The building in a network of Portsmouth back streets is unremarkable with its offices, classrooms and vending machines selling snacks .
But deep inside, scientists are probing some of the most important and complicated questions in the universe.
Ensconced in the comfortable earthly surroundings of the city, they’re reaching out to galaxies billions of light years away to study the biggest picture imaginable.
The researchers at the University of Portsmouth’s Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation are working on the frontier of our knowledge to understand how the universe works.
And they’re finding themselves increasingly in demand from the general public who are fascinated by what is happening in galaxies far, far away.
‘As a department we’re trying to understand the evolution of the universe as a whole,’ explains Dr Karen Masters, a research fellow at the university. ‘A lot of people want to understand and discuss the biggest questions in the universe and we have the experts right here in Portsmouth.’
If all that doesn’t sound astounding enough consider the scale of what they’re studying. Our solar system with our star (the Sun) and planets is just part of a galaxy of about 100 billion stars. But the Portsmouth cosmologists look beyond that to the hundreds of millions of other galaxies catalogued by scientists. And they’re always trying to find more.
‘I think people can find it quite overwhelming but we’re trying to engage audiences on a level that is easier to understand,’ says Dominic Galliano, a PHD student at the university.
In World Space Week, scientists are trying to help people get their heads around out-of-this-world theories and eerie cosmic terms like black holes, supernova and dark energy.
Teams from the universities of Portsmouth and Southampton are at Intech Science Centre (see panel) chatting to visitors.
‘Our job is to be scientists, but we also have a requirement to make a connection with the general public,’ says cosmologist Dr Marco Bruni. ‘We’ve always done that on our personal initiative but government research councils are now requesting it.’
And then there’s the growing interest among the public, sparked in part by television programmes.
The team admit that their field has been given a popularity boost by the Cox factor.
Professor Brian Cox has brought physics to a far wider audience with his hugely popular series Wonders of the Universe.
And those geeky geniuses in hit comedy The Big Bang Theory might not be the epitome of cool but the eccentric physicists are loveable enough to spark an interest in space matters.
‘It has become quite cool again I suppose,’ laughs Karen. ‘And I think Brian Cox does have a lot to do with that. He’s very good at translating these concepts.’
‘I have friends who quite like the idea of knowing a physicist now,’ says Dominic. ‘And with Brian Cox we have a physicist who people find quite attractive. That can’t be bad.’
But the key, say the Portsmouth cosmologists, is to engage kids early and encourage them to hold on to that interest in science. To that end, the South East Physics Network, an association of seven universities, has been doing a lot to promote the subject in schools.
‘It’s great for kids to meet academics and have that direct link to live science that is changing. They realise they can have careers in this and it’s not all being done by people in ivory towers,’ says cosmologist Dr Rob Crittenden.
But the studies involve extremely difficult concepts that can be hard to explain. The cosmologists use physics to understand how things work and explore further and further into space.
The distances of what they’re looking at are mind-blowing. The Sun is 93 million miles away, the distance to the nearest star is 25 million million miles and to the nearest galaxy (Andromeda) 14 million million million miles.
One of the biggest questions in the field involves dark energy (see explanations). This mysterious substance forms a huge part of the universe and is key to understanding how it works.
The university is involved in several world-wide projects and one of these is the Dark Energy Survey.
Scientists are studying light emitted from stars eight billion years ago (which equals eight billion light years away) with the Dark Energy Camera – the world’s most powerful sky-mapping machine which is on top of a mountain in Chile. The university’s astronomers are among those who will use the camera in the hunt for Dark Energy.
The institute is also involved in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, which has used a telescope in New Mexico and is one of the most ambitious astronomical endeavours to have been undertaken
The largest ever three-dimensional map of galaxies and black holes has been released.
But Dominic insists he spends his days like most other people. ‘When you mention cosmology to people it’s like they suddenly have the weight of the universe on their shoulders. They just go wow, either that or they think I work with make-up,’ he says
‘But I’m usually sat in front of a computer banging my head against the machine trying to figure out how something works. Like most people.’
But ordinary folk remain fascinated and one of the main things they want to understand is Higgs Boson. The discovery of the elusive particle at the Hadron Collider in Switzerland has had the world buzzing as the Higgs is the last missing piece of the Standard Model, the theory that describes the basic building blocks of the universe,
This is the field of particle physics rather than cosmology but is relevant to the studies of the Portsmouth team.
One of the most common questions they’re asked, however, is ‘could there be life out there?’
And while the team don’t study that either they have been involved in a radio telescope project which has in turn been involved in the search for alien life.
But the answer has to remain a ‘maybe but nothing’s been found yet’
PORTSMOUTH COSMOLOGISTS EXPLAIN...
The Big Bang – an idea that came from observations that the universe is expanding (or that all galaxies are moving away from us). Running the clock backwards this meant that at some point in the past the universe was very very small and hot. It’s neither an explosion, nor a point in space, but a point in time, when the whole universe was tiny and started expanding.
Dark Matter – unusual matter which is invisible. Unlike normal matter which makes stars, planets, gases and other objects in space that make or reflect light, mysterious dark matter is completely invisible and only detected through its gravity. Scientists think that 90 per cent of the matter in the universe is dark.
Galaxies – enormous collections of billions of stars, planets and dark matter. Our galaxy, the Milky Way, is just one of billions in the universe. They come in a variety of sizes and shapes, and mapping the locations of galaxies is one of the ways to learn about the universe as a whole. It was the observation that all galaxies are moving away from us which was the first evidence that the universe is expanding.
Supernova – an exploding star. These are very bright and certain types are very uniform in brightness so can be used to measure distances to galaxies. Observations of the distances to very distant supernova showed that the expansion of the universe has been speeding up with time and won the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics.
Dark Energy – the name given to a mysterious substance that astronomers use to explain observations that the expansion of the universe is speeding up. Dark energy seems to be pushing galaxies away from each other faster and faster when gravity should be slowing the process down. While still poorly understood, dark energy appears to account for 70 per cent of the total energy in the universe.
Black Hole – a dead star which has collapsed in on itself so that its so dense that its gravity pull is so strong that nothing can escape from it, not even light. We know that every galaxy has a black hole in its centre. While the black hole itself is invisible, we can see the light from stars and other space debris about to fall into black holes, and we can observe how other stars in the centre of galaxies seem to be orbiting a huge unseen mass.
WORLD SPACE WEEK
There’s a chance to embrace space with a series of activities and events at Intech Science Centre near Winchester this weekend.
The programme to celebrate World Space Week includes the chance to see the prototype Mars Rover Bridget and hold real pieces of the moon.
Scientists from the University of Portsmouth and Southampton are on hand to answer questions.
The event runs today and tomorrow between 10am and 4pm.
Visit intech-uk.com for details.