Questions from the Cosmos…

Photo L-R:  Dr Katarina Miljkovic, Dr Ellie Sansom, Dr Natasha Hurley-Walker, Professor Lyn Beazley, AO

Cosmos Calling on 15 August was a wonderful night at the SciTech Planetarium that celebrated the ‘cutting edge’ of science being undertaken right here in Western Australia.

Professor Lyn Beazley was an excellent MC, keeping the session engaging and highlighting the role Australia has had in space exploration.  She set the evening up describing the early days when Aboriginal people’s movements were guided by the position of the ’emu’ in the Milky Way.  She then went on to describe Carnarvon’s critical role in the final ‘go or no go’ decision to land men on the Moon and the current day where we are on the threshold of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) becoming a reality.

Our three speakers were outstanding:  Dr Natasha Hurley-Walker, Dr Katarina Miljkovic and Dr Ellie Sansom.  Together, they literally bring a world of knowledge to WA – having studied extensively overseas and now all collaborating on international teams.  We are so lucky to have such bright, passionate, inspirational scientists here in Perth.  They are all excellent science communicators, clearly guiding us through their work and the importance of it.

Natasha’s work with the Murchison Widefield Array (the precursor to the SKA) showed the Cosmos as a place of beauty.  Thankfully, she persevered to paint the whole Cosmos in ‘radio colour’ (not just focus on a part of it) and wow doesn’t it come alive! The darkness of space is only due to our inability to see what is really there – and when the non-visible wavelengths are coloured it all looks so beautiful.  The colours even showed up the ‘Cosmic Corpses’ – what a great expression!  Over one million people have viewed Natasha’s TED talk – have you seen it yet?

Katarina’s personal ‘life on Mars’ involves her listening for things that go bump in the night (and day) on Mars.  On her project with NASA’s InSight mission, she is monitoring the seismic activity on Mars. If an impact or volcano causes a movement on the surface – she wants to know about it.  Why? So she can find out what lies beneath the surface and discover if Mars has a centre that is ‘soft or hard-boiled’.  It was surprising to learn how many probes and landers are now on Mars – all doing different things to help build our understanding of this ‘near neighbour’ planet.  A lasting image was the InSight lander taking a ‘selfie‘ of itself on the very flat Martian landscape.  This was a selfie on another planet – blows the brain!

Ellie admitted that liking both arts and sciences at school, she found it hard to make her career choice.  This became more difficult when a career questionnaire revealed she was suited to a career as a ‘chimney sweep’ – but luckily for us, she discovered geophysics and now works with the Desert Fireball Network!  In a world-first, images of WA fireballs were projected onto the Planetarium’s dome.  It was fascinating to see the beads of light showing the trajectory of the meteorites.  There are 50 cameras around Australia now monitoring the skies for fireballs and the images are spectacular.  The cameras can also monitor the changing orbits of satellites.  The Desert Fireball Network proactively found partners in other countries to create a global Fireball Network.  You can become part of this just by downloading an app!

The panel discussion was lively, but painted a disturbing picture of science today and raised many questions.

What has science done for us?  This ‘chestnut’ of a question was easily answered through looking at the things we take for granted every day.  Without radioastronomy, we would not have Wi-Fi.  Wi-Fi was an Australian invention that involved the CSIRO.  The Apollo landings gave us memory foam, miniature cameras (that we now use in mobile phones) and the computer mouse. Without science, there would be far less innovation and in today’s fast-moving world we need innovation to create jobs.

Why do we make life so hard for our scientists? The team explained that they work under short term contracts, have to have the begging bowl out every few years to secure funding and, are easy prey to political cost-cutting exercises (just think of the recent decimation of the CSIRO).  It is no wonder bright minds may look to other careers.  Scientists are clearly the unsung heroes of our economy. 

Is an academic career in STEM harder for women?  It appears that at the lower levels of academia, no.  However, rising to higher levels in academia is still very hard for women and this is reflected in the stats that show the higher up you go, the fewer women there are.  

The discussion highlighted the need to get more politicians interested in STEM and encourage them to learn more about the benefits of research to the economy.

It became clear that we need to promote STEM widely so more women and girls take an interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.  Politicians respond to their communities; if more people take an interest in science, so will politicians.  We need to start with ourselves, be well-informed and spread the word.

What is the secret to collaboration in science?  All of the speakers are part of international collaborations and pointed out, ‘from space there are no borders…..’

The SciTech staff were wonderful – Acting CEO Kalien Selby welcomed everyone during the pre-show drinks and canapes and Leah Kalameris provided an illuminating narration during a special scene-setting planetarium show developed especially for the event. This was followed by the Capturing the Cosmos show that focussed on the Australian Sky Mapper and SKA projects using some amazing special effects.

Carole Theobald, Club President, welcomed everyone to this special Zonta Centennial event and provided an introduction to Zonta and its work.  She dressed as a suffragette to celebrate the fact that besides being Zonta’s 100 year anniversary, it is also 100 years this week since women in the USA obtained the right to vote.  Judy Gorton, Zonta International Director, provided a heartfelt vote of thanks to the speakers and audience, explaining how funds raised will go towards Zonta’s service and education programs.

So many members (and partners) contributed to this successful event – and our thanks extend to them and the fabulous audience, who dressed up as the past, present and future to celebrate Zonta’s Centennial!




Photo L-R:  Carole Theobald, President of the Zonta Club of Perth with Judy Gorton, Director of Zonta International at the Calling the Cosmos: Space the Next Frontier event held at SciTech Planetarium, Perth to celebrate the Centennial of Zonta International.

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