Astropixie and galaxy-gazer

Posted 30th July 2009 by Amanda Bauer

I always harboured a deep fascination for the night sky, an obsessive enjoyment of solving riddles and puzzles, and a strong desire to travel around the world!  After pursuing these activities separately for many years, I finally found the surprising and harmonising combination: attaining a PhD in Astrophysics.

I began work as a post-doctoral researcher in the Astronomy Group at the University of  Nottingham one year ago.  My research focuses on the formation and evolution of galaxies, each of which contains gas, billions of stars, dust, a super massive black hole (most likely), dark matter, and maybe other things that we haven’t discovered yet!  There were no galaxies when the universe formed, and now we are surrounded by billions of galaxies outside our own Milky Way that have widely different appearances and evolutionary histories. 

Over the last few years I’ve also started another journey of exploration - participating in various types of so-called ‘new media’ methods of public outreach and science communication.  In 2006 I began blogging as ‘astropixie’, and more recently, I started participating in social networking sites like twitter and facebook.  I wanted to see whether modern social techniques, that communicate information immediately across the internet, could benefit my public outreach possibilities or even my science (in addition to catching up with friends of old, of course)!

I twittered live from the UKRC conference in London earlier this year.  I sent out quotes from the conference speakers as I heard them, and asked people some of the same poll questions we were asked during the day.  Inspired by the responses I received on twitter, I took an unscientific poll on the astropixie blog, asking my readers their age and gender.  More than half the respondents were female and the ages peaked around the twenties, but with a broad distribution that included many teenagers and even a couple of 70 year olds! 

I think the results show that these new media avenues can actively reduce gender bias in sciences and engineering and increase diversity among participants.  Organizations like twitter, blogs, facebook, and youtube can be used to encourage people of any background to read about and even participate in scientific discussions, and hopefully inspire diverse types of people to get more involved in science activities.    

Everything culminated for me this July when – largely thanks to the profile I’ve achieved online - I was invited to China to see and film the total solar eclipse (video here). It was a fascinating experience!

If I'm able to inspire a single person to do something they want to do, regardless of the types of people who have done that thing in the past, then I feel satisfied! 

Dr. Amanda Bauer is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Nottingham School of Physics and Astronomy. She is a member of the American Astronomical Society and the British Science Association. She blogs and twitters as astropixie at http://www.amandabauer.blogspot.com/ and http://twitter.com/astropixie.


Comments

Ken Riches:

5th August 2009

Congrats on being named to be August poster for UKRC Astronomy Blog :o)
Glad to get the additional background on you.


Ruth Wilson (UKRC moderator):

6th August 2009

Hi Amanda,

Welcome to the UKRC astronomy blog, many thanks for taking part.
I am very envious of your trip to China. Could you tell us more about it? And I gather you think your blogging and related activities helped you get the opportunity - can you say a bit more about that? Thanks.


amanda:

6th August 2009

Thanks for your comment, ken!

Hi Ruth - I'm honored to be asked to be a part of the UKRC Astronomy blog! I do think that blogging ultimately led to my trip to China, although in a roundabout way! The feedback I received from the astronomy writing I presented on my blog really helped me understand what concepts people are interested in learning. The questions the readers asked taught me how to explain the underlying physics in more understandable ways (aka. without all the big fancy words!!).

Having that tangible resource to show my experience in communicating science to the public helped me become involved with a University of Nottingham project called "Sixty symbols: videos about the symbols of physics and astronomy"

www.sixtysymbols.com. I was invited to China to film the total solar eclipse as part of the sixty symbols project!

We made all the arrangements just a few weeks before the eclipse occurred, so the whole experience was a whirlwind of excitement. When we finally arrived in China, I felt anxious because of the constant cloud cover, exhausted after the long travel and a bit nervous to be filmed! Just me and Brady Haran, the filmmaker went on the trip, and i'm so impressed by the final video that he edited together!

i'm looking forward to more astronomical adventures!


Helen:

17th August 2009

I loved watching the eclipse during your trip to China - what an adventure!

What particular things can be learnt when these eclipses occur - I guess there must be scientists somewhere doing something!


amanda:

20th August 2009

thanks, helen!

solar eclipses provide unique opportunities for scientists to conduct experiments that help us understand how the sun works! a major mystery that persists is about the temperature of the sun's corona. the corona is the wispy outer layer of the sun that is visible to us around the silhouetted moon only during a total solar eclipse. the corona maintains a temperature of millions of degrees, even though the \"edge\" of the bright part of the sun (that is blocked during the eclipse) is only a few thousand degrees! solar scientists do not know why or how this huge temperature increase occurs and hope to gain clues while running experiments during total solar eclipses!

another test performed involves predicting what shape the corona will have during the total eclipse phase. scientists run models of the sun's magnetic field months before eclipse, and then compare the models to observations during totality. these complicated solar models benefit greatly by having experimental data to test against.


Julie:

23rd August 2009

Hi Amanda

Your research into the formation and evolution of galaxies sounds fascinating. Until I recently became interested in science again (having hated this at school) I thought black holes only existed in Star Trek. What exactly is a black hole? I also recently read that some scientists do believe that time travel may be possible through these and wondered what your thoughts are on this as it does all seem a bit unrealistic to me!


Sarah Benson:

26th August 2009

Hi,

I recently came across this idea exchange website and saw an initiative that someone may be interested in working with? The idea is to bring astronomy to children in developing countries and it was instigated by someone who'd already run a local astronomy class during an eclipse. Perhaps there's something already out there or maybe someone's interested enough to help develop this further?

Here's the link: http://blogs.webex.com/webex_interactions/2009/08/idea-astronomy-learning-program-for-developing-countries-.html

Best wishes
Sarah


Ruth Wilson (UKRC moderator):

27th August 2009

Hi Sarah - what a great idea. It looks very US based in terms of developing the idea. Do you know of anything similar in the UK?


amanda:

27th August 2009

hi julie,

we definitely believe that black holes exist in the real universe - not just in star trek! we have found absolutely convincing evidence for a super massive black hole at the center of our galaxy, but in general they are impossible to \"see\" as they give off no light and are therefore \"black.\"

a black hole is a small region of space where gravity is so strong that nothing can escape it, not even light! every massive object has the potential to become a black hole. if you smash all the mass of an object down into a very, very small volume (inside what's called the schwarzschild radius), then the gravity becomes strong enough that nothing can escape.

as an example, if we could compress the sun down into a much smaller volume, about the size of a marble (1 cm), it could become a black hole.

some theories suggest that inside a black hole exists something called a wormhole which is a sort of \"shortcut\" through space and time. these are impossible to detect right now, so they exist only in theory.

if you are still curious, i highly recommend the book \"Black Holes and Time Warps\" by Kip S. Thorne. i read it after my first year of undergrad physics and found it fascinating!

enjoy!
amanda


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