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Geordies get a taste of Soapbox Science

Geordie shoppers in Newcastle upon Tyne’s city centre on Saturday (27 June) will hear Dr Kathy Romer, Reader in Astrophysics at the University of Sussex, tell them all about Dark Energy and why it might eventually tear them to pieces.

The Soapbox science logo

A photo of Dr Kathy RomerDr Kathy Romer

Dr Romer will join 11 other female scientists from across Britain to give a presentation about her work at Soapbox Science, a public-outreach platform for promoting women scientists and the science they do . The scientists will turn the Monument area of the city into a science 'Speakers Corner', much like the one in Hyde Park, London.

Soapbox Science was set up five years ago by Dr Natalie Pettorelli, a research biologist at the Institute of Zoology, and Dr Seirian Sumner, a senior lecturer from the University of Bristol. The two research biologists sought to make science more accessible to the general public and to promote the work of female scientists.

“I will be standing on a box and I have to be wearing a white coat and it is bound to be a bit chaotic, because four of us will have to speak at once,” said Dr Romer.

She plans to use different-sized boxes to talk about expansion of the universe, how it is accelerating and why this acceleration might be a bad thing for us because it could eventually split us apart – atom by atom, unfortunately.

“It won’t be like ordinary outreach work because people have not taken a conscious decision to come along,” said Dr Romer. "We will be talking to ordinary passers-by. If we don’t keep them interested they will just wander off.”

Dr Romer was trained for the event at London Zoo by the organisers of Soap Box Science. This was only because there was a convenient training room there – not because central Newcastle on a Saturday afternoon is anything like a zoo, she stressed.

“I’ve done stand-up comedy a few times, so I have a good idea what I’ll be in for,” said Dr Romer. “I work on the basis that anyone who is still in academia in their forties and with two kids is useless in the real world.”

She plans to deliver her talk in 60-second bite-sized chunks. “I haven’t written out any speech,” she said.

She will explain that Einstein’s theories are being tested by scientists working on the Dark Energy Survey. "The expansion of the universe after the “Big Bang” has begun to accelerate in the last billion years. We can see that super clusters of galaxies have begun to be pulled apart", she said.

There are several theories for why this is happening and one of them is that Dark Energy - a mysterious, invisible energy - is pulling the universe apart and, the more it pulls, the weaker the gravitational forces that hold the universe together become.

Einstein identified that there might be such a thing as Dark Energy, then ruled it out. “We want to see if he was right, wrong or a bit of both,” said Dr Romer.

That is, of course, if we survive long enough. “Eventually even smaller structures will start to be pulled apart by Dark Energy including our own solar system and finally even individual atoms.” So we will disintegrate.

We have no need to worry, however “because the fate of the universe depends on the underlying physics,” said Dr Romer. "Dark Energy faded in so it might well fade out again. And even if it does not then the earth will be swallowed by the dying sun long before Dark Energy gets us.”