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Day One – ICRAR Curtin

The long awaited first day had finally arrived. As excited as I was, I was also rather nervous. I had some idea as to what to expect, but then again, I had no idea. To begin the day we got given key cards, which instilled a sense of importance in us work experience students. We were introduced to Ronniy and Pikky, who would be our supervisors for our days at Curtin. Then came the tour of the building. Ronniy was very enthusiastic about all the fire exits and showing us where the staff and students break for lunch, and admire their much beloved coffee machine.

After the tour had finished we moved into a room where Ronniy gave us an introduction into the universe, and what ICRAR does. For the rest of the day we spoke to students and staff about their work and research. I really enjoyed talking to the Pulsar group. Pulsars are basically fast spinning stars, which emit pulses. These pulses are radio waves. We were then told we would be doing some maths. We wanted to find the distance of the furthest particle, of this star, for this we needed the radius, or the distance from the centre of the star, to the furthest particle. The furthest particle couldn’t be travelling faster than the speed of light. Sam also showed us how he made music in his free-time, by compressing the radio wave pulses emitted by the star, which created a ‘note’. Then he combined some of these notes and was able to create the tune of ‘Happy Birthday’ through pulsars.

Today we also visited Mia, in the engineering area. She spoke to us about the MWA telescopes, and the wildlife people encounter onsite. Such as the ants, which were short circuiting the telescopes.


The first thing I learnt today was that Greg, our supervisor at UWA, likes to take the stairs; even when there is an elevator very close. He also manages to skip steps, which is rather difficult for someone like me, who has short legs. Anyway, first up today we spoke the Kevin Vinsen, who works in Data Intensive Astronomy. He told us a myriad of interesting facts and statistics which seemed almost unreal. Such as, the SKA which is to be built, will be the most sensitive telescope ever built; such that it will be able to detect an airport signal 10 light years away. Along with this the SKA will have the processing power of roughly 100 million PC’s. He also showed us an image of Pluto, which interestingly fits inside of Australia.

Later on in the day we spoke to Luca Cortese. What I didn’t realise, is how competitive it is to book a telescope. Also, you can use telescopes remotely, which means you wouldn’t need to go onsite. Luca, however, said he would always recommend going onsite, as you learn far more. He also showed us how some images of galaxies are altered, to make them appear more aesthetic to the general public.

This afternoon Greg gave us a video to watch, and then answered all the questions we had about it. This is when a concept, I’m still struggling to get to grips with, came up. The universe is flat. Greg explained this with parallel lines and a sphere. In two-dimensions, two parallel lines will never meet. However, if two straight lines, perpendicular to the equator of the earth, are drawn, then they will meet, on a sphere. So far, scientists have not observed two lines, coming from the Earth, intersecting. Thus, the conclusion drawn, is that the Universe is flat. Which is an odd concept, one day I hope to eventually comprehend.

Today we also spoke to Kate, a PhD student, who is a simulator. She told us about her research, and how she builds galaxies. As well as showing us her PhD project and how much the atmosphere effects and blurs the data on galaxies, she receives.

Day Three – ICRAR UWA

First up we spoke to Pascal. He told us about his work in modelling virtual galaxies. It was almost unreal to be watching these simulations and galaxies, that had been created, all through coding, science and maths. Although we knew they weren’t real, I was in awe. You realise how big the universe really is. Pascal also told us about the treacherous journey of debugging code, and even though his job, as a researcher, is very coding intensive, he explained that not every day is like this.

Afterwards we spoke to Robin, a PhD student studying at ICRAR UWA. He told us about his research into how galaxies die and how he got to where he is today. After speaking to Robin, a PhD began to seem like more of a goal to aim towards in the future, and motivated me more to work towards it. Aside from learning about his work, we got some great advise in regards to our final years of school, and that time management isn’t just something that is necessary at school.

Today we also attended Astro Morning Tea, which began we some pretty interesting random science facts. The morning tea included a talk by Associate Professor Chen Wu, who spoke to everyone about Machine Learning for Physical Sciences. To be honest, the talk got complex quickly, but I tried my best to keep up and understand what I could. Astro Morning Tea was great though, it made ICRAR feel more like a community of students, researchers and staff, rather than just a place to work.

Day Four – ICRAR Curtin

This morning we spoke to Alex, who detects Cosmic Rays with the MWA. He spoke to us about muons and how he has to basically work backwards to find the results he wants. Next, Steve told us about his job in detecting satellites. To do this he subtracts images from one another to see the finer details of the images. This is necessary to make sure that the satellites don’t crash into each other, which would then create a domino effect. I was really surprised with the amount of satellites there are in the sky, which is around the 5000 mark, if not more.

We then spoke to Pikky about her research into black holes. She told us about the different ways in which they can form, which are either through the death of a star, or through a direct collapse. She also mentioned that the speed of a black hole can be an indication into how the black hole had formed. Adding onto this, we also measured black holes and then plotted our data on a graph.

Day Five – ICRAR UWA

The last day, I was not looking forward to finishing. This week had been so amazing, I really didn’t want it to end. The day began with going to the Physics building and seeing the SPIRIT telescope. There Paul told us all about the telescope and showed us some images that had been captured using it. I was really surprised at how smaller area the telescope could focus on, which is roughly a third of a your smallest finger. This seems like such a small area to me, but it is enough to capture some truly astounding images. Most images are taken in black and white, as it is easier to distinguish between objects and amplifies any details. How do they get the coloured images though? Some of the time they colour it through a computer, but Paul told us of another way. Three separate photos are taken, each with different coloured filters. These images are then laid over the top of one another to create a coloured picture. This makes the image sharper than if you were to take a full coloured photo straight away. After speaking to Paul we spoke to Chris Power. He showed us how a galaxies patterns can change over time, due to differential rotation. He also spoke about how the different colours of galaxies can indicate their age.

On our last day we also joined in on a “Student Meeting”, where the PhD students decided on a Plot of the Week. This week it became apparent that everyone at ICRAR was bias towards their area of research, but this is where the competitive side came in. Both Kristof and Robin presented their plots, and we tried our best to keep up. A lot of it sounded like sophisticated gibberish, however we were still allowed to vote based on the aesthetic of the graph. Robin won the Plot of the Week, and now gets to display his prized shirt until next time.

I have always wondered how they measure the mass of planets, and stars. Today though, we calculated the mass of a galaxy. With the help of Greg we were able to measure the mass using a range of variables. After the maths had finished, we all got into a very theoretical talk. Questions such as, “What would happen if you travelled faster than the speed of light?”, where raised and Greg answered them. By the end of it I was questioning everything, but it had also fuelled my passion for the universe, and to learn more.

Overall, I would highly recommend applying for work experience at ICRAR, even if your interest in the Universe is only small. Everyone was so welcoming, helpful and inspirational. After speaking to everyone I have realised that there is far more in this universe than I could ever have imagined. Including the jobs that this area of work has to offer. ICRAR felt like a real community, filled with enthusiastic and passionate people who want to learn more about the Universe around them. It’s only been about two days since I finished and I already miss it. Thank you to everyone who helped make our experiences as amazing as they were, and for sharing with us your work and stories. Thank you,

Jen (Work Placement Student, 2019)