outreach report: day 4

Day 4

I join Mike out in the square again for solar telescope viewing. Previously, we had set up the telescope right at a choke point where many people walked through. This time, he’s got a folding table which he places in the shade off to the side.

It makes a big difference. We don’t get nearly as many visitors this time, but the ones we get sit down for longer and discuss in more depth. I talk for what might have been half an hour with an older man who has either a great interest in astronomy or some technical background; I end up going through much of CAASTRO’s research program, including the MWA, SKA, and SkyMapper, and we also discuss type Ia supernova cosmology and my research specifically. Mike is blown away by my results (variation in ejected mass may be what enables us to standardize SNe Ia for cosmology, rather than preventing us from doing so!). Exciting times!

Night 4

I had intended to go out on Sounds of Silence again, but I end up missing the bus! I remember where Mike said he was doing the astro tours, so I wander back behind the resort, away from the lights.

I listen for the sounds of enthusiastic astronomy presentation and eventually find Mike and the others. He’s just asking the crowd, Any questions? Can I join you? No Richard, go away, we don’t want you here. Nah, just kidding. I join the group of about 10 people to watch how Mike does business.

Mike runs a tight ship. This is a qualitatively different sort of experience from Sounds of Silence, where I end up sitting around a lot and maybe get 15 minutes of actual interaction with people. Instead the entire hour is packed with astronomy. Early in the hour Mike gives a quick demonstration of the effects of the atmosphere on starlight, showing why stars twinkle and planets don’t by pouring sand through the broad beam of a flashlight, and then the narrow beam of a laser pointer.

When viewing starts, there are two telescopes, each of which are looking at something different, so that people can circulate between the two and get the maximum number of looks through the eyepiece that time will permit. Meanwhile Mike keeps talking throughout, making sure nobody is left behind or understimulated. Another clever demo: the star Achernar is very close to the horizon. Viewed through the telescope, differential refraction in the atmosphere spreads its image out into a rainbow (just as a prism would).

The first hour is more kid-friendly and focuses more on ethno-astronomy: sky legends and cultural significance of various constellations and other features. The second hour, a separate tour with twice as many people, is more of a scientific tour of the night sky. I get a few questions about cosmology during this time which I’m happy to answer, and also try to field a few questions about some objects in our Galaxy (the Carina Nebula and η Car; the Coalsack Nebula; the globular cluster ω Cen, which some of my colleagues believe may actually be the stripped core of a dwarf galaxy satellite of the Milky Way).

At the end we debrief a bit. It turns out I did pretty well: keeping answers short and to the point is important when you’re trying to pack these tours. Mike tells me he approaches each show like a DJ at a dance, watching carefully to see who’s bored and who’s engaged. The show is more interactive for chatty audiences, less so for people who just want to get on to the next sky object. Mike will sometimes start talking about the next sky object during the viewing, as a subtle way of telling people they need to look now so they don’t miss their chance. He claims to be “winging it”, but after two years of doing these tours, every aspect of the experience is actually carefully calibrated and personalized to individual audiences (rather than being fully scripted, as the Sounds of Silence tours are).

This just reminds me how difficult teaching is, and how much attention to detail it requires. If I do manage to get a permanent position, that’ll be a huge and critically important investment of effort up front.


About Richard

I'm an American scientist who is building a new life in Australia. This space will contain words about science and math, but also philosophy, policy, literature, my travels, occasional rants, all sorts of things I find strange and awesome. The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my employer at the time (currently University of Sydney), though personally, I think they should.
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