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Ilgarijiri comes to Perth

Opening of the Ilgarijiri exhibition in Perth
Opening of the Ilgarijiri exhibition in Perth CREDIT: Megan
A few months ago, a group of aboriginal artists from the Murchison region of WA got together with a group of astronomers from Curtin University and spent a couple of nights out under the stars. The artists shared some of their legends involving the stars and the astronomers used telescopes to show some of the sights of the deep sky.

This extraordinary and unique cultural exchange resulted in a large collection of indigenous art, presented in the Ilgarijiri exhibition which was displayed in Geraldton's regional art gallery from June through to the start of September.

Now, the exhibition has moved down to Perth where it opened on September 15th. It will be on display in the new Chemistry and Resources Precinct at Curtin University of Technology until November.

The title of the exhibition, Ilgarijiri, is a Wadjarri word meaning "things belonging to the sky". The collection includes depictions of the emu in the sky, the seven sisters and many other stories, as well as astronomical images such as planets and supernova remnants.

Once the exhibition finishes in Perth it will move on to the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS), in Canberra, where it will be opened on Friday November 27. And if you're going to CAP2010 in March, look out for Stephen's talk on the project.

Posted by Megan on Friday 25th Sep 2009 (17:06 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

Science reporting: is it good for you? The Drayson / Goldacre debate.

Simon Mayo chairs the debate between Lord Drayson and Dr Ben Goldacre at the RI
Simon Mayo chairs the debate between Lord Drayson and Dr Ben Goldacre at the RI CREDIT: BIS (www.flickr.com/photos/bisgovuk/)
On September 16th, Lord Drayson, UK's Science Minister, and Dr Ben Goldacre, doctor and author of Bad Science, shared a sofa on the stage at the Royal Institution in a public debate titled: "Science reporting: is it good for you?" It was interesting stuff, well worth a watch if you can spare an hour and a half. If you're interested, there are images of the event, as well as on-demand video of the debate. Here's some of what I thought was interesting from the event.

It's the first time I've actually heard Drayson speak, and I was impressed, all credit to him for stepping up and participating. It's nice to hear a politician sound so enthusiastic about science (there are precious few who know anything about it). Drayson's comments on sensationalism were interesting. I see his point that, to cut through a lot of the drivel that passes for news in the mass media, a bit of sensationalism might not go amiss, but this can backfire and we shouldn't forget that. Going down that route is risky. What happens when other science stories, ones that could be more important but less sensational, don't get reported because they lack the shock factor? Worth thinking about.

Goldacre talked as rapidly as usual, cramming a huge amount into his monologue. One thing that stuck in my head was the description of the imaginary guy who studied biochemistry at Leicester Poly ten years ago and now works in middle management in M&S. It's a good point. The media often seem to write for the lowest common denominator, but people are not stupid. In my opinion, the reporting of "silly science" stories (like the daft formulae that were mentioned in the debate) does nothing but contribute to the problem of getting real science into the media. The point Goldacre made about Radio 4's science coverage is a good one: they do some good science programming, and they do let the scientists themselves talk about their work directly. It works. Another suggestion he made was that it would be nice if science stories were linked back to the press releases, and the journal articles to which they refer. I think this would be be fantastic: for those who are interested, those who have some of the background and are interested in reading about the nerdy details of the research, the option should be there*. Not everyone has access to the academic journals, or knows about the tools available to search the literature, but they should be able to get the facts if they are interested.

I'm glad that Lord Drayson is behind the idea that science communication should be recognised in research assessment excercises. This always struck me as something of an oversight. If you want to encourage academics to interact with the public or the media, in a lot of cases it will take an incentive. For those who do it successfully, of course it should be recognised. Thankfully, attitudes are changing and it seems to be less of a "bad thing" to do science communication than it used to be. There are a lot of very capable scientists who spend some of their time communicating their research, and this is a Good Thing.

Communication doesn't just mean mainstream media, it's true. There's a lot of it that goes on, scientists talking to the public through less formal (and more direct) routes. I've been advocating for years that researchers funded by the councils should be encouraged (if not required) to provide at least simple summaries of their work that are accessible to the public, as it it the public that are paying for it after all. I'd like to see an expectation that a small percentage of grants is used for outreach purposes. Whether that is used to pay for staff time to visit schools, for the production of graphics and press releases, or for some other means of outreach, whatever. The point is, I'd like to see it become the norm, something that's just expected.

Flexibility was also mentioned. Flexibility for those who want to take it further, and who are capable of doing it well, needs to be there. For postdocs, this seems particularly problematic. As a postdoc, I need to publish to increase my chances of getting another job in academia. But I do a lot of outreach. While I feel that it's important stuff (and I rather enjoy it), I do worry that I'm hurting my chances of staying in academia (should I chose that path, of course) by spending so much time on it. It's not a situation that is conducive to training good communicators.

The main point of the debate was about science in the media, so there was a lot of discussion about the industry, too. While I know very little about what goes on in a newspaper, I do read a lot of press releases and I can sympathise with the science journalists who end up covering stories that are way outside of any formal education they might have had. (Thankfully, as an amateur journalist on the Jodcast I get to chose which stories I report on, so I have it fairly easy.) There are some excellent science correspondents out there, but it worries me that some news outlets have got rid of their science departments altogether. In the modern world, a basic understanding of science is a very, very important thing and, as stories like MMR and BSE have shown, when things are badly reported (for whatever reason) the damage it does can be far-reaching.

So, the debate basically came down to the fact that there are a number of problems with the way science is reported in the media, but it's not all bad. Of course there is room for improvement, but I'm not sure what the answer is. Any ideas?

* It is in the case of the Jodcast news.

Posted by Megan on Friday 18th Sep 2009 (14:28 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

Parkes and the LBA

The upper control room at Parkes
Hayride on the Parkes radio telescope (big thanks to Ken and Brett!)  CREDIT: Megan
It's Wednesday evening now and I'm back in Sydney following the observing run at Parkes. It certainly was an educational few days! For some reason the staff here all assumed that, coming from Jodrell, I must be used to observing with large telescopes. I keep having to explain that the Lovell and MERLIN are quite different in that respect: they have dedicated operators to do the actual observing, the astronomer doesn't actually get to use the telescope. Needless to say, I much prefer the Australian method!

So what was I actually doing at Parkes? Well, apart from grinning like a kid, I was there doing VLBI support. VLBI stands for Very Long Baseline Interferometry and is the method we use in radio astronomy to make very high resolution maps of the sky. Normal radio telescopes on their own are pretty pathetic in terms of resolution, even though they are so much bigger than optical telescopes, because the wavelength of light they are looking at is so much larger.

Resolution can be improved in two ways: building a larger telescope, or observing at a shorter wavelength. With radio telescopes, at some point you reach the stage where it would be totally impractical to build a single telescope large enough to get the resolution you want. For example, if you wanted to make a radio telescope large enough to have the same resolution as the Hubble Space Telescope does in the optical part of the spectrum, you would need to build a radio telescope 200 km in diameter. No, that is not a typo, I really mean two hundred kilometres. That's a lot of real estate. This is clearly impractical, so what we do instead is build smaller telescopes that are more practical (and a lot cheaper) and spread them out over a large area. Then, we point them all at the same spot on the sky and record the signals coming from each telescope. These signals are combined in a correlator which does some funky mathematical operations on the data and allows us to synthesise a much larger telescope.

The upper control room at Parkes
The upper control room at Parkes CREDIT: Megan
There are quite a few arrays of radio telescopes around the world using this technique to make accurate maps of the sky. In the UK there is MERLIN, in the US there is the VLA and the VLBA, in Australia they have the LBA. The creatively-named Long Baseline Array is a collection of rather different telescopes that normally have completely independent observing schedules but, four times a year, collaborate to observe as a single instrument. It is made up of three facilities run by the ATNF in Sydney: ATCA (an array of six 22-m dishes near Narrabri in northern NSW), Mopra (a single 22-m antenna located near Coonabarabran in NSW) and Parkes (a 64-m dish near, well, Parkes). Other facilities that also take part in the LBA from time to time are Hobart, Ceduna and Tidbinbilla (actually a deep space tracking station near Canberra).

The European VLBI Network (EVN) works a bit like this, too. It is also a collaboration of independent telescopes that observe together for a few weeks per year, but one big difference is that the EVN facilities all have their own operators. The ATNF telescopes do not have dedicated operators: astronomers who are awarded time on the LBA are encouraged (although not required) to do some observing, which is great for people like me who actually like observing and want to better understand how the whole system works.

Although I wasn't involved with any of the projects observed in this session, some of the ATNF staff knew I was interested in observing, so they invited me over to help out and (of course) I jumped at the chance. Although I've never directly observed with a big telescope before, I have spent a fair bit of time in the control room at Jodrell so quite a bit of the setup was at least familiar. The VLBI-specific stuff was new though, so there was still plenty to learn.

The Parkes staff are a great bunch, and the atmosphere up there was really quite jolly. I just love the fact that there is still a chart recorder in the old control room. It had been relegated to a corner, but John hooked it up during the geodesy experiment and it was interesting comparing the results from the two bands: the telescope floodlights cause quite a large spike when they come on! Watching The Dish in the control room was also quite mad. When I decided I wanted to be an astronomer, I never imagined I'd be doing that! Being left in control of this (relatively) old and rather graceful 1000-tonne telescope was pretty special. No doubt most people will think I'm completely crazy, but standing next to the azimuth track at 3am, watching the telescope move to the next source, was just fantastic. It's times like that when I remember what an utterly brilliant job I have.

Posted by Megan on Wednesday 09th Sep 2009 (11:06 UTC) | 2 Comments | Permalink

The Dish

The Parkes radio telescope
The Parkes radio telescope, New South Wales CREDIT: Megan
One of the great things about being a radio astronomer is visiting other observatories. I was exceptionally lucky to do my PhD at a working observatory, and I'll jump at any chance to go observing. So when the opportunity came up, I took it.

I'm currently sitting in the control room at the Parkes radio telescope (on the left) in New South Wales. The control room is in that tower you can see under the dish, and above me is 1000 tonnes of metal. Two thirds of that weight is in the azimuth track, mount, and counterweight, while the rest is in the dish structure itself. Every time the telescope moves to a new source you can hear the whir of the drives as they spin up. Like the Lovell, the sounds are quite distinctive and you get used to them after being here even a short time, it becomes obvious very quickly if something doesn't sound right.

Unlike the Lovell telescope or MERLIN, where you provide a source list and someone else does the scheduling and actual observing, observing with Parkes (or most Australian telescopes for that matter) actually means observing. You get control of the telescope, and have to know what to do when things go wrong: before you get left in charge of the telescope you have to do an OH&S induction and operator training. There's not a lot to it and if you've ever hung around a radio telescope before, it turns out that most of it is pretty familiar. And there are a lot of very competant people not very far away who know the systems inside out, which is very reassuring (especially when it's your first run!).

Unlike the Lovell, Parkes will park automatically when the wind gets too strong. There are wind monitors in both the control rooms but the control system, rather than the operator, decides when it's no longer safe to observe. Part of the operator training, therefore, includes learning what to do to unstow the dish using the MCP. Another thing that's quite different is the actual control system itself. The position of the dish is slaved to the master equatorial: a comparatively small equatorial mount which sits inside the central column of the telescope. The ME moves to the position requested by the schedule, and a laser system measures the error between that postion and the position of the 64-m antenna above it, and drives the telescope to match the ME's position. It's totally bizarre, but absolutely brilliant.

At the moment there's a 24-hour geodesy experiment running. Earlier this evening (when I took that picture) the sky was pretty clear. There was a bit of wind that has been on and off all day, so the telescope has been parked a couple of times. This evening there was a bit of excitement though. Shaun and I were finishing dinner in the lodge when we noticed flashes of lightening outside. So, we dumped our plates and went back up to the telescope where John was observing. We'd been there a few minutes when there was another large flash, and the lights dropped. They quickly came back on and we thought the generator must have kicked it, but it hadn't. Strangely, everything was still running perfectly happily. All the same, John went off to turn on the generator manually, just in case. It's all running quite happily now, on the generator just in case there's any more storm activity.

Tomorrow there is a receiver change, then the VLBI run starts.

Posted by Megan on Thursday 03rd Sep 2009 (14:23 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

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