Monday, January 21, 2013


Last week I had the opportunity to spend a few days in Sutherland, a small town in South Africa's Northern Cape and home to the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) and the Southern African Large Telescocpe (SALT). I was able to both spend time at the observatory to see the telescopes, as well as get a full tour of town to visit schools and talk with local students.

I love how there's something common between all of the observatories I've visited, independent of  global location. Whether in Chile this past year, or in Arizona or Hawai'i before that, all of the observatories I've seen have this refreshing combination of tranquility from the natural world and exciting, cutting-edge technologies that have the potential to make ground-breaking discoveries nightly. Sutherland was no different in that regard, and in a way, arriving at the SAAO felt like I was returning to something comforting and familiar.
The SALT telescope with Orion above.

What's different about Sutherland, however, is a clear and intentional link from the observatory to the people in the neighboring community. For example, at the observatory site itself, there's a "community dome" halfway up the hill between the visitors center and the big telescopes. This open-roof geodesic is meant for all people to come and observe the stunning Sutherland night sky. The inclusion of the community also extends beyond the observatory site and into the town through projects from the SALT Collateral Benefits Program (SCBP). More on that in a minute, but first, a bit about the town of Sutherland.
Community dome with SALT in the background.
Sutherland is a small rural town in the Northern Cape known for its its sheep farming, the occasional snow and its clear night skies. Fifteen years ago, Sutherland received only a few dozen visitors per month, but since the inauguration of SALT in 2005, tourism has boomed in Sutherland, with over 13,000 visitors annually. This brought in outsiders from the tourism industry, leading to a creation of multiple astronomy-themed guest houses, restaurants, and tourism agencies. This has indeed boosted the economy of Sutherland, but problems such as unemployment, alcoholism and low levels of education still plague the small town, and remnants of apartheid are still shockingly visible.
The town of Sutherland
An example of an astro-themed site in town
On Wednesday, I got a tour of Sutherland and had the opportunity to see the many projects funded by the SALT Collateral Benefits Program designed to address these remaining problems. My tour guides, Willem and Anthony are both from Sutherland originally. Anthony is now the Sutherland manager for the SALT Collateral Benefits Program and Willem is one of the tour guides of the observatory. Through them, I learned about Sutherland's history, its current realities, and how the observatory is fitting in.
My Sutherland hosts and tour guides, Willem (left) and Anthony (right)
The biggest and most holistic project from the SCBP I saw was the Sutherland Community Development Center, equipped with 25 computers, free WiFi and printing, a small library, a study area with individual desks and a kids play area. This center provides a free and safe space for kids to do their homework, adults to use the internet to look for jobs or take online courses, and a place where people can come together for community meetings or gatherings. The idea and plan for the community center came out of extensive meetings with members of the community who expressed what they wanted for Sutherland. In this way, it is a space that is utilized and valued by the people of Sutherland. If the SAAO and National Research Foundation (NRF) had just created a space without any community input, I think it would not have been as successful as it is today.
Sutherland Community Development Center

On Thursday, I spent the day with Willem and Anthony in two of Sutherland's schools to chat with the kids about astronomy. Perhaps because it was the second day of school after summer vacation, or because the kids do not speak English as their first language (Sutherland is a primarily Afrikaans-speaking town), or because I didn't have enough time in the classes for the kids to get to know me, overall participation was low and kids kept quiet.

I did get some ideas from them, and it was clear that some kids were interested in the subject. They all said that they could see many many stars at night, but students were reluctant to say what it was about the stars that appealed to them. Most said they liked to look at the stars because they were pretty and sparkly, but didn't go into depth about that. When I asked where the stars came from or what they're made of, some said dense gases or the Big Bang, while others credited God or Jesus. Two girls came up to me during the break and asked how both answers could be simultaneously true, and I gave my standard diplomatic answer about how part of being an adult and a scientist is being critical of the information you're given and making opinions for yourself. I'll be returning to Sutherland with the UNAWE-South Africa team in February, and so it will be nice to go back and engage with the kids more through activities that may allow them to be more comfortable and open up.

Besides seeing the town, a major highlight of my trip was just hanging around the observatory and seeing the telescopes. Here is a picture with me and the SALT telescope (again, the largest telescope in the Southern Hemisphere!)
On the catwalk of the SALT telescope. With a diameter of 9.8m, this is the largest optical telescope in the Southern Hemisphere
The views of the surrounding hills were stunning, and I was lucky enough to witness some dramatic thunderstorms (lucky for me, not for the astronomers that couldn't observe). I even got a few lightning strikes on camera!
The sunsets in Sutherland were phenomenal. Colors not enhanced.  
Lightning photo number 1

Pseudo-lightning photo with views of the clear skies above. Note the Pleiades in the top left corner.
That's all for now. In the weeks ahead, I'm looking forward to getting into schools around Cape Town and starting to engage with students here. I'm grateful for the opportunity to work with the students in Sutherland, and hope that experience will help me shape future school visits to make them more interactive, comfortable and informative. Special thanks to Willem and Anthony for making this such a wonderful and meaningful trip!

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Center of the Astronomy Education Universe

[A long, but unapologetic, photo-light, astro-ed/project- heavy post. You're right, MKC! I shouldn't be apologizing for sharing the details of my project. I am sorry for the many many acronyms, but hopefully I've made them as clear as possible. And for you skimmers out there, feel free to skip to the photos of Cape Town at the end.]]

"Scientific endeavour is not purely utilitarian in its objectives and has important associated cultural and social values. It is also important to maintain a basic competence in "flagship" sciences such as physics and astronomy for cultural reasons. Not to offer them would be to take a negative view of our future - the view that we are a second class nation, chained forever to the treadmill of feeding and clothing ourselves.
-- South African White Paper on Science & Technology,  
Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology 
4 September 1996

I've been in Cape Town for just over three weeks now, and have comfortably settled into PHASE THREE of my journey. South Africa, in many ways, is considered to be a mecca for astronomy education in that there are many well-funded, well-established programs that educate the public about astronomy. The excerpt above is one example of how the South African government has made science education, and astronomy education in particular, a priority for the country. The last sentence most clearly articulates this priority -- in order for South Africans to make an impact on today's world, and to become true global citizens, knowledge and ownership of science is imperative.

This national priority is realized through the many South African astronomical centers. The main institution is the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO), home to the South African Large Telescope (SALT). SALT is the largest telescope in the southern hemisphere, with a diameter of 9.8m (the largest telescope I saw in Chile was the VLT on Cerro Paranal, which has a diameter of 8.2m). The headquarters of SAAO is in the Cape Town suburb of Observatory (or "Obz" as the locals call it). This is where I'll primarily be living and working while in South Africa. The SALT telescope itself is in the town of Sutherland, about a four hour drive away. I plan to visit Sutherland next month and work with some of the outreach projects that are taking place there.

As the quote above implies, science development is not just for scientists, but also for the benefit of the whole country. Thus, SALT has implemented a Collateral Benefits Plan, which funds education and outreach activities all over South Africa. In the words of former SAAO director, Prof Patricia Whitelock, "When SALT was set up we realized that it would be a huge waste if we simply ran it for the benefit of our international partners." 10% of SALT's budget goes directly towards community projects and outreach, especially in disadvantaged communities.

** THIS IS THE PART THAT I LOVE. ** Not only is South Africa investing in innovative science projects, but they simultaneously see the importance in funding science education. SALT is therefore by South Africa and for South Africa. In Chile, there are dozens of cutting-edge observatories and research projects, but Chileans have limited access to those resources as the observatories are owned and operated by foreign institutions. While SALT has many strong international partners (the US, UK, New Zealand, Germany and Poland), the SALT Collateral Benefits Plan ensures that South Africans are profiting from the major projects on their home soil.

SAAO headquarters in Cape Town also hosts the Office of Astronomy for Development (OAD) of the International Astronomical Union (the IAU, best known for demoting Pluto in 2006). The OAD is specifically designed for "Using astronomy to make the world a better place." In addition to working with SAAO in local outreach projects, I also hope to work with the OAD to learn about astronomy education projects around the world.

The Square Kilometere Array (SKA) is another huge project and point of pride in the South African astronomy community. The SKA, with its headquarters in the UK, will be the most powerful radio observatory in the world when it is completed in 2019. The array will incorporate thousands of radio dishes and antennae spread out over 3000km. The "Square Kilometere" describes the approximate surface area of all of those antennae combined. South Africa recently won the bid for site selection of the SKA, with a majority of the antennae and dishes being built in Southern Africa, and the rest in Australia and New Zealand. While SKA construction won't officially start until 2016, South Africa has already started MeerKAT, a 64-dish array that has now been designated as the pathfinder for the SKA in South Africa. They're doing some cool outreach projects, too, like this comic book:

In addition to these major projects, there are also dozens of science centers and planetariums across South Africa. **ANOTHER GREAT THING** is that everyone works together! The planetarium staff collaborate and share resources with the outreach groups which work with local educators and so on. There are regular meetings of South African EPO (Education and Public Outreach) staff to discuss their current projects and how best to work together. Interestingly enough, this kind of communication and collaboration is fairly very rare, in my experience. In Chile, for example, some outreach groups were funded by Universities, others by North American-funded observatories, others by European observatories. Very rarely was there communication between the different groups. It's refreshing to learn that here ideas and resources are shared.

In the coming days, I'll be getting settled in at SAAO and carving out how I'll fit into these many wonderful, pre-existing programs. I'll also be thinking about projects that I want to do independently. After three weeks of a "vacation" without anything project related, I definitely feel ready to get moving again on the project.

These three weeks have been wonderful, though, as I've been able to explore the area, make friends (mostly by playing frisbee), and get settled. I was lucky enough to have my mom over the holidays, and she proved to be the best travel and adventure companion for exploring this amazing city. Some pictures:
Exploring Cape Town cuisine with Mom!
Biking through the Cape Winelands
Sunset over the Atlantic Ocean from Signal Hill
The cloudy view from the top of Table Mountain after our Christmas morning hike. 
Penguin-watching at Boulder's beach
Thanks for reading! SAAO has let me borrow a computer for my time here, so I hope to be writing and updating more often. That means I'll be more contactable by email, but you can also send SNAIL MAIL to:

Maya Barlev
Office of Astronomy for Development (OAD)
South African Astronomical Observatory
P.O. Box 9
South Africa