Monthly Archives: May 2017

AAO joins organization of International Science Communication Festival “Pint of Science”

Article originally written by Ángel R. López-Sánchez for the “AAO Observer” 132, August 2017.

In 2017 the Australian Astronomical Observatory joined the international Science Communication festival Pint of Science. The festival started in the UK and runs every May in over 150 cities across 12 different countries, including Australia. This year Pint of Science took place in 13 cities across Australia (including Sydney) over 15, 16 and 17 May 2017.

The Pint of Science festival aims to promote Science and Science Communication in a very relaxing atmosphere: in a pub with a drink. It brings scientists to a local pub to discuss their latest research and findings with the public.

Poster of Sydney’s “Atoms to Galaxies” for Pint of Science Australia 2017. Credit: Ángel R. López-Sánchez.

The Australian Astronomical Observatory joined CSIRO, the ARC Centre of Excellence CAASTRO, and the Spanish Researchers in Australia-Pacific (SRAP) association as a sponsor of Sydney’s Pint of Science Festival in 2017. Our astronomer Ángel López-Sánchez (AAO/MQU) co-leaded the organization of the “Atoms to Galaxies” talks. These sessions included talks about Physics, Math, Chemistry and Astronomy and were hosted at Bar Cleveland, in Surry Hills.

Sydney’s “Atoms to Galaxies” program (which was the largest for Pint of Science Australia 2017) included talks about applied maths, search for exoplanets, explore quantum computing, play with the light, learn the origin of the chemical elements, map distant galaxies and challenge the laws of Physics.

Angel López-Sánchez during his talk “The Cosmic Origin of the Elements”.

The first night, “Elements in Space”, included talks by AAO astronomer and engineer Kyler Kuehn, who talked about astronomy neutrinos presenting the work he conducted in Antarctica for his PhD Thesis, and by AAO and Macquarie University astronomer Ángel López-Sánchez, who transported the audience to distant stars and galaxies to know when and how the atoms that compose our body were created.

Kyler Kuehn (AAO) before starting his talk “Pint of neutrinos”. Credit: Ángel López-Sánchez.

In the third night, “Decodifying the Light of the Cosmos”, AAO astronomer an eResearch administrator Simon O’Toole described how we use the light collected by optical telescopes to search for planets around other stars, with the ultimate aim of finding an “Earth 2.0”.

Simon O’Toole during his talk for “Pint of Science” festival “Searching for Earth 2.0”. Credit: Angel López-Sánchez.

Astronomers George Hobbs (CSIRO), Luke Barnes (University of Sydney) and Baerbel Koribalski (CSIRO), as well as physicists Dr. Sergio León-Saval (University of Sydney) and Prof. Jason Twamley (Macquarie University), and mathematician Emi Tanaka (University of Sydney) completed the “Atoms to Galaxies” program.

Rebecca Brown during her talk for “Pint of Science” festival explaining how the Starbugs developed for the new TAIPAN instrument at the UKST work. Credit: Rebecca Brown.

Besides organizing Sydney’s “Atoms to Galaxies” talks for Pint of Science Australia 2017, the Australian Astronomical Observatory was also present in the “Tech me out!” session Space Oddities on Wednesday 17th May. AAO’s optical engineer Rebecca Brown gave the talk “Capturing the Light of the Universe“, where she summarized the technologies used in optical telescopes, how they work and what we can learn, including example technologies developed at the AAO.



The details of the talks for the “Atoms to Galaxies” events in Pint of Science Sydney 2017  (info extracted from this AAO website) were:

Monday 15th May: Elements in Space

Tonight we will explore the conjunction between math, chemistry and astronomy. First Dr. Emi Tanaka (University of Sydney) will talk about how statistics feeds us, introducing the basic mathematical tools of statistics and their application in agriculture. Then Dr. Lamiae Azizi (University of Sydney) will be talking about how mathematical sciences coupled with computing have the potential to improve our lives. Finally, astrophysicist and science communicator Dr. Ángel López-Sánchez (Australian Astronomical Observatory / Macquarie University) will transport us to distant stars and galaxies to know when and how the atoms that compose our body were created.

More details and tickets for “Elements in Space” in the Pint of Science website.

Tuesday 16th May: Challenging the Laws of Physics

Tonight we will aim to change the Laws of Physics. Our first speaker, Prof. Jason Twamley (Macquarie University), will talk about quantum computing and why this research is so important. Then, astrophysicist Dr. George Hobbs (CSIRO) will explain what mysterious pulsars are and why their study is so important for physicists. After the break, cosmologist Dr. Luke Barnes (University of Sydney) will challenge our understanding of the physical constants to demonstrate that we live in a finely-tuned Universe.

More details and tickets for “Challenging the Laws of Physics” in the Pint of Science website.

Wednesday 17th May: Decodifying the Light of the Cosmos

Tonight we seek to get a better understanding of what the light can tell us about the Universe. Our first speaker, Dr. Sergio León-Saval (University of Sydney) will show us some of the photonic instruments that are now used in optical telescopes to direct the light of the stars from the optics to the detectors. In the second talk Dr. Simon O’Toole (Australian Astronomical Observatory) will describe how we use the light collected by optical telescopes to search for planets around other stars, with the ultimate aim of finding an “Earth 2.0”. Lastly, Dr. Baerbel Koribalski (CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science) will describe how radio-astronomers study the light of distant galaxies emitted in radio waves using facilities as the new “Australian SKA Pathfinder” (ASKAP) interferometer.

More details and tickets for “Decodifying the Light of the Cosmos” in the Pint of Science website.


Mysterious Tabby’s Star dims again: observations needed

Let’s face it: KIC 8462852 (also Tabby’s Star or Boyajian’s Star) is a weird star. Since its unusual light variations were discovered by citizen scientists using data of NASA’s Kepler space telescope in September 2015 many, many things have been written by professional and amateur astronomers, science communicators and “searchers of mysteries”, as an interesting hypothesis about its behavior was that it could be signs of activity associated with intelligent extraterrestrial life constructing a Dyson swarm. Of course, this just run wild in general media, and many astronomers since them have been asked by journalist to talk about “Mysterious Tabby’s Star”.

In particular, this theme soon captured the attention of some of my friends at the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC, Spain), as they weekly produce an amazing ~2h science communication podcast Coffee Break: Señal y Ruido (Signal to noise). I’m proud to participate in this podcast from time to time, remotely from Sydney. Coffee Break: Señal y Ruido is, at the moment, one of the most important science communication podcasts in Spanish, with tens of thousands of listeners every week, and broadcasted weekly in several radio stations in Spain and South America.

Well, as the “core” of Coffee Break: Señal y Ruido are IAC astronomers, they decided to submit an observing proposal to get time to obtain spectroscopic data of Tabby’s star using the 1.2m Mercator Telescope, located at the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory (La Palma, Canary Island, Spain). The proposal is led by Marian Martínez González, with Héctor Socas-Navarro, Andrés Asensio, Carlos Westendorp and Carlos González in the team. They got time last week, and were observing till last Wednesday night. They did a great job in social media (please follow @pcoffeebreak) under the hashtag “CB_Tabby“, explaining how observations are conducted in professional telescopes and the results they were obtaining on the fly.

On Sunday night, observations were already showing “something weird” happening again in Tabby’s star. These features were detected by spectroscopy, no photometry. They contacted the very same Tabetha S. Boyajian (Tabby), the initial study’s lead author, who is leading an international follow-up of the star. She sent this message to her collaborators alerting of the weird behavior in Tabby’s star:

And indeed follow-up observations continued during the week. Last night, Friday 19th May 2017, the alert of confirmed by other telescopes: Tabby’s star had dimmed 3%!! This is the plot obtained by The Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope (LCOGT) network:

Plot showing the relative brightness of Tabby’s star with time, obtained by Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope network. The lowest point shows a 2% drop.

This LCOGT plot shows the brightness of Tabby’s star relative to the star’s normal brightness: the lowest point shows a 2% drop! Tabetha S. Boyajian (Tabby) triggered the alert:

Many media, including Sky and Telescope, New Scientist and Popular Science, have included the news in the last few hours, that is also running wild in social media. But none of these are saying that the actual alert comes from the observations lead by Marian Martínez González (IAC) and “Coffee Breakers” at the 1.2m Mercator Telescope at the beginning of the week! I really think this is not fair, and proper credit to the team that actually triggered the alert at the beginning of the week must be given.

Now, professional astronomers are triggering the “targets of opportunity” to observe Tabby’s star with small and big telescopes. But amateur astronomers are also invited to contribute too!

Star KIC 8462852 in infrared (2MASS survey) and ultraviolet (GALEX). Credit: Infrared: IPAC/NASA, Ultraviolet: STScI (NASA). File from Wikipedia:

KIC 8462852 or Tabby’s Star is a 11.7 magnitude star visible with telescopes larger than 5 inches (130 mm) in a dark sky. It is located in the constellation Cygnus (hence, it is visible for all the Northern hemisphere and part of the South hemisphere, although a bit too low for latitudes below 20 degrees south). If you have an equipment that allows to get accurate photometry using several broad-band filters and are interested on contributing to real scientific observations, please don’t hesitate: try to observe KIC 8462852 these days.