From the 27 to the 31 March, I was fortunate to be able to take part in the BAAO (British astronomy and astrophysics olympiad) training camp. Despite the current situation preventing an in-person camp, organisers made use of video conference technology to ensure it went ahead (and I’m very glad it did!).
The camp was one of the most exhausting but exciting learning opportunities of my life. Each full day consisted of 12 hours of lectures, discussions and problem solving. Although it was only a short time, the length and intensity of each session meant that I learned more than I would have in more than a week of normal school. Not only was it an honour to learn from experts within their niches, but also to catch a glimpse of what the work of an astronomer is like. At A-level, we find errors and uncertainties irritating, but ultimately we take them for granted, so it was enlightening to see a little bit of their true importance.
From the 14 of us who took part in the camp, 5 will be selected to represent the UK in the IOAA (International olympiad in astronomy and astrophysics). To do this selection, we sat two 2-hour exams, one on data analysis and one on theory. Despite these being exams, I thoroughly enjoyed them, as it was a hundred times harder than any A-level paper I’d seen before. Regardless of the outcome, it was satisfying to use what I’d learned over the camp to have a go at some really fun problems.
It was a fantastic opportunity to learn about so much, from stellar evolution to cosmology, from some incredible and helpful lecturers. They taught us how to tell your location and the time of year, simply from looking at the night sky, and why colour matters so much when observing celestial objects. It was particularly exciting to learn about exoplanets and how we can look for them, because I saw how everything I had read in sci-fi novels as a child had a real basis in science. Proxima by Stephen Baxter was one of my favourite books growing up. It talks about the solar system of Proxima Centauri, which is part of the Alpha Centauri system that we briefly discussed during the camp.
The camp taught me that there is so much out there to be explored beyond our atmosphere, and we can learn an incredible amount just by looking at the night sky. As the lockdown gives us more freedom to stay up late, why not spend your evenings doing just that?