Episode 29: Zombies of the Cosmos

with Prof Matthew Bailes and Katia Moskvitch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This week’s guests

Feature Image

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

Related Links


Social media by Sumari Hattingh. Transcription by Brandon Engelbrecht.


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

Jacinta: [00:00:07] 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: [00:00:23] Sit back and relax. As we take you on a safari through the skies.

Jacinta: [00:00:34] Hi, welcome to episode 29, 

Dan: [00:00:36] 29. I was wondering what episode we were on. 

Jacinta: [00:00:38] So have you noticed it’s a bit more echo-y today, Dan? 

Dan: [00:00:40] It’s a lot more echo-y today. We apologize for that in advance 

Jacinta: [00:00:43] We didn’t bring the blankets for the blanket fort. So we’re sitting in Dan’s office and I think the blankets were actually helping.

Dan: [00:00:49] Yeah. COVID willing, we will hopefully be back in the studio soon.

Jacinta: [00:00:53] Hopefully. Right. So who do we have today? 

Dan: [00:00:56] So today we are joined by two people. Firstly, Professor Matthew Bailes, from the Swinburne Center for Astrophysics and Supercomputing in Australia. And then we are joined by Katia Moskvitch, who is a science journalist and the European Science Journalist of the year in 2019.

Jacinta: [00:01:16] This episode is all about pulsars and neutron stars. We’re talking to these two experts who are experts in different ways. So Matthew leads the MeerTime project with the MeerKAT telescope. So he’s going to tell us all about MeerTime and the observations they’re doing with MeerKAT and what they’re hoping to find with that, and Katia is , as you said, an award-winning writer and author, and she’s written a book about neutron stars.

So we’re going to hear from her as well. So first up, Dan, let’s just talk about what a pulsar is, what a neutron star is,  just briefly. 

Dan: [00:01:51] Yeah. So I think our guests will discuss it in detail, but we can talk about it quickly now. So a neutron star is the end point of a certain star’s evolution. So when stars die, largely by supernova, they form very dense objects, such as neutron stars, which are very, very small about 20 km across and spinning very rapidly and very, very dense. So it’s a few times the mass of our sun, but compressed into a 20 kilometre sphere. 

Jacinta: [00:02:20] And highly magnetized as well. 

Dan: [00:02:22] Yeah. So they’re spinning very fast and they’re emitting a lot of energy.

Jacinta: [00:02:25] And sometimes they are born in binary systems. So they’re orbiting with another star. And if one of them turns into a neutron star and the other ones remains a giant, then the neutron star can kind of pull some gas off the giant star and that causes some cataclysmic results and some nuclear explosions and all of these really cool things, which Matthew will talk about.

Dan: [00:02:50] Yeah, we’ve talked about X-ray Binaries and things before, about these sorts of systems where you’ve got a binary system with a neutron star. While neutron stars are very dense and an exciting branch of astronomy because they’re such an extreme case, very very dense objects moving very very rapidly.

And from that, that’s kind of always what we want and in astronomy, because we get a laboratory, which we can’t recreate here on Earth.

Jacinta: [00:03:17] Yeah, exactly. It’s one of the Universe’s most extreme examples of a particle accelerator and a magnet and moving relativistically, which means moving close to the speed of light.

As you said we can’t reproduce that on Earth. So we can only do some of these extreme tests with these astronomical laboratories, such as studying gravitation, gravitational theory, gravitational waves. 

Dan: [00:03:39] Yeah. So we will start off with Matthew. 

Jacinta: [00:03:42] Yeah so I think Matthew explains everything really well, especially about his use of the MeerKAT telescope, which is a radio telescope here in South Africa in the Karoo. I actually spoke to him at a conference in Durban. It was actually back in December when we were allowed to travel. So I spoke to him in person. So let’s hear from Matthew.

Jacinta: [00:04:03] Here with us now is Professor Matthew Bailes from the Swinburne University of Technology. Welcome Matthew. 

Matthew: [00:04:12] Hi Jacinta

Jacinta: [00:04:13] So Matthew, you are here with us in South Africa at the moment, but you are working and living in Australia. So what brings you here? 

Matthew: [00:04:20] Basically the greatest pulsar telescope in the world at the moment, MeerKAT.

Jacinta: [00:04:24] Well, I like that answer. But let’s backtrack a bit. So who are you, where are you from? What do you do? 

Matthew: [00:04:29] Well, I was born in Alice Springs in the middle of Australia, but I did my education at the University of Adelaide and the Australian National University. And while I was a student at Adelaide, I saw a book on pulsars and I learned about them and how they are really cool.

And I thought that sounded like fun. So I quit my engineering degree and moved into science and then ended up doing a PhD on pulsars and going to the Goddard Space Flight Center and Jodrell Bank in England and eventually back where I set up the Swinburne Center for Astrophysics and Supercomputing and have been having fun ever since.

Jacinta: [00:05:06] You set it up?

Matthew: [00:05:08] Yeah. I was the first astronomer to come over to Swinburne University of Technology and they asked me if I’d like to establish a new group. I don’t think they realized that there would be a hundred of us at some point in the future, but they’ve loved us and we’ve loved them. So it’s worked out very well.

Jacinta: [00:05:24] Well, that’s great. Yeah Swinburne is quite renowned in Australia. So congratulations on that. Now we are here at the SARAO Bursary Conference in Durban, in South Africa, and you’re here as an international guest speaker, and you gave I think the best astronomy talk I’ve ever seen. Immediately after which, I had to give my science presentation. So that was a really hard act to follow. Thanks for that Matthew. Now you were speaking all about just the sheer joy of pulsars. So let’s start with: what is a pulsar? 

Matthew: [00:05:54] So a pulsar is the collapse core of a once massive star, maybe 10 times bigger than our sun. Stars are big chemical factories and at the center, they convert hydrogen to helium and then helium to carbon.

And that process continues until you get an iron core. Which is about the size of the Earth, but maybe half a million times more heavy than the Earth, more dense as we’d like to say. And at that point, the poor old electrons and protons can no longer resist each other’s charms and they collapse to form a neutron and the core collapses down to something only about 20 kilometers in diameter and probably spinning about 50 times a second. That’s a naturally occurring particle accelerator and the particles that are accelerated from the surface of these neutron stars move in a changing magnetic field and then it gives off radio emission, and it acts like a big cosmic lighthouse. And every time that lighthouse goes past our telescopes, we get a pulse and hence the name pulsar.

Jacinta: [00:06:53] And why is it so cool to study pulsars? 

Matthew: [00:06:56] Well, if you look at the gravity on Earth, it’s actually pretty small by cosmic standards. We have an acceleration due to gravity of 9.8 meters per second squared. A neutron star is half a million times heavier. So that gives you a factor of 500,000 increase in the acceleration due to gravity.

But they’re also about a factor of 600 times smaller, and that’s a sort of R squared thing. So you’ve got these gravitational fields, you know, a million times stronger than on Earth and it’s a naturally occurring place to conduct studies into relativistic gravity, which is kind of why I get paid.

Jacinta: [00:07:33] Well, that’s a good enough reason to study pulsars. All right. So you are actually the principal investigator on a large survey project planned for the MeerKAT telescope, called MeerTime. So can you tell us about that? 

Matthew: [00:07:48] Yeah. So MeerTime is something that we came up with almost 10 years ago when they first called for large survey projects with the MeerKAT. We recognized that MeerKAT would have a good combination of collecting area, but also very high technology receivers, which are nice and cool. And that makes it the most sensitive pulsar telescope in the southern hemisphere and unfortunately pulsars are very weak. Your mobile phone has a transmitter on it, which is about half a Watt. The brightest pulsar is about 10 to the minus 26 Watts per square meter when the radiation arrives at the Earth, so you need a big telescope to be able to study them. 

Jacinta: [00:08:28] Okay. And so MeerKAT is that big telescope? 

Matthew: [00:08:30] Yeah. MeerKAT has 64 dishes, they are about 14 meters effectively in diameter and that gives it about four times the collecting area of the Parkes telescope, which is in Australia, which is one of my true loves.

I used that telescope for my PhD and most of my career, but it’s really exciting on the road to the SKA to have this quantum leap with MeerKAT. Just about four times the collecting area of Parkes and has these very nice, sort of chilly receivers you can think of on there, a few degrees cooler, than the ones on Parkes.

And so you really get this fantastic insight into the neutron stars that has been hinted at by Parkes, but now we’re sort of taking it to the next step with MeerKAT again. 

Jacinta: [00:09:12] Yeah, I think you and I actually met at Parkes for the first time. 

Matthew: [00:09:16] Oh really? Yeah. I remember an unsuccessful attempt to recruit you to Swinburne for a PhD Jacinta, but… 

Jacinta: [00:09:23] Oh, you brought that up! [Laughs]

Okay. So tell us about the goals of MeerTime. What in particular, are you trying to look at? 

Matthew: [00:09:31] Well, we’ve got four major projects and they’re actually headed by my colleagues that are distributed around the globe. And we recruited some of the best pulsar astronomers all the way from Italy to America or England and South Africa and Australia.

And the first project is to explore relativistic gravity. Michael Kramer from Germany and Ingrid Stairs from Canada are leading that project. And that’s to look at pulsars that not only are relativistic in their own right, but also going around another relativistic object, either a heavy white dwarf or another neutron star. And we’re mapping the orbits and seeing whether Einstein’s relativity theory works for those systems.

The second project is to look at swarms of pulsars that inhabit globular clusters. So globular clusters typically have a hundred thousand to a million stars in them. And the neutron stars in those clusters sink into the core where they interact with other stars. They actually scoop up matter.

And this makes them spin very quickly. And we have these swarms of millisecond pulsars. These are pulsars rotating up to about 700 times a second and MeerKAT peers into the heart of those clusters. And we examine the dynamics of those cluster pulsars. 

We have another project which is trying to detect gravitational waves using millisecond pulsars. This time not from the globular clusters, but from our own galaxy, more nearby ones. And we’re effectively using those millisecond pulsars as a giant galactic scale gravitational wave detector, a little bit like the LIGO detector detects kilohertz gravitational waves. We are actually looking at nanohertz gravitational waves from supermassive black holes in the local Universe.

And then finally, because we’re greedy, we have a project called the thousand pulsar array. Where we’re just looking at virtually every pulsar known to mankind and trying to examine the superfluid interiors of these neutron stars and how the pulsar emission mechanism works. 

Jacinta: [00:11:31] Okay. So there’s a lot of different science in there.

One question I had was when you were talking about relativistic pulsars and relativistic white dwarfs, what do you mean by that? 

Matthew: [00:11:41] On Earth you know, our velocities are typically measured in meters per second. Stars tend to move around each other in kilometers per second time velocities.

But if you get a really close pair of neutron stars, they can have a relative velocity of almost a thousand kilometers per second. This is a reasonable fraction of the speed of light. And if you try and use Newton’s laws to study those systems, they just break down. There’s also a compression of space-time around these relativistic objects and light takes longer to travel past these stars than it would otherwise.

And so we can see the curvature of space in the delays that we get from the pulses, from the neutron star. A kind of fun fact is that we’re able to measure the changes in these orbits to less than a millimeter per orbit when they go around each other, even though the orbits are hundreds of thousands of kilometers in diameter. 

Jacinta: [00:12:34] During your talk you mentioned that neutron stars can survive giant nuclear wars. What was that about? 

Matthew: [00:12:40] Yeah. So what happens is if you get a neutron star with a companion, that’s swelling up, big stars die and when they do, they swell up and become what we call a red giant. If the red giant has a neutron star orbiting it, then the neutron star will scoop up the matter.

The more boring companions that are lower mass, a bit like our Sun, leave you with a very circular orbit, which is not quite as exciting for studying relativity. But we like our neutron stars to have big companions that blow up and leave all sorts of exotic configurations that we can use to study and test relativity even more.

Jacinta: [00:13:18] Now your presentation had a lot of incredible visualizations and graphics and movies. How did you do that? 

Matthew: [00:13:23] Yeah, there’s a computer game engine called Unity, which is used for most of the mobile phone apps that you play computer games with. So we decided to make an astrophysical Universe, a game engine that had everything in space we could think of from planets to suns, to pulsars and black holes.

And then we just took the laws of physics and applied them. So we get true Keplerian orbits and beams of radiation and I’m part of an organization or a Center of Excellence called OzGrav, the ARC Center of Excellence for gravitational wave discovery. And we have a full-time programmer who makes these beautiful binary systems that I can fly around and engage with the public.

And you can actually sit there for hours and just like zoom around and come up with nice configurations. And then it makes for a very expert, very entertaining and visually rich feast for any audience. So I actually grew up and one of the reasons I’m doing astronomy was because I watched the cosmos television show when I was an impressionable young teenager.

Jacinta: [00:14:28] The Carl Sagan version?

Matthew: [00:14:29] Yes, definitely I am a big Carl fan. And then I just fell in love with that show and I loved the visualizations he had, but, I realized that with today’s technology, we could make much better ones and so at OzGrav we’ve got a team that makes these beautiful graphics and they’re really great to stand up and explain to people your science, without graphs and diagrams and astrophysical terms.

A picture paints a thousand words and animations are even better. 

Jacinta: [00:14:58] Yeah, it absolutely was. And there were people in the audience, senior people in the audience, who don’t necessarily have any love for pulsars, but really love galaxies. And you said at the end, does anyone want to come and work with me on pulsars?

And they were all like, yes! So we had some converts. So clearly your visualizations and your talk gave a really good impression. Do you have any final messages for listeners? 

Matthew: [00:15:19] Yeah. Look, I think one thing that your audience should realize is that the MeerKAT is a really great telescope. I was a little bit skeptical that a country as junior in radio astronomy as South Africa would be able to meet the technical challenges, but we’ve been delighted with its performance and the hospitality that the team has shown our group has we’ve come in.

But also very conscious of the fact that South Africa has somewhat of a tortured history. My own grandmother was South African. In fact, my auntie was born around the corner in Durban and they set sail for Australia about a hundred years ago. And we’d really like to be able to engage with as many young South African scientists and get them involved in this science. And one day make South Africa a powerhouse in pulsar astrophysics. 

Jacinta: [00:16:06] Let’s hope so. And I think you’re on the right track. Where can people find you on social media, on websites, for you and your MeerTime project? 

Matthew: [00:16:15] Yeah, so it’s www.meertime.org

Jacinta: [00:16:22] And then are you on Twitter? 

Matthew: [00:16:23] Yes, my Twitter tag is a very boring @matthewbailes.

I didn’t realize you had to have some cool name, so it might be too late now to change. 

Jacinta: [00:16:35] Don’t worry mine is @jdelhaize. Well, thank you very much for speaking with us, Matthew and for joining us here in Durban for this conference and safe travels home. 

Matthew: [00:16:44] Yeah, thanks for having me.

Jacinta: [00:16:56] So, what did you think of that Dan? A few of the things he said, very sort of casually and understated, but all of the science he’s talking about, this is Nobel prize winning stuff. 

Dan: [00:17:04] Yeah. I mean, it’s very exciting that the pulsar timing projects, you know, there’s been a lot of talk about gravitational waves in the last five years since their discovery, their first observation in 2015.

And we are sort of getting more and more gravitational waves discoveries. But being able to observe them passing through large swaths of The Milky Way by looking at the changes in the time of pulses. 

Jacinta: [00:17:33] It’s cosmic stuff.

Dan: [00:17:34] Yeah, exactly, no, it’s very exciting.

Jacinta: [00:17:37] Well I’ve got goosebumps now!

Dan: [00:17:40] The stuff we’re going to be able to see and discover with that level of precision observation is, ooooh I hope something comes out soon. 

Jacinta: [00:17:49] So this year’s Nobel prize in physics was for black holes. And next up: pulsars.

Dan: [00:17:55] A note to listeners that the Nobel Prize will really take some decades. So even if the science does come out in the next year, we won’t be seeing a Nobel Prize for some time. 

Jacinta: [00:18:05] That’s true. That’s true.

Okay. Who do we have next?

Dan: [00:18:09] Next we have Katia Moskvitch, who is a science journalist and science writer who has recently published a book entitled Neutron Stars, The Quest to Understand the Zombies of the Cosmos. 

Jacinta: [00:18:21] Yeah. So we both started reading that. I haven’t finished it yet, but I’m thinking so far that it’s really good.

Dan: [00:18:28] Yeah. I mean, it’s super engaging. I picked it up and I was like, oh, I don’t feel like reading a textbook. But it wasn’t. I mean, it’s not at all. It’s very well written. You get a story. You get drawn into the story very quickly. 

Jacinta: [00:18:42] Yeah I had the same reaction. I sort of was like, well, in my spare time, when I’m not doing astronomy or doing a podcast on astronomy, maybe I don’t actually want to read about astronomy, but this book was very engaging and it was about the stars, but also about the people behind the discoveries.

And so Katia is going to tell us a little about that.

Jacinta: [00:19:09] We’re joined now by Katia Moskvitch, the author of  Neutron Stars, The Quest to Understand the Zombies of the Cosmos. Welcome Katia. 

Katia: [00:19:17] Thank you. Hi. Hi again, I remember we met, what was it? A year ago? In Cape Town.

Jacinta: [00:19:22] Yeah. Back when travel was allowed.

Dan: [00:19:25] Was that part of this book? This research, that visit?

Katia: [00:19:28] The visit was exactly for the book. Yes, it was one of my stops, you know, my travels around the world for the book and I visited a number of really cool radio telescopes around the world. And when I was in South Africa, I went to see MeerKAT. Took me about 10 hours to drive there but yeah, it was really cool. 

Jacinta: [00:19:52] I’m so jealous. I still haven’t seen MeerKAT and I’ve lived here for two and a half years now! What was that like, Katia? 

Katia: [00:20:00] MeerKAT is amazing of course. I went there because I wanted to understand more about neutron stars. So the idea of the book and the idea of the travels as well, it goes back to when the publisher from Harvard University Press approached me and they said, okay, you can just write whatever.

At the time I was working on an article about the merger of two neutron stars that was for Quanta Magazine and I thought, okay, neutral stars could be a cool topic, especially if nobody’s really written about neutron stars before for a general audience. But then I thought, okay, well, how do I make it interesting for people because you know,  it’s quite far away. It’s quite abstract. We can’t really see them, they give off radio waves, but you know, like how do I make it appealing to the general public? And I thought, okay, well, if I actually go to all these places like MeerKAT and other observatories around the world that actually observed them, then I can describe what these instruments look like and how excited people get people who work there. Even though many scientists don’t go to radio observatories nowadays, because they of course operate telescopes remotely. But even then it doesn’t matter, because if I meet these people and I met quite a few people in Cape Town, they just get so excited, their eyes light up and they’re like, oh my God, this is so cool!

And it’s just so different compared to if you just talk to them on the phone. So that was the idea. And MeerKAT itself is 64 of these amazing, really cute dishes that all work together. It’s an amazing location as well. There’s no light pollution and it’s far away from any cities or anything.

And we just passed a few farm houses on their way. It’s so sensitive, it’s able to get signals from amazing objects in the sky. And it’s not even ready. Well MeerKAT is completely built, of course, but it’s a precursor to this much bigger project, the Square Kilometer Array and that one once it’s built, it’s going to be this humongous radio telescope in South Africa and Australia and once that’s built I really want to visit that as well. 

Jacinta: [00:22:15] For sure. I think that’s the first time I’ve heard the MeerKAT dishes described as cute, but I completely agree with you.

Dan: [00:22:22] Living up to their name. Did you see any meerkats while you were up there? 

Katia: [00:22:26] Any meerkats? No, I don’t remember seeing anything actually. I was told that there are scorpions. So I was told to wear, you know, special boots, like construction boots said so that a scorpion doesn’t sting or whatever, but I haven’t seen any actually.

Dan: [00:22:45] They are very cute too. You mentioned that your editor allowed you to write whatever you wanted. How did, how did you get into science writing?

How did you come to be at this point where you could write a book on science? 

Katia: [00:22:59] I’ve been a science journalist for many years now. I liked journalism. I’ve liked writing ever since I was a kid, but when I was in high school, I actually wanted to be an astronaut. It so happened that my high school was the same high school in Montreal where the second Canadian female astronaus went. Yeah, that was really cool. There are her portraits on the wall. So I wrote a letter to her at the time, I don’t think we had email yet, back then. Anyway, I wrote her like a real letter and she replied and I asked her how do I become an astronaut?

And she said, well, you’ll have to study science or engineering. So I went into engineering at McGill following her advice, but I realized I didn’t want to be an engineer actually, when I was in about my second year. And yeah, and they told me that my vision wasn’t good enough to be an astronaut either. So I was like, okay, well that kind of kills that dream.

But, then I decided to be a science writer. So I went and did a master’s in journalism. And my engineering degree really helped in terms of understanding what people were talking about. 

That’s how I got into science writing. But then I found myself writing more and more about space and astronomy and physics and I wasn’t understanding a lot of what I was writing about. And it was like, I don’t know what these people are talking about. It was really hard and frustrating as well. Because I had to translate it to the audiences. And if I didn’t get it myself then it’s so much harder to translate it to the audiences. 

So I decided to do a degree in physics then. I got my MPhil Master of Philosophy in theoretical physics. I remember coming to King’s College and I was at Nature at the time and I went to the director and I was like, you know what? I’m a journalist. I write about physics. I don’t understand anything. I need to get a degree. And he was so impressed. He said, yeah, I wish more journalists could get a science degree before getting into journalism because it’s so important. And so that’s how I got my physics degree. And just continuing from there, I started to specialize in astronomy specifically. And suddenly I received this LinkedIn message from an editor or a publisher at Harvard University Press, or a guy who says that he’s one of the editors there. And he’s like, do you want to write a book?

And I was like, okay, that’s so weird. That’s a LinkedIn message. It must be spam or something. I usually get marketing requests or some stupid stuff on LinkedIn. There’s no way it’s going to be true. But I Googled him, turns out he was a genuine editor. He just approached me via LinkedIn, which was really weird.

He said you can write whatever you like. And as I said before, at the time I was writing this big story on the merger of two neutron stars. So that’s how the book idea came along. Now I’m still writing about science but I kind of switched careers. I went from journalism into corporate communications and I write about quantum computing at IBM research. So still working with scientists, but not so much astronomy anymore, but still it’s still very cool. 

Dan: [00:26:08] That is very cool. And a reminder to me to check my LinkedIn messages. 

Jacinta: [00:26:14] Yeah me too!

Dan: [00:26:17] So the book it’s entitled Neutron Stars, the Quest to Understand the Zombies of the Cosmos. Now my first question was why is it Zombies of the cosmos?

Jacinta: [00:26:29] Dan has some qualms with this, but I don’t. Tell us how you came to that title, Katia?

Katia: [00:26:33] Right yeah, actually it took us a while. The publishing house had to come up with the right.

Zombies is a really, really fitting name actually for a neutron star. Because when you think about neutron stars, what are they? If you take a star, any star. If you take the Sun, for example. When the sun is going to die, it’s going to be really boring actually. So the sun, it’s just this medium-size star, actually on the smaller side of things.

So when it dies, it’s first gonna get a little bit bigger, turn into a red giant, and then it’s going to turn into a [white] dwarf, this really boring object. We can’t see it. You know, the Earth is not going to be around anyway around that time, but it’s just gonna stay there in space forever. Really boring. 

But if you take a bigger star, much bigger than the sun. So maybe eight times to twenty times more massive than the Sun. When that star dies, it really goes out and with a bang. There’s a supernova explosion, and it’s really pretty. We could see it with optical telescopes. And what stays behind is this compact object and that’s what we call a neutron star. 

So “zombies of the cosmos”, that’s because it’s a leftover core of a real star. So it’s actually dead because the star just died. It exploded in a supernova. And this tiny object – and by tiny, I mean really tiny. It’s actually about 20 kilometers across. So if you imagine, a city maybe like Cape Town, or even smaller than Cape Town, and you roll it up into a ball. Then you have this sphere, which is only 20 kilometers across and it’s spinning in space and it’s spinning like crazy, like maybe hundreds of revolutions a second, like 600 revolutions a second. And it’s also traveling at about 200 kilometers per second through space. When it’s spinning, it’s giving off radiation too.

So there’s no way we can actually see these stars because they don’t actually give off light at all. For the longest time, actually, they were completely theoretical. And only later were [found] completely by chance by this amazing woman in the UK, Jocelyn Bell. She was actually looking for something completely different with a radio array in Cambridge.

And she spotted radio waves like pulses from some unidentified object. And she didn’t know what it was and they actually kept it a secret for a while because they felt maybe these are aliens sending signals to Earth. And she was actually really annoyed about it because she was completing her PhD project, she was about to get married and there’s this bunch of aliens completely screwing this up!

She’s a really funny woman. She’s really amazing. I met her in the UK and she said something like, couldn’t they choose another planet to signal while I’m here working on my PhD thesis? Like really, she makes fun out of that. Anyway, she did detect the very first neutron star, a pulsar. We call them pulsars when we can detect the radiation from them.

Why pulsars? Because it’s just like a lighthouse. So a lighthouse when it’s turning it’s actually giving off continuous light but a ship can only see the light every second or so right because it’s turning. And if the ship is in the [line-of-sight] of the lighthouse, then it will see the light. And then again and again and again, flashes of light. 

Same with the pulsar as it’s spinning in space and it’s giving off this continuous radiation. But if our telescopes are in the field of view of the pulsar, then it will also get these pulses like beep beep beep. So this is what we receive, and this is coming from these dead leftover cores of a really massive star.Which I find completely amazing. I hope that answers your question properly.

Dan: [00:30:27] [Laughs] No, no, I get it. It’s great. I mean, I agree. I was trying to get my head around the undead nature of these stars.

Jacinta: [00:30:35] Why? It’s clearly a dead star! And then the star is undead but it’s a zombie because it’s still dead.

Dan: [00:30:41] No, no, no. I’m getting on board. I’m getting on board.

Jacinta: [00:30:48] Katia, you travelled to many places around the world to write this book and you met so many people. Tell us about some of your favourite experiences and the most interesting people you met.

Katia: [00:30:59] You mentioned that you spoke to Matthew Bailes, right? So Matthew Bailes is one of the main characters in the book because he is amazing.

He is such a great guy. And he’s the one who actually told me about the neutron star merger story way in the beginning, even before the book happened, when I was writing a story for Quanta. Before the Quanta story even happened. So I was at that conference in Jodrell Bank, which is one of the famous radio telescopes and it’s located near Manchester. 

So I was living in London at the time and I came to this conference. It was the 50th anniversary of the discovery of pulsars that I just described by Jocelyn Bell, which happened in 1967. I suddenly noticed that people are kind of discussing something in really hush hush tones and not telling me what the heck they’re talking about.

They’re kind of saying something in groups. And I was like, what is going on? There must be some big story, but nobody’s telling me. I missed my bus because I was interviewing somebody and I needed to go back to my Airbnb. And the telescope is a bit far away, you can’t just easily walk from the telescope to the nearest village or whatever.

And, so I’m standing there in the parking lot. What am I supposed to do? How am I going to get to my Airbnb? And this guy comes by and he’s like, if you want, I can give you a lift. And that was Matthew. And I’m like, yeah. And what do you do? And so we started talking and he’s like, okay, you’re a journalist.

And I told him, I was writing for Quanta at the time as a freelancer and Quanta is this quite reputable American publication. Usually the stories are really, really good. And scientists know that. They know that it’s not going to be, you know, dumbing down the science or anything like that.

So for him, that was a good sign. And he was like, okay, I’m going to tell you something, that’s going to be probably the biggest story of your career. I was like, okay. But he was very, very careful of course, and I talk about that in the book, because he is a member of LIGO collaboration. So LIGO is a huge collaboration of scientists looking for gravitational waves and just like any research collaboration or whatever, everything is under embargo. If there’s a big story, they have to check it and double check and triple check it and then publish the paper and peer review it and everything. And then it’s going to be made public.

So he said, using a lot of if’s and but’s, like if there was a neutron star and if it was to bump into another neutron star, then it would send off gravitational waves. And those gravitational waves would reach the Earth for the first time ever and prove Albert Einstein right and his theory of relativity and stuff.

And I was like, okay, he’s using a lot of if’s. He’s being really careful, but I think he’s trying to tell me something. And indeed he was. And so anyway, we ended up writing the story. We timed it perfectly for when embargo was lifted. So we didn’t leak anything and he knew we wouldn’t.

And that’s how that story happened. And that’s the story that I started the book with as well and the meeting with Matthew was crucial because then when I visited Australia, he actually took me from Melbourne all the way to Parkes, which is quite a cool road trip. We stopped in Canberra, in the capital, and we reached the amazing Parkes telescope in Australia.

Parkes is this quite old instrument now. It was built I think in the 1960s. It’s been upgraded actually recently, but it is this amazing radio dish. Completely different from MeerKAT. So MeerKAT is, as I said, 64 small antennas, but Parkes is one gigantic radio dish, which actually just happens to be also 64 meters in diameter, just a coincidence.

Anyway, what was really cool about Parkes specifically, was that the guy who works there, the telescope operator, he gave me a lift in the dish. So he invited me to step inside this gigantic 64 meter dish. And then another person who was in the control tower started lifting it up. So I was standing inside with this guy, John Sarkisian who works there, and suddenly you see the tree line disappear and you’re being lifted up in this gigantic soup bowl like telescope dish. So that was an unbelievable feeling. So that was Parkes.

But apart from that, I visited quite a few other places around the world. And so we can talk about them depending on what other questions you guys have.

Jacinta: [00:35:27] Yeah, that’s so cool. I did most of my PhD research with Parkes at Parkes, back in the day when you had to go there yourself and do the observations yourself.

So I also managed to do the same thing as you Katia, jump into the dish while it was moving upwards. And it was a lot of fun. What I’m really interested to hear in also is you went to the Atacama desert and Chile, didn’t you?

Katia: [00:35:48] Yes, exactly. I did. So Atacama is amazing. It’s the driest place on Earth. It’s not actually really, well, it is a desert, of course, but it’s not a desert the way I imagined it to be.

I thought it would be like sand, but I didn’t do my research properly. It’s not sand at all. It’s red and they have copper mines there. It’s full of copper. So when you drive through the Atacama it’s like this amazing Martian landscape. I think they actually filmed a few movies there as well to pretend that it’s Mars.

 It’s so remote and it’s in the Southern hemisphere, which is better for observations and there’s no light pollution. And also for some bizarre reason, I can’t remember now why, but there are not a lot of clouds. So for optical observations it’s great too, because the sky is so clear. So they have two really cool telescopes. Well, they have a lot of actually smaller telescopes, but two big ones that I visited.

One is Paranal, which is an optical telescope. But the one that was important for the book is called ALMA. And that one is the Atacama Large Millimeter-Submillimeter Array. So it’s also a cluster of dishes. It’s similar to MeerKAT, a little bit different in design, and they are located at five thousand meters altitude at a place called Chajnantor Plateau.

And it’s actually really cool because the air is very thin because it’s so high up. So we had to wear oxygen masks. And some locals gave me coca leaves too to chew because they said it helps from feeling dizzy, just chew the leaves. And I was like, is that even legal? But yeah it turns out it was fine. But yeah, in that amazing place they don’t really study neutron stars very often, but what they did study actually, and what I described in the book, is they looked at a supernova explosion and a neutron star being born in real time.

So they did all sorts of calculations and observations, and they think that they saw the object being formed by a star exploding and the neutron star being formed literally in real time. That was the first time that they observed it with a telescope. It’s not a hundred percent sure yet, they still have to do a lot of observations and calculations and everything.

But that’s what ALMA was really good for. And if it is confirmed, then it will be the first time that we can see a neutron star being born in real time, which is quite cool.

Jacinta: [00:38:09] That is so cool. To be able to watch a neutron star being born.

Dan: [00:38:14] Watching a star die and a zombie be born.

Jacinta: [00:38:18] Well maybe it’s a phoenix! Out of the ashes of the old comes the new.

Dan: [00:38:21] Phoenix is nice! Is that neutron star pulsing? Have they observed anything from it?

Katia: [00:38:30] They just found this engine, they  call it an engine. So there’s something that’s happening and they are not sure if it’s a black hole or neutron star inside the debris, the nebula, but most people think that a neutron star is a more likely explanation.

This is the difference. So not all stars actually give off radio waves. And that’s why there are two names. We kind of use them interchangeably, but not all neutron stars are pulsars. Some neutron stars are also magnetars so they can only be observed with x-ray detections. They don’t pulsate, they don’t give off radio waves actually at all.

Speaking of zombies, what’s very interesting, and I also talk about it in the book, is that there are neutron stars that die twice, which is really cool. So first you get this massive star, which will die. As I described before, it turns into a neutron star.

And then if it happens to be next to a companion star, what will happen as well, basically it starts cannibalizing the companion star and eating off the matter from the companion star and by doing so it will spin up, it will rotate faster and faster. And it will turn into what we call a millisecond pulsar.

And at that stage, we can’t see the radio waves anymore and we’ll be able to observe it differently. And then it can stop pulsating and kind of die again and then revive again. So anyway, it’s just the different stages that neutron stars go through. Not all of them do that, only those that have companions. I find it completely fascinating.

Jacinta: [00:40:13] Totally a phoenix!

Dan: [00:40:14] Yeah, rising from the ashes. Now we’ve got cannibal zombies. The zombie metaphor is really working for me now.

Jacinta: [00:40:25] Yeah. Pulsars and neutron stars are absolutely fascinating. And you can tell how passionate and interested you are.

Dan: [00:40:31] Yeah, I think it’s cool. I mean, they’re a very extreme stage of the Universe, right? It’s a very extreme environment that we’re looking at. So there’s really stuff that’s happening there, which you can’t see anywhere else in the Universe. And I think that that’s why it’s so cool.

Katia: [00:40:47] Yeah, exactly, they are incredibly dense. Black holes are of course the densest objects. But black holes are not [releasing] matter or radiation. And neutron stars are the densest objects that you can see that we know of.

Some of the visual descriptions I tried to use in the book for a lay audience to understand this. If you take the mass of the sun, and the sun is really, really huge, right? It’s much, much bigger than the Earth, but if you take all that mass and you put it inside a tiny object, which is only 20 kilometers across, you can imagine how much denser it will be. And this is a typical neutron star. Or if you take with your finger, if you scoop up a little bit of neutron star matter, then it will pull you down because it has a weight or mass of billions of tonnes, which is really amazing.

Dan: [00:41:38] You mentioned that you wrote this book. What’s next? Are you planning another book? Are we going to see more books in astronomy coming out of you?

Katia: [00:41:45] Possibly. I’m actually discussing a book with Harvard University Press right now, one of the chapters of this book deals with dark matter, which at first glance doesn’t even have a link to neutron stars, but actually there is. Just because there’s a signal coming out from our own Galactic Center – the center of  the Milky Way, that some people think could be from dark matter particles. Other people think that could be from thousands of pulsars that we can’t yet observe because our telescopes are not sensitive enough. So I kind of talk about this whole debate between dark matter, whether it’s dark matter or not. For that, I also visited a really cool dark matter detector in Italy, under a mountain range called Gran Sasso.

We haven’t yet detected any dark matter particles. We do think that dark matter exists and we have lots of theories and indirect observations of course with dark matter as well. But no direct detections. So I think it would be really cool, well now with COVID it’s a little bit tricky to travel, but once I can travel I would like to visit lots of other dark matter observatories around the world and possibly write a book on that.

So that will be really cool too.

Dan: [00:42:53] Maybe this will be an even bigger story in your life.

Jacinta: [00:42:56] Yeah. Maybe it will coincide with the discovery of what it is. So cool. So Katia, you won the European Science Writer of the Year last year, 2019. So congratulations. What advice would you have for listeners who might be interested in getting into science writing and journalism?

We often interview people on the academic pathway and how they interact with science, on this particular podcast. And this is a very different way of being a scientist and being involved in it. But outside academia, what advice would you have for listeners?

Katia: [00:43:34] Well, those who want to get into science writing if they already have a background in science, that’s great.

If they don’t have a background in science but a passion for science, that’s also great. I mean, the key is just to ask a lot of questions. As I said, before I got my degree in science, I only graduated last year, so I was writing about science for many, many years without a degree.

And it’s totally possible. You just have to ask a lot of questions and make sure that you understand what the scientist is telling you. And if you don’t understand, then you ask again. Because very often scientists, of course, they’re so close to their subject, that they may reply in very technical language using jargon.

But you just need to ask again and again, and maybe tell them even beforehand, look, this is for a general audience. If they still don’t get it, you could tell them. Look, okay, pretend you’re talking to your grandma. Or you’re talking to a friend in the bar. And your friend is really, really clever, but not a scientist, but maybe a lawyer.

And you really want your friend to understand your research? How do you do it? And this trick usually works. And I think once you get the interview out of the way, writing an article about science, if you’re passionate about it and if you like the subject is not that difficult.

Jacinta: [00:44:52] Awesome.

Dan: [00:44:53] Thank you Katia. Thank you once again for joining us, can you just tell the listeners quickly where they can get your book?

Katia: [00:44:59] Yes, of course it’s available on Amazon. Also, if you go to Harvard University Press or Harvard bookshop, you can read about it as well. But Amazon probably would be the easiest way.

Jacinta: [00:45:09] And where can listeners find you online?

Katia: [00:45:11] Listeners can always find me on Twitter. It’s @SciTech_Cat, or they can just put Katia Moskvitch into Google and you can find my Twitter or LinkedIn or other social media. And they can ask me any questions as well. I’m also very responsive on Twitter.

Jacinta: [00:45:27] Awesome. And did you have any final messages for our listeners?

Katia: [00:45:30] Well, I guess one message is that whoever wants to write about science always has to remember that there is no science without people. And this is very important because writing just about science is going to put many people to sleep.

Because even though science is cool, equations to many people who don’t understand them is not particularly interesting. But just remember, there is no science without people. If you write about people, if you put emotions in your story, then everybody will get excited.

Dan: [00:45:59] And there’s no science writing without people either. We’re very grateful for you.

Jacinta: [00:46:04] Yeah. And I can highly recommend the book. I am part way through it and it’s so well written and it’s very engaging. So thank you for putting it together Katia and thank you again for joining us on The Cosmic Savannah.

Katia: [00:46:16] Great, thank you guys for inviting me!

Dan: [00:46:23] Thanks Katia.

Okay. As we mentioned before, both of us have been enjoying the book thus far, and I certainly intend to carry on reading it and we hope you guys do too. So I can definitely recommend it. Very interesting to hear what went into it and very cool. The idea of going around and having the opportunities to go and see all of these telescopes first-hand and meet the people involved, it really does give you a completely different view of science, as she said. Science is nothing without the people and she’s bang on.

Jacinta: [00:46:59] Right? Yeah. And I like how she’s describing the day that the people had when they found out that the detection of the neutron star collision had happened and the gravitational wave signal. She talks to the scientists who wrote the papers, who made the discovery essentially.

And she describes the day that they were having before this. And then it suddenly happened and how it changed their lives very quickly. So I thought that was really fascinating.

All right. So I think that’s it for today. Great! Thanks very much for listening and we hope you’ll join us again for the next episode of The Cosmic Savannah.

Dan: [00:47:37] You can visit our website, thecosmicsavannah.com where we will have the transcript, links and other stuff related to today’s episode. And you can follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram @cosmicsavannah. That’s savannah is  spelled S A V A N N A H.

Jacinta: [00:47:52] Special thanks to Professor Matthew Bailes and Katia Moskvitch for speaking with us.

Dan: [00:47:56] Thanks to Sumari Hattingh and Liantsoa Randrianjanahari for social media support, Tim Roelf for show notes and preparation, and Sambatra Rahjohnson for transcription assistance.

Also to Mark Allnut for music production, Janus Brink and Michal Lyzcek for photography and Lana Ceraj for graphic design.

Jacinta: [00:48:16] We gratefully acknowledge support from the South African National Research Foundation, the South African Astronomical Observatory and the University of Cape Town astronomy department to help keep the podcast running.

Dan: [00:48:27] 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.

Jacinta: [00:48:35] We’ll speak to you next time on The Cosmic Savannah.

Are you a convert now, Dan, to the zombie analogy? Tell me what your qualms were, I’m interested.

Dan: [00:48:56] My qualms were mainly the unscientific nature of a zombie. [Laughs]

It just feels like, I dunno, like are we allowed to call stars hobbit stars? Like. I dunno, we don’t, well, I don’t know. It’s not something  which is well formed in my mind, but I wouldn’t have used it.

Jacinta: [00:49:22] Well, I’ve written a blog post before about the neutron star collision and I used zombies.

So I’m a fan.

Dan: [00:49:31] Depending on what the titles for this is. You’ll see who won the fight.

Jacinta: [00:49:34] It’ll be zombies of the cosmos. Or zombies and phoenixes, either way.

Dan: [00:49:39] I like the phoenix, except that I…no I don’t like the phoenix that much either.

Uh, sorry. I’m a tough sell.

Jacinta: Bit of a grinch on this one. [laughs]

Episode 28: Under a Shared Sky

with Prof John Parkington

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

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

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

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

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

This week’s guest

Feature Image

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

Related Links


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’ll be fascinating.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dan: [00:06:55] Enjoy!

Narrator: [00:06:58] Moon’s Message.

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

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

What are you doing?

I am delivering an important message from Moon to man.

You’re too slow, I will do it.

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

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

“Well, what is the message?”

“I will wither and renew but not you”.

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

What a fast and clever messenger I am!

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

“And? What was the message?”

“I will wither and renew but not you.”

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Great. Let’s hear from John.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John: [00:31:24] Pleasure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dan: [00:35:42] Exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t know. I’m all over the place!

Episode 27: A Bamboo Planetarium

with Susan Murabana Owen and Chu Owen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This week’s guests

Feature Image

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

Related Links


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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s called Sagittarius A*.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Trailer Audio]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Trailer ends]

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

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

So Chu and Susan do a whole range of things.

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

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

Dan: [00:17:44] Absolutely!


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s also something that excites me.

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

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

Chu: [00:25:17] Yes.

Jacinta: [00: 25:18] Okay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Behind the scene]

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

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

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