Episode 20: Cosmic Chemistry
with Prof Ewine van Dishoeck
In our first episode of the 2020s and Episode 20 we are honoured to be joined by Prof Ewine van Dishoeck who is a Dutch astronomer and chemist. She is Professor of Molecular Astrophysics at Leiden Observatory and the president of the International Astronomical Union (IAU).
We discuss Ewine’s work in molecular astrophysics. She takes us on a tour of the formation of a solar system. All the way from the Big Bang, through clouds of gas where solar systems and planets are being born, all the way to the very building blocks of life!
We learn how molecules form in space, combine with dust and eventually grow into the massive planets we observe and indeed inhabit.
Ewine also tells us what it’s like to be the President of the largest organisation of astronomers in the world and what she’s been up to during her visit to Cape Town!
This week’s guest
Office of Astronomy for Development: http://www.astro4dev.org/
An artist’s impression of the Herschel Space Observatory with its observations of star formation in the Rosette Nebula in the background.
(Image: © C. Carreau/ESA)
(By Sumari Hattingh)
Dan: [00:00:00] Welcome to the Cosmic Savannah with Dr. Daniel Cunnama
Jacinta: [00:00:08] And Dr. Jacinta Delhaize. Each episode we’ll be giving you a behind the scenes look at world-class astronomy and astrophysics happening under African skies.
Dan: [00:00:17] Let us introduce you to the people involved, the technology we use, the exciting work we do and the fascinating discoveries we make.
Jacinta: [00:00:24] Sit back and relax as we take you on a Safari through the skies.
Welcome to episode 20 to kick off the 2020’s.
Dan: [00:00:35] We’re back in the twenties and I was never in the twenties in the first
Jacinta: [00:00:40] The roaring twenties; my favorite era.
Dan: [00:00:42] I think it’s just exciting that we can call them the twenties.
Jacinta: [00:00:45] Yes. When you actually know what to call our decade.
Dan: [00:00:47] Yeah, it’s good.
Jacinta: [00:00:48] Yes. So whole new year, whole new decade and first episode for the year.
Dan: [00:00:55] Yeah, we will be talking to the president of the International Astronomical Union. The IAU. Professor Ewine van Dishoeck from the Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands.
Jacinta: [00:01:05] Yeah. And she’ll be telling us about her work in Astrochemistry studying interstellar clouds and newly forming solar systems around exo-planets.
Dan: [00:01:16] And she’ll also speak about her role as the president of the IAU and what she does. And why she’s visiting us here in Cape Town.
Jacinta: [00:01:24] Yes. But first though, Dan, since it’s a new year, it might be a good chance for us to recap on the things we talked about last year and especially for the new listeners who have joined us recently.
Maybe there’s a few things we’d like them to know about before we get into this episode. So I know you love this because I have a quiz for you.
And listeners can play at home and try and beat Dan.
Dan: [00:01:53] Gosh.
Jacinta: [00:01:54] Okay.
Dan: [00:01:55] I’m nervous.
Jacinta: [00:01:56] All right. It’s a lightning quiz. Okay.
So fast as you can. All right.
Question one. What is the Cosmic Savannah?
Dan: [00:02:04] An awesome podcast. About astronomy in Africa.
Jacinta: [00:02:08] Correct. Question two. Who are you?
Dan: [00:02:11] My name is Dr. Daniel Cunnama. I am the science engagement astronomer at the South African Astronomical Observatory.
Jacinta: [00:02:18] Correct. Who am I?
Dan: [00:02:22] Dr Jacinta Delhaize. And you are a SARAO – South African Radio Astronomy Observatory – postdoctoral fellow at the University of Cape Town.
Jacinta: [00:02:31] And that is correct. Question four, where are we?
Dan: [00:02:36] We are at the South African Astronomical Observatory in Cape town, South Africa.
Jacinta: [00:02:42] Correct. Okay.
Question five, what are the main astronomy research institutions in Cape Town and their acronyms?
Dan: [00:02:52] So we’ve already been through the South African Astronomical Observatory. – SAAO. We have the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory that does mostly radio astronomy and run the MeerKAT – the radio telescope in the Karoo.
I hope that’s not another question.
Jacinta: [00:03:07] It is. Please stick to the questions asked.
Dan: [00:03:10] Sorry, so that is SARAO: S-A-R-A-O, and then we have the universities: University of Cape town- UCT, the university of the Western Cape – UWC.
Jacinta: [00:03:19] Correct. Okay. Question number six. What is electromagnetic radiation?
Dan: [00:03:26] So electromagnetic radiation, as you normally will know of it, is light – little photons – little packets of light coming towards us.
However, light comes in a lot of different frequencies or wavelengths, which we use interchangeably in astronomy.
Jacinta: [00:03:41] Question number seven, name all the different types of light on the electromagnetic spectrum. In order.
Dan: [00:03:46] In order? Gamma rays, X-rays,…
I’m just checking if there’s anything else in between. Gamma rays, X-rays, ultraviolet, visible light, infrared, millimeter, and radio.
Jacinta: [00:04:04] Microwave.
Dan: [00:04:06] Ah. Microwave, radio.
Jacinta: [00:04:07] Yes. Okay.
Dan: [00:04:08] Microwave. I’ll lump in with radio. Oh, wow.
Jacinta: [00:04:14] I’m going to give you half a point for that one. Okay. Question number eight. Which of these types of light can we as astronomers detect coming from space?
Dan: [00:04:22] All of them.
Jacinta: [00:04:22] Correct. Question number nine. Name two things in space that we can detect with the radio telescopes.
Dan: [00:04:28] Giant galaxies and gas dust.
Jacinta: [00:04:32] Correct. Question number 10. South Africa hosts one of the best radio telescopes in the world. What is it called and where is it?
Dan: [00:04:40] It is called MeerKAT and it is located outside Carnarvon in the Northern Cape, very far from anyone, and it consists of 64 thirteen-and-a-half meter radio antennae, which look a lot like a satellite dish that you would use for getting satellite TV.
Jacinta: [00:05:00] Correct. And thorough. Question number 11, name two things in space that we can detect with optical telescopes. Also known as visible light.
Dan: [00:05:08] Also galaxies. Starlight and then obviously stars and also some amount of gas.
Jacinta: [00:05:15] That’s more than two Dan, but that’s fine.
Dan: [00:05:18] Well starlight and stars are the same.
Jacinta: [00:05:20] Extra points then. Question number 12 : South Africa hosts the biggest optical telescope in the Southern hemisphere. What is it called and where is it?
Dan: [00:05:28] It is the Southern African Large Telescope. It is located at the SAAO Observatory in Sutherland in the Northern Cape.
Jacinta: [00:05:35] SALT for short.
Dan: [00:05:36] For short.
Jacinta: [00:05:37] Question number 13 – how many other telescopes are in Sutherland?
Dan: [00:05:42] I think that the current count there are about 15
Jacinta: [00:05:45] I would accept 14 or 17 but that was from Wikipedia and it might be up to 15
Dan: [00:05:55] Okay.
Jacinta: [00:05:56] It depends whether you count different, like, different.,
Dan: [00:05:59] So there are also some other sensing instruments. So there’s like a gravity sensor and those sorts of things.
Jacinta: [00:06:05] Yep.
Dan: [00:06:06] Instruments, not necessarily telescopes.
Jacinta: [00:06:07] Yes. Whether you count each element of an array of telescopes, so. Yep.
Dan: [00:06:13] Correct.
Jacinta: [00:06:13] So the answer is lots. Okay. Question 14 – how far is Sutherland from the Observatory where we are now?
Dan: [00:06:20] A four hour drive. 250 kilometers.
Jacinta: [00:06:26] Hmm. Wikipedia said 370 kilometers.
Dan: [00:06:28] Well, as the crow flies or as you drive?
Jacinta: [00:06:28] That’s a good question. So I’m going to trust you.
Dan: [00:06:32] Maybe don’t.
Jacinta: [00:06:33] Over Wikipedia, but we will leave that for our listeners to find the true answer. Okay. Now, some questions specifically related to this episode. Question number 15 – what is the IAU?
Dan: [00:06:46] The international astronomical union, which is a big body of astronomers, international astronomers, 13 and a half thousand members.
Jacinta: [00:06:53] When was the IAU founded?
Dan: [00:06:55] In 1919.
Jacinta: [00:06:57] Correct. It was a hundred years old last year. Question 17 : what is the O-A-D?
Dan: [00:07:03] The Office of Astronomy for Development. It’s not the Office of Astronomy Development. They’re not trying to develop astronomy. They are trying to use astronomy for development.
Jacinta: [00:07:14] Good. And question 18 – what do you mean by development?
Dan: [00:07:18] Development is basically trying to improve society, humanity, and people’s lives as dictated by the sustainable development goals – put forward by the UN, is what I was going to say.
Jacinta: [00:07:29] Very, very accurate. I cut you off, sorry. Okay. Now question 19 – what is an interstellar cloud?
Dan: [00:07:35] It’s a cloud of gas and dust that sits in between stars.
Jacinta: [00:07:39] Okay. Now, question 20 – true or false, the dense clouds in which stars and their solar systems form are actually less dense than the best ultra-vacuums we can produce in labs on earth.
Dan: [00:07:51] Correct. True.
Jacinta: [00:07:51] It is true. Yes. Question 21 – what types of telescopes can we use to study these clouds?
Dan: [00:08:00] Millimeter is the best.
Jacinta: [00:08:02] And also far-infrared for it, because we can see through the dust.
Dan: [00:08:05] Okay.
Jacinta: [00:08:06] Now question 22 – where should these telescopes be?
Dan: [00:08:10] Ideally in space or in a very, very dry, very high place.
Jacinta: [00:08:15] For example?
Dan: [00:08:16] For example, the Atacama Desert
Jacinta: [00:08:18] In Chile?
Dan: [00:08:19] Chile, yes.
Jacinta: [00:08:20] That’s a great place.
Dan: [00:08:21] Because, can I say, because?
Jacinta: [00:08:23] Yes.
Dan: [00:08:23] Because you want to detect molecules such as water, so you need a very, very dry place so that your telescope doesn’t see all the water in our atmosphere.
Jacinta: [00:08:33] Exactly. And you want it to be as high as possible so that there’s the least amount of atmosphere for the light to travel through.
Lucky last question. Question number 23- what is my favorite wavelength of optical light?
Dan: [00:08:49] Pink?
Jacinta: [00:08:50] Pink!?
Dan: [00:08:51] I don’t know! My favorite or your favourite?
Jacinta: [00:08:53] My favorite.
Dan: [00:08:56] I dunno, green? I can just list ’em all?
Jacinta: [00:09:00] It is 380 to 500 nanometers. Which is blue. Blue’s my favorite color.
Dan: [00:09:07] Congratulations.
Jacinta: [00:09:07] Thank you. I will score you 21 and a half out of 23. So listeners, let’s see if you did better than that.
Dan: [00:09:18] Well, if you know Jacinta’s favorite colour prior to this, well done to you.
Jacinta: [00:09:23] Okay. I think that’s everything that we had to talk about. Shall we hear from Ewine now?
Dan: [00:09:29] I think we should.
So today we are honored to be joined by Professor Ewine van Dishoek, who is a professor of molecular astrophysics at the Leiden Observatory and the president of the International Astronomical Union. Welcome to The Cosmic Savannah.
Jacinta: [00:09:50] Welcome.
Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:09:51] Thank you. I’m delighted to be here.
Jacinta: [00:09:54] Ewine, so you’re not just an astronomer, you’re also a chemist, is that right?
Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:09:58] That’s true indeed. I started my career as a chemist basically because I had a very good chemistry teacher in high school.
Jacinta: [00:10:04] That can make all the difference.
Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:10:06] Makes all the difference and that’s what’s got me into chemistry.
Jacinta: [00:10:09] You sort of work in an area of astrochemistry. Can you just tell us what that is and how that differs to astrophysics?
Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:10:16] Well, actually the two are very much linked because on the one hand, the space between the stars, the interstellar clouds form a gigantic chemical laboratory in which the conditions are very different from those on earth. So you can study basic chemical processes there. But on the other hand the molecules themselves also tell us about the conditions in these clouds in which new stars may be forming.
They are little temperature probe. They can be probes of the pressure in the clouds, the movements in the clouds. So also the molecules inform us about the astrophysics that’s happening in the cloud.
Jacinta: [00:10:55] Your work particularly looks at these dark dust clouds where stars are forming in the middle and you look through the dust clouds with certain telescopes. Is that correct?
Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:11:06] Yes, indeed. If you look at one of these dark clouds with the light that you see with your own eyes, it’s just looking black and we need to penetrate that dust and we do that with telescopes at long wavelengths in particular at infrared and at millimeter wavelengths.
Dan: [00:11:23] And what sort of molecules do you see? I mean, what do you observe when you’re looking at this dust?
Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:11:28] Well, simple molecules like carbon monoxide, that’s the easiest one to see actually. Water, one of my favorite molecules – for that one, you need to have an observatory that is actually above the Earth’s atmosphere, because of course, our earth’s atmosphere is full of water.
So for example, the Herschel Space Observatory was very well suited to study water in space. But then there is also a huge complexity, something that was not at all expected some 50 years ago. We see simple sugars, ethers, alcohols, prebiotic molecules, like, for example, cyanide. It’s a very rich chemistry that is actually taking place under these very exotic conditions, very low temperatures and densities.
Jacinta: [00:12:13] What does prebiotic mean?
Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:12:15] That’s a good question. It’s something that could be used as a building block for life; elsewhere in the, in the universe. So for example, if you have the beginnings of peptide bonds, or if you would have an amino acid or even simple sugars, of course.
Jacinta: [00:12:31] So have we found amino acids?
Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:12:33] Surprisingly not yet. We have found molecules that are certainly used, sort of, in the chemistry that leads to amino acids, but in interstellar clouds, there has not yet been a really convincing detection of an amino acid. Interestingly, in comets, which are the leftovers of the building of our own solar system, they’re actually simple amino acids, like Glycine, have been detected. So [there’s] good hope that we will find it in the not too distant future, especially with the new Atacama Large Millimeter Array.
Dan: [00:13:12] Where do these molecules form? I mean, are they forming in the interstellar cloud or are they enriched by stars or where did they actually originate from and how do they combine?
Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:13:22] The cloud itself is made up of a mix of atoms and molecules. And the ingredients that we have from the periodic table is hydrogen and helium. They come, we formed in the Big Bang, and then we have the important elements: carbon, nitrogen and oxygen, and those were made, through nuclear fusion, in the interior of stars.
And then, when the stars die, it basically brings these elements into the interstellar medium. So that gives us our building blocks in terms of carbon, nitrogen and oxygen. But then how do you make a bond, a chemical bond in space? And that is not easy because you need to be able to sort of carry off the binding energy of making that molecule.
I mean, now I actually think that the majority, especially of these complex molecules, are actually made on the surfaces of these tiny little dust grains. You know, sand particles that are present throughout the interstellar cloud. And they act as a meet-and-greet where atoms basically land on the grain and they scan the surface and then they meet each other and they greet and they form a bond. And if they like each other, they can take off again and go back into the gas phase.
Dan: [00:14:43] Very romantic.
Jacinta: [00:14:45] Okay, so you said that we haven’t found amino acids, so no DNA yet, no evidence for life just yet, but we have found other complex molecules. Why do we care about finding complex molecules in these clouds?
Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:14:58] Well, that is because out of these clouds, new solar system forms. And so it is basically this material that we see in this clouds that, you know, collapses to form the protostar, but also the rotating disc of gas and dust around it, the so-called proto-planetary disc in which planets are forming.
So we’re basically looking at the material that ends up on new planetary systems. And there we know that once you have some liquid water there, in interstellar space water is only as an ice or as a gas, but once you have it on a planet, then it becomes a liquid form. And that is when you can actually, you know, have a chemistry that leads them to say, amino acids, and some or even more complex molecules.
Dan: [00:15:46] So you’re really looking at the building blocks of solar systems. How do we get from a proto-planetary disk to the planet? I mean, it doesn’t just happen overnight.
Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:15:56] It’s a huge challenge to do that because interstellar clouds have these tiny dust grains that are a tenth of a micro meter in size. And so, compared with a particle sand grain on the beach, it’s still a thousand times smaller. Yet we need to grow to something that is as large as our earth. And that means we have to bridge some 10 to the 13 orders of magnitude in growth to make that happen. And how it occurs is still a challenge and we don’t understand it yet.
We know that when you have two particles colliding and they are not colliding too violently, not too high velocities, then they will actually stick and grow to larger bodies. And observationally we’ve been able to see sort of the growth from micro meter size to millimeter size to centimeter size to pebble size.
So that is what we can see observationally. Then there’s a whole regime of sizes that we cannot observe with our telescopes – we cannot see a brick in space. So that is what we have to infer and we can only then see, say the leftovers, comets in our own solar system. And we can see then in terms of planets, those in our own solar system and around planets around other stars.
So we have to infer, you know, many orders of magnitude of growth. We know it happened in our own solar system, so we know it’s possible, but the physics are not yet fully understood.
Jacinta: [00:17:35] Can we see any planets forming around other stars?
Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:17:38] Yes. That’s the exciting new developments that we now have with the new Atacama Large Millimeter Array : ALMA. ALMA actually allows us to zoom in on the formation sites of planets and we have both direct and indirect evidence and that we see really planets forming at this very moment when the systems are still very young -astronomically speaking only a million years or so – that they are still forming actually in the discs. So it’s a very exciting new field that is now being opened up by ALMA. It’s always new technology that is driving progress in astronomy.
Dan: [00:18:21] How long does this process take? Do we have an idea?
Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:18:24] I mean, there’s, well, some of it can go actually very quickly. If you just have a part of a disc collapsing to form a planet through, say, a gravitational instability, then it can go very fast, you know, in tens or hundred thousands of years. The more gradual step-by-step building of a planet, what we call the core accretion model, that can take tens of millions of years.
Dan: [00:18:53] Alright, and you mentioned that comets are holding water. And you know, water was one of your big interests. So on earth we’ve got a lot of water.
Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:19:03] Yes.
Dan: [00:19:03] The theories for where that water came from are sort of varied. The prevailing one is that it came from comets, correct?
Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:19:09] Not necessarily. So I think what our research, and that of our colleagues, has shown is that the bulk of the water that we have in our solar system was actually formed already in the cloud, out of which our sun basically collapsed. It was formed on those tiny little dusts grains. That is where the oxygen and hydrogen basically came together to form water, and that water is preserved, you know, during the collapse of the cloud and the formation of the solar system. So as one of my colleagues also says, the water on earth is actually older than the Sun itself, because it comes, it preceded it actually.
Dan: [00:19:58] Yes, because it formed when we formed, right?
Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:19:59] It forms exactly before the whole solar system, before that already.
Jacinta: [00:20:03] So yeah, dust grains were like the dating app.
Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:20:05] Yeah, exactly. Exactly. And then how exactly in our own solar system, the water came inside the ice line. So in our solar system we had the ice line, it’s sort of the divid where water was in gaseous form, and where water is in ice form. And we think that ice line is a very important region as to where planets could form giant planets especially, and of course, of giant planets like that of Jupiter. So the question has always been inside this rather dry inner region, how did Earth get its water? Was it delivered by comets or was it delivered by other icy planetesimals. For example, icy asteroids. They’d have different orbits than the comets. So I think the prevailing view now is that it was not the comets, but it was sort of other icy planetesimals – asteroids – that brought most of the water to Earth through bombardments and on the other end, the comets have been very important in bringing the organic material to us.
Dan: [00:21:17] Which is very important to us?
Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:21:18] Which is also very important because you need both; icy water and the organics.
Jacinta: [00:21:23] And why is it important to distinguish between comets and asteroids in that context?
Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:21:28] Well, it’s an interesting question. Personally, I as an astrochemist, you know, for me it doesn’t matter so much, but solar system formation people seem to care a lot about the distinction.
Jacinta: [00:21:45] Okay. And then we’re now in an era where we’re finding a lot of exo-planets, so planets around other stars that are not the sun, and we found a whole variety of them. Have we found water on any of them yet?
Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:21:58] Yes, indeed. It’s a very exciting new era of astronomy and 25 years ago only did the first planet around another star than our Sun was actually discovered. Now of course, it got the Nobel prize for that last year. Fantastic results. Now that we have actually found these exo-planets, and now that we know statistically that on average, every star has at least one planet, now we’re entering a new era in which we are doing, trying to do, basically, the characterization of the atmospheres of these exo-planets. And indeed water has been detected in quite a number of these exo-planets, mostly actually giant exo-planets, you know, gas giants like Jupiter. Earth-like planets, the first hints are starting to be there.
Jacinta: [00:22:56] So have we found a habitable planet yet?
Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:22:57] Have we found the twin of Earth yet?I don’t think so. Are we trying to find habitable exo-planets? We’re getting closer. But at least we have good candidates to target the next generation of instruments like the James Webb Space Telescope.
Dan: [00:23:19] It’s very exciting. It’s going to be very exciting. The next 50 years or so.
Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:23:23] Right. And also then not to forget the gigantic telescopes on the ground that are now being built. And the extremely large telescope from the European Southern Observatory is really aimed at characterizing the atmospheres of exo-planets and searching for biomarkers in them, not just water. You need also other molecules in order to determine whether there is actually life there.
Jacinta: [00:23:51] Yeah. We found so much with the current generation of telescopes like ALMA in Chile and Spitzer, Herschel, all of these things, and I can’t imagine what we’ll find.
Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:24:01] Oh, that’s, I think that’s the wonderful thing about astronomy. I mean, it’s the fact that we don’t know what are going to find. That’s the surprise. I mean, that’s the excitement of the research.
Jacinta: [00:24:11] Yeah. It’s a journey of discovery.
Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:24:12] Exactly.
Jacinta: [00:24:13] The IAU recently had a competition for naming some exo-planets, and I think two were named by South Africa?
Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:24:21] Indeed, the star and its planets around it.
Jacinta: [00:24:26] I think it was Naledi, was the star, and Krotoa, was the exo-planet.
Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:24:31] Yes.
Dan: [00:24:33] And those planets were actually discovered from the WASP telescopes which are here in Sutherland.
Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:24:39] Exactly. You can see the star and not the planet, but you can see the star I think with a small telescope here from South Africa. And I think also the names are wonderful because the mother star is basically the name of a girl that brings joy.
Dan: [00:25:00] Very interesting research, but your current role is as the International Astronomical Union – the IAU president. So maybe we can talk a little bit about that and what’s keeping you busy these days?
Jacinta: [00:25:14] First of all, what is the IAU?
Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:25:16] Right, so the International Astronomical Union is the worldwide organization that brings all of the professional astronomers together, so 13 and a half thousand from more than 80 member countries in more than a hundred different nationalities. And our mission is basically to promote and safeguard astronomy in all of its aspects. And of course through international cooperation. That is the key word that we are doing, the international cooperation. And these days, that’s much more than just bringing astronomers together to talk about research and to have conferences, etc. That’s the sort of the traditional role of the IAU. Now we also use astronomy as a tool for education in terms of outreach, and also as a tool for development.
Dan: [00:26:14] And that’s actually what brings you here to Cape Town.
Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:26:16] Yes, yeah, we are very proud of our Office of Astronomy for Development. So this is not the development of astronomy. This is really using astronomy as a development tool in various countries.
Jacinta: [00:26:30] And is this your first time to South Africa?
Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:26:32] Yes, it’s long overdue.
Jacinta: [00:26:35] What do you think so far?
Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:26:36] I like it a lot. It’s a beautiful area that you have here.
Dan: [00:26:41] The SAAO hosts here the Office for Astronomy for Development here in Cape Town on our site. And this week we are hosting a Science for Development Workshop, which you’re attending. What has been your impression of that and how does science help assist in development?
Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:26:58] So if I take a step back, if you just look at what the OAD has achieved so far, so it’s really amazing what the director, Kevin Govender and his team have done.
It’s basically building a worldwide network here in Africa between various African countries, but then also worldwide through the regional offices of the OAD. And each of these offices, here in Africa, there are three, actually -Western Africa, Eastern Africa, Southern Africa – they all have their own set of activities and the measures that they’re taking in order to bring astronomy to the people, but also to use it to train students in skill sets that are useful elsewhere in society.
So think of big data, think of technologies, but also think of the inspiration that astronomy brings. And that sort of gets young children excited to go into STEM subjects. And we see that happening actually across the entire globe. So we wonderfully had all of the representatives from these offices worldwide here together as well.
They’re also attending this workshop on Science for Development. So with this workshop, we’re taking it one step broader because if you, if you’re doing, for example, an intervention in, say, Nigeria in a refugee camp, then you can use astronomy to inspire children there. But at the same time, you probably need social scientists. You maybe need some psychologists on your team in order to make that intervention really work.
And so I think that is what we are trying to do here is bring sort of different communities together so that we can make – build teams – build multidisciplinary teams in order to make the world a better place.
Jacinta: [00:28:57] And one of those projects that’s funded by the Office of Astronomy for Development is of course, the Molo Mhlaba project, which we featured in episode 19 and we hear that you got a chance to go visit the girls.
Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:29:10] Exactly yeah. When I visit, I didn’t, don’t just want to see the office itself. I really want to see the projects in action. So I was really delighted that Margherita Molaro actually took me to visit Khayelitsha and see the school. It’s also, we spent about an hour there talking with the head of the school, but also seeing the children in action and all the kinds of activities. They were also, you know, using Lego to build the robotic elements, so it was really very interesting to see that under these very difficult circumstances, this little oasis of young girls being trained there. So it was a fantastic experience.
Dan: [00:29:52] That’s a wonderful project.
Jacinta: [00:29:54] Okay. And right, getting back on track with the IAU. What is it like being the president?
Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:30:00] The way the IAU works is actually that we have four officers that do the bulk of the work. So it’s the president, it’s the general secretary, it’s the president elect, and it is the assistant general secretary, and it’s really the general secretary that does the bulk of the work -it is more than a hundred percent job – so I’m very fortunate that I have a very good general secretary. The president is also doing quite a lot of activities. It’s more of the outward-looking part towards the community. So I try wherever I can to help and visit regions, and see where my visit, my presence can sort of give a push to certain projects to move them forward.
Of course, also in terms of organization, I’ve had a very interesting and very busy year. It was the one hundred year celebrations of the IAU. Last year we had our one hundred year celebrations and we actually organized more than 5,000 activities a year in more than 140 countries. So it was one long and very interesting stretch. So we had basically one full year of activities, and in January we started with a hundred hours of astronomy with the amateurs. In February, we had the women and girls in astronomy. Then later in the year, we had the celebration of a hundred years of the solar eclipse with which Eddington proved that Einstein was right, the famous 1919 solar eclipse. Then we had the moon landing. Then, of course, the Name Exo-Worlds that we just talked about. So it has been a wonderful experience and it has sort of energized also, so much activities around the world. So I’m really, well it’s heartwarming to see that.
Jacinta: [00:32:10] And it’s not quite over yet.
Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:32:11] Indeed. We have our final IAU100 activity coming up on Valentine’s day, 30 years since the iconic pale blue dot image was taken by the Voyager I mission – the Voyager turning around when it was already past Saturn and looking back at Earth one more time and taking this famous picture, and Carl Sagan words: that’s us – that tiny little dot.
Jacinta: [00:32:38] The pale blue dot. It’s definitely a romantic picture to celebrate on Valentine’s day,
Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:32:43] But also I’d say it shows, you know how tiny we are, the tiny little rock that we are living on – there somewhere in the outskirts of our galaxy. We’d better take good care of our planet.
Jacinta: [00:32:55] Absolutely.
Dan: [00:32:56] It’s very precious.
Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:32:57] Very precious.
Jacinta: [00:32:59] And the other connection that Cape Town has very strongly to the IAU is that the IAU general assembly will be hosted here in 2024.
Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:33:06] Indeed, after a century, the IAU is finally coming to Africa for its general assembly. So I’m really delighted that that is happening. I visited the conference center – just the other day, and it looks very good, especially with the new additions. Now it’s large enough to hold the IAU general assembly, but it’s hopefully also sending a signal to Africa, not just South Africa, the entire continent, that this is an opportunity.
This is an opportunity not just for the young astronomers and senior astronomers to attend the general assembly, but we really would like to see also, you know, young astronomers – on the program presenting results, and so that is a very good goal to work towards in the coming four years, that the community is built up and that they can have a very strong presence also on stage at the general assembly in 2024.
Dan: [00:34:06] It’s really exciting. We look forward to welcoming you back.
Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:34:09] My pleasure.
Dan: [00:34:10] Hopefully you come before then too, though.
Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:34:13] Very possibly, yes. Would be my pleasure to do so.
Dan: [00:34:18] Well, thank you very much for joining us. We really, really appreciate it. It’s wonderful to talk to you.
Jacinta: [00:34:24] Thank you so much.
Dan: [00:34:24] Enjoy the rest of your stay – I hope you get to see some of the sites and all the best.
Ewine van Dishoeck: [00:34:30] Thank you. And keep up the excellent work that you’re doing here.
Dan: [00:34:39] I really enjoyed that interview.
Jacinta: [00:34:41] I did too.
Dan: [00:34:42] She spoke wonderfully. It was very interesting. I certainly learned a few things.
Jacinta: [00:34:46] Yeah. I didn’t know that the water on the Earth is older than the solar system – than the sun.
Dan: [00:34:51] Yeah, no, nor me. I was a firm believer in the comet theory, but you know hers kind of makes more sense actually.
Jacinta: [00:34:58] Asteroids and planetesimals.
Dan: [00:34:59] Well, yeah, so sort of it formed before the solar system formed. It was sitting in these small rocks and things, which then formed the Earth itself. I mean, it’s pretty interesting that the water we drink,…
Jacinta: [00:35:13] Yeah. So next time you have a glass of water, I just think how old it is.
Dan: [00:35:16] These molecules formed over 5 billion years ago.
Jacinta: [00:35:19] Kind of blows you away. And it was also pretty amazing that we’re getting closer to finding habitable planets.
Dan: [00:35:26] Yeah. Finding planets is a really big deal. And as she mentioned, the Nobel prize for last year was given to the search for exo-planets. I mean, we found over 4,000 – now are we finding more and more each day. And it is kind of just a matter of time before we find ones which look like they are in the habitable zone.
Jacinta: [00:35:47] Well, we found ones that are in the habitable zone, but even ones that are habitable.
Dan: [00:35:51] In the habitable zone of the sort of right size, and…
Jacinta: [00:35:55] and contain water and oxygen.
Dan: [00:35:58] So it is just a matter of time, I think
Jacinta: [00:36:02] I think it’s a little ways away, but we’re getting closer.
Dan: [00:36:05] The TESS telescope is finding a lot of these things. That’s very exciting.
Jacinta: [00:36:12] Yeah. And we’ve found that whole zoo of exo-planets ranging from big gas giants and big planets that are closer in to their stars than we think they should be, and little like rockier ones. We haven’t found any tiny ones yet, I think because they’re quite hard to find.
Dan: [00:36:32] We found a few, but they are hard to find.
Jacinta: [00:36:36] So much exciting stuff happening.
Dan: [00:36:37] And we’ll learn a lot about how planets form, which is, again, what Ewine was talking about and is very, very interesting actually.
Jacinta: [00:36:45] Yeah. And I hadn’t actually seen the pictures of the tracks that had been carved out by planets as they were orbiting their baby stars.
Dan: Yeah, we’ll definitely post that on the blog.
Jacinta: It was seen with ALMA. So cool. Well, that was an exciting episode to start the year with.
Dan: [00:37:02] Particularly the quiz. No, I’m joking.
Jacinta: [00:37:04] That was the highlight. I enjoyed putting you through that, Dan. So, uh, yeah, I guess that’s it for today.
Dan: [00:37:14] Thanks very much for listening, and we hope you’ll join us again for the next episode of the Cosmic Savannah.
Jacinta: [00:37:18] You can visit our website, www.thecosmicsavannah.com where we’ll have links related to today’s episode. You can also follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram @cosmicsavannah. That’s Savannah, spelled S-A-V-A-N-N-A-H.
Dan: [00:37:32] Special thanks today to Professor Ewine van Dishoeck for speaking with us.
Jacinta: [00:37:36] Thanks to Mark Allnut for music production. Janas Brink for the astrophotography. Lana Ceraj for graphic design and Thabisa Fikelepi for social media support. Also to Thabisa Fikelepi, Lynette Delhaize and Sumari Hattingh for transcription assistance.
Dan: [00:37:51] We gratefully acknowledge support from the South African National Research Foundation and the South African Astronomical Observatory to help the podcast running.
Jacinta: [00:37:58] You can subscribe on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you’d like to help us out, please rate and review us and recommend us to a friend. We would really appreciate it. And thanks to everyone who has already done so.
Dan: [00:38:11] And we’ll speak to you next time on the Cosmic Savannah.
Jacinta: [00:38:13] Let me ask you, Dan, what was your favorite episode in 2019?
Dan: [00:38:28] The black holes, the EHT – the event horizon telescope.
Jacinta: [00:38:32] Yeah. That was a good episode where we interviewed Roger and Rhodri Evans.
Dan: [00:38:36] I mean, it was just a super exciting episode. I saw a talk the other day and they were showing three big images, which have kind of changed the world in terms of astronomy. The one was the pale blue dot. What was the other one? I think it might’ve been the one from the first Apollo mission that went around the moon looking back at the Earth with the moon in the foreground. And then the third one was the EHT, the black hole, which I don’t know if I entirely agree with.
But it’s pretty cool. Yeah, and I think that the, what they were showing was that it was seen by four and a half billion people or something – that image. We didn’t get four and a half billion listeners on our podcast. People need to get themselves together!
Jacinta: [00:39:26] It is all about us.
Dan: [00:39:28] What was your favorite episode?
Jacinta: [00:39:31] I can’t choose. Oh, there were so many. I love the one that I loved recording the most was episode 19 – the Molo Mhlaba one because I got to go out to the school and talk with the girls and they were so full of life. I also obviously liked the two that I got to record in Australia. Just like, kind of show everyone my home. And I think, like content wise, I liked episode three, which was the one about SETI. The breakthrough listen project with MeerKAT, because I didn’t realize that we could use MeerKAT to search for extraterrestrial intelligence, and that is super cool.
Dan: [00:40:07] Exciting news. I won’t, I’m not sure I’m allowed to share it.
Jacinta: [00:40:11] What? What aren’t you allowed to share?
Dan: [00:40:14] Well, I don’t want to say it cause I’m not sure I’m allowed to share it. It’s, I mean,…
Jacinta: [00:40:20] Okay, well, we’ll have a conversation off air.
Dan: [00:40:23] Yeah, it’s,… Yeah. Okay.