Episode 22: Milky Way blowing bubbles!

with Dr Fernando Camilo

This week we are joined by Dr Fernando Camilo who is the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) Chief Scientist, where he directs the scientific program of MeerKAT to ensure the maximum scientific productivity of the telescope.

We chat with Fernando about MeerKAT and the incredible science it is doing. In particular, we discuss the recent discovery of enormous balloon-like structures that tower hundreds of light-years above and below the centre of our galaxy.

Caused by a phenomenally energetic burst that erupted near the Milky Way’s supermassive black hole a few million years ago, the MeerKAT radio bubbles are shedding light on long-standing galactic mysteries.

This week’s guest

Featured Image:
A radio image of the centre of the Milky Way with a portion of the MeerKAT telescope array in the foreground. The plane of the galaxy is marked by a series of bright features, exploded stars and regions where new stars are being born, and runs diagonally across the image from lower right to top centre. The black hole at the centre of the Milky Way is hidden in the brightest of these extended regions. The radio bubbles extend from between the two nearest antennas to the upper right corner. Many magnetised filaments can be seen running parallel to the bubbles. In this composite view, the sky to the left of the second nearest antenna is the night sky visible to the unaided eye, and the radio image to the right has been enlarged to highlight its fine features.

Related Links:
MeerKAT: https://www.sarao.ac.za/science-engineering/meerkat/
Inflation of 430-parsec bipolar radio bubbles in the Galactic Centre by an energetic event, by I. Heywood et al., is published in the 12 September 2019 issue of Nature. The article is available at https://nature.com/articles/s41586-019-1532-5

Episode Transcript

(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: [00:00:17] 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.

Dan: [00:00:35] Welcome to episode 22

Jacinta: [00:00:36] Hi, welcome back. Today we’ll be talking to the SARAO chief scientist, Dr. Fernando Camilo, about an exciting Nature paper publication that’s come out from the MeerKAT telescope where they found huge bubbles around the center of the Milky way.

Dan: [00:00:54] And SARAO is?

Jacinta: [00:00:56] The South African Radio Astronomical Observatory.

Dan: [00:00:59] Yes.

Jacinta: [00:01:00] I hesitated for a second. It used to be called SKA South Africa, and now it’s been renamed.

Dan: [00:01:08] So first we should probably let our listeners know that we know have transcriptions of our episodes available.

Jacinta: [00:01:13] Yes, that’s right. So we have a dedicated team of student volunteers who have very laboriously been going through and transcribing each episode.

I think almost all of them are done for season two and we’re yet to start attempting season one. So if you or anyone you know is perhaps hard of hearing or it would just help you to read along as you’re listening, head over to our website on the blog for each episode will be the full transcription of what we’re saying.

Thank you to our volunteers.

Yes, very much so. Yeah.

Dan: [00:01:44] We’ve received a lot of positive feedback about the podcast. Thank you to all our listeners.

Jacinta: [00:01:48] Thank you very much.

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Jacinta: [00:01:56] Preferably on iTunes, but wherever you, whatever you have access to, I know you’ll hear this on every single podcast that you listen to, but it really, really, really helps us.

It helps us to reach new listeners if you can rate and review us. And of course, the one of the best way to spread the news is by word of mouth. So if you can tell your friends and family about us, if you think they’ll enjoy it, we’d be very grateful.

Dan: [00:02:17] Okay. So should we get into today’s episode?

Jacinta: [00:02:19] Yes. On to science,

Dan: [00:02:20] All right. Today we’re joined by Dr. Fernando Camilo, as you said, who is the chief scientist for the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory. And he’ll be talking to us about this exciting Nature paper.

Jacinta: [00:02:32] Yeah, that’s right. So he’s a big gun here in astronomy in South Africa, and we’re very excited to talk to him about this topic.

Several listeners have requested it. So in September, 2019 so at the end of last year. One of, I think it’s the first MeerKAT paper publication came out and it was published in the world’s most reputable journal – science journal – Nature, and only papers that are very, very important, which are presenting something very important or very new, some previously unknown phenomena are allowed to publish in Nature. This research was so significant that it was accepted. It was important because they found for the very first time, huge radio plumes or bubbles emanating from the center of the Milky Way. And this hasn’t been seen before in any galaxy.

So this is something brand new.

Dan: [00:03:24] So we should point out that by a radio bubble, we mean a big bubble of gas, which is visible at radio wavelengths.

Jacinta: [00:03:32] Yeah, that’s right. And bubbles had been seen before from the center in gamma rays. Very, very huge bubbles called fermi bubbles. And this is the first time it’s been seen in the radio.

So it’s a pretty big deal. And we don’t yet know what’s causing it. It could have something to do with the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way called Sagittarius A star. Maybe that’s ripping apart stuff, some stars and gas and dust and creating these bubbles, or it could be a sudden burst of supernovae.

We’re not really sure yet, but Fernando tells us the backstory behind this discovery and what led to it.

Dan: [00:04:07] Yeah, it’s great to see MeerKAT already producing world-class science, getting into Nature, and I think that we’ve got some exciting years ahead.

Jacinta: [00:04:15] That’s right. So MeerKAT, as we have discussed in previous episodes, is one of the most powerful radio telescopes in the world.

It’s right here in South Africa in the Karoo. It’s fairly new. It consists of 64 antennas, which looks kind of like satellite dishes and they’re picking up radio waves from space, and one day it’ll be incorporated into an even larger telescope called the SKA, the Square Kilometer Array Radio telescope. And this is just as, as you’ve said, just now, Dan, the beginning of a huge revolution in radio astronomy and science discoveries.

Dan: [00:04:48] We should probably also point out the recent news about MeerKAT, that there was a further investment from Germany to expand the 64 dish array with an additional 20 dishes.

Jacinta: [00:04:58] Gosh, very exciting.

Dan: [00:04:59] So that’ll also lead into the SKA. Ultimately. But this is funded and this will be happening over the next two years.

So we expect those dishes to be going online next year. 2021

Jacinta: [00:05:10] so soon. That’s exciting. Oh my goodness. I didn’t even know about that.

Dan: [00:05:14] It is

Jacinta: [00:05:15] hot off the press.

Dan: [00:05:16] Exactly. So there’s some, some really exciting stuff happening.

Jacinta: [00:05:18] Yeah. And there was actually also another Nature paper incorporating MeerKAT released at the time of recording.

It was released this week, on Monday. The…

Fernando: [00:05:28] Second

Jacinta: [00:05:29] Second, I think it was the 2nd of March, and that was about a low mass binary system, which if you’ve heard episode 21 you know all about that. When we talked to Tana Joseph, she explained what that was. It’s a black hole with the star going around it, and in this case it seems to be releasing this huge jet of radiation, which is traveling very, very fast, and it’s super luminal, which means it’s traveling faster than the speed of light. Yes. Well, it appears to be traveling faster than the speed of light, but of course we know that nothing in the universe actually can. Anyway, I’m revealing too much. We’ll, we’ll leave the rest for another episode that’s coming up very soon.

Dan: [00:06:05] Okay. I think we should hear from Fernando. It was wonderful to chat to him. Great interview.

Jacinta: [00:06:10] Yeah, let’s hear from him.

intro_music: [00:06:13] music intro

Dan: [00:06:18] Today. We are joined by Dr. Fernando Camilo, who is the chief scientist at the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory, SARAO. Welcome to The Cosmic Savannah.

Fernando: [00:06:27] Good morning. Thank you.

Dan: [00:06:28] Fernando, if you can just start by telling us a little bit about yourself and how you got to be here in South Africa. You’re not originally from South Africa and how you got to be working at SARAO.

Fernando: [00:06:37] Yeah, sure. That’s right. So I’m not from South Africa. You can tell from my accent. I was born in Portugal, and then when I was 18 I went to the US to study and I did most of my career there. I was a an astronomer studying pulsars, these very tiny neutron stars. And then in 2015 I received an email that had some results from the first MeerKAT dish.

MeerKAT is a big radio telescope up in the Karoo. And I had known – I’d first heard of MeerKAT back in 2009 when the SKA South Africa project had issued a call for proposals from the international community to use this feature. Very, very exciting. A sensitive new radio telescope that was going to be built in South Africa called MeerKAT.

So I was part of one of the teams that was awarded some telescope time back in 2009. But then our South African colleagues went about building this MeerKAT telescope, and in 2014 the very first dish, MeerKAT is made up of 64 dishes separated by up to eight kilometers up in the Karoo. I received a plot that showed the sensitivity of this one dish.

And I was really stunned because it was roughly twice as sensitive as we have been led to believe back in 2009. I went back to my notes to confirm that was the case, and this is very unusual because when you build these high tech projects, you’re very lucky if you reach the design goals, you don’t surpass them by a factor of two.

So I was very interested about that. I contacted my colleague, I said, there must be some factor of two wrong in this plot. Someone forgot to divide by two or something, and a few days later he confirmed to me that, no, this is real. This was the sensitivity of a MeerKAT dish. And at that point I got really interested.

Well what’s happening? Because South Africa didn’t have really a very large profile on the international radio astronomy community, let’s say. And so that led me to, in 2015 I came, there was this job opening SKA South Africa chief scientist, and I thought of doing a career change and moving to a different country and doing a different job.

And yeah, I ended up coming here because of MeerKAT. Now back in 2016 when I arrived, MeerKAT was still being built. The very first image hadn’t even been been made. But since then, in the past two or three years, a lot has happened.

Jacinta: [00:08:47] So this telescope was designed and then it ended up twice as good as it was planned to be.

Fernando: [00:08:52] Yes. Something like that. It’s remarkable.

Dan: [00:08:55] So how, how was that achieved exactly, right? Maybe not. Exactly. Yes.

Fernando: [00:09:00] That was the question I had from my colleagues here in South Africa when I arrived for my job interview back in September of 2015 and I spent three or four days in Cape Town, you know, apart from the job aspects of it. I was trying to figure out if I’d like to move to this beautiful city, which I’m very glad I did, but I said, I remember sitting down with one of the brilliant engineers in the office and asking him just that, ah, how did you do this? And the funny thing was basically, long story short, it was all about design, engineering, optimization of a design.

So it’s an interesting thing also, sociologically from the perspective of science, sociology, if you will, in South Africa. South Africa, as I said, didn’t have much of a history of radio astronomy, so it didn’t have too many radio astronomers. Now when you go and build a new radio telescope in Australia, or in the United States or in the Netherlands, all countries that have a very long history of radio astronomy, of course there’s engineers involved, but also the astronomers are very much involved in building the radio telescope.

You know, some of the old timers, probably built the first Radio telescopes with their hands and so on. And so there are a lot of inputs into the design of a new radio telescope. But in South Africa because it didn’t have that history, what you did, however, have was a very proud and very long history of brilliant engineering.

Something to do with the history of the country, the details of it. But in any case, there’s brilliant engineers in fields like radar technology. Which are very much relevant for, for building a radio telescope. So long story short, the way that my colleagues went around building MeerKAT was really substantially different from what a normal, the way normal telescopes get built around the world.

So it had a lot more engineering input, a lot more design, reviews. I like to joke that with MeerKAT, you don’t build the screw unless there’s 300 pages of documentation and one of the results of that is, well there, there are many consequences of that. So one is that by optimizing every single bit of the design and then re-optimizing, as that colleague of mine explained to me in 2015.

Our colleagues just squeezed out that last little bit of performance that you could from sort of a standard design, and then these telescopes are incredibly complex machines. I mean, they’re really data machines that generate enormous amounts of data. There are many subsystems that all have to work together, and it’s very complicated.

So many of these telescopes when they get built and they get inaugurated, like MeerKAT was inaugurated in 2018 often, it still takes, takes a year thereafter to, to generate science, to generate very nice images because it takes so long to commission; to understand it backwards and forwards. But MeerKAT pretty much just work right out of the box because of that care and thought that went into the design and the design reviews and prototyping and so on.

So pretty much worked right out of the box and led to some very, very nice images that we are seeing today.

Dan: [00:11:51] And not just images. I mean science, right?

Fernando: [00:11:53] Of course. Ultimately it’s about science. I mean, it’s funny, we, we, these days there’s this discussion about big data and big, the words, big data everywhere.

And I was just thinking about this actually the other day. So you think of Google that we all use, right? And of course they’re involved in big data, but their business is really about making money. That’s what Google is about. It’s a public company. It’s either shareholders. Well, when you, when you look at a telescope like MeerKAT, our business is not data.

Our business is science. So we collect lots of data. We’re all swimming in data these days. We have many telescopes of all sorts. But the key thing is how are you going to convert all that data into science, into, into answering new questions, into writing journal articles that explain, you know, what you’ve learned and so on.

And that in turn requires large numbers of very clever young astronomers, scientists, and so on, which now exists in South Africa. Because along the way with building this really world-class radio telescope here in South Africa. Some of our colleagues invested in the human capital development aspect of it, and so now there are far, far, far more young radio astronomers than they were a decade ago or so.

Jacinta: [00:13:04] So speaking of the amazing science that MeerKAT can produce, one of the very first papers that it produced was actually published in one of the world’s most prestigious science journals, Nature. And that was led by Ian Heywood, in Oxford, and yourself here and at SARAO. Tell us what the paper was about.

Fernando: [00:13:23] Yeah. So that was very, very interesting. So the result is very interesting. It turns out so that we on Earth going around the Sun once a year, we are in turn going around the center of our galaxy, the Milky Way galaxy, which is a large spiral galaxy. And we go around the center of our galaxy every couple of hundred million years or so, and we are roughly 25,000 light years away from the center of the galaxy.

So it takes light, including radio waves, 25,000 years to travel all the way from the center to us. The center of our galaxy is a very, very interesting place. It’s unique. Of course, there’s only one center about which we rotate, but it has a very massive black hole, so there’s a black hole at the center that weighs roughly 4 million times as much as our Sun.

So all sorts of things happen near the center of our galaxy that don’t really happen anywhere else. So astronomers are always very interested in looking at what’s happening at the center of the galaxy. This paper reports the discovery of these massive bubbles, the this sort of this bipolar outflow North and South of the center of the galaxy to these plumes of radio waves.

Over a thousand light years in length that we discovered with MeerKAT and nobody knew they were there, so we discovered that. Then in the paper we explained what we think that might be due to some sort of explosion – explosive events that might’ve happened at the center of the galaxy 7 million years ago or so.

So that’s, I mean, the science of it. And then people will do more detailed work and follow-up work, investigating what does this mean for other things we know at the center of the galaxy. So it’s all about basically understanding our environment in which we live on the galactic scale. And this was an important additional discovery.

Now there’s this very interesting backstory behind how we got to writing this paper, how we got to have these data that we analyze and finding these bubbles. So if you go back to early 2018 about six or seven months before the telescope was inaugurated, our colleagues are engineers at SARAO. We’re still developing many key capabilities of the telescope that were required to make it work as a functioning telescope.

So it’s made up of 64 dishes, large dishes, each of them roughly five stories high, up in the Karoo, as I said earlier, separated by up to eight kilometers. Now the dishes were all there. The dishes had been standing there for many months, since 2017 but a lot of the electronics behind it, etcetera, were still being developed.

And finally, it was on April 19th of 2018 when for the very first time, we had 64 MeerKAT dishes, all pointing in the same direction, collecting data from the same star or galaxy that we pointed the telescope to. So that was April 19th. Now. We knew that on July 13th that was going to be the inauguration of the telescope and that date wasn’t going to change.

And so we of course had to come up with some nice images to, to present to the public, to the distinguished guests that were there for the inauguration. And we were thinking about what to do. Now the sky is vast, you can point the telescope anywhere and find interesting things. And one day in May, – I remember it was early May – one night we had telescope time. That is, it was free that it wasn’t being used for tests. I think it was Ian, the first author of this paper myself thought, well, why don’t we point a telescope at the center of the galaxy. Eventually everyone who has a new telescope wants to pointed at the center of the galaxy, if they can.

But that usually takes years because the center of the galaxy is a messy place. You know, it has all these bright features and dim features and large extended scale structures and small features and all of that makes it just technically very complicated to come up with a decent image with radio waves, but we thought, Oh, what the heck?

We have these eight hours or so tonight, let’s do it. And then to our surprise, it came out really well. It looked good. And so then basically we spent the next month doing further observations to assemble this picture that we released at the inauguration on July 13th of 2018 – a very, very beautiful picture.

The clearest view of the center of the Milky way that has been done to date, with any telescope around the world. Now that was essentially for public relations purpose, right? That image was made for the inauguration of the telescope. Now we knew when we had it that the underlying data was also going to be useful for science, some science, but that required someone spending months and possibly years actually analyzing those data carefully.

Well, when we started looking at those data after the inauguration, I think in August of 2018, we soon found these funny features North and South of the center of the galaxy. We thought, whoa, that looks like a bubble up there. And the bubble down there and they seemed to be continuous. And then that was really the story.

And so that was August of 2018 and it’s took us, well, the better part of a year because he had to analyze the data fully and then to write the paper. And the paper, by the way, there are a handful of authors that did detail work on the specific dataset for the paper, but the authorship of a paper consists of roughly 100 people.

And the reason for that is that 95 or so of those people are people that had a critical role in building MeerKAT. There are what we usually call them, the MeerKAT builders list. Without those people, including policymakers, including managers, engineers, scientists, industry partners, university partners, MeerKAT just wouldn’t exist though.

They’re mostly South African, not entirely. So yeah, it’s an interesting story. Came about accidentally, but we’re very glad that we have it.

Jacinta: [00:18:53] How did you feel when you first saw those bubbles?

Fernando: [00:18:56] We were really, really happy. I mean, just visually we thought, okay, this is unusual. This is striking. This must mean something interesting.

Now those of us who looked, Ian and myself were, we’re not experts in the center of the galaxy these days. Radio astronomy, like many sciences, is very specialized. I’m an expert on pulsars and I know very little about the center of the galaxy. So even though Ian and myself spent the next year, well, learning a lot and reading lots of papers about the center of the galaxy so we could write a paper.

So we brought on board a colleague of ours from the United States, Furhad Yusef-Zadeh at Northwestern University, who’s an expert in some aspects of the physics of the center of the galaxy. So that also shows nicely the collaborative aspect of science these days. You know, it’s very international. And even MeerKAT, of course, we want young South African scientists to use it, it’s best done if we do this collaboratively with all the experts around the world.

But it was one of those things that sometimes happens in science. You look at it, you know, you have something, the minute it pops up on the screen, to your face. But then it can be quite a lot of work to actually disentangle the details and figure out what it really means.

Dan: [00:20:08] This discovery. Why MeerKAT? Why has this never been seen before?

Fernando: [00:20:13] That’s a very good question. Until MeerKAT, the, let’s say, well, the gold standard, and still in many ways, the gold standard of radio telescopes of this sort what we call the interferometer is made up of these many dishes put together, is the so-called Very Large Array in New Mexico in the US.

Although we can see the center of the galaxy much better from the Southern Hemisphere, which I’ll come back to in a minute, from the United States you can also look down towards the center of the galaxy for a few hours a day or each night. And so the very larger, I had made some images of this region in the best, and it had found some very interesting features, which we now see better with MeerKAT. But it didn’t quite have the technical capabilities to find these bubbles. Now, why these bubbles are actually relatively faint. They’re very extended large structures. And so the advantage we have with MeerKAT is two or three fold. So first of all, location. So it just so happens that the center of the galaxy, the center of the Milky Way goes right overhead.

Where MeerKAT is located is in the Northern Cape. So that means we can look at it from rise till set for approximately 12 hours a day or night because it’s radio waves and we can observe 24 hours a day. So we can look at it for 12 hours a day. Whereas say in the US you can only look at it towards the South, hugging the horizon for say, four hours.

So that’s one big advantage. Second advantage is that MeerKAT is now the most sensitive radio telescope in the world. At these frequencies that we operate at. So we collected radio waves with the frequency of roughly 1000 Mega Hertz. So roughly 10 times frequency of your FM dial at that frequency, MeerKAT is the most sensitive telescope in the world.

So that helps a lot. The one thing that helps tremendously is the number of what we call “baselines”. So it’s the number of dish pairs. If you think about it, if you consider a telescope with two dishes – made up of two dishes separated by, I don’t know, a hundred meters.

Well, there’s only one way in which you can combine those two dishes. Now, as you start adding more and more dishes, the number of possible pairs goes up as the square of the number of dishes. So with MeerKAT’s 64 dishes, you have 2016 possible combinations of dish pairs. And ultimately that allows you to make much sharper images of the sky, higher fidelity images of the sky.

These interferometers radio telescopes like the kind that MeerKAT is, don’t produce perfect images of the sky. There are always some artifacts, and the fact that we have 64 dishes in 2000 of these dish pair combinations, allows us to make essentially the highest fidelity images of the radio sky, than any telescope of this sort can make.

So all of those put together allowed us to make this discovery. There’s one additional thing, of course, which is normal telescopes, telescopes that are in production, allocate their telescope time on the basis of proposals that are submitted by scientists. Scientists want to investigate some phenomenon. They write a scientific proposal, say, I want 100 hours of telescope time to study this, that, and the other.

Now, we didn’t have to do that in this case because we had other constraints, other requirements; we needed to inaugurate the telescope. So we had the flexibility to, in particular, the moment we saw that we had something interesting that night in May of 2018, we had the flexibility to then spend the next month going back to this region of the sky to really study it very well.

So it was serendipitous. It was very exciting. And I’m very glad this was the first paper that was produced that was put out there based on the full MeerKAT – on the full 64 dish  MeerKAT.

Jacinta: [00:23:54] This is obviously a very exciting discovery and very important for the scientific community. Since it was published in a journal as prestigious as Nature.

Why was it so important and what caused these bubbles? I know these are two different questions, but the Milky Way is sort of more or less flat, like a dinner plate. We’ve got the center and then we on Earth, are sort of a little bit further out on the plate revolving around that center. And then these bubbles are coming above and below this plate, this plane of the Milky Way.

And they’re enormous. So what could possibly be producing so much energy that it could blow out these bubbles? And, and why is this important for us to know about?

Fernando: [00:24:33] Yeah, so, excellent question. As I mentioned earlier, at the center of the galaxy, there’s a massive black hole, 4 million times the mass of our Sun.

And what happens is that once in a while, gas and maybe stars that are nearby that black hole, they are swallowed up, or part of them are swallowed by the black hole. And maybe they’re torn to shreds in the process if a star, you know, falls into the black hole. And so there’s a lot of energy involved. And somehow through very complicated means that we don’t yet fully understand in galaxies in general, but some of is this energy is emitted.

This gravitational energy ultimately is emitted along generally in an axial direction. In this case, maybe North and South of the center of the galaxy. Now, we know of other features of the bubbles, etcetera, around the center of the galaxy, there are very famous so-called Fermi bubbles. They were discovered by the NASA’s Fermi Gamma Ray satellite back in 2010 or so, and these are enormous bubbles, much larger than the MeerKAT bubbles.

They spend roughly 50 degrees on the sky, North and South. Now, for comparison, the Moon on the sky subtends an angle of half a degree. So imagine on the sky bubbles that are a hundred times wider or taller say than the Moon, right at the center of the galaxy. These are the so called Fermi bubbles, and we don’t fundamentally understand what caused them.

And likewise, we don’t yet know what’s caused these MeerKAT bubbles that are smaller than the Fermi bubbles. They might be related. We’re not sure, but generally there are two sort of options. So one is, like I said, matter falls into the black hole periodically. It’s not always a constant flow of mass and stars being torn to shreds, perhaps in falling into the black hole.

They can be periods of higher or lower activity. So that’s one option. And the other option is that in a place like the center of the Milky Way, again, a very busy place. Once in a while, meaning over timescales of hundreds of millions of years, the star production rate increases tremendously. You can have periods where many, many more stars and massive stars are being formed.

And then some of these stars explode. And supernovae are the most massive explosions in the Universe. And those supernovae released a lot of energy, mechanical energy into the interstellar medium, which push out other outlying gas and so on. So these bubbles, the MeerKAT bubbles, could also have been produced by such a phenomenon and for technical reasons that we go into into paper.

We think something may have happened roughly 7 million years ago that caused these bubbles. So that’s one estimate of the age of these bubbles now. So that’s interesting for our own galaxy to understand a little better. You know, the environment that we find ourselves in, but of course our galaxy is just one amongst hundreds of billions in the Universe.

So many of us want to understand more generally how galaxies form, how they evolve. And in fact, that’s one of the key MeerKAT projects or goals with many types of observations to address this question of, you know, how does a galaxy like the Milky Way, which is say, roughly 10 billion years old, the universe is roughly 14 billion years old. Our galaxy is a little younger, but how did the galaxy come to be the way it is? How did we come to be here the way we are today? It wasn’t always dust like this but by looking at many galaxies throughout the Universe with MeerKAT telescopes, we do hope to understand better that process, that history, but of course, as with many things, the center of our galaxy is the closest center of a galaxy that we have.

So these MeerKAT bubbles, for instance, if they are present in many of the galaxies throughout the Universe, it’s really unlikely that we’ll be able to detect them. They’re so far away and so faint. So this allows us to have basically a closer example of a galaxy, namely our own, to study in great detail in ways that we cannot study other distant galaxies.

But of course, the idea is we’re not special. It’s just that we are closer to our own central black hole.

Jacinta: [00:28:23] So MeerKAT detected a phenomenon that’s no one’s ever seen before.

Fernando: [00:28:27]  That’s correct. That’s correct. And now MeerKAT, I mean, of course, this is the first example, but we have already been sharing data from MeerKAT with some of our colleagues in South Africa.

Many, many colleagues at universities, at the South African Astronomical Observatory, dozens of proposals, scientific proposals have been accepted and data has been shared. And our colleagues are analyzing those data. And soon I expect they will write their own papers, make new discoveries.

Dan: [00:28:55] This is an amazing discovery, obviously about the center of our galaxy, the gas around it.

We learn something about the supermassive black hole and how it interacts with that gas and, and our galaxy as a whole. What else are we gonna learn from MeerKAT?

Fernando: [00:29:11] Right. Very good question. So MeerKAT, as all instruments of this sort, they have to be optimized for something. MeerKAT is not the best in the world at everything.

Obviously, you know, when people ask me, so what’s the best telescope in the world? You can’t answer that question. Best for what? The Hubble Space Telescope that most everyone knows about circles up in Earth’s orbit, and it’s an amazing telescope. And it can do many things, but MeerKAT can do many things that Hubble cannot.

So these telescopes are optimized for doing something, and MeerKAT was particularly optimized to study hydrogen. Hydrogen is the most common, simplest element in the universe, and it’s the fuel that ultimately makes up stars and galaxies. Now, there’s a lot that we don’t know about how this raw fuel, raw material goes into making galaxies, you know, so hydrogen, it’s so happens; emits radiation or radio waves at the specific frequency of 1,420 Mega Hertz. So roughly 15 times the frequency on your FM dial, but it’s faint. So in order to study it from distant galaxies into this Universe, you really need a big so-called collecting area, a big bucket, very sensitive buckets. And that’s what MeerKAT is.

So MeerKAT was optimized. One of the things that was optimized for was to study hydrogen throughout the Universe from two thirds of the way across the Universe to today in our own galaxy and some of our own colleagues, including some of you are using MeerKAT.

Jacinta: [00:30:38] Yes. We have talked a lot on this podcast about using MeerKAT to study the hydrogen since that’s my field.

What are you most excited about for the future with MeerKAT discoveries?

Fernando: [00:30:49] Well, it’s funny.

Dan: [00:30:51] Without giving anything away.

Fernando: [00:30:55] No. I’m interested about everything. I remember discussing this question when I first came to South Africa back in 2015. I was thinking of taking this job and in the talk that I gave in the SKA South Africa office, I went through a bit of a history lesson with telescopes and I was showing what the Hubble Space Telescope was designed to do.

The reason why it was built, or at least a reason that someone used to convince the funders to pay the bills – to build the Hubble Space Telescope. And then when you look back at the Hubble Space Telescope 20 or 30 years later, it did do that project that it was originally intended to do rather well.

But particularly it did things that nobody had thought of. For instance, a Nobel prize was awarded for a fundamental discovery that tells us a lot about how our Universe evolves and expands and so on. That was originally made by the Hubble Space Telescope, basically. But the Hubble wasn’t designed to do that.

Nobody thought of that when the Hubble was designed. So, and this lesson is repeated throughout with other instruments, which is, if you have a relatively general purpose -really good instrument. You will make discoveries that you cannot foresee when the telescope is designed. And I’m fully convinced that this is the case with MeerKAT.

And in fact, these bubbles, I mean, these aren’t Earth shattering. They are, well maybe galaxy shattering in a sense, these bubbles, but it’s a very nice discovery. We expect there will be greater discoveries, but the points in the context of your question is that MeerKAT was not designed to study our galaxy at all.

It was actually optimized to study hydrogen in the distant universe and to study pulsars, ours as well, and a few other things, but making images of this sort isn’t really what it was optimized for, but as it happens, it’s very good at it. And this was the first, so our very first paper with a full MeerKAT was an example of a, you know, a spectacular unknown of sorts.

Yeah. A serendipitous discovery. So. I can predict, you know, scientists write all these long proposals that say we’re going to use all this telescope time to make all these great discoveries. And you know, for the most part, you end up making at least a fraction of those discoveries that you write down on your proposal.

And if MeerKAT does half of what my colleagues around the world have written down on their proposals that it will do, it will be doing very well. But in a sense, what I’m even more excited, just from a human perspective, is what I cannot think of today, the types of discoveries that it will make, like these bubbles and other things in our galaxy and beyond that we really cannot conceive of.

And you and your listeners also cannot think of. So maybe start thinking of what crazy unexpected things there might be out there and MeerKAT will probably make some of those discoveries. So 10 years from now, when we look back at what MeerKAT has achieved and continues to achieve, I expect that some of the things will have been totally unexpected.

Dan: [00:33:52] Well, we look forward to having a lot more MeerKAT episodes. So hopefully we have you back on soon to talk about some new and unknown discovery.

Fernando: [00:34:02] That would be great.

Jacinta: [00:34:03] Do you have any final messages for listeners?

Fernando: [00:34:05] Well, the messages, I understand you have listeners around the world. But this, hopefully a lot of them in South Africa, MeerKAT is a fully South African funded and largely South African designed machine.

It was designed, and it exists in the context of this much larger international project called the SKA, the Square Kilometer Array, which will start being built – we expect next year – also up in the Karoo and in Australia. But you know, I’m not South African, but I’ve been here almost four years now, and part of me starting to feel like South African, and I’m very proud of my colleagues and myself who I’ve have been involved with.

And I think every South African should really be very proud. When I go and give some presentations, talks to collaborators and so on, some of them are skeptical at first, and then they asked me three times or four times. This was really designed by South Africans? Are you sure? Like, come on. Yes, it was. It’s a South African project and it’s a brilliant project on the world stage.

It’s put South Africa out there in an area of research or South Africa hadn’t been very prominent and it’s just astonishing what clever people with vision and perseverance can do. I’m very proud of that, and I think the listeners who are South African especially should be very, very proud,

Jacinta: [00:35:19] We are very proud of South Africa.

Dan: [00:35:21] Fernando, thank you very much for joining us.

Fernando: [00:35:23] Thank you.

Jacinta: [00:35:24] I hope to speak to you again soon.

Fernando: [00:35:25] Thank you very much. So do I

outro_music: [00:35:27] music outro

Jacinta: [00:35:35] All right. How cool was that?

Dan: [00:35:36] Yeah, very cool. I mean, we’ve talked a lot about MeerKAT and about how cool it is, how sensitive it is, how, what a good project it has been. Talking about how it came in past the sensitivity as it was designed to. It’s just been an incredible project that came in on budget on time.

More sensitive than planned. It’s something really that, you know, South Africa can be very, very proud of. It’s a South African project from start to finish and it’s producing what it was aimed to do now. Some incredible science and there’s just going to be more and more and more coming out of it.

Jacinta: [00:36:12] And how often do you build something and then it ends up better than you designed it?

Dan: [00:36:17] I think never.

Jacinta: [00:36:20] It was very rare, very exciting.

Dan: [00:36:23] The things that are going to come out of it. I mean, Fernando talked about a few of them. But there’s, there’s so much that MeerKAT can do. It’s, these bubbles are one thing, as he said, this wasn’t even what they were really looking for or what the, what MeerKAT had was designed to.

Jacinta: [00:36:36] It was an uknown unknown.

Dan: [00:36:39] Yeah. Well, yeah. So it’s one of those things we were stumbling on. There’s going to be a lot more things we stumbled on that we didn’t know. But then also there’s all the science that MeerKAT was planned to do, right? You know, we’re gonna map distant galaxies, and we’re going to understand a lot more about the universe than we did.

And other objects, pulsars. There’s a lot of potential there. There’s a lot of data coming already, it’s streaming out data. And at the moment I think we, the astronomers, are already overwhelmed. We’re not even in the SKA era. We’ve got more data than we know what to do with.

Jacinta: [00:37:12] Yeah, we’ve got data coming out of pur ears.

Dan: [00:37:14] Yeah. So a very exciting time to be a scientist. And I think that, for the public too, we are gonna make some awesome discoveries from here in South Africa.

Jacinta: [00:37:22] And I thought it was really cool, the concept that if you had radio eyes, if your eyes could see in the radio instead of the optical, you would see these bubbles extending like over a huge fraction of the sky.

And if you could see, if you had Gamma-Ray eyes, you’d see things that are even bigger.

Dan: [00:37:40] Yeah, so I mean, we can see the Milky Way. Well, if you’re lucky in the dark sky, you can see the Milky Way streaking across the sky, but in the opposite direction, you’d be seeing these massive bubbles blowing out as a center.

Jacinta: [00:37:53] Oh, how cool would that be if you had like Gamma-Ray glasses or Radio glasses and you could just put them on and see the plumes?

Dan: [00:38:00] Well, let’s hope that the gamma-rays don’t get down to us.

Jacinta: [00:38:04] Look, it’s a good point. You have to be in space to see it. It’s blocked by the atmosphere. Thankfully.

Dan: [00:38:10] We’ve got to keep this scientifically accurate.

Jacinta: [00:38:12] Yeah, that’s true. No, you’re right.

Dan: [00:38:13] Okay. I think that’s it for today. I think it was a very fascinating conversation with Fernando great to have him on and I’m sure we will be having him on again soon when MeerKAT makes another big discovery. Thank you very much for listening. As always. We hope you’ll join us again on the next episode of The Cosmic Savannah.

Jacinta: [00:38:29] You can visit our website, thecosmicsavannah.com where we’ll have the transcription and links related to today’s episode. You can also follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram @cosmicsavannah. That’s Savannah, spelled S-A-V-A-N-N-A-H.

Dan: [00:38:44] Special thanks today to Dr. Fernando Camilo for speaking with us.

Jacinta: [00:38:48] Thanks to Mark Allnut for music production, Janas Brink for Astro photography, Lana Ceraj  for graphic design and Thabisa Fikelepi for social media support. Also to Brandon Engelbrecht for transcription assistance.

Dan: [00:39:00] We gratefully acknowledge support from the South African National Research Foundation and the South African Astronomical Observatory.

As well as the University of Cape Town Astronomy department for their support and keeping the podcast running.

Jacinta: [00:39:12] Yes, thank you for their new sponsorship of the podcast. 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: [00:39:24] We’ll speak to you next time on The Cosmic Savannah.

outro_music: [00:39:29] music outro

Jacinta: [00:39:35] Dum-dum…tssshh.

Dan: [00:39:40] You need bloopers that involve you, not just me.

Jacinta: [00:39:43] But I do the editing and I enjoy making you the blooper. Yeah. We’ve got data coming out of our ears pouring out of our…pours out. Okay. That’s for the bloopers.

I know, that is gross.

Didn’t know what I was going for then.

Dan: [00:40:05] It’s not even that hot today.

Episode 21: X-Ray Binaries and Astrocomms!

with Dr Tana Joseph

This week on The Cosmic Savannah Podcast we are joined by South African Astronomer, Dr Tana Joseph who is currently based at the University of Manchester, UK. Tana holds a Royal Society Newton International Fellowship and researches things called X-ray binaries.

X-ray binaries are a type of binary star system that emit X-rays. The X-rays are produced by matter falling from a star onto an exotic object such as a neutron star or black hole.

Tana also runs AstroComms, a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) consulting and communications company. AstroComms assists STEM practitioners, institutions and policymakers to effectively leverage STEM as a driver for economic and social development.

This week’s guest

Related Links:
AstroComms: https://astrocomms.com/

Featured Image:
Artist’s impression of an X-ray Binary. One star’s outer layers are being sucked towards its companion neutron star or black hole. This releases enormous amounts of energy into space.

Episode Transcript

(By Brandon Engelbrecht)

…Intro music begins…

Jacinta: Welcome to The Cosmic Savannah with Dr. Jacinta Delhaize

[00:00:07] Dan: and Dr. Daniel Cunnama. Each episode, we’ll be giving you a behind the scenes look at the world-class astronomy and astrophysics happening under African skies.

[00:00:17] Jacinta: Let us introduce you to the people involved. The technology we use, the exciting work we do, and the fascinating discoveries we make.

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

…Intro music ends…

[00:00:34] Jacinta: Welcome to episode 21

[00:00:36] Dan: Today we’ll be speaking to…

[00:00:37] Jacinta: today we’ll be speaking to Dr Tana Joseph from the Jodrell Bank Observatory,

[00:00:42] Dan: which is in Manchester in the UK.

[00:00:44] Jacinta: That’s right. It’s close to Manchester in the UK, and she’s going to tell us all about x-ray binaries.

[00:00:52] Dan: And we should probably point out that Tana is from South Africa originally.

[00:00:55] Jacinta: Yes. She’s from Cape town itself. So she studied here and then she went off on various adventures around the world, and now she’s a superstar astronomer and also a small business owner.

[00:01:08] Dan: And what exactly is an x-ray binary?

[00:01:10] Jacinta: That’s a very good question. So this episode is all going to be about stars and stellar evolution, which we haven’t yet.

[00:01:16] Talk to that much about, because you and I are both galaxy people and a lot of our colleagues and conferences we go to, we talk a lot to people who research galaxies, both our own and extragalactic. But every now and again, we try and talk to someone in the stellar community, and Tana is one of those. So x-ray binaries are…

[00:01:35] So the sun is relatively rare, relatively unusual in that it’s just hanging out by itself. And we in the solar system revolve around it, but a lot of stars are actually born close together and orbit each other for the rest of their lives. And this is called a binary.

[00:01:51] And then if one of these stars is very massive, it can explode in a supernova explosion at the end of its life and what’s left at the end of that can be what we call an exotic object. It could be a neutron star, which is made of just neutrons. It’s very compact, very dense, and sometimes it’s releasing pulses of radio waves, or it could be a a black hole. And then when it interacts with the companion star, so the star that’s still alive, it’s still a normal star.

[00:02:20] Some of the outer layers of the atmosphere of this star accrete, or are sucked in towards this neutron star or black hole. And as it’s doing this there, it’s releasing a huge amount of energy often at very high energy wavelengths. So like x-rays.

[00:02:37] Dan: So these compact objects are basically devouring their sibling star.

[00:02:41] Jacinta: Yeah. They don’t eat it completely, but they, they’re kind of sucking stuff off. This other star.

[00:02:46] Dan: Just  nibble

[00:02:47] Jacinta: Just a little nibble.

[00:02:50] Dan: But, so there’s this event though, this, this little nibbling on your companion star. It’s very energetic, right? So that’s where these X rays are coming from. X-ray radiation is a. It’s very energetic radiation and requires quite a hot, energetic environment.

[00:03:05] Jacinta: Yeah. So you basically have to have something that’s very dramatic in the universe, something that’s very hot, very high powered. So this is not a quiet environment. Certainly life can’t exist near this interaction because it’s releasing a lot of crazy radiation. We’d be wiped out immediately. Yeah. So that’s why it’s, it’s quite exciting to figure out what’s going on and how.

[00:03:27] This interaction impacts the evolution of both the star and the compact object and what that leads to in the future. And then eventually leading all the way to gravitational wave studies.

[00:03:41] Dan: We should probably hear from Tana and she can explain this further.

[00:03:44] Jacinta: Yeah, she explains it fantastically. So let’s, let’s hear from Tana.

…Transition music…

Jacinta: Here with us, at the SARAO bursary conference, 2019 is Dr Tana Joseph from the University of Manchester, welcome Tana. 

Tana: Thank you for having me. 

Jacinta: Tell us about yourself. 

Tana: My name is Tana Joseph, I am an X-ray astronomer and I am originally from Cape Town currently working at the University of Manchester in the Jodrell Banks centre for astrophysics. I am a Royal Society Newton International Fellow and I am really enjoying my time in Manchester. But as the nights get longer in the northern hemisphere winter, I am glad to be here in Durban in the nice warm sunshine. 

Jacinta: I bet you are. So, Tana, you are originally from Cape Town, tell us about your path through astronomy?

Tana: In the mid-90s I decided that I wanted to be an astronomer and at that point, there was no SKA, there was no MeerKAT, there was no Southern African Large Telescope, the optical telescope in Sutherland that is really famous in South Africa. So that infrastructure wasn’t there and those resources weren’t there in the mid-90s. But with my parents’ support, I decided that this was going to be my career and did the necessary subjects at school, like maths and physics. I did my undergraduate degree my BSc. in physics at the University of Cape Town, I did my honours in physics there as well and then, I switched to astronomy at the masters level and by that point, we had started receiving SKA funding. They hadn’t yet chosen us as a joint host country of the SKA but we were busy making plans and building things, things like the KAT-7 telescope, that is also out in the Karoo and with the help of that funding and those resources I did masters in, actually galaxy surveys. So HI galaxy surveys, so I have a soft spot.

Jacinta: Really!

Tana: Yes, so I have a bit of a soft spot for HI because that was my first introduction to astronomy, with single dish HI galaxy surveys so I started out…

Jacinta: Me too

Tana: Yeah, so I started out extra-galactic and learned a lot, it was a really nice learning curve and that was in 2007 that I started and I also attended my first bursary conference and in those days it was not called the SARAO bursary conference it was just called the SKA bursary conference because SARAO was only established a couple of years ago, so this was more than 10 years ago and it’s always lovely for me to come to this particular conference and see the sheer number students the number of people that I don’t know is really exciting to me because things have really really grown so much and the community is increasing and it’s increasingly diverse and it’s increasingly young and that is exactly what you need for a big sort of legacy project that the SKA is set up to be. That you need to have a lot of young people to drive it forward and I have even said this about myself now, as a sort of technically an early career researcher still but I’m now on my third or fourth depending on how you count it post-doctoral fellowship and I have said to school kids when I do outreach talks, that the SKA is not actually for me. MeerKAT and ASKAP, the Australian counterpart of MeerKAT, the SKA precursors are for me in terms of my career and last night at the opening address the director SARAO, Rob Adam kind of echoed that. He said, when he sees the more senior people here, the SKA is not for them in terms of their career and even for me, I’m not as senior as a professor but I see MeerKAT and ASKAP as the workhorses, that’s where I am going to, do my interesting science and by the time SKA Phase 1 is done, I will be past my Nobel Prize-winning time because the thing about a Nobel Prize apparently is that you win it for work that you did before you were forty and I am thirty-five so I’ve got five more years and unfortunately that counts me out as SKA Phase 1, Nobel Prize-winning science, so I have to do it with MeerKAT and ASKAP.

Jacinta: I’ve never heard that rule.

5.00 min

Tana: Yeah, it’s apparently in the sciences anyway and I mean I can’t really begrudge anyone anything because MeerKAT and ASKAP are such ground-breaking cutting edge instruments there is going to be such exciting science, already, in fact, exciting science coming out of it. So now is the time to do that ground-breaking research.

Jacinta: Yeah, definitely. What single-dish telescope did you use for your HI studies during your PhD?

Tana: I travelled to the middle of France, to a tiny village called Nancay and I used the Nancay radio telescope which is quite an old telescope and has a really interesting sort of funny design. Back in the days when actually built this telescope, they couldn’t make a single dish that big, so they split it up into what would be sort of the equivalent of quite a big telescope. Much bigger than any of the MeerKAT telescope dishes, individual dishes. Not quite Green Bank telescope big, which I think is just over a hundred metres, so not quite as big as the Effelsburg telescope or Green Bank telescope but sort of on that kind of scale, but they couldn’t figure out, they didn’t have the engineering capacity to make a single dish. It’s what called a, it’s not quite a transit telescope but it’s made up of, sort of a curve bit that is a section of a sphere and then a few tens of metres away on the other side of the field is the flat steerable mirror part and then the focus is in the middle of that and it’s on a curved railway track, so if you want to really focus you, you need to actually move the focus. Yeah, it is a really interesting design and I got to go out there as a part of my masters. Luckily I spoke a bit of French because I was in a part France in a small village where no one spoke any English so everything had to be in French and I ate the most delicious authentic french food it was fantastic and every night my supervisor and I, who was a much older man had a daughter who was about my age, we would sit and have our dinner and they would give us a bottle of wine. So we would be drinking this, what I would call fancy French wine but to them, I suppose it was just plonk and so yeah it was a very sophisticated experience getting my data.

Jacinta: Wow, that sounds a lot more like a sophisticated, romantic kind of experience than I had when I was doing my PhD with single-dish telescopes. I used the Parkes telescope in Australia, in rural Australia and I spent it sort of fighting off locusts plagues. But I don’t know if they were locusts but something like that.

Tana: So we had no locusts, but there was a bit of a warning, we were told to watch out for wild boar so its proper like wooded area of France, a bit of the Asterix and Obelix kind of vibe about it. Yeah very rustic and we would, they would just like, just kind of don’t go into the woods after dark, there is known to be some wild boar around and they could seriously hurt you.

Jacinta: Oh dear

Tana: Yeah, so a very interesting experience part of thing where astronomers or other academics say oh I love to travel, I see different parts of the world and you think of France and oh it’s not that exotic but that is because you are thinking of Paris because everyone knows the Eiffel Tower, everyone knows the Louvre but very few people get to go to these tiny villages like I did. I was, yeah, I was very happy to have that experience and all that delicious food.

Jacinta: Oh yum, I am getting my tummy starting to rumble thinking about it. Okay so you started off in HI kind of astronomy area and you mentioned that you now work in X-rays, which is a different part of the electromagnetic spectrum and on this podcast, we have spoken a lot about radio astronomy because of you know, obviously MeerKAT here in South Africa and we speak a lot about optical because of SALT but we rarely have spoken about X-rays, so just tell us sort of, why X-rays and what you can see with them.

Tana: So X-rays are on the very high energy end of the electromagnetic spectrum and it is what we call penetrating radiation which, if you are familiar with X-rays from getting them at, in a medical sense at hospital to look at your broken bones, it makes sense that it is called penetrating radiation because the X-rays go right through your body and they are absorbed differently by your skin, by your muscles and by your bones and that is how you build up an image of whats inside and so X-rays coming from outside the Earth are actually absorbed by the Earths atmosphere, cause if they actually were to reach us, they would be extremely damaging and harmful to our bodies because they go right through and would be sort if you think about ultra-violet rays causing skin cancer, X-rays are much more energetic than that so it would be a real problem. So in order to observe X-rays and observe the Universe in X-rays we actually have to put the telescopes and detectors outside the atmosphere so they are satellites, they are X-ray satellites, so I get to use space telescopes in my X-ray research and another way to sort of to think about X-rays is, it comes from things that are incredibly hot so about ten or twenty million degrees and when something is very hot like that it is also an indication of something that is very energetic, very powerful very strong forces and interactions and processes so you are looking at things where there is strong gravity strong magnetic fields, all that kind of stuff. What you see in X-rays is the energetic Universe, things like black holes, neutron stars, pulsars, in particular, I study X-ray binaries which are stellar-mass black holes. So black holes that you get from exploding massive stars after they go supernova or a neutron star and they have some other star orbiting them called a donor star or companion star and the donor star actually “donate” its material to the neutron star or the black hole and that process is called accretion. So obviously the star is not actually donating it is happening under the force of gravity, the strong gravitational field and as that material gets dragged off the donor star and onto the neutron star surface or into the black hole it heats up and there is a lot of friction in there and it heats up to about ten to twenty million degrees and then it starts to glow in X-rays and that’s what we or that’s what I study or detect with my space satellites and what’s great about X-ray binaries, they are called X-ray binaries only because that’s the wavelength that they are brightest in but they are actually multi-wavelength objects. So X-ray, the process the physical process that happens in X-ray binaries give off a lot of X-rays they also give off a lot of radio waves and optical light and in some cases gamma-rays as well. So it is a nice multi-wavelength object and I actually use a lot of multi-wavelength data in the study of these and now that we have gravitational wave detectors, we are opening up a new way to explore these binary systems. So systems that would normally be dark in the electromagnetic spectrum like two neutron stars orbiting each other or two black holes or a neutron star and a black hole orbiting each other. So at some point, those sources probably use to be high mass X-ray binaries what we call High Mass X-ray binaries and there is a lot of interest now in the cool cutting edge gravitational wave community to go back, take a step back and say but where do we actually get these double black holes or double neutron star or neutron star black hole systems, you get them from X-ray binaries. So we are trying to figure out those exotic sources by looking at the progenitor sources which is High Mass X-ray binaries. So just to explain, we have this funny thing in X-ray binary research that we classify X-ray binaries by not the mass of the neutron star or the black hole but actually the mass of the donor star. So when I say a high mass X-ray, I mean a neutron star or a black hole that is in a binary with a massive star, so a star that is greater than ten times the mass of our sun. Low mass X-ray binary which is actually my main focus is where the donor star is about twice as massive as our Sun and less. So our Sun is a low mass star and then that range in between the two to ten solar mass range you would have intermediate-mass binaries but they are very short-lived and there are actually not that many so we tend to sort of not consider them when we studying populations because there are only sort of a hand full that are known. So that is how you classify X-ray binaries, not by the black hole or the neutron star but by the companion star.


Jacinta: So why is it important to study X-ray binaries, in particular, low mass X-ray binaries and what are you working on at the moment?

Tana: Thank you for bringing up those questions, it’s a fantastic question. What’s great about low mass X-ray binaries is that you get them sometimes in these configurations with a black hole where you have the donor star, donating its material to the black hole and then you get these radio jets coming out and they are tiny analogues of active galactic nuclei where you have a supermassive black hole at the centre of a galaxy and it also got these jets coming out: radio jets, sometimes X-ray jets, sometimes optical jets. These tiny low mass X-ray binary analogues are called micro-quasars and what’s really useful about black hole physics or that we think how black hole physics works, is that it is scale-invariant. What that means is that whether you are looking at a ten solar mass black hole in a micro-quasar or a ten million solar mass supermassive black hole at the centre of an active galactic nucleus, the physics is the same and so the issue comes in with time scales. The bigger your object that you are looking at, so if you are looking at supermassive black hole, the longer your time scales so these AGN are bright and you can see them at really really far distances and that is really great. But the time scales on which the physical processes happen, happen on the scale of centuries and millennia and so that is obviously much longer than a human, not just a human life but a human civilization whereas the micro-quasars, the time scales involved are minutes, days, weeks, months so very much more manageable timescales. You can use the low mass X-ray binaries, well the microquasar low mass X-ray binaries, to learn about faraway distant galaxies to kind of probe the physics, the complicated physics that happens in these AGN which is very exciting. Another example again with gravitational waves, with multi-messenger astronomy why low mass X-ray binaries are particularly interesting we actually think that within in these structures called Globular clusters, which are very old, so when I say very old I mean Giga years old, some of them can nearly be as old as the Universe itself. These very old, very dense compact spherical clusters of stars that orbit galaxies so they are called globular clusters and inside them, there are low mass X-ray binaries and there is this particular kind of low mass X-ray binaries we call ultra-compact binaries with a black hole and say a white dwarf and they are orbiting each other and our calculations suggest and the theory suggests that these low mass X-ray binaries will be sources of gravitational waves that we should be able to detect, with future space-based gravitational wave detectors, particularly one called LISA. Laser Interferometry Space, I can’t remember what that A stands for now, but I got most of the way through that acronym though and so LISA will be, LISA won’t be sensitive to the same thing that LIGO is detecting, so these far away quite heavy double black holes or the neutron stars quite far away, but much lighter systems, but much closer in, so we are talking about globular clusters that are orbiting our own Milky Way galaxy and so now there is a lot of again a renewed interest in low mass X-ray binaries because of the gravitational wave connection in trying to find these systems ahead of time. So we have a priori knowledge of them in the electromagnetic system and then adding on the gravitational wave information once LISA comes online and what’s really nifty about LISA is that it should be coming online roughly the same time as SKA Phase One, which is the MeerKAT expansion. So they should be contemporaries and I think that is really going to revolutionize the study of X-ray binaries. So my talk here at the SARAO conference 2019, is about expanding, not just expanding our X-ray binary work to gravitational work but actually how electromagnetic studies of, sort of the more traditional studies of X-ray binaries can actually provide really important information going forward for things like LISA for example. One of the issues that you have with LIGO and LISA is this issue of localization. Narrowing down where on the sky these things actually came from so you can try and see if there is a galaxy there or you can try and point other telescopes at it. So if you already have information, say an ultra-compact X-ray binary, low mass X-ray binary in a globular cluster, because you saw, you can have some candidates, you know exactly where it is because you have really good localization with something like MeerKAT and once LISA is built and these things actually start giving off detectable gravitational waves in the LISA band, then we have a wealth of information leading out of that. We have a priori data then you add that to the gravitational wave data and so basically I am trying to showcase the fact that gravitational waves are what hot’s right now in astronomy but electromagnetic telescopes so traditional telescopes aren’t just useful as follow-ups but can actually be providing precursor information, so we can actually inform what they look at and what science they do because we have said perhaps a list of candidates already and I think that is really important.

Jacinta: Yeah, I was going to ask when LISA is going to be expected but you already answered that and I was wondering whether it would be coincident with the SKA, which you said that it is. So it’s just going to be an amazing revolution in astronomy and I can’t wait to hear what we are learning about. In the meantime what are you working on now?

Tana: At the moment I am on the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds so the nearest, our nearest galactic neighbours and for those of you in the southern hemisphere, of course, you can see them with your naked eye if you are in a sufficiently dark place and unfortunately if you are in the northern hemisphere you can’t see them at all, so that is a good enough reason to come to the southern hemisphere and these Magellanic clouds are really useful testbeds in terms of astrophysics because we know exactly where they are in terms of the distance but they also near enough that you can resolve the stellar components, you can study tidal interactions because these galaxies are really small compared to our Milky Way so they are being tidally disrupted by each other because they are quite close to each other but also by the much larger Milky Way so there is a lot of tidal interactions. They have a very low metallicity and I am not sure if the listeners out there know this, another quirk of astronomy is that basically in astronomy we have Hydrogend and we have Helium and all other chemical elements are called metals.

Jacinta: Chemists hate that.

Tana: Yes, my sister is studying chemistry and she gets very frustrated when I just say metals and I just throw it out there. So these two galaxies the dwarf galaxies, the Magellanic clouds have a very low abundance of metals compared to our sun or compared our galaxy the Milky Way and so in that regard that actually makes them similar the conditions in the early Universe, where there were fewer metals because there were fewer stars to enrich the Universe. So if you want to study things that are dependant sensitively on how much metal or how many metals, or the metal abundance is like for instance the evolution of very massive stars, so stars that are greater than a hundred solar masses depends very much on the metallicity components and you can study that really well in the Magellanic clouds and these very massive stars are exactly the kind of stars that we think for these massive black holes that LIGO has seen. How do you get fifty solar mass black hole because usually stars that we see in our local environment go up too about maybe forty solar masses, there are few that are bigger but we actually discovered in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a population of stars with masses of a hundred and fifty up to three hundred solar masses and that is only possible when you have low metallicities. So that is just one example of why the Magellanic clouds are a really good testbed to study the kind of things that give you LIGO sources and they also have a lot of high mass X-ray binaries which I said earlier on, would be the progenitors of these LIGO type sources. So they have everything that you need, they have the low metallicity, they nearby, they have a lot of truly massive stars, they have a lot of high mass X-ray binaries and so you can put all of that together and you can study a lot of pre-gravitational wave sources, you can study the physics of the thing that goes into that and that is what I am doing right now. So I have used the ASKAP telescope along with a huge team of people of course, all over the world to survey the Small Magellanic cloud and I also have some data on the Small Magellanic cloud from MeerKAT and we are putting all this together trying to find out as much as we can really about these galaxies and really delve into what’s in there, how did they get there, how did they grow and change an how did they change their environment and there is so much work to do which is always great because if we knew everything, we wouldn’t have scientist. So it is a really exciting time for me to finally get my hands on some SAK precursor data.

Jacinta: Yeah, I mean that is really really exciting so ASKAP, of course, being the radio telescope recently built in Western Australia, the counterpart to South Africa MeerKAT and you got data from both which is incredibly exciting. Do you think this may one day help us to understand how supermassive black holes are formed, supermassive as in millions to billions of times the mass of the Sun?

Tana: So that is a slightly awkward question actually because there is something called a mass gap, I guess you call it in astronomy. Where we know that supermassive black holes exist because we observed them and we can estimate their masses and we know that, what we call stellar mass black holes and their masses go up if you include the LIGO masses they go to just about eighty solar masses, eighty times the mass of our Sun and some as light as maybe five or six or seven times the mass of our Sun and so that leaves a huge gap their so basically between a hundred solar masses and a million solar masses there is nothing in terms of black holes and that is the region we call intermedite mass black holes amd so that is something that we think forms in the early Universe so LIGO might be able to help with that because what could be happening is you could have these LIGO sources where you have a fifty solar amss black hole and a fifty solar mass black hole and they merge and you get say a hundred solar masses but that would happen in the very early Universe and we would know more about that once we know more about where these intial heavy mass black holes came from, but it still does not really fill the mass gap in. The reason why this is awkward is because we think that intermediate-mass black holes are sort of what we call the seed black holes from which supermassive black holes via accretion. So you get this intermediate black hole, say it’s about a hundred thousand solar masses and then over time it accretes or draws mass onto it from a galaxy around it and it grows and that is how it ends up as a supermassive black hole. But we can’t find these intermediate black holes and there are a few candidates, one or two really good candidates but until we get a mass estimate, we won’t see anything and this kind of ties into, well what I will be talking about in my talk. Where we trying to, there is no consensus yet whether the Large Magellanic Cloud has a central black hole or not. So there a black holes at the centre of most massive galaxies, but these are dwarf galaxies, the Magellanic clouds so if there is a black hole at the centre, given the size of the Magellanic clouds, it’s probably going to be an intermediate-mass black hole and this is something we could possibly detect with LISA if we have stars close enough spiralling in, in what we call an extreme mass ratio in spiral. So the extreme mass ratio comes from the fact that the intermediate-mass black hole in the LMC say about ten, no say a hundred thousand solar masses and then it would be dragging in stars that are normal steller masses so between one and twenty solar masses so that is a huge ratio of masses, ten thousand versus one basically or ten thousand or hundred thousand versus one hundred thousand verses ten and that will actually, the inspiral of those stars into this intermediate-mass black hole will give rise to gravitational waves that LISA should be able to detect and what’s great about these in spiral scenarios is that the theorists are saying before they spiral in like that there will actually be electromagnetic radiation given off, from the radio all the way to the X-ray and in the southern hemisphere we have two of the most powerful radio telescopes they can easily and very sensitively observe the Large Magellanic Cloud and look for signatures of these extreme mass ratio inspirals and this is where the localization comes in, that I spoke about earlier because LISA, LISAs’ localization, the way it is being set up is not going to be that good. So we would massively benefit from having say ASKAP and MeerKAT working together finding these radio waves coming from these stars spiralling into this potential intermediate black hole in the Large Magellanic Cloud and using the very good accuracy, the spatial accuracy of these radio telescopes and then nailing down where this black hole actually is and then LISA will be able to kind of point at it much more accurately and so this is sort of the fantastic synergy of multi-messenger astronomy, where the electromagnetic components, the gravitational waves and maybe even things, we might even see neutrinos as they spiral in. Cause multi-messenger isn’t just gravitational waves and electromagnetic waves, it’s also neutrinos, cosmic waves, cosmic rays, it’s even meteorites and comets and all of that because these are all messenger particle, they all give us information about the Universe but they don’t always apply to every system. So that’s something that we hoping to start to get information on when we start observing the Large Magellanic Cloud.

Jacinta: Wow so I did, I did honours research on the Magellanic Clouds and the Magellanic Stream, but I had no idea that something so close could give us so many clues about the very early Universe, which in astronomy terms is very very far away from us so that is really amazing. But not only are you a very successful astrophysicist, you also own your own company.

Tana: Yes, I do, I started my company called AstroComms, October 2018, so just over a year ago and it was born out of all of the outreach and consulting work that I had done over the years as a postgraduate student and as a post-doctoral fellow and I realized that there is actually a demand and a value for this outside of just a strictly academic environment. So my first client was sort of a tech startup company called MeasureMatch and they hired me to give a talk about big data in science because they are also a data analytics company and their idea of big data is laughably small to what we work on in the sciences. So it was just really nice to just sort of give them insight into, give a broader context for sort of where what big data is, where is it going, what’s actually at the cutting edge. Like the work that do in the private sector is thought of as more interesting and useful but a lot of the tools that come from actually handling that come from the sciences, where we have to have the best equipment and the most optimized algorithms and all that kind of stuff and it filters down into industry so I was invited to give a talk about that and they actually paid me and it was great and I have had several other clients so far. I think my favourite one so far, they actually made me sign a non-disclosure agreement so I can’t say too much was to be a technical, basically the technical consultant for a sci-fi TV programme.

Jacinta: What!!

Tana: Yeah so like Kip Thorn, the Nobel Prize winner Kip Thorn who did interstellar, he did the black hole stuff for interstellar and made sure it was really accurate, so basically like that but without, if you don’t have a Hollywood budget, if you don’t have Kip Thorn Nobel Prize-winning money, I do the same thing but much cheaper. So yeah all sort of things like that speaking at festivals and so on. So the mandate basically of AstroComms is that it is a STEM, so the science, technology, engineering and maths consulting and communications company. So anything whether it’s just input on policymaking or for curriculum, yeah checking over curricula or curriculum development to science consulting of the media or for the creative sectors and then also giving talks, I really enjoy giving talks. I really enjoy and I am very privileged to be working with the SKA programme, as long as I have and being able to sort of showcase and highlight how far the programme has come, all those exciting things that have been happening especially in an African context. I love going out and dispelling Afro-pessimism so this idea that Africa is such an under-developed place, such a place that is somewhere where you just extract from and no one is actually building anything up and it is really great to go be able to dispell those myths and those negative connotations around Africa and say you know we are building cloud computing centre, we are on the cutting edge of astronomy, we are a global hub for astrophysics research and it’s not just in South Africa it’s actually spread around several countries across the continent and this is what we are doing, these are the fantastic young people that are coming through and being able to talk about that and I get paid to do that, I get paid to spread the word and change peoples perceptions of this fantastic continent that we are on and I think that’s something that I really try to focus on and put at the heart of the work that I do through AstroComms and people are really interested, people want to hear these good news stories. They want to hear things are changing and I always get really positive receptions about that and so I hope that there will be more gigs like that in the future and yeah just so open to all sort of ideas where technical input is needed or a science perspective is needed especially from someone still very much in the research community.

Jacinta: This is a fantastic idea, but it’s still quite unusual in our field. I think you are maybe one of, I don’t know how many but I have never actually heard about it before. How do you make this work, is it still currently moire of a side hustle that you do in your “spare time”  or have you incorporated this into your sort of your, I don’t know what you would call day job perhaps? 

Tana: I am that the moment, it is very much a side hustle but the idea is that I have got, I’ve set myself a fice year plan to grow the company to a point where it can be my day job and that sort of gives me exactly enough time, I think to wrap up my work MeerKAT and ASKAP because I feel now is not the time to leave the sciences, I have waited so long, the telescopes are here they doing amazing work, they are exceeding even the expectations of the people that built the telescopes. But at the same time, the work that we are doing with the SKA precursors is providing so much for me to actually talk about so when people invite me I stuff to talk about.; I can talk about the big data aspects, I can talk about the development aspects, I can talk about the political aspects because of what SKA is as well as all of this cutting edge science and engineering is also a beautiful example of science for diplomacy. Where you can pull resources and get a lot of people together from very different backgrounds, people who or places, people and places that weren’t necessarily engaged in sciences and get them all together and get them all working on a common goal that will enrich the continent but also bring a lot of opportunities to communities that weren’t always necessarily engaged with STEM and that is the kind of thing that I get to have an inside, an insiders knowledge of and sort of evangelise about and so I feel for me right now those sort of things go hand in hand. So it is a side hustle, AstroComms is the side hustle at the moment and I am starting to get to the mid-point of this five-year plan where I am going to have to, the tipping point is going to come where I am going to have to devout less time to my research and more time to the company and navigating that is going to be tricky, I’m not quite there yet. But the companies profile is being raised and I am getting a lot of interesting work and my, the people I work for are extremely supportive of this, so if I need to take time off sometimes to go give a talk that’s something they are aware of and I do a lot of my work remotely as well, a lot of it via email or on skype, telecons things like that, with the interconnectivity that we sort of, that we are in the modern-day world that is really possible. So it’s not as tricky as it would seem because people are happy to jump on skype and or record like in fact this is like a podcast that I am doing right now and I am sitting across from you, I did a podcast a couple of months ago where I was in Manchester and the guy who runs the podcast is in Pretoria and we just did the podcast over skype, we just did a skype conversation and so this is all these sorts of mod-cons make it much easier to collaborate with people all over the world, just pop something in, in an online repository or google docs, Evernote and you can really time editing sessions even if you are thousands of kilometres apart.

Jacinta: Yeah, you are absolutely right the world is a lot smaller now than we sort of think it is. So I think that this is absolutely inspirational and congratulations on getting this far and good luck in the future, you sort of paving the way for others and the rest of us to sort of go down these paths. We should go back into our session on the conference soon, but o you have any final messages for the listeners?

Tana: I would say, stay tuned to this podcast, because of they are doing fantastic work, showcasing all the cutting edge sciences that is happening, especially interviewing young people and also stay tuned because I would like to give more updates on my company and what I am doing. I would say to any young people listening that, things may sound outlandish when I decided I wanted to be an astronomer in 1995 it sounded ridiculous and outlandish but what people need to realize is, if you are in high school now, in five or ten years time, jobs will exist that don’t exist now. I remember writing a forward for a science magazine in 2013 and I used the phrase, I said something about a newfangled thing called data science and now data science is so pervasive, there is som many astronomers that go into it data science after they’ve concluded there research careers and that didn’t exist ten years ago, there was no such thing as a data scientist. Big data wasn’t something that was talked about the way it is now. The fourth Industrial Revolution, getting people really excited, things like cryptocurrency. These things didn’t exist in our parents time, they didn’t exist when I was in high school, the telescopes I work on now didn’t exist. Some of them didn’t even exist when I was already doing my post-doctoral, oh sorry my post, yeah my post-doctoral studies because MeerKAT was only completed in 2018 and I already had my PhD for five years at that point. So things change at a ridiculous pace and you will equip yourself well too not fix on something necessarily that you want to study because it might not exist by the time you finish your studies but be open-minded, be flexible, study things that are sort of future proof so things like coding, I would say languages because people often think that STEM is the way forward but you need the mix of humanity so study languages because you ever know when you might get shipped out to the middle of France to a village and someone comes to tell you to be careful of wild boars and you might not be able to understand them so it is a safety issue. So I would say, yeah study languages, even if you are South African and you want to stay in South Africa, yeah but you might have to go be a professor at the University of Venda, maybe learn some Venda because perhaps you only speak Afrikaans and isiXhosa, you never know. So yeah, just be open to learning experiences and one thing I learnt from academia is that you never stop learning, I haven’t sat in any formal exams in many years but I am constantly doing online courses, attending seminars and so on. So just never stop learning, be curious and just because your dream job does not exist now, does not mean it won’t exist in five years time.

Jacinta: Brilliant so where can people find you and your company?

Tana: They can find us on Facebook, there is the AstroComms Facebook page. They can find us on Twitter, so on Twitter, it’s Astro_Comms and then online their website is astrocomms.com and yeah, all the information you want on there, drop me a line, we respond very quickly if you have any queries about giving talks or any input that you want just to give an idea of what we do. I am always happy to talk to anyone really who wants to listen.

Jacinta: This has been absolutely fascinating. Thank you so much for speaking with us today Tana and doing it pro-bono.

Tana: Thank you again for having me, it was great.

…Transition music…

[00:42:21] Dan: Okay. Well, thank you very much for the interview.

[00:42:23] Jacinta: Yeah, it was awesome talking to Tana, she’s an amazing speaker

[00:42:27] Dan: and some interesting stuff in there. A lot of interesting details about x-ray binarys and gravitational waves, exciting projects like LISA, which is incidentally the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna.

[00:42:38] Jacinta: Ah, very good.

[00:42:39] Dan: So, an interferometer, gravitational wave interferometer, much like LIGO, which is currently operational, but up in space.

[00:42:47] Jacinta: So cool. Launching a gravitational wave detector into space.

[00:42:51] Dan: And I think that LISA is currently planned for 2034 so it’ll be, it’ll be coming online about 10 years after the first SKA phase comes online.

[00:43:02] Jacinta: So if anyone who’s listening is interested in becoming a gravitational wave astronomer, now’s the time. Well, by the time you’re trained, you’ll be ready to use LISA.

[00:43:11] Dan: It’s a very sexy science, only only in the last five years since we discovered them for the first time. Right? Yeah. I think the, the recommendation when we were doing our undergraduate was don’t you dare it into gravitational

[00:43:22] Jacinta: wave astronomy

[00:43:22] Mmhmm I heard exactly the same thing. There’s been no detections. We don’t know when the detection will be. Yeah. And lo and behold,

[00:43:31] Dan: Ah man, those guys got lucky

[00:43:33] Jacinta: They did. Well, they worked very, very hard and were very patient for it.

[00:43:37] Dan: That’s true, that’s true.

[00:43:38] Jacinta: Okay. So back to Tana’s interview. I, I thought it was really interesting to hear about microquasars, which is where the black hole or whatever it is, is accreting from the companion star and then releasing energy, jets of radiation in a very similar manner.

[00:43:54] To quasars, which is a type of AGN, and I study these AGN, these active galactic nuclei. So I was really interested to hear how we can see these, these much smaller scales and of the same phenomena as these gigantic scales with the supermassive black holes that I study. Why we want to do that is because then we can see the variation on human lifetime timescales, which is great because we just can’t live long enough to see these timescale changes in the big AGN.

[00:44:22] Dan: Yeah. It’s very cool. Like these, yeah. Like you say, micro quasars from micro black holes.

[00:44:28] Jacinta: Yeah. The universe scales. It’s really cool.

[00:44:31] Dan: Yeah. And the I, the other interesting thing obviously that Tana spoke about was her, her company.

[00:44:37] Jacinta: Yeah Astrocomms.

[00:44:38] Dan: Yeah. It’s pretty cool. I was very  impressed to see how these skills were transferable to other realms of life, the interest from data scientists, big data firms and things, and in what astronomers are doing, because in a lot of ways we are moving these fields forward in not just astronomy, but in terms of dealing with big data.

[00:44:59] We’re at the cutting edge.

[00:45:00] Jacinta: Yeah, absolutely. I thought her initiative is absolutely fantastic and I hope that we see more of these sorts of things in the future, and especially giving the opportunity for those researchers who also want to do communications work to receive fair pay for that and therefore allow them to do more of this, which, which you know.

[00:45:19] Ultimately, I think helps society and the movies.

[00:45:22] Dan: Yes. Well, I mean, we all want to advise on a movie. Sit there, watch

[00:45:26] Jacinta: the dream!

[00:45:27] Dan: Yeah it is the dream. I mean, every nerdy astronomer’s dream to be the advisor on some sci-fi movie.

…Outro music begins…

[00:45:36] Jacinta: Cool. All right. Well, I think that’s, that’s it for today.

[00:45:40] Dan: Yeah. Thank you very much for listening.

[00:45:42] And we hope you’ll join us again on the next episode of the cosmic Savannah.

[00:45:45] Jacinta: You can visit our website, thecosmicsavannah.com where we’ll have links related to today’s episode. You can also follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram @cosmicsavannah. That’s Savannah, spelled S. A. V. A. N. N. A. H.

[00:45:59] Dan: Special thanks today to Dr Tana Joseph for speaking with us.

[00:46:03] Jacinta: Thanks to Mark Allnut for music production, Janas Brink for astrophotography. Lana Ceraj for graphic design and Thabisa Fikelepi  for social media support.

[00:46:12] Dan: Also to Xola Ndaliso and Sumari Hattingh for transcription assistance.

[00:46:17] Jacinta: We gratefully acknowledge support from the South African National Research Foundation and the South African Astronomical Observatory to help keep the podcast running.

[00:46:26] Dan: 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.

[00:46:34] Jacinta: And we’ll speak to you next time on The Cosmic Savannah.

…Outro music ends…

[00:46:46] Welcome to episode 21.

[00:46:50] Dan: 21 today. Happy 21st you know, it’s a thing.

[00:46:55] Jacinta: Oh like 21st birthday

[00:46:57] Dan: Yeah. I don’t know if that’s every culture that, you know, every culture has a different age.

[00:47:03] Jacinta: I think it used to be you get the keys to the house.

[00:47:06] Dan: Yes. But I mean, that might be sort of British, descendants of British.

[00:47:11] Jacinta: Well, we’re all from Commonwealth countries.

[00:47:14] Dan: Well, not all of us. Just the two of us.

[00:47:17] Jacinta: Yep. Everyone in this room… Welcome to episode 21

[00:47:24] Dan: I got nothing.

Episode 20: Cosmic Chemistry

with Prof Ewine van Dishoeck

In our first episode of the 2020s and Episode 20 we are honoured to be joined by Prof Ewine van Dishoeck who is a Dutch astronomer and chemist. She is Professor of Molecular Astrophysics at Leiden Observatory and the president of the International Astronomical Union (IAU).

We discuss Ewine’s work in molecular astrophysics. She takes us on a tour of the formation of a solar system. All the way from the Big Bang, through clouds of gas where solar systems and planets are being born, all the way to the very building blocks of life!

We learn how molecules form in space, combine with dust and eventually grow into the massive planets we observe and indeed inhabit.

Ewine also tells us what it’s like to be the President of the largest organisation of astronomers in the world and what she’s been up to during her visit to Cape Town!

An ALMA radio image of the protoplanetary disk around the young star HL Tau. The circular disk appears elliptical because it is inclined with respect to our line of sight. With ALMA’s high-resolution capabilities, the image shows dark gaps in the disk, which are formed by protoplanets sweeping out the dust around their orbits. Figure from ALMA and NRAO.

This week’s guest

Related Links
Office of Astronomy for Development: http://www.astro4dev.org/
IAU100: https://www.iau-100.org/

Featured Image:
An artist’s impression of the Herschel Space Observatory with its observations of star formation in the Rosette Nebula in the background.
(Image: © C. Carreau/ESA)

Episode Transcript

(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: [00:00:17]  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.

Welcome to episode 20 to kick off the 2020’s.

Dan: [00:00:35]  We’re back in the twenties and I was never in the twenties in the first


Jacinta: [00:00:40] The roaring twenties; my favorite era.

Dan: [00:00:42]  I think it’s just exciting that we can call them the twenties.

Jacinta: [00:00:45]  Yes. When you actually know what to call our decade.

Dan: [00:00:47] Yeah, it’s good.

Jacinta: [00:00:48] Yes. So whole new year, whole new decade and first episode for the year.

Dan: [00:00:55] Yeah, we will be talking to the president of the International Astronomical Union. The IAU. Professor Ewine van Dishoeck from the Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands.

Jacinta: [00:01:05]  Yeah. And she’ll be telling us about her work in Astrochemistry studying interstellar clouds and newly forming solar systems around exo-planets.

Dan: [00:01:16] And she’ll also speak about her role as the president of the IAU and what she does. And why she’s visiting us here in Cape Town.

Jacinta: [00:01:24] Yes. But first though, Dan, since it’s a new year, it might be a good chance for us to recap on the things we talked about last year and especially for the new listeners who have joined us recently.

Maybe there’s a few things we’d like them to know about before we get into this episode. So I know you love this because I have a quiz for you.

And listeners can play at home and try and beat Dan.

Dan: [00:01:53] Gosh.

Jacinta: [00:01:54] Okay.

Dan: [00:01:55] I’m nervous.

Jacinta: [00:01:56]  All right. It’s a lightning quiz. Okay.

  So fast as you can. All right.

  Question one. What is the Cosmic Savannah?

Dan: [00:02:04]  An awesome podcast. About astronomy in Africa.

Jacinta: [00:02:08]  Correct. Question two. Who are you?

Dan: [00:02:11] My name is Dr. Daniel Cunnama. I am the science engagement astronomer at the South African Astronomical Observatory.

Jacinta: [00:02:18]  Correct. Who am I?

Dan: [00:02:22]  Dr Jacinta Delhaize. And you are a SARAO – South African Radio Astronomy Observatory – postdoctoral fellow at the University of Cape Town.

Jacinta: [00:02:31]  And that is correct. Question four, where are we?

Dan: [00:02:36] We are at the South African Astronomical Observatory in Cape town, South Africa.

Jacinta: [00:02:42] Correct. Okay.

Question five, what are the main astronomy research institutions in Cape Town and their acronyms?

Dan: [00:02:52]  So we’ve already been through the South African Astronomical Observatory. – SAAO. We have the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory that does mostly radio astronomy and run the MeerKAT – the radio telescope in the Karoo.

I hope that’s not another question.

Jacinta: [00:03:07] It is. Please stick to the questions asked.

Dan: [00:03:10] Sorry, so that is SARAO: S-A-R-A-O, and then we have the universities: University of Cape town- UCT, the university of the Western Cape – UWC.

Jacinta: [00:03:19] Correct. Okay. Question number six. What is electromagnetic radiation?

Dan: [00:03:26] So electromagnetic radiation, as you normally will know of it, is light – little photons –  little packets of light coming towards us.

However, light comes in a lot of different frequencies or wavelengths, which we use interchangeably in astronomy.

Jacinta: [00:03:41]  Question number seven, name all the different types of light on the electromagnetic spectrum. In order.

Dan: [00:03:46]  In order? Gamma rays, X-rays,…

I’m just checking if there’s anything else in between. Gamma rays, X-rays, ultraviolet, visible light, infrared, millimeter, and radio.

Jacinta: [00:04:04]  Microwave.

Dan: [00:04:06] Ah. Microwave, radio.

Jacinta: [00:04:07]  Yes. Okay.

Dan: [00:04:08]  Microwave. I’ll lump in with radio. Oh, wow.

Jacinta: [00:04:14]  I’m going to give you half a point for that one. Okay. Question number eight. Which of these types of light can we as astronomers detect coming from space?

Dan: [00:04:22] All of them.

Jacinta: [00:04:22] Correct. Question number nine. Name two things in space that we can detect with the radio telescopes.

Dan: [00:04:28]  Giant galaxies and gas dust.

Jacinta: [00:04:32] Correct. Question number 10. South Africa hosts one of the best radio telescopes in the world. What is it called and where is it?

Dan: [00:04:40] It is called MeerKAT and it is located outside Carnarvon in the Northern Cape, very far from anyone, and it consists of 64 thirteen-and-a-half meter radio antennae, which look a lot like a satellite dish that you would use for getting satellite TV.

Jacinta: [00:05:00]  Correct. And thorough. Question number 11, name two things in space that we can detect with optical telescopes. Also known as visible light.

Dan: [00:05:08]  Also galaxies. Starlight and then obviously stars and also some amount of gas.

Jacinta: [00:05:15]  That’s more than two Dan, but that’s fine.

Dan: [00:05:18]  Well starlight and stars are the same.

Jacinta: [00:05:20]  Extra points then.  Question number 12 : South Africa hosts the biggest optical telescope in the Southern hemisphere. What is it called and where is it?

Dan: [00:05:28]  It is the Southern African Large Telescope. It is located at the SAAO Observatory in Sutherland in the Northern Cape.

Jacinta: [00:05:35]  SALT for short.

Dan: [00:05:36]  For short.

Jacinta: [00:05:37]  Question number 13 – how many other telescopes are in Sutherland?

Dan: [00:05:42]  I think that the current count there are about 15

Jacinta: [00:05:45]  I would accept 14 or 17 but that was from Wikipedia and it might be up to 15

Dan: [00:05:55]  Okay.

Jacinta: [00:05:56]  It depends whether you count different, like, different.,

Dan: [00:05:59]  So there are also some other sensing instruments. So there’s like a gravity sensor and those sorts of things.

Jacinta: [00:06:05] Yep.

Dan: [00:06:06] Instruments,  not necessarily telescopes.

Jacinta: [00:06:07] Yes. Whether you count each element of an array of telescopes, so. Yep.

Dan: [00:06:13] Correct.

Jacinta: [00:06:13] So the answer is lots. Okay. Question 14 – how far is Sutherland from the Observatory where we are now?

Dan: [00:06:20] A four hour drive. 250 kilometers.

Jacinta: [00:06:26]  Hmm. Wikipedia said 370 kilometers.

Dan: [00:06:28] Well, as the crow flies or as you drive?

Jacinta: [00:06:28]  That’s a  good question. So I’m going to trust you.

Dan: [00:06:32]  Maybe don’t.

Jacinta: [00:06:33] Over Wikipedia, but we will leave that for our listeners to find the true answer. Okay. Now, some questions specifically related to this episode. Question number 15 – what is the IAU?

Dan: [00:06:46] The international astronomical union, which is a big body of astronomers, international astronomers, 13 and a half thousand members.

Jacinta: [00:06:53]  When was the IAU founded?

Dan: [00:06:55] In 1919.

Jacinta: [00:06:57]  Correct. It was a hundred years old last year. Question 17 : what is the O-A-D?

Dan: [00:07:03]  The Office of Astronomy for Development. It’s not the Office of Astronomy Development. They’re not trying to develop astronomy. They are trying to use astronomy for development.

Jacinta: [00:07:14]  Good. And question 18 – what do you mean by development?

Dan: [00:07:18] Development is basically trying to improve society, humanity, and people’s lives as dictated by the sustainable development goals – put forward by the UN, is what I was going to say.

Jacinta: [00:07:29]  Very, very accurate. I cut you off, sorry. Okay. Now question 19 – what is an interstellar cloud?

Dan: [00:07:35]  It’s a cloud of gas and dust that sits in between stars.

Jacinta: [00:07:39]  Okay. Now, question 20 – true or false, the dense clouds in which stars and their solar systems form are actually less dense than the best ultra-vacuums we can produce in labs on earth.

Dan: [00:07:51] Correct. True.

Jacinta: [00:07:51] It is true. Yes. Question 21 – what types of telescopes can we use to study these clouds?

Dan: [00:08:00] Millimeter is the best.

Jacinta: [00:08:02] And also far-infrared for it, because we can see through the dust.

Dan: [00:08:05]  Okay.

Jacinta: [00:08:06]  Now question 22 – where should these telescopes be?

Dan: [00:08:10]  Ideally in space or in a very, very dry, very high place.

Jacinta: [00:08:15]  For example?

Dan: [00:08:16]  For example, the Atacama Desert

Jacinta: [00:08:18]  In Chile?

Dan: [00:08:19] Chile, yes.

Jacinta: [00:08:20] That’s a great place.

Dan: [00:08:21] Because, can I say, because?

Jacinta: [00:08:23] Yes.

Dan: [00:08:23] Because you want to detect molecules such as water, so you need a very, very dry place so that your telescope doesn’t see all the water in our atmosphere.

Jacinta: [00:08:33] Exactly. And you want it to be as high as possible so that there’s the least amount of atmosphere for the light to travel through.

Lucky last question. Question number 23- what is my favorite wavelength of optical light?

Dan: [00:08:49]  Pink?

Jacinta: [00:08:50]  Pink!?

Dan: [00:08:51]  I don’t know! My favorite or your favourite?

Jacinta: [00:08:53]  My favorite.

Dan: [00:08:56]  I dunno, green? I can just list ’em all?

Jacinta: [00:09:00]  It is 380 to 500 nanometers. Which is blue.  Blue’s my favorite color.

Dan: [00:09:07]  Congratulations.

Jacinta: [00:09:07] Thank you. I will score you 21 and a half out of 23. So listeners, let’s see if you did better than that.

Dan: [00:09:18]  Well, if you know Jacinta’s favorite colour prior to this, well done to you.

Jacinta: [00:09:23] Okay.  I think that’s everything that we had to talk about. Shall we hear from Ewine now?

Dan: [00:09:29]  I think we should.

So today we are honored to be joined by Professor Ewine van Dishoek, who is a professor of molecular astrophysics at the Leiden Observatory and the president of the International Astronomical Union. Welcome to The Cosmic Savannah.

Jacinta: [00:09:50] Welcome.

Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:09:51]  Thank you. I’m delighted to be here.

Jacinta: [00:09:54] Ewine, so you’re not just an astronomer,  you’re also a chemist, is that right?

Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:09:58]  That’s true indeed. I started my career as a chemist basically because I had a very good chemistry teacher in high school.

Jacinta: [00:10:04]  That can make all the difference.

Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:10:06]  Makes all the difference and that’s what’s got me into chemistry.

Jacinta: [00:10:09]  You sort of work in an area of astrochemistry. Can you just tell us what that is and how that differs to astrophysics?

Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:10:16]  Well, actually the two are very much linked because on the one hand, the space between the stars, the interstellar clouds form a gigantic chemical laboratory in which the conditions are very different from those on earth. So you can study basic chemical processes there. But on the other hand the molecules themselves also tell us about the conditions in these clouds in which new stars may be forming.

They are little temperature probe. They can be probes of the pressure in the clouds, the movements in the clouds. So also the molecules inform us about the astrophysics that’s happening in the cloud.

Jacinta: [00:10:55]  Your work particularly looks at these dark dust clouds where stars are forming in the middle and you look through the dust clouds with certain telescopes. Is that correct?

Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:11:06] Yes, indeed. If you look at one of these dark clouds with the light that you see with your own eyes, it’s just looking black and we need to penetrate that dust and we do that with telescopes at long wavelengths in particular at infrared and at millimeter wavelengths.

Dan: [00:11:23]  And what sort of molecules do you see? I mean, what do you observe when you’re looking at this dust?

Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:11:28]  Well, simple molecules like carbon monoxide, that’s the easiest one to see actually. Water, one of my favorite molecules – for that one, you need to have an observatory that is actually above the Earth’s atmosphere, because of course, our earth’s atmosphere is full of water.

So for example, the Herschel Space Observatory was very well suited to study water in space. But then there is also a huge complexity, something that was not at all expected some 50 years ago. We see simple sugars, ethers, alcohols, prebiotic molecules, like, for example, cyanide. It’s a very rich chemistry that is actually taking place under these very exotic conditions, very low temperatures and densities.

Jacinta: [00:12:13]  What does prebiotic mean?

Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:12:15]  That’s a good question. It’s something that could be used as a building block for life; elsewhere in the, in the universe. So for example, if you have the beginnings of peptide bonds, or if you would have an amino acid or even simple sugars, of course.

Jacinta: [00:12:31]  So have we found amino acids?

Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:12:33] Surprisingly not yet. We have found molecules that are certainly used, sort of, in the chemistry that leads to amino acids, but in interstellar clouds, there has not yet been a really convincing detection of an amino acid. Interestingly, in comets, which are the leftovers of the building of our own solar system, they’re actually simple amino acids, like Glycine, have been detected. So [there’s] good hope that we will find it in the not too distant future, especially with the new Atacama Large Millimeter Array.

Dan: [00:13:12] Where do these molecules form? I mean, are they forming in the interstellar cloud or are they enriched by stars or where did they actually originate from and how do they combine?

Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:13:22]  The cloud itself is made up of a mix of atoms and molecules. And the ingredients that we have from the periodic table is hydrogen and helium. They come, we formed in the Big Bang, and then we have the important elements: carbon, nitrogen and oxygen, and those were made, through nuclear fusion, in the interior of stars.

And then, when the stars die, it basically brings these elements into the interstellar medium. So that gives us our building blocks in terms of carbon, nitrogen and oxygen. But then how do you make a bond, a chemical bond in space? And that is not easy because you need to be able to sort of carry off the binding energy of making that molecule.

I mean, now I actually think that the majority, especially of these complex molecules, are actually made on the surfaces of these tiny little dust grains. You know, sand particles that are present throughout the interstellar cloud. And they act as a meet-and-greet where atoms basically land on the grain and they scan the surface and then they meet each other and they greet and they form a bond.  And if they like each other, they can take off again and go back into the gas phase.

Dan: [00:14:43] Very romantic.

Jacinta: [00:14:45] Okay, so you said that we haven’t found amino acids, so no DNA yet, no evidence for life just yet, but we have found other complex molecules. Why do we care about finding complex molecules in these clouds?

Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:14:58] Well, that is because out of these clouds, new solar system forms. And so it is basically this material that we see in this clouds that, you know, collapses to form the protostar, but also the rotating disc of gas and dust around it, the so-called proto-planetary disc in which planets are forming.

So we’re basically looking at the material that ends up on new planetary systems. And there we know that once you have some liquid water there, in interstellar space water is only as an ice or as a gas, but once you have it on a planet, then it becomes a liquid form. And that is when you can actually, you know, have a chemistry that leads them to say, amino acids, and some or even more complex molecules.

Dan: [00:15:46]  So you’re really looking at the building blocks of solar systems. How do we get from a proto-planetary disk to the planet? I mean, it doesn’t just happen overnight.

Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:15:56] It’s a huge challenge to do that because interstellar clouds have these tiny dust grains that are a tenth of a micro meter in size. And so, compared with a particle sand grain on the beach, it’s still a thousand times smaller. Yet we need to grow to something that is as large as our earth. And that means we have to bridge some 10 to the 13 orders of magnitude in growth to make that happen. And how it occurs is still a challenge and we don’t understand it yet.

We know that when you have two particles colliding and they are not colliding too violently, not too high velocities, then they will actually stick and grow to larger bodies. And observationally we’ve been able to see sort of the growth from micro meter size to millimeter size to centimeter size to pebble size.

So that is what we can see observationally. Then there’s a whole regime of sizes that we cannot observe with our telescopes – we cannot see a brick in space. So that is what we have to infer and we can only then see, say the leftovers, comets in our own solar system. And we can see then in terms of planets, those in our own solar system and around planets around other stars.

So we have to infer, you know, many orders of magnitude of growth. We know it happened in our own solar system, so we know it’s possible, but the physics are not yet fully understood.

Jacinta: [00:17:35]  Can we see any planets forming around other stars?

Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:17:38]  Yes. That’s the exciting new developments that we now have with the new Atacama Large Millimeter Array : ALMA.  ALMA actually allows us to zoom in on the formation sites of planets and we have both direct and indirect evidence and that we see really planets forming at this very moment when the systems are still very young -astronomically speaking only a million years or so – that they are still forming actually in the discs.  So it’s a very exciting new field that is now being opened up by ALMA. It’s always new technology that is driving progress in astronomy.

Dan: [00:18:21]  How long does this process take? Do we have an idea?

Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:18:24] I mean, there’s, well, some of it can go actually very quickly. If you just have a part of a disc collapsing to form a planet through, say, a gravitational instability, then it can go very fast, you know, in tens or hundred thousands of years. The more gradual step-by-step building of a planet, what we call the core accretion model, that can take tens of millions of years.

Dan: [00:18:53] Alright, and you mentioned that comets are holding water. And you know, water was one of your big interests. So on earth we’ve got a lot of water.

Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:19:03] Yes.

Dan: [00:19:03] The theories for where that water came from are sort of varied. The prevailing one is that it came from comets, correct?

Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:19:09] Not necessarily. So I think what our research, and that of our colleagues, has shown is that the bulk of the water that we have in our solar system was actually formed already in the cloud, out of which our sun basically collapsed. It was formed on those tiny little dusts grains. That is where the oxygen and hydrogen basically came together to form water, and that water is preserved, you know, during the collapse of the cloud and the formation of the solar system. So as one of my colleagues also says, the water on earth is actually older than the Sun itself, because it comes, it preceded it actually.

Dan: [00:19:58] Yes, because it formed when we formed, right?

Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:19:59] It forms exactly before the whole solar system, before that already.

Jacinta: [00:20:03]  So yeah, dust grains were like the dating app.

Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:20:05]  Yeah, exactly. Exactly. And then how exactly in our own solar system, the water came inside the ice line. So in our solar system we had the ice line, it’s sort of the divid where water was in gaseous form, and where water is in ice form.  And we think that ice line is a very important region as to where planets could form giant planets especially, and of course, of giant planets like that of Jupiter. So the question has always been inside this rather dry inner region, how did Earth get its water? Was it delivered by comets or was it delivered by other icy planetesimals. For example, icy asteroids. They’d have different orbits than the comets. So I think the prevailing view now is that it was not the comets, but it was sort of other icy planetesimals – asteroids – that brought most of the water to Earth through bombardments and on the other end, the comets have been very important in bringing the organic material to us.

Dan: [00:21:17] Which is very important to us?

Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:21:18]  Which is also very important because you need both; icy water and the organics.

Jacinta: [00:21:23]  And why is it important to distinguish between comets and asteroids in that context?

Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:21:28]  Well, it’s an interesting question. Personally, I as an astrochemist, you know, for me it doesn’t matter so much, but solar system formation people seem to care a lot about the distinction.

Jacinta: [00:21:45]  Okay. And then we’re now in an era where we’re finding a lot of exo-planets, so planets around other stars that are not the sun, and we found a whole variety of them. Have we found water on any of them yet?

Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:21:58]  Yes, indeed. It’s a very exciting new era of astronomy and 25 years ago only did the first planet around another star than our Sun was actually discovered. Now of course,  it got the Nobel prize for that last year. Fantastic results. Now that we have actually found these exo-planets, and now that we know statistically that on average, every star has at least one planet, now we’re entering a new era in which we are doing, trying to do, basically, the characterization of the atmospheres of these exo-planets. And indeed water has been detected in quite a number of these exo-planets, mostly actually giant exo-planets, you know, gas giants like Jupiter. Earth-like planets, the first hints are starting to be there.

Jacinta: [00:22:56] So have we found a habitable planet yet?

Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:22:57] Have we found the twin of Earth yet?I don’t think so. Are we trying to find habitable exo-planets? We’re getting closer. But at least we have good candidates to target the next generation of instruments like the James Webb Space Telescope.

Dan: [00:23:19]  It’s very exciting. It’s going to be very exciting. The next 50 years or so.

Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:23:23]  Right. And also then not to forget the gigantic telescopes on the ground that are now being built. And the extremely large telescope from the European Southern Observatory is really aimed at characterizing the atmospheres of exo-planets and searching for biomarkers in them, not just water.  You need also other molecules in order to determine whether there is actually life there.

Jacinta: [00:23:51]  Yeah. We found so much with the current generation of telescopes like ALMA in Chile and Spitzer, Herschel, all of these things, and I can’t imagine what we’ll find.

Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:24:01]  Oh, that’s, I think that’s the wonderful thing about astronomy. I mean, it’s the fact that we don’t know what are going to find. That’s the surprise. I mean, that’s the excitement of the research.

Jacinta: [00:24:11]  Yeah. It’s a journey of discovery.

Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:24:12]  Exactly.

Jacinta: [00:24:13]  The IAU recently had a competition for naming some exo-planets, and I think two were named by South Africa?

Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:24:21] Indeed, the star and its planets around it.

Jacinta: [00:24:26]  I think it was Naledi, was the star, and Krotoa, was the exo-planet.

Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:24:31]  Yes.

Dan: [00:24:33]  And those planets were actually discovered from the WASP telescopes which are here in Sutherland.

Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:24:39]  Exactly. You can see the star and not the planet, but you can see the star I think with a small telescope here from South Africa. And I think also the names are wonderful because the mother star is basically the name of a girl that brings joy.

Dan: [00:25:00]  Very interesting research, but your current role is as the International Astronomical Union – the IAU president. So maybe we can talk a little bit about that and what’s keeping you busy these days?

Jacinta: [00:25:14] First of all, what is the IAU?

Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:25:16]  Right, so the International Astronomical Union is the worldwide organization that brings all of the professional astronomers together, so 13 and a half thousand from more than 80 member countries in more than a hundred different nationalities. And our mission is basically to promote and safeguard astronomy in all of its aspects. And of course through international cooperation. That is the key word that we are doing, the international cooperation. And these days, that’s much more than just bringing astronomers together to talk about research and to have conferences, etc. That’s the sort of the traditional role of the IAU. Now we also use astronomy as a tool for education in terms of outreach, and also as a tool for development.

Dan: [00:26:14]  And that’s actually what brings you here to Cape Town.

Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:26:16]  Yes, yeah, we are very proud of our Office of Astronomy for Development. So this is not the development of astronomy. This is really using astronomy as a development tool in various countries.

Jacinta: [00:26:30]  And is this your first time to South Africa?

Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:26:32]  Yes, it’s long overdue.

Jacinta: [00:26:35]  What do you think so far?

Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:26:36]  I like it a lot. It’s a beautiful area that you have here.

Dan: [00:26:41]  The SAAO hosts here the Office for Astronomy for Development here in Cape Town on our site. And this week we are hosting a Science for Development Workshop, which you’re attending. What has been your impression of that and how does science help assist in development?

Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:26:58]  So if I take a step back, if you just look at what the OAD has achieved so far, so it’s really amazing what the director, Kevin Govender and his team have done.

It’s basically building a worldwide network here in Africa between various African countries, but then also worldwide through the regional offices of the OAD. And each of these offices, here in Africa, there are three, actually -Western Africa, Eastern Africa, Southern Africa – they all have their own set of activities and the measures that they’re taking in order to bring astronomy to the people, but also to use it to train students in skill sets that are useful elsewhere in society.

So think of big data, think of technologies, but also think of the inspiration that astronomy brings. And that sort of gets young children excited to go into STEM subjects. And we see that happening actually across the entire globe. So we wonderfully had all of the representatives from these offices worldwide here together as well.

They’re also attending this workshop on Science for Development. So with this workshop, we’re taking it one step broader because if you, if you’re doing, for example, an intervention in, say, Nigeria in a refugee camp, then you can use astronomy to inspire children there. But at the same time, you probably need social scientists. You maybe need some psychologists on your team in order to make that intervention really work.

And so I think that is what we are trying to do here is bring sort of different communities together so that we can make – build teams – build multidisciplinary teams in order to make the world a better place.

Jacinta: [00:28:57] And one of those projects that’s funded by the Office of Astronomy for Development is of course, the Molo Mhlaba project, which we featured in episode 19 and we hear that you got a chance to go visit the girls.

Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:29:10]  Exactly yeah. When I visit, I didn’t, don’t just want to see the office itself. I really want to see the projects in action. So I was really delighted that Margherita Molaro actually took me to visit Khayelitsha and see the school. It’s also, we spent about an hour there talking with the head of the school, but also seeing  the children in action and all the kinds of activities. They were also, you know, using Lego to build the robotic elements, so it was really very interesting to see that under these very difficult circumstances, this little oasis of young girls being trained there. So it was a fantastic experience.

Dan: [00:29:52] That’s a wonderful project.

Jacinta: [00:29:54]  Okay. And right, getting back on track with the IAU. What is it like being the president?

Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:30:00]  The way the IAU works is actually that we have four officers that do the bulk of the work. So it’s the president, it’s the general secretary, it’s the president elect, and it is the assistant general secretary, and it’s really the general secretary that does the bulk of the work -it is more than a hundred percent job – so I’m very fortunate that I have a very good general secretary. The president is also doing quite a lot of activities. It’s more of the outward-looking part towards the community. So I try wherever I can to help and visit regions, and see where my visit, my presence can sort of give a push to certain projects to move them forward.

Of course, also in terms of organization, I’ve had a very interesting and very busy year. It was the one hundred year celebrations of the IAU. Last year we had our one hundred year celebrations and we actually organized more than 5,000 activities a year in more than 140 countries. So it was one long and very interesting stretch. So we had basically one full year of activities, and in January we started with a hundred hours of astronomy with the amateurs.  In February, we had the women and girls in astronomy. Then later in the year, we had the celebration of a hundred years of the solar eclipse with which Eddington proved that Einstein was right, the famous 1919 solar eclipse. Then we had the moon landing. Then, of course, the Name Exo-Worlds that we just talked about. So it has been a wonderful experience and it has sort of energized also, so much activities around the world. So I’m really, well it’s heartwarming to see that.

Jacinta: [00:32:10]  And it’s not quite over yet.

Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:32:11]  Indeed. We have our final IAU100 activity coming up on Valentine’s day, 30 years since the iconic pale blue dot image was taken by the Voyager I mission – the Voyager turning around when it was already past Saturn and looking back at Earth one more time and taking this famous picture, and Carl Sagan words: that’s us – that tiny little dot.

Jacinta: [00:32:38] The pale blue dot. It’s definitely a romantic picture to celebrate on Valentine’s day,

Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:32:43] But also I’d say it shows, you know how tiny we are, the tiny little rock that we are living on – there somewhere in the outskirts of our galaxy. We’d better take good care of our planet.

Jacinta: [00:32:55]  Absolutely.

Dan: [00:32:56]  It’s very precious.

Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:32:57] Very precious.

Jacinta: [00:32:59]  And the other connection that Cape Town has very strongly to the IAU is that the IAU general assembly will be hosted here in 2024.

Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:33:06]  Indeed, after a century, the IAU is finally coming to Africa for its general assembly. So I’m really delighted that that is happening. I visited the conference center – just the other day, and it looks very good, especially with the new additions. Now it’s large enough to hold the IAU general assembly, but it’s hopefully also sending a signal to Africa, not just South Africa, the entire continent, that this is an opportunity.

This is an opportunity not just for the young astronomers and senior astronomers to attend the general assembly, but we really would like to see also, you know, young astronomers – on the program presenting results, and so that is a very good goal to work towards in the coming four years, that the community is built up and that they can have a very strong presence also on stage at the general assembly in 2024.

Dan: [00:34:06]  It’s really exciting. We look forward to welcoming you back.

Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:34:09] My pleasure.

Dan: [00:34:10] Hopefully you come before then too, though.

Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:34:13]  Very possibly, yes. Would be my pleasure to do so.

Dan: [00:34:18]  Well, thank you very much for joining us. We really, really appreciate it. It’s wonderful to talk to you.

Jacinta: [00:34:24]  Thank you so much.

Dan: [00:34:24]  Enjoy the rest of your stay – I hope you get to see some of the sites and all the best.

Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:34:30]  Thank you. And keep up the excellent work that you’re doing here.

Dan: [00:34:39]  I really enjoyed that interview.

Jacinta: [00:34:41] I did too.

Dan: [00:34:42] She spoke wonderfully. It was very interesting. I certainly learned a few things.

Jacinta: [00:34:46]  Yeah. I didn’t know that the water on the Earth is older than the solar system – than the sun.

Dan: [00:34:51]  Yeah, no, nor me. I was a firm believer in the comet theory, but you know hers kind of makes more sense actually.

Jacinta: [00:34:58]  Asteroids and planetesimals.

Dan: [00:34:59]  Well, yeah, so sort of it formed before the solar system formed. It was sitting in these small rocks and things, which then formed the Earth itself.  I mean, it’s pretty interesting that the water we drink,…

Jacinta: [00:35:13]  Yeah. So next time you have a glass of water, I just think how old it is.

Dan: [00:35:16]  These molecules formed over 5 billion years ago.

Jacinta: [00:35:19]  Kind of blows you away. And it was also pretty amazing that we’re getting closer to finding habitable planets.

Dan: [00:35:26]  Yeah. Finding planets is a really big deal. And as she mentioned, the Nobel prize for last year was given to the search for exo-planets. I mean, we found over 4,000 – now are we finding more and more each day. And it is kind of just a matter of time before we find ones which look like they are in the habitable zone.

Jacinta: [00:35:47]  Well, we found ones that are in the habitable zone, but even ones that are habitable.

Dan: [00:35:51]  In the habitable zone of the sort of right size, and…

Jacinta: [00:35:55]  and contain water and oxygen.

Dan: [00:35:58] So it is just a matter of time, I think

Jacinta: [00:36:02]  I think it’s a little ways away, but we’re getting closer.

Dan: [00:36:05]  The TESS telescope is finding a lot of these things. That’s very exciting.

Jacinta: [00:36:12]  Yeah. And we’ve found that whole zoo of exo-planets ranging from big gas giants and big planets that are closer in to their stars than we think they should be, and little like rockier ones. We haven’t found any tiny ones yet, I think because they’re quite hard to find.

Dan: [00:36:32]  We found a few, but they are hard to find.

Jacinta: [00:36:36]  So much exciting stuff happening.

Dan: [00:36:37] And we’ll learn a lot about how planets form, which is, again, what Ewine was talking about and is very, very interesting actually.

Jacinta: [00:36:45]  Yeah. And I hadn’t actually seen the pictures of the tracks that had been carved out by planets as they were orbiting their baby stars.

Dan: Yeah, we’ll definitely post that on the blog.

Jacinta: It was seen with ALMA. So cool. Well, that was an exciting episode to start the year with.

Dan: [00:37:02]  Particularly the quiz. No, I’m joking.

Jacinta: [00:37:04] That was the highlight. I enjoyed putting you through that, Dan. So, uh, yeah, I guess that’s it for today.

Dan: [00:37:14] Thanks very much for listening, and we hope you’ll join us again for the next episode of the Cosmic Savannah.

Jacinta: [00:37:18]  You can visit our website, www.thecosmicsavannah.com where we’ll have links related to today’s episode. You can also follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram @cosmicsavannah. That’s Savannah, spelled S-A-V-A-N-N-A-H.

Dan: [00:37:32]  Special thanks today to Professor Ewine van Dishoeck for speaking with us.

Jacinta: [00:37:36]  Thanks to Mark Allnut for music production. Janas Brink for the astrophotography. Lana Ceraj for graphic design and Thabisa Fikelepi for social media support.  Also to Thabisa Fikelepi, Lynette Delhaize and Sumari Hattingh for transcription assistance.

Dan: [00:37:51]  We gratefully acknowledge support from the South African National Research Foundation and the South African Astronomical Observatory to help 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. We would really appreciate it. And thanks to everyone who has already done so.

Dan: [00:38:11]  And we’ll speak to you next time on the Cosmic Savannah.

Jacinta: [00:38:13]  Let me ask you, Dan, what was your favorite episode in 2019?

Dan: [00:38:28]  The black holes, the EHT – the event horizon telescope.

Jacinta: [00:38:32]  Yeah. That was a good episode where we interviewed Roger and Rhodri Evans.

Dan: [00:38:36]  I mean, it was just a super exciting episode. I saw a talk the other day and they were showing three big images, which have kind of changed the world in terms of astronomy. The one was the pale blue dot. What was the other one? I think it might’ve been the one from the first Apollo mission that went around the moon looking back at the Earth with the moon in the foreground. And then the third one was the EHT, the black hole, which I don’t know if I entirely agree with.

But it’s pretty cool. Yeah, and I think that the, what they were showing was that it was seen by four and a half billion people or something – that image. We didn’t get four and a half billion listeners on our podcast. People need to get themselves together!

Jacinta: [00:39:26]  It is all about us.

Dan: [00:39:28]  What was your favorite episode?

Jacinta: [00:39:31]  I can’t choose. Oh, there were so many. I love the one that I loved recording the most was episode 19 – the Molo Mhlaba one because I got to go out to the school and talk with the girls and they were so full of life. I also obviously liked the two that I got to record in Australia. Just like, kind of show everyone my home. And I think, like content wise, I liked episode three, which was the one about SETI. The breakthrough listen project with MeerKAT, because I didn’t realize that we could use MeerKAT to search for extraterrestrial intelligence, and that is super cool.

Dan: [00:40:07]  Exciting news. I won’t, I’m not sure I’m allowed to share it.

Jacinta: [00:40:11]  What? What aren’t you allowed to share?

Dan: [00:40:14]  Well, I don’t want to say it cause I’m not sure I’m allowed to share it. It’s, I mean,…

Jacinta: [00:40:20]  Okay, well, we’ll have a conversation off air.

Dan: [00:40:23] Yeah, it’s,… Yeah. Okay.