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“Ask Me Anything” and They Did! Top 5 Astrophysics Takeaways from Joss Bland-Hawthorn, ARC Laureate


“Ask Me Anything” and They Did! Top 5 Astrophysics Takeaways from Joss Bland-Hawthorn, ARC Laureate Fellow Professor of Physics and Director of the Sydney Institute for Astronomy (SIFA)

By Rebecca B. Andersen

“Ask Me Anything” and They Did! Top 5 Astrophysics Takeaways from Joss Bland-Hawthorn, ARC Laureate Fellow Professor of Physics and Director of the Sydney Institute for Astronomy (SIFA)

After 15 years, the first Australian-built satellites were launched from Kennedy Space Center to the International Space Station. It was a uniquely proud moment for our country and my research team at the Sydney Institute for Astronomy, University of Sydney. I was pleased to participate in this Reddit Science Ask Me Anything with The Optical Society (OSA) and share my recent experiences with space exploration. Questions during the AMA ranged from my research, to science fiction and exploration of exoplanets.


About Me – Joss Bland-Hawthorn, Optical Scientist
Research is an exhilarating journey of discovery; you learn something new and exciting each week of the year. My team at the Sydney Institute for Astronomy is working on the next generation of astronomical and space instruments. On April 19, one of these CubSats launched from Cape Canaveral to the International Space Station. Our CubeSat is one of the first Australian satellites to be sent into orbit in 15 years. A proud time for our team!

I am an ARC Laureate Fellow Professor of Physics and Director of the Sydney Institute for Astronomy (SIFA). I was born in England before moving overseas in 1985. After receiving my PhD from the Royal Greenwich Observatory and the University of Sussex, I took a 3-year postdoc in astrophysics at the Institute for Astronomy, University of Hawaii. In 1988-1993, I was a tenured professor at the Space Physics & Astronomy Department, Rice University, Texas. In 1993, I joined the Australian Astronomical Observatory, Sydney. In 2000, I was appointed Head of Instrument Science, a new division that was created to reflect the increasing need for coJBHlex novel solutions to astronomical instrumentation. Since 2007, I have been a professor at the University of Sydney. I am a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science and The Optical Society (OSA).

Question 5: Hi Joss, What are you hopes for humanity in the distant future pertaining to space exploration? (Matt_bigreddog)
JBH: I think it's entirely inevitable - you can't stop humans pushing the boundaries. There are good arguments based on our long-term survival as a race, as well. But it would be tragic if humans consider space as an option after wrecking our own planet. The Earth is by far the most hospitable place to live, and by far the most ideal for human existence. It would take tens of thousands of years to find anything as good.

Question 4: How will quantum physics and quantum computing change astrophysics? (Nyxll)
JBH: Quantum physics is central to all of astrophysics, I mean all of it. I don't think quantum computing is directly relevant as defined now. There is a crossover field on quantum information and quantum computing that has promise... e.g. understanding black holes.

Question 3: Of the stars and other celestial objects one can see in the night sky, about how many of them are outside of our own galaxy? (LiveLongAndPhosphor)
JBH: With our eyes, we see 6000 stars at sea level. With telescopes, we can infer the presence of 60 billion stars in our Galaxy if all the mass of the Sun, in reality there are closer to a trillion stars since so many very low mass. Would you believe there are a trillion galaxies with a trillion stars? A trillion stars in the Universe is about the number of grains of sand on Earth... When you hold your thumb up to the night sky, you are blocking out millions of galaxies in that patch. Amazing...

Question 2: Have you ever experienced difficulties in studying during your undergrad? Difficulties as in, getting barely passing grade/failed a subject, retaking some subjects, etc.? After undergrad was it the same or just a breeze? Last thing: give your ultimate study tip. (ChaseTheMoonLikeFire)
JBH: Absolutely. I think we all struggle at each step of our journey. The trick is to just keep going, even if everyone around you (pretends to) make it look easy. Drive and enthusiasm counts for at least half of anyone's eventual success... My absolute favorite formula is to work hard for two hours, 20 minutes relax, 2 hours, relax... etc. And then after a week or so, do something completely different. The brain is awesome at solving things when you're not thinking about them. It organizes and the solutions come. My secret all my career...

Question 1: Do you envision humankind sending information gathering devices to other star systems? If so, how far might they be sent and what data would you want them to collect? (6rant6)
JBH: I think something like picosats might work one day powered by mm or microwave radiation, say, or possibly optical lasers. The hardest part is getting the picosat to slow down at the other end, rather than shooting past the star. We won't get much data if the picosat goes zipping by at 0.2c. One idea is to use radiation pressure from the star itself to slow down, so target bright not faint stars! I have this weird idea that what we will eventually try is to send billions of little crafts (size of detector pixels) that will assemble at the other end into something bigger. This system is then able to use power from the star, collect images, and send back a useful signal. I'd love to see it happen, but it may take a century to get this all together.

So much going on in Australia, and it is all very exciting. I wanted to those who joined me during my first “Ask Me Anything”. It was a fun way to share my experiences. For future research news, you can find me on Twitter.


Posted: 1 June 2017 by Rebecca B. Andersen | with 0 comments

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