Dr Megan Argo

Astrophysicist

International relations

After meeting Professor Jamal Mimouni at the CAP conference in Medellin back in May, I recently had the great pleasure of hosting both him and the winners of the Algerian national Cirta Science competition during their astronomical tour of the UK.  The group included the winning students, members of the Sirius Astronomy Association, as well Jamal and another physics professor.  They spent a day at Jodrell Bank learning about the telescopes and the science we can do with them, and visiting the offices of the Square Kilometre Array project. They were a really lovely group of people with lots of excellent questions about astronomy, and life as a scientist.  For me, it was a really enjoyable afternoon talking to genuinely-interested (and interesting!) people.  I hope they enjoyed the experience as much as I did!

Visit by the Sirius Astronomy Association and the winners of the Cirta Science competition from Algeria.

Visit by the Sirius Astronomy Association and the winners of the Cirta Science competition from Algeria.

Visit to Jodrell Bank of the Sirius Astronomy Association and the winners of the Cirta Science competition from Algeria. Top: exploring how interferometers work.  Bottom: looking at the structure of the Lovell telecsope. Credit: Prof. Jamal Mimouni.

Barnaby: art meets science in Macclesfield

These days, Macclesfield is a much more lively town than I remember from my childhood. One (large) reason for this is the Barnaby Festival, a volunteer-run town festival that fills the town with arts and music. This year had a bit of a twist: the theme was SPACE! In all the meanings of the word, not just astronomical. I had the great pleasure of helping to plan this year’s festival as part of the live events team, and it’s been amazing.

One of the events I ended up working on was the Deep Space Lab, a collection of displays, activities and talks in the town hall running all day on Saturday and Sunday June 18-19th. For two days (apart from when I ran out to play with the samba band in the parade!), I ran the live observing part of the Deep Space Lab. Over the weekend we used telescopes run by the brilliant people at LCOGT (in Hawaii and Siding Spring, Australia) to observe a selection of astronomical objects in real time, watching the images coming in direct from the telescope in real time.  Despite the rather large cloud bank sitting over eastern Australia for pretty much the entire weekend, the weather in Hawaii wasn’t half bad and we got some pretty stunning images.

The best of the images from the weekend are shown below.  Astronomical colour images are usually made up of separate grey-scale images taken through different narrow-band filters which only let through particular colours of light.  Most of the images taken during the Deep Space Lab were through red, green and blue filters, resulting in full-colour images like the one you see below.  Astronomy is all about understanding the physics (and chemistry) of the universe using just the photons that reach us on the Earth – that is all the information we have, just the photons, so the more of them we collect, across as much of the spectrum as possible, the better we can understand what’s going on out there in all those stellar clusters, star-forming regions, and galaxies that we see.  I don’t know about you, but I find it amazing how much we do understand about the universe from collecting those tiny photons.

 

Lagoon Nebula

Lagoon nebula, taken with an LCOGT telescope in Hawaii during Macclesfield’s Barnaby Festival 2016

M13

M13, Milky Way globular cluster, taken with an LCOGT telescope in Hawaii during Macclesfield’s Barnaby Festival 2016

NGC5371

NGC5371, spiral galaxy, taken with an LCOGT telescope in Hawaii during Macclesfield’s Barnaby Festival 2016

M11

M11, the Wild Duck cluster, Milky Way open cluster, taken with an LCOGT telescope in Hawaii during Macclesfield’s Barnaby Festival 2016

NGC6712

NGC6712, Milky Way stellar cluster, taken with an LCOGT telescope in Hawaii during Macclesfield’s Barnaby Festival 2016

CRL2688

CRL2688, Milky Way post-AGB star, taken with an LCOGT telescope in Hawaii during Macclesfield’s Barnaby Festival 2016

Sky stories

Storytelling is in our nature, humans have always used stories to educate and entertain.  The ancient Greek constellations are more than mere curiosities, they are patterns in the sky relating to well-told stories: if you know the story, you can more easily remember the patterns in the stars, and can navigate home when you get lost at sea.  Every culture has its own sky stories, made from the same stars in the one sky we all share, and they are endlessly fascinating.

Science has two sides to it: the doing part where you come up with a hypothesis and then test it, and the communicating part where you tell the world what you found.  There’s no point doing the first, if we don’t also do the second.  In academia, this second part is all about writing research papers for journals and giving high-level lectures and seminars.  But there is a public side to this too, after all the public ultimate pay for a lot of it.  Over the last ten years I’ve spent a lot of time doing both: in my day job I’m paid to DO science, and in my spare time I enjoy TALKING about science.  This has lead me to the point where I almost get more requests to do public talks, festivals, school visits and public workshops than I can reasonably handle.  But I can’t help it!  When I started out, any kind of public speaking scared the hell out of me, but I’ve become so used to it that people don’t believe me when I tell them that I used to suffer from severe stage fright.  It’s doing the public outreach that has helped me reach that point, and that has helped my professional communication as well.

Along the way I have created a number of talks and workshops, and I’ve developed my own style.  What I always try to do with my public talks is to tell a story that runs through the entire presentation, and it seems to work quite well.  What I have come to realise is that the art of storytelling is a very powerful tool, and I think that scientists should make better use of it.  I now sit in professional seminars and conferences, listening to very clever people talking about their exciting science results in such a boring way, wondering why we don’t give our students proper training in communication.  This would help them when they leave and try to persuade someone to give them a job, and it would help the public impression of science if our graduates are not just clever, but articulate and confident too.

For me, this moved to a new level when I met, by chance, Sita Brand from Settle Stories, and Conway Mothobi, schools outreach manager at Manchester Metropolitan University.  The three of us masterminded the first Settle Star Party, which ran in October 2015 and was a great success.  At that event, I worked together with Sita Brand, Emily Hennessey, and Cassandra Wye, and learned a lot about the art of storytelling from these three amazing people.  Over the course of the star party I ran the Star Lab, working with the storytellers in the inflatable planetarium, running family-friendly shows that were a flowing mix of story and science.  It was a brilliant experience, and really opened up the world of storytelling for me.  Now I’m very excited to be working again with Cassandra Wye, developing family-friendly workshops where we will interweave storytelling and astronomy to make something both entertaining and educational.  Whatever we come up with, it’s guaranteed to be a lot of fun!

We have liftoff: Seldom Sirius Episode One

Episode 1 cover art

Episode 1, in which the Universe doesn’t care about boxes.

It’s been quite a while since I recorded a podcast with my old friends Jen Gupta (), Stuart Lowe (), David Ault () and Mark Purver (), but we had so much fun at Jodcast Live that we thought it was about time we all got back behind the microphone more regularly.

If you head over to the shiny new website, Seldom Sirius, you can have a listen to episode one, where we discuss what it means to be a planet, and talk about the (at the time of recording upcoming) launch of the first ExoMars mission, which was successfully launched on the 14th March.

European Astrofest 2016

Astrofest_nick

It’s not every day you get to share a stage with the likes of Lucie Green, Stuart Clark, Allan Chapman, Hayley Gomez, Matt Taylor, and Brian May.  It was a month ago now, but I still can’t quite believe it.

astrofest_matt

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