Sheffield’s night with galaxy of stars

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Sheffield’s Octagon Centre is being turned into a planetarium today that will explore distant galaxies in a spectacular collaboration between university musicians and scientists.

The show, Sounds of the Cosmos, will feature beautiful images projected on to the Octagon’s walls, accompanied by the music from Gustav Holst’s famous Planet Suite played live by the Sheffield Rep Orchestra, conducted by George Morton.

University of Sheffield professor of astrophysics Paul Crowther will lead the audience on their journey to see new stars being born, learn more about the Sun and explore faraway galaxies, exoplanets (planets outside our solar system) and distant worlds.

The show, which has taken 18 months of planning, was first thought up by Stewart Campbell, who is the concerts manager at the university’s Department of Music.

He said: “These ideas come to you at the most bizarre of times. I was on holiday in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, which is the most hectic, crazy city to get around.

“There’s a lake garden outside the city with a big planetarium. It took about two hours to get to this place and it was shut! It was the monsoon season and the heavens just opened.

“We sat under a tree trying to keep dry and I put the Planets Suite on my iPod. I thought it would make a cool project using the fantastic knowledge of the researchers at the university to do something really special.

“Then, when we had to come up with ideas of the university’s Festival of the Mind, I met Paul and we started to work on the project.”

The images have been designed by Sheffield design agency, Human.

Paul said: “I do a lot of outreach stuff but nothing which really combines a music performance. It is something quite different which is refreshing and challenging.”

He is relishing the chance to present some of the latest research in astronomy in such an accessible way.

“I think the fact that the music is very powerful in its own right and combining that with striking images of the planets, taken from spacecraft and from Earth, will make it doubly powerful.”

Paul said his “five minutes of fame” came when he discovered the heaviest, brightest star that is known in the universe, called R1361A. It is 10 million times brighter than the Sun and 100,000 times heavier than the Earth.

Stewart, who said he might have been a scientist if he hadn’t pursued a career in music, added: “I hope that children and adults will take away different things from both the music and the astronomy.

“It is a unique way of trying to connect arts and science together. It is so easy to put them in different parts of the spectrum.”

An exhibition running alongside the show, Seeing the Universe in all its Light, features stunning science images and interactive exhibits and has previously been on display at the Houses of Parliament and BBC Stargazing Live.

Sheffield schools get the chance to see the show this afternoon.

Tonight’s public evening performance of the show has sold out but anyone can visit the free exhibition between 4pm and 6pm today.

Astronomers from the university will also be on hand to talk about the work they do and answer questions.

The show is one of the first events in the university’s 10-day Festival of the Mind, which seeks to present the work of the university to the public in a fun and accessible way.

Lots of free events take place in the circus-like Spiegeltent set up in Barkers Pool. For more information, go to www.sheffield.ac.uk/fotm or follow @FestivalMind on Twitter.

It also launches the university’s autumn season of 35 music concerts, organised by Stewart.

Highlights next month include a visit from Tibetan monks performing sacred dances, music and prayers in traditional costumes and masks on October 14, an event celebrating the music that inspired the US civil rights movement for black equality a week later and a visit by world-famed Northumbrian pipes specialist Kathryn Tickell with her exciting new ensemble The Side on October 28.

Tickets for the season are available now from concerts.sheffield.ac.uk or by calling 0114 223 3777.