A Curious Spark

A physicist in an a creative world

Eight years ago I set up a one-man business in my hometown of Sheffield. I’m a physicist by training and my business focuses on getting across the message that science is cool. More than that, it can lead to a really good career.

I work as a volunteer for the Institute of Physics (IOP), but I also create projects to enthuse and motivate the home scientist. Working with the IOP, I get to hang out with some of the best scientists in the country. Inevitably, after a few beers, the conversation turns to the question: “What got you into Physics in the first place?” The answers might surprise you. No one ever says it was a passion for mathematics or complicated theories. Most say something like making model aircraft, building an electric guitar, making a synthesizer or constructing a telescope.

My answer was the Apollo moon landings. I was 16 years old and the events of 1969 really grabbed me. I felt that this was a once in a lifetime event that needed recording – so I did it.

In 1969 there was no YouTube and no video recorders, so I hacked the family TV set and linked it to a reel-to-reel tape recorder for sound. My first recorded images were taken with a Zenith stills camera pointed at the TV and I spent hours in the darkroom processing prints. I later filmed the TV with an 8mm cine camera loaded with high-speed film. The archive that I created is now on display at the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford. My creativity led to a degree in Physics and a lifelong passion for photography.

I’m always looking for activities that can create this same level of enthusiasm. Five years ago, I was curious about two relatively new technologies. One was the Raspberry Pi computer, a small £30 circuit board which plugs into a TV and gives the opportunity to learn coding in a similar way to the Sinclair ZX computers of the 1980s, but far more powerfully and at much lower cost. The other was 3D printing, a technology that’s been around awhile but had just reached a price point where it was feasible to own your own.

What excited me was the accessibility of these gadgets that makers were already using at home. I got to thinking how I could combine these technologies into a project for hobbyists and hopefully create that same spark that I had found myself years ago.  I came up with the PiKon, a 3D printed telescope with a Raspberry Pi computer to collect the images.

The big break came when I won funding from the University of Sheffield’s Festival of the Mind in 2014. I was awarded a grant to build a PiKon prototype and deliver a talk. Both went down a treat.

Thinking that was the end of the project, I celebrated with a pizza across the street from the Spiegeltent. 30 minutes later, my phone started buzzing with texts from a friend telling me to check the BBC News website. There was the PiKon project on BBC Yorkshire and, over the next 24 hours, the Metro and Mail Online, “the world’s first 3D printed telescope”.

The project website went mad, jumping from a few hits to 1,500 per day. At this point I realised that there was the potential to crowdfund kits to help people build their own telescope. The project raised £6,000 on Indiegogo and now there’s an online shop where builders can buy kits and bits.

Five years on there are over 300 PiKon builds all over the world. A community of makers, amateur astronomers and citizen scientists have produced some stunning images and designed their own add-ons. And it’s all down to internet platforms, creativity and – most importantly – curiosity.

Mark Wrigley