Written by Suze Kundu

Lifestyle

Why I ❤️ astronomy

Stargazing Live returns to BBC2 tomorrow, which gave Suze Kundu the perfect excuse to wax lyrical about her love of the starry starry night.

The Milky Way, home to our Solar System.

The Milky Way, home to our Solar System.

Growing up in Surrey to Indian parents, I picked up Bengali as easily as I learned English. This was despite my parents’ attempts to prevent me learning the language at that age, largely due to my Dad’s frequent adorable use of Bengali slang (something I naturally picked up more easily than the more poetic version of the language).

As a tiny toddler, I would teeter by the French doors, pointing and making the same noise to my parents. “Cha!” I would say, over and over again, apparently frustrated that no one was taking my great observations seriously.

It took my parents a few days to realise that I was pointing at the moon, and attempting to say the word চাঁদ. In Bengali, this is ‘the moon’. My Dad would show it to me as he tried to get me to sleep in the middle of the night – something I still often fail to achieve, having always been a bit more nocturnal than most.

“Light from our very own star, the sun, takes eight minutes to reach us. If it were to disappear in a David Copperfield-esque trick, we wouldn’t know about it for just over eight minutes.”

Unbeknown to me, Dad could well have sparked my interest in astronomy. Some may say that a love for astronomy is in my blood; my uncle was a prominent solar astronomer in his time, although him being the other side of the Atlantic meant there was little chance to really speak to him about what he did. It was very much my parents’ keenness to expose me to any and all of the things, to allow me to choose what I liked the most, that led to my love of science, but also my love of amateur astronomy.

Aged five, I went to the Science Museum for the first time, and was blown away by the space shuttles. The notion of anyone having been to the moon was magical. A fantasy that I wanted to be part of – and so my love of science and engineering was born. Knowing this, when my parents took me to Florida at the age of nine, I was as excited about EPCOT Center’s Mother Earth show as I was about all the Disney magic down the road.

EPCOT whetted my appetite for what I knew was coming later that week – a trip to the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral! This was the point that a true space cadet was born. I soaked up all things spacey, with the astronomy side of physics being about the only thing that retained my attention for that subject in school – and just as well, given that these days I teach it at university (and now love all aspects of it).

Suze at Kennedy Space Center

Nine-year-old Suze imagines one small step for woman at the Kennedy Space Center.

I was taken in by stories of the history of science, and the challenges faced by devoutly religious scientists discovering fundamental laws of our universe that vastly contrasted with their beliefs. One scientist in particular always stuck with me. Galileo Galilei was the first person to build a telescope so that we could see beyond what we already know. In writing up his work, he faced the wrath of the Church, and was severely punished for this, as well as for his, what was then considered alternative, lifestyle choice.

He might have existed hundreds of years ago, but when I look up at Jupiter through my amateur astronomer’s telescope and see the four Galilean moons whizzing around this ferocious gas giant planet, I remember that these are the very moons he saw.

Stars in particular allow us to all become time travellers, looking into the depths of the history of our universe each time we look up. Light travels at almost 300,000 km per second. This means that light from our very own star, the sun, a ‘yellow dwarf’ star residing a snug 150m km away, takes eight minutes to reach us. If it were to disappear in a David Copperfield-esque trick, we wouldn’t know about it for just over eight minutes.

“Betelgeuse and Aldebaran are likely contenders for supernovae that we may be able to witness in our lifetimes. When they do, it is possible that they will be so bright that they will be visible on Earth during the day, with the luminosity of a full moon.”

Each star that we see in the night sky is like our own sun: a ball of gas emitting light. The distance that light travels in one year is a light year – about 9.5 x 1012 km. Any other starlight travels at the same speed as it does from the sun, so the light reaching our eyes from our closest starry neighbour, Proxima Centauri, has taken 4.2 years to reach us (as it’s 4.2 light years away). For all we know, it may not even be there anymore. In reality, although Prox is our nearest neighbour, we can’t really see it; the star system that old PC resides in is only visible from the southern hemisphere, and even then it’s too dim for us to spot.

The brightest stars are not necessarily the closest, but they can often be the most interesting. My favourite star, Aldebaran (not to be confused with Alderaan, which is obviously a planet #StarWars), is an orange giant. Yeah, I have a favourite star! It has a diameter 44 times that of the Sun, which I can’t entirely get my head around. It shines brightly in the winter sky in the northern hemisphere, making up a portion of the horns of the constellation Taurus.

I think part of the reason I love it is because it is so easy to spot – it was one of the first that I could identify thanks to its proximity to the fuzzy bunch of stars known as the Pleiades constellation to the right of it. It also led me to be able to identify my favourite constellation, Orion. This big beast of a star pattern dominates winter skies, a powerful hunter containing within it not only a spectrum of stars of all different colours, sizes and names (Bellatrix and Betelgeuse to name two) but also a starry delivery ward all of its own: the Orion nebula.

A nebula is where stars are born. These star nurseries are full of gas and dust that can begin to clump together, slowly forming big burning balls of gas that are constantly undergoing nuclear fusion to create new elements, spilling out light and heat energy in the process to become stars in their own right.

“The elements in our bodies rely on this life cycle of stars. Up there and all around is space – this is effectively where we came from.”

This gas and dust can often occur as a result of the death of a star – a supernova. When stars run out of fuel to fuse together, they destroy themselves, explosively releasing large amounts of high energy. Betelgeuse and Aldebaran are likely contenders for supernovae that we may be able to witness in our lifetimes. When they do, it is possible that they will be so bright that they will be visible on Earth during the day, with the luminosity of a full moon.

What excites me even more, however, is the fact that it is in these explosive events that enough energy is released to produce elements that we need on Earth. While many elements were formed during the Big Bang or through stellar fusion, anything heavier than iron in the periodic table of elements was produced in a supernova. Chemistry exists in its current form because stars were born and stars died.

The elements in our bodies rely on this life cycle of stars. Up there and all around is space – this is effectively where we came from. We don’t need any fancy kit to look at it. It is there to be admired. Our own star providing us with the energy we need to live on this little blue marble whizzing through space, the stars and planets putting on a free light show each cloudless night.

It seems almost natural for us to want to look up, to look back in time, and to learn and appreciate the wonder of this universe that allows us to exist, whether we are scientists or not. It is ours, and it is part of who we are. After all, as Carl Sagan famously said, “we are made of star stuff.”

Read Suze’s interview with first Briton in space Helen Sharman here: Part I / Part II

@BBCStargazing
@FunSizeSuze

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Written by Suze Kundu

Suze is a nanochemist, both literally and professionally, and a Teaching Fellow in the Department of Materials. Suze is also a science presenter, and loves dancing, live gigs, Muse and shoes. @FunSizeSuze