Mini Episode: “From Hospitality to aspiring Astronomer”

with Bret Yotti

Hosted by Brandon Engelbrecht

In this week’s mini-episode of The Cosmic Savannah, we speak to Bret Yotti. Bret is a student and a lab assistant at the University of Cape Town (UCT) as well as a presenter at the Iziko Planetarium in Cape Town.

In our interview with Bret, we ask a common question known and feared by many: the “why” question. Why did he choose astronomy and what drove him towards this field of science?

We take a dive into Bret’s life before astronomy and find out how the journey has been since returning to the lecture halls.

We look at the work that Bret is currently doing at UCT, being a teaching assistant whilst being a student himself. Bret also talks about the work he is doing at the Iziko Planetarium and how he is helping to show visitors the mysteries of the Universe.

This weeks guest:

Featured image:
The Iziko Planetarium and Digital Dome is the most advanced digital planetarium on the African continent. This world class, multi-functional facility brings digital technology to Cape Town – creating a space of innovation and discovery – where art, science and entertainment meet.
The Iziko Planetarium and Digital Dome not only provides an immersive multi-sensory edutainment platform for artistic production – it is also used for cutting-edge scientific research to optimise South Africa’s eResearch and data visualisation capacity.
The Iziko Planetarium and Digital Dome makes virtual voyages of the universe possible, providing an unparalleled experience of animation and 360◦ cinema.  Explore the inner workings of the human body, or the intricacies of an atomic structure Visit the most advanced digital planetarium on the African continent. Credit: Iziko Planetarium: https://www.iziko.org.za/museums/planetarium


Related Links:
University of Cape Town Astronomy Department: http://www.ast.uct.ac.za/

Iziko Planetarium: https://www.iziko.org.za/museums/planetarium

Featured image: https://www.iziko.org.za/museums/planetarium

This mini-episode is produced and hosted by Brandon Engelbrecht (Centre for Radio Cosmology, University of the Western Cape)

Mini episode transcript

(By Brandon Engelbrecht)

Brandon: [00:00:00] Hello there and welcome to a mini-episode of The Cosmic Savannah, with me Brandon Engelbrecht. I know this is a little strange to hear my voice, but I would first like to thank our returning listeners for coming back, as well as welcome our new listeners to the show and secondly, I’d like to introduce myself.

So, as I said, my name is Brandon. I am a first-year PhD student at the University of the Western Cape currently trying to understand the mysteries of the Universe. But for now, I’m also a podcast host trainee. And the reason behind this is actually a new passion that I’ve developed over the years in science and that is science communication.

I’m very big on the idea of outreach and being able to give back to the community in terms of either explaining scientific phenomena and encouraging students to actually take STEM at the university level, which is the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics programs.

However, the question I usually get is why did you do physics or why do you do astrophysics? And today on our show, we’ll actually have Mr Bret Yotti, currently, a teaching assistant at the University of Cape Town (UCT) explain to us his journey, as to why he did astrophysics at the University of Cape Town and what currently does his job entail? Also, we’ll ask him about his transition from being a student at the University of Cape Town to being a teaching assistant. As well as his job at the Iziko Planetarium where he does visual night tours of the night sky.

So sit back, relax and enjoy a mini episode of The Cosmic Savannah.

So hi, I’m with Bret Yotti and today we’ll be discussing a little bit about himself, what he does and why he’s chosen this path. Firstly, I would like to know from you Bret what do you do?

Bret: [00:01:52] So currently I’m finishing up an undergraduate degree at UCT. But my main job is working at UCT; with the teaching telescopes and the undergraduate students and I handle all of the undergraduate practicals involving the telescopes there and I maintain the teaching telescopes which I helped to install them. And then in my free time, I also work as an evening and weekend presenter at the Iziko Planetarium in Cape Town.

Brandon: [00:02:22] Oh, okay. That’s quite a bit. So you’re at the University of Cape Town and you’re a student, but you also, a technical assistant?

Bret: [00:02:33] Yeah, that’s right, I have several different ways of describing myself I guess. My payslips say a research assistant, I’m also called a head tutor for the observational techniques course, but yes, that’s right, I’m actually a student as well. I finished my astronomy undergraduate material last year. This year, I just have a few other credits to get before I graduate and because I’m working full time I decided to just do those on the side.

Brandon: [00:03:02] Oh okay so your studies have now taken a backseat to your paycheck?

Bret: [00:03:08] Exactly.

Brandon: [00:03:12] That’s what you said and of the two which one do you most prefer, being a student or being more of a research assistant slash head tutor?

Bret: [00:03:20] I definitely do not like being a student. I prefer the research assistants and the tutoring side of her time.

I enjoy teaching students. I enjoy working with them and seeing them discover new things. I love observing. Helping students to appreciate that the same way that I do makes me happy.

Brandon: [00:03:40] So in that sense, we share a similar trait there. I do like to see students, you know, when they smile, when they grasp some new knowledge and the light bulbs in their brain just start flickering and you know that you’ve got them.

Okay, I’ll come back to that. I’m also interested… you said you do some presentations at the Iziko Planetarium.

Bret: [00:04:01]. Yeah, that’s right. So the Planetarium was upgraded about four years ago where they made it into a digital Planetarium and shortly after that, I started working there as a presenter.

So that involves public groups coming in for entertainment and they see a short show 20 or 30 minutes and then I give them a tour of the night sky and I teach them some different things using the Planetarium software. They learn about galaxies, they learn about the Milky Way, they learn about constellations and the night sky from Cape Town.

And I’ve been doing that about three years.

Brandon: [00:04:37] That’s really cool. So you not only just like teach university students, you also try and take astro to a more broader audience. Cause I’m guessing, it’s not just students that go to the Planetarium. It’s also youngsters to the elderly folk as well.

Bret: [00:04:52] That’s right.

And there are different groups. So even with teaching first-year students astronomy, they at least have an interest in astronomy. So they know a lot of things already, what a star is, what a planet is. But at the Planetarium, you get all kinds of people and that’s one of the things I like about the Planetarium, is the questions they ask really gives you an insight to what the common person thinks about astronomy.

So they ask very interesting questions at the Planetarium.

Brandon: [00:05:22] I can imagine, okay so I got what you do, the why, so Bret why astros?

Bret: [00:05:28] Oh, well, I’ve done quite a bit in my life. So after high school, I worked in tourism and hospitality for three years, and then I worked in banking for six years and this is in the United States.

And then I went to Germany where I taught English as a foreign language for eight years and while I was there, I started not liking my job very much and wanted to do more.

So I started studying part-time remotely in Germany and got married while I was in Germany. My wife is from Cape Town, so we decided to move back and I transferred my credits to the University of Cape Town and started studying astronomy at UCT.

And when I looked at my life and tried to figure out what do I want to do? I looked at what interests me, what I do in my free time. And one of those things was reading about the Universe and stars and astronomy on the internet. So I wanted to pursue that further and now I’ve had the opportunity to do that.

Brandon: [00:06:23] Oh, you went very far hey, from tourism to a banker, to a teacher and then boom, you went into your passion. That’s cool and now you’re making your passion your literal job.

Bret: [00:06:32] Yeah, it’s nice to finally be able to get paid for doing something I enjoy, it’s an experience that I haven’t had until somewhat recently. That work could be something that you look forward to instead of something you do until the weekend comes.

Brandon: [00:06:48] And how was the transition from being, on one side? So as a teacher, you on one side of the classroom, and then as a student, you now on the completely other side of the classroom, how was that transition for you?

Bret: [00:07:02] That transition was a bit challenging but more challenging was the age difference, so going back and studying with 18-year-olds just coming out of matric to where I’m a peer with them, but I’m the same age as my lecturers.

So that was a big challenge to try and treat younger people as my peers and people of the same age as my superiors if that makes sense.

Brandon: [00:07:28] That makes sense. When I first met you too, I had to like take back. Cause it was like, oh, not a lecturer, a student.

Bret: [00:07:33] Yeah. And I think I was in my first year then, and I believe you were in honours or maybe third year at that time.

Brandon: [00:07:40] Yeah I was in honours for that one yeah.

Bret: [00:07:42] Yeah.

Brandon: [00:07:43] Alright, well, that is actually all the questions that I have at the moment. So thank you, Bret.

Bret: [00:07:48] Yeah. Thank you, Brandon, it’s been fun.

Brandon: [00:07:57] Well, that’s our interview with Bret from the University of Cape Town and the Iziko Planetarium. And hopefully, now we’ve explained why we do astronomy and astrophysics. And as Bret showed us in his journey, you’re never too late to start a new career or a new calling if you’re passionate about that.

And during the interview, something that really resonated with me was his passion for teaching and not just teaching to the classroom, but also teaching to the general audience. With his job at the Iziko Planetarium, Bret is able to explain the astrophysical phenomena and maybe even get people interested in doing astros or physics in the future.

So to me, that was really nice. I really enjoyed that and as you heard from Bret, it’s never too late to pursue your passion. So it is never too late to come into astros and on that note, I’d really like to thank Bret again for doing the interview and also would like to encourage our listeners for those in Cape Town and those planning on visiting Cape Town, post-Corona that is, to visit Bret at the Iziko Planetarium to watch one of the shows or to even meet Bret and ask him any questions you might have. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind answering them.

But on that note, I’d like to thank our listeners again for tuning in to this mini-episode of The Cosmic Savannah.

Goodbye for now.

Mini Episode: The Most Powerful Explosion Ever Recorded

with Reikantseone Diretse

Hosted by Sumari Hattingh

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

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

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

This week’s guest:
Featured Image:

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

Related Links:

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

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

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

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

Find Reikantseone Diretse on social media:

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

Instagram: @reikantseone

Twitter: @ReikantseoneD

This mini episode is hosted & produced by:

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

Mini Episode Transcript

Transcribed by Sumari Hattingh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Music playing

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

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

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

Summer or winter?

Reikantseone: [00:04:51] Summer

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

Reikantseone: [00:04:57] Radio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Music Playing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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