Australian Astronomy Talks

4 March 2010

Hello there everybody,

As you know, I’m now back visiting my home country Australia for 6 weeks. While  I am here I am very happy to be able to give a number of astronomy talks to my nieces’ 2 schools.

 Here are my answers to their emailed astronomy questions:  

Q: How many years have you been an astronomer?
A: About 5 years now, after I gained my MSc in Astrophysics. Before that I was a hotel manager (for Hilton Hotels on the Gold Coast, QLD and worked in Public Relations in a private Victorian Hotel in South Kensington, London) and a senior high school Science and Maths teacher (for the International Baccalaureate program in Uppsala, Sweden).  
Q: What planet do you enjoy studying?
A: That would have to be Saturn! … and Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Last year, for The UN International Astronomy Year 2009 I organised an exhibition for my whole school (500 students) where I work a bit now (my daughter Åsa’s school).
See then press the “In English” link and scroll down to our Saturn Enceladus pictures. 

Saturn is very beautiful with it’s icy rings and its moon Enceladus looks like it has a warm ocean  below with the building blocks of life in it! Maybe we will find something interesting there in the future? 🙂  
Q: What part of your schooling was really important to become an astronomer? (teacher question!)
A: That would have to be maths and physics (which I have always loved) as well as learning how to use new and different computer programs (not just playing computer games and watching YouTube 😉 However, even more important I supppose, is my passion to understand and explain THE BIG PICTURE of this fantastic world we live in. 
Q: What else do you do as part of your job?
A: Communicating science to non-scientists … or explaining how how science is used in our society, like astronomy originally making the first CCDs now used in all compact cameras today. Also I give Critical Thinking presentations (which I call: “Why Worry?”) to professors, teachers and students about how newspapers and TV often say the wrong things about science, so instead of scientific facts they are really talking fantasy and wishful thinkling, and claim they are facts. We need to always ask the Media the simple question: Is it true? … otherwise we will often be fooled and worry unnecessarily (teacher’s note: especially by “Green” Science). 
Q: What is the hardest part of your job?
A: The hardest part, but most important part for any scientist, is to be sceptical about your own theories (as well as other nice sounding theories). So I must always try to find out if there is anything wrong with my ideas: What mistakes have I made? How can I prove that  I may be wrong? It’s always too easy just to think of the things that may agree with my ideas. Being sceptical … and knowing what experiments to make to check if I am wrong (falsifying) … is what doing science and being a scientist is all about.   
Q: What is the oldest planet?
A: The planets that are furthest our formed last. So beautiful big blue Neptune is the oldest planet. It was the last to catch all the gas that now makes up it’s blue-ish atmosphere.
Q: Can gallaxies collide?
A: They sure can! Most galaxies have collided in their pasts… and here are two colliding now:
Hubble Interacting Galaxy NGC 5257 
Please meet NGC 5257 and NGC 5258 dancing across open space in front of the Virgo constellation 300 million light years away. They each have a supermassive black hole in their central bright cores and have just swung by each other dragging out their spiral arms into a light fingered touch. You can see the burst of star formation in the BLUE arms caused by their passing as well as the dark RED dust lanes from just exploded stars. Marvellous!

Our own Galaxy, The Milky Way, has a small dwarf galaxy: the Sagittarius dwarf galaxy, colliding with it now. Though it will not affect us. Two small irregular shaped galaxies (The Large Magellanic Cloud and the Small Magellanic Cloud, visible in the southern hemisphere night sky looking like as two small stationary clouds) will eventually collide with our Milky Way. Also the closest big galaxy : The Andromeda Galaxy, will crash into us in about 3 billion years time. A looooooooong time away. 🙂   
Q: Are there more planets beyond our galaxy?
A: Planets beyond our Solar System are called Extrasolar Planets or Exoplanets and we have found about 430 of them now. Most of those found so far are big Jupiter sized planets, too close to their own stars and so very hot. But soon we hope to see Earth sized exoplanets at our distance from our Sun-like stars … now that would be interesting! 🙂
So … we think there are probably lots of other planets beyond our galaxy too … but, for now, they are too far away for us to see. 
Q: What special equipment would you need to go to the gas planets?
A: Well we need someway to keep humans alive for a long time. We are now practicing this with the International Space Station which orbits the Earth now with 3 astronaauts staying about 6 months at a time. A good film to see how we might get to the gas planets is the BBC made film Space Odyssey- Voyage to the Planets. This is the film that I show to my Science classes in Sweden when we learn about Astronomy.
… maybe this is how we will get to Saturn and the other Gas Giant planets in the future. It sure looks like fun! 🙂

Very best regards,
Brady Caldwell

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