Sunday, June 28, 2015

kalaya - beautiful australian night sky timelapse

the australian night sky never disappoints, especially when viewed from far out into the outback.  a talented australian astrophotographer, greg priestley, was able to capture the milky way and the "emu" rising above uluru and kata tjuta in may 2014.

kalaya is the aboriginal word for emu.

beautiful work!

Kalaya - David Malin Awards from Greg Priestley on Vimeo.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

dirty space news update

here are a few pieces of dirty space news that i've collected recently, all together in one happy place for your enjoyment.

from a paper simulating magnetic fields called "High Energy Neutrino Emission from Astrophysical Jets in the Galaxy."  i particularly like the last line of the abstract: "One of the main ingredients of the present work is the presence of a toroidal magnetic field that confines the jet flow and furthermore greatly affects the distribution of the high energy neutrinos." 
Caption from paper: A plot of the magnetic field magnitude roughly half way into the simulation. We can see the jet self-confinement due to magnetic forces resulting in a narrow beam.

Adrian Price-Whelan on twitter shared a graph he created for his research and wondered "maybe it's not that bad, just my inner 11 year old showing." i think we can all agree that it is that bad.  

helpfully, a fellow astronomer suggested that "if you switched x and y, it might not be quite so snigger-worthy." i'm not sure it helped... 

and finally, yet another space vehicle for our dirty space news entertainment - Blue Origin's New Shepard space vehicle completed its first developmental test flight.

there is even a viedo of the launch!

Monday, June 22, 2015

planetary pair: venus & jupiter approaching!

venus is incredibly bright in the evening sky right now, and if you get out and LOOK UP, you won't miss the other bright object right by it - the planet jupiter!  they will keep getting closer and closer to each other over the next week and a half, culminating in what will appear to be a very bright double star system on july 1st.

it's quite a beautiful sight - make sure you enjoy it!  read more by tanya munro at the conversation.

here was the view from Brno, Czech Republic as photographed by Pavel Gabzdyl.

Photo by Pavel Gabzdyl

the view it turned around from the southern hemisphere!  this shot was taken by chris wyatt in australia.
Photo by chris wyatt

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Galaxy’s snacking habits revealed

an unexpected part of my position as "outreach officer" has been inheriting the role of "press officer" for the Australian Astronomical Observatory (AAO).  this isnt something i want to spend too much time on, but i do enjoy the occasional challenge of turning technical science results into fun stories accessible to media sources and a more general audience.

for this joint release, i received help and advice from a very experienced science communicator and press officer in western australia, pete wheeler.  much appreciated! i've learned a lot about the process of putting together the best material and advertising it properly to international media, as these are not things i've learned in my normal scientific training.

but definitely my favourite part has been the writing of the story to go with work led by AAO astronomer Ángel López-Sánchez.  so here you go - new science!

Multiwavelength image of the galaxies NGC 1512 and NGC 1510 combining optical and near-infrared data (light blue, yellow, orange), ultraviolet data (dark blue), mid-infrared data (red), and radio data (green). 

Galaxy’s snacking habits revealed

A team of Australian and Spanish astronomers have caught a greedy galaxy gobbling on its neighbours and leaving crumbs of evidence about its dietary past.

Galaxies grow by churning loose gas from their surroundings into new stars, or by swallowing neighbouring galaxies whole. However, they normally leave very few traces of their cannibalistic habits.

A study published today in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (MNRAS) not only reveals a spiral galaxy devouring a nearby compact dwarf galaxy, but shows evidence of its past galactic snacks in unprecedented detail.

Australian Astronomical Observatory (AAO) and Macquarie University astrophysicist, Ángel R. López-Sánchez, and his collaborators have been studying the galaxy NGC 1512 to see if its chemical story matches its physical appearance.

The team of researchers used the unique capabilities of the 3.9-metre Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT), near Coonabarabran, New South Wales, to measure the level of chemical enrichment in the gas across the entire face of NGC 1512.

Chemical enrichment occurs when stars churn the hydrogen and helium from the Big Bang into heavier elements through nuclear reactions at their cores. These new elements are released back into space when the stars die, enriching the surrounding gas with chemicals like oxygen, which the team measured.

“We were expecting to find fresh gas or gas enriched at the same level as that of the galaxy being consumed, but were surprised to find the gases were actually the remnants of galaxies swallowed earlier,” Dr López-Sánchez said.

“The diffuse gas in the outer regions of NGC 1512 is not the pristine gas created in the Big Bang but is gas that has already been processed by previous generations of stars.”

CSIRO's Australia Telescope Compact Array, a powerful 6-km diameter radio interferometer located in eastern Australia, was used to detect large amounts of cold hydrogen gas that extends way beyond the stellar disk of the spiral galaxy NGC 1512.

"The dense pockets of hydrogen gas in the outer disk of NGC 1512 accurately pin-point regions of active star formation", said CSIRO's Dr Baerbel Koribalski, a member of the research collaboration.

When this finding was examined in combination with radio and ultraviolet observations the scientists concluded that the rich gas being processed into new stars did not come from the inner regions of the galaxy either. Instead, the gas was likely absorbed by the galaxy over its lifetime as NGC 1512 accreted other, smaller galaxies around it.

Dr Tobias Westmeier, from the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research in Perth, said that while galaxy cannibalism has been known for many years, this is the first time that it has been observed in such fine detail.

“By using observations from both ground and space based telescopes we were able to piece together a detailed history for this galaxy and better understand how interactions and mergers with other galaxies have affected its evolution and the rate at which it formed stars,” he said.

The team’s successful and novel approach to investigating how galaxies grow is being used in a new program to further refine the best models of galaxy evolution.

For this work the astronomers used spectroscopic data from the AAT at Siding Spring Observatory in Australia to measure the chemical distribution around the galaxies. They identified the diffuse gas around the dual galaxy system using Australian Telescope Compact Array (ATCA) radio observations. In addition, they identified regions of new star formation with data from the Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX) orbiting space telescope.

“The unique combination of these data provide a very powerful tool to disentangle the nature and evolution of galaxies,” said Dr López-Sánchez.

“We will observe several more galaxies using the same proven techniques to improve our understanding of the past behaviour of galaxies in the local Universe.”

A chemical enrichment map of the NGC 1512 and NGC 1510 galaxy system showing the amount of oxygen gas in the star-forming regions around the two galaxies.

Full Press Release: here.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

I'm speaking around sydney

if youre in sydney and want to hear some sciencey astro goodness - i'm speaking at a few events you can attend in the next week and a half. I'll think i'll be incredibly exhausted by the end of this run, but i'm really looking forward to ALL the events.  let me know if you will be attending any!

1) The Storytelling of Science - Saturday, 16 May 2015, 2-5pm
2) Pint of Science - Tuesday, 19 May 2015, Doors Open at 6:30 for 7pm start
3) Astronomy Open Night at Macquarie Uni- Saturday, 23 May 2015, 6:30-10pm
4) The Story of Light - The Astronomer's Perspective - Sunday, 24 May 2015, 2 - 3:30 pm

details below....

Monday, April 20, 2015

astro anecdotes

there are all sorts of astronomy folklore stories passed down through generations of astronomers.

did you know that the 107'' telescope at McDonald observatory has bullet holes in the primary mirror?

Six bullet holes in the primary mirror of the 2.7m telescope at McDonald Observatory.
Photo credit: McDonald Observatory.

I used to observe with that telescope all the time during my PhD and it was always fun to walk down the solid tube to see the "damage" up close.   the six holes only block 1% of the light and were filed smooth and painted black to stop any reflected light from invading the observations!

there is a blog now dedicated to recording all these stories i keep hearing over a beer at the pub - and many more i havent yet heard in person!

you can read them all here: astro anecdotes.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

code quality

of course none of my astronomy code is like this!!


Friday, April 17, 2015

what kills a galaxy?

or maybe a more appropriate title is "how do you know when a galaxy is officially old?"

Anyway, I wrote an article for the conversation with astronomers Tanya Hill and Sarah Brough describing some new research on how galaxies stop forming stars.

Giant galaxies die from the inside when they stop making stars

Galaxy clusters are impressive but do they hinder star formation? NASA, N Benitez (JHU), T Broadhurst (Racah Institute of Physics/The Hebrew University), H Ford (JHU), M Clampin (STScI), G Hartig (STScI), G Illingworth (UCO/Lick Observatory), the ACS Science Team and ESA

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

How to present science to anyone

This article is originally published for Inspiring Australia in early April 2015. 

Giving a presentation is your opportunity to share your passion about a topic with an audience and empower them to wonder "why?" about the same questions that fascinate you. When the audience walks away with a deeper understanding of something you’ve convinced them is important, they will remember you and what you gave to them.

Communicating complex science ideas does not come naturally to everyone, but is a skill that can be developed with a little practice and a few basic tips. The effort is well worth the reward the first time an audience member gasps at what you say or you see a child excitedly explaining something she learned from you to her family.

The first step, before preparing any material for a presentation, activity, or interaction with the media, is to pause and think about three simple things. Make this process a part of your routine.
1. Isolate the BIG IDEA
2. Tell a story
3. Respect the audience
I will describe these three things in more detail and then give some practical suggestions to use during your presentations later in the article.

Isolate the BIG idea

What is the main thing you want your audience to walk away from your presentation understanding? This is a single statement. Say it to yourself out loud. “I want the audience to go home understanding how big the sun is.”

It is not true that adding more facts and sharing a large list of information during the brief time you have your audience’s attention is doing them a favour. Quite the opposite! As you add more facts and numbers to your presentation, the audience will start to forget the early items, their attention will drift, and they might even lose the Big Idea, which means you’ve wasted your time and theirs.

Identify the Big Idea and then 3 key points that you will use to convey your Big Idea to the audience. The rest of your interaction with them, whether it’s 5 minutes or an hour, will be bringing the audience along the journey of understanding the Big Idea and why it matters.

Tell a story

Start your science story with a hook that will instantly grab their attention. Maybe you start by asking a provocative question that might relate to their lives. You can ask them to raise their hands if they have experienced a particular thing or ever thought about how long it takes light to travel from the Sun to Earth – at the speed of light. (Eight minutes.) You can tell a quick anecdote about a person who experienced your Big Idea and how it made them feel or how it applied to their life. Try to share the human side.

Telling the story of your Big Idea will need to be presented differently for different audiences. It's not appropriate to recycle the exact same talk or activity for everyone. You should adjust presentations and activities to make them relevant to the group you are trying to reach. Have a conversation with them.

Respect the audience

This is where you consider your audience. Remember that your presentation is not about you, it’s about your audience and what you are bringing to them. Giving a presentation is your opportunity to share your fascination about a topic, leaving an audience feeling empowered by the deeper understanding of something you’ve convinced them is important.

Be mindful of the language you use: avoid jargon, get to the point, skip the details. Jargon consists of technical terms that help experts talk to each other efficiently, but is not used in everyday conversation. To a colleague you could say the sun’s diameter is 2 orders of magnitude bigger than the Earth’s. But to a general audience you would say it’s 100 times bigger. Remember, you want the audience to understand you and the words you use.

Think about what the particular audience needs to understand your story. More visuals? Interactive participation to demonstrate a concept? Talking briefly to each other about their experience? Empathise with your audience to help them get the most out of your interaction with them.

Visualise concepts and avoid using numbers

Approximate size of the Earth relative to the Sun. Image: NASA
This type of visualisation is much more memorable for the audience than a large number. Image: NASA

As a general theme, if you find yourself writing a lot of text on a slide in a presentation, especially numbers or equations, think again. Find or create a visual way you can present the concept instead.

For instance, you could write on a slide that the Sun’s diameter is 1,391,684 km. This number has no relevance to our every day experience and is therefore meaningless, other than the audience knows it’s big. You could simply say that 100 Earth’s fit across the face of the Sun. This is a better way of sharing the size because it makes it relevant to a scale the audience knows: the Earth.

Better yet, if you’re giving a visual presentation, you can show an image of the sun from a space telescope and then insert an image of the Earth next to it at its relative size. This visualisation is much more memorable for the audience than a large number. Always minimise the numbers you share and try to visualise the concept instead.

Also be mindful of the colour choices you use on your slides. Blue text on a white background is difficult to read. Small text is impossible from the back of the room (you should use at least a 20 point font, but usually bigger). And remember that some people in the audience will be colour blind.

All content should convey meaning

The content of your slide should be useful and informative for the slide’s main point. You should not read the text (there should never be that much text on a slide!). Practice so that when you look at your slide you can recall your main point. You can use notes in any presenter tool to give yourself clues, but you (and therefore your audience) should be able to identify the main point from the visual clues. Otherwise, rework your slide or practice more!

Practice your presentation
Even the most experienced presenters take time to rehearse what they will say before they say it in front of an audience.

Give yourself a confident start

  • Memorize your opening and closing lines - they make the most impact. Really practice the introduction to give yourself a confident start and allow yourself to relax into the rhythm of the presentation. Your closing line will also make a strong impact. Practice your final summary statement and then afterwards thank the audience for their time and attention. This gives the audience the helpful cue that you are finished and welcomes them to applaud.

The shorter the talk, the more you need to practice

  • Memorising every word of an hour-long talk is time consuming and not practical. When giving a 50-minute presentation, practice by going through each slide one-by-one and recalling the main point. 
  • When giving a 10-minute talk, practice at least 5 times. When giving a 5-minute talk, practice enough times that you finish in 5 minutes every time without saying “um.”

Ask for feedback

  • Practice your talk in front of friends, colleagues, or mentors and listen to the constructive criticism you receive.

Record yourself

  • It is challenging and can feel embarrassing to watch yourself speak, but the practice is so useful! You might find that you need to look up at your audience more, or that you say “um” too often, or you make a clicking sound with your tongue that you didn’t realize you made. You’ll notice your posture and whether you talk too fast, or discover that you do a very strange thing with your hand while you talk! This is a tough but rewarding practice.

Stick to time

  • It is disrespectful to the audience and makes you look unprepared if you go over time. The audience will become restless when you speak longer than the time allocated and they will not retain the information you rush to fit in at the end. It is important to practice your presentation so you can stay to time and leave your audience feeling inspired and respected.

Use technology wisely

  • When deciding how to present to a certain group, it is not a question of “How can I use this fancy new technology?” You know your Big Idea and the three key facts you will use to tell your story. Now identify which technology will best help unfold this story. It’s finding the most appropriate tool for the job.
  • You can use the technology to put cues in your talk that only you can see to remind yourself to take a breath and speak more slowly or to regain your audience’s attention when you notice it inevitably drifts.
  • Human beings have attention spans of roughly 10 minutes, and probably less than 20% of the audience will be paying attention at any given moment. This means it will be helpful for you to remind the audience of your main points throughout your presentation or try a few other tricks.
  • To regain the audience’s attention, change your focus every few minutes: vary the tone of your voice, use audience participation, , use the keyboard’s "B" key to provide a blank screen and bring attention back to you (try it out, it works!).

Speaking with young students

Young students are an active audience and they will be very eagre to share their stories with you! They want to show how something you’ve said relates to their life or how their mom read them something in a book once that kind of sort of relates to the topic. While being interactive with the students by asking them to raise their hands or vote throughout your presentation is useful, they will want to stop you during the presentation and ask questions, which often turn into long-winded stories once they’ve been given the attention.

An option is after you introduce yourself, tell the students that you know they’ll have a lot of interesting questions and stories to share with the group, and they will get a chance, but you have so much exciting material to get through that they should wait until the end of the presentation to ask questions.

Then at the end, start at one side of the room and hand a student an object (either ask the teacher for an object, or bring in something related to the topic). The student can ask ONE question, or not, and hand the object to the next student. This way every student gets a chance to share if they want, and you don’t accidentally call on the same student who keeps raising his hand while neglecting a potentially shy student unwilling speak up.  Only a few students will pass the object without commenting.

This works for a classroom of up to 30 students, but will take at least 20 minutes. If you have an hour with the group, talk for 30 minutes and then begin this activity. If the group is a lot bigger, it won’t work. If the students are older than about 11 years old, they usually have the attention span to handle a 45 minute presentation with a few questions at the end.

Talking to media

Always make a list of three things you want to convey to the journalist. Practice saying them out loud before the interview. Also write down a few items that you do not want to talk about if such items exist. If the journalist asks those things you can say “I prefer not to comment on that at this time.” Or “That is not relevant to the results I’m presenting today, so I won’t comment now.” Or even “That is not my area of expertise, so I won’t comment on that.” You can suggest other scientists who are experts in the area, if you want, or you just leave it and wait for another question. Or you can start talking about one of your three main points again.

Relax and enjoy

Finally, if you’re feeling particularly nervous before a presentation or interview, stand up, stretch your arms up out to the corners of the room and look up at the ceiling. Take a few deep breaths in this powerful posture. Also, a tall stance with broad shoulders will give you more confidence as you’re speaking.

Remember – have FUN! This is your opportunity to share your passion with an audience eagre to hear about it and understand why it’s important and so exciting to you.

Amanda Bauer is a Research Astronomer and Outreach Officer at the Australian Astronomical Observatory. She was named among the Top 5 Under 40 Australian researchers and science communicators in 2015 and was a Fresh Science finalist in 2013. She has been invited to give science communication talks at Gemini, dotAstronomy 5, Harley Wood Astronomy Winter School. Follow Amanda on Twitter @astropixie


Watch Amanda describe her research and why it’s relevant in 30 seconds in this Radio National video produced as part of Top 5 Under 40.

Watch this dotAstronomy 5 talk: Communication Strategies: How Do You Organise a Party in Space? You Planet.

Amanda Bauer - Communication Strategies: How do you Organize a Party in Space? - .Astronomy 5 from Robert Simpson on Vimeo.