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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
It’s been quite a while since I recorded a podcast with my old friends Jen Gupta (
@jen_gupta), Stuart Lowe ( @astronomyblog), David Ault ( @astrotour2010) and Mark Purver ( @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.
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.