A gateway to the universe

While the world is seemingly crumbling around us, we shouldn't forget that science still has the capacity to inspire and discover.

Illustration by  Sarah Nagorcka

Illustration by Sarah Nagorcka


This is an editorial for Issue 19 by Lateral Physical Science editor Bryonie Scott, who isn't feeling too optimistic about the state of the world right now.

The first memory I have of wanting to be an astronaut involves the TV show PlaySchool. The memory is fuzzy and incomplete, but from what I can piece together they were making a rocket ship out of cardboard boxes, and Big Ted was given the chance to fly off into space. It’s probably also the first time I remember being jealous. Of a teddy bear. And so I made a decision: I was going to be an astronaut when I grew up.

That small moment watching PlaySchool as a kid led to a string of other tiny moments: borrowing books on space from my local library, spending way too much time staring at the night sky rather than watching where I was walking, and buying my first “chemistry” set (really just a Doctor Dreadful Food Lab from the 90s). All this fed into my love of maths, which then set in motion my addiction to physics. Here I am, over 25 years later just finishing up a degree in astrophysics and wondering how a job in science communication can maybe get me a ticket on to the International Space Station.

When I chat to other scientists they tend to have a similar story. Maybe with a little less ABC Kids and a few more visits to the museum, but it amounts to the same thing. The number of people who cite dinosaurs or space as their gateway drug into science is bonkers. While I (sadly) wasn’t alive to see the moon landings, I can’t even imagine the number of people that one event inspired into STEM careers if all it took for me was a toy and a cardboard box.

Currently, the world might seem a little unsure to some of you. I feel I can safely assume that you, gentle reader, are a fan of science. And with words like post-truth and fake news being bandied about, the critical thinkers and the sceptics among us might be feeling a little frustrated. So much so that some of the agencies we tend to look to as a reliable source of information have gone rogue and started up separate Twitter accounts. So let’s keep the appreciation for the scientific method alive and take stock of where space science stands today.

While alternative facts are discussed on the news, remember that the ISS has had a manned crew for over 16 years, and it intends to continue at least till 2024. A monumental effort of science and international collaboration, the current astronauts flying around our little blue dot are conducting research from learning how cabbage grows in microgravity to the causes of space headaches. We may not have set foot on another planet yet, but plans are underway to figure out the details for the long, cold mission to Mars. The work that the ISS crew is undertaking helps us better understand the pressures, both physiological and psychological, that will go into such a tremendous mission. There aren’t exact plans to send people to the red planet yet, but the NASA rover Opportunity is somehow still trucking along the surface after 12 years.

And down here in Australia, our brilliant community of astronomers, astrophysicists and cosmologists are making history. Impressive computer modelling (utilising the power of supercomputers) helps us better understand the dynamical processes behind how galaxies and stars are formed. Thanks to Australia’s “boundless plains to share” we have a lot of open spaces, something astronomers happen to love. The Dish out at Parkes observatory has become something of a national treasure. And out in the centre of a Radio Quiet Zone in Western Australia, surrounded by tens of kilometres of empty desert space, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) is to be constructed. The world’s largest radio telescope, the SKA will help explore the physics behind the formation of black holes as well as searching for Earth-like planets.

As the world tries to tell me that fake news is the new normal, I'll just look up at the stars and remember: Space is awesome. Scientists are amazing. And the scientific method is alive and well.

For more on space, check out the rest of Issue 19 of Lateral. Remember, it's not just the space "out there" that's important, but also what's around us right now.