with Dr Steve Crawford and Professor Jayanne English
In Episode 17 of The Cosmic Savannah, we discuss space telescopes! We talk about the amazing Hubble Space Telescope and the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).
We sit down with Dr Steve Crawford from the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Maryland, USA, and formerly SALT. Steve explains how his team deliver data from space telescopes to scientists on Earth.
Professor Jayanne English from the University of Manitoba, Canada, then gives us insight on how she and others create the beautiful images we see from the Hubble Telescope. And how the myriad of data collected is incorporated into one beautiful image.
This week’s guests:
Featured Image: The CTB 1 supernova remnant resembles a ghostly bubble in this image, which combines new 1.5 gigahertz observations from the Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescope (orange, near center) with older observations from the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory’s Canadian Galactic Plane Survey (1.42 gigahertz, magenta and yellow; 408 megahertz, green) and infrared data (blue). The VLA data clearly reveal the straight, glowing trail from pulsar J0002+6216 and the curved rim of the remnant’s shell. CTB 1 is about half a degree across, the apparent size of a full Moon. Credits: Composite by Jayanne English, University of Manitoba, using data from NRAO/F. Schinzel et al., DRAO/Canadian Galactic Plane Survey and NASA/IRAS
DO NOT LOOK DIRECTLY AT THE SUN THROUGH A TELESCOPE OR WITH YOUR NAKED EYESDURING THE TRANSIT OF MERCURY OR ANY OTHER TIME!
On the 11th of November 2019, the planet Mercury will pass between Earth and the Sun. This transit of Mercury will be visible across all of Africa by simply using a small telescope.
In this special episode, we speak with Dr Niruj Ramanujam from the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) about the importance of these events and how you can see the transit.
It will take the planet 5.5 hours to move completely across the disc of the Sun, starting at 14:35 SAST. The Sun will set before the transit ends, depending on your location (Sunset in Johannesburg will be at 18:31 and Cape Town at 19:23)
Transits like these are rare as Mercury’s orbit is at an angle to that of the Earth’s. The last time Mercury transited the Sun was in May 2016 and the next one will only be on 13th November 2032.
Please note, that in order to see the transit you must take serious precautions. You can watch Mercury transit the Sun, but YOU MUST BE CAREFUL!
How to observe:
Firstly, you will need a telescope (a small one with metal (not plastic) parts will do). You will not be able to use binoculars as they are not powerful enough.
Secondly, you will need a sheet of clean paper on which to project the image of the Sun through the telescope.
DO NOT LOOK DIRECTLY AT THE SUN THROUGH A TELESCOPE OR WITH YOUR NAKED EYES
Doing so will cause permanent damage and possible blindness. Only look at the transit indirectly by looking at the projection on paper. This is the safest way to observe the event.
The handbook, which is available below, provides guidelines to safely observe the transit of Mercury.
Featured Image: Transit of Mercury, 9 May 2016, photographed by Elijah Mathews. The sharp dot left and below the centre is Mercury and the fuzzy spot higher up is a sunspot .
Dan: [00:00:00] Welcome to the Cosmic Savannah with Dr. Daniel Cunnama.
Jacinta: [00:00:08] And Dr. Jacinta
Delhaize. Each episode we will 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: [00:00:23] Sit back and relax as we take you on a safari through the
Dan: [00:00:36] Alright, so we have a special event.
Jacinta: [00:00:39] Yes, welcome to episode 16. We usually release an episode
every fortnight, but we’re going to make an exception this time after one week
because we want to release this on time for…
Dan: [00:00:49] The transit of mercury!
Jacinta: [00:00:50] Yes.
Dan: [00:00:51] What is a transit?
Jacinta: [00:00:52] It is when a object goes between us on the Earth and the
When’s this transit going to be?
Dan: [00:00:58] So on the 11th of November this year 2019 visible over
most of Africa, Mercury will pass between the Earth and the Sun. We’ll be able
to see a tiny little dot moving in front of the Sun. Not with your naked eye.
Don’t look at the sun with your naked eye.
Jacinta: [00:01:13] Don’t look at the sun!
Dan: [00:01:15] Don’t look at the sun full stop. Especially don’t look
the through binoculars in case you’re tempted you will not be able to make out
Mercury. It’s very very small only a few thousand kilometers across so a
hundred-and-ninetieth the size of the Sun so you really wouldn’t be able to see
it. Anyway, even if you had a eclipse glasses or something like that, so if you
would like to see the transit of mercury visit your local Observatory or
observing group where they will have the correct equipment and you can have a
So now that that’s said. I did speak to Dr.
Niruj Ramanujam who is a commissioning scientist at the South African Radio
Astronomy Observatory, but he is also an avid outreacher.
And he is coordinating the transit of
mercury events across Africa and trying to get as many telescopes as possible
looking at the transit in a safe way. So we spoke to him about what this means
and how you can best observe this exciting event.
Jacinta: [00:02:16] And yeah, he goes into a lot of details. So let’s just
hear all about the transit from Niruj.
Dan: [00:02:22] Today we’re joined in the studio by Dr. Niruj Ramanujam.
So Niruj is from the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory – SARAO, and the
public Outreach and Education Committee of the Astronomical Society of India of
which he is a member. Welcome to the Cosmic Savannah Niruj
Niruj: [00:02:46] Thank you. Thanks. Thanks
Dan: [00:02:48] Before we get into it, can you tell us a little bit about
yourself and how you came to be here in South Africa.
Niruj: [00:02:53] So I’m a radio astronomer by training and before this I
was in India working for the National Center for Radio Astrophysics, which runs
a telescope a bit similar to MeerKAT here called the GMRT. I’ve also been
involved in astronomy outreach and education for many years when I was there.
And at some point I like to keep changing
countries. I like to move around. I guess that’s that’s the that’s how
astronomers are and therefore I thought I’ve been to South Africa few times
before for visits for work. And when this opportunity came up, I thought it’d
be a nice place to come and spend some few years here. So here I am.
Dan: [00:03:30] So how long have you been here?
Niruj: [00:03:32] Five months, so it’s been fairly new.
Dan: [00:03:34] And what exactly are you doing at SARAO?
Niruj: [00:03:36] I’m a commissioning scientist. Which means that I look at
data coming in from the meerkat telescope and look at the data from the point
of view of an astronomer and try and figure out if the data is fine.
If it’s not good then what’s wrong with it
and the fact that I’m an astronomer by training helps in the sense that I know
what the sky should look like a how the data should look like and therefore we
look at sources we already know well, we look at objects in the universe we
know well already from previous observations from other telescopes.
And therefore we use that knowledge to
debug the telescope if you wish so that it can become much better at what it
does and therefore other astronomers can come in and use it to do the science.
They want to do.
Dan: [00:04:18] And we’re getting
there with Meerkat, right?
Niruj: [00:04:19] Yes.
Dan: [00:04:20] Great. So we’re not here to talk about that today.
Although it’s very interesting. We have spoken about meerkat a lot in the past.
Today we’re here to talk about a very
exciting event happening on the 11th of November.
Niruj: [00:04:33] Yes, this year
Dan: [00:04:35] This year, in 2019, a transit of mercury. So what exactly
is a transit?
Niruj: [00:04:41] Right. So I think all of us know eclipses right, the Sun
and the Earth and the moon if they aligned in a straight line if the moon comes
between us and the Sun and hides the sun you have a solar eclipse. If the Earth
comes between the Moon and the Sun and hides the moon or a shadow falls on the
moon then we have a lunar eclipse. These are fairly well known and because the
Moon is so big in the sky it can cover the entire sun, right. Now if you look
at what other objects can come between us and the sun in the solar system. The
only two other planets are Mercury and Venus because they are the ones whose
orbits are within the Earth’s orbit.
Now therefore if the paths, if the orbits
align correctly which happens every few years, then you could expect Mercury or
Venus to come exactly between us and the sun in which case if you’re looking at
the sun’s image carefully you will see Mercury or Venus go past the sun’s disk.
Much like for example, you know, if you look at the setting sun you might find
that seabirds or aeroplane passing in front of it the same way.
You would find Mercury or Venus passing in
front of it. It would of course take a few hours for either of these planets to
go in front of it. And what we’re going to have on 11 November is the transit
of Mercury. Where you going to see Mercury take around five and a half hours to
pass across the face of the Sun as seen from Earth.
Dan: [00:06:00] You mentioned that these events happen every few years
how frequently do they occur?
Niruj: [00:06:06] Okay, so they don’t occur at regular intervals because
you had to consider the time it takes for Mercury to go around the Sun, the
time it takes the Earth to go around the Sun, and then the orbits are inclined
with respect to each other and therefore they don’t align in regular intervals.
For example, the last Mercury Transit which
was seen from Earth was in 2016 in May. And the next one will be seen from
Earth and will be visible from Africa as well as in 2032. So the Mercury
Transit there’s a pattern to when it occurs, but they’re not every few years,
right? So it could occur, the November transits could occur every 7, 13 or 33
years and the May transits could occur 13 or 33 years.
So there is a pattern to it, but this is
not periodic. So the next one will be in 2032. The previous one was in 2016.
Dan: [00:06:56] And why are they occurring in May and November?
Niruj: [00:06:58] So that’s interesting. If you look at the solar system as
a 3D model the earth goes around the Sun in an orbit, which is in a plane,
right, you can define a surface in which it goes on. Mercury goes round the Sun
as well, but it’s plane of orbit is inclined to the Earth plane of orbit, but
on seven degrees.
Dan: [00:07:14] Okay.
Niruj: [00:07:15] Now if you imagine two gigantic sheets of paper, if they
intersect they would intersect along a line. And therefore when Mercury and
Earth are on the same end of this one line is when you get a transit. And if
you look at which months of the year
does mercury, and therefore as seen from the Earth, the Sun, come on to this line,
which is the intersection of the two orbits, it’s either in May or November.
Okay. It’s a bit similar to why we do not get a lunar or a solar eclipse every
full moon on new moon. But only every now and then when the exactly match it’s
the same principle as why we have Transit of Mercury and Venus only every so
many years and why occur on certain months. On certain days.
Dan: [00:08:04] In terms of these transits I know that here right here at
the the observatory in Cape Town back in 1868 on the 4th of November, there was
a Transit of mercury observed from this sight. In terms of astronomy why are
these transits important and what is there to be gained from observing a
Transit as an astronomer?
Niruj: [00:08:26] Oh, I’m happy you asked the question because that’s what
excites me about the transit of Mercury apart from the fact that it’s a
beautiful sight. I myself saw a Transit of mercury when I was in high school in
India, and it was it was lovely. So I knew exactly when it was going to come
into the come across a sun and I was waiting with my friends and then one of us
saw it first and you’re very excited and then we could follow it.
We mark the spot on the piece of paper
every half an hour. You could see the planet moving like we kind of look at the
sky or we look at the sky chart or you read the news and you’re you know, the
planets go around the Sun you read about Kepler’s laws and Newton’s law of
gravity. But this is an occasion where you can actually see a planet moving,
you know, every few minutes you can see it move little moving in front of you
and that’s that’s an amazing sight. You know, that’s really inspiring and
motivating. I just want to add it in because I think the reason people should
go and see the transit of mercury is you can actually see a planet moving, you
know, around the Sun and I think that that’s really amazing.
Apart from that historically looking at
transits of Mercury and Venus were incredibly important in astronomy. And this
is for this reason. You might have studied Kepler’s laws in school. Basically
Kepler kind of came up with laws of how the planets move around the sun. Right?
And this is before Newton’s law of gravity. So it was based on observations now
based on his laws people knew the relative distances between objects in the
solar system. For example, people knew if you take the reference as the
earth-sun distance, for example, people knew the Mercury-Sun distance as a
fraction of the Earth-sun distance people knew the Jupiter-Sun distance as a
fraction of Earth-sun distance and so on so all distances within the solar
system, which if you remember if you if you recall 200 years ago a hundred
years ago was the entire universe for them in some sense, were known
So people knew if Earth-Sun distance was
one meter. Of course, it’s not then Neptune-Sun distance was so many kilometers
or whatever it is. Right, but people do not know what the absolute distance is
where they did not know how big our solar system actually was and you know, and
you can imagine this was one of the big questions in astronomy at the time
because almost all astronomy was done within the solar system. The stars were
known to be very very far away, but it was too far away to measure but people
did not know how big the solar system was right until Kepler in 1631 predicted
the first Transit of mercury, which was observed by Gassendi in Paris.
The second Transit of mercury was observed
was by Shakerly from India in 1651. The third was observed in 1661 and the
fourth was observed in 1677 by Edmund Halley himself of the Halley’s Comet fame
and Newton’s great friend. Right. Now what Halley realized is that you could
use the transit of Mercury and Venus.
If you time them accurately from many parts
of the Earth at the same time, you could then use these measurements to to
measure the actual absolute size of the solar system. It works in this way.
It’s basically what we call triangulation, right? If you held out your finger
in front of your face at arm’s length, and you close one eye and look at which
far away object is your finger in front of.
And then you close the other eye and open
the first eye and then look at which object is in front of you, it moves.
Right? So you see the finger in front of different objects basically because
you’re seeing it from different eyes, right? This is called parallax. The fancy
word in astronomy is parallax.
Therefore if you know how far apart your
eyes are which I’m sure you do and you know how long your arm is and therefore
how far away your finger is, if you measure this angle you could in principle,
you know, get other distances in this triangle and this is basically high
school trigonometry and we use this in many many things we. Use it in surveying
land, for example, the way we map out land is by triangulation right? You have
a triangle you measure. You know one side and two angles you can get the third.
This is the third point. Basically that’s what it is right.
Now Halley realized that the Earth is big
enough that if you stand on two parts of the earth, very very far away. Let’s
say a few thousand kilometers away. And you look at the path Mercury takes
across the face of the sun, these parts are slightly different. Just as the the
distant object in front of your finger appears different for different eyes in
your head. Right? So imagine that your head is now the entire Earth the two
left and right eyes are two spots, let’s say in Africa and Europe. And the
finger is Mercury. And the distant object is the Sun.
So that’s exactly what it did. So he
realized, he showed through calculation and published a paper saying look you
can do the same thing on this grand astronomical scale. You can measure a
triangle as big as our solar system. And if people in these two places measure
the exact time Mercury entered the sun’s disc they could then measure the distance
between the two eyes or the two observers on the earth and the finger which is
Mercury right? And once you do that, then because you know the relative
distances between all objects in the solar system, you can measure the absolute
distance between any two objects in the solar system.
So that was a grand project of Halley. And
therefore he then kind of appealed to all the European governments to do this
measurement. Therefore every time there was a Transit of mercury or Venus
anywhere visible on the earth, all countries like England, France and later US
and so on would send astronomers across the Earth to measure the precise moment
Mercury or Venus would enter the Sun’s face on the sky in order to measure the
entire universe. And that is why transits have been historically important and in fact for 200
years the only method we had to measure the universe of that time was to
measure the transit. Of course the unfortunate side of it is that these Grand
Expeditions which were probably the first examples of International
collaborative science experiments were made possible because of colonization
therefore they had access to various parts of the world.
So that is true in South Africa too. For
example a Transit of mercury was observed in Cape Town where we stand now in
Observatory on 5th November 1868, from Grahamstown on 10 November 1894, and
from Johannesburg on 14, November 1907. Right, they observed the transit of
Mercury. The 1907 Mercury transit was also observed by European astronomers
from the DRC and from Mauritius too. Because remember they’re doing it from
across the globe.
Transits of Venus are a bit more easy to
observe because Venus is larger in the sky the Mercury. And therefore there
were a lot more expeditions. For example, the 1761 Transit of Venus, that is
like so long back, Mason and Dixon observed it from the Concordia Gardens,
which is behind st. Mary’s Church in Cape Town. Right and the 1882 Transit of
Venus was observed by many in many locations.
So England and the U.S. sent astronomers, along with the European origin astronomers in South Africa, to many locations in South Africa. So they observed it from of course the Royal Observatory of Cape Town, which is the present SAAO, also the Natal Observatory in Durban in Touwsrivier Aberdeen Road Wellington Worcester Matjiesfontein Beaufort West. And so on right and some of the telescopes they brought to South Africa to observe these transits are still in use in this Observatory including the six-inch grub equatorial Mount equatorial telescope and so on. Until you know till late 1800s or the early 1900s when we developed other methods of measuring distances accurately.
This was the only method available and at
that time when people start measuring the distances to nearby Stars, they based
it on the knowledge of the distances within the solar system. So, in fact these
Transit measurements were used to build as it were a ladder. Or a scaffolding
to measure distances out to nearby stars and then to far away stars and the
whole galaxy. Now we have independent ways of doing at accurately. But at that
time this was the building block to measure the entire Cosmos.
Dan: [00:16:48] So essentially calibrating the universe based on a
Transit of Mercury.
Niruj: [00:16:52] Exactly exactly and in fact, this 11th November Transit
if you were to time the transit start, let’s say from Somalia and Senegal, you
would find a difference of timing of roughly one-and-a-half minutes.
Okay, and is this one and a half minute
difference that astronomers tried to measure for 200 years, right? And if we
have really good telescope a professional telescope or amateur telescope with
computer controlled, you know drive and so on in the eastern part of Africa and
western part of Africa, then should say hello to each other collaborate.
Time the transit of mercury and the
difference is like a minute and a half which you can easily measure these days
with your clocks and then you can yourself measure the distances between the
Earth and the Sun Earth and Jupiter and so on yourself on the 11th of November.
Dan: [00:17:43] Which would be an amazing school or university project.
Niruj: [00:17:44] Exactly. Exactly.
Dan: [00:17:46] Very cool. I actually pulled out the the monthly notices
of the Royal Astronomical Society book from 1868 the other day to have a look
at the paper.
Niruj: [00:17:57] It was by this guy called Mann.
Dan: [00:17:59] William Mann yeah because I wanted to see what telescope
they used and whether it was still here. It is still here. Yeah, it’s pretty
Niruj: [00:18:09] So Mercury transits and Venus transits therefore have
historical importance and I hope that some universities would make this
measurement again on 11th of November across Africa because it is in some
sense. It’s also very nice to imagine that it’s only by collaborating across
countries that you can measure the cosmos, right. And by yourself you cannot do
much. It’s only by talking to astronomers who are in totally different
countries in different cultures speaking different languages, but using the
same tools of science that you can do something as profound as measuring the
Dan: [00:18:44] Astronomy really is the best science. And in terms of
what you can see for the transit of mercury obviously Mercury is a lot smaller
than the sun or or even the moon when it’s projected onto the Sun so for an
eclipse the moon and the sun are roughly the same size which is why we get an
eclipse, but for mercury, it’s certainly not the same size.
Niruj: [00:19:10] Yes. So this Transit on 11th November Mercury is going to
be around 190 times smaller than the sun as seen on the sky. Okay. This is
going to be a really really small dot.
Which is why if you want to see this
Transit of mercury, you would need to magnify the Sun’s image in order to see
this really small dot which is 190 times smaller. And the way you magnify the
image, the Sun’s image is through a telescope. And therefore you need a telescope
to magnify the Sun’s image to let’s say a foot or half a foot 30/20 centimeters
big circle so that you can see Mercury going across the face of the sun
Dan: [00:19:50] So obviously you won’t be able to see it with the naked
eye even through Eclipse viewers. Your eyes won’t be able to…
Niruj: [00:19:57] No you’re not. You would not be able to see it even to
the eclipse glasses some of you might have. But at this point and I’m going to
come back to this point again and again, let me say that you should never look
at the sun with the naked eye anyway. Especially during a Mercury Transit. You
might think it’s like an eclipse. Therefore, let me look at the sun directly.
You should not do that. You cannot look at the sun through any optical device.
You should never look at the sun any time of the day, or during this transit
through any lens or binoculars or telescope at all. But there is a very very
safe way of seeing the transit and I’ll talk about it.
Dan: [00:20:34] Absolutely. I mean, I think that’s something which we
will definitely make a strong note of. We don’t want anyone to get damaged,
anyone’s eyes to get ruined by this. This particular transit, when exactly does
it kick off and you said it lasts about five hours. It’s on the 11th of November
and the times?
Niruj: [00:20:53] So let me do the timings in South African time, which is
SAST equivalently Central African time. And then I’ll talk about how it is in
the rest of Africa as well. Now this Transit of mercury is special because it
can be seen from all of Africa. So it’s an African Transit, if you will.
Right, Mercury is going to start entering
the face of the sun on the sky at 2:35 p.m. 2:35 in the afternoon South African
time. It’s going to take five and a half hours to go across the face of the sun
and exit, right? The midpoint is going to be at 5:20/5:19 p.m. Right and the
endpoint is going to be at 8:05 p.m.
Of course the Sun is going to set much
before 8:05 p.m. And therefore you won’t be able to see the full Transit from
South Africa. You would be… the sun sets in Cape Town around 7:23 p.m. And in
Johannesburg around 6:30 p.m. Right so you’re going to be able to see a bit
more than half the transit from South Africa a little bit more from the western
part of South Africa compared to the eastern part of South Africa because as we
know the sun sets later and later as you go more westwards, right?
But then because the sun sets later later
as you go more westwards, the Eastern parts of Africa itself will see less of
the transit compared to the western part of Africa and therefore if you are in
for example, you know Ethiopia Somalia or one of those Eastern Parts you would
be able to see the transit to a little before halfway through before the sun
sets for you. But if you’re going to be on the western coast, let’s say now
Guinea or Senegal you will see the entire Transit before the sun sets for you.
But the important point is that wherever you are in Africa, you’re going to be
seeing at least half the transit which is going to be around to two and a half
So that’s why that’s why it’s a really nice
event for African people to get us get together and and and see.
Dan: [00:22:49] Will there be events? I mean will there be telescopes
around the continent for people to go and look because as you said you can’t
look with binoculars, not by yourself. With eclipse viewers you won’t be able
to see it.
So you’re going to need a telescope with a
real solar filter in order for the public to see this. So this isn’t going to
be a an easily visible thing to most most people they’re going to have to seek
out some location where there’s a telescope set up particularly for this. Do
you know if there are events planned around the continent?
Niruj: [00:23:24] So this is not something you can just go out and see for
yourself. You need a telescope. But, you know, the telescope, how do you see
the transit right? Remember you are looking at the sun. Some of us in high
school have done this experiment where you know, you take a you take a magnifying
glass, right? You take a convex lens from a Physics laboratory and then you
focus the sun onto a piece of paper and within 5 Seconds what happens the piece
of paper starts burning right. Now imagine that lends to be much bigger lens
and your eye to be where the paper is. Your eye will melt and therefore it’s an
incredibly dangerous thing tp look at the sun even for a fraction of a second
through any optical telescope directly, right. The sun’s Rays as focused
through any lens or mirror should never enter ever. It’ll it’ll cause you
blindness or permanent damage.
Having said that, what we do, right,
astronomers have been seeing the Sun for centuries. Galileo himself saw the sun
through his telescope like what you do is that you make the telescope look at
the Sun. You make sure the telescope has no plastic parts because the plastic
is going to melt in the sun’s heat and then you focus the sun’s image onto a
piece of paper kept, let’s say, half a meter from the eyepiece, right? And then
you look at the image of the sun which is on the piece of paper. Now there are
many advantages to doing so
One: This is completely safe. Because the
sun’s rays are going to hit the piece of paper, but it’s going to be a focused
large image. So the image would be 20 to 30 centimeters wide is not going to
focus on to a point like when you’re burning a piece of paper and then you can
you can look at the sun’s image very clearly.
In fact, this is exactly how using a
pinhole camera by the way and later the telescope, you know, Galileo and others
discovered sunspots on the sun surface. They discovered the sun rotates around
its axis every roughly a month and so on so looking at the sun through
projection, this is what we call the projection method you focus the sun’s
image onto a large piece of paper kept a distance from the eyepiece and make it
you know, and the farther away you move the paper the larger the sun’s image is
the safe is a completely safe way to do it. As long as you make sure that while
doing this focusing nobody gets in between the eye piece in the paper and look
at the Sun by accident.
The other advantage of doing this for
something like the transit of mercury is that this piece of paper is going to
have an image of the sun which is let’s say 30 centimeters big. If you’re going
to have a large public gathering of let’s say a hundred people, many people can
look at the Mercury Transit at the same time. So it’s a public event, right?
Therefore, this is a very public way of
looking at the transit together. If you some telescopes might have solar
filters. These are special filters you put on the front of the telescope to
block out enough Sun’s light that you can see through an eyepiece.
Now, we do not know how good your solar
filter is going to be. We don’t know how old it is and what quality it’s going
to be so we do not recommend that you use some solar filter you might have
lying around. Therefore we recommend very very strongly that you only use the
projection method to look at the Sun to look at the Mercury Transit on the face
of the sun both because it is extremely safe and also because many people can
see it at the same time.
Now having said that you might wonder how
would I do this? Because I have no telescope or even if I have telescope I did
not know how to point the sun safely. Therefore what we are what we are
advising is that you go. You find a find amateur astronomy club or University
or a school or a planetarium or a science center near you.
And you go pester them to organize a public
event with the telescopes they have. Because they will know how to see the sun
safely and show it to people safely. You go pester them to organize a public
event for the transit of Mercury and make a public call. Let all of you your
family your friends to go and see the transit of mercury with them.
Now what we are doing from our side. We are
giving a public call to people with telescopes who know how to use them. It
does include science centers and planetary amateur astronomers across South
Africa and also Africa to tell us what telescopes they have and if they would
be willing to organize a public event and we’re going to make a list of these
public events. People are volunteering to organize and will make them public on
a website and social media. So you can then look at that list and know if
there’s something happening around you. But we also encourage you to go and you
know, pester people like I said locally.
So who’s “we”? So in South Africa
there are a bunch of us who do astronomy outreach and education and we are kind
of trying to organize this across the country. SARAO where I’m from is is
trying to do this with the nine countries involved in the SKA AVN. The square
kilometre array Africa will be a network of partner countries. And to contact,
you know, contact people we know there and see if and kind of work together to
organize public events in all of these nine countries.
The African Astronomical Society – the
AfAS, which was founded recently is also
doing a similar exercise across all countries in Africa. So they are parallel
efforts happening and we hope that there are quite a few events across the
continent on 11th of November where you could go see the transit of mercury
safely with your friends and family.
Dan: [00:28:37] Obviously here in Cape Town in particular they’ll be a
few events going on. I know SAAO will be organizing an event.
Niruj: [00:28:44] Yes definitely
Dan: [00:28:45] And we’ll have details of all of these events available
on the website and social media. So if you want to just follow us or also on
the the podcast website will be there. We’ll make sure to post some details of
where you can see if you want to get a access to a telescope.
Niruj. Thank you very much for joining us.
Niruj: [00:29:07] Thanks for having me. It’s been a pleasure.
Dan: [00:29:09] I think that I’m really looking forward to the transit.
Yeah, we will certainly be letting you guys know about events that are
happening keep an eye on the social media and on the website
Niruj: [00:29:20] And do pester your local
University or Science Center with telescopes to organize a public event.
Dan: [00:29:26] Yeah or the amateur astronomers who
Niruj: [00:29:28] especially amateur astronomers
Dan: [00:29:29] are very knowledgeable about these things.
Niruj: [00:29:31] Yeah, and they’ve been doing this for a long time and
they know exactly how to do it safely.
So again, let me end with saying. Make sure
you’re safe when you’re seeing the Transit. Do not look at the sun directly
through any Optical instrument at all during the transit or anytime else.
Dan: [00:29:48] Absolutely, I don’t think that can be stressed enough. We
really don’t want somebody to lose an eye over this.
Niruj: [00:29:53] Exactly
Dan: [00:29:55] Niruj , thank you very much.
Niruj: [00:29:56] Thanks. Thanks a lot.
Dan: [00:30:03] Yeah, so, a very exciting event and it was great to speak
to Niruj. The next one is only in 2032. So if you can try to see it, it will be
great. I am actually going to try and live stream it from here at the
observatory. I still need to try and set that up, but I’m trying to I’ll try
and get it going on our Facebook live.
So if you do want to try and see it follow
us The Cosmic Savannah we’ll be re tweeting and posting things. But also the
SAAO just @SAAO on Twitter and we’ll send links as to where you can observe
Jacinta: [00:30:44] Super awesome. And can you actually see this Transit from
any other continent?
Dan: [00:30:50] So very Southern Europe but mostly Africa.
Jacinta: [00:30:54] Oh really?
Dan: [00:30:54] It’s a true African Transit. Very exciting event.
Jacinta: [00:30:57] Yeah, that is very exciting. So I have to definitely take
a look at that. I’m glad that you’re live streaming it. That’ll make it really
easy to see and do you have any fun facts about Mercury?
Dan: [00:31:07] I know it’s incredibly hard to get to Mercury which is
not what you’d expect.
There was about a year ago. There was this
BepiColumbo Mission launched where
they’re trying to go and send a couple of things into orbit around Mercury and
I remember at the time not really understanding why it was so hard to get there
because you think the sun is a massive gravity well and you can just fall in
But it’s actually not the case because the
Earth is spinning very fast around the Sun orbiting very fast around the Sun.
So what you got to do is slow this spaceship down a lot. So when you want to
speed a spaceship up and you want to get it to Jupiter or Saturn or something
like that, you do these gravity assists where you fly past a planet like Earth
and you get a little bit of energy.
what they’re doing with the BepiColombo is flying past the Earth and Venus and
losing energy. So they’re using them to slow slow this this craft down, which I
thought was quite cool. I thought it was something which I’d never really
Jacinta: [00:32:10] That is cool. That’s a really fun Fun Fact.
Dan: [00:32:12] Thanks.
Jacinta: [00:32:13] It’s a bit more fun than mine. Actually, my fun fact is
that if you were on Mercury you would weigh only 38 percent of what you weigh
on the Earth. So you don’t need to go on a diet, just go to Mercury. Also a day
on Mercury is much longer than a year on Mercury.
Dan: [00:32:31] Oh! Good to know.
Jacinta: [00:32:32] Yeah so a day on the surface of mercury lasts 176 Earth
days, but a year takes 88 Earth days, so it’s going around the Sun a lot faster
than it’s spinning on its axis.
Dan: [00:32:43] That is interesting.
Jacinta: [00:32:44] Yeah, that’s a little fun fun fact.
Dan: [00:32:47] Okay, I think we’ll wrap it up there. But if you are
interested in seeing the transit, Google, follow us at SAAO and at The osmic
Savannah and we’ll make sure to keep you updated on where and when you can see
Jacinta: [00:32:58] And don’t look at the Sun.
Dan: [00:32:59] And please don’t look at the sun guys, really. It’s not a
joke. We really mean it.
Jacinta: [00:33:04] Don’t choose this thing to rebel against. You’ll end up blind.
Dan: [00:33:07] Not this time.
And that’s it for today. Thanks very much
for listening. And we hope you’ll join us again on the next episode of The
Jacinta: [00:33:15] You can visit our website thecosmicsavannah.com where
we’ll have links related to today’s episode and you can follow us on Twitter
Facebook and Instagram @cosmicsavannah. That’s Savannah spelled
Dan: [00:33:28] Special thanks today to Dr. Niruj Ramanujam for speaking
Jacinta: [00:33:32] Thanks to Mark Allnut for music production, Janus Brink
for the astrophotography, Lana Ceraj for graphic design and Thabisa Fikilepi for social media
Dan: [00:33:42] We gratefully acknowledge the support of the South
African National Research Foundation and the South African Astronomical
Observatory to help keep the podcast running.
Jacinta: [00:33:50] 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 or recommend us to a friend.
Dan: [00:33:59] And we’ll speak to you next time on The Cosmic Savannah.
This week we continue on our travels! Dan visits the Vatican Observatory in Rome, where he attends a conference. He speaks with the director, Brother Guy Consolmagno, about why the Vatican has an observatory, and how they reconcile faith and the Big Bang!
We also chat with PhD Student Julia Healy about some of her excellent work on neutral hydrogen in galaxy clusters. Julia also attended the 2019 Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting and talks about what went down after hours!
Some images of the Vatican Observatory and the SuperVOSS Conference
Featured Image: The Vatican Observatory, Castel Gandalfo, Italy. (Image Credit: Hannah Scott)
Transcription (by Sumari Hattingh)
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:00:00] Welcome to the cosmic Savannah with Dr. Jacinta Delhaize.
Daniel Cunnama: [00:00:02] And Dr. Daniel Cunnama. Each episode, we’ll be giving you
a, behind the scenes look at world-class astronomy and astrophysics happening
under African skies.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:00:10] Let us introduce you to the people involved, the
technology we use, the exciting work we do, and the fascinating discoveries we
Daniel Cunnama: [00:00:17] Sit back and relax as we take you on a Safari through the
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:00:30] Welcome to episode 15.
Daniel Cunnama: [00:00:32] Episode 15?
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:00:33] Yes.
Daniel Cunnama: [00:00:33] Right, second
episode of season two.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:00:36] That’s right. And we’re going to continue our discussions
of the adventures that happened during the break – during the hiatus.
Daniel Cunnama: [00:00:43] Yes. We had some fun ones.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:00:45] And today we’re going to be talking to Brother Guy from
the Vatican Observatory and Julia Healey, who is a PhD student at University of
Cape Town. So the reason we’ve spoke to
her while you spoke to Brother Guy, because you were at the Vatican.
Daniel Cunnama: [00:00:58] Yes. So I visited the Vatican Observatory in Rome. I had
previously visited in 2010 for the Vatican Observatory Summer School, which is
a very exciting summer school. We’ll talk a little bit about it more with
Brother Guy, and I was visiting again for a follow-up conference with all of
the alumni of the previous Vatican summer schools, and we had a conference
about extra astronomical life.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:01:25] Extra astronomical? Okay.
Daniel Cunnama: [00:01:28] So life outside of astronomy. So we were all astronomers
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:01:31] Oh, I thought you were talking about extra terrestrial
Daniel Cunnama: [00:01:34] No. Extra astronomical life. So for the astronomers that
have gone through the summer school, we got together to talk about what else
they had done. So outreach, what they had done, you know, so there was some
school teachers there, there were people who had gone into data science or
other roles at the jobs, and all of those people were obviously welcome to talk
about their experiences.
We had one awesome talk by a guy who works
for NASA and he does a lot of the rocket building stuff. He was responsible for
the Orion abort test where they tested the Orion capsule that’s going to carry
humans soon. And tested the abort. And now he’s busy building the Habitat,
which is going to transfer people from earth orbit to the moon orbit.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:02:21] Ah, cool!
Daniel Cunnama: [00:02:21] So there were some super cool stuff. And so not just
talking about astronomy, it’s really cool.
But while I was there, I had a chance to sit down with the director of
the Vatican observatory, a Brother Guy Consolmagno and talk to him a little bit
about this – why, I mean, why is there a
Vatican Observatory? Why do they have
these summer schools? And the big questions: why religion and faith?
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:02:46] Oh, very good questions. Let’s hear from Brother Guy who
answers a lot of these questions.
Daniel Cunnama: [00:02:57] So today I’m joined by Brother Guy Consolmagno, who is
the director of the Vatican Observatory in Rome. And I’ll be asking him a
little bit about the Vatican Observatory, what he does and where he’s from, and
yeah, welcome to the Cosmic Savannah, Guy.
Consolmagno: [00:03:14] It’s wonderful to be back
and it’s great to be back in Africa, so to speak, even though we’re not in
Africa now. I know that’s where the podcast will be heard.
Daniel Cunnama: [00:03:21] So just to start off, what is the Vatican Observatory and
what do you do?
Consolmagno: [00:03:26] The Vatican Observatory is
the National Observatory of the Vatican City State, and it was founded in 1891
really with the idea of emphasizing that the City State was different from an
independent of Italy.
That was very controversial back then. But
with the Concord out of 1929, Italy finally agreed the Vatican was independent.
The focus shifted a little bit to simply being the church’s presence in the
world of science. We’re a PR outfit in effect. We do real science. We work with
all the other astronomers.
But it doesn’t really matter what science
we do as long as it’s good science and that it is in cooperation with the other
scientists around the world. And the real message that the church supports science,
I’ve discovered, is not a message we have to give to the scientists. Most
scientists have their own religious beliefs or they’ve come from religious
beliefs, so they’re becoming converts or they’re becoming atheists too.
There’s this wonderful turning in anybody’s
life. The message that we find, we have to give is, to the people in the pews.
So in many ways, I’m a missionary of science to the religious people.
Daniel Cunnama: [00:04:35] That’s very cool. I’ve never thought of it that way. And
what sort of science do you do then? So you work in research yourself and other
of the other astronomers based at the Observatory?
Consolmagno: [00:04:45] Yeah, there are about a
dozen of us and everybody who comes into the Observatory, you have to be a
Jesuit priest or Brother, a couple of diocesan priests, but members of the
Jesuit religious order. So we all belong to the same order -we cannot live
together under the same rule. Everybody comes in with a doctorate. – in some
corner of astronomy – but they’re never going to be the same corners. So
whatever you happen to get your doctorate in, and that’s the research you want
to do, that’s what you’ll end up doing. And as a result, we’ve got, you know,
one guy who does cosmology in terms of understanding dark energy.
We’ve got another fellow who’s interested
in quantum cosmology and quantum gravity, and what goes on during the plank
time that you have the very, very tiniest fraction after the Big Bang. At the
other end, we’ve got people who study meteors, cosmic dust that had sea
atmosphere like the earth, and trying to characterize that.
A couple of us, myself and my colleague,
Brother Bob Mackey, are meteoretisists, which – try to say that fast three
times – and we studied the meteorites, the actual rocks that are recovered
after hitting the earth. But we’ve also got people who do spectra of stellar
clusters. A fellow who does the theory of stellar evolution with his big
computer, somebody who’s interested in the evolution of galaxies, somebody
who’s been interested in quasars. – when he was younger, he did nearby quasars.
Now he’s doing more distant quasars.
The point is that any science is good as
long as it’s good science. And we can talk to each other about the exciting
work we do, and we can talk to our colleagues. So every one of us will publish
a paper with 10 other scientists at 10 other universities or institutions
around the world, and it becomes a focal point for international astronomy
Daniel Cunnama: [00:06:28] So in terms of your PR exercise then, right? You’re
promoting science to the Vatican and the followers of the Catholic church. So
hearing you talk about things like the Big Bang, I mean, most people would not
expect that from the director of the Vatican Observatory. And so your
challenges are primarily within the church?
Consolmagno: [00:06:48] I think our challenges are
within people who are going to be surprised. I love surprising people, and in a
sense, I’m delighted when people are surprised that we’re doing work on the Big
Bang or that I’m interested in meteorites that are four and a half billion
years old because I want to emphasize – especially to the people in the pews
who may not realize it – t,hat Catholic theology, and indeed most Protestant
theology is not that strict fundamentalist idea that, you know, the world is
6,000 years old or whatever they come up with. As I remind people, you know,
Catholics are not creationists. It has never been part of our tradition that
the world was made in seven days, literally days.
Because that’s not how we understand
Scripture. It’s bad theology as well as being bad science. And generally you
find bad theology and bad science wind up going hand in hand. Many people are
surprised to hear that the Big Bang theory was actually devised by a fellow
from Belgium who had two degrees, one from MIT and one from Levine. – who
happened to be a Catholic priest, and in fact, a lot of the resistance to the
Big Bang theory came from people who were suspicious of him: “Oh, you’re just inventing this idea of
the Universe having a beginning to rescue Genesis and the idea of
creation.” Which is actually bad theology as well as bad science.
Some people think that when we say
“God created the Universe”, we mean that He’s the one who set off the
Big Bang. That’s not really what we mean by “creation out of
nothing”. Stephen Hawking made this idea of, he wrote a few years ago:
“I figured out what started the Big Bang. It was a quantum fluctuation in
the space time continuum and these fluctuations in space and time is what we
And so he says, “Because there is a
thing called gravity, I don’t need God”. Well wait a minute. If his idea
of God is the force that started the Big Bang, and then he says, gravity is the
force that started the Big Bang – he’s not saying there’s no God. He’s saying
that we should all be worshiping gravity, which is ridiculous. Maybe that’s why he thinks Catholics
Daniel Cunnama: [00:08:53] I bet you’ve used that one before.
Consolmagno: [00:08:55] Yeah. But you know, the
Catholic, the Christian, the traditional idea of creation from nothing – is
that even space in time is created. And so it’s an idea that fits in beautifully
with Einsteinian ideas of a space time continuum – the idea that creation is
not something that happened just 13.7 billion years ago, but also is happening
now. It is happening at every time in every place. Because that’s what creation
outside of the Universe of space and time means : that it’s the same in every
space, in every time, and it’s marvelously mind blowing. But it’s also very
consistent with how we think of a quantum Universe, how we think of a
Daniel Cunnama: [00:09:38] So what was your path into this?
Consolmagno: [00:09:40] As a kid I grew up in
Michigan with an Italian ancestry dad and Irish ancestry mom -so coming from
the Irish and Italian and then being Catholic was pretty obvious to me, and I
grew up in a household that was well educated; both my parents had gone to
college. The question was not would I go to college, but what would I get my
doctorate in, because they knew I was, you know, an abnoxiously smart kid. And
I grew up at the time, you know, when I started school with, when Sputnik was
launched. When I started university; that’s when people were landing on the
How could you not be crazy about space? At
the same time, I also loved writing. I loved journalism. I enjoyed being a
Catholic, and I thought about being a priest and I loved science fiction. And
all of these different things sort of wound up pulling my path. One way or
another. I actually wound up attending MIT, because my best friend was going
When I visited him, I saw they had the
world’s largest collection of science fiction books. And at that time it was,
you know, “What am I going to do with my life?”. Well, if I’ve got to
be at a university, I may as well be at a place that’s full of nerds like me.
And I can read science fiction and I can study planets cause I thought planets
are places where people have adventures.
And I wound up in the earth and planetary
science department only after I arrived at, I discovered that was actually
geology. You know, I’m going to be studying rocks. I thought it was going to be
studying something exciting. And then I found out there are rocks that fall out
of the sky from the asteroid belt, they’re called meteorites, and this just
made me so excited to think you can hold a piece of outer space in your hand.
And that drove my research then – for the
next 10 years. I wound up with a master’s degree at MIT – my undergraduate
thesis was good enough so they said, “Stick around, we’ll give you a
master’s degree for it.”. And then I went off to the university of Arizona
where they were just starting a planetary science program, and I wound up
working with the meteoreticist there.
And then in the bigger question of plasmas
and magnetic fields and the physics of all of this. On the energy of that. – I
went off there first two years at the Harvard Smithsonian center for
astrophysics, where I was a postdoctoral fellow and I taught a course at
Harvard, and then I got a position like that at MIT.
I thought, “This is great!” Until
I hit 30 years old and I realized I’ve now been in these temporary jobs for
five years. Where’s my future going? And also the excitement and the enthusiasm
that I had had when I was 18 was beginning to run out. And I’d be walking home
thinking, why am I beating my brain out trying to write a paper about the moons
of Jupiter that five people in the world will read and two of them are my
enemies and there’s people starving in the world and I’m getting old. :
“I’m turning 30! Oh my gosh!” I could not imagine being so I wasn’t
going to be a kid anymore.
Daniel Cunnama: [00:12:34] I know the feeling.
Consolmagno: [00:12:36] I didn’t have a family. I
didn’t have debts. I didn’t have anything tying me down. I could go anywhere in
the world I wanted to go. And I had no idea really where it was I wanted to go.
So I quit science and I joined the US
PScore and I said,” I’ll go anywhere you ask me to go, I’ll do anything
you ask.” They sent me to Kenya, to Nairobi, and I thought, “This is
great. I’m going to be teaching upcountry in a remote school and that’ll be
fun.”. And then they took a look at my background and they sent me first
to the best high school in the country.
That’s Starehe Boys Center supported by the
government. It’s where they had computer labs and lasers and this was 1982
grade school, and then they sent me, actually they pulled me from there and
sent me to the university of Nairobi where I wound up teaching astrophysics to
graduate students. I’m thinking I could have done this back in Boston.
But I learned a difference. First, there’s
the obvious case that only a technologically developed society can feed its
population at a regular basis for all of the problems that come with technology
and you can’t deny them the alienation, the pollution and all that, which we
have to fight against. Still, it’s what feeds people – to have a
technologically sophisticated society, you’ve got to have an educated populace
for that, you’ve got to have schools for that, you’ve got to have teachers. The
guys I was teaching astrophysics to, had jobs waiting for them at the Kenya
Science Teachers College, so I could see that my teaching was going to help
develop the country, but that wasn’t the real reason why they or anybody else
wanted to learn astronomy.
I went up country every weekend for my
friends who really were out in the countryside in the remote areas, and I’d set
up my little telescope and everybody in the village would go look through the
telescope and go, “Wow!”. You know, if you’ve ever seen the moons of
Jupiter, have you ever seen the rings of Saturn?
Have you ever seen the rings of Saturn and
not gone, “Wow!”. I mean, I’ve been looking at them now for 60 years
and I still go, “Wow!”, that’s what human beings do. In those days, I
had a really, you know, very clever cat, much better being a cat than I ever
would be, but my cat never wanted to look through the telescope.
Human beings want to look through the
telescope, and if you tell somebody, “You can’t look through the telescope
because you’re a girl, because you’re an African, because you’re a
whatever.”, you’re denying them their humanity. It’s a terribly cruel
thing to do. But if you say to everybody, “This is what astronomy is. It’s not stars and planets. It’s the conversation
that we, human beings have about the stars and the planets, and everybody gets
to take part in the conversation.”
Daniel Cunnama: [00:15:16] Yeah. And I mean, I think this is one of the beauties of
astronomy, and I guess that’s what we’re talking about now, is that it’s, we’re
under one sky and it’s one of the great.
Tools for bringing people together. I mean,
I think it’s, it’s why I love it. It’s why you love it. And it’s a, it’s a
wonderful, wonderful science.
Consolmagno: [00:15:31] And of course, it’s the
gateway drug to all the other cool things you can do with science because
anybody could look at the stars and go, “Wow”.
And that’s what we were able to do. And
that’s why you do papers about the moons of Jupiter, because science is this
conversation we have among human beings. It’s not really about the moons of
Jupiter. It’s what I’ve done about them and what you’ve done about them and
what we can learn, talking to each other about them and anybody who wants to,
you know, there are a lot of other things you can do with your life, but if
you’re so crazy that you want to really dedicate your life to only astronomy,
there’s room for you. We can make room
Daniel Cunnama: [00:16:05] And I mean, I think that leads us quite naturally into
why I’m here and why we’re here right now. Because I, one of the wonderful
things that the Vatican observatory does is run the Vatican Observatory Summer
School every two years, which I was very privileged to attend in 2010 and really
changed my life.
I had the most amazing time. So much, and made so many great friends. And
now we’re in the Vatican Observatory again nine years later. For a, what is
called a Super VOSS which is a reunion of all the, the previous VOSS
participants. Can you tell us a little bit about the, the VOSS concept and
philosophy and why, why the Vatican decided to do it and continues?
Consolmagno: [00:16:49] Well, as I say, astronomy
is this conversation you have with people. The more people you can talk to, the
more fun it is. And the richer the science becomes. There was a Jesuit many
years ago, Martin McCarthy, I remember him. He was an old man when I arrived.
He’s probably the age I am now, and about 1986 as he was shaving one day, he
said, “You know, the one thing we don’t have, we’ve got astronomers from
around the world, but we don’t have students.
If we could figure out some way to bring young people here, they would
enjoy what we’ve got and we would enjoy learning from them. “
So he came up with the idea of a Summer
School, and the basic format has stayed the same since 1986 : 25 students drawn
from universities around the world. The only criteria to get in is that you
have to show, you want to be a professional astronomer.
There are lots of other great things you
can do. This is going to be professional astronomers, and no more than two from
any country, and the school is free, and if you are accepted, we get a body of
more than a hundred applicants, so the 25 places, so it’s hard to get in. But if
you’re accepted, we’ll make sure that you get here, pay what you can towards
travel and housing and whatever you can’t pay, we will. Because we wanted to
make sure that it is totally stress-free, that all of the emphasis is on the
astronomy. But as a result, two thirds of our students are from the third
world. From the very beginning, half the students have been women, and it’s not
because we had a quota, it’s just the way it came out, and it’s always been
And you learn a lot in the classroom about
astronomy. But you learn even more over the dinner table with people from all
over the world discovering where we’re different, but even more where we’re
alike and how the excitement of astronomy unites all of us.
Daniel Cunnama: [00:18:39] Yeah, I mean, that was really my experience with meeting
people from 24 different countries and getting to spend a full month with them.
And as you said, a shared, a shared love of
astronomy, a shared interest, and just, yeah, like a, it was just a wonderful,
wonderful experience. The Super VOSS we’re at now, so there’s this sort of
reunion. There are only been a few of a few of these.
Consolmagno: [00:19:01] This is the fourth one
we’ve had in,….you do the math.
We’ve been doing this since ’86 so there
roughly one every eight years or so. We love to have the chance to bring the
alumni together so you get to know each other from different stages in your
careers. You know, the students of the ’86 school are now the senior
astronomers. The fellow who was in charge for many years of the European
Southern Observatory in Chile was an alumnus of our school.
The fellow who has just made the first
image of a black hole with the event horizon telescope is an alumnus of our
school, and who knows what the alumni’s of the last three or four schools are
going to be doing in 20 years. But there is this shared fellowship, this bond,
and you seek other Vatican Summer School students, even if they’re not from
your year, when you go to big meetings like the International Astronomical
Union, which is going to be held in South Africa.
Daniel Cunnama: [00:19:58] Yeah. I mean, I expect, I’ll see you there in 2024.
Consolmagno: [00:20:01] I’m looking forward to it.
Daniel Cunnama: [00:20:03] Brother Guy, thank you very much. Thank you very much for
the opportunity in 2010 to come. And then thank you for the opportunity to come
again now, and thank you for speaking with us. I really enjoyed it. And is
there anything else you’d like to say?
Consolmagno: [00:20:15] Just that I’ve always left
a little bit of my heart and Africa and I’m glad that my voice will be going
Daniel Cunnama: [00:20:21] Well, and you too soon hopefully.
Consolmagno: [00:20:24] Also take advantage of the
Southern skies. You guys have no idea how spectacular that is for somebody from
the North like me.
Daniel Cunnama: [00:20:31] We have an idea of how spectacular it is. Thank you very much, Guy.
Consolmagno: [00:20:40] Bye-bye.
… Music Playing …
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:20:46] That was amazing.
Daniel Cunnama: [00:20:47] Yeah. So I mean, I had a great amount of fun talking to
Brother Guy. He’s a very bubbly, charismatic, excuse the pun. And he, and he,
he gave me a real enlightening perspective. I had never thought of it that way.
Despite having gone in 2010, I think I was young. I didn’t really think about
these things in the same, same way.
And just to hear him explain it from his,
his point of view was, was really quite interesting. And I think that the
intersection of faith and science is important. I think that it’s something we
should definitely talk about more. Perhaps we can talk to some people from
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:21:27] Ah, that’s a great idea, yeah.
Daniel Cunnama: [00:21:29] And try and explore this because I think that, if we’re
doing outreach and that’s what we’re doing here. You need to try and talk to people through
their own lens rather than imposing your viewpoint on them.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:21:41] That’s true. But also, I think another aspect of that is
that astronomers are a diverse set of people, right? I think, maybe, the
perception from the public is that we’re all atheist, but there’s actually
people who we all work with every single day who are from every faith and every
background and every culture and nationality.
And so I think one important message to get
across is that you can be anyone and be an astronomer.
Daniel Cunnama: [00:22:07] Yeah. Even in the highest echelons of the Catholic
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:22:10] Well, exactly, but also you can be anyone and be
interested in astronomy. You don’t even have to be an astronomer. You can be
anyone and listen to this podcast, for example.
Daniel Cunnama: [00:22:19] Yeah, I think it was, I mean, it was very eye-opening and
a wonderful experience. Obviously a lot of fun. As I said to be back at the
Vatican, I have very wonderful memories from there. And then I made a whole lot
more. So it was, it was a great trip.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:22:33] Lots of friends.
Daniel Cunnama: [00:22:34] Yes, great friends. I mean, we spent a month at the
Vatican Observatory, and a month with people is a long time.
It’s full on 24 hours a day, and you really
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:22:46] So maybe tell us a little bit more about VOSS. The
Vatican Observatory summer school that you went to this year you took, you
mentioned it was about extra astronomical life. So what did you talk about?
Daniel Cunnama: [00:22:56] Yeah, so this wasn’t a full on summer school.
This was the, like a conference for past
astronomers who’ve gone through the Vatican Summer School and with the extra
astronomical life, as I said, they were, they were many different people. For
myself, my work in the last couple of years has moved from research into
outreach. A lot of projects, project management.
So I’m doing a lot of things which are not
directly astronomy research anymore. I’m still employed at the Observatory. I’m
still an astronomer, but I’m doing a lot of stuff, which is reaching out to
different sectors of the population and trying to, to better communicate with
them and form stronger relationships with the general public.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:23:41] So can you give us some examples of the different
projects you’re working on?
Daniel Cunnama: [00:23:44] So some of the more exciting ones at the moment are next
year, the South African Astronomical Observatory here in Cape town. We’ll be
celebrating its past itenarary.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:23:54] 200 years.
Daniel Cunnama: [00:23:55] 200 years next year.
I am responsible for organizing all of the celebrations.
So last year we were declared a national
heritage site, South African National Heritage site, which is the highest honor
that can be bestowed on a site. Basically we were protected now from any
further development or we’re, we are preserved. So we will be having a large
unveiling for that with ministerial attendance.
At the same time as that, I’ll be
organizing a large symposium talking about beyond 200 years of astronomy. So
the history of astronomy here and in Africa as well as what’s happening now.
Recent history, things like SALT, MeerKAT and then the future. We have a very
exciting future in Africa in terms of astronomy, and we want to try and
So those are some of the projects I’m
working on. I’m also organizing a large astronomy festival at the same time, so
you’ll hear more about that soon. We still in the planning phases, but we’ll
start advertising next year. And yeah, so these are the, some, some of the
projects which are taking up all of my time, trying to grow the interest in
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:25:13] Wow. So you didn’t have enough projects done. I think you
need a few more.
Daniel Cunnama: [00:25:16] I mean, that was just scratching the surface. I was up
doing a planetarium show, which is super exciting. I’m doing this planetarium
show, highlighting this again. So the history of astronomy and Africa and the
exciting things, which are happening now, that is due to be released in September
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:25:33] Oh, that’s exciting.
Daniel Cunnama: [00:25:34] It is exciting.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:25:35] And you’re also doing this podcast.
Daniel Cunnama: [00:25:36] And I’m doing this podcast.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:25:38] That’s outside, outside hustle. Outside. So why is it so
important to kind of reach out to the public and other sectors and talk about
Daniel Cunnama: [00:25:50] I think that astronomy – we’ve talked about it before.
-It’s a really good tool for getting people interested in maths and science and
understanding how things work. But more than that, it’s kind of a, it’s a
science and science in general is based on it; a level of critical thinking. So
you’re trained to think critically about everything. You look for evidence, you
analyze that evidence, and you try and work out what’s true, what’s not, and
what you can understand, what you can learn from it.
And I think that those skills are valuable
in all spheres of life. So. I think that that’s definitely one major thing in
terms of promoting astronomy is trying to get people to think more critically
in all the areas of their life and this, and using astronomy with its
excitement and beautiful pictures as the tool to do that.
But also just a general excitement. I think
that people being excited about science and is, is great rather than just being
excited about. Music or rock stars or whatever. I don’t know if they still are
rock stars, pop stars, whatever. Instagram celebrities.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:27:15] They’re called influencers.
Daniel Cunnama: [00:27:17] Influencers.
I have not been influenced. But I’m trying
to be an influencer in terms of science. Right? So try and get people
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:27:27] Yeah. And I also really liked what brother guy said
about, you know, it’s the excitement of astronomy that unites us all, and we’re
all under one sky. And that can bring us together.
And, and what you were saying before about
sort of using astronomy as a hook to inspire critical thinking and appreciation
of the scientific method. It reminded me of actually when I went to the, the
Lindau meeting in 2012 and as we mentioned in the previous episode, the Lindau
meetings are meetings of Nobel laureates and young scientists in Germany each
And when I went, I spoke to Mario Molino
who was one of, who, won the Nobel prize for, I think it was, it was something
environment related. I think it was the discovery that CFCs affect the ozone.
And so I sort of asked him about the climate change fiasco in terms of science
And I said that people often come up to me
and ask me, you know, because I’m a scientist, about my opinion on climate
change or human induced climate change. And I sort of said, “Well, you know,
I’m an astronomer, not a climate scientist, so I don’t have so much authority
to speak on that subject.”
“So what can I do?” And he said,
“Well, I guess the importance is to instill the appreciation for the
scientific method and explain what that is and sort of why it works, and to, to
foster a love of critical thinking.” So yeah, not just believing whatever
you hear, but actually thinking it through yourself and coming to your own
So I think that’s, that’s one of the
essential aspects of science communication and astronomy communication.
Daniel Cunnama: [00:29:02] Yeah, for sure.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:29:03] Speaking of the Lindau meetings, you might remember in
episode 14, we spoke to Nicole Thomas who had just been to that and preciously
Cassano who was one of our guests in season one, was also attending the same
And right now we’re going to hear from a
third attendee at the, this year’s Lindau meeting of Nobel laureates. And
that’s Julia Healey, who is a PhD student at the university of Cape town. And
Julia is astronomy work is actually very closely related to mine. We work
together a bit. So she’s studying neutral hydrogen gas, and in particular she
studies galaxies that are in clusters.
Whereas I study galaxies that are in the field.
And since Dan, you and I are an Australian and a South African sitting in a
room together, I feel like we should use a sports analogy and I’m thinking
Daniel Cunnama: [00:29:52] Oh, I will beat you at everything these days.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:29:55] Oh sure, I mean like I do not follow it; any sports, so
go Springboks. I don’t know. So there’s, I know that Australia and South Africa
compete a lot in, is it rugby and cricket? Right. Okay. See, I know what’s
going on in the world, so let’s use cricket. I have never watched a game of
cricket in my life, but I’m thinking that you’ve got like the, wwhat’s the, is
it bowler? Is that, is that the right word? The bowler and the…
Daniel Cunnama: [00:30:24] Batsman.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:30:25] And you’ve got some fielders around them there in the
Daniel Cunnama: [00:30:28] How far are you going with this?
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:30:28] No, just wait, I’ll get there. I’ll get there. And then
you’ve got a really large cricket pitch right and field. And then there’s some
fielders out there.
You know, scattered around in this huge
field. So the galaxies that I study are like the fielders who are scattered
around in the big area, but they’re really quite isolated. There’s big areas of
emptiness around them. And then the galaxies that Julia studies are ike the
galaxies close to the pitcher and the batsman, where it’s all kind of clustered
The bowler and the batsman who all come
closer together. Do you see what I mean?
Daniel Cunnama: [00:31:08] I’m cringing here. Yes. I see what you mean. I think
that, I think that the, yeah, and the, the, the bowler and the batsmen are
interacting and everyone else else’s kind of standing around waiting for
something to happen. Yeah. Yeah. Where the exciting stuff is happening is right
at the center.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:31:24] Exactly. And so that’s what’s going on with, with Julia’s
galaxies where there’s exciting stuff happening to the hydrogen gas inside the
galaxies because they’re all closer together. But I studied the fielders that
which we actually call it field galaxies.
Okay. Let’s do it. Okay. Let’s just hear
Hello. Today with us, we have Julia Healey,
who is a PhD student from the university of Cape town. Welcome, Julia. I just
sent to tell us about yourself.
Julia Healy: [00:31:55] So, hi everyone. My name is Julia. I’m a Capetonian
native. I am a PhD student based here at the university of Cape town, but also
at the University of Gronigen in the Netherlands.
So I hold a joint position which means that
I have supervisors at both institutions. And I spend half of my time here in
Cape town and half of my time in Gronigen and in the Netherlands.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:32:18] Wow. That must be a pretty awesome experience.
Julia Healy: [00:32:19] Yeah. It’s amazing how it gets the best of both worlds.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:32:23] Yeah. So, so why did you decide on a, on a split
Julia Healy: [00:32:26] Well, I guess the, the simple answer is it was offered to
me, but more than that, it was a project that followed on from what I’d done as
part of my masters. And it was with one of my supervisors from my masters, but
it also meant that I gained a new advisor in the Netherlands, and I gain the
experience and the knowledge from, from the Netherlands. The universities in
the Netherlands are some of the oldest in the world, and the radio astronomy
institutions in the Netherlands, are some of the oldest in the world.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:33:00] So what’d you think of the particular benefits of getting
that experience doing part of your PhD in the Netherlands as opposed to just
doing it fully in South Africa?
Julia Healy: [00:33:08] I mean, the experience of being based there, it gives me
the international exposure. So being an international student at a university –
I also get the experience of being able to learn from some of the radio
astronomy greats. Many of the great radio astronomers have been educated at
institutions in the Netherlands, and some of them are still based there. So
being able to, to talk to them and to learn from them has been incredible.
And then being able to bring that, that
knowledge and that experience back home during my times in Cape town – it has
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:33:42] Yeah. That’s awesome. So I guess you’ve increased your
community, you’ve increased your network through this whole process and
probably broadened your perspective on your work.
Julia Healy: [00:33:49] Yeah, absolutely.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:33:50] So, speaking of which, what, what is your work, what do
Julia Healy: [00:33:53] So broadly speaking, my field of research is in galaxy
evolution, but more specifically, I’m, I’m interested in how different
environments affect the, the evolution of galaxies and, and in particular what
different environments due to the gas content of galaxies.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:34:10] So we’ve spoken quite a lot on this podcast about galaxy
environments, so I think that was episode six with Eric Wilcots. And I’ve also
spoken to Precious about galaxy clusters as well. But maybe some of our
listeners haven’t heard all of these episodes. Can you just run us through
quickly, sort of, what is galaxy environment and what is a cluster?
Julia Healy: [00:34:30] The environment that a galaxy lives in has to do with
maybe how, how many or how few galaxies are nearby. So low density environments
means that there’s not very many. High density environments means that you’ve
got lots of galaxies very close by and are potentially interacting with the
galaxy of interest. So galaxy clusters are high density environments, and these
are, I mean, think of like a community. A community has lots of, lots of homes,
lots of people that live within that community. And galaxy classes are the same
that they’re home to lots and lots of galaxies.
So the galaxy classes I study are home to
thousands of galaxies.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:35:09] Okay. So you’ve got thousands of Gallus galaxies clumped
together to form this big cluster.
Julia Healy: [00:35:14] Yes. Right. Yeah.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:35:16] And okay, and so what particular aspect of these clusters
are you looking at?
Julia Healy: [00:35:21] With the first part of my PhD, we are looking at how
which environment within the cluster has a greater effect on, on the gas
content – so is it the local environment? And by that I mean the galaxies and
its immediate surroundings. So galaxy
clusters grow by having more groups or galaxies fall onto it. And so we, we
can, we can trace the substructure within the galaxy classes. So my work is
comparing the, the gas content, average gas content of, of galaxies that might
live within some of these sub structures to the global cluster environment.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:35:55] Okay, so you’re saying that a cluster of galaxies
actually has some substructure in it, where within that clustering of galaxies,
you’ve got some smaller bits of galaxies clustered particularly close together,
and they’re called groups.
Julia Healy: [00:36:11] Yeah. Oh, substructure.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:36:12] Yeah. Right. Okay. So and then you’re looking at the gas,
the hydrogen gas, presumably?
Julia Healy: [00:36:18] Yes.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:36:18] Okay. So I think we spoke about this, or I’m losing track
of the episode numbers now, but I think it was episode 11 and 12 when I went to
Australia to a conference about the, this hydrogen gas, which we call H-one. So
I don’t want to repeat too much for the listeners, but in your own words, why
is it important to look at hydrogen and gas in galaxies?
Julia Healy: [00:36:36] So hydrogen gas is the most abundant of the gases in a
galaxy and, and in particular, the neutral atomic hydrogen is the most out of
all of that when you look at, at galaxies where there’s a KID detection of each
one, the, the gas disk extends far beyond the optical disc. And so it’s often
the first to experience some kind of, you know, environmental influence.
But the, the neutral hydrogen gas clouds
form the kind of the, the reservoir from which is does eventually form mutual
gas clouds or some kind of a process will start to collapse and then they get
colder, they start to collapse, the neutral hydrogen becomes molecular hydrogen
and then eventually collapses more and then, and then a star is born.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:37:20] So what do we expect about the amount of gas inside
galaxies in a cluster?
Julia Healy: [00:37:24] So as I said, because hydrogen gas in galaxies are very
sensitive to environmental effects or interactions, the hydrogen gas in
galaxies tends to be to be stripped out as galaxies fall into the cluster. So
we don’t expect to see a lot of gas in these galaxies, particularly as you get
closer to the cluster center.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:37:45] Right? So I’m actually remembering now, we spoke to Dr.
Brendan Amumba, I think it was in episode 11 or 12. And she was telling us
about how the, the fuzzy gas at the edges of galaxies actually gets disturbed
first when there’s an interaction between different galaxies because of
gravity. And so you can, by looking at the gas, you can actually tell whether
or not there was an interaction, but you can’t really tell by looking at the
stars, for example.
Julia Healy: [00:38:07] Yeah.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:38:07] Right, so now you’re saying that towards the center of a
cluster where you’re going to have the most density – so galaxies are going to
be most tightly packed – you’ve got less gas, is that right?
Julia Healy: [00:38:18] That is true. For a number of reasons. We’ll start at the
center of – it’s very hot – at the center of clusters.
We see the center of clusters in X-rays,
which indicates to us that there’s a, there’s a large collection of very hot
ionized gas at the center of clusters, which
we call the intra-cluster medium. This exerts pressure on galaxies
falling in pressure strips the gas of
the galaxies as they fall in, but also because it’s very hot at the
center that the hydrogen gas, well, the mutual gas gets ionized.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:38:50] Oh, right. Okay. So within your big cluster, I’m
imagining a bowl of little galaxies, right. And then in the very center, you’ve
got this glowing hot gas, and then the galaxies are trying to fall in towards
the center of the cluster because of gravity. And as they do, they’re plowing
through this gas and it’s stripping out, it’s like blowing out all of the nice
little hydrogen gas that they have.
And because it’s so hot, it’s also ionizing
the gas, which means that the electrons are getting stripped off the hydrogen
Julia Healy: [00:39:21] Yes.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:39:21] Right. Cool. So if you’ve got these, these galaxies in
the center, and they don’t have any gas, what do they look like – how do we
Julia Healy: [00:39:29] So these tend to be kind of what we call red hidden dead
So in, in the optical, they appear to be
quite, quite red. There’s no ongoing star formation, which usually shows up as
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:39:42] And it’s red, cause the stars have just gotten old,
Julia Healy: [00:39:44] Yeah. Yeah. And there’s been no stars forming recently
cause there’s nothing, you know, there’s no reservoir from which they can form.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:39:51] Okay. So young stars are blue; old stars are red. We can
see that these galaxies are red. So we think that they’re older.
Julia Healy: [00:39:57] Yeah. Yeah. And this is kind of typical in, in dense
environments like galaxies. It’s a pretty well-known thing that dense
environments are home, home to, to old galaxies, whereas less dense
environments tend to be home to more of the younger galaxies.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:40:13] Okay. So what in particular are you looking at?
Julia Healy: [00:40:17] So with my work, we’ve got the data on a cluster and
we’re trying to understand what, you know, which type of environment causes the
dense environments to be home to these, these older galaxies. So as I, as I
mentioned earlier, clusters have substructure, and this is a signature of, of
the groups that have fallen into the cluster. So do the group environment have
a stronger effect on the evolution of galaxies? So do our galaxies old before
they fall into the cluster, or is it the cluster that’s, you know, removing all
the H-one and stopping ongoing star formation.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:40:55] Okay. So you’re trying to find out whether the galaxies
had already lost their gas before they fell into the center, or whether they’re
falling into the center and therefore they lose that.
Julia Healy: [00:41:04] Yes, yeah.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:41:05] Okay, cool. So what have you found?
Julia Healy: [00:41:08] Still, still work in progress. It’s very difficult, you
know, even with the very high sensitivity data that I have to get a
measurement. So I’ve been working on a classical, the Coma Cluster, and we have
some very high sensitivity H-one data from the Westerbork radio telescope in
the Netherlands. But, you know, even with this, this pristine data out of
galaxy cluster of about a thousand members, we’ve, you know, we’ve only got a
handful where we can actually see the, the H-one.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:41:37] Really so out of a thousand galaxies, using some of the
best data that’s available, you can only see about 40, 40 galaxies in each one?
Julia Healy: [00:41:44] Yeah. Yeah. So we know, we know that there’s, there’s
obviously way more there cause we’ve got a huge wealth of optical information.
But you can’t directly detect the H-one on
these galaxies because there’s so little.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:41:57] All right. So why, why are you looking for it if there’s
not much there?
Julia Healy: [00:42:02] Well, I mean, just because we can’t detect it doesn’t
mean that it’s not there. So we can use statistical techniques, which is what –
and I use a technique called H-one stacking.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:42:14] Which I know all about, cause I did that for my PhD.
Julia Healy: [00:42:17] Yeah. Site to work lots actually. Yeah, no, so the H-one
stacking, we know where in space and in frequency these galaxies should be,
because we’ve got this from the optical information. And so we extract out the
galaxy spectra and we can align them and then we co-add them.
And that will hopefully create a higher
signal to noise spectrum from which you can get an average measure of the gas
content. However, this is not a guarantee. You will get a detection in the
stack spectrum, and I think the fact that we are struggling to get a detection
is telling in its own rights.
It means that these galaxies are even more
deficient than we, than we ever expected.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:43:05] Okay. So we don’t see any hydrogen gas with normal
observations – so you just look at a galaxy and you don’t see any, and then
you’re using the statistical method of stacking where instead of looking at one
galaxy for a really long time to collect all the photons coming from it, you
just look at a lot of different galaxies for a short time, and you combine that
signal together and you say, okay, these galaxies on average have this amount
Julia Healy: [00:43:26] Yeah.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:43:26] But you’re saying that when you do this stacking, you
still don’t find any hydrogen, so they have even less than we thought they did.
So you said you’re looking at Coma. Is that the only cluster you’re looking at?
Julia Healy: [00:43:39] No. So the Coma cluster has been the first part of my
PhD. The second part is I’m looking at another cluster called Alba 2626.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:43:47] Oh, what a nice name.
Julia Healy: [00:43:51] So this is a cluster and also in the Northern sky. In a
larger environment that they call the Pocius Pegasus filament.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:43:58] Oh, that’s even a nicer name.
Julia Healy: [00:44:00] Yeah, but it’s, it’s quite an interesting cluster. It’s,
it’s very different to Coma – it’s not
quite as big a, it’s not as well studied.
So there’s been no H-one measurements of it
to date that I’m aware of, but it’s also got some time to read some very
interesting types of galaxies, which was a part of the motivation for choosing
this cluster. So time to what we call jellyfish galaxies.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:44:22] Jellyfish galaxies.
Julia Healy: [00:44:24] Yeah. So jellyfish galaxies are galaxies where you can
see where they’ve fallen into the cluster and they’ve been stripped of their
gasses fallen in, and you can see ionized tails of gas coming outside, you
know, out the back. But like,…
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:44:42] Jellyfish tentacles.
Julia Healy: [00:44:43] Yeah, exactly. That’s where, the name comes from.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:44:45] That’s cute.
Julia Healy: [00:44:46] Yeah.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:44:47] Do they look like jellyfish when you look at them?
Julia Healy: [00:44:49] Some of them do; some more than others.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:44:51] Okay. We have to have a bit of an imagination, I guess.
Julia Healy: [00:44:55] Yeah, very much so.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:44:56] If you squint and turn your head sideways, it sort of
looks like jellyfish.
Julia Healy: [00:44:59] I mean, I think the one, you know the famous one within
this cluster, I think is pretty convincing when you see the data.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:45:07] Is it public?
Julia Healy: [00:45:08] No not yet.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:45:09] Okay. All right. So you said there’s obviously some
optical data because we can see the pictures of these nice jellyfish galaxies.
But you mentioned that this is the first time, to the best of your knowledge,
that you’ve collected radio data,; this H-one data.
So did you use the Netherland telescope for
this as well?
Julia Healy: [00:45:28] No. So I was, I’m lucky enough to be a PI on a proposal
with under the MeerKAT open call. So this is some of the first MeerKAT data.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:45:40] Wow. You’ve got some MeerKAT data of your own.
Julia Healy: [00:45:43] Yep.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:45:43] That is rare as, I don’t know what’s rare. It’s super
Julia Healy: [00:45:50] I mean, obviously I share this data with my collaborators
who helped write the proposal.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:45:54] But you’re the PI, the principal investigator.
Julia Healy: [00:45:56] Indeed. Yeah.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:45:57] Oh, that’s so cool. I’m so jealous.
Julia Healy: [00:45:59] Yeah.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:46:00] All right. Tell us more about that.
Julia Healy: [00:46:01] Yeah, so the reason why we had to use MeerKAT to observe
this cluster, is that it’s at a distance or a redshift where the H-one – the
frequency of the H-one line – is coincident with a lot of radio frequency
interference at other sites.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:46:17] Radio frequency interference. What’s that?
Julia Healy: [00:46:20] So, radio frequency interference or RFI can come from
many different sources in particular, you know, our phones transmit in, you
know, over radio frequencies, or as you know, obviously radios, televisions,
even electric cables generate RFI.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:46:36] Really?
Julia Healy: [00:46:38] And so one of the reasons why they couldn’t use the the
Very Large Array with the JVLA in the States, for example, was because of radar
airplane – airport radar.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:46:48] Oh so then we can’t use some of the big telescopes in the
Northern hemisphere because,…
Julia Healy: [00:46:53] It interfere,… Well. Yeah. But you know, it’s a very
limited frequency band.
So don’t get me wrong. JVLA is an incredible
instrument and there’s some pretty,…
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:47:02] It’s in Mexico, right?
Julia Healy: [00:47:03] Yeah and there’s some incredible science that comes out
of it, but for this particular cluster, and in particularly some of the galaxies
within the cluster – the radio; the frequency in the H-one line – is coincident
with that radar, RFI.
And so while we can get the line
measurements using our JVLA of this cluster, we cannot get each one.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:47:24] So you’re using the MeerKAT because it doesn’t have that
Julia Healy: [00:47:28] The RFI at the MeerKAT site is pristine. It’s very clear.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:47:34] Why is that? Why is there so little radio frequency
Julia Healy: [00:47:38] In part, it’s so isolated and there’s so few people that
live in that region, but also, you know, not to discount what our government’s
done – we have a beautiful piece of legislation that protects radio astronomy
and the zones around, you know, the area around MeerKAT sites and the SKA site.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:47:58] So it was almost chosen because it’s a protective
Julia Healy: [00:48:01] Absolutely.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:48:02] Yeah, radio quiet zone.
Julia Healy: [00:48:03] Yeah.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:48:04] That’s wonderful. I know we have the same in Australia
near the near the ASCAP and MWI sites also, yeah, the governments have done a
really good job of that.
Julia Healy: [00:48:11] They have – a very forward thinking.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:48:13] Yeah, cause we all have to share. Of course, we have to
share all of the bandwidth. A lot of people are trying to do a lot of different
things with it, but I’m glad that we’re doing something in radio astronomy.
Julia Healy: [00:48:23] Yeah.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:48:23] I guess the next problem will be the satellites when the
sort of satellite constellations launch and, well, there’s no way we can hide
from that, right; RFI?
Julia Healy: [00:48:33] No, I think we’ll be in the clear though for H-one
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:48:38] ‘Cause they transmit in different frequency.
Julia Healy: [00:48:40] Yes. But you know for other, for science cases that might
need higher frequencies, they absolutely will be affected.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:48:48] Right. Okay. Anyway, I’m getting a bit off topic, but
your point was that you use MeerKAT because it’s free of RFI and it’s also an
epic awesome radio telescope that’s brand new.
Julia Healy: [00:48:58] Very sensitive.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:48:59] Yes.
Julia Healy: [00:48:59] So we get the same- almost the same – no, the same
sensitivity with MeerKAT of Alba 2626 as I get with, of Coma and Able 2626 is
about twice as far . And why that’s important is our ability to detect the
signal is related to how close or how far away it is.
So the further away it is, more difficult
is to detect. So the fact that we’ve got the same detection limits with 2626 as
we do with Coma. As far away as it is, is incredible.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:49:36] Amazing. It’s really amazing. It’s kind of mind blowing.
How powerful MeerKAT is. What does the data look like? Have you had a chance to
play with it yet?
Julia Healy: [00:49:45] I just started getting my hands dirty with it.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:49:48] Okay. Exciting. So early days?
Julia Healy: [00:49:51] Very early days, yeah.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:49:51] I guess it’s a big learning curve, isn’t it?
Julia Healy: [00:49:53] Absolutely.
You know, it’s a new instrument, so
there’s, you know, new data reduction software and, you know, new computer
clusters to run the software on.
So lots of, you know, teething problems,
lots of learning problems, learning curves. Yeah.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:50:07] Yeah. And this is why you’re getting a PhD out of it.
It’s not easy and no one’s done it before.
Julia Healy: [00:50:12] Yeah.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:50:13] Great. Well that’s super exciting. Good luck.
Julia Healy: [00:50:16] Thank you.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:50:17] And well actually, I’m one of your collaborators on the
project, so I do have some access to the data as well, and I’m looking forward
to working with you on that.
But just before we wrap off, I wanted to
talk to you also about your trip to Lindau. When we spoke in the previous
episode to Nicole Thomas, who of course also went to this Lindau meeting, we
didn’t go into a lot of detail about where is Lindau and what it is. So yeah.
Tell us about, tell us about that.
Julia Healy: [00:50:41] So Lindau is a small town in Germany – it’s on a little Island
than an Island in, on the boat and day in, in the South of Germany. So you can
actually see from the little town, you can see Austria, I’m on one corner and
Switzerland on the other side of the Lake. So yeah, it’s the Lindau Foundation,
I guess, was formed shortly after World War II. And the whole idea was to bring
together young scientists and in Nobel laureates to a place where they can
discuss. And I, and I think this is, you know, trying to get Germany back into
the science game and back into, you know, the networking and that.
So it brings together close to 600 young
scientists. And this year we had 40 Nobel laureates.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:51:27] 40?
Julia Healy: [00:51:28] Four zero. It was incredible.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:51:31] I thought Nicole said 14.
Julia Healy: [00:51:35] Yeah, so not all of them were physics, Nobel prize
winners. There were a couple of chemistry and medicine and physiology, and then
on our last day, there was a peace prize winner.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:51:43] Cool.
Julia Healy: [00:51:44] Yeah. But yeah, it was a phenomenal experience. And
listening to them talk, I mean, they’ve got some, done some great science that,
you know, can be pretty intimidating and pretty hard to spy too. But the
overwhelming message from them was, you know, it was just dumb luck that they
were awarded this prize. And when…
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:52:04] They said that?
Julia Healy: [00:52:04] Then they said that, yeah. Actually, I think that, that’s
a direct quote from one of them. She had dumb luck. Yeah. No. So basically
their overwhelming message was, you know, what’s good science? Do what you
enjoy and just work hard. None of them expected to get a Nobel prize from it.
They just, they carried on working. They
did what they did, and a lot of them, you know, it’s related to their PhD work.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:52:28] Really?
Julia Healy: [00:52:29] Yeah.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:52:29] I think that’s a great message. So just do what you think
is important and do what you enjoy.
Julia Healy: [00:52:34] I mean, you never know what’s going to win the next Nobel
prize. And in fact, they were asked that at a panel, you know, what do you
think is going to win the 2019 prize? And they all said, we don’t want to guess
because you cannot predict it. So there’s no point trying to set yourself up
for a Nobel prize because you won’t win it.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:52:50] Well, we now know what the 2019 prize was for, as we
mentioned last time.
It was for the cosmology and the astronomy.
Yay. Yeah. I mean kicking goals all over the place. Tell us a little bit more
about your experience in Lindau. What was the South African component to it?
How many people were there?
Julia Healy: [00:53:11] So as Nicole
mentioned in the previous
episode, South Africa were the hosts of international day.
So we had a big good delegation than normal
this year. There were 20 of us being with, you know, 20 South Africans on the whole
stage. Like, that was amazing. And it was incredible chatting to people after
the international date. So international day was on the Monday night, chatting
to them later in the week.
And you know, everyone’s looking back on
Monday night going, wow, that was such an incredible party. Oh my goodness. I
saw the Africans already know how to, you know, put a party on.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:53:42] What happened at this party? I want to know!
Julia Healy: [00:53:44] I mean, the food was great and it was fantastic wine.
South African wine, of course.
But, you know, I think the general
“gees” of South Africans, I mean, the musicians that played were a
South African band and, you know, just the general spirit, you know, the music
started playing and the South Africans were all on the dance floor, apparently
a first at Lindau.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:54:09] Really?
Julia Healy: [00:54:10] Oh, yeah. And people on the dance floor all night. And so
to have that experience, you know what, it was just, it was incredible. I’ve,
I’ve almost never been as proud to be South African. Well, and representing
South African culture, but also, you know, South African signs.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:54:27] Yeah. Just bringing South African science and culture to
a world stage. Yeah. I’m enjoying it.
Julia Healy: [00:54:32] And people were complimenting us before they even saw the
fact that we had a South African flag. Hanging around on the X.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:54:38] Wow.
Julia Healy: [00:54:39] So they were genuine compliments.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:54:41] Amazing. Must’ve been quite an experience.
Julia Healy: [00:54:43] It was. But I think also, so the other cool thing that
happened that week was the Academy of Sciences who South Africa, who sponsored our trip :
organized a dinner for us on the Tuesday night, with one of the Nobel
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:54:58] Ooh.
Julia Healy: [00:54:59] We were lucky enough to have dinner with Donna Strickland
and her husband.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:55:03] What?!
Julia Healy: [00:55:04] Yes. So Donna Strickland was one of the 2018 Physics Nobel prize winners.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:55:12] The first women, no, sorry.
Julia Healy: [00:55:13] She is one of, the third women to ever to win a Physics
Nobel prize. And the first in 55 years, she’s the only living one as far as I’m
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:55:22] I’m gushing.
Julia Healy: [00:55:23] It was incredible. She was so lovely to chat to you and
so down to earth; you get her talking about, so she won her Physics Prize for her
PhD work on pulsed amplification of light – of lasers. Don’t ask me more than
that ’cause I don’t really understand that. So, you know, she’s in laser
physics and you get her talking about lasers and she would talk your ear off
for the rest of that evening. So it was lovely to chat to her about what led up
to the work that she did her life as a PhD student, but also her husband’s also
a PhD in laser physics.
So, you know, chatting to her about how it
is to be to have your partner in the same field as you and how you deal with
that when, you know, going into academia and it was awesome to chat to her.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:56:11] Right. So she had a lot of life lessons to share as well
as the science.
Julia Healy: [00:56:16] Yeah.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:56:16] Yeah. I guess these are the best people to learn from.
Julia Healy: [00:56:18] Absolutely. You know, they show us that it’s possible.
You know, academia is not necessarily an easy path, but there’s people who’ve
done it before us, so you can have it all.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:56:29] And how did you; did you have to get selected to go on
Julia Healy: [00:56:34] Yes. So there was a call that was put out by the Academy
of Sciences of South Africa, and they initially selected some number of us and
they put all applications forward to, with their support to, the committee. And then the Lindau committee
themselves made the final selection.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:56:53] Would you recommend other young scientists in South
Africa applying for this in the future?
Julia Healy: [00:56:58] Absolutely. You know, if you’re in any one of the fields
that has a Lindau meeting and you’re in your second year of your master’s and
up – I think the maximum age is 35 – I absolutely a hundred percent recommend
that you go. Cause it’s more than just being able to meet the Nobel arts.
It’s those that you meet. And Nicole
mentioned a little bit about the networking and the potential collaborations
that come out of it. But you know, more than the work collaborations – it’s the
friends. We made some incredible friends.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:57:32] Which is essential to life.
Julia Healy: [00:57:34] Yeah, exactly. And we still keep in contact, so yeah.
No, absolutely. Awesome.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:57:39] That’s great. Well, that’s not even your only big
achievement this year. You also received an amazing prize earlier this year.
Tell us about that.
Julia Healy: [00:57:47] So, yeah. I was awarded one of the 2019 South African
Women in Science awards – in particular, I was awarded one of the Tarter
Which are awarded to three PhD students in
the science field.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:58:04] Congratulations.
Julia Healy: [00:58:05] Thank you.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:58:06] So what does that entire / entail?
Julia Healy: [00:58:08] Well, it was a pretty cool award ceremony, which they
flew us up to Port Elizabeth for, and it was held at a fancy hotel and I was
lucky enough to take my mum with me. And
so, being, you know, at the Women in Science awards with one of, you know, the
number one woman in my life, was incredible.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:58:27] Ah, congratulations. So well deserved, Julia. We’re very
proud of you.
Julia Healy: [00:58:31] Thank you.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:58:32] So just before we end, do you have any final messages for
Julia Healy: [00:58:36] I guess, you know, just to follow your dreams.
I’ve been very lucky that, you know, I’ve
had super supportive parents that have always encouraged me to do my best and
to follow my dreams and believe I could do them. So, you know, if you have a
dream to be in science – my dream is to be an astronaut and it remains that no
matter how elusive -you know, follow it, you know what the next step is and
every small step gets you closer to that goal.
Don’t let others discourage you.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:59:08] Great. And I wholeheartedly agree. Where can listeners
Julia Healy: [00:59:12] So I do have a modest Twitter.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:59:16] Modest?
Come on, it’s full of stuff.
Julia Healy: [00:59:20] Well, yeah, so I occasionally post stuff, you know, work
that’s going on or travels or whatever. On Twitter, you can find it: healytwin1
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:59:29] Spell that for us?
Julia Healy: [00:59:29] H, E, A, L , Y, and then “twin”. And the number
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:59:34] Well, thank you so much for speaking with us, Julia. It’s
been a pleasure and we hope to have you back soon.
Julia Healy: [00:59:38] Well, thank you for having me.
Daniel Cunnama: [00:59:46] It sounds like she had a lot of fun at Lindau.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:59:52] As did everyone. I’m so jealous.
Daniel Cunnama: [00:59:55] Well, you’ve been?
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:59:55] I know, I want to go again.
Daniel Cunnama: [00:59:57] So, yeah, I think great to from Julia. Great to hear she
had such a great time and to hear a bit about her work and yeah, to hear that
she’s – that sort of message from the Nobel laureates that just do what you
Keep doing what you love. You can’t aim for
Nobel prize. And I think like in general, life is a bit like that. You don’t
know where you’re going to end up. You don’t know what you’re going to end up
doing, so take it a day at a time and try and enjoy what you’re doing.
Jacinta Delhaize: [01:00:30] And always think critically.
Daniel Cunnama: [01:00:32] And try to think critically.
Jacinta Delhaize: [01:00:35] All right, and that’s it for episode 15. Thanks very much
for listening and we hope you’ll join us again for the next episode of the
Daniel Cunnama: [01:00:43] You can visit our website, the cosmic savannah.com. We
will have links related to today’s episode. You can also follow us on Twitter,
Facebook and Instagram at cosmic Savannah – that Savannah’s spelt S, A, V, A,
N, N, A, H.
Jacinta Delhaize: [01:00:58] Special thanks today to Brother Guy and Julia Healey for
speaking with us.
Consolmagno: [01:01:03] Thanks to Mark Walnut for
the music production, Janas Brink for the astrophotography. Lara Ceraj for
graphic design and Thabisa Fikelepi for social media support.
Jacinta Delhaize: [01:01:13] We gratefully acknowledge support from the South African
National Research Foundation and the South African Astronomical Observatory to
help keep the podcast running.
Daniel Cunnama: [01:01:21] You can subscribe on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever
you get your podcasts. And if you’d like to help us out, please rate us or
recommend us to a friend.
Jacinta Delhaize: [01:01:31] We’ll speak to you next time on the Cosmic Savannah.
… Music Playing …
Daniel Cunnama: [01:01:45] Meteoriticists. Meteoriticists.
Jacinta Delhaize: [01:01:49] Meteoriticists. Meteoriticists. And the lights have just
gone out. It’s load shedding. Just in the middle of recording. Okay.
Daniel Cunnama: [01:02:01] Our soundproof studio is also light proof. Apparently.