Guest Blog: Bucket List Astronomy Class, the saga continues

Posted by Nicole Kiefert
on Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Australian Astronomy, But Were Afraid to Ask

PART I – In the Beginning…

C. Renee James points out the fact that we were, in fact, at the CSIRO Astronomy and Space Sciences campus, and not wandering lost in a residential neighborhood, as many students believed.
By C. Renee James

Last week, the BLAsT Class was given the opportunity to visit the CSIRO Astronomy and Space Sciences (CASS) headquarters in Marsfield, NSW, where Astronomy Education Office Rob Hollow gave us a whirlwind tour of the ambitious projects being carried out there, across the nation, and across the globe. That same day, Tasso Tzioumis excitedly showed us the cutting-edge instrumentation being developed and constructed at CSIRO. And if that weren’t enough, Ron Ekers’ and Dr. John O’Sullivan’s stories of exploding black hole searches, creating Wi-Fi, and the death of Pluto made our brains overflow. The day was so phenomenally full that it is hard to know where to start, but at this point, I’m going to back up about 18 months

It was February 2016, and I was just beginning a sabbatical granted by SHSU so that I could explore everything I could about Australian astronomy and astronomy education. It was during this sabbatical that virtually every contact for this year's BLAsT class was made. I had taken my two younger children – Megan (then 8) and Jamie (then 6), along with my oldest, Sean (then 18). After an embarrassingly lengthy time spent adjusting to public transportation, enrolling the kids in school, and figuring out how to buy groceries without the family minivan, I was finally ready to mingle with the astronomers at CASS. I rode on the 292 bus with the kids to their school bus stop, listening to Jamie tell bad jokes.

“What’s a koala’s favorite exercise machine?” he asked.

“I don’t know, Jamie. What is it?”

“A eucalyptical trainer!” His grin stretched across his entire face. Puns were something that he’d only recently wrapped his brain around, and I was both stunned and proud that his were already this bad.

I waited with him and Megan until their bus rolled up a few minutes later, at which point I hugged them, loaded them on the bus, and headed over the futuristic pedestrian bridge into a quiet neighborhood that, for whatever bizarre reason, was also home to the campus of CASS. Small radio telescopes dotted the property like great alien mushrooms, and I swung open the giant glass doors for the first time in at least two weeks.

It was in this very building that Wi-Fi was born, and I entered it with a sort of fan-girl glee every time. One of the many shiny objects that I’d latched onto in my writing for Astronomy was the improbable and winding story of how the search for exploding black holes in the 1970s led to the development of Wi-Fi in the 1990s. A few years earlier, I’d held several email interviews with Dr. John O’Sullivan and Dr. Ron Ekers to make sure I got the story right.

Their willingness to respond was nothing short of humbling. O’Sullivan, the engineer who ultimately headed up the first wireless local area network (WLAN) design team, had a list of accolades as long as my arm, including the European Inventor Award and the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science. At the time of the e-interviews, he was up to his eyeballs in the engineering aspects of an ambitious radio astronomy project called the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder, or ASKAP, an array of 36 next-generation radio telescopes that was being constructed in the heart of Western Australia.


The BLAsT Class learns why Wi-Fi is pretty much everywhere, all the time...Except at our lodging in Hornsby, NSW!
Ekers, meanwhile, was another astronomical heavy-hitter. He served as the director of the Very Large Array in the 1980s, just as my own interest in astronomy was taking off. If you’ve ever seen the movie Contact with Jodie Foster, you’ve seen the VLA. In fact, if you’ve ever seen the music video for Bon Jovi’s “Everyday,” you’ve seen the VLA. And if you haven’t seen the VLA, you should. After leaving the VLA, Ekers went on to become Foundation Director of CSIRO’s Australia Telescope National Facility, and then, presumably because he hadn’t done enough, he was elected president of the International Astronomical Union from 2003 through 2006.

It was during Ekers’ term as president that most people on planet Earth became aware that the IAU was even a thing. In 2005, they voted Pluto off the list of major planets, and the world has weighed in on the ruling ever since.

Despite their ridiculously full schedules, O’Sullivan and Ekers were nothing short of gracious and thorough in their responses, and somewhere along the way I became aware that it was in CSIRO’s Marsfield headquarters – the very building I was entering – that the paperwork for the original WLAN patent was drawn up.

Frustratingly and somewhat ironically, once I entered this pantheon of innovation, I couldn’t get my laptop to connect to the Wi-Fi in the building. I spent many fruitless minutes at my desk troubleshooting the issue to no avail. I sent emails from my phone to the computer gurus in the building, and even headed to one of their offices to see if we could get to the heart of the matter. My guest log-in and password were simply not working, but nobody could quite explain why. I was a heartbeat away from giving up and heading back to our townhouse, where I at least had Wi-Fi, when I spotted the pink cable poking up out of the hole in the back of my desk.

The pink local area network cable.

The pink cable that would connect – but not wirelessly – my computer to the rest of the world.

You know… just like the way I had always connected to the rest of the world before Wi-Fi became ubiquitous.

So how DID it become ubiquitous? I think I’ll let my students give you their thoughts on that one.


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