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21st February 2021

During this winter in lockdown, we are regularly reminded of the real power the stars have over our lives as we take daily measures to ensure we have the appropriate level of vitamin D we need to keep ourselves fighting fit. This lesson was brought home to Astrophysicist Emma Chapman, shortly before the pandemic, when a vitamin D deficiency contributed to a life-threatening sepsis infection.


Astrophysicists, as the periodic table above illustrates, view the universe a little differently from the rest of us, recognising that the vast majority of elements, including those from which we are formed, as metals forged in the furnaces of stars. Our bodies, Chapman concluded from her experience, are mere machines made from these stellar expulsions and kept running by starlight.

Our understanding of these life givers is however limited by the oldest generation of stars (annoyingly referred to as population III), which formed the first of those metals, being long gone. A situation Chapman compares to Andromedans trying to understand the human life-cycle based on a sample drawn from the queue at Disney’s Space Mountain and thus lacking pregnant women and under-sevens.

Many of the mysteries of modern astrophysics, such as how the black hole at the centre of our galaxy got so big, could, Chapman maintains, be solved with a better understanding of this lost generation. So it is that SITP Online welcomes Dr Chapman for an overview of the stellar archaeology and search for signals that is shedding light on this age of darkness.

Cambridge Skeptics

First Light: Switching on Stars at the Dawn of Time
with Dr Emma Chapman
Thursday, 25th February 2021 at 7:00pm
Astronomers have successfully observed a great deal of the Universe's history, from recording the afterglow of the Big Bang to imaging thousands of galaxies, and even to visualising an actual black hole. There's a lot for astronomers to be smug about. But when it comes to understanding how the Universe began and grew up we are literally in the dark ages. In effect, we are missing the first one billion years from the timeline of the Universe

This brief but far-reaching period in the Universe's history, known to astrophysicists as the 'Epoch of Reionisation', represents the start of the cosmos as we experience it today. The time when the very first stars burst into life, when darkness gave way to light. After hundreds of millions of years of dark, uneventful expansion, one by the one these stars suddenly came into being. This was the point at which the chaos of the Big Bang first began to yield to the order of galaxies, black holes and stars, kick-starting the pathway to planets, to comets, to moons, and to life itself. 

Incorporating the very latest research into this branch of astrophysics, this talk sheds light on this time of darkness, telling the story of these first stars, hundreds of times the size of the Sun and a million times brighter, lonely giants that lived fast and died young in powerful explosions that seeded the Universe with the heavy elements that we are made of. Emma Chapman tells us how these stars formed, why they were so unusual, and what they can teach us about the Universe today. She also offers a first-hand look at the immense telescopes about to come on line to peer into the past, searching for the echoes and footprints of these stars, to take this period in the Universe's history from the realm of theoretical physics towards the wonder of observational astronomy. 

Emma Chapman is a Royal Society research fellow and fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, based at Imperial College London. She is among the world's leading researchers in search of the first stars to exist in our Universe, 13 billion years ago, and she is involved in both the Low Frequency Array (LOFAR) in the Netherlands and the forthcoming Square Kilometre Array (SKA) in Australia, a telescope that will eventually consist of a million antennas pointing skywards in the desert. 

Emma has been the recipient of multiple commendations and prizes, the most recent of which was both the 2018 Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Research Fellowship and STFC Ernest Rutherford Fellowship, two of the most prestigious science fellowships in the UK. She won the Institute of Physics Jocelyn Bell Burnell Prize in 2014, and was runner-up for the UK L'Oreal Women in Science award in 2017. In 2018 she was also the recipient of the Royal Society Athena Medal.

Emma is a respected public commentator on astrophysical matters, contributing to the Guardian, appearing on BBC radio and regularly speaking at public events. Among others, she has spoken at Cheltenham Science Festival, the European Open Science Forum and at New Scientist Live. 

Useful Links:

“Throughout First Light, Chapman's authenticity and humour shine through. […] this is a charming book that was as fun to read as it was informative, making it as ideal for the casual reader as for those with an existing understanding of the field.” – Ian Randall, Physics World

“First Light is a dispatch from the frontiers of science, from a brain fizzing with ideas and energy.” –  Chris Lintott, BBC Sky at Night

“First Light is a fantastic debut on the popular science scene for Emma Chapman that fleshes out the context around these two key functions. My opinion: come for the state-of-the-art on the first stars, stay for the comprehensive primer on modern cosmology, and revel in the footnotes.” –  Paul Woods, Nature Astronomy

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin had a fascinating and eccentric life, one that continues to inspire astronomers today, writes Emma Chapman for BBC Science Focus.
Our bodies are made from the metals forged in the very first stars, as well as the generations that followed. We are a machine made from the dying expulsions of stars, and we need sunlight to keep that machine running, writes Emma Chapman for the i.
Fascinating and enjoyable interview with Astrophysicist Emma Chapman about why we are in exciting times for astrophysics and learning more about the universe and our origins by Simon Cocking of Irish Tech News.
Most of the time, being proactive can be a good thing, but when it comes to healthcare, doing nothing is better than doing something stupid, write Natália Pasternak and Carlos Orsi for The Skeptic.
The forces that made the attempted coup of January 6th inevitable are still around - give them another spark and it will explode again, writes Thiago Vahia Malliagros for The Skeptic.
Macaques have been observed trading tourists' possessions for food - showing humans aren't the only ones to understand good value - writes Deborah Hyde for The Skeptic.
Join neuroscientist Dr Dean Burnett as he answers questions and challengs misconceptions about mental health flagged up by the SITP community. This event, which was streamed live on 18th February 2021, is now available for catch up on the SitP Online YouTube channel.
Join Dr Jacques Launay to explore the role of music in social bonding and whether it's best understood as the alternative to language. This event, which was streamed live on 11th February 2021, is now available for catch up on the SitP Online YouTube channel.
Join microbiologust Virginia Ng and marketer David Frank for a regurgitated history of dangerous products. This event, which was streamed live on 4th February 2021, is now available for catch up on the SitP Online YouTube channel.
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