Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Goodbye Cape Town // Hello Christchurch, NZ

After many delays, side-trips and attempts to prolong my time in Cape Town, I've finally shipped off from South Africa and moved on to WATSON PHASE IV: NEW ZEALAND. I've been in Christchurch for four days now, and have already settled in and established myself and my project in ways that usually take a few weeks of Watson-time. Within 36 hours of arrival, I had already:

1.     Settled into a homey place to stay with three wonderful housemates
2.     Figured out public transit and found a bike to use (thanks wonderful housemates)
3.     Received an office with desk space and computer from the University of Canterbury's astronomy department
4.     Played ultimate frisbee
5.     Recovered from ten hours of jet-lag (almost)
6.     Spoken with students about outer space!

All in all, I'm quite proud of myself. There have been times when I've kicked myself for delaying my trip to NZ -- I was originally supposed to arrive in late February!-- but I know that the other trips I've taken have been well worth the delay, and also that the resources and accessibility here, combined with my experience traveling, will make it possible to get the most out of a shorter amount of time.

But I think I'm getting ahead of myself. My last few days in Cape Town were perfect. Although I had a lot to do in terms of wrapping things up and getting ready to leave, the sun was shining in that ideal early-autumn way, and there was still time for adventures and saying goodbye properly.

I forgot to mention in my last post that I had my birthday on my last day in Ethiopia. I celebrated by going to two schools and chatting with students about astronomy, and having huge, traditional, delicious meals with both The Ethiopian Space Science Society and Birukti & co. It was an ideal way to celebrate my 23rd journey around the Sun. Plus, messages through email and facebook poured in from around the world, and I felt absolutely loved from all directions.
My birthday lunch with the ESSS in Ethiopia
When I got back to Cape Town, though, I did have a small casual get together both for another excuse to eat cake and a chance to say goodbye.
Birthday cake, food and friends in the park for a final get-together
We also had time for one last OAD-family hike up Table Mountain. Seeing the city from above at all angles was the perfect way to say goodbye to this beautiful city/country that has taught me so much.
Final climb up Table Mountain
On my last day in South Africa, I was able to squeeze in one final chat with students. SHAWCO is a non-profit organization run by the University of Cape Town that does a number of outreach projects in the community. My friend Ru runs one of the education projects, which tutors high school students and also helps the students organize independent research projects. Some of the groups are doing projects on science (one in particular on space science), and so I came in and spoke with them about astronomy and all that South Africa had to offer. Even though the project is huge, most of the students had not previously heard about the SKA and what it's going to bring to SA. It was great to hear their ideas about astronomy and also to see them get excited for the projects that are being developed in their country. 
Final chat with South African students

And then it was off to New Zealand! 36 hours, three stops, and ten time-zones later, I was in Christchurch. While the journey was exhausting, I will say this about long flights -- having a window seat gives astronomical perspective. In those 36 hours, I saw two sunrises, two sunsets, and the crescent moon go from the left side to the bottom as we neared the equator, and back to the left as we returned back to the Southern Hemisphere. 
Sunset after Capet Town take-off (crescent moon still on the left)
I arrived in Christchurch in the early afternoon, and by the evening, I was speaking with students from the AURORA school -- a one-week camp for high school students interested in astronomy. They had just returned from a [cloudy] trip the Mt John Observatory, and the leaders of the camp were running a fun Astro-Quiz night. I hung out with the group, and heard about the things they had enjoyed learning during the camp. Topics ranged from exoplanet detection to dark matter candidates to telescope operations. The students are all in their final year of high school, and it seemed that many of them became more interested in studying astronomy in college (or "Uni" as they say here), because of the AURORA school.

AURORA school students showing off their clay-model telescopes at Astro-Quiz night
The University of Canterbury astronomy faculty, who ran the AURORA school, has since welcomed me into the department as a visitor, and has provided me with office, desk and computer. I'll be working with them here on campus and also with teaching fellow Ben McNabb, who will help me organize visits to primary and secondary schools around Christchurch. 

Since settling in, I hoped to explore town a little bit more, but since the weather has been cold, rainy and miserable, I've mostly kept indoors. On Sunday, it was raining and sad, so I spent the afternoon at my local public library, only a 5 minute bike-ride away. I thought I'd go for the computers or to find a nice novel to read, but I found myself instead in the children's section, in a tiny chair, covered in children's books about outer space. The most interesting books were Maori legends that explained how the Sun, Earth, Moon and stars came into being.
Rainy day at the Papanui public library, reading children's books of Maori astro-legends

I'm here in New Zealand to explore this intersection between access to a high-achieving public education system (NZ ranks 4th in reading and science and 7th in math globally), and a strong traditional astronomical culture. Reading these legends was fascinating, and also gave some insight into how children in NZ are learning about astronomy. 

This week, I'm settling into life here, getting adjusted and getting some practical things done (like blogging!). These next two weeks are school holidays, proving that I am absolutely the worst at timing my travels so that I'll be able to speak with kids in schools (Chilean independence, Dasain in Nepal, Christmas/New Years in South Africa...) I don't think this holiday will inhibit my activities too much, though, as next week I'll travel to visit the South Canterbury Astronomical Society in Geraldine and Timaru to take part in their Global Astronomy Month events, and also hopefully take a trip to the Mt John Observatory near Lake Tekapo. 


UPDATE since the first part of this post was written -- the skies have finally cleared, and the weather report is now calling for "mild temperatures and abundant sunshine" for the next few days. Visions of gorgeous Christchurch autumn:
View from my 8th floor office (see mountains in background)
Campus walkways. I can't help but think of the Haverford nature trail in October

Monday, April 15, 2013


I'm back in Cape Town now for a few days after a very quick, but very meaningful and informative trip to Ethiopia. In each of the places I've gone on this project I've had time to fully immerse myself not just in the educational or astronomical culture, but also a bit in the national culture, the language, the local histories, the arrangement of the cities and so on. By spending 2.5 weeks in Ethiopia, instead of my standard 2-3 months, I didn't necessarily have time to do this, and instead was on *Watson Power Mode*, attempting to absorb and do as much as humanly possible in the short time I had. 

I chose to go to Ethiopia because astronomy is rapidly developing there at the professional level. The Ethiopian Space Science Society (ESSS), which is based at the Department of Technology at the University of Addis Ababa, is currently in the process of building a professional-class observatory with two 1-meter diameter telescopes in the mountains just above Addis. They're also beginning site testing for another observatory in the north of the country, in the more remote hills of Lalibela. In visiting Ethiopia, I wanted to see how this development is affecting students, if at all. Simultaneously, I wanted to explore how other aspects of Ethiopian culture, including religion, affect children's notions of the Universe.

Through my work at the OAD in Cape Town, I was able to connect with the ESSS ahead of time and through them, I visited 5 different schools across Addis in the time I was there. We visited both public and private schools, although each of the schools we visited had their own Space Science Club. Besides these clubs, astronomy is barely in the school curriculum, usually taught as small units in physics or geography classes. For the most part, I gave my standard presentation and engaged with students directly this way.

Speaking to the Nazareth girls school Space Science Club.
Nazareth girls school, student organized Space Science Club evening event, complete with  star gazing
Misrak Goeh Secondary School Astrophysics club
St. Joseph School Space Science Club
These space science club meetings usually included student presentations on topics ranging from the basics of the Solar System to traditional Ethiopian astronomy to the possibility of life on Mars. Each student presentation was highly researched, and you could see the personal interest these students had in the subject matter. Some of the students (especially in the private schools) had extremely high-level questions, some of which I couldn't answer. It seems that these students are getting their information from the internet, or Discovery-channel type TV programs, as schools don't cover these topics at all. 

Advanced Q&A session at the St. Joseph School. In my first visit to St. Joseph, the students thought my presentation was "elementary," and they requested an advanced Q&A session where they could ask high-level questions. This panel of astrophysicists couldn't even answer all of their questions regarding anti-matter, string theory, white holes, and the standard model of cosmology.
Student presentation on the life cycle of stars, Nazareth Girls School

With the ESSS, I visited the site of the Entoto Observatory, just 30km away from Addis Ababa. Despite the proximity to the city, the light pollution is fairly low and because of the high altitude, it is less rainy than in the city. When I visited, the spaces for the two domes were being constructed, and the buildings for offices, cafeteria and accommodation were nearly complete. Over the course of my visit, the domes were delivered, and in the months ahead the telescopes themselves will be shipped and installed.
Construction of the Entoto Observatory
Construction of the Entoto Observatory.
Main Observatory building for offices, cafeteria and accommodation.
Probably the highlight of my time in Addis was couch surfing with Birukti, an inspiring young woman who has facilitated numerous outreach projects in Addis through the support of her church. She generously agreed to host me for my entire visit and helped me to engage with Addis life as much as possible in the little time I had.

With Birukti in front of Wenchi Crater Lake
Because work on the Observatory was busy during my visit, and because the ESSS members work only on a volunteer basis, my school visits with the ESSS only happened on a few days. With Birukti's help, I spent the remainder of my time exploring Addis Ababa and a bit outside the city, and engaging with kids in different settings besides in schools.

About five years ago, Birukti started a house for teenage boys who had formerly lived on the street. The project, called "Change House," had a total of 22 boys to start, many of which have graduated and are working and self-sufficient. With Birukti, I visited the house, which has 4 boys living there now. The following night, the boys, plus a few of the graduates, came over to Birukti's house for dinner, games and a little bit of telescope time.  The clouds rolled in before we could see anything too cool, but it was nice that they still got to see how the telescope worked.

At Birukti's with the Change House boys
Looking through the telescope before the clouds roll in.
Birukti also organized a program for girls she works with in the Entoto mountains to do a quick lesson on astronomy. We went over the basics of the Sun, Earth and Moon system, and explained orbits, seasons and lunar phases. 
Birukti translating for our lesson about the Sun, Earth and Moon
Learning about Earth's tilt.
Even though I didn't have time to explore a wide variety of educational settings and speak with tons of kids, I do feel that I did a lot given my short time there. I am grateful for the opportunity to see a completely different country which functions very differently from any place I've been. Special thanks to the ESSS for facilitating my project and to Birukti for hosting me!

Tomorrow I head to NEW ZEALAND for phase 4 (or 5?) of my trip. I'm sad to leave what has become my family and my home in Cape Town, but I feel ready for more adventures and a new place to explore.

To close, more pictures from Ethiopia:
Huge Orthodox Christian church in Bole, Addis Ababa
Sunset from Birukti's house. The sky, I think, was Addis' most beautiful quality.
View of Addis Ababa from halfway up the Entoto mountains
Wenchi Crater lake
First time on a horse! Wenchi Crater 
Amazing sunset from the plane