Astronomy comes to Qatar

Beep. I got an email a couple nights ago telling me that I have been finally moved from the waiting list and now would be able to attend the keynote lecture by Professor Lord Martin Rees at the 1st Doha International Astronomy Conference, taking place from 10-13 February in Doha, Qatar. I arrived at the Qatar National Convention Centre (QNCC) much earlier than the recommend time and received my ‘Public Guest’ badge. Walking towards Auditorium 3 among other members of the public as well as scientists, officials, and about one hundred primary school students, I could not help but feel like my 7-year-old self. I was as excited as the day I first picked up a book on astronomy and discovered the solar system, comets, and the Milky Way.

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The 1st Doha International Astronomy Conference was organized by Dr. Khalid Al-Subai of Qatar Foundation and Dr. Martin Dominik of the University of St Andrews. Dr. Khalid Al-Subai is also the founder of the Qatar Exoplanet Survey (QES), which over the last couple of years has conducted a wide-angle photometric survey and successfully found two exoplanents (planets outside the Solar System): Qatar-1a and Qatar-2b.

Astronomy has come home  – Dr. Khalid Al-Subai (Qatar Foundation) 

As all the attendees took their seats, Dr. Khalid Al-Subai, took the podium and declared ‘astronomy has come home’. He then introduced the guest speaker, Professor Rees: Astronomer Royal and fellow of Trinity College and Emeritus Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics at the University of Cambridge. Professor Rees started his talk, entitled ‘Planets, Life and the Cosmos’ with a brief history of Astronomy from the works of Galileo in the 17th century to the invention of the reflecting telescope by a ‘most unpleasant man’ from Cambridge, Isaac Newton. What followed was an interesting fast-track Astronomy 101 lecture. Professor Rees introduced the solar system and past efforts in space exploration.

With respect to extraterrestrial intelligent life, Professor Rees remains skeptical about stories in the press and from those sent to his email inbox. He believes ‘if we were to detect a signal from space, it would be very artificial’. Whether we do find life outside Earth or not, he believes that life will spread from Earth into space in the future, as humans will start exploring and settling in outer space. His talk was followed by an award presentation by Dr. Mohammad Fathy Saoud, President of Qatar Foundation.

After a brief coffee break, Dr. Khalid Al-Subai took stage again and announced that Qatar Foundation is planning to establish the Astronomy and Space Center in Qatar, which will host QES’s own observatory. He reiterated that Qatar has the opportunity now to engage in explorative science and to have a substantial share in a research field that is much underfunded. Dr. Al-Subai then announced that QES is expecting to discover three new expolanets by the end of 2013.

Astronomy research is coming to Qatar.

Whereas, it is still at its early stages, the project is indeed exciting and promising. And if I learnt anything from today’s talks it is that the next generation here can dream again. My astronomy dream died at the age of 9 (coincidentally with the time I tried to build a spaceship by using twenty-odd plastic and wooden chairs in my grandmother’s living room). I wish I had attended this talk when I was 7 years old. However, I am encouraged and do choose to believe that the inspiring messages from Dr. Khalid Al-Subai and Professor Rees have reached at least one of the future-astronomers sitting a few rows behind me.

– For more information about the 1st Doha International Astronomy Conference, click here .

– For more information about the Qatar Exoplanet Survey, click here.

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