Mini Episode: “But How Does Astronomy Benefit Humanity?!”

with Tshiamiso Makwela

Hosted by Andy Firth

In this week’s mini-episode of the The Cosmic Savannah, we are joined by University of Cape Town PhD candidate, Tshiamiso Makwela.

Tshiamiso works in the field of astronomy education research, and she explains how she tries to answer some very difficult questions.

What are the obstacles to learning? Is it simply ‘bad teachers’, or is there something deeper? What do the global trends suggest?

We also discuss the perceptions of astronomy in the broader community, as well as the world of possibilities that astronomy and astronomy education research have to offer society at large!

This week’s guest

Featured Image

An artist’s impression of ‘Measurement in Astronomy’; visualizing the difficulties related to quantifying distances or sizes of celestial objects which, unlike measurements performed on Earth, are not performed directly. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Related Links

Parsec Wikipedia Page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parsec

Parsec, More Formally: https://astronomy.swin.edu.au/cosmos/P/Parsec

This episode is hosted and produced by Andy Firth

Andy Firth, M.Sc student based at the South African Astronomical Observatory

Transcript

Andy: [00:00] Hello, and welcome to another mini-episode of The Cosmic Savannah. My name is Andy Firth, and I’m excited to be your guest-host today, taking a slight break from my work at the South African Astronomical Observatory – where I am currently doing research on the improvement of radio data, which will also be applied to surveys from the MeerKAT telescopes in the Karoo.

Our guest today is Tshiamiso Makwela. Tshiamiso is completing her PhD in Astronomy Education Research at the University of Cape Town, and has a background in astronomy and education, taking us down a very novel avenue in astronomy research. Today we will be discussing the perceptions of astronomy in the broader South African community – as well as what drove her to pursue a career that is often under-reported in astronomy.

When I first met Tshiamiso, I was in my final year as an undergrad student at UCT, and in getting the opportunity to do this interview, I was really excited to find out what the work she was so frequently fetching from one of the printers in the astronomy department at UCT was all about!

In our discussion and interview, we ran into interesting avenues such as the marriage of western and indigenous astronomy, and the impact concepts such as distances in astronomy as a predictor of future success. Especially with a word like ‘parsec’ being thrown around.

To fully grasp the idea of a parsec, I really do urge everyone to lookup the Wikipedia page on ‘parsecs’, as many astronomers have to do from time-to-time just as a reminder. It really does require a visual aid to drastically simplify an explanation in our brief episode alone. And trust me, that really does have the potential to become a word-salad.

For now, we can rest assured that a parsec is roughly equal to three-and-a-quarter light-years. And now, without another moment’s hesitation, let us hear from our guest – Tshiamiso Makwela.

[01:43] [Intro music]

Andy: [01:49] Hi welcome to The Cosmic Savannah, my guest today is Tshiamiso Makwela – hopefully I got that correct?

Tshiamiso: [01:54] Yes – you tried [laughter]

Andy: [01:56 ] Yes – I tried my very best – and she is going to be telling us about her research in Astronomy Education I believe, if my snooping online has done any good service?

Tshiamiso: [02:08] Oh wow you did well, you went online! That’s really good research, yeah!

Andy: [02:15 ] Thank you! So let me ask you the question that most people fear at a party, so: “Why did you decide to study Astronomy Education?

Tshiamiso: [02:26 ] Okay, so I really love astronomy, that’s the start of it, and I’ve always been interested in knowing more about astronomy and just understanding how the Universe works. But, every single time I mention to someone that “I actually love astronomy and I wanna do astronomy”, the question I got was: “But how does that help people? How does that help black people?” It’s sort of like doing something that’s typically useless. Then I got involved in doing some education research in my Honours, and then later on after I did my Masters I just thought: “Maybe I want to do a little bit of astronomy and education”, because for me that brings both the science and the people together; and that enables me to have some influence in the greater part of the education which focuses on people and in that way I am reaching out to people in some way. For me, that was like: “Science is cool, but if I can not necessarily have any form of relationship with this science for me it’s just [sigh].” So that’s why I was really so motivated to try and bring the sciences closer to the people, because it is done by people anyway.

Andy: [03:45] Were you saying, by that feeling you were having, you were feeling rather detached from some sort of application to human-kind in terms of the uses for astronomy?

Tshiamiso: [03:56 ] Yes, I call astronomy ‘the mother of all sciences”, literally because we grew up with astronomy; we have so many traditional and indigenous knowledge from our old people who will tell us all these things about stars, the Moon, the Sun, and that on its own is astronomy. But, we have used that to integrate what we know about the world. When we know when summer is, when winter is, our whole navigation system. The time – just knowing time! I feel like astronomy has influenced our life so much for us to let it be too far away from us at the same time. So I feel like the more advanced we got the more we lost touch with the actual essence of astronomy which we always had.

Andy: [04:46] That sparked a question I’ve always had, which is: “How do you marry two very different, or seemingly very different, studies of astronomy – such as the indigenous knowledge systems as well as this very westernised, highly-documented, form of astronomy?” Have you done any work in terms of how to marry those two spheres of knowledge?

Tshiamiso: [05:12] I haven’t, unfortunately – I really wish to do this one day. But I haven’t really done it. I just know a little bit about certain things in astronomy – like in indigenous language. Unfortunately, for me, I didn’t grow up in the rural areas because then I would have more rich knowledge in terms of that. Like the stories those people tell about the stars, and when you get into astronomy and you hear about these things and you hear they explain these things, it’s just like “Oh my goodness! They just missed it!” So, I hope one day – but I haven’t really done work on that.

Andy: [05:55] So, if I read correctly, your Masters was in astronomy education as well?

Tshiamiso: [06:05] Yes.

Andy: [06:07] What sort of burning question do you have at the moment, when it comes to Astronomy Education?

Tshiamiso: [06:10] At the moment I am actually looking at students, not the teachers themselves. I am looking at university students and how they interact with astronomy content. I am looking at first-year students coming into the university. And we have found out that (I did a study when I was starting my PhD) a lot of students struggle with understanding sizes and distances. Sizes and distances are also two important things in astronomy, because how well you do in those determines how well you actually do overall in the course. How well you understand the content going forward. In our sample in 2018, about 30% of our students couldn’t understand sizes and distances – they were not getting it right. And another result was done in 2014, and we got similar results with them. But, there was another group of teachers and middle-school students (so this is grade 9, grade 10 students) in Norway – and our results were pretty similar to theirs. So, for us it was not about poor teaching – because it’s really easy for us to default to “it was just poor teaching”. But, in this case, we realise it is not just poor teaching. So poor teaching may be a factor, but it is not just poor teaching; and I just thought maybe there’s a deeper issue – like with understanding distances. That’s when I decided to look at distances and how we comprehend distances.

Andy: [08:13] Okay! I think our time is up. Tshiamiso, thank you very much for your time and for explaining the intricacies of trying to convey the concept of distances to learners.

Tshiamiso: [08:29] Thank you very much for having me! We haven’t found the answers of how we can do that for learners, but we are still on the journey! [laughter]

Andy: [08:44] Hopefully running and not crawling! [laughter]

Tshiamiso: [08:47] Yes! We are not crawling anymore, but crawling was very important for us to understand this.

[08:51] [Outro Music]

Andy: [08:57] And what inspirational words to end off our interview with Tshiamiso, a PhD candidate in Astronomy Education at the University of Cape Town. Today we learned that knowledge extends much further than what is said in the classroom, and that factors such as intuitive understanding of distances, learned in youth, play a pivotal role in understanding of abstract concepts in later life.

A question which was often asked my way was ‘how is astronomy useful to humanity’ and it really goes to show that research can have very many unintended benefits for humanity. And Tshiamiso touched on this too, that through research we have the opportunity to gather and collect indigenous knowledge of astronomy, which may serve as a great unifier of the human experience – we all looked up at the sky in wonder.

And that’s it for this week’s episode of the mini- Cosmic Savannah! I’ve been your very happy host Andy Firth, thank you to our guess Tshiamiso Makwela and to you for sharing this very exciting episode with me. Until next time, stay safe everyone!

Mini Episode: The Most Powerful Explosion Ever Recorded

with Reikantseone Diretse

Hosted by Sumari Hattingh

In our third mini episode, we chat with Reikantseone Diretse, a Master’s student from the University of Cape Town. He is involved with the ThunderKAT (The HUNt for Dynamic and Explosive Radio Transients) project. This project is a large program on the MeerKAT telescope. It studies extremely bright and energetic explosions in our sky, which are known as transients.

Part of Reikantseone’s research involves one particular transient event. It is a gamma-ray burst that was recorded in January 2019. This very rare explosion is the most powerful gamma-ray burst that has ever been recorded to date. Its radiation is almost a trillion times more energetic than that of visible light!

Reikantseone’s studies are funded by the Institute for Data Intensive Astronomy (IDIA). His passion for astronomy reflects not only in the various projects that he is involved with. He also serves as the president for the Space Society of the University of Cape Town.

This week’s guest:
Featured Image:

Artist’s expression of gamma ray-bust GRB190114C, the most energetic transient ever recorded. Gamma-ray bursts are the result of stars that collapse and eject matter into the sky at extremely high velocities. The energy of these powerful gamma-ray bursts are measured in electron volts (eV). One electron volt represents the energy that a single electron gains when it is accelerated by one volt. The afterglow for most gamma-ray bursts is measured in giga-electronvolts (GeV). But GRB190114C was detected at a trillion electron volts (TeV)!

Related Links:

UCT’s article of this extremely energetic gamma-ray burst: https://www.news.uct.ac.za/article/-2019-11-21-the-highest-energy-light-from-a-gamma-ray-burst-detected

To learn more about the University of Cape Town’s Space Society, visit their Instagram page https://www.instagram.com/uctspacesociety/ or contact them via email: spacesoc@myuct.ac.za

Featured image: https://newatlas.com/space/most-powerful-gamma-ray-burst/

ThunderKAT: http://www.thunderkat.uct.ac.za/
MeerKAT: http://www.ska.ac.za

Find Reikantseone Diretse on social media:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/reikantseone.karabo.1

Instagram: @reikantseone

Twitter: @ReikantseoneD

This mini episode is hosted & produced by:

Sumari Hattingh (Centre for Space Research, North-West University):

Mini Episode Transcript

Transcribed by Sumari Hattingh

Sumari: [00:00:00] Welcome to The Cosmic Savannah. To each and every listener, this would be my very first mini episode as a trainee for The Cosmic Savannah. I’m Sumari Hattingh, and I’m currently in my second and final year of Master’s studies in Astrophysical Sciences at the North-West University. I met Dr. Jacinta at an Astronomy Data School that took place in Cape Town during October, 2019.

After she has told me more about The Cosmic Savannah, I was absolutely hooked. I keep learning so much from all the astronomers around the world who share their research and work here on The Cosmic Savannah. So in today’s mini episode, I have the privilege to chat with Reikantseone Diretse and learn more about his work, what all his research is about and what he does.

He is a second and final year Masters student as well, and he studies at the University of Cape Town with funding, from IDIA. IDIA is the Institute for Data Intensive Astronomy. This is an inter-university partnership of three South African universities; that of Cape Town, Western Cape and Pretoria.

IDIA’s goal is basically to build capacity and expertise in data intensive research and large survey science projects within the South African university research community. So Reika’s current Masters research involves working with the ThunderKAT project. If I remember correctly, it’s episode 23 of The Cosmic Savannah, where professor Patrick Woudt –  Head of Astronomy at the University of Cape Town was interviewed about ThunderKAT, which is The Hunt for Dynamic and Explosive Radio Transients with MeerKAT. 

In short, this large program on MeerKAT aims to study accretion of very compact binaries. When referring to compact binaries, it means that there are two astronomical objects that are very close together and in orbit with one another. These objects are very dense and can either both be compact, like two neutron stars or two black holes, or it can be a binary system of one compact and one massive object, where the massive object can be a red giant star.

So whether a compact binary system have two compact objects or one massive and one compact object, when they interact a collision takes place causing massive explosions, also known as transients. Next, particles and matter are then ejected into space at exceptional high velocities.

Reikantseone’s research is then about one particular transient event: a gamma-ray burst that was recorded in early 2019. In this specific case, the massive star – part of a compact binary system – dies. The result is then a very rare explosion, far away from earth known to be both very bright and extremely energetic. And with energetic, I mean that such a gamma-ray burst releases as much energy in a few seconds as the Sun will in its entire ten billion year lifetime.

Let’s hear more about Reika’s passion for astronomy, his involvement with an international campaign and his presidency of the Space Society of the University of Cape Twon, and what it entails.

Music playing

Welcome to my interview session. Today, I’m interviewing Reikantseone. Hi, how are you today?

Reikantseone: [00:04:29] Hello, Sumari! I’m great, how are you yourself?

Sumari: [00:04:31] I’m great, thank you very much. So I’m very excited for what we will be learning from you today. Before we begin, I would actually like for us to do as this-or-that icebreaker. So how it works, I will give you two options and you choose your favorite outloud; the first one that comes to mind.

Summer or winter?

Reikantseone: [00:04:51] Summer

Sumari: [00:04:53] Optical astronomy or radio astronomy?

Reikantseone: [00:04:57] Radio

Sumari: [00:04:58] Coffee or tea?

Reikantseone: [00:05:01] Tea, definitely tea! I’m literally having a cup of tea right now. Rooibos, half a teaspoon sugar, no milk. Always.

Sumari: [00:05:08] Oh, that sounds great. So last question: python or a C programming?

Reikantseone: [00:05:15] I wouldn’t like oppose C or anything, but I’m mainly trained in python and much more comfortable to work with python.

Sumari: [00:05:22] I think let’s start off with you introducing yourself. Can you please tell us where you are from and where you are currently studying?

Reikantseone: [00:05:30] So I did, my undergrad at the North-West University in Mahikeng – where I was born and raised. I did my Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry and Physics, and then I competed that.

And then I moved to the University of Cape Town with a scholarship from the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory to study for my Bachelor’s Honours in Astrophysics and Space Science. And while I was working on that degree, I got an internship to go work in Australia for 10 weeks, which is like two months and two weeks, with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization.

So I was there working with the Parks Telescope on pulsars, and that was such a wonderful experience. I am now registered for my Masters – on to the second year – with UCT of course, and my funding is generally through the IDIA program. And then I’m working on a thesis, full research masters.

Sumari: [00:06:28] Wow, that sounds amazing.

I can just imagine how your journey must have been from traveling – from where you were born and where you’re studying now and going to Australia. I’m so excited for what we can here from you today. So tell us about your Master’s research.

Reikantseone: [00:06:45] Okay. So my Master’s research is probably one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done.

I am working with the ThunderKAT project. I’ve been working with the ThunderKAT project since my Honour’s. So the ThunderKAT project is generally The Hunt for Dynamic and Explosive Radio Transients with MeerKAT. So we have data coming in from MeerKAT, studying exciting projects, exciting sources in the sky where these explosions – whether it’s, things colliding onto to each other, whether it’s radio jets, et cetera.

It’s amazing. So for my Master’s research, I am working on gamma-ray bursts and I’m actually studying one particular gamma-ray bursts that happened last year, January, which was the most energetic gamma-ray burst ever, recorded from Earth.

Sumari: [00:07:31] Okay. So if you say it has been the most energetic gamma-ray burst ever recorded before, what does that exactly mean?

Reikantseone: [00:07:39] Okay. So gamma-ray bursts in general are generally the most luminous explosions in the universe anyway. They have really high energies and associated with very distant galaxies. So if you can see something extremely bright or extremely luminous from a very long distance, it means that it must have been so energetic that you were able to see from where you are.

So they are gamma-ray bursts and then they are generally emitting the initial lighting, the gamma rays, and hence high energy astrophysics. And then with this particular gamma-ray burst, it was the very first gamma-ray burst whose energy was recorded in the tera-electron volts. We normally use two energies being recorded in that mega electron volt.

And the previous highest was at like 90 electron giga-volt. And now this was beyond that – up to one electron tera-volt – so it’s like very much energetic because it’s literally a trillion times more energetic than visible light. So that is what we mean by it – energetic gamma-ray burst.

Sumari: [00:08:42] I think it must be amazing working with this project and being part of this amazing discovery; part of our history.

So what’s other astronomy projects are you involved in.

Reikantseone: [00:08:55] So as part of my Master’s, apart from working on gamma-ray bursts, I am also part of the deeper, wider cluster campaign, which generally is associated with, I suppose I run the multi-wavelength follow-up or studies for any transients in the sky that are happening.

So last year we were collaborating with people around the world – Machester, Australia, and then we were studying a few fields, three fields. And we are still doing the data analytics and it has been such a wonderful journey, learning different skills and everything. So I’m very much pleased and very, very much privileged to have been part of this amazing project.

Sumari: [00:09:34] You said you’re involved and ThunderKAT which, getS observations from MeerKAT. So have you ever been to the SKA site based in the Karoo, Northern Cape of South Africa? And can you tell us about your experience if you have been there?  

Reikantseone: [00:09:50] Oh no, unfortunately I have not been to the Northern Cape. Well, I’ve been to the Northern Cape a thousand times, but I haven’t been to SARAO, to MeerKAT in particular.

And I know that we also have like programs and projects, for people to go there, but I used MeerKAT, data from MeerKAT. I have observations taken for me, by the staff there. And then they send it to IDIA, which is a computing infrastructure at the university. So I have data coming from the MeerKAT and I have been working on that for this gamma-ray bursts that I’m working on for over a year now, because I had observations since last year, January until this year, January.

So it has been amazing. But unfortunately I have not been to MeerKAT yet.

Sumari: [00:10:33] I think it must be pretty exciting to look forward to the day that you can visit the site. So do you have any other interests in astronomy, apart from your research?

Reikantseone: [00:10:46] Absolutely. I am currently a president for the UCT Space Society, where we have astronomers giving lectures and talks to the public – well, mainly to the society members so that every student – whether in astronomy or not – they can get to understand and to learn some of the amazing things that we work on as researchers, we also do stargazing as part of the society.

After every lecture, we will do a stargazing event. And then this year for the very first time we introduced rocketry, where we people from Jo’burg coming in from space research, come in to teach students how to build rockets, and then we launch them on the second day. And we also do planetarium tours, which have been fantastic, but we only did one before the lockdown happened.And then with the current pandemic, we are doing social media engagements on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. So that is as far as it goes with astronomy to the public.

Sumari: [00:11:44] Then I would like to know, how does your future in astronomy look like? What are your plans for next year?

Reikantseone: [00:11:52] Well plans for next year. Hopefully to start working on a PhD project, hopefully with ThunderKAT again, because ThunderKAT generally studies amazing projects, anything about radio transients and explosions. And there is the science that fascinates me – the high energy astrophysics itself, or astrophysical sources out there. So anything that just goes bang, that is where my interests lie.

So whether it’s fast radio bursts, gamma-ray bursts or whether it’s X-ray binaries. Whatever the case may be because there’s so much exciting things happening in the night sky on a daily. So I would really much like to work on a PhD project with ThunderKAT moving forward, because it also gets me to work with MeerKAT.

And that is amazing because we have a fantastic tool. So we might as well use it brilliantly.

Sumari: [00:12:36] I really hope for your part, that you can continue your journey with ThunderKAT and that you will be able to start your PhD as well, because that would be really exciting for another part in your life.

Then I would also like to know, can listeners find you on social media?

Reikantseone: [00:12:54] Yes, I am definitely on social media. I am on Instagram: at-reikantseone . I am on Facebook: Reikantseone Diretse. Twitter: reikantseone-d and those are all my social media platforms, but followers can also search for the UCT Space Society – we are very much engaging with our followers on that platform to make sure that as much people can get to know about astronomy and everything we do – the science that we do in South Africa and the outside.

Sumari: [00:13:24] That is great because I think it’s very important that not just the society and communities get to know astronomy better, but also understand why we do the work that we do.

Thank you very much, Reikantseone. It was really nice talking to you today, and I hope you have a great day.

Reikantseone: [00:13:40] Thank you so much for having me a Sumari.

Music Playing

Sumari: [00:13:49] Wow, what an exciting journey Reikantseone has, he’s such an all-rounder; part of multiple projects and just has this energetic vibe that makes me so excited and intrigued to learn more about gamma-ray bursts. It blows my mind to think that he has the key to work with data from massive explosions in galaxies that are so very far away from us.

Just something about the detection of these bursts: after an initial flash of gamma-rays that take place: a longer-lived afterglow is usually emitted at longer wavelengths, such as x-ray ultraviolet, optical, infrared, microwave, and radio.

So why is all of this important? I mean, these transient events are so far away – some of them only last for a few milliseconds and some of them can last for several hours. But why and do we even need to study events like these? Well, not only has the sky been a navigation system to humans throughout history, we all look up to the sky at some point and think, what is that little bright sparkly dot and what does it do? Or me way even ask why does the sky like different throughout the year? Maybe we even read about astronomy events on news apps of our smartphones, and think, why has this event been studied and why do we even need to know more about what’s out there?

You know, there can be so many different answers and opinions about this, but I can assure you, astronomy is very important for us to help better understand our universe and how it works. We can learn more about the elements in the cosmos; how it all came together. But also, by investing in research, science education and even technology, it gives us as a population so much more in return than one would realize. We learn more than the day before. We expand our knowledge and network by developing plans to give the world a better view of our Universe.

I leave you, the listeners, with Ahmed Zewali’s quote: “Preserving knowledge is easy. Transferring knowledge is also easy, but making new knowledge is neither easy nor profitable in the short term. Fundamental research proves profitable in the long run, and as importantly, it is a force that enriches the culture of any society with reason and basic truth.

I would like to thank Dr. Daniel Cunnama and Dr. Jacinta Delhaize for giving me this amazing opportunity to do this mini episode with Reikantseone Diretse.

And also, thanks to you – the listener – who joined in and supports The Cosmic Savannah throughout. That’s it from me. Goodbye.

Mini Episode: Seeing Beyond the Satellites

with Brandon Engelbrecht

Hosted by Bret Yotti

Today we talk with Brandon Engelbrecht, a PhD student from the University of the Western Cape (UWC). Brandon is part of a research group which uses the MeerKAT telescope to study galaxy clusters. These are some of the largest structures in our Universe.

Brandon tells us about his PhD research into improving MeerKAT data by removing radio frequency interference (RFI). This interference can be caused by many different things, including satellites in orbit around the Earth.

Brandon also describes how he went from being a high school student with a budding interest in astronomy, to now working with and improving upon one of the largest radio telescopes in the world.

This week’s guest:

Featured Image:

Composite of radio galaxies and MeerKAT telescope: Thousands of galaxies are visible in this radio image covering a square degree of sky near the south celestial pole, made by the MeerKAT radio telescope array (foreground) in the South African Karoo semi-desert. The brightest spots are luminous radio galaxies powered by supermassive black holes. The myriad faint dots are distant galaxies like our own Milky Way, too faint to have been detected before now. Because radio waves travel at the speed of light, this image is a time machine that samples the star formation history of the universe. Credit: SARAO; NRAO/AUI/NSF

Related Links:

MeerKAT: https://www.sarao.ac.za/gallery/meerkat/

This mini-episode was produced and hosted by Bret Yotti from the University of Cape Town.

Episode Transcript

By Bret Yotti

Bret: [00:00:00] Hello, and welcome to this mini-episode of The Cosmic Savannah. I’ll be your guest host today. My name is Bret Yotti. I work at the University of Cape Town where I’m a telescope operator for the teaching telescopes that we have there. Today, I’ll be interviewing Brandon Engelbrecht. He is a first year PhD student at the University of the Western Cape.

At UWC Brandon works in observational cosmology. Cosmology is the study of the origin and the evolution of the universe. Brandon works with MeerKAT data. You might remember MeerKAT from a previous episode of The Cosmic Savannah where it was talked about in great detail. Brandon looks at datasets of large structures in the galaxy, some of the largest structures. He looks at galaxy clusters.

Galaxy clusters are groups of hundreds or thousands of galaxies, which are all gravitationally bound with each other. These are the largest gravitationally bound structures in the universe.

One of the things Brandon is doing in his PhD project is looking for ways to identify radio frequency interference and to remove it from datasets coming from MeerKAT. These RFI sources are usually satellites or other things which emit in the same frequency as the astronomical data that the astronomers are trying to get from the telescope.

Brandon and I first met in 2016 when we were both volunteering for the South African Institute of Physics annual conference, which was held in Cape Town that year, so I was very excited to get the chance to interview him today. Without further ado here he is.

Bret: [00:01:42] Hi, I am here with Brandon Engelbrecht from UWC, and we’re going to talk to him a little bit about why he does what he does. Brandon. Hi.

Brandon: [00:01:52] Hi there Bret, how are you doing?

Bret: [00:01:54] I’m doing great. Thank you. So tell me, what is it that you do exactly at UWC?

Brandon: [00:02:01] That’s a good question, I ask myself that as well. At the moment, I’m a first year PhD student under the supervision of Professor Mario Santos and I’m working on the MeerKAT telescope, which you may have heard of, it’s in the Northern Cape.

What I do at the moment is look at ways of improving data analyzation for our particular project. It’s been a challenging road but so far, I’m enjoying it with mild setbacks here and there.

Bret: [00:02:41] Can you tell me what the MeerKAT telescope is?

Brandon: [00:02:44] It is the world’s most powerful radio telescope. It looks at the sky and looks at sources in the sky, receiving information in terms of light. Then, we get that data back from the telescope. From this, we can see basically what an individual is hoping to find. Many people use the telescope for different things. A few people use it for imaging, a few people use it to map structures in the universe and that’s what I use it for.

These structures are not planets or galaxies, but they’re actually entire galaxies or clusters of galaxies or clusters of clusters. That’s what we use the telescope for.

Bret: [00:03:42] You said that your project has to do with data analysis. Can you tell me what that entails?

Brandon: [00:03:47] At the moment for the PhD, the PhD is the project, but it gets cut up into three sub-projects and each one is as important as the next.

The first one is data analysis of the telescope. We’ve asked the telescope to point at a particular patch of the sky. It then observes that patch and we get data back. My contribution is to analyze mistakes, to actually look for radio frequency interference objects.

These are objects that are man-made satellites. They emit in the same frequency that MeerKAT observes in. What that does to our data, is it completely washes it. It causes a spike in the data that we have to remove so that we can actually get the object that we want to observe. My contribution is basically identifying these RFI sources and finding ways to either avoid them or remove the effects that they have on our data.

Bret: [00:04:57] So does that mean your job is to improve the images that come out of the MeerKAT telescope? To find these sources of noise and find out ways to remove them?

Brandon: [00:05:08] So when we say images, that’s not what we actually look at. We’re looking at temperature maps. You’ll have areas of interest which would be high temperatures, or warm, and areas of no interest would be cold areas. There’s very little galactic activity happening there. The thing with the satellites is because they’re really nearby the Earth and they have this high-power output, they cause flares to be seen in our data. You’d see this at a particular frequency. You’d see an entire bright peak that has no astronomical value to us. It’s just contamination. My job would be to see if the current techniques that we are using to remove them are effective in removing them. Making sure that what’s left behind has very little RFI contamination because we can’t really remove all the RFI contamination, then we would have no data, but can we remove enough to have sufficient data without having severe contamination effects.

The other one is to work on a way to improve avoiding the satellites. If we know where the satellites are, and if we know how much power they’re outputting, then can we point MeerKAT to an area where there are low levels of satellite contamination? Where there are too few satellites or satellites that emit in a different frequency that MeerKAT won’t be so much affected by. That is how I’m trying to improve the data.

Bret: [00:06:54] It sounds like this is a very important job that you’re working on and that it would have a big difference to everybody who uses the MeerKAT telescope, is that right?

Brandon: [00:07:04] I’m not a big picture kind of person. At the moment, I’m just focused on trying to get this project out of the way so I can move on, but my supervisor says the same thing. He says that this is quite important. Those that want to work with the same kind of system that we’re working with on MeerKAT, who get the images and temperature fluctuations. This would be very important for that purpose. My co-supervisor says that SKA would like this software to track satellites, to at least know where and when there would be a cluster of satellites.

Bret: [00:07:44] I’m sure it’s nice to know that you’re contributing to the MeerKAT project and to other future astronomers.

Brandon: [00:07:52] Yeah. At the moment, I don’t see any of this. It’s like this little light at the end of the tunnel that I’m running towards cause right now it’s a doom and gloom kind of thing. Hopefully, at the end of all this, that is where this project can take me.

Bret: [00:08:12] I will stay tuned with your upcoming work over the next couple of years.

Can you tell me, why did you get into astronomy in the first place, and in astronomy, why radio astronomy?

Brandon: [00:08:23] So why astronomy? To be honest, I was lied to. It was false advertising in a sense. In grade 10, I won’t forget this, I watched these documentaries. You have Brian Greene and you have Neil deGrasse Tyson and you have Michio Kaku. They were talking about theoretical physics, and I was kind of going that route. Then I saw Neil deGrasse Tyson, and he introduced me to astronomy, and I was like, “is there a way to combine the two?” And then I found astrophysics. Except nobody told me there would be this high level of mathematics. I knew there would be mathematics, I just didn’t know it would be this high level of mathematics.

So I was just like, “no, what? This is not where I want to go.” But I persevered on. First year, second year, third year. I kind of enjoyed the math a little bit. And then, in Honors, I realized that astrophysics is cool and all that, but I wanted to do something a bit more on a bigger scale. That’s where I found cosmology, which is studying the cosmos but you study objects on much, much bigger scales. We don’t care about galaxies. To us, galaxies are just like a star in the night sky and don’t have so much effect for us. We prefer studying a whole bunch of galaxies together. Even much bigger scales than that. Cosmology had even more mathematics and I was not impressed with my choice.

I pushed some more and then I found out that in cosmology, you have divisions, you have theoretical, which is more math, or you have observational cosmology, which is more like, yes, there’s math, but it’s more computational. It’s more data analysis kind of work. And I was like, “you know what, I’m not prone to the math, but I am prone to working on a computer and writing code”. So then I went and did that one, and from observational cosmology, observational radio cosmology was a very easy choice because of MeerKAT and because they gave me a bursary. So not only did I take their money, I was more obligated to work on work in the radio realm of cosmology. So far, it’s not been so bad because my Honors’ year project, Masters’ year project and now even my PhD project all have similar areas, there’s a connection between each of them.

I’m supposed to know a lot, but I really don’t. I think it’s a problem that most people, outsiders, or people outside of academia think we know a lot. Honestly, there are people that do, and then there are people like me that no, not really. I’m just here trying to get project one out of the way so I can move on to project two.  But, it’s a different ball game when you’re having to work with these supervisors and professors and stuff. It’s just very, very intimidating.

Bret: [00:11:34] So just to get this right, you fell in love with astronomy in high school, then got to university and were turned off by the math, so you rethought about it and thought, “okay, I’ll choose cosmology”, which I believe is the most math-heavy field of astronomy. If I’m not mistaken?

Brandon: [00:11:52] That’s correct, yes.

Bret: [00:11:54] And then you found out, “oh, more math, so I’ll choose radio astronomy or observational cosmology”. Then you chose the most math heavy observational method of astronomy as well. Is that right?

Brandon: [00:12:07] So I chose a more computational and data analysis side. I was trying to avoid going deeper and deeper into this mathematical realm of cosmology. I was like, “this is the point where I am turning, to this side of the world”. So yes, there’s still a lot of math that I have to do and stuff, but at least I don’t want to rack my brains on pages and pages of equations, which might sound like I ran away. But honestly, I did run away.

Bret: [00:12:37] You just ran to the coding side.

Brandon: [00:12:40] Yeah. I ran to the coding side for a few reasons, one of which is I do want to improve coding skills. Two, coding is the future. Three, if astronomy or cosmology doesn’t work out, I can always try my skills in the real world of, all astronomers go into this now, data science.

Bret: [00:13:02] So you can always fall back and find a job in the business sector, I think, right? With your coding and your data science skills that you’ve learned.

Brandon: [00:13:09] Yes.

Bret: [00:13:12] Thank you for your time, Brandon. It’s been great chatting with you.

Brandon: [00:13:17] You too Bret.

Bret: [00:13:24] Wow. What a great chat that was with Brandon. I especially liked his story about his road. Where he started with an interest in physics, went to astrophysics and then changed to cosmology and then changed to this observational radio cosmology. And throughout it all, he didn’t let that heavy math deter him at all.

It really sets an example for future astronomers to persevere. Now Brandon is working with one of the biggest radio telescopes in the world, and not only that, but he’s making it better for future astronomers who use it. And this work is only going to get more and more important moving forward as companies like SpaceX keep launching satellites. SpaceX, for example, has over 540 of these Starlink satellites that have gone up just in a little over a year and have plans to launch over 12,000, so this work Brandon is doing is going to be more and more important moving forward.

I just want to thank Brandon again for chatting with me today and thank you for everybody who tuned in and I hope to speak to you again in the future.