Episode 15: The Vatican Observatory and more!
with Brother Guy Consolmagno and Julia Healy
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
This week’s guests:
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 make.
Daniel Cunnama: [00:00:17] Sit back and relax as we take you on a Safari through the skies.
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.
Brother 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?
Brother Guy 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?
Brother Guy 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 here.
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?
Brother Guy 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 call gravity.”
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 celebrate mass.
Daniel Cunnama: [00:08:53] I bet you’ve used that one before.
Brother Guy 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 relativistic Universe.
Daniel Cunnama: [00:09:38] So what was your path into this?
Brother Guy 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 moon.
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 there.
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.
Brother Guy 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.
Brother Guy 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 for you.
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?
Brother Guy 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 like that.
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.
Brother Guy 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.
Brother Guy 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?
Brother Guy 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 there.
Daniel Cunnama: [00:20:21] Well, and you too soon hopefully.
Brother Guy 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.
Brother 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 other religions.
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 church.
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 bond.
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.
And 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 celebrate that.
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 astronomy.
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 next year.
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 astronomy?
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 interested.
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 year.
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 communication.
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 conclusion.
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 meeting.
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 cricket.
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 center, right?
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 together.
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 from Julia.
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 position?
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 been awesome.
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 you research?
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 atoms.
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 know this?
Julia Healy: [00:39:29] So these tend to be kind of what we call red hidden dead galaxies.
So in, in the optical, they appear to be quite, quite red. There’s no ongoing star formation, which usually shows up as blue.
Jacinta Delhaize: [00:39:42] And it’s red, cause the stars have just gotten old, right?
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 of gas.
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 exciting.
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 same radar?
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 interference ?
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 radio,…
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 studies, but,…
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 laureates.
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 aware.
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 this trip?
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 Doctoral scholarships.
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 listeners?
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 find you?
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 “1”.
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 love.
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 cosmic Savannah.
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.
Brother Guy 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.
Jacinta Delhaize: [01:02:07] We now learned.
Daniel Cunnama: [01:02:08] No natural light.