year Hunt for the Red Sprite.

Because they are rarely visible from the ground, red sprites remain largely unknown outside of the atmospheric chemistry and meteorology communities so this public lecture offers a chance to see some amazing images and learn about an extraordinary natural phenomenon. Peter McLeish’s talk, which is free and open to all, will take place in the Ken Edwards Building, Lecture Theatre 1, at 6.30pm on Monday 31 October 2011.

Why not make the most of your trip to campus by turning up at 4.00pm for our first Halloween lecture on isotopic geochemistry and how it can help us to determine the age of the Earth, followed by a look at the politics of 1950s Hollywood at 5.30pm?