Episode 29: Zombies of the Cosmos

with Prof Matthew Bailes and Katia Moskvitch

This week we learn all about neutron stars and pulsars, which can be thought of as the “corpses” of dead giant stars.

We are firstly joined by Prof Matthew Bailes from the Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing at Australia’s Swinburne University of Technology. Matthew is a world expert on pulsars and the Director of the “OzGrav” ARC Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery.

Matthew chats with is us about pulsars, gravitational waves and some of the incredible science we can expect from projects such as Meertime. Meertime will use the MeerKAT telescope to explore fundamental physics and astrophysics using radio pulsar timing.

We’re then joined by Katia Moskvitch, who was the 2019 British Science Journalist of the Year and the 2019 European Science Journalist of the Year!

Katia tells us about a her new book “Neutron stars: The Quest to Understand the Zombies of the Cosmos.” This popular science book is written for a general audience and describes the fascinating and bizarre existence of neutron stars and pulsars.

Katia is a highly experienced science writer and has worked at WIRED, Nature and BBC News Online, covering science and technology. Her work has also appeared in Quanta, The Economist, Science, New Scientist, Scientific American and many more!

We chat with Katia about science writing and the worldly adventures she had while doing research for her book. She takes us on a journey from the vast Atacama Desert in Chile to the Karoo semi-desert in South Africa and describes the people, telescopes and astronomy she encountered along the way.

This week’s guests

Feature Image

Artist’s impression of a magnetar – a highly energetic neutron star.

Related Links


Social media by Sumari Hattingh. Transcription by Brandon Engelbrecht.


 Coming Soon

Episode 28: Under a Shared Sky

with Prof John Parkington

This week we take a step back and explore the intimate roots of astronomy here in South Africa. We are joined by retired Emeritus Professor John Parkington, a senior research scholar at the University of Cape Town’s Department of Archaeology.

We take part in his journey to communicate and celebrate the ‘Intimate Cosmology’ of the indigenous people of South Africa and the close relationship they had with the night sky. We discuss the importance of preserving these stories for future generations and we learn that perhaps the only difference between the land and night-sky is how hard you throw something.

John talks about his work with the Shared Sky exhibition, which was launched to commemorate the awarding of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) to both South Africa and Australia. Although separated by great distances, we share more than we think.

We also showcase the work Dan has been involved with in trying to preserve these stories as animations, alongside linguist Dr Kerry Jones and her company African Tongue. Enjoy a first-hand experience of one such animation below, called “Moon’s Message”.

Moon’s Message (English version). Credit: NRF/SAAO.

This week’s guest

Feature Image

A still from the animation “Moon’s Message”. We see Moon as she is about to deliver her message. Credit: NRF/SAAO.

Related Links


Show notes by Timothy Roelf. Social media by Liantsoa Randrianjanahary and Sumari Hattingh.


Jacinta: [00:00:00] Welcome to The Cosmic Savannah with Dr. Jacinta Delhaize

Dan: [00:00:08] and Dr. Daniel Cunnama. Each episode, we will be giving you a behind the scenes look at the world class astronomy and astrophysics happening under African skies.

Jacinta: [00:00:15] Let us introduce you to the people involved, the technology we use, the exciting work we do, and the fascinating discoveries we make.

Dan: [00:00:22] Sit back and relax as we take you on a safari through the skies.

Jacinta: [00:00:35] Hi, welcome to episode 27? 27? 28? What are we up to? 28. All right. Welcome to episode 28 everyone.

Dan: [00:00:44] It’s hard to keep track sometimes. Yeah. So today we have different episode for you. We mentioned it last time. We will be talking a little bit about ethno-astronomy and we are joined by Professor John Parkington who is a professor in archeology and hunter-gathers.

Jacinta: [00:01:00] Yeah. So Professor Parkington has spent much of his very extensive career studying the hunter-gatherer people of South Africa. And as we said, he’s an archeologist. He also has a strong interest in anthropology.

Dan: [00:01:13] Yeah. And he kind of got into a bit of astronomy and the ethno-astronomy through this Shared Sky exhibit, which was commissioned by the Square Kilometer Array when it was first getting proposed and the sites were getting selected.

And the idea with the Shared Sky exhibit was to try and collect this cultural heritage of both sites, Australia and South Africa, and try and record the wisdom of the indigenous populations and their knowledge of the skies. And obviously the reason it was called Shared Sky is, again, that same theme where we were all under one sky and in particular, Australia and South Africa sharing the SKA and sharing the sky.

Jacinta: [00:01:55] Yeah. As Dan said, the Square Kilometer Array telescope that’s going to be built partly in Southern Africa based in the Karoo region, and also part of it will be built in Western Australia where I’m from. The indigenous people of these countries have a wealth of knowledge and history related to the night sky, which as John mentioned in his talk he gave at the recent SAAO 200th anniversary symposium. We mustn’t ignore this knowledge. This is essential to incorporate into our present and into our future.

Dan: [00:02:28] Yeah. And obviously we don’t represent the indigenous population and we’re aware of that.

Jacinta: [00:02:33] And we acknowledge that. Of course.

Dan: [00:02:35] And I think that, chatting to John, firstly hearing his talk, which was inspirational. The really cool thing was that he was an archeologist who in studying his archeology, and he explains it in the interview but I’ll mention it briefly here, is that he realized that there was so much more to the story than just what you could tell by the rocks and artifacts that he was finding. And that there was this cultural heritage and it’s just a really nice story of how he got interested in this and got into his work.

Jacinta: [00:03:09] So you and the SAAO and your team here in the public engagement sector are also interested in these stories, these indigenous stories.

Dan: [00:03:18] Yeah, I think it’s something very important. I think that there is an incredible amount of knowledge and history and stories, which have been collected over the years and they were passed down from person to person through story. This knowledge of the skies.

And a lot of that is getting lost these days. And it’s very difficult to hold onto as people are westernized and more disconnected from nature both on land and in the sky. So a project I’ve been running recently at the observatory is the development of some animations of these stories. So there are various stories which have been collected over the years.

Some of the most notable ones were the Bleek and Lloyd Collection, which were collected in the late 1800’s by a couple here in Cape Town by interviewing some of the indigenous peoples and talking to them about their knowledge of the skies, naming stars and that was kind of how I got interested in it, because in our new visitor center, we are planning to install an installation of the night sky, but with indigenous constellations rather than western ones.

Jacinta: [00:04:31] Oh, fantastic.

That’ll be fascinating.

Dan: [00:04:34] Yeah. So I was paging through the digital versions of the Bleek and Lloyd Collection and trying to find out where these constellations, which have been described before, but where they were in the sky. So I rolled back Heavens Above to the 23rd of January, 1874, when they were taking these notes and worked out where in the sky they were looking and what they were looking at.

For example, one of the really cool ones is Taurus, which is obviously not Taurus, but it’s  the Eland. Which is a big antelope here, which makes complete sense. But until you actually make that connection, you’re like, well, oh yeah OK. So that was really cool. So that was kind of how I got interested in it and with the Bleek and Lloyd Collection.

 And then we started this project with a company called African Tongue and Dr. Kerry Jones, who is a linguist and speaks many indigenous languages here and has done her PhD on those topics. She’s also very interested in these stories and so we started picking out some stories of the night sky, which had been collected over the years and we decided to make animations of them.

So we’ve got community artists from those communities, and we’ve collected them together. We’ve made a series of animations. We’ve got three animations so far, and then we’re trying to spread those stories as far as we can. So obviously not just in English, but we’ve also translated them into isiXhosa, and Afrikaans, and then Khoekhoegowab.

And Khoekhoegowab is one of the indigenous languages here in South Africa from the indigenous Khoi San. And there are still about 200,000 speakers. So, we wanted to record these stories and then share them with those communities in their language so that they can feel some ownership over it. And yeah, we keep these stories going.

So yeah, it was a very interesting project and we’ve released the first of the animations in all four languages. We released that on the 200 year anniversary and it’s on YouTube. So we will share it on this episode’s blog. And you can take a look and see what you think.

Jacinta: [00:06:46] Shall we play one of them right now?

Dan: [00:06:48] Yeah. This one is called Moon’s Message and well, we’ll let you hear it.

Jacinta: [00:06:53] It runs for about three minutes.

Dan: [00:06:55] Enjoy!

Narrator: [00:06:58] Moon’s Message.

In the beginning, Moon lived on earth with all the other beings. She was wise and respected by all. One day, she had an important message for man, but who could be her messenger? Chameleon was nearby. So she asked him to deliver the message. “As I wither and renew so will you too.”

So chameleon set off to deliver this important message. “As I wither and renew so will you too.” But chameleon was slow and hare overheard him talking in the velt.

What are you doing?

I am delivering an important message from Moon to man.

You’re too slow, I will do it.

And before chameleon could say anything further, hare ran off with Moon’s message. “As I wither and renew so will you too.”

Hare arrived where man lived and shouted “I have a very important message from Moon.”

“Well, what is the message?”

“I will wither and renew but not you”.

Giving no time for frightened man to reply, hare dashed off back the way he came.

What a fast and clever messenger I am!

He hurried back to Moon. “Moon! Moon! I delivered your important message!”

“And? What was the message?”

“I will wither and renew but not you.”

“What!? You careless creature! You have delivered the wrong message!” exclaimed Moon as she swung at hare with her walking stick. Moon’s stick struck hare’s top lip and it split open.

To this day, hare has a split upper lip to remind him to slow down and watch his words. And Moon now lives in the sky, shining brightly, providing a constant reminder of her message to all. “As I wither and renew so will you too.”


Jacinta: [00:10:04] That was great. And there’s more of these coming out soon.

Dan: [00:10:07] Yeah. So we’ve got a couple more already and then we will obviously try and share these as far as  possible. So the next part of the project is actually translating them into even more languages. So in South Africa, we’ve got 11 official languages and particularly in the Khoi San community, there are many, many more. So the Khoi San community, it’s a catch all term for the indigenous peoples of Southern Africa. They obviously represent many, many smaller populations with many, many different languages.

So Khoi San is a term for all of those indigenous populations, but there are many different smaller populations comprising. And obviously with many languages and some of them, like I mentioned Khoekhoegowab, has about 200,000 speakers still. But others have two speakers. So these languages are nearly extinct and some of them are extinct. And if we can translate these stories into those languages too,  it would be a wonderful way to try and keep those languages going, firstly, but keep the stories going and try and share.

Jacinta: [00:11:16] Yeah. And I guess we also heard from Tshiamiso Makwela in one of the episodes during our inter-season break. That episode was called “But how does astronomy benefit humanity”. And Tshiamiso was telling us a little bit about the stories that she’s heard from her community growing up about the night sky. So if you’re interested, check that out.

Dan: [00:11:35] Yeah. We

Jacinta: [00:11:35] should probably hear from John.

Great. Let’s hear from John.

Dan: [00:11:38] Alright. I’m joined by Professor John Parkington. John, can you just introduce yourself and your role?

John: [00:11:51] I’m Retired Professor, Emeritus Professor of archeology at UCT, and I’m a senior research scholar in the Department of Archeology and the Science Faculty at UCT.

Dan: [00:12:02] Great. Thank you John for joining us on The Cosmic Savannah, we really appreciate your time.

And you’ve just given a talk here at the SAAO 200 virtual symposium about ethno-astronomy and your book about the Karoo sky. And for me it was incredibly interesting just to hear the stories you’ve recorded over the years, trying to communicate these to people.

Where to start? It’s something I’ve been interested in for a very long time and something I’ve been working on in my role at the observatory. We just watched the animation Moon’s Message, which was part of the unveiling of the national heritage site yesterday.

And in your talk you mentioned the story of the moon sending a message about continual renewal and the hare getting the message and making a mistake. So, maybe we can just start there. In your knowledge, where did the story come from and how did it, how did it come about and how has it sort of changed over the years?

John: [00:13:03] Well, perhaps I’ll start by talking about the archeological record because the archeological record is a material record. So when we excavate or record things that have survived from the past, it’s very material. We get a lot of artifacts. We obviously get rock paintings and engravings, but we don’t get stories.

There are stories and there are stories behind the artifacts and behind the engravings and behind the paintings and so on. But stories are something, sound if you like, in general is something that is not there in the archeological record. And yet people didn’t paint on the walls of caves or engrave boulders in the Karoo without a lot of singing and dancing.

So we know as archeologists that we’re getting a very partial record of what was happening in the past. And so it’s very important wherever we can to try and bring in these other elements to try and find the stories, find the singing, find the dancing, and remember that those were parallel manifestations with somebody making a painting on the wall of a cave or chipping stone by the side of a stream.

My expertise really is in those material things. And so we have to make alliances with folklorist and anthropologists and other people to try and enrich our record with those other records, those records of sound and movement and dance. It’s very clear when you actually see the paintings that people are dancing in the painting, or people are clapping in the paintings.

You can’t do that without sound. You can’t have someone clapping without the clapping. And yet that’s what we’ve got in the archeological record. We haven’t got the clapping and the singing and the movement.

Dan: [00:14:54] And how do we go about collecting these stories then? You mentioned in your talk, the Bleek and Lloyd Collection and they interviewed a lot of indigenous peoples and tried to capture these stories very early on. And obviously over the years, the number of indigenous speakers of some of these languages has dropped drastically and some of the languages are even extinct. I mean, are we trawling through old records or are there still speakers out there today who know these stories and we can record them?

John: [00:15:22] Yeah. That’s the exciting thing. Of course, it’s easy to think as an archeologist with this kind of material bias that it’s all gone. But if you talk to a folklorist, it’s not gone. It’s still there. These stories are passed down and are still there. And so at the tail end of the archeological record, if you like, of the last few hundred years, you might be able to put back in the stories and the dances and the non-material things that went with the material record that we excavate.

As you go further back in time, it’s going to become more and more dangerous to assume that those things were there and were not changing. It would be a bit unrealistic to think that stories can survive and dances and songs can survive unchanged for tens of thousands of years. They might survive relatively unchanged for hundreds, perhaps even thousands of years.

But it’s very hard to investigate that because we don’t have a fossil record of singing. We don’t have a fossil record of storytelling. So it’s really difficult and what we can manage to do with the archeology of the last few hundred years, it’s much more difficult to do as you go further back in time.

And the paintings and the engravings are a very valuable bridge between the material record of the stone artifacts and the food waste and the fireplaces that we can dig up. And we can make a lot of those. They’re a kind of bridge between those things and the non-material aspects of people’s lives, which must have been there but we can’t dig them up.

Dan: [00:17:04] And how do these stories relate to astronomy?

John: [00:17:07] When we met with Bernie Fanaroff he wanted us to put together an exhibition for the South African side of a South African – Australian joint exhibition to celebrate the awarding of the SKA to both South Africa and Australia. We realized that the telescopes were going to go up in an area where from which we had a lot of 19th century stories and we knew of course already that many of these stories actually did relate to the sky. You see those /Xam speaking San hunter-gatherers of the Karoo spent just as much of their time looking up at the dark sky as they did looking up at the bright daylight sky.

They spent an awful lot of time lying there, looking at the sky, they knew it backwards. They knew its patterning. They knew its variability. They knew its relationship to seasonal changes to weather and so on. So it was very obvious to us that among the stories, there are lots of stories that we had and some that we could still collect.

But many of those stories told us about the /Xam speakers as astronomers, as people who had the same kind of interest that we have in explaining what those mysterious objects and their movements up in the sky are. And we also realized pretty quickly that the distinction between the land and the sky was much more mutable, if you like, much more ephemeral in /Xam thinking.

The /Xam ontology is what’s called a relational ontology. It’s very mutable. They’re not always trying to sort things out. Is it A or B? Maybe it’s A and B. Many of the divisions: nature, culture, man, people, animals, are not as firm in /Xam way of thinking as they are in ours. And so land and sky is another example.

So events that start happening on land end up trailing off into the sky and are reflected in the constellations that are interpreted by San people in the sky. When the Australian ethnographers and the historians were doing their side of the exhibit, it was pretty clear that the same was happening there.

The Australian Aboriginals are also looking up at the sky and it was a shared sky. That’s why the whole project was called Shared Sky. It was originally, interestingly, called Shared Skies. But very soon we realized, no this is Shared Sky. They share the sky and they not only share the sky, but they share an interest in it. And in many ways they share a style of interpretation about it.

 In both cases it’s what David Morris called an intimate cosmology. It’s very intimate. It’s almost within reach. It’s just beyond reach. So people have to throw things for them to end up in this. But they can’t put them there, they have to throw them.

So there’s a lot of throwing of things into the sky and there’s a lot of movement of animals or groups of animals. So a constellation is thought of as a small herd of female kudu, for instance. Well, obviously in Australia that would be emu or some other animal from their universe that was, that was reflected in the sky.

So it’s very intimate, things were moving back and forth between sky and land. And it was not all about the almost unmeasurable. It was about the very measurable, the very understandable, the almost tangible.

Dan: [00:20:55] Yeah, it’s a very intimate, as you say, a very intimate relationship with a sky. Something which these days we don’t have at all almost, with lights and houses and things.

We have a very loose relationship with the sky. I mean, even as astronomers we’re quite removed looking through computers and things.

John: [00:21:12] And you see what goes with intimacy is responsibility. If you believe that these are massive objects that are so far away, you can hardly imagine it, moving at speeds that you can hardly imagine, then there’s nothing to do about that. Right?

/Xam people knew there were things you could do about it or believed that there were things you had to do about it. So the /Xam people had a responsibility to that landscape. An involvement with the landscape’s continual functioning that we, I think unfortunately, have lost. And it can lead to an irresponsibility and lead to a lack of care about that landscape. /Xam people felt an enormous responsibility to the other organisms and even the inorganic parts of that landscape, to which they often ascribed agency. You know, water, wind, cloud.

These were agents that could do things and you had to be responsible in relation. So the whole thing is a relationship between people and their environmental context of responsibility. Not of helplessness. I could easily imagine that if you believe in these very large objects, moving at amazing speeds you’d think well, not my problem. What can I do?

Dan: [00:22:31] For sure. And I mean it just speaks to exactly what you were saying too, there wasn’t this disconnect between the land and the sky, which we have now, which is a very clear disconnect. The land we have, we are having issues and climate change and we do feel some responsibility, although we are somewhat disconnected. But the sky’s almost completely foreign, as you say, there’s nothing we can do about it.

And in these cultures, there was no distinction between land and sky. So you can have that same sort of relationship with a sky. This deep, deep relationship, which we don’t currently have.

John: [00:23:09] Yes, the horizon was just a kind of accidental boundary between the two arenas. If you like. And many of the things that happened in the one also happened in the other or originated in the other. The stories are wonderful like that.

Dan: [00:23:25] And then once we have these stories, then, it becomes quite important to share them. Right? Firstly, we want to record them before they’re lost any further. As the languages are lost and wane, then we lose a lot of these stories. So obviously recording them is important in itself. But I think there’s probably more to it than that. And that’s something which at the observatory we feel quite strongly about, and myself. We’ve been working on this animation and we’ve created the animation in four different languages: in English, Afrikaans, Xhosa and Khoekhoegowab, which is as you know, spoken by about 200,000 people still. And I think that the same disconnect between land and sky is happening in these cultures too. I mean, as everyone has been westernized over the past century or more, these cultures have lost that too. So I think that we have an opportunity here to try and share these stories with the people who they originally belonged to and try and keep them going and keep this relationship.

John: [00:24:28] Yeah. No, it certainly, I was going to use the word ironic, but it’s much more serious than ironic that many descendant communities have lost the stories. Jose and I have a slight disagreement about this. I have tended to think of the /Xam thinking as residual now. In other words, it was once powerful, everywhere, and full. But it’s now reduced by colonialism and apartheid to traces.

He believes that there’s much more of it than that, and it’s wrong to call it residual. More of it is there and surviving, but either way, there are certainly communities who may not claim to be descendant communities but would probably have a perfect right to if they wanted to, for whom these stories and this notion of relatedness to the landscape, has gone.

Unfortunately, what happened to those /Xam people in the Karoo is they very rapidly, well there was a lot of genocidal killing of people. Those who survived became farm laborers and domestic servants or small town dwellers in the tiny villages that were beginning to pop up around the Karoo. And in all kinds of ways, their way of thinking about the world had to change.

Some things were lost very quickly. Probably language went pretty quickly and gradually people became Afrikaans speaking. They became Christian. The only things that survived or often the only things that survived were real basic survival issues. Like which of the planets can you eat and what will make your tummy better if you’ve got a bad stomach. Or what can a woman do if she’s giving birth and she’s got pains and she’s a long way from a chemist or a pharmacist, what can she do? So obviously certain cultural strands are going to survive, but many of them disappear quite quickly. Some of them disappear more slowly.

Those Bleek and Lloyd records that we have from the 1860’s, they were already on the way out. That was an almost unique opportunity to collect that kind of information. When Dorothea Bleek, Wilhelm Bleek’s daughter went back about 50 years later to try and find the informants or the children and descendants of the informants of her father and her aunt, she could hardly find it.

The process of transformation was picking up pace. So there’s not a lot left. And in many ways being descendant community now means reviving rather than remembering. And that’s very sad because it’s really valuable information. It’s a wonderful way of thinking about the world.

I mean, I’ve been studying hunter-gatherers my whole archeological life and I’ve realized how sensible hunter-gatherers were. They were responsible. They thought of themselves as stewards, as looking after things, passing them on to the next generation. Not owners. And they have relationships with one another and with the landscape and with the resources. They recognize the agency of other animals. It’s a really valuable way of thinking about the world that you have to live in and not damaging it.

Dan: [00:27:55] It’s a difficult question, but as two males of European descent talking about this, what is our role? How can we, how do we relate to this? I mean, obviously I have an interest. You have a deep interest and a lot of experience in this. But what are your thoughts on that?

John: [00:28:14] I’ve been running a project in Clanwilliam for many years, the Living Landscape project. And I think our job is to recognize these traces of the past and to communicate it and to celebrate it. Obviously it’s up to people to decide whether they are descendant communities and what their relationship is with the past or particular groups of people in the past.

It’s obviously a decision that people have to make for themselves. But if you can put the potential decisions like that on the table, and then become, if you like, a source of information as to how one could think about the past and people from the past and what happened in the past and how the past became the present and the terrible things that turned the past into the present.

I think of it as just putting this stuff on the table. We’ve excavated in that area. We know quite a lot about the pasts of people in the Cederberg or in the Western Cape. It’s our job to talk to the potential descendants of those people about it, rather than, or as well as, the journal editors through whom we publish.

So for the first half of my career, I spent my time doing what an academic has to do. You know, I went out there and collected information and then I wrote papers on it and the university expected me to do that. And that was fine. But from the 1990s onwards, it was very clear that I needed to be talking to other people as well.

I needed to be communicating what I thought we had found out to other people who might have a different kind of interest in it from a journal editor. A personal interest in it. And it was really interesting in Clanwilliam to see young men and young women who I thought could be descendants of the people who made the paintings and made the stone artifacts and so on, to see them pick up that notion and do what they wanted with it. Possibly even make a living out of knowing about it.

Certainly, I imagine, being able to rethink their notion of self and who they were, and certainly look back on these appalling caricatures of people in the past with a new set of eyes and realize that the people to whom they may want to claim some relatedness were high achievers. Their knowledge of plant edibility, medicinal value of plants, their knowledge of how to live sensibly and sustainably in a landscape was enormously higher than the colonists.

 Their ability to paint, to develop poisons, to do chemistry basically to make poisons and mastics and paints out of various components was admirable. Now, I don’t know and none of us can really determine how those notions or thoughts will be taken up by people. But one just hopes that it will have some positive value on people’s thinking about themselves and their past and their future.

Dan: [00:31:20] Thank you, John. Thank you very much for speaking to us today. I really appreciate it.

John: [00:31:24] Pleasure.

Jacinta: [00:31:36] Wow. That was really cool. That was very, very different, a hugely different perspective and really interesting. I really loved hearing about how the indigenous Australian people had stories that were kind of in parallel to the indigenous South African people. And John spoke more about this during his presentation at the symposium. How there’s this story from Australia about emu eggs in the sky and the story from South Africa, of course, about ostrich eggs in the sky.

Dan: [00:32:04] Yeah. I mean, it’s fascinating. Like it makes you wonder about all sorts of things, the history of the world. But yeah, I mean, I thoroughly enjoyed that conversation. You probably heard it in my voice.

I just thought it was fascinating. Just the whole concept of it and some of the concepts he brought up. I loved the fact that the earth and sky weren’t separate that the sky was not this distant thing, which it is now. I mean, for us we talk about astronomy all the time, but it is distant.

You know, we don’t have any control over it. We understand that we don’t have any control over it, but in doing so it’s distant.

Jacinta: [00:32:45] Yeah, exactly. And like John said, it’s this concept of shared sky, of responsibility and preservation. Just kind of like what Susan and Chu were saying in the last episode, like what Vanessa was saying in episode 26. I liked this concept of the intimate cosmology, as opposed to the infinite cosmology that the SKA will study.

Dan: [00:33:07] Yeah. And it made me want that connection to seek that connection.

Jacinta: [00:33:12] I mean, we’re so removed from it, particularly when we’re living in cities and we can’t even see the night sky at all. It makes you wonder how different the experience would have been to live like these people and to see these night skies.

Dan: [00:33:24] Yeah. And just that cultural connection, we have this striving still to feel at one with nature. I mean, most people do. You want to go camping and you want to really get in touch with nature. But to see the stars as something that is the same. It’s something that you can really get in touch with. You can have an intimate relationship with these stars, even though they’re very, very far.

Jacinta: [00:33:48] Yeah, that’s right. And I also liked how John was saying that this is a way to communicate and celebrate the traces of the past. And you were sort of asking Dan what your role, what our role is in this. Because of course we fully acknowledge that we are both white, euro-descended persons, so that our point of view, and now our representation of all of this is probably going to be eurocentric.

And you were asking, what is the role that people like us will play in telling these stories? Do we have a right to tell these stories? Do we have a right to share it? Of course we must be including other people in this conversation. So, what did you think about John’s response to that question?

Dan: [00:34:33] Yeah. I mean, I think it is a different, good question. And I think that he’s right in many ways that these stories are being lost and being able to record them and offer them to populations who may feel some connection to them so that they can then choose whether this is something that they want to incorporate in their culture. But again, you don’t want to do it in such a way that I’ve collected this story and here it is for you.

And that’s kind of why I asked the question is because it is really tricky. I mean, for example, a tangible example is we’ve made these animations, right? And we’ve worked with indigenous people to make the animations. And we can translate them into indigenous languages. But is that enough?

And is that actually achieving the goal of empowering people to feel some ownership over these stories and this culture and this wisdom?

Jacinta: [00:35:35] I mean, I guess we have to constantly, we should constantly be worrying that we’re, I mean, I guess the expression is white saviourism.

Dan: [00:35:42] Exactly.

Jacinta: [00:35:44] We want to participate and celebrate, but not take over.

Dan: [00:35:49] Yeah. I mean, you can take the approach of, Oh it’s interesting and that’s a good enough reason. I’m not going to try and do anything with it. I’m just interested. But I think that there’s so much more when I think that trying to celebrate indigenous knowledge and incorporate it.

I mean, for me, the one reason I really really am interested in it and do like to incorporate it as much as possible is because it reaches people. And that’s kind of what John was getting at. If you can reach people on something that they feel close to, then the experience and the interaction is so much more rich.

Jacinta: [00:36:25] And relevant to their lives.

Dan: [00:36:27] Yeah. Rather than walking into a school or an open night or something and just saying, well here’s Orion. I mean, who knows what Orion is? Orion isn’t an African constellation. And so I think that even taking small steps in those directions help. You know, I think that it does allow people to feel a little bit closer to the skies and feel that they have some connection with it.

Jacinta: [00:36:56] Yeah, I guess it’s this ontology that John was talking about. We did have to look that up, what that meant. That’s really moving away from our area of expertise. So ontology is a branch of metaphysics dealing with the nature of being, which is much more philosophical than the conversations we usually have, but it makes sense, right? The sky is part of our sense of being.

Dan: [00:37:22] Yeah. And I mean that’s it, right? It’s so much more. And we talk about it often that the sky, there’s a cultural connection to it and it makes you feel humble and all that. But there’s so much more. And historically in the past, there was even more and we’ve lost a lot of that and trying to rediscover some of it. And particularly in your own culture, it’s very powerful.

Jacinta: [00:37:48] Yeah. So I guess, again, we can only bring our own perspectives to this conversation at this time, but we want to hear your perspective. So we’d love to hear from listeners how you feel about all of these topics, what you’d like to hear more about.So please do reach out to us on social media or via the contact page of our website.

Great. Okay. Well, that was a very, very different episode, but I thoroughly enjoyed it and I hope that you did too.

Dan: [00:38:14] I did.

Jacinta: [00:38:15] You did. I was speaking to the listener. [Laughs]

Great. Okay. Well, that’s it for today as always. Thank you very much for listening and we hope you’ll join us again for the next episode of The Cosmic Savannah.

Dan: [00:38:28] You can visit our website, thecosmicsavannah.com where we’ll have the transcript, links and other stuff related to today’s episode, including the animation. You can follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @cosmicsavannah. That’s savannah spelled S A V A N N A H.

Jacinta: [00:38:43] Special thanks today to Emeritus Professor John Parkington for speaking with us.

Dan: [00:38:48] Thanks to Sumari Hattingh for social media and transcription assistance and Andy Firth for show notes preparation. Also to Mark Allnut for music production, Janus Brink and Michal Lyzcek for photography and Lana Ceraj for graphic design.

Jacinta: [00:39:01] We gratefully acknowledge support from the South African National Research Foundation, the South African Astronomical Observatory and the University of Cape Town Astronomy Department to help keep the podcast running.

Dan: [00:39:12] As always, you can subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you’d like to help us out, please rate and review us and recommend us to a friend.

We’ll speak to you next time on The Cosmic Savannah.

[Bloopers] Hello. Hello and welcome. [Jacinta laughs] Come on! What was wrong with that?

Jacinta: [00:39:43] I was trying to beat you to it.

Dan: [00:39:45] Oh right! [Laughs]

Ok. Ah. Hello and welcome to episode 28. Um, yeah, so…shall we get right into it? [Jacinta laughs]

I don’t know. I’m all over the place!

Episode 27: A Bamboo Planetarium

with Susan Murabana Owen and Chu Owen

We have an absolutely packed episode for you to enjoy this week!

Firstly, congratulations to the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) on celebrating its 200th anniversary on the 20th of October 2020! In honour of this prestigious occasion, the observatory was given national heritage site status.

A symposium was held (virtually), with talks presenting a wide range of topics from: the history of the observatory and astronomy in South Africa, the cultural aspects and socioeconomic impacts of astronomy, and all the exciting science being done.

Dan, and collaborator Sally Macfarlane (University of Cape Town), recently premiered a new full-length planetarium show focusing on South African astronomy. Together, they incorporate aspects of indigenous knowledge, the history of astronomy in the country, and shots of the various locations – all in a full dome experience. Watch the teaser or follow the links below.

Teaser of the planetarium show Rising Star: A South African Astronomy Journey.

Our featured guests this week are Susan Murabana Owen and Chu Owen. Two astronomers, working in Kenya, passionate about bringing astronomy to everyone, not just those who can afford it. They founded The Travelling Telescope, a social enterprise, in 2014 where Susan serves as the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) (she also holds positions as the President of the African Planetarium Society, and serves on the board of the International Planetarium Society), and Chu serves as the Chief Technical Director (CTD) (bringing with a wealth of astrophotography experience).

The Travelling Telescope provides educational tools to aid school teachers, such as a mobile planetarium, a permanent planetarium in Nairobi made of bamboo, a robotics program (partnered with the Airbus Foundation), and virtual reality headsets. Through events hosted, such as the Nairobi star party, they hope to foster sustainable interaction with local communities, and provide a platform for these communities to tell their stories of the African sky.

This week’s guests

Feature Image

The Nairobi Planetarium built out of bamboo. Credit: The Travelling Telescope.

Related Links


Show notes by Timothy Roelf. Transcript by Sambatriniaina Rahjohnson. Social media by Sumari Hattingh.


Dan: [00:00:00] Welcome to The Cosmic Savannah with Dr. Daniel Cunnama.

Jacinta: [00:00:08] And Dr. Jacinta Delhaize. Each episode, we’ll be giving you a behind the scenes look at world-class astronomy and astrophysics happening under African skies.

Dan: [00:00:16] Let us introduce you to the people involved, the technology we use, the exciting work we do, and the fascinating discoveries we make.

Jacinta: [00:00:24] Sit back and relax as we take you on a safari through the skies.


Jacinta: [00:00:35] Welcome to episode 27, everyone. Today, we’ll be hearing from Susan Murabana Owen and Chu Owen who run The Travelling Telescope program in Kenya. But first Dan, it has been quite a week!

Dan: [00:00:49] The busiest of weeks.

Jacinta: [00:00:51] I’m not sure how you’re still standing.

Dan: [00:00:53] Well, I’m not, I’m sitting at the moment and that’s been my state for the last few days.

Jacinta: [00:00:59] Alright. Well, before we get into that, this is the first episode we’ve recorded since the announcement of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics,

Dan: [00:01:07] which once again, went to

Jacinta: [00:01:08] Astronomy!!!

Dan: [00:01:10] Obviously, it’s the best science.

Jacinta: [00:01:16] We’ll deny it, if anyone asks. Yeah. So this year, the Nobel Prize in Physics went to Roger Penrose, Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez for “Black holes”.

So Roger Penrose was awarded the prize for the discovery that black hole formation is a robust prediction of the general theory of relativity. So basically some very hardcore maths and physics, astrophysics. Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez was awarded the prize for discovering the supermassive black hole at the centre of our own galaxy, the Milky `way.

And that’s called Sagittarius A*.

Dan: [00:01:54] Yeah, that’s pretty cool. I think that the relativity, obviously from Einstein back in 1915 and black holes were the kind of the singularity, which were predicted and now, I mean, we know about black holes, we know all about them. We know that they’re real and that they abide by the law of relativity.

Jacinta: [00:02:16] Yeah, and I guess Genzel discovered the supermassive black hole by tracking the motion of other stars around the centre of the Milky way. And they could see, it was all putting a point where there was no light coming from it. It was discovered that was a black hole.

And I would assume Dan that a lot of the reason why this award is happening this year has something to do with the EHT image of a supermassive black hole that was taken last year, which I guess is really quite direct evidence of black holes.

Dan: [00:02:46] Yeah. I mean I think that black holes are definitely one of the more exciting branches of physics. There’s a lot happening at the moment and there’s a lot to be discovered.

I’m not sure if it was related to the EHT or not, but that observation that you’re talking about, it’s like the coolest gift ever. Because it’s like, 20 or 30 years now of observations of these stars going around the black hole. We’ll definitely stick that on the website, but you know, you can see these little black stars going “whoop, whoop” around this object, which isn’t there.

Jacinta: [00:03:17] Well, we actually plan on doing an episode on black holes related to the Nobel prizes in the future. So I guess we’ll leave the gift for that episode.

Dan: [00:03:24] Okay. We’ll keep you waiting.

Jacinta: [00:03:27] But anyway, the prizes were awarded a couple of weeks ago. And in the last week we’ve also been incredibly busy.

Primarily you Dan, with the 200th anniversary celebrations of the SAAO, the South African Astronomical Observatory.

Dan: [00:03:41] Yeah. So Tuesday, 20th October saw the 200 year anniversary and we had the site unveiled officially as a national heritage site, which is a very, very big deal, which was very stressful.

I had some issues with the live stream, but we don’t talk about those. And then we had a symposium which ran for the remainder of the week from Tuesday to through to Friday, which was really, really cool. I think we had all sorts of talks and, you know, we’ll send you the link where you can go watch all of the talks that were online.

It was a virtual symposium, so everything has been recorded and made available online. And we had talks ranging from obviously the history of the observatory, the history of astronomy in South Africa, socio economic impacts of astronomy, the cultural aspects of astronomy, and then the science. So current science, exciting science and things to come in the future.

So it was a whole range of all of astronomy in South Africa. The symposium was themed to be on 200 years of astronomy, which I really quite liked because it kind of, beyond covers all sorts of things. We can look beyond 200 years ago, we can look beyond 200 years to the future, and then we can look beyond astronomy too.

So yeah, I think it went really well. We got a lot of positive feedback and a lot of interactions. We had almost 500 people, I think in the end, that’s like very cool. And I mean the virtual symposium thing, obviously we didn’t want to do it that way initially, but it meant that we had people joining from all over the world.

We got high profile speakers from all over the world who otherwise probably wouldn’t have travelled. So it, it really did. Yeah, I think it set the tone for how we can do virtual conferences in the future.

Jacinta: [00:05:26] Yeah. I mean, Dan, honestly, for you and your team, Congratulations! I was absolutely blown away by the, the standard that was set.

I mean the speed of the pivot to virtual conferencing was incredible. And you’ll set up an entire professional TV studio right here at the SAAO. As you know, I was chairing one of the sessions with yourself and then also with another person. And I was expecting it to be in ZOOM, just sitting together in front of a computer, a laptop, looking into the camera on the laptop and talking together.

But no! It was a full ON TV studio. We had a set manager giving us the countdown to when we go to go live, we had headpieces. And what do you call these?

Dan: [00:06:10] The little Madonna Microphone. I think Madonna was the first to do that.

Jacinta: [00:06:16] Like the earpiece where you can hear people like telling you instructions through that, it was super cool and yeah, very, very professionally done.

Very speaking span. And yeah, again, I was also really impressed by the variety of talks. And there was a lot on history, which I wasn’t actually expecting, but I learnt a lot from that. I guess it’s hard to conceptualize really how long 200 years is, and how much the world has changed and how much South Africa has changed in that time. So that was, that was really quite fascinating.

Dan: [00:06:49] And astronomy, I mean, how much astronomy is changing.

Jacinta: [00:06:51] That is just unbelievable how much it’s changed in 200 years! We actually heard from the president of the Royal Astronomical Society in England. She was able to join, as you said, because of the virtual nature of the conference and the Royal Astronomical Society also celebrating their bicentenary this year.

So 200 years of the SAAO here, and 200 years of the society they’re in, in England. And it’s, it’s an enormous history with incredible growth.

Coming back to science, another thing that’s happened in the last week or two. Dan it’s been quite a, quite a busy few weeks. Is that a special astronomy edition of the National Research Foundations, “Science Matters” magazine was published and that was actually edited by you and I, and had a lot of contributions from many research astronomers here in South Africa. And I think that gave a really nice overview of the huge variety of astronomy coming out of South Africa here, which obviously we’re trying to promote through this podcast and to share all that knowledge, but even so, even though we’re quite plugged into that, I was still blown away by the huge variety.

I mean, there’s things like: everything from the larger scales of cosmology simulating the entire universe; studying these things called the baryonic acoustic oscillations, which are basically the largest scales in the entire universe. Down to studying galaxies, galaxy evolution with the MeerKAT telescope, with SALT; down to studying stars that are releasing huge amounts of X-rays; down to even here on the Earth and as you said, the socio-economic impact of astronomy, which was phenomenal. The huge breadth and the range of the whole,

Dan: [00:08:33] Yeah. I mean, we say it over and over again,

Jacinta: [00:08:36] It sounded a bit like a broken record, I guess, but it’s true.

Dan: [00:08:39] But the astronomy in South Africa, we’re quite passionate about it.

Jacinta: [00:08:43] As we can may be hear. So also talking about sharing all of this with the public and the socio-economic impact, there was also this virtual festival of astronomy alongside the symposium.

Dan: [00:08:56] Yes, that was pretty cool too. So, obviously trying to reach the public as much as possible. We wanted to have an astro fest where we could do stargazing and everything, but we couldn’t do that.

So we pivoted to virtual and we had talks from various people. We had the people representing NASA and others, and again, the advantage of being able to get people from all over the world to contribute. So we had various talks, we had some workshops on how to engage in astronomy to communicate astronomy.

We had a nice webinar on science communication, and then we had virtual staff party on the Friday night.

Jacinta: [00:09:31] How did that go? And what was it? how was the music?

Dan: [00:09:35] It was pretty cool. I mean, I don’t know, like I love the DJ. So master KG, who some people may know, he’s very popular at the moment here in South Africa. He’s had one major hit and everyone’s dancing to it, including myself on Friday, but anyway, he kind of started rough and he sort of eased you into a set.

So we had going on the TV and it’s kind of cool, funky music. And then, we interspliced that with some virtual stargazing. So we had a telescope set up, it just an amateur telescope, 16 inch, with a camera attached to it. We slewed it around and pointed at various objects. So, you know, while the music was playing, we had text on the screen as to what you were looking at.

And people got an opportunity to look at some of these things, as you would see them through an outreach telescope, rather than through one of our large telescopes who actually don’t make very good images at all. They are directed at science. They didn’t really doing spectroscopy or something similar. They’re not making these pretty images.

Jacinta: [00:10:35] But sometimes they are

Dan: [00:10:37] Some of them do. Looking at it as you would see it if you went on a stargazing evening or visited us here. So it was pretty cool. I enjoyed it and we got some good feedback. I think people really enjoyed all of those events and it was a nice way of interacting.

Jacinta: [00:10:53] Nice. Hopefully some of our listeners are also able to participate in that, but even if you miss that, there’s still a chance to participate in the celebrations with. There’s a planetarium show I believe.

Dan: [00:11:05] Yeah. So for my sons, I was doing another thing too. So on Monday 19th, we had the premier of a new planetarium show focusing on South African astronomy.

So it’s a project that we’ve been working on for a couple of years now, along with Sally Macfarlane from UCT. And yeah, we’ve recorded a full length. So that’s 24 minute planetarium show, full dome experience. We incorporate some indigenous knowledge, the history of astronomy in the country at the various exciting locations and telescopes.

We’ve got shots from MeerKAT and drone footage from Sutherland, which has just spectacular.

Jacinta: [00:11:41] I haven’t seen it yet, but I can’t wait.

Dan: [00:11:43] It’s the coolest thing flying over Sutherland. And seeing all those telescopes, it’s spectacular. So yeah, I mean, and then we give an introduction to multi wavelength, astronomy, then multi- messenger astronomy, which is a lot of what we’re doing here in South Africa at the moment.

So it went really well. It was well received and it’ll be in a planetarium near you. Hopefully soon.

Jacinta: [00:12:02] Right, so this is called “Rising Star”. And it’s currently in the Iziko planetarium here in Cape town, and you’ve made it free for planetariums all around the world to, to release, right?

Dan: [00:12:12]  Yeah. So it’s freely available. We have distributed it already to Bloemfontein and to the Naval Hill planetarium and the planetarium in Sutherland. There’s over 4,000 planetaria around the world and it’s freely available to all of them.

Jacinta: [00:12:26] Great. So if you run a planetarium and you want the show, get in touch! Well, can we actually play a little snippet of the planetarium show?

Dan: [00:12:34] Yeah, sure. I mean, we can play the voiceover and we do have a trailer, so we’ll post the trailer on the,

Jacinta: [00:12:43] On the website. Alright. So we’re going to play a little bit of the audio now, but for the full visual effects, well, go to Sydney planetarium show, but you can also head to our website for the trailer.

[Trailer Audio]

Trailer: [00:13:11]  Humans have always looked up to the night sky and wondered at the repeating patterns of the celestial bodies. What are they? Where are they from? and what is their connection to us? To answer these questions? We created stories.

A San legend tells the story of the origins of our galaxy, the Milky way. A young woman waits for the hunters to return at the end of the day. As it grows dark, she throws ash from the fire into the night sky.This becomes the Milky Way and guides the Hunter safely home after dark.

Everything we know from the Universe starts from studying the light emitted or reflected by objects in space. By detecting and analysing light from an object in space, astronomers can learn about its distance, motion, temperature, density, and chemical composition.

Initially, astronomers detected only one type of light, visible light. The type we see with our eyes, which is actually a spectrum of wavelengths that make up the colours of the rainbow.

Light travels very fast. The speed of light is about 300,000 kilometres per second. This means that the light from the Sun, which is 150 million kilometres away takes just over eight minutes to get to us on Earth.

So when we look at the sun, we were actually seeing it as it was about eight minutes ago.

We are looking back in time. Most of objects in the Universe are even further away, and light from the most distant galaxies can take billions of years to reach us.

[Trailer ends]

Jacinta: [00:16:10] Cool. I can’t wait to see it. So I haven’t seen the show yet, but I’m very, very excited. Okay, so speaking of planetarium shows and outreach to the public and stargazing. Today, we’re going to be talking to Susan Murabana Owen, and Chu Owen, who run The Travelling Telescope program in Kenya, as we said at the start of the episode.

Chu and Susan kind of do “everything”! They have so many projects going on. They’ve got a program to take a telescope around, to do school visits in Kenya, also astrotourism. They’ve even built an entire planetarium out of bamboo! So I managed to chat with Sue and Owen when they visited Cape Town a little while ago, for the African Astronomical Society meeting, where I believe she was appointed to the role of a, I think it was something to do with planetarium coordinator for the committee. I can’t remember the exact role. But she also has a whole bunch of other roles. She’s the founding president of the African Planetarium Association and the national coordinator of Astronomy Without Borders and Universal Awareness, etc.

So Chu and Susan do a whole range of things.

Dan: [00:17:24] Very, very busy people and very passionate people, which is wonderful. I think that there’s various levels in which you can participate in outreach and science engagement. And it’s just wonderful to hear people like Sue and Chu, who really just get down on the ground, feet on the ground, reaching people and trying on the stars. And it’s fantastic.

Jacinta: [00:17:43] So shall we hear from them?

Dan: [00:17:44] Absolutely!


Jacinta: [00:17:52] With us now is Chu Owen and Susan Murabana Owen. Welcome to the studio, can you just tell us a bit about who you are and where you’re from and what you do?

Susan: [00:18:04] My name is Susan Murabana. I’m from Kenya and I’m the co-founder of The Travelling Telescope.

Chu: [00:18:10] My name is Chu Owen, originally from England. I now also am in Kenya.

Jacinta: [00:18:15] Great, Susan and Chu, you mentioned that you are working on something called The Travelling Telescope. Can you tell us more about what that is?

Susan: [00:18:22] So The Travelling Telescope is a social business as we like to call it. We work with schools, providing education tools to support the teachers and to get the kids excited, but we also work with the tourism sector.

What we do is we charge schools that can afford, international schools and private schools to get our services. We have a big telescope. We have a mobile planetarium. We’re just in the process of setting up permanent planetarium in Nairobi. It’s going to be called the Nairobi planetarium.

And we have other tools, one in partnership with Airbus foundation, which is a robotics program that we take around to schools. So one of the key things we’re very excited about is working with young people, but we also want to engage the wider Kenyan and African audience. Through to I presume Kenya has unpolluted dark skies.

They are really good and I would like to use that to showcase Kenya in Africa, in terms of astronomy.

Chu: [00:19:20] We’ve got to, like Susie said, we’ve got two main sides to what we do, which is the educational side and then the tourism side. But within those there’s other areas as well. So like within the schools, within the international schools, as Susie said, we’d do charge.

And then when we can, we get funding to do schools that don’t necessarily have access to the funding, but we don’t want to miss them out if possible. So we do look for funding to get to the less served schools. And then even within the tourism side, there’s like, you know, more local tourism, like people from Kenya, from Nairobi who wants to, you know, learn more about the sky.

And then of course, international tourists. And that tends to be like the lodges and the more sort of, you know, the higher end things. So within both of those areas, we’ve got different sort of levels, which we try to engage with.

Susan: [00:20:00] Part of the reason we charge is obviously to be sustainable and to help and, you know, provide opportunities for young Kenyan graduates in astronomy or other science fields to work with us and make something from what they are doing. But also really it’s to get the buy-in from the Kenyan or African community.

So one of the things we do is then “Nairobi Star Party”, where we charge a minimal fee for families to come, and journalists and all different people who pay to look through the telescope have to go into the planetarium. And for us, we feel by their, the community is paying, it means the value of what we do and are willing to, you know, use a bit of their money to enjoy.

So having that means that it’s going to be sustainable, not necessarily financially, but also in terms of interest from the community or the people.

Chu: [00:20:53] Obviously our tools are the main focus of what we do, which is the telescope and the planetarium. And then we have this robotics kits and some other hands-on activities, including virtual reality headsets.

But we are like the guides. We are like the safari guides for the astronomy world. So we know the sky pretty well, and we observed in, you know, how objects form and what happens through the evolution of different things in the sky. And so, you know, for example, on a night time thing with the telescope, we have our very powerful laser pointers. While we’re highlighting certain objects and we have microphones, but it’s an interactive thing. So it’s presenter led, but with the astronomy guides.

Susan: [00:21:29] So through what we do, we have obviously received a lot of attention and appreciation, especially locally from where we are. So obviously we’re talking about the fact that you’re trying to do it as a business, but with social impact.

And one of the things you do is obviously try to bring in the local communities that are very connected to the sky. To connect with the sky the traditional stories they have, because this story is quickly getting lost because they’re not asking or telling them. And if you go to a community that has, you know, all this wildlife and has all these two areas and you get the locals to talk about the sky, they feel that they’re part of that project that you’re bringing into the community.

Jacinta: [00:22:13] Gosh, you do so much! I’m almost speechless and not sure what else to ask. That’s just so fantastic. I guess. Why astronomy? Why did you choose astronomy as a platform?

Chu: [00:22:25] So for me, I got into astronomy sort of later. My primary world was the film world. And I got into that through arts and photography and music.

In fact, at school, the sciences were a complete mystery to me and I can’t blame my teachers for that, but it’s like, it just wasn’t appealing to me and I didn’t pay any attention to it in school. So I didn’t pursue that kind of area, but sort of getting more interested in it when I was, you know, in my twenties I suppose. I was like, why did nobody come and sort of share the wonder of science, particularly astronomy with me at school?

Cause that just never happened. Nobody there never had like an engaging thing with about science, but for me, seeing Saturn in a telescope was just mind blowing. And I was like, why had nobody during all of those years of education that I had at school? Why did nobody ever say that there’s this, there’s all these things up there, which are visible to you and even in a small telescope, which you can’t help, but wonder at, and I want to ask more questions about.

Susan: [00:23:23] I think for me, it was also, you remember the young girl us to find the Plough in the sky in school. And I struggled seeing it. And when my classmates went back to school and reported what they had seen. I didn’t see it. And now, you know, having that sky and learning about it and telling people about it, that is such a fulfilment. But also knowing that there could be young boys and girls like me struggling to see the sky and struggling to like science, gives me that drive to do it.

Obviously, knowing that astronomy is an intriguing science, it sparks curiosity. And the fact that we are a dark continent, so why not make use of that beautiful sky and shade to the rest of the world? The other thing that stands out for me in astronomy is the fact that when we look at a satellite image of the Earth, that all borders, we all belong to this planet and trying to use that to get our leaders to speak together.

And everyone just loving our planet and taking care of it is one of the things that makes me very excited about what we do. So I think those are the two things that led to that. And obviously right now, there’s a lot of really cool things happening in the continent in astronomy. And looking back at when I started in outreach in astronomy and now, it’s just an exciting time in Africa to be doing what we’re doing.

And that’s also something that excites me.

Jacinta: [00:24:53] Yeah, absolutely. I really agree with you about how we’re all united under one sky. And that, that is why astronomy can cross all borders and all cultures and all divides because we’re all under the same sky. Now I have to admit that as a professional radio astronomer, I don’t know anything about anything that you can see with your eyes in the sky.

So I have a question. The Plough is that the same as the Big Dipper?

Chu: [00:25:17] Yes.

Jacinta: [00: 25:18] Okay.

Chu: [00: 25:20] It’s got four names, the Big Dipper, the Ursa Major, the Plough and the Great Bear.  Probably others in other languages as well, of course.

Jacinta: [00: 25:29]  So the people who are familiar with the night sky going to laugh at me a little bit with these questions, but I imagine so, so you spend most of your time in Kenya, is that right?

Susan: [00: 25:38] Yeah, we do spend most of our time in Kenya. We have been to Tanzania with The Travelling Telescope a few times. And we really want to travel across the rest of Africa with The Travelling Telescope. I think it’s a beautiful name to talk about exactly what we do and we’ve had a few people across the continent who asked for us to visit. So it’s also the fact that you travel when you travel to different parts of the world and look up in the sky, there’s something unique and different. And with the culture and the people, it just has a way of humbling news. So I think we’d like to, you know, explore the idea of traveling to more countries across Africa, with our model and sharing with them what we have, and also getting to learn about what’s happening.

Jacinta: [00:26:26] I imagine the skies in Kenya must be stunning.

Chu: [00:26:30] Well, one really cool thing about Kenya is that it’s on the equator, which means that you see both hemispheres of the skies as an astronomer.

Jacinta: [00:26:37] Northern and Southern.

Chu: [00:26:39] So you almost see every star in the sky through the year. That’s not true of anywhere, you know, more than 23 degrees North or South of the equator.

So like here, we were looking at the sky last night, I was like, Oh my goodness!, “me, that’s the, that’s the Southern cross really high up in the sky”. And so Susie mentioned earlier, seeing the Great Bear, the Big Dipper who was supposed to be there because her books had told her that it’s a circumpolar constellation.

Of course, she’s looking from the equator. So it’s not, there’s no circumpolar constellation at the equator because the sky rotates around pretty much the horizons. But also Kenya has obviously a lack of development you could argue in some ways, but that has a beneficial effect on the views of the night sky.

So you have very, very large dark sky areas. One of the biggest parks, Safari parks and wildlife parks is Tsavo. And we’re actually in the process of looking to try to get that turned into a dark sky reserve and with the international dark sky association. And hopefully, maybe even more, if we can get one, we could hopefully get another. Also one of the brilliant things about Kenyan skies or being on the equator is that the ecliptic is right above your head.

So you’re looking through the least amount of atmosphere at any of the planets or the moon, or whatever happens to be, you know, transiting along the ecliptic, including the constellation of the Zodiac. So there’s, there’s loads of reasons why specifically where we are is brilliant. Not that other places aren’t, but it’s just, we’re very lucky with our skies plus the dry climate, which generally is, is also really good to see, you know, any objects in the telescope or with your naked eyes.

Susan: [00:28:07] Yeah. And I don’t think many Kenyans actually know that uniqueness of where we are in terms of the sky.

Jacinta: [00:28:17] Yeah, that’s incredible. So if any of our listeners want to come and see one of your shows, see The Travelling Telescope, how can they find you?

Susan: [00:28:25] We are on Twitter, you can check us up on Twitter @TravelTelescope.

We are on Instagram @thetravellingtelescope, Facebook: The Travelling Telescope, and we have our website info at travellingtelescope.co.uk. So please get in touch with us. And we offer star Safaris and we have the big five in the sky, and we have so much to give you a few. If you want to come and see it.

Jacinta: [00:28:53] So I want to come on Safari and see the big five in the sky. Definitely. Just to finish up. Are there any other messages you’d like our listeners to hear about?

Chu: [00:29:03] Yeah, definitely. We mentioned earlier about how the astronauts on the Apollo mission, who were the first ones to see the Earth rising above the surface of the moon that they’re credited with being the first environmentalist.

And we’ve been very lucky to meet some astronauts in the past few years. Mae Jemison, the first African American woman in space. She’s really cool.

Jacinta: [00:29:23] I am so jealous!

Susan: [00: 29:24] We also met Rakesh Sharma, the first Indian in space. Yeah. And I met Scott Kelly! who went to space for one year. So I was very excited about it, so yes, and they know of what we’re doing.

We’ve had very direct interaction and communication with them,

Chu: [00:29:41] But what I was  going to say is, through the astronauts, your perspective can change because there’s only about 600 of them who have ever seen the Earth from space. And they all say pretty much the ones we’ve met. They say the same thing about how you notice that for a start, there’s no borders from space. We are all one on this planet and we all breathe the same air, you know, the very thin atmosphere, which if you compare the Earth to an onion, then the, the atmosphere is like the skin is that thin. So obviously, you know, what happens in one area will eventually affect other areas, out on the ocean is the same as well.

But strangely through looking up, we’ve we find ourselves looking at our own planet differently. So it kind of gives you new eyes on the Earth, which is nothing you’d expected to be doing, using a telescope.

Susan: [00:30:23] So, one other thing I’d like to say is that obviously we do chase the sky and try to share that with people.

But we have mentioned our planetarium. And there’s a meeting happening in two days to set up an African affiliates for the international planetarium society. These are excellent tools to use, to show the sky and to discuss things like the environment and biodiversity and all these things.

And so we’re very excited that that is happening. And also just very excited to know that there’s a lot of collaboration and support from big organizations like the United nations, environment program to push for the message of climate change. Which is real and to see what scientists are doing, using their data, to get to talk to important decision makers about climate change and how we can change that and protect our planet.

Chu: [00:31:17] But it’s also that through science, it’s really the only way that sustainability can happen. How do we purify water? How do we desalinate ocean? If we’d need to do that for drinking water, how do you get energy? Not using fossil fuels? You know, it’s all science! You looked at solar panels, they were popularized and developed really for the space industry, where there is no access to oil in flying around the Earth.

You need to use this, the power of the sun. So obviously solar panels are a good example of direct effect on Earth. X-ray technology. You know, x-rays were discovered by astronomers as well, and now we all use them when we break up arm or whatever. So yeah, there’s loads of examples where we talk about how science and an interesting science can actually directly have an effect on well-being of humans on Earth.

Susan: [00:32:00] And if there’s any young African listeners, especially the ones who are still in school. If there are any of them out that can take the message home of how important science is in our everyday life and reach out to organization science centres and learn more about science in a fun way.

Chu: [00:32:20] One more thing, our planetarium were making out of bamboo!

Jacinta: [00:32:26] Wait, what?

Chu: [00: 32:28] So, it could be a geodesic dome, which is made of bamboo. When we’ve been in the process of designing this hexagonal hub thing, which is also made of bamboo so that these, anyway, I have to show you pictures of it. But they are in the process of doing that and possibly even making a telescope out of bamboo as well, because bamboo is a wonderful material.

That’s just super quick to grow and a great for the soil. Just sort of put that in.


Jacinta: [00: 32:48] Maybe we can put a picture of it on our website. Awesome. Well, thank you so much for speaking with us today. This has been absolutely fantastic and the best of luck with everything and we’re all supporting you. We’re all behind you.

Chu: [00:33:01] Thank you so much. Yeah, we look forward to you coming up to Kenya or even us coming down to South Africa with our program.

Susan: [00:33:07] Yeah. Thank you very much.

Jacinta: [00:33:08] Yeah. It’s a deal!


Dan: [00:33:10] Awesome. We need to send them rising star.

Jacinta: [00:33:24] Yeah, definitely. Of course!

Dan: [00:33:26] We will post a picture of the planetarium. You know, obviously all the work they’re doing is fantastic and The Travelling Telescope, the planetarium is very exciting and novel. It’s a bamboo frame with a piece of canvas over the top. That’s spectacular.

Jacinta: [00:33:39] Brilliant! Yeah. So they’ve actually, between us chatting and now, they’ve actually finished the planetarium and it’s off and running.

Dan: [00:33:45] Yeah. I mean, it looks brilliant and that sort of, I don’t know, initiative is just incredible.

Jacinta: [00:33:50] Yeah, next level. I really liked their message about, it’s similar to what we heard from Vanessa McBride in episode 26, about us all being under one sky and that there’s no borders if you look down on the earth from space. Like if you look at a map, of the world or a globe, it’s still delineated into countries, but actually that’s not what the world looks like. There aren’t any actual physical borders. And so using astronomy as a message to bring everybody together, also using it as a hook to spark interest in students, in the public, to get buy-in from society and also to use as a perspective and tool for environmental protection.

I mean, these are all of the ways that astronomy can really actually help society because it’s, it seems like an intangible thing, but actually it can have a really real  impact.

Dan: [00:34:41] We’ve spoken a lot about it before. I mean, I think that astronomy has this very, very special role and it’s very, very powerful.

This is just another example of it. It’s a great way to get people some perspective on what’s actually important and

Jacinta: [00:35:00] Exactly. We saw it a lot during the conference last week, the image of the pale blue dot and also the EHT image and how popular they’ve become in the entire world. Like what, 4 billion people or something have seen the EHT image now?

Because it gives us some humility, some modesty, some perspective on ourselves. It also reminded me listening to Susan and Chu about a talk that was given last week by Amidou Sorgho about Astros day. So he’s working with the OAD, the Office of Astronomy for Development, and he was researching a program that I think has been implemented in the Himalayas.

Called Astros days where you have Astro tourism, just like Susan and Chu were talking about. Where people come to admire the pristine night skies of the area. But there were found that there was very little cultural interaction between the visitors and the local people and that this was missing out an entire aspect of the whole thing.

And so, they’ve set up like an astronomy tourist homestays situation called Astro stays, where the visitors come and stay in the homes of the local people. And then there’s an interaction and a cultural exchange, and it seems to enrich the whole process. And perhaps that’d be, that might be something that would be interesting to also apply in Kenya and South Africa.

Dan: [00:36:18] Yeah. And the host also received some training, right? Like in terms of, stargazing, which is like, it’s great! It’s a full experience and you can sort of pass on some real benefits, tangible benefits to the communities, rather than them going to a big hotel or something.

Jacinta: [00:36:37] Right. While the community are involved, it’s there, it’s ownership.

Sue also mentioned incorporating local and traditional stories of the night sky when she’s discussing the sky with her visitors. And we were actually preparing another episode about this based in South Africa for next steps.

Dan: [00:36:58] Yeah. I had a wonderful interview and we will talk about that more next week.

Jacinta: [00:37:01] Yeah. So stay tuned for that one that’s coming up next. I think we’ll end off here today and we’ll leave the rest for the next episode.

Dan: [00:37:08] Thanks very much for listening and we hope you’ll join us again. On the next episode of The Cosmic Savannah,

Jacinta: [00:37:14] You can visit our website, thecosmicsavannah.com, where we’ll have the transcript, links and other stuff related to today’s episode.

You can also follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram at @cosmicsavannah. That’s Savannah, spelled S-A-V-A-N-N-A-H.

Dan: [00:37:30] Special thanks today to Susan Murabana Owen and Chu Owen for speaking with us.

Jacinta: [00:37:34] Thanks to Sumari Hattingh for social media and transcription assistance and Andy Firth for show note preparation. Also to Mark Allnut for music production, Janus Brink and Michal Lyczek for photography and Lana Ceraj for graphic design.

Dan: [00:37:47] We gratefully acknowledge support from the South African National Research Foundation, the South African Astronomical Observatory and the University of Cape Town Astronomy Department to help keep the podcast running.

Jacinta: [00:37:58] You can subscribe on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you’d like to help us out, please rate and review us and recommend us to a friend.

Dan: [00:38:06] And we’ll speak to you next time on the cosmic Savannah.

[Behind the scene]

Jacinta: [00:38:18] I actually met a couple of astronauts myself, including Buzz Aldrin. Second person on the moon! But, so I had in my head prepared this whole spiel that I was going to say to him when I met him, “I used the telescope that picked up the signals of you walking on the moon and all of this things”, but what came out?

I just saw him, I got so star-struck. Like, I didn’t think that that was a real thing, but it really is! I saw him, I got so star-struck and I just said, “Ummm, I study galaxies” and he was like, okay. But he was very kind and very nice.

Chu: [00:38:58] How appropriate is it that astronomers getting star-struck!?