TEDx Talk cartoonBack in December of last year, just before the Christmas break, I was wrapping up in the office one evening when I got a phone call from the organisers of the first TEDxMacclesfield, scheduled for the following April, they wanted a talk on the SKA. Out of eight talks, this would be the science one. With the project being headquartered 12km from the town, they wanted more people locally to hear about it.

Having in the past been inspired by TED Talks on astronomy, been a volunteer translator for TED, and helped my colleague Maria Grazia prepare her TEDxManchester talk, I immediately said yes.

I approached a colleague to do this one and we decided to focus on Big Data, a hot topic at the moment as more and more experiments are expected to produce huge amounts of data. Weekly two-hour long evening meetings with TEDx ensued to get everything we could say about the project on paper, find a driving theme and hammer out a script.

Unfortunately, in early March, my colleague had to pull out because of a work trip on the date (which turned out to be cancelled in the end). TEDx were about to announce the speakers and they needed a name…so I stepped in.

If you think giving a TEDx Talk is just like giving a presentation in the office, think again. As Tim Urban from Wait But Why – who gave a TED Talk – puts it:

The issue is, a TED Talk is not a speaking gig. In a speaking gig, I stand in front of a group of people and say stuff. That’s not what a TED Talk is. A TED Talk is a widely-distributed short film, except the only actor is my face and the only plot is me saying words out of my face and the only choreographer is my nervous pacing and awkward arm-flailing, and instead of a bunch of cuts and different shots and a long editing process, there’s just one do-or-die take, with no second chances.

Yup. There are also no notes allowed, very few slides and you can’t improvise because there is a strict time limit, so I had to learn my 5-pages long script by heart, until I could recite it in my sleep. If you’d like to learn how this feels and about the theory of different presentation styles, it’s worth reading Tim’s post, available here)

And so weekly meetings continued and we refocused the talk on collaboration and the passion that drives us – the things I could talk about without being *too much* out of my depth. Not a bad thing, since that was to be the theme of the day anyway I learned later.

In the last week, we got a coach to help us with our stage presence and finally, the dress rehearsal. That’s when I learned that my talk was to be the last one of the day, the conclusion. That’s probably as bad as being first. I nearly died, and that’s probably why they hadn’t told me before.

Until the last minute, I kept forgetting bits of my talk. And then, all too soon, D-day arrived. Waiting as every single one of my fellow speakers went through the same ordeal made this the longest Saturday morning I’ve ever had. My turn came, and here’s the result…I hope you enjoy it!


Gravitational wave astronomy: when science goes global

In case you missed the big science news this week: we detected another set of gravitational waves passing through the Earth, distorting space-time by less than the width of an atomic nucleus. It sounds like science-fiction only it isn’t.

This time however, these waves were a little different, and so triggered an alert, sent out to scientists around the world to follow up with their own instruments.

In the hours and weeks that followed, 3,500 scientists from 70 observatories scrambled to point the world’s most powerful telescopes – optical, X-ray, infrared, radio, you name it – towards the source of those gravitational waves. For a while, it was the “most stared at spot on the sky” writes Nadia Drake.

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Image: A Hubble Space Telescope image shows the oval galaxy NGC 4993 as it looked four months before the new gravitational wave detection, while a picture from the Swope Telescope in Chile shows where a bright spot appeared in the galaxy in August 2017. PHOTOGRAPH BY HUBBLE/STSCI (LEFT) AND PHOTOGRAPH BY 1M2H TEAM/UC SANTA CRUZ & CARNEGIE OBSERVATORIES/RYAN FOLEY (RIGHT)

And this is what they saw – a galaxy 130 million light years away, where two neutron stars orbiting one another in a deadly spiral had just collided and released a massive amount of energy. Notice the bright spot that appeared in the suburbs of the galaxy as a result, and imagine for a second the energy that was needed for a single event to shine that bright that we could see it and detect it so distinctly from Earth.

On the science front, the event told us about how heavy elements like gold and platinum are created among many other things.

On the societal front, it showed the incredible levels of responsiveness and collaboration between scientists around the world and what these big, expensive, facilities can achieve together. Increasingly, astronomy will require such “multi-messenger” observations where we pull resources together in order to be able to observe previously unseen phenomena and make breakthrough discoveries.

With an army of flagship facilities coming online such NASA & ESA’s James Webb Space Telescope and the suite of Extremely Large Telescopes being built in Chile and Hawaii in the optical and near infrared domain, the Cherenkov Telescope Array for gamma rays, the Atacama Large Millilmeter/submillimeter Array in far infrared and the Square Kilometre Array in radio waves…the future of astronomy is bright. Expect an exciting era of discovery in the next few decades!

If you’d like to read more about this story, read Nadia’s excellent summary in National Geographic.


Where can you study science communication?

An excellent tool for all those wanting to study science communication!

Astronomy Communication Guide

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Students of Prof. A. Gerber, from the Rhine-Waal University in Germany have just launched a beta-version of a global search engine for science communication degree programmes.

Still being developed, the website currently offers an interactive map with about 70 programmes that young people can select depending on their needs and interests. More features are planned such as: video interviews with course leaders, news from universities.

You can access the map here.

The science communication programme at the Rhine-Waal University is also free of tuition fees.

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Space: the next frontier!

I haven’t written on the blog in a very, very long time, but what better opportunity to do so than a monumental space achievement!

Look at this video. Simply amazing. This is real footage! This rocket went to space, came back and landed itself on its own on this unmanned floating barge in the middle of a choppy ocean. This makes it reusable, and thus dramatically lowers the cost of sending things to space.
The 14-year old private company behind this feat – the vision of one man – has done what no space agency has ever done in 60 years. “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” said Isaac Newton, and thus SpaceX builds on decades of innovation & expertise in space technology by governments agencies like Roscosmos, NASA & ESA, to take us beyond and break new ground.
A revolution is taking place in terms of how we access space, and who can access space. What an exciting time to be alive!

Defining the objectives of a mega science project

SKAKSW_poster (1)Time for another blogpost as I fly back to the UK. I’ve just spent a week in Stockholm, Sweden as part of the organising team behind the first SKA Key Science Workshop where some 150 astronomers from 23 countries gathered.

As a non-astronomer, this was a fascinating meeting to sit in. It was the first of a series of such workshops to define the scope of the key science projects of the SKA and the large international teams of collaborators that will conduct them. Like any major observatory, telescope, or science facility, the SKA has a set of “objectives”. They are the key science drivers behind the facility. In the case of the SKA, key science projects are expected to occupy at least 50% of the time on the telescope in its first 5 years of full operation. That represents over 20,000 hours of observations!

Currently scheduled to start operating in 2020 with a partial array while construction is still ongoing, the SKA will probably see three years of commissioning and early science observations before key science projects start, occupying the period 2023-2028. Why 5 years? Essentially, because this should be enough time to represent a certain measure of “return on investment” for the countries involved.

You might think discussing these details 8 years beforehand is a bit early but there was actually much to talk about.

Science Working Groups – each dedicated to a specific area of astrophysics – sat down to discuss the scope of the observations they want to conduct and the possibilities for commensality – that is, for other groups to benefit from the same observations or data. Essentially, it’s saying “hey, we’re interested in looking at the same patch of sky for different reasons, why not do two or three things at the same time and make the most of the time we have?” or even “hey, your data contains a lot of things we might be interested in, let’s use it”. And because time on such a big facility will be very limited (the world’s best telescopes are heavily “over-subscribed”, meaning there are many more scientists who apply for observing time than there is available time), maximising commensality is crucial.

It was a fascinating insight into the inner workings of a developing major science facility. And in the true tradition of science, it was done in consultation with the community.

So what will these 20,000 hours be dedicated to? A lot of things. Among them, big surveys to map the sky. Like a survey to detect all the pulsars in the galaxy – some 10,000 of them – which should help us better understand gravity and maybe observe gravitational waves. There’s also the opportunity to do solar physics, observing things like CMEs which is helpful for space weather. We also hope to be available to characterise exoplanets by observing their aurorae, the interaction between their star and the planet’s magnetic field – providing valuable information both on the star and the planet’s interior.

And why Stockholm, Sweden? Well, Sweden is participating in the SKA, developing receivers that may be fitted on the SKA’s dishes. It’s also the home of the Nobel Prizes. This might sound down right arrogant, but some of the discoveries we expect to make with the SKA may be so fundamental that they could reap a Nobel Prize. Perhaps even someone sitting in the room this week will be back to receive one in a couple of decades!

So this was an important meeting, but it’s also important to remember this is only the start of the SKA. With the SKA expected to be operational during 50 years, the key science projects could be said to only represent 5% of the observing time during the lifetime of the telescope. And with the potential they have to change our understanding of the Universe, just imagine what the other 95% might bring!

For details, take a look at the #SKAKSW15 hashtag on Twitter.


The Martian: a promising upcoming scifi movie!

The Martian is coming out in November, and it’s looking very promising!

The movie stars Matt Damon as a stranded astronaut on Mars who must survive until a rescue mission can be put together. The movie, directed by Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner, Prometheus, etc.) is based on the best-selling novel by Andy Weir.

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