The mysteries of the universe: What do astronomers do?

The other day I stumbled across a question on twitter. “How do astronomers know all of this”, in response to a post showing the scale of the universe and different objects within it. I replied with a simple explanation about how we use large telescopes to observe various objects and simulations to understand the physics, but I thought I would write a longer blog post on this topic. With the South African government investing heavily on some of these large telescopes, it is even more important for people to understand why this undertaking is so important.

There are two main types of astronomers or astrophysicists. On the one side the theoreticians: the ones that mainly work through complicated mathematical equations and creating mind-blowing simulations; but what I am going to talk about here is observational astrophysics, which I focus on, and where South Africa has shown great interest with the development of the Square Kilometer Array and the successful Southern African Large Telescope.

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Image of spiral galaxy M101 in four X-ray, Optical, Ultraviolet and Infrared Light taken using different telescopes

What exactly do we do?

Observational astronomers use telescopes (like MeerKAT, the Southern African Large Telescope, and several others) to study the night sky. These telescopes function as “light buckets” and collect information in the form of optical (visual) or radio light. Most land-based telescopes operate in optical or radio light because the atmosphere prevents any other light from reaching the earth, but space-based telescopes (like the famous Hubble Space Telescope) can detect X-rays, Infrared, and ultraviolet light.

This light can be used in a few different ways. We can take a picture of distant objects like galaxies to study things like their shape, structure, size and position. We can track how the light in an object like a star changes with time – which is how planets around distant stars are often discovered. Or, we can break the light up into a spectrum, which allows us to probe deeper into the chemical makeup of an object. Different types of light reveal different aspects of astronomical objects. While optical light is really good at detecting stars, the faint gas that fuels galaxies is only visible in radio wavelengths and hot, energetic events pop up as X-rays or gamma rays.

Bigger telescopes allow us to observe objects that are fainter and further away. This allows us to see further back in time, to understand the universe at earlier stages of its evolution. The further away an object is (and often the fainter an object is), the longer it takes for light to reach us here on Earth. Therefore, the light we collect with our telescopes essentially lets us look back in time to when the universe was much younger and smaller than it is today.   

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MeerKAT telescope dishes. Credit: SARAO.

Why does this matter?

Aside from being able to detect asteroids that might crash into Earth, astronomy has many benefits. Studying objects in space allows us to work on answers to some of the mysteries of physics. Gravity – something we all interact with on a daily basis (unless you are reading this from the International Space Station) – is something physicists thought we understood since Isaac Newton’s days. Until some astronomers looked at the motions of galaxies and realised that there was something invisible causing these galaxies to move in unexpected ways. This led to the discovery of dark matter – which we are still trying to figure out!

Just two years ago, the groundbreaking observation of a neutron star merger (which our very own SALT contributed to) revealed where heavy elements like gold are originally created. This event, which was detected through gravitational waves and various wavelengths of light simultaneously, was one of the most important discoveries of this decade.

Astronomy teaches us about how the universe works. Although not every discovery will have implications for our everyday life, we have a natural curiosity about the universe we live. Many people experience a sense of appreciation and wonder when they look up at the night sky, especially in the absence of city lights, and wonder what’s out there. Astronomy allows us to explore that curiosity and appreciate our universe.

(At the very least, astronomy gives us a bountiful amount of pretty pictures. You can find a new one every day on the Astronomy Picture of the Day website.)

If you are curious to learn more about how specific fields in astronomy contribute to scientific questions, I have a post on Medium that goes into much more detail! You can also learn more about astronomy through Crash Course: Astronomy and by following NASA on social media.

Moving forward as a continent: How do we close the gap in African research?

Doing research is quite an interesting way of spending one’s time. Come to think of it; we wake up every day to identify problems in our respective fields and hope to solve them, partially if not completely. If somebody has already proposed a solution for such a problem, we hope to make it better than they did and often to fit it into our own geographical context. In my opinion, this is also what keeps the world going. I look in my own little world and in Africa and I see my peers who, like me, are very ambitious and are also looking to transform our world. What happens though when such potential and drive becomes restricted by elements that are impossible to change overnight?

The map of Africa as a continent. Between these many countries, there is no reason why lack ofresources should be a limiting factor to our researchIn my previous blog I looked at how Africa is lagging behind in research compared to the rest of the world. It became apparent that, even though I was just looking at ecotoxicology as my field, Africa is still trailing behind in research entirely. Interestingly though, when I looked at what might be the common denominator in all fields of research, there was just one major thing that is keeping Africa from progressing – resources. These resources may be in terms of funding, laboratories or technology. Many of the labs have to depend on outsourcing processes because they cannot afford to just buy what they need and even if they can, space becomes a limiting factor. This is the reality that most researchers have to deal with and quite frankly, it is my reality as an upcoming potential researcher.

At my institution and my department specifically, there is only one ecotoxicology lab which is the size of an average kitchen. This same lab is used by honours students, other master’s students, senior researchers and postdoctoral fellows. There is also only one molecular lab which can accommodate three people at most. The equipment that I need for the simple analysis which is critical for my research is not available at this institution. As such, I have to use the laboratories from other institutions and pay for the analysis – outsourcing processes.

I am positive that by now you are probably thinking, “Why are you still there?”

Well yes, this is the story for most emerging researchers in Africa. However, most of the established researchers have been able to, against all odds, do exceptional research and contribute more transformatively to their respective fields. It’s a no-brainer why this is. As a person facing this reality every day, I can tell you with absolute certainty that the small labs and limited resources actually create better researchers that are critical thinkers. Instead of following a procedure that was developed somewhere in Asia or Europe, you have to read up on tons of literature and figure out a way of delivering the same results utilizing an alternative, affordable method. Rather than focusing on just producing a paper, you get to dive deeper into the processes that you follow to ensure that whatever that you do can be done again. This is how we create credible research with reliable results. This is how we also produce the best researchers that appreciate the value of every piece of information and those that develop with simple, affordable, ecologically-friendly yet reliable research methods that will ensure that Africa gets to live to see the next century.

As I said in my previous communication, we are still very far from where we need to be. I don’t think, however, that lack of resources should be the reason why we don’t better our lives through research. One of the greatest things I have learned in research this year is that collaboration works. Let us go back to the African way of being – Ubuntu; doing everything as part of a collective whole. If one lab has what another researcher needs, there can be no reason why Africa is not moving forward in research.