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Astronomer Royal for Scotland

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Professor John C. Brown

10th Astronomer Royal for Scotland

Outreach: Public Understanding of Science Work

As 10th Astronomer Royal for Scotland and the first not to be Director of the Royal Observatory, my main chosen "mission", besides my professional activities, has been to promote public awareness of science and astronomy throughout Scotland and elsewhere.  This I do via frequent lectures to schools, the public, amateur societies, and interdisciplinary conferences and also portable planetarium events  In 2002 I received an Institute of Physics Award for public promotion of physics through my planetarium work and my use of magic in illustrating astro/physical phenomena.

Outreach Grants

  • IoP Scotland and RSE Cormack Grants 2013 - £2650 Day of free public talks "Life in the Universe"
  • RAS Grant 2012 £1000 Astronaut air fare - for Glenelg Mars Twinning event
  • IoP Scotland Grants 2012 £500 - for Glenelg Mars Rover driving event
  • IoP Scotland and RSE Cormack Grants 2011 - £2500 Day of free public talks "Fire in the Sky - Cosmic Threats to Earth"
  • RAS IYA £6K Grant 2008-9 with Gill Russell - Schools Project A New Constellation for Scotland
  • IoP Scotland, RSE Cormack & SciFest Grants £2800 for IYA 2009 - Day of free public talks "2009 A Space Odyssey - from Galileo to Hubble and Backyard Telescopes"
  •  Bradford Robotic Telescope Programme for the Scottish Curriculum – PPARC & SG Grants totaling £15K
  • Glasgow University Grant £22K for Digital Planetaria 2007
  • RSE Cormack Grant 2005 £400 portable solar telescope for school public events
  • RSE Cormack Grant 2006 £200  binocular eyepiece for school public events
  • RSE Cormack Grant 2009 £200 for EdSciFest event
  • RSE Cormack Grant 2010 £300  for EdSciFestEvent
  • IoP Grant 2009 £2000 for EdSciFest event
  • IoP Grant 2011 £2000 for EdSciFest event
  • IoP Prize 2002 for Promotion of Public Awareness of Physics, particularly for   planetarium work and use of     magic in science promotion
  • Project Astronomer/Consultant 2004-2006 NMM ROG Time and Space Project
  • SHEFC 1996 £78k Grant for 3 Starlab mobile planetaria (Glasgow, Edbh,  St. A) which have now reached       100,000 pupils with the help of grants from PPARC, RSE and Glasgow U.
  • Consultant  Glasgow Science Ctr Planetarium - performed opening show 2002
  • Millennium Fellow Award 2000, £2K to help  amateurs at Coats Planetarium develop school talks
  • PPARC Grant £2.5K 2002  To develop Magic and Science talks
  • PPARC Grant £7.5K  to support  Edbh Fringe 2000  play No Future in Eternity  (Harkness & Cotterill)

Planetarium Work
I was a key consultant in the establishment of two of Europe’s leading Science Centre Planetaria/Astronomy Exhibits – Glasgow and NMM/ROG Greenwich. In 1996 I was awarded £78K by SHEFC to  provide Glasgow, Edinburgh and St Andrews with mobile planetaria to take astronomy to schools and public across Scotland, the total audience reached to date exceeding 100,000. These allow a very relaxed ‘stocking sole’  environment with close one-to-one questioning of scientists by kids under indoor stars. I have played a very active role in these shows, with many small grant awards, including Special Needs groups (e,g, Craighalbert Scottish Centre for Children with Motor Impairment)  and pioneered their use via Roberts Funds to train postgraduates in engagement. I am Honorary President of the British Assocn. of Planetaria.

Bradford Robotic Telescope Use in Scottish Schools: The BRT brings into the classroom the opportunity for primary pupils (and the public) to experience science at first hand by taking, processing and interpreting high quality astronomical images. The BRT Educational Package backs this up with an extensive, web-based, curriculum oriented, science learning tool. With £15K funds from the Scottish Government and PPARC, I led a team which adapted the BRT package to the Scottish Curriculum and with Glasgow Science Centre and postgrads ran initial piloting in about 10 schools. The ultimate goal is to take this science experience to all of Scotland’s primary pupils, at a basic training cost of a few £100 per cluster of primaries feeding one secondary.

Major Commissioned/ Invited Inter/national Talks/TV Shows

  • BBC TV SKY AT NIGHT (~100,000 viewers) – 2003, 2007, 2009, 2010 – 2 solar and 2 science & magic
  • NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC TV 2000 – Amazing Space - a Pub Guide To The Universe.. 5 astronomy discussion panel shows in The Rover’s Return with Seth Shostak (SETI) and Alex Barnett (UK Space Centre) and compere Craig Charles (Red Dwarf/Robot Wars). Shown throughout Europe
  • NARRATEO TV Short Circuit’ series on Key Stage 4 School Science. Ca 1998. Physics & magic show, clips from which were bought and used in educational TV worldwide (audience in millions)
  • Royal Society London Summer Exhibition Science Soirees – 4 magi-science talks 2002
  • BAAS Physics Section Presidential Address 1998 Cosmic Threats to Life
  • Pyramid/Nile Tour 2005 with Robert Bauval (The Orion Mystery) – 4 lectures from sceptics viewpoint
  • China Sea 7/09 Eclipse Cruise – 5 talks on astronomy
  • Omaha Nebraska 2008 After Dinner Black Holes magic talk to  ~ 1000 attendees of HDR Inc Travel  Division (architecture, engineering and consulting firm)
  • National A-Level Physics Day, Salford 1999 Black Holes magic talk to  ~ 1000 pupils
  • NASA GSFC Solar Conference 2003 After Dinner Black Holes magic talk to  ~ 100 attendees
  • U. Montreal Einstein Year  2005 – Opening Lecture – Magic of Black Holes to ~500
  • Rice University, Houston 2006 – Marlar Bequest Lecturer  outreach talks to ~300
  • Slovenia 1997 and Wroclaw 2005  SciFests – various science and magic talks
  • RSE Christmas Lecture Inverness 2003 –  Magic of Black Holes to ~ 200

Activities during the International Year of Astronomy (IYA) 2009


A major project with artist Dr Gill Russell involving 2 days in each of 8 schools across Scotland (2 Orkney, Torridon, Lauder, Daviot, Glendale, Dalmeny, Coupar Angus). This provided 2 days of talks, workshops in astronomy, art, magic and music culminating in  pupils selecting a star at light year distance close to the age of a local key site in astronomical history (Maes Howe, Ben Nevis Observatory, Makertsoun Observatory etc).. This was This was followed by an art competition to design a new IYA constellation incorporating these 8 stars and was won by a Dalmeny pupil for her Timorous Beastie which also marked Burns Year 2009. Funds from RAS, RSE, schools, and private donors enabled this project and generous prizes presented by  Liz Lochhead in GSC Planetarium 7/2009. Paintings can be seen on


A two event finale to Edinburgh SciFest 4/09, co-organised with Edinburgh amateurs and funded by IoP Scotland (£2K) , RSE (£250) , SciFest (£200) and Glasgow U (£200).This comprised 10 public lectures to ~120 by eminent pro and amateur speakers (inc Sky at Night’s Chris Lintott) on every aspect of telescopes and getting involved in stargazing. It was followed by a self-funding Ceilidh of participants and friends where they mingled with the experts and saw Saturn’s rings from the bar balcony telescope. Both events were held under a giant balloon painted as Jupiter for the IYA Galileo anniversary. IoP and RSEfunded a similarly structured event in 4/2011 on the theme of Cosmic Threats to Earth where, inter alia, both current Astronomers Royal spoke.


Among the lecture titles I personally currently offer are:-


"Black Holes and White Rabbits"


Black holes and white rabbits
The magic of the Cosmos
"Abra cad Astra - The Magic of the Cosmos "
"Professor MacHelium Tours the Planets"
professor MacHelium

Prof MacHelium

© Stuart JL Brown 1991

"Professor MacHelium Tours the Universe "
"Who puts the Iron in Irn Bru?" (Life and death of stars and man)
crab nebulae


"Magic of the Cosmos- a matter of some gravity"
"Some Days in the Life of an Astronomer Royal"
"EarlyGreat Scottish Star-gazers and their Modern Heritage"


MORE TECHNICAL (e.g. Astronomical Societies)

"Supersonic Snowballs in Hell - the Science of Comet/Sun Impacts"
"The High Energy Sun and NASA's Award Winning RHESSI Mission "
"The Uncertain Universe and the Role of Belief in Science "
"Some Gobsmacking Cosmic Numbers"  
"Inverse Problems in Astronomy"

Science and Magic
I use my semi-pro magician skills in 3 innovative ways –

  • Simulated illustration of exotic physics and cosmic phenomena  too difficult, expensive, or  dangerous to do in reality in classes, talks etc
  • Analogies between the ‘remote sensing’  of observational astronomy and of magic shows
  • Using the mystery fun and surprise in magic to excite the audience about science

PPARC £2.5K grant to develop magic effects matched to exotic physics with physics undergrad magicienne –  Karen Mann. Some specific performance examples are above.
National Geographic TV – Amazing Space - a Pub Guide To The Universe. 5 astronomy discussion panel shows in The Rover’s Return with Seth Shostak (SETI) and Alex Barnett (UK Space Centre) and compere Craig Charles (Red Dwarf/Robot Wars). One of  my roles was improvised use of impromptu magic to illustrate answers.

Science and Music

  • BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra Planets Suite performed live 2007.. Intro interview in GSC Planetarium with BBC’s Lindsay Pell and consultant on astronomical content of concert backdrop

Science and Comedy

  • Edinburgh 2000 Fringe Comedy and BBC R4 play - No Future in Eternity – about cosmology and theories of everything.  John won a £7500 PPARC SANS Grant for this event and worked very closely on both science and humour content with writers Timandra Harkness and Linda CotterillNo future in eternity
  • Comic Website Earth Move 2007 with Prof Richard Wiseman (Herts) WebSurfers were invited to enter place time and  duration of a recent sexual encounter, and were returned a value for how far the earth moved during it. Wide publicity included Nature, Playboy and News of the World.

Science and Art/ Sculpture

  • Coat of Arms  - designed and registered by John for the Astronomer Royal for Scotland 1996
  • Paintings – natural and surreal of cosmic objects – used in greetings cards to propagate ideas
  • Sculpture Consultant to (a) Stirling Developments 2007-8  for relevant astronomy in the proposed new town of  Calderwood near the Kirkhill Astronomical Pillar (Earl of Buchan ~ 1750) ; (b) Gill Russell, Artist in Residence SMO Gaelic College, 2010. Both projects used John's advice and ideas to produce an arch and a horn sculpure respectively which point the viewer to the Galactic Centre Black Hole. The horn was on public display in  Armadale Gardens, Skye.
  • Foucault pendulum consultant to Final Year Art School student Ayala King
  • Collaboration with Prof Tarja Trygg of Helsinki on pinhole Solargraphy project

Science and Poetry

  • Worked with Glasgow poets Liz Lochhead  and John Rice on GSC Planetarium poetry event
  • BBC Radio Readings of Edwin Morgan space poems for his 80th birthday
  • Developed moon phase graphics for Moon Poem on Web by eminent artist Liliane Lijn
  • Worked with Gerry Loose, Glasgow Botanic Gardens Poet, on a Moon Poetry event.

Science and Philosophy

  • Participant with Anthony Gormley (sculptor), Leroy Little Bear (Blackfoot Tribal Chief) & others in Richard Bright’s (Interalia) science /arts/philosophy event Space – Inner and Outer

Science Heritage Preservation
KIRKHILL PILLAR (1750), Almondel Country Park – involved in interpreting its planetary predictions for 2250 and implementing its heritage in a sculpture park within a new town development.

SIR Thomas MacDougall BRISBANE’S OBSERVATORIES (~1810) in Largs, Makerston and Parrammatta
Founding member of the Brisbane Observatories Trust to preserve/restore these sites. Invited talks on this in Largs and at RSE for the 150th anniversary of the death of this eminent soldier, territorial governor. Astronomer and eminent President of the RSE.

Poster display & booklet on early Scottish astronomy to mark the 250th Anniversary of Alexander Wilson’s appoint to Glasgow’s (Regius) Chair of Astronomy – the 1st in Scotland – at UK National Astronomy Meeting Glasgow 2010. See also

CALTON HILL OBSERVATORY (original Royal ObservatoryEdinburgh). Very active in trying to stop and reverse the rot of this key site

MILLS DUNDEE AND COATS PAISLEY OBSERVATORIES – involved in preserving and promoting these great early public observatories benefacted to their cities

Islamic Science – working with Syrian  solar astronomer Rim Turkmani (Imperial) and others on promoting awareness of early astronomy sites and science in the Moslem world and analogies with preserving pre/historic Scottish astronomy artifacts. Invited talk at Moslem Science Heritage meeting London 2010