Dr Megan Argo


Ever wanted to design a space patch?

After all the fun with the planetarium shows, a couple of us at UCLan hatched a plan to ask kids to help us design a new Space Badge for Alston Observatory.  We get a lot of Cub and Scout groups visiting the Observatory, but far fewer groups of Brownies or Guides.  Cubs and Scouts have Astronomer badges, and Brownies have a Space badge, but Guides don’t (sadly).  But, everyone loves a good badge for their backpack/camp blanket/whatever!  So, we’re asking people between the ages of five and sixteen to get creative and help us design a new Space patch that we will get made up and give out to young visitors to our Observatory.  Know someone creative in the right age group?  Ask them to get their pencils out!  Hurry though, entries close on October 31st.

University of Central Lancashire

Calling all space fans aged 5-16 years old!

Use your artistic skills to design a space badge – from stars to planets, telescopes to extra-terrestrial life, create your design to inspire future space explorers.

The winning designs will be given out to Alston Observatory visitors.

The winner will receive a £30 Amazon voucher and there are books for the runners-up.

Competition closes 31 October 2021.

Ask your parent / guardian to review the full T&C’s.

Download an entry form

University events are returning including the Lancashire Science Festival

Lancashire Science Festival

Best wishes,
The Lancashire Science Festival Team
University of Central Lancashire

#LancSciFest / LancSciFest

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So. Many. Brownies.

As I said in an earlier post, I’ve been offering free virtual planetarium shows via Zoom to Brownie and Guide groups around the UK since January 2021.  This all started when a friend of mine (a daughter of my old Guide leader) asked if I could do something for her Brownie group – I’d visited them in person before and taken a telescope, getting all the Brownies through their space badge in one evening.

I figured that a virtual planetarium show using Stellarium would work pretty well over Zoom, so on a cold January evening I joined their meeting and took them on a tour of the evening sky, told them the story of Andromeda and Perseus, and then we visited some of the planets.  They asked a lot of questions!  The evening was such a success that I decided to offer it to other groups during lockdown.  One Facebook post later and I was absolutely swamped with requests!  I’ve been doing shows ever since.

It’s now eight months on, and as we pass the end of another term and groups have broken up for the summer, it’s a good time to look back and take stock.

From that first event, the idea developed into one of the most successful public engagement projects I’ve ever run.  With a budget of £0, and the help of three of my colleagues I had to draft in to help me cope with the volume of requests, we’ve managed to reach over 1,200 girls around the country, through 60 individual shows, from Portsmouth to Clackmannanshire, Caernarfonshire to Yorkshire, and everywhere in between.

At UCLan we have an Observatory where we teach undergraduate astrophysics classes, but we also host public events for families, youth groups, and the general public.  We get a lot of Scout and Cub groups coming along, but very rarely do we get any Guide or Brownie groups visiting, despite the Brownies having a recently revamped Space badge in the programme.  It’s not hard to see why this is; girls are often perceived as being less interested in this sort of thing, and maybe it’s not something the leaders think of doing with the girls.

But my experience over the last few months is that Brownies absolutely love space!  In fact, my experience with hundreds of schools and youth groups across the UK and Australia over the last 18 years (since I started doing public engagement during my PhD studies…) is that most children love space, at least to some extent.  Space and dinosaurs.  And I love answering their questions.  Even when science hasn’t found the answer yet!  (That’s half the fun of science, after all!)

I’m not aiming to create a huge number of budding astrophysicists, or even scientists – that is unrealistic – but if I can inspire just a few kids to take an interest in science, maybe develop an appreciation for it and keep being curious about the world around them as they grow up, then I will have achieved something.

If you are reading this and want a virtual visit for your group from September 2021, here’s the booking form.  Best efforts though, I only have so many free evenings ☺️

The research/teaching dichotomy: why do we have to choose?

If you are reading this, you are probably aware that I’m an astrophysicist.  I’m a research scientist with a bunch of academic publications to my name, including my (little-read) PhD thesis from 2006.  I’m also lucky enough to have landed an academic job where I can do research and teach.

When I started out on this career path, waaaaaay back at primary school (yes, really, I was one of those annoying kids who knew early on what they wanted to do) I was warned by many people that it would be difficult, and that very few people succeeded.  Someone gave me a leaflet published by the RAS (I think) that ran through the numbers and showed how few of those aspiring to be astronomers actually got a job in the field.  I’m very lucky.

But from a fairly young age, I also realised I was good at teaching stuff to other people.  Whether that was lighting fires on Guide camp,  teaching my older relatives how to use a computer, or any number of other things, people often told me I would make a good teacher.  It was a long time before I believed that they were right.


As a PhD student, you are encouraged to do a  bit of teaching, as a means of income if nothing else, but not given much training in how to do it, never mind how to do it well.  At least, I wasn’t, they just let you get on with it.  Many students emulated the behaviour of their professors because if that’s all you have seen of teaching in HE, it’s what you think good teaching is.  Even if it isn’t.

As an aspiring academic I could see that, in UK higher education at least, there was an increasing trend for new academics to do training in how to teach, often in the form of a PGCertHE.  As a postdoc, I was enthusiastic about this – it surprised me to discover that there were no formal requirements for teacher training in universities.  I spent two years teaching in the lab.  I wrote and delivered an MSc-level course in radiation processes in astrophysics.  I supervised internship and research students.  But when I tried to sign up for the PGCert at my institution, I was told that I couldn’t because I wasn’t an academic and therefore didn’t have any teaching responsibilities.

Hmm.  The qualification was increasingly becoming a requirement on academic job descriptions.  But I wasn’t allowed to do the qualification because I wasn’t already (formally) teaching.  I wasn’t allowed to (formally) teach because I was being paid purely to do research.  Stalemate.

Then I moved institutions to a job with actual teaching responsibilities.  Great, I thought, I’ll finally get to do some teacher training!  But no, I was told I couldn’t enrol on the PGCert because I didn’t have enough experience(!) and had to complete a different programme first.  That programme ran on a Thursday afternoon.  When I was teaching.  Not surprisingly, I failed the assessment because I hadn’t been able to get to any of the training sessions.

Why am I telling you all this?  Well, in February I finally started studying for a PGCert.  Ten years after I first tried.  In two months I will (hopefully!) have completed my final assignment and passed.  Thanks to a supportive boss, I was able to choose a PGCert that was particularly relevant to what and how I teach, and have my fees paid for through the staff development fund.  But it really bugs me that it’s been so hard to get to this point.

I’ve come across a large number of academics who consider teaching to be trivial, or an inconvenience, or something they just have to do to keep their job.  Maybe that is peculiar to physics, but I doubt it somehow.

Some of us are really passionate about both teaching and research.  It seems to be difficult to do both, and give them both the time and attention they require.  Promotion criteria seem to work against use here, too.  You can follow the traditional “academic” pathway where your research is highly valued, or you can follow the “teaching” pathway where you are expected to not put any effort into advancing your field any more.

Why should we choose?  Why can’t we do both?  Teaching informed and inspired by research is more satisfying for students, and for lecturers.  And research informed by teaching can provide inspiration and potentially take you in new directions.

As Fabrice Hénard and Deborah Roseveare said in one of the recommendations set out in their report for the OECD’s Institutional Management in Higher Education, Fostering Quality Teaching in Higher Education: Policies and Practices, universities should:

“Cross-fertilise professional development for teaching and research so as to increase mutual learning. Avoid distinctive professional development paths.”

I couldn’t agree more.

As Amy J. Ko discusses over here, research and teaching are both more powerful when they are woven together.  If the future of higher education is to stay relevant to the world around us and give our students the skills and tools to fix the Big Problems like climate change, we need to be teaching them how to find reliable information, think critically, synthesise information and ideas and discover creative ways to solve problems.

I don’t know about you, but to me that sounds like the same set of skills it takes to do research.

Free Zoom planetarium shows for Brownies!

During lockdown I started offering free virtual planetarium shows to any Brownie group (or Cub group!) that wants one, as long as I have a free evening and can fit you in.  These have proved so popular that I’ve had to draft in some colleagues from the astronomy group at the University of Central Lancashire to help!

In a half-hour show the Brownies will discover what is visible in the sky right now, we’ll look at some of the constellations, they will hear some of the stories behind of the constellations, we will take a quick tour of the planets to see them up close, and the girls can ask the presenter any space-related questions they have.

No special software is needed, the presenter will just share their screen so everyone can see our virtual planetarium!

If you would like to book a (free!) session for your Brownie unit, please fill in the booking form and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can.

UPDATE: Feb 12th – these have been so popular that I’m now booked up until Easter!  If you would like a show, please fill in the form anyway and I will add your details to the waiting list.  Some of my colleagues are also delivering shows, and I’ll start booking more slots after Easter soon.

UPDATE: April 22nd – I’m now completely booked up until the end of term, so I have had to close the booking form.  Thanks for your interest in a planetarium show, if we end up back under restrictions I will re-open booking.

Space Camp!


Cycling the Solar System at The Story Of Space

At Manchester Science Festival in 2016 I teamed up with artist and graphic designer Nick Sayers to run cycling tours of the solar system – from the Sun to Neptune – along a 4.5-km section of the Fallowfield Loop cycle path in Manchester.  The weekend was a great success, with all tours fully-booked, and lots of really enthusiastic cycling-astronauts of all ages.  So when I saw a call for projects at the Story Of Space festival in India, it seemed like a good idea to pitch the project.

Cycle the Solar System - on a scale on 1:1 billion. Credit: Nick Sayers

Cycle the Solar System – on a scale of 1:1 billion. Credit: Nick Sayers

The Story Of Space was organised by a team from The Story Of foundation, who put in huge amounts of effort to secure funding, sponsorship, volunteers to support the festival projects, and all manner of other things, all in addition to their “normal” jobs.  The festival ran from November 10th to 19th 2017 across several locations in and around the city of Panjim in Goa, India, and everything in the festival programme was completely free to attend.  November 2017 saw a huge number of artists and scientists converging on Panjim to create numerous installations, and Cycle the Solar System was one of the proposals selected to be part of the festival!

Cycle the Solar System goes to Goa

Cycle the Solar System goes to Goa

Cycling in Manchester is something of a risky business.  I lived in the city for six years and did a lot of cycling; it is great to see today that more cycle paths are being constructed, but it still feels something of a risk heading out on the roads.  Despite this, nothing quite prepared me for the “excitement” of cycling in India at rush hour.  (If you’re into extreme sports and adrenaline, give it a go.)  Despite the buses, cows, trucks, scooters, deep gutters, hidden wheel-sized holes, trees in the road (etc), we didn’t loose a single astronaut!

Over ten days we ran eight tours of the solar system on a scale of 1:1 billion, each running over 4.5 kilometres starting from the Entertainment Society of Goa, past the Sun at the malaria centre, the inner planets alongside Luis Gomes park, Jupiter near Campal Ground, Saturn near Miramar circle, Uranus south of Goa Science Centre, to Neptune (appropriately) at a fish market just short of Dona Paula jetty.  The route ran along a main road so, as the astronomer tour guide, I spent the best part of three hours talking over traffic.  Combined with the dust and the air pollution, I almost lost my voice, but not quite.

The vast choice of fruit and vegetables available at Panjim market

The vast choice of fruit and vegetables available at Panjim market

Along the route we stopped at the Sun, each of the eight planets, as well as the asteroid belt, and in the outer solar system for ice cream comets.  To aid with the sense of scale, our model included flags with images of each planet (at the correct scale), as well as locally-sourced (mostly-) edible props to make it more memorable.  In our model, the Sun was a stripy golf umbrella, Mercury was a peppercorn, Venus and Earth were represented by whole nutmegs, Mars was a dried chickpea, Jupiter was a green coconut, Saturn was a regular coconut with a frisbee for the rings, and Uranus and Neptune were a local root vegetable that we never actually found out how to cook!  To get props that were the right scale we spent a morning at Panjim municipal market, measuring all the fruit and veg with a tape measure… the stallholders were thoroughly confused by the eccentric English people and their odd habits.  “It’s ok, it’s for science!” didn’t quite have the reassuring effect we had hoped!

Miniature solar system bracelet, and UV-beads.

Miniature solar system bracelet and UV-beads.

As well as the scale-model props, I also added a miniature solar system scale model in the form of a bracelet made by Emma Wride of AstroCymru, which was useful for giving an impression of the distances between the planets before we set off on the bikes.  I also made use of some UV-beads from Helen Mason, illustrating (along with our rainbow-coloured umbrella representing the Sun) that the Sun emits radiation in parts of the spectrum that our eyes just cannot see – for some of our interplanetary astronauts, this was the first time they had come across this concept.

Exploring the solar system with kids of all ages

Exploring the solar system with kids of all ages

The days were long, the traffic was scary, but it was all worth it.  The groups that came on the tour were all different, from an international school in South Goa, people from AFA, the local astronomical society, to local college students, families, and adults from all sorts of backgrounds, so each tour had its own unique character.  Everyone went home happy though, having gained an impression of the immense scale of our solar system and the huge distances between the planets, relating the distances to memorable local landmarks.  As the tour guide, I tried to present a few interesting facts about each planet, but each tour was largely driven by the questions from the audience; people can get as many facts as they like from books (or wikipedia), but the shear scale of the distance between the planets is something that is much more difficult to comprehend, and that – for me – was the main point of the tour.

As a scientist at a (mainly) arts festival, I found myself among a very creative and open-minded group of people.  As a scientist I found this refreshing, and as a science communicator I found it inspiring.  The more I talked with the artists at the festival, the more we found we had in common.  These crossover conversations culminated in a panel session on art-science collaborations, where five of us enjoyed debating how and why these kinds of projects work in front of an audience at the Goa Science Centre.

Cycle the Solar System goes to the Miramar Circle food market!

Cycle the Solar System goes to the Miramar Circle food market!

The world of science is phenomenally exciting:  doing good science requires much more creativity than most people realise, and communicating science is an inherently creative endeavour.  I left Panjim with many new ideas that I look forward to trying out and using in my own work, I hope everyone else (scientists, artists, and visitors) went home similarly inspired.  Huge thanks to The Story Of Foundation for making it all happen, to our amazing helpers (particularly Namrata and Sejal!) and to the RAS and OAD for funding my participation.

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


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


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


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


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.

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