Episode 18: Dark skies over Africa

with Carringtone Kinyanjui and Olayinka Fagbemiro

We are joined by the Carringtone Kinyanjui who is a student at the University of Nairobi, Kenya and a member of the Sayari Astronomy Outreach and Astro-Tourism group who promote the dark skies of Africa!

Carringtone talks about his relationship with astronomy and the incredible work the Sayari group is doing in Kenya. The Sayari project involves collaborating with lodges in the Maasai Mara Game Reserve, training their guides in ethno-astronomy, light pollution awareness and telescope operation.

The group also runs a great project recording the indigenous knowledge of the African skies by collecting stories from around the country.

Olayinka Fagbemiro, the Assistant Chief Scientific Officer of the National Space Research and Development Agency in Abuja, Nigeria then joins us. Olayinka is also the local coordinator for Astronomers Without Borders in Nigeria.

We chat about the development work that is done by the National Space Research and Development Agency, and some of their achievements in launching satellites from Nigeria as well as the outreach work that is done across Nigeria through the Astronomers Without Borders project.

This week’s Guests:

Related Links:
Sayari Group: http://sayarikenya.org/
University of Nairobi: https://www.uonbi.ac.ke/
Astronomers with Borders Nigeria: https://awbnigeria.com/
Astronomers without Borders: https://astronomerswithoutborders.org/
National Space Research and Development Agency: https://nasrda.gov.ng/en/

Featured Image:
Sayari Outreach in Kenya


Transcribed by Lynette Delhaize

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] We introduce you to the people involved, technology we use, the exciting work we do and fascinating discoveries we make.

Jacinta: [00:00:24] Sit back and relax as we take you on a Safari through the skies.

Hello, welcome to episode 18.

Dan: [00:00:37] Welcome and apologies for my cold

Jacinta: [00:00:40] sounding a little nasally there, Dan.

Dan: [00:00:42] Sorry about that.

Jacinta: [00:00:44] So what are we talking about today?

Dan: [00:00:47] So today we’re talking about African skies. Yeah. In the truest sense, we are talking,

Jacinta: [00:00:51] we’re leaving South Africa,

Dan: [00:00:52] leaving South Africa, going into Africa, talking about Kenya and Nigeria and some of the exciting things happening there. How people are utilizing our African dark skies,  for good, for education, for economic gain, and basically capitalizing on this advantage we have. In South Africa, we have this act, The Astronomy Geographic Advantage Act, which kind of covers the SKA and Mia Kat.

I think that’s something which is true in most of Africa. We are at a real advantage when it comes to having nice, clean, dark skies.  I think that’s something that we should really work on and use to our advantage.

Jacinta: [00:01:41] Yeah, exactly. I think the African continent has a lot of negative connotations even to the people themselves sometimes but we’re going to hear from two people today who treat it as an asset with joy and are trying to get more people to fall in love with Africa’s dark skies. As you said, to use it to help boost the economy. 

Dan: [00:02:08] I think more than that in Africa, if you have a relationship with the stars, and a lot of people live rural, they see the stars much better than people who live in big cities or in Europe and the States. Where if you’re lucky, you can see a couple of hundred stars on a dark night. Whereas in the dark places, you can see thousands, thousands, and thousands of stars, the Milky way and in the Southern hemisphere, you can see the Magellanic clouds. So people have this ongoing relationship with the skies through their own understanding. And we’ll talk a little bit about that too, but also, even today, just having that fascination and interest in the stars.

Jacinta: [00:02:52] I think everybody feels some sort of connection with the stars, with the night sky certainly if you’ve grown up seeing it. Nowadays, a lot of us haven’t, you know, if we’ve grown up in cities.

Dan: [00:03:02] Which is very sad. Yeah and something we’re trying to fix.

Jacinta: [00:03:04] Okay. So today we’re going to be speaking to Carringtone Kinyanjui , who is a master student at the University of Nairobi studying theoretical astrophysics and also from Olayinka Fagbemiro who works at the Nigerian space agency and with The Astronomers without Borders. And from both of those, we’re going to hear about amazing initiatives to use astronomy and the space industry and the night sky to inspire a nation and a continent.

Dan: [00:03:34] And you caught up with them both. So I look forward to hearing it.

Jacinta: [00:03:37] Yeah. So I caught up with Carringtone and  Olayinka at this year’s Astronomy in Africa conference earlier on in the year when they were visiting Cape town.

And I got to hear their incredible stories. So Carringtone as I said, is a student in Nairobi, in Kenya, and he is also involved in a project called Sayari, which is an astronomy education and Astro-tourism campaign to get the Safari lodges, the game lodges, to also have a component for the tourists about Astro-tourism.

So looking up at the night sky learning ethno- astronomy so the stories of the local people, and sort of building a better connection with the sky and generating some more income. So he’s involved with training speakers and sort of campaigning the lodgers and these sorts of things. So let’s hear from Carringtone.

We’re now talking to Carringtone Kinyanjui. Welcome Carringtone.

Carringtone: [00:04:44] Thank you for having me, Jacinta. It’s a pleasure.

Jacinta: [00:04:47] Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Carringtone: [00:04:50]  I can tell a lot. Okay, good.I’m a student. My name is Carringtone Kinyanjui. I’m a student at the University of Nairobi back in Kenya.  I’m also with this Sayari Astronomy Outreach and Astro-Tourism group.

 We are basically a bunch of students who work around Kenya. Sayari is Swahili for the planet. Planet is Greek for wanderer. We wander about in Kenya telling astronomical stories, learning astronomical stories from the local community and trying to create a sustainable outreach and a strong tourism business model in Kenya.

So, yeah, that’s what we do.

Jacinta: [00:05:35] So wonderful.  I have so many questions. I’m not even sure where to start. So now you obviously have a big interest in astronomy and you are doing  a degree in astronomy. Yes?

Carringtone: [00:05:48] Yeah.

Jacinta: [00:05:48] Right. Let’s just start there. What did, what got you interested in that and  what are you working on at the moment?

Carringtone: [00:05:54] So, funny story. It’s a novel that got me interested in astronomy. It was Angels and Demons by Dan Brown. Oh, really? Yeah. I’m a novel person of stele novel person. So I read it and discovered this part of physics that is not taught in secondary schools in Kenya. So physics is this boring thing that tells you how doors move. I learnt about particles, antiparticles, antimatter, colliders, Big Bang, and I was wondering, is this really real? So I went to check it out in the library and found, wow. This is real stuff. And that’s where I started, back in high school, and got interested in astronomy. I then applied to my undergraduate, and there I was accepted to study astronomy at the University of Nairobi.

So that’s my origin story, if you will. Yeah,

Jacinta: [00:06:51] I think that’s probably the best origin story I’ve ever heard.

Carringtone: [00:06:54] Thank you. Thank you. Jacinta.

Jacinta: [00:06:57] So you went to university and then what are you doing with that now?

Carringtone: [00:07:00] So after that I graduated and I then enrolled back for masters in theoretical astrophysics at the university of Nairobi. After that we were selected with a group of other students from engineering, geospatial engineering, electrical, physics related fields. We were selected by the project called Development of Africa with radio astronomy.  So they told us to put in a proposal of a project that we would like to do in our country.

So we had a discussion and voted on it, and one of us proposed that we should try to find a sustainable business-like project in the country. We settled on astro-tourism, taking into account that Africa has such beautiful dark skies. It’s amazing. Those Africans living in the city try going to the rural areas at least once a month.

You will see what I’m talking about. So we decided to sell that as a product of Africa through astro- tourism. So it would entail training guides and all this stuff. Yeah. I guess we’ll get into that later. Yeah.

Jacinta: [00:08:19] Let’s jump straight into it now. Why not? Okay. So you’re running a project called Sayari, so tell us more about that.

Carringtone: [00:08:26] So sayari is Swaheli for planets. The planet is Greek for Wanderer. So that’s what we do. We wander about the country. So we move the project specifically, we do outreach, and we also work on astro-tourism. So the idea is to get game parks specifically lodges in game parks because that’s the arrangement back in Kenya to get interested and to invest in astronomy. Maybe buy a telescope, maybe buy a pair of binoculars or something. A laser pointer even, and then have that as part of their products. So they not only sell game drives, but also sell the night sky to the tourists and maybe charge a fee for each and maybe employ someone to do that, a local with local knowledge. Another part of it, a strong part of it is what we call ethno-astronomy. We know that Africans had their own stories of the night sky because they moved around using the night sky as a compass. So we want to know those stories and tourists who come to Kenya want to know those stories.

So I think it is interesting to also sell that, as part of their products of Africa. We are working to try to get dark sky certification for our local game parks. So we’ve focused on one game park called the Mara – the Masai Mara. I’m sure it’s famous. So the idea is to try and convince them to preserve the night sky and sell that as a product.

Jacinta: [00:10:05] So for some of our international listeners who might not be familiar so game parks are like Safari parks, right, where you can pay to go in and it’s a reserve for wild animals.

Carringtone: [00:10:18] Yes, exactly. Exactly that. So basically what happens is that the government first isolates areas with wild animals and forests and water views. Then they sub-lets these to private companies. At least in the Kenyan arrangement they sub-lets these to private companies who then use it as a product and pay the government some bit of money, either the government or the local government. Yeah. So that’s the arrangement,

Jacinta: [00:10:48] Right? So this is a sustainable source of income for Kenya.

Tourism is a big part of the economy. And so, you know obviously, Kenya has some of the most incredible Safari reserves in the world with just vast areas, so many animals, wild animals, just living in nature. And so of course people want to come and see this, and so why not at the same time,

Carringtone: [00:11:13] look up.

Jacinta: [00:11:14] Look up.

Carringtone: [00:11:14] Exactly. Just look up and see the beauty of it. Yeah. Most tourists to Kenya are Europeans or Americans or Australians. So most of their night sky is gone to them because of the huge cities. You think about New York, California. Think about Paris and London. So the night sky is gone for them. For this reason it will be interesting to have them look up occasionally and maybe hear the stories of other people. So most astronomy stories are by the Greeks because the Greeks wrote it down. So the Greeks tell their stories. So we would also like to document our stories and tell them to tourists. That’s part of it. Yeah.

Jacinta: [00:12:05] Do you have an example of any of these stories that you might give us a sneak preview of?

Carringtone: [00:12:09] Yeah, so the Samburu have an interesting story about what we call the Milky way galaxy. It comes from the Greek. Yeah. So in the Samburu name for it is [missing text] Nkai That is the belt of God.

So to them that was part of the clothes of God, if you will have it that way. So that’s interesting. They also have a specific name for the Orion belt. To them it’s a village. It’s a village with cows coming out. The three stars of the Orion belt. So they have their own way of looking at things and they have their own stories which we found very interesting.

Jacinta: [00:12:55] Wow, that’s amazing. It’s so fascinating to hear how the people of different cultures have come up with completely different stories and naming for the stars  and how that was a really important part of their lives.

Carringtone: [00:13:10] Yeah. You see Jacinta, you didn’t know that story. You only knew of the Greeks. Do you know any of your local stories? 

Jacinta: [00:13:18] Well I’m probably not the best person to tell the story, but, yes, I know that  the first people of Australia, the indigenous Aboriginal people, they have some various stories as well about, the night sky and one of them, when you look at the Milky way I believe the Aboriginal people focus less on the stars, what you could see with light, but actually looked at the dark patches. Yeah. And there’s like a dust lane going through the center of the Milky way, and they think that this looks like an EMU. So this was the big EMU in the sky and indeed, when you see it and you trace out the pattern, it does look like an EMU, which is of course, is a big flightless bird in Australia.

Carringtone: [00:14:01] Yeah. Yeah. So that’s interesting. So the point is to get all these stories written down and at least maybe for the locals of any community, any country, to at least know their own stories. So we are trying to do a lot of that in Kenya. We think that is important, maybe not paying but it is important.

Jacinta: [00:14:23] And so when will this project start?

Carringtone: [00:14:26] So it actually started last year, around September. That’s when we got our approval for funding. We’ve got the telescope sent and then we went to the game parks and started training the guides. We wanted them to have some basic knowledge of astronomy so that they can talk competently with the tourists.

So we trained them for a week and we went back, followed up, in February. So we are currently in talks with them. We want to formalize a formal contract because this is a private business agreement to have a formal contract where we lease the telescope to them and then we let them use it as a product with the tourists and with some form of income. We are still in discussions with them. We haven’t finalized the contract. But the local game parks, a special shout out to Governor’s camp, are very interested in learning and running the project. So we are still in talks with them. We hope this goes well.

Jacinta: [00:15:33] Oh, absolutely. And I really send my best wishes to you as well.

Carringtone: [00:15:38] Thank you

Jacinta: [00:15:38] for this. I think it’s an absolutely brilliant idea. If any of our listeners are interested in coming to visit one of these, where can they find information?

Carringtone: [00:15:51] We have a website, www.sayari.co.ke. You can shoot me an email Kinyanjuicarringtone@ gmail. I assume it will appear somewhere. Then we can have a talk. We are interested in replicating this all over Africa because Africa is usually called the dark continent and people think that’s a bad thing. It’s a wonderful thing. Yeah. So we want to replicate this in Africa, most probably start with South Africa and our neighboring countries, Uganda and Tanzania. We think it will be a beautiful thing, so that it is understood that this is a product of the African continent. I think that’s interesting.

Jacinta: [00:16:38] Of course, we’ll put those related links on our website. So any listeners who are interested can go and have a look in and just how do you spell Sayari?

Carringtone: [00:16:44] So Sayari, so that’s S -a -y- a-r-i. 

Jacinta: [00:16:52] Do you have any final messages for our listeners?

Carringtone: [00:16:54] Come to Kenya. There’s a story going around that in Kenya especially that academically trained astronomers have difficulty finding employment. There’s a problem with our tourism numbers dropping down.

So yeah, we can cry about that or we can innovate our way out of all these problems. We are human beings. Our job is to think most of the time. So we would like the young people to take up these opportunities in your respective countries. It doesn’t matter. If you’re a physics trained young person, there’s no reason why you can’t carry out this project in your country, in your local area. Just be innovative, and work your way into a solution. I’d like to thank DARA Development of Africa with Radio Astronomy for the incredible support. The organization of astronomy for development for a lot of support that went into this project. Also Professor Baki and the Technical University of Kenya, for facilitating our movement, our logistics and my personal university, The University of Nairobi, which I represent here.

I would also like to thank the government of Kenya. I’ve studied all through, using bursaries. Yeah. So I’d like to thank everybody who supported us.

Jacinta: [00:18:26] And we’d like to thank you, Carringtone for all of your efforts, for leading this project. And so congratulations to you and your team.

Thank you again, all the best. And thank you for talking with us today.

Carringtone: [00:18:39] Thank you, Jacinta. Thank you for having me.

Dan: [00:18:52] Great, thank you. I really enjoyed that.

Jacinta: [00:18:55] It was interesting, wasn’t it?

Dan: [00:18:56] It really was, and just wonderful to hear his enthusiasm. As a master student, he’s doing great stuff. And just as his aspiration to already take it beyond his own country. I mean, this is something which I would love to see happen in South Africa.

And I know there are some initiatives to begin some astro-tourism, more astro-tourism in South Africa and collect the astronomy stories in South Africa too. Some work has been done on this. There’s a great book called Venus Rising which you can download and we’ll stick a link to it on our website.

And a lot of this history has been recorded, but it’s not necessarily shared as widely as it should be and what Carringtone talks about and tries to tell these stories and communicate with people. These different understandings of the sky are really quite wonderful.

Jacinta: [00:19:52] Yeah, absolutely. And I’d love to do another episode on South Africa’s ethno-astronomy.

Dan: [00:19:57] Yeah. We should. I should give that book a solid read.

Jacinta: [00:20:00] Yeah. Well, if anyone knows a lot about this, please reach out to us because we’d love to talk to you, but off the top of your head, Dan, do you know any stories.

Dan: [00:20:08] I know of a couple. Different communities  obviously have a different understanding of the night sky.

I know in Sutherland we’ve got a small display about a boy who kind of collected the shooting stars and threw these stones up into the sky to create the stars. Which is, it’s pretty wonderful. Yeah. So we’ve got a little display about that up in Sutherland. And I mean, there’s a wealth of different understandings of the sky. The stars we used to tell the seasons obviously, and predict planting times Pleiades was very important for that. And yeah, there’s really a lot of stuff and we should definitely do an episode on it and find somebody who’s well versed in this to speak to.

Jacinta: [00:20:50] And Carringtone mentioned something about dark skies certification.

Are there any rules about that in Sutherland?

Dan: [00:20:56] So in Sutherland we do really try very hard. And in the local Southern community, there is an understanding and some obligation to keep the light to a minimum having downwards facing lights. But obviously that’s just in the local community. And more and more these days from towns as far as a hundred kilometers away, we’re starting to pick up the light pollution.

Jacinta: [00:21:20] I think you mentioned once that you can see Cape town’s light pollution from Sutherland.

Dan: [00:21:24] You can on a dark night you can see a glow in the sort of South Southwestern horizon from Cape town which is, you know, problematic and something which was very hard to deal with obviously. But again, this just speaks to the value of these dark skies and something which Africa has in abundance. The fact that you can get 400 Ks from a major city in the first place is pretty wonderful because there’s not many countries when you could do that.

So It is an important resource and one we should definitely preserve and celebrate.

Jacinta: [00:21:58] Definitely. I also loved Carringtone’s spirit of wanting to share his love of astronomy with more people, and that’s also something that our second guest Olayinka Fagbemiro is also doing. So Olayinka  is the assistant chief scientific officer at the Nigerian space agency, which is I think Africa’s first space agency. She’s also the national coordinator for Astronomers Without Borders, which is as the name suggests, an international association. You don’t just have to be an astronomer to participate in it, and it’s about teaching everybody about astronomy in the night sky. And Olayinka  is doing a lot of fabulous work to share her love of astronomy and the space science and space industry and technology with people who are never even seen or heard of a telescope before

Dan: [00:22:50] Astronomers without Borders is a wonderful project. So they run projects all around the world trying to reach as many people as they can with astronomy. And yeah, I’d love to hear what she has to say about it.

Jacinta: [00:23:01] Let’s hear from her.

Hi, we’re chatting with Olayinka Fagbemiro. Welcome Olayinka.

Olayinka [00:23:14] Hello.

Jacinta: [00:23:15] Olayinka you’re from the Nigerian space agency, is that right?

Olayinka: [00:23:19] Yes, please.

Jacinta: [00:23:20] Can you tell us a little bit about who you are, where you’re from, and what your job is.

Olayinka: [00:23:25] Okay. Thank you. My name is Olayinka Fagbemiro. I’m an assistant chief scientific officer with the Nigerian space agency, which is a national space research and development agency in Abuja in Nigeria. I’m also the founder and national coordinator for Astronomers without Borders in Nigeria. We started in 2013 so basically what I do, but other than a space agency and as AWB is astronomy education outreach, and I’m trying to create awareness in astronomy as space science in general in Nigeria.

Jacinta: [00:24:12] You said that there’s a lack of awareness of astronomy in Nigeria. So how did you get involved in the first place?

Olayinka: [00:24:20] Okay, well, I got involved by accident. Because when I was growing up I didn’t have anyone tell me about astronomy. I didn’t know what astronomy was, but one thing that I remember vividly that as kids, we would be outside out there in the evening, and then we’ll look at the moon, we’ll look at the stars, and then we have some elderly people, mostly non-literate people telling those stories. And there was a lot of meat about astronomy, like, you know, they tell you some, you know, of course, they didn’t know this scientific, they didn’t have the scientific understanding of these things. So they just come up with stories like folklore. I don’t know, they just come out with so many funny stories.

And then they tell us those things  and growing up you had to find out, you wanted to know more, like, is this really true? For example, they would tell you things like, if there was, so, like for example, you hear stories such as an elephant and the lion fighting in the woods.

So that is why everywhere went dark all of a sudden. And then, you know I was curious, I wanted to find out as I began to grow up, and then I had more understanding and I could go and read on my own, and then I found out, wow, these things are going on! So that really made me have interest in astronomy.

And so when I found myself at the Nigerian space agency it was natural for me to just toe the line.

Jacinta: [00:26:15] So can you firstly just explain to us what the Nigerian space agency is?

Olayinka: [00:26:19] Nigerian space agency is a pioneer space agency in Africa. It started in 1999 May 15th, the founder, the government that has started the agency, wanted Nigeria to develop capabilities in space science and technology.

And so the agency was started. And over the past 20 years the agency has been involved in a lot of developmental projects and activities. They have different centers.  They do a lot of things about satellite technology and developments, satellite transport and propu    lsion, geodesy and geodynamics, basic space and atmospheric studies,  atmospheric research and a whole lot.The agency does a whole lot over the course of these years of its existence. Also, the agency has been able to launch about six satellites to date, which were done in collaboration with international organizations and countries because we have yet to develop capability in launching these satellites on home soil. So what it basically does is collaborate with China, with the United Kingdom and so on. And then they have these projects.

Jacinta: [00:27:56] Can you tell us more about what your particular role is?

Olayinka: [00:27:59] Okay, so like I said, I’m an education outreach officer. And what that means is I carry out a lot of educational activities.

We want to be able to reach out to a lot of Nigerian kids. There are millions of Nigerian kids, and we’re trying to develop the next generation of kids in Africa who are going to take over the space industry. We want to create awareness. We want kids to know about space. We want kids to know about astronomy.

And so we want them to develop interest in having careers in these fields. And also we are trying to train teachers because we know that a lot of teachers don’t even know about space science themselves because most of our curricula do not have space science or astronomy as subjects in elementary and high schools.

So we’re training teachers, we’re training kids. We are popularizing astronomy. We are popularizing space science and technology. That is what we do. That is what I do.

Jacinta: [00:29:17] Wonderful. I mean, it’s obviously really important and like you said, there’s a lot of kids who don’t know about it and who could know about it.

We need the next generation of people trained so that they can take over. Right. So now  you said that you also founded The Astronomy Without Borders Nigeria in 2013 what’s that about?

Olayinka: [00:29:40] Okay. Thank you very much. Astronomy without borders is a global body, the president is Mike Simmons from the United States.

I think he started the organization. And then over the years we have different countries skinning into that and like the names are just like a community of astronomers from all around the world. So in 2013 I met Mike Siemens at the conference in Germany. Before AWB was funded, I was already into how to share activities. So it was really easy for me to transit into AWB. And since inception, we have been able to reach out to thousands of kids. I work with a team of young and enthusiastic scientists and engineers from Nigeria. Our passion and motivation is to see the next generation of African kids of Nigerian kids getting to know more about astronomy and getting to pick up careers in astronomy as they grew up.

Jacinta: [00:30:53] What are the sort of projects that you do as part of astronomy without borders, Nigeria

Olayinka: [00:30:57] Good. So we have a lot of projects that we do. The most popular being the astronomy outreach. Which means we go outside, we go on the streets, we go to schools, we go to places of worship. We are literally everywhere creating awareness about astronomy. We have telescopes, which we take out. And a lot of kids have not seen telescopes in their lives. So, when we go out and then we carry the telescopes, we are able to excite them, because when they see telescopes, and then we use that as an opportunity to teach them.

Also we train teachers because there are millions of kids in Nigeria, and then the membership of AWB is such that we will never be able to cover all the grant. So we started this idea of training the trainers where we train science teachers and then they go and turn back to the school to train their kids, their pupils. Also we have some gender based projects like the girls astronomy camp because in Nigeria a lot of girls are out of school and then there is this gender gap in STEM education in Nigeria. So, we started this project, which we focused on the girls to make sure they are not left behind.

Also, we key into some international astronomical events. For example, if we have a solar eclipse or Lunar Eclipse or any of such activities, we organize events around that event. We organize programs in Nigeria around such events, and then we invite people and we have  astronomy outreach with them as well.

Jacinta: [00:33:18] Are there any messages you’d like to share with our listeners?

Olayinka: [00:33:22] Yes. First and foremost I want to say that kids are genuinely excited about astronomy everywhere in the world. Astronomy is very exciting. It’s very interesting. And a lot of kids can relate to how interesting and exciting it is to just look up at the sky and then you’re able to see stars and are able to see the moon.

You know, it’s really a very good thing. You don’t need to push too hard before you get kids to be interested in astronomy. And that’s what we’ve been trying to do in the interior. You know, we go out on the streets and then we see kids and by the time we are setting up our telescope before we are done setting up, you see a lineup of kids already waiting because they are curious.

Kids are naturally curious, so they want to know. So what is this? And then also, I think Africa has arguably the best night skies in the world because most of our villages and towns don’t have the problem of light pollution. So it’s very easy to see things as opposed to people in the city centers where there’s light pollution or so like if I go on outreach to the villages, I just tell them, you guys think you don’t have electricity and so you are sad, but why not look at it this way. You have this beautiful night sky that without the aids of any device, you’re able to look up and you could see the craters on the moon. So I think it’s a good one. And then I want to encourage as many astronomas or astronomy interests. Yes. In Africa too please let us reach out to kids.

 So that we have this next generation of African kids who are already aware of what astronomy is and already to take off careers because whether we like it or not, we are going to retire someday and then who is going to take over? So we need to put in more effort into astronomy education in Africa.

Thank you.

Jacinta: [00:35:50] Yeah. I mean, thank you so much for speaking with us today, Olayinka. I think that the work you’re doing is so incredibly important and congratulations to you and to all of  your team members, and good luck for it in the future.

Olayinka: [00:36:03] Thank you very much.

Dan: [00:36:16] Great stuff. I didn’t know Nigeria had a space agency nevermind the first one. 

Jacinta: [00:36:20] A well established one launching its own satellite.

Dan: [00:36:22] Yeah. That’s incredible very exciting. Nigeria is a big country and I’m glad they’re supporting this sort of stuff.

Jacinta: [00:36:28] Absolutely.

Dan: [00:36:29] And also the astronomers without borders work she’s doing is wonderful.

It’s another one of these great ways in which we’re trying to reach as many people as possible. And it’s wonderful that these organizations existed. If you’d like to support them, you can actually, if you go to the astronomers without borders website. Astronomers without borders.org which is quite easy, uh, you can donate and support these programs.

They have a list of the programs that they’re running in future programs that they will run. So you can see what they’re doing and how it’s having an effect. 

Jacinta: [00:37:00] And we didn’t get much chance to go into a lot of detail with Olayinka about the exact projects that she’s running. She’s just such a driven person and they’re so passionate and just so much, so much stuff that they’re doing.

And I loved what she was saying about taking out a telescope and the kids had never seen it before and they were wildly excited to have a look through it.

Dan: [00:37:23] Yeah. That’s one of the great things about astronomy and not just what you see through a telescope. I think. So many people you encounter have never looked through a telescope before.

It almost doesn’t matter what they’re looking at. Even if you pointed at an earth bound object, people are excited. It’s quite a thing to see that sort of magnification.

Jacinta: [00:37:41] Yeah. And Olyainka made a really good point that we really need to put more effort into astronomy education in Africa. And I thought it was really interesting how both her and Carringtone got interested in astronomy by complete accident.

Dan: [00:37:55] I think it’s surprising how often that happens. Unfortunately, I did not. I was, I was very interested,

Jacinta: [00:38:02] as we heard in a previous episode, it was directly handed to me in a book.

Dan: [00:38:07] but a lot of people have stumbled into astronomy. It’s not one of those things where people hear enough about, you don’t hear about it as a child, as a possible career path, and to some degree that falls on us.

And that’s kind of the stuff we’re trying to do here is show people what people are doing in astronomy. All of the varied careers people are involved, and then how you can be involved in astronomy. And if that can get through to young children, then maybe they will see astronomy as a career option.

Jacinta: [00:38:37] Yeah, and also that Africa excels at astronomy. It’s something that we can all be proud of.

Dan: [00:38:45] Absolutely and grow. I think it’s growing very, very fast and there’s a lot of growth to happen in Africa. It’s a very exciting place to be.

Jacinta: [00:38:55] That’s why I’m here.

Dan: [00:38:57] Yeah, it’s true. There’s a massive pull right now to African astronomy.

Great. And we will have links to all of the websites we’ve mentioned, the projects on the website. So if you’d like to find out more, if you’d like to donate, you can do so. And we’ll post those links.

Jacinta: [00:39:14]  I think that’s it for today, right?

Dan: [00:39:18] Yeah. Thanks again for listening and we hope you’ll join us again on the next episode of the cosmic Savannah.

Jacinta: [00:39:24] You can visit our website, the cosmic savannah.com where we’ll have links related to today’s episode, and you can follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram at Cosmic Savannah. That’s Savannah, spelled S. a. v. a. n. n. a. h.

Dan: [00:39:37] Special thanks to our guests today, Carringtone Kinyanjul and Olayinka Fagbemiro

Jacinta: [00:39:43] Thanks to Mark Allnut for music production.

Janus Brink for astrophotography. Lana Ceraj for graphic design and for social media support.

Dan: [00:39:51] We gratefully acknowledge the support of the South African National Research Foundation and the South African Astronomical Observatory to help keep the podcast running.

Jacinta: [00:39:58] You can subscribe on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Please rate and review us and recommend us to a friend

Dan: [00:40:06] and we’ll speak to you next time on The Cosmic Savannah.

Jacinta: [00:40:17] Coming up on The Cosmic Savannah.

I would like to say, especially to young girls, because in South Africa, most of the guys do astronomy and they think that it can’t do anything, but as these girls we can change the world of astronomy. And you have the power to do that in astronomy a lot of things where you would want to move and you can explore a lot.

Episode 7: Under African Skies

with Dr Tanya Edwards and Dr Simon Bihr

In Episode 7 of the Cosmic Savannah we chat with Tanya and Simon about their astronomy at Namibia’s HESS Telescope and the VLA in the USA.

We also chat about their incredible journey through Africa on bicycles and their experience of the magnificent cosmic savannah!

This week’s guests:

Dr Simon Bihr & Dr Tanya Edwards

Episode Links:
HESS: https://www.mpi-hd.mpg.de/hfm/HESS/

Featured Image courtesy of Janus Brink


(By Lynette Delhaize)

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: [00:00:25] Sit back and relax as we take you on a safari through the skies.

Dan: [00:00:34] Okay. Welcome. What do we have in store today?

Jacinta: [00:00:38] So we have a really exciting, very different episode today. It is about astronomy. At least it starts about astronomy and then it meanders in different directions, and then it does come back to astronomy in the end. Our podcast is about astronomy.

It’s also about astronomers and their lives and what they like to do. It’s also about Africa and the cosmic Savannah. I won’t say too much about what we’re talking about today because I don’t want to ruin the surprise, but part of what we’re going to talk about is multi wavelength astronomy.

So we need to use all of the electromagnetic spectrum, all of the different wavelengths of light to do astronomy. And that’s because we can see different things at different wavelengths.

Dan: [00:01:30] Yes and particularly in this episode we’ll be talking about HESS. The high energy spectroscopic system, which is a gamma ray telescope situated in Namibia. A gamma ray telescope is quite an interesting construct because you can’t actually detect gamma rays directly from the surface of the Earth.

Gamma rays are incredibly high energy particles which come from high energy events in the universe stream across the galaxy and intergalactic space and reach us. And what happens when they hit our atmosphere is they interact with other particles within the atmosphere and cause a cascade of highly charged particles and something called drink of light and what HESS does and other gamma ray telescopes actually detect that cascade.

The kind of collateral damage from the gamma ray hitting the atmosphere and reconstruct the gamma ray path that would have caused this cascade.

Jacinta: [00:02:37] Yes. Then you can figure out which direction the original gamma ray came from, and therefore what astronomical source on the sky probably produced it.

Dan: [00:02:47] You’re not directly observing gamma rays, but you’re observing their effects. And from that you can infer what energy they were and where they came from.

Jacinta: [00:02:56] And we also talk about some radio astronomy called HI – neutral hydrogen. It’s an emission line from the hydrogen atom, and that’s very close to my heart.

It’s what I did most of my PhD research about. This episode doesn’t necessarily focus on it. I promise you we will have many episodes talking about it in the future if I have anything to say about it but we will mention it. I guess different atoms and different molecules emit different emission lines so these are narrow frequency photons of light. They are kind of the signatures of these atoms and molecules. And if we detect them in space, then we can figure out what atoms or molecules are out there and that can tell us where the clouds of molecular gas and atomic gas are and therefore where the clumps of newly forming stars are. So that can tell us about the geography of our Milky way.

Dan: [00:03:55]  So, who are we speaking to today?

Jacinta: [00:03:59] So today we are speaking to two pretty incredible people.  Dr Tanya Edwards and Dr. Simon Beer. They are from South Africa and from Germany, and they have a pretty incredible story about how they traveled from Heidelberg in Germany where they did their PhDs to Cape town here where we are.

I don’t want to spoil the story so let’s hear from them.

With us today are Dr Tanya Edwards and Dr. Simon Beer. Welcome Tanya and Simon.

Tanya: [00:04:40] Thank you. Thanks for having us.

Jacinta: [00:04:42] Tanya and Simon, you have a really interesting story to tell us. I guess it starts in Germany in Heidelberg, where you were doing your PhD in astronomy. Can you tell us a little bit about what you were working on?

Tanya: [00:04:56] Sure. I grew up in South Africa and I went to England to do my bachelor’s and master’s degree there. Then I moved to Germany where I did my PhD in Heidelberg. So there are two Max Planck institutes in Heidelberg and I did mine at the Max Planck Institute for nuclear physics with the HESS group.

 That’s actually where I met Simon. So the HESS group is actually a collaboration of about 14 countries and many scientists working together on high energy gamma ray astronomy or other very high energy gamma ray astronomy. We detect gamma ray showers between a hundred GeV and a hundred TeV.

Jacinta: [00:05:37] So very, very high energy, high frequency waves.

Tanya: [00:05:40] Exactly. The telescope is actually located in Namibia just Southwest of Windhoek in the Gamsberg area. It has very good conditions for observing. I was lucky enough to go and do two shifts there and just enjoy the beautiful sky, enjoy observing with the HESS telescope and also working with amazing colleagues in Heidelberg. I did a lot of image analysis. What the HESS telescope does is it detects Cherenkov light. So there’s a lot of cosmic rays and high energy particles and gamma rays that are coming into the atmosphere and they produce extensive air showers.

And these air showers actually produced something called Cherenkov light, which is produced from the molecules in the atmosphere and how charged particles interact with them. Our telescope actually reflects and detects images of this light. We do a lot of image analysis where we kind of check the shapes of the images that tells us what type of particle comes into the atmosphere.

So my job was kind of figuring out which particles are coming in and trying to find the differences between electron showers and gamma ray showers because they’re very similar.

Jacinta: [00:06:55] Fantastic. What was it like to observe with HESS in Namibia?

Tanya: [00:06:59] Yeah, it was quite spectacular.  A lot of the time we were also inside looking at the showers and checking which sources we’re observing. In Namibia we would do a lot of hands on work with the cameras as well. We’d go out and do a lot of checks on the actual telescope so we could have very hands-on experience with the telescope there. So not as automated as some people would assume, because it is still a very new area of astronomy, and the technology is still developing, but it’s amazing to see the cameras in action and how fast they can record these showers, because it’s on the nanosecond scale, you have to have very sensitive, very fast cameras.

Just working with the cameras, working with which sources we’re observing and seeing these showers pop up on the screen, almost in real time. It was pretty amazing to see cosmic rays entering the atmosphere and gamma rays and seeing science in action.

Jacinta: [00:08:00] Wow. It’s all very fast timescale stuff, which I guess I’m a radio astronomer and I’m not used to that. Things are just very slow and always there most of the time. What does a gamma ray telescope actually look like?

Tanya: [00:08:13] The HESS array has five telescopes. Four of them are spaced 120 meters apart from each other, and they are 12 meters in diameter. Then we have an upgrade of a very massive 28 meter fifth telescope that’s placed right at the center of the array. This is very sensitive. Much more sensitive than the other telescopes. So actually, you can do mono observations with them, which is interesting for a lot of science.

Jacinta: [00:08:42] What’s a mono observation?

Tanya: [00:08:44] Where you just observe with one telescope. Usually in a stereoscopic system, you need more than one telescope to observe because when a shower enters the atmosphere, you can’t pinpoint the direction with just having one image. If you have two images, then basically you can draw a line through the image and where these lines intersect is where the source of the shower came from and where the particle entered the atmosphere. You can also more accurately predict the energy of the shower. So you can look at something called image size or how much light is basically collected in the telescope and then you can average them between all of the telescopes and then see exactly what energy you’re dealing with.

Jacinta: [00:09:28] So we’ve discussed on this podcast before that a radio telescope looks something like a satellite dish.

And there’s also lower frequency radio telescopes that kind of look like metal umbrellas on metal spiders and optical telescopes look like traditionally what we see, how’s the big domes, big mirrors. What does the actual telescope of a gamma ray telescope look like?

Tanya: [00:09:49] So we actually have segments of hexagonal mirrors that are placed together, almost like a puzzle, and it’s in a parabolic shape to collect light and focuses that light onto a camera, which has very sensitive PMTs. It’s 12 meters and 28 meters so not as big as radio astronomy you would expect but it’s still very impressive when you see it. Each segment has to be replaced every so often and the mirrors have to be coated every so often.

Yes essentially the same principle, collecting light and focusing it onto a specific area.

Jacinta: [00:10:25] Really amazing stuff. And Simon, you’re from Germany, and you also did your PhD in Heidelberg, is that right?

Simon: [00:10:31] Yeah, correct. I grew up in Germany. I did my diploma already in Heidelberg, so that was physics.

I was also one year in Canada and then I did my PhD at the Max Planck Institute for astronomy. So that’s the second Max Planck Institute in Heidelberg. I was working in the staff formation group of Henrik Boyter, but I’m also a radio astronomer. So we did observations of the HI line. The Hydrogen line.

We were using mostly the VLA, the very large array in New Mexico. We had a large program with them. We had over 200 hours observation time, which then obviously relates or gives us a lot, a lot of data. I had the joy and pleasure to work through these two terabytes of data. I also had the chance to use other telescopes to observe.

So I was at the Effelsberg  a hundred-meter telescope, so they can really do hands-on observations. Effelsberg is close to Bonn also in Germany. I think it is the second largest single dish radio telescope in the world. It’s very impressive, if you sit in front of this telescope, you play around with your computer and it actually moves, cause at the VLA it’s different from the HESS telescope what Tanya just said.

At the VLA, you never go to observe because you just write your scripts how you want to observe. You send this to the operators and operators do the job for you.

Jacinta: [00:11:50] All right, so Tanya was saying she had to do a lot of the observations herself, but you’re saying that this is, you don’t actually have to do it the operators will do it.

Simon: [00:11:57] Correct because they have a dynamic scheduling. They are always looking for the conditions and then they see which program they do at what time. So you also never really know when you will get your data. I think it’s the same with ALMA nowadays.

Jacinta: [00:12:10] . What were you actually looking at with the VLA and Effelsberg?

Simon: [00:12:14] So we had a program that was called Thor. It was called The HI OH recombination line survey of the Milky way.

Jacinta: [00:12:20] That’s a wonderful acronym.

Simon: [00:12:23] Took us a while to come up with that. We also had always nice pictures of Thor, a guy with a hammer and hammer was smashed on the Milky way. So we wanted to have a large survey of the Milky way, all the star forming regions in the Milky way.

The name already says not just H one, but also use others. Other lines like, O H all the combination lines. And we also had a continuum catalog actually from all the continuum sources in the Milky way, but also extragalactic sources.

Jacinta: [00:12:55] Okay. So you’re looking at the Milky way and you’re looking at an HI, which is neutral hydrogen gas and you’re also looking for the lines from other molecules such as, for example, OH and continuum, which is a little bit different. So that’s also some radio signals. What kind of objects are emitting these things in the Milky way?

Simon: [00:13:16] So depending on the line is completely different. Each one is these big star forming clouds. So, hydrogen clouds where stars then can form, OH is more tracer for the molecular clouds to see kind of the second stage after the neutral hydrogen, if it contracts already. If the clouds form in the center, you usually have molecular hydrogen.

This is one step towards the star formation. We can also trace the molecular part and then the continuum is completely different. Do you have a lot of extragalactic sources? It can be either quasars or something like that. I’m not an expert into the extragalactic part, so I don’t want to go into details about that.

Jacinta: [00:13:57] Okay, so you’ve got big clouds of neutral hydrogen gas in space, and these then condense into molecular hydrogen clouds, which then in the centers of those, that’s where the baby stars are born, right? Cool. So you’re looking for these early signs of star formation and then while you’re doing these observations, you can also see some galaxies in the far background.

These are actually not in the Milky way. These are far away, but they just are along your line of sight where you’re looking right.

Simon: [00:14:27] These far distant sources, they can be very helpful for us because we always see HI in emission. But we can also see the neutral hydrogen and absorption towards these extragalactic sources so we can, so to speak, use the extragalactic sources in the background as lighthouses shining through our HI cloud, and we can then observe and an absorption signal, which gives us extra information about optical depth and how much hydrogen there is actually. So it helps us a lot the combination between the extra-galactic and the galactic.

Jacinta: [00:14:57] Right? So you’ve got these big, huge radio galaxies in the background, which we’ve spoken about on this, on this podcast before, what these radio galaxies are.

And as you say, they’re like a lighthouse, which are like illuminating these clouds of gas, which are then absorbing that light. And then we can see the dip in the light because it’s been absorbed and we can then figure out how much gas is there. Really awesome stuff.  But we’ll move on a little bit from these stories now because we’ve got something else to talk about today.

We’re recording this interview here in Cape town, in South Africa, and you’ve got a really interesting story from how you got from Heidelberg in Germany after your PhDs to here in Cape town. Can you tell us how you got here?

Simon: [00:15:42] So after our studies we thought, okay, I’m from Germany and Tanya from South Africa, so we should combine our two homes.

And we’d not just wanted to sit in a plane. We wanted to experience a little bit more. We wanted to have a big adventure. So we decided, okay, let’s use our bicycles. So we started cycling in May, 2017 we cycled down from Germany all the way to Turkey. Then we took a plane to Cairo, and then our Africa adventure started.

Tanya: [00:16:10] And from Cairo, we follow the East side. So we went through multiple countries. We went through Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa. It’s a lot to remember. We did about 19,000 kilometers on the bike now.

The idea was to connect Simon’s hometown to my country. It’s been an amazing adventure until now it’s taken us almost two years.

Jacinta: [00:16:48] That is absolutely phenomenal. So you rode your bicycles from Germany down to to Cape town over the span of about

Simon: [00:16:55] two years.

Jacinta: [00:16:57] I mean, I didn’t even know where to start with questions on that.

 It’s so different. I guess firstly, what inspired you to do this?

Tanya: [00:17:05] I think it was sort of a joint idea in the beginning. I always wanted to travel. I knew I wanted to travel and I was thinking more along the lines of six months. Then the idea just grew. Simon wanted to explore closer to home, which makes sense because, you know, you should take opportunities to see countries that are close to you.

And I was really keen to see Africa. Then we thought, well, how can we make this cheaper, first of all, how can we make it more adventurous? And then we came up with bicycle touring.

Simon: [00:17:41] Yeah. I think it also grew over time because at the beginning we always thought, okay, let’s just buy a bus, do the classic van life in Europe, you know, maybe tour around with the full van.

But then we decided, no, the bicycle are a better transport mode because you’re very close to nature. First of all, you’re very close to the people. You feel everything, you smell everything. You have the wind in your face. You also are not a threat to people. If you come with a bicycle in a small village or so, people are always curious about you.

They speak to you. If you come in for a bit in a big car, usually just go through these little villages. You know, we have to stop. We have to find water, we have to buy food. We interact with the locals. And this gave us a very, I think, unique insight into Africa.

Tanya: [00:18:25] Yeah. Your senses are almost always alive.

There’s a million things happening at the same time and you have to concentrate on that, but it gives you a lot. It’s very hard work, and it takes time to get used to it, especially your body. I mean, sometimes you have  a lot of pain in your body, but then after about one or two months, it just says, okay, this is my life now. I better get used to it. And it’s been fine and fantastic since then.

Jacinta: [00:18:54] And were you happy with your decision to do this? How did you enjoy your adventure?

Simon: [00:18:58] I think we were very happy about it. You always have ups and downs. I think that’s every life. Also in two years you have some down points where you feel like, ah.

So, but most of the time we were very happy about it and we’re very confident that this was the right decision. Sometimes when you cycle a hundred kilometers a day, you’re really tired. Your legs are sore, but then you camp somewhere in the middle of the bush. You have a beautiful sunset and, and you just feel like you’re totally free.

You can move wherever you want. You can stay wherever you want. If you’re lucky, you might even see an elephant in the distance walking by or so. These are just moments where, you know, okay, all the pain, all the sufferings, totally worth it.

Tanya: [00:19:39] Namibia was quite difficult for us because a lot of the roads were very, very hard.

And when we got to Cape town, you know, we thought, okay, we’ll give ourselves a break. We’re off the bike and it’s going to be fine. And then we took the car to Simon’s town and we’re just like, oh, we wish we were on the bikes again because it’s just a totally different feeling around you.

 I think we really enjoyed it. I learned a lot about myself. I learned a lot about the world, people, how I interact with people and my perspective on a lot of things has changed because of this trip and I’m very grateful for that.

Jacinta: [00:20:17] So I’m sure you’ve got so many stories.Top 10, top 100 stories. Can you think of one or two that you might like to share with us?

Tanya: [00:20:27] Well, I think one of the most exhilarating moments was when we were wild camping in Kenya and an elephant crossed like just five meters from our tent on an elephant highway. We heard this amazing rumble, those deep rumbles that they use to communicate with.

Simon: [00:20:46] And it was in the middle of the night at three in the morning.

Jacinta: [00:20:48]  Oh my goodness.

Tanya: [00:20:51]  It wasn’t something I’d heard before. You just have to trust that elephants are intelligent enough. They don’t need to kill you for just any reason. Sometimes things happen, but we just had to trust it.

We couldn’t do anything about it. We realized that it just crossed. Then in the morning when we were having breakfast, it also was probably the same elephant that was sleeping in a bush in front of us the whole time we had breakfast and we’re packing up our stuff and then it notified us politely. Hey, don’t come close. I’m in this bush. Then we just turned around and then, we left the area. 

Simon: [00:21:27]Another highlight for us was I think the people in Africa. In Europe and in the Western world, people usually think of Africa as kind of the poor and dangerous continent where you should not go but it’s absolutely not the case.

People were super friendly to us. One of the highlights was Sudan. A lot of people think of Sudan as the war zone, and you shouldn’t go there. But people invited us all the time for coffee, for even having lunch, or we also could stay at their places. One example was we had a rest day in Dongola, a small town.We just went out for breakfast. We didn’t want it to do anything on that date and just, you know, relaxing in our hotel room. But then in this cafe, there was a guy who started chatting to us in French. My French is not very good, but we could at least exchange a few words. And then he invited us to his village, which was a little bit outside of Dongola.

He said, come with me. I show you my family, I show you my place, and blah, blah, blah. So we said, okay, fine we have nothing to do today. So we went with him. He was super nice. We got to know his family. His place. And it turned out that he was a big fan of drones. So he actually had a drone from France and we ended up in the evening for the sunset on the Nile in a little boat followed by the drone.

And we have amazing pictures and videos of that. So it’s just like totally unexpected.

Jacinta: [00:22:45] Not the sort of thing you might expect.

Simon: [00:22:47] No, no. Especially not in Sudan. This is something you would not expect.

Tanya: [00:22:52] Another thing we didn’t expect was to come across a wild rhino in Namibia. So we were both just eating breakfast.

I was eating breakfast on the road, and I looked up and then there’s a rhino walking towards us,  which didn’t know we were there clearly. So eventually we ran behind a bush, and of course Simon went back to the bike to grab his camera just to make sure he could shoot it properly.

Simon: [00:23:19] Tanya was not happy about that.

Jacinta: [00:23:21] You ran back to the bikes, but the thing you grabbed was the camera

Simon: [00:23:25] Well, the bike was just two meters in front of us.

Tanya thought I got either the Swiss army knife to protect us or so, but, I just took the camera.

Jacinta: [00:23:35] I’m not sure a Swiss army knife would work against a rhino.

Tanya: [00:23:38] but the intention would have been nice. We ended up going behind a bush and then a larger tree and then, it had a standoff with us and made sure it looked very scary. Which it did look very scary.

And then after it grunted and turned to the side, it just decided to run off instead of charge. So in general, the wildlife has been incredible to see, but I think we’ve also had some very close experiences. Including, cycling past lions as well, which we did.

Simon: [00:24:07] And it would have been actually quite hilarious if a rhino would have attacked us because we actually called our trip rock, road and rhino.

So rock for rock climbing, cause we did a lot of rock climbing in Europe, rode for the cycling part and a rhino we’re to try to raise awareness and funds for the rhinos. And if a rhino attacked and maybe even killed us, that would’ve been not good.

Jacinta: [00:24:30] Yeah, I was just gonna ask you about your road, rock and rhino name.

Tell us more about the rhino part.

Simon: [00:24:36]  The rhinos have a big problem in Africa and all over the world. They are close to extinction. There are several reasons for that. One is habitat loss, but another big point is also poaching.

Unfortunately, people think that the rhino horn can cure any diseases, but it’s basically a horn.  It’s like the same as chewing your fingernails. That has exactly the same effect, but people don’t want that. So the rhino horn is extremely valuable. It’s more valuable than gold. So you have to imagine you have this massive animal walking around with something like two kilograms of gold on its nose.

And that obviously attracts a lot of people and they kill the rhino. They chop off the horn and then they leave. It’s a big problem here in South Africa. So we wanted to raise funds and awareness for a UK charity. This is called Save the Rhino. They help all kinds of different projects and we could also visit some of their projects in Africa, especially two projects in Kenya.

One was called Borana, it’s the private conservancy and Ol Jogi, and we could see what they do with the rhinos there and it was just fantastic to see their work. There was also one rhino baby, called Meimei. I think Tanya wants to talk about that.

Tanya: [00:25:57] I got to give this baby rhino a mud bath, and it was absolutely adorable, but to see the work that they do there at Ol Jogi especially with Meimei.

In her case, she was born blind and she would have lost her life if she had stayed in the wild with her mother. So they took her in and then they treated her eye and now she can see properly and they’re teaching her how to feed, how to bath do all of these things. Her carers are basically her mother there, and at four years old, hopefully she’ll be reintroduced more and more often back into the wild.

Jacinta: [00:26:32] And we’re going to put it on our website, some links to the charity, and if people would like to go and contribute to that, they can go ahead and do that. Thank you. Also, another part of your trip was about rock, that’s in your title. Tell us about that.

Simon: [00:26:49] Yeah. So we’re both passionate about rock climbing.

So sport climbing, bouldering, track climbing, whatever you want to call it. In Europe we also had our climbing gear with us, so that means a rope, all the karabiners, harness and helmets. So it was an extra 15 kilograms of weight that we had to carry around, but it was totally worth it cause we cycled from one climbing area to another. Sometimes we stopped there for a week or two and just enjoyed doing a lot of rock climbing and it was really fantastic.

Tanya: [00:27:18]  If you want to know the best spots that we found along the way, you can check out our website and all of that is listed there.

Jacinta: [00:27:24] What’s your website?

Tanya: [00:27:26] www.rock-road-rhino.com.

Jacinta: [00:27:30] Great. I guess we’re getting a little bit off the topic of astronomy, but, our podcast is also about astronomers, and astronomers are people who have a lot of different interests and do a lot of different things with their lives.

So I think this is also something really important to talk about. But our podcast is also about it, it’s called the Cosmic Savannah, and you are both literally seeing the cosmos from the savannah as professional astronomers. It must’ve been incredible to see these nights. Guys, please tell us what you saw.

Simon: [00:28:01] So, we had, I think two highlights about the stars and the sky. The first was the Sahara desert in Sudan. There is just no one around you. You have like three, 400 kilometers of nothing more than just sand. So the sky is extremely dark. We’re fortunate that at that point it was also a new moon, so we had no moon in the way.

And then you can just, it feels like billions of stars. It was fantastic. You see the Milky way all the way to the horizon, and we even saw the zodiacal light, which is something I’ve never seen before.

Jacinta: [00:28:39] What is the zodiacal light?

Simon: [00:28:40] So the zodiacal light, it looks almost like the Milky way.

It’s like Milky ish. It’s like a triangle, which you see towards the sunset and it is actually a reflection of dust in our solar system. So we have not just the planets and the comets and all the other bodies in our solar system, but also a lot of dust. And as dust reflects the sunlight you can see it clearly after sunset or before sunrise. And it’s very dark, so it’s a bit darker than the Milky way, but if it’s dark around you, you can really see it.

Tanya: [00:29:18] It was almost brighter than the Milky way at that point.

Jacinta: [00:29:20] Really, it must be quite rare and quite difficult to see something like that.

Simon: [00:29:25] It is very difficult because usually you have a city or a few cities around you always see the light of the cities towards the horizon, so you really have to have a dark horizon around you to see the Zodiacal light.

Jacinta: [00:29:37] Yeah. So I guess light pollution is something that we talk about sometimes and meaning, light from cities and that means that we can’t actually see the night sky.

And very few people who live in cities have ever seen what the night sky really looks like.

Simon: [00:29:51] Yeah. But that was in the Northern part and we also could see the Southern part. 

Tanya: [00:29:56]  In Namibia, I would say it was the next best sky that we saw. I think there were too many villages along the way in the rest of the countries, unfortunately, that we couldn’t see such an amazing sky.

But Namibia has a lot of desert and very few villages. And the sky was incredible, actually, so incredible that sometimes it was hard to distinguish the Milkyway from the rest of the sky because there was just so much of light around, so much of stars around. It was also very hard to pinpoint constellations because there were just so many.

Jacinta: [00:30:34] Too many stars that you could see

Tanya: [00:30:35] We did see the LMC, the Large Magellanic Cloud and the Small Magellanic Cloud, which are dwarf satellite galaxies.

Simon: [00:30:43] it was especially amazing when we could go camping there and I always make the jokes. Then why do you want to stay in a five star hotel when you have 5 billion stars above you.

So that was our 5 billion star hotel.

Jacinta: [00:30:58] Simon had you seen the Southern sky before?

Simon: [00:31:00] So for me, it was the second time that I saw the Southern sky. I was once in Chile where I could see it a little bit, but not as good. So for me, it was just like seeing the LMC kind of you always hear about the LMC and the SMC, and then seeing our neighboring galaxies kind of that large.

And that bright, that was just fantastic. As a person that grows up in the Northern sky  you’re used to the Northern sky also the constellations there. But then the Southern constellations, I got totally lost. I don’t know any of them, but it was very nice to see also another part of our universe.

Jacinta: [00:31:34] Yeah, that must’ve been incredible.

Tanya, you’ve been through Namibia twice now for two completely different reasons. How was the comparison in riding through Namibia and seeing the night sky versus going there for some professional astronomy.

Tanya: [00:31:50] I probably saw more of the night sky cycling through Namibia. Professionally, when you’re there, you’re obviously working at night. You’re doing a lot of long shifts so you can’t be outside. You are always  just observing or admiring the night sky. Although we did have a lot of nice asteroid showers which we could see and we did have a telescope that we could also observe outside of work. But most of the time you have to do a little bit of work. Of course, that’s why you’re there. 

But we could just camp in the middle of nowhere in the desert. We didn’t have to be close to any facilities or any big roads. We took very small roads through Namibia. So I would say probably cycling we saw much more.

Jacinta: [00:32:34]  I guess it’s a bit of a common misconception that professional astronomers are sort of outside looking at the night skies, but that’s kind of not what we do.

In fact, we do that very, very rarely, and I don’t even know the names of the constellations, to be honest. It’s looking at the same thing, but from a different perspective.

Simon: [00:32:53] Right. As a radio astronomer, you can also be lucky and always observe during the day. So in my career, I haven’t had a single night observation.

 I was always lucky and got the day shifts. I could always observe during the day and sleep at night.

Jacinta: [00:33:07]That’s good. I had Christmas night once. Simon being from Germany. What did it feel like for you to discover Africa like this?

Simon: [00:33:18] So in Germany, you don’t hear too much good news about Africa.

So if Africa is in the news, you always hear about either wars or another drought or people are angry and that kind of stuff. So I was a bit skeptical. Now obviously Tanya told me a lot about that. Africa is not like that. At the beginning it was difficult, I would say. So that’s why we also decided to start our cycling trip in Germany.

So we can get used to all the hobo life to cycling. Our bodies could adjust to biking, and also living just outside and attend basically all the time. And then we were prepared for Africa. What I really enjoy about Africa is, first of all, people are much more open. Life happens more on the street.

I would say in Europe, especially in Germany, everyone is in their houses or so, and if you go to certain parts in Africa, Kenya, you always see hundreds of people running around or walking around on the street, which is super lively. Also the market I love going shopping at the markets there.

Where you just have very nice ladies that sell you all their freshly grown products. I really enjoyed this. What was also surprising for me was like, even though some of the people live in very poor conditions, at least what we would say, poor, but they have their family around them, they have their friends around them.

 I think this is a very important part of their life. And they are usually very happy about  their life. So I’m not sure if it’s also a good idea as an European or Western person going there and trying to put your lifestyle on them. I think the lifestyle they are having, most of them are actually quite happy about it.

Tanya: [00:34:59] We could sort of, get a little bit of a feeling about a change in lifestyle. Obviously from our lifestyle, there was a big change from giving up a lot of comfortable things back in Europe, and then, just having a tent, living in a tent, always sitting on something hard. But I mean, if it becomes usual, if it becomes your normal life, then this is comfort for you after a while.

Jacinta: [00:35:21] And Tanya, how was it for you to discover more of the continent, where you’re from and how is it to be back in South Africa now?

Tanya: [00:35:27] Well, I’m very glad we both chose Africa to go through. I think I had a huge perception shift actually because growing up in South Africa, you do grow up with this culture of fear because crime is a big problem here.

And it’s a big focus for a lot of South Africans. But I think  going through the rest of the African countries couldn’t be more different in terms of safety. There was no point where I felt unsafe actually in Africa. I’m also including coming down to Cape town. So there is this, maybe for me, I had a bigger fear that something might happen because of my childhood or growing up out here, but that was completely false. I realized.

Jacinta: [00:36:11] And you’re happy to be home.

Tanya: [00:36:12] Yeah, I am. I’m very happy to be home, so we’re really going to enjoy some weeks in Durbin and enjoy that with family and friends and we’ve really enjoyed our time in Cape town. That’s just been incredible. I think Cape town is probably the most beautiful city in the world.

I shouldn’t be too biased because I come from Durbin, but it is actually a pretty spectacular city as well.

Simon: [00:36:34] I can confirm that. I’m really impressed by Cape town. We’ve been through a lot of big cities, or we usually try to avoid the cities because they’re not so good for cycling, but Cape Town that was like, wow. Seeing Table Mountain, seeing the ocean next to you. Perfect place.

Jacinta: [00:36:50] This episode is sponsored by Cape town tourism.

Simon: [00:36:56] Tanya’s family is also quite happy that we are back now because I think  they usually see kind of their local crime ratesI in Durbin. They were super afraid that we would go through Africa. So were also my parents, and I think they are all happy that we are done with the trip, that we survived the trip and that we’re back home soon.

Tanya: [00:37:18] But I think there’s not too much need to worry about that. Yeah, that’s true. There’s a lot of things that we’ve taken from the trip, but definitely, not to judge people too quickly and to always give someone a second chance. I think these are two big things for me. Also to always be open to any person from any cultural background or any class background. You can always learn something from them and you can always make their day a bit brighter.

So just try and be open to people.

Jacinta: [00:37:50] And as astronomers we’re quite aware that, you know, this is the only planet that we have. There are none, no others anywhere near us that we found that we can live on. We haven’t found another inhabitable planet yet at all. So we really have to take care of this one.

Did you learn any messages about the environment and environmental care on your trip?

Simon: [00:38:07] Yeah, I think environmental problems. Well, all over the place here on the planet in Africa in general, we saw a big difference between countries that have a lot of garbage. For example, we saw lots of garbage and for example, Egypt, they don’t have any disposal system or anything.

But then we also saw places like Wanda where they just banned plastic bags or plastic in general and the country’s super clean. There are no environmental problems about plastic and that. And so I think a lot of countries could, you know, take this as a role model and also use that Piney introduced it now a little bit.

I think we have to be very careful with our own environment, with nature. We also have to give a lot of space to wild animals in my opinion. Population growth is one of the biggest problems here in Africa, especially for the wildlife that just uses a lot of space. We also have to come up with alternatives for cooking.

Charcoal is one of the biggest problems in Malawi and Zambia. They just chopped down all the forests to cook, so we have to come up with better ideas for that. This is work in progress, but I think these are very, very important topics.

Tanya: [00:39:20] Yeah. I think the environment was actually one of the biggest shocks for us. Actually not just going through certain countries in Africa. Also, it already started back in Europe. Croatia for instance, was a very big shock. There was plastic. Dumped plastic everywhere in bushes,  which you don’t see going past in a car. We actually did one stretch in a car and my parents were like, commenting, this is very clean.You know, Croatia is very clean. We did the same stretch with a bicycle the next day, and you see the details, you see all the different plastic stuck everywhere, and there’s also a lot of different dumps in certain areas. This continued in Montenegro and Albania. Greece and Turkey, not as much plastic, but a very big problem with stray cats and dogs.

There’s 1 million stray dogs in Greece right now, and, um, the situation is also getting a little bit out of control. Africa didn’t have so many stray animals  and I think in general a little bit less garbage, but in certain parts, whenever we would go through the Sahara desert and we wouldn’t see anything, it would just be absolutely clean. Beautiful.  

Then we’d see one cafe on the side of the road just for people to stop or trucks to stop. And around this cafe, just tons of plastic bottles and plastic bags that have either caught on bushes or flown off into the desert. And this was just one tiny cafe, and we would see this repeating often or one small village.

There’s just, plastic has been introduced into societies which don’t know how to handle them. And there are no disposable systems, no recycling systems, and there needs to be more of an effort, a combined international effort into handling plastic, especially in poorer communities.

Simon: [00:41:03] And we also think that it’s not just recycling, that should be improved, but also everyone should consider their own use of plastic and garbage in general.

So I think that besides recycling the best is actually to avoid it. That means maybe you can refill your bottles at home, maybe, you know, introduce a filter at home so you don’t have to buy water. You can just reuse the same bottle over and over. We actually have plastic bottles from home that are still, that’s still survived for two years and they’re still, okay.

You sometimes have to clean them, but that’s not a big deal. Also, try to avoid maybe, you know, take away coffee or if you want to ever get take away coffee, bring your own mug. You know,  everyone can do it themselves. And I think if everyone would do that, that would also be a big step towards the right direction.

The next thing is we obviously also want to promote cycling as a means of transport. It’s not just a fitness thing. It’s also  if you could have a city which is full of bike lanes, where everyone can just cycle, this would be for us a dream city. You know, we don’t really need a car here in Cape town. I can understand that the traffic is very dangerous.

It’s very hectic. It’s difficult to commute, but I think everyone should also try to promote that a bit more.

Jacinta: [00:42:19] Well, it sounds like you’ve gone from experiences where you’re doing your PhD, staring at the skies all the time, having your heads in the cosmos, so to speak, to a very, very grounding, humble experience.

So thank you so much for sharing your experiences with us today.

Tanya: [00:42:36] Thank you very much.

Jacinta: [00:42:46] So pretty epic stuff. Dan, you didn’t get to be there for the interview, so what did you think?

Dan: [00:42:52] Yeah, I really enjoyed it. It was really great to obviously hear about the astronomy that these guys do. And their experience in terms of their studies and visiting telescopes and things. But cycling through Africa, it definitely triggers a lot of wanderlust in me.

Jacinta: [00:43:13] You’re quite an athlete yourself aren’t you?.

Dan: [00:43:15] Yeah.Absolutely something I would love to do. It sounds like an incredible adventure. They had an incredible time and saw some unbelievable sights, seeing the zodiacal light and all of the interactions with animals. You know, under African skies and, as you mentioned, the cosmic Savannah that we sort of like named our podcast after.

It’s really quite special and I think, yeah, very, very lucky.

Jacinta: [00:43:52]  I thought it was, I thought it was incredible. I was blown away by the zodiacal light story. I don’t even know what it would look like. They said it was even brighter than the Milky way at one stage, which is just amazing.

 I haven’t, myself had much of a chance to travel far outside of Cape town yet, so I haven’t seen much of the rest of South Africa, let alone all of Africa. And their story just inspired me so much to go out there and see it because wow, what amazing things and people and animals out there.

Dan: [00:44:28] Not an insignificant athletic achievement other than 19,000 kilometers and they didn’t talk much about that. 

Jacinta: [00:44:35]  I’m not much of an athlete myself, but you can talk more about this, Dan, because you have not one but two silver medals in Comrades. What is it, an ultra marathon or

Dan: [00:44:47] it’s an ultra marathon, about 90km.

 Jacinta: [00:44:49] So that’s pretty good. You know, about pushing your body right.

Dan: [00:44:53] Running but doing it day after day like that for two years. It’s really quite something. They seem to have taken it in their stride and managed to enjoy the journey. It’s wonderful.

Jacinta: [00:45:08] Yeah. Pretty awesome. Well, I guess that’s it for today.

So thank you very much for listening and we hope you’ll join us again for the next episode of the Cosmic Savannah.

Dan: [00:45:20] Thank you. And as always, you can follow us on Twitter, Facebook, or visit our website thecosmicsavannah.com where we’ll have links related to today’s episode.

Jacinta: [00:45:30] Special thanks today to Dr Tanya Edwards and Dr. Simon Beer for speaking with us.

Dan: [00:45:36] Thanks to Mark Allnut for the music production, Janus Brink for the Astro photography and Lana Ceraj for the graphic design used to create the podcast art.

Jacinta: [00:45:44] This episode was created with the support of the South African national research foundation and the South African astronomical observatory.

Dan: [00:45:51] If you’re enjoying this podcast, you can help us by subscribing on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts and leaving us a review.

Jacinta: [00:45:59] We’ll speak to you next time on The Cosmic Savannah.

Dan: [00:46:08] Next time on The Cosmic Savannah.

The question then, because you know, how do we get from the formation, the earth, all the way back to the big bang, right? How do we put that entire story together? And that’s basically what I’d like to do, right? This is what we tried to do using big supercomputers because it’s very hard to, you know, think and just  write down all the things that might happen. So instead we try to put it out on a computer and let the computer do the thinking for us.