“We’re made of star stuff”

… said astronomer Carl Sagan. And so “Star Stuff” was an appropriate name for the “festival of the cosmos” in Byron Bay last weekend. It was a beauty, with top-name astronomers, and astrophysicists, astrophotographers and science media personalities on the menu. It was set at just the right level for 400 or so amateur astronomers (adults and teenagers), whether they used telescopes or not. Volunteers from the Southern Astronomical Society (based in Logan, Gold Coast and Tweed Heads) helped with organisation, and there were merchandise stalls for books and telescopes from sponsors, who also generously donated “lucky door” prizes. Folks from the North Coast Astronomy Facebook group were there, too. There was even a virtual reality experience of walking on Mars (the queues were too big so I didn’t have a go at this – it would have been amazing).

Byron Lighthouse by Luke Taylor


Here’s what happened. Some talks were more detailed than I have described but I am only going by my notes – too much information to remember it all.

Saturday June 24th

8:30am – Event Start Registration & Entry @ Banksia Pavilion

9:30am – Welcome to Country & Introduction [welcome by Arakwal woman, Delta Kay]

10:00am – Dr Duane Hamacher (Monash University) – “Aboriginal Astronomy: Sixty Thousand Years of Science & Culture”.

I knew next to nothing about this. Duane works at the Monash University Indigenous Centre and has done a lot of work on this with Aboriginal people all over Australia.

He talked about the precise observation of stars over many years, sometimes millenia, that has been demonstrated by Aboriginal cultures, and its links to their way of life. (That sounds stuffy, but he was anything but.)

For instance, the emu and its orientation in the sky tells when it’s time to go out looking for edible emu eggs and when to stop because they won’t be available. “To spot the emu, look south to the Southern Cross; the dark cloud between the stars is the head, while the neck, body and legs are formed from dust lanes stretching across the Milky Way.”



The emu in A is a female, running to catch a male for mating (the females do this in this species of bird.) B shows the male sitting on the eggs, so it’s a good time to go egg-hunting. C shows the male starting to sit up, so the eggs are hatching – not a good time for finding edible eggs. In D the bird is almost below the horizon, so the egg-finding season is finished.

This is the “primary school” level of the tale. There are many other star stories/observations, and like the songlines they embody information in a way that can be relatively easily passed from person to person (see Lynn Kelly’s book, “The Memory Code“, on traditional Aboriginal ways of remembering). You can find more at:

11:15am –  Mark Gee – “Astrophotography – A Personal Journey” – “Photography has been a part of most of my life, but over the past 9 years astrophotography in particular has captured my imagination and interest. I often venture out to the darkest, most remote skies all around the world, enjoying the challenge of combining striking landscapes with the ethereal beauty of the night sky in new, creative ways. In 2013 I shot a short film called ‘Full Moon Silhouettes’, a labour of love, which went viral and inadvertently launched my international astrophotography career. It’s been one hell of a crazy ride, and during this session I will share with you my personal journey.”

Award-winning shot by Mark Gee

Mark Gee enthusing about astrophotography


Mark lives in New Zealand and has been on the photography path for 5 years. He told how he got into it and how he started getting offers when one of his videos (the moon rising over the Byron Bay lighthouse) went viral. You can see his beautiful work at http://theartofnight.com

12:00 Noon – LUNCHBREAK [Unsurprisingly, the café at Elements of Byron couldn’t cope with the influx of lunchers in the 1 hour time frame, and the main restaurant was too pricey, so we zoomed down to a café in the Industrial Estate for faster service – local knowledge is useful.]

1:00pm  – Dr David Malin (Australian Astronomical Observatory). “Astro-images from the Ice Age” – “I offer a very brief look at some surprisingly ancient astronomical imaging, and describe how everything changed with the invention of the telescope and then again with the advent of photography, nearly 200 years ago. From the 1990s onwards astro-imaging became increasingly democratised as it embraced the digital era, and today it is ever-more difficult for the amateur to stand out from the crowd. I will offer my views from a perspective of 40 years or so and make some suggestions relevant to today’s astro-imagers.”

David covered quite a lot of ground on the archaeology of astronomical images. His excellent photographic work can be seen at https://www.davidmalin.com/

David Malin quotes Brian Cox

A possible way the Antikythera mechanism worked. It was an ancient Greek analogue computer and orrery used to predict astronomical positions and eclipses for calendrical and astrological purposes (150-100 BC). This diagram has been constructed from the archaeological find.




































2:15pm – Dr Fred Watson (Australian Astronomical Observatory) – “Keeping Us All In The Dark (Without Spoiling Our Fun)” – “One of the more notable outcomes of 2015’s International Year of Light was an increased awareness of darkness. With light pollution damaging the night skies of all the world’s cities, there is a growing call for better-designed outdoor lighting to improve the nocturnal environment and avoid wasted energy. This talk shows how today’s technology makes that eminently attainable. It also looks at threats to the night sky of Siding Spring Observatory, where a pristine environment is of paramount importance. Reclaiming the night sky is not just for astronomers and nocturnal animal species, however – but is to the benefit of everyone. Join Fred Watson for this entertaining and informative encounter with the dark side.”

Fred worked for decades as an astronomer at the Siding Spring Observatory but is now involved in campaigns to re-darken the night sky, for health, environmental and scientific reasons. Lights can do their job just as well or better in cities if the light is angled down rather than up, and is often cheaper that way.

His work is at http://www.darksky.org/


4:15pm – Dr Katie Mack – (University of Melbourne) “Dispatches from a Dark Universe” – There’s more to the Universe than we can see — even more than we can ever see. I’ll give a tour of the edges of our knowledge of the cosmos, including where the frontiers are, and what might remain unknowable forever. Come for the Big Bang, stay for the possibility of the ultimate destruction of all of reality! (Topics include dark matter, dark energy, and recent research on Higgs vacuum decay)” [My hero!]

Katie is a theoretical astrophysicist, working on dark matter and dark energy. Some of her many articles are at:

Basic particles as they are understood at present

The composition of the universe as it is presently understood


Katie also talked about the “false vacuum”/”true vacuum” theory. This was a new one on me – the idea that our universe may be in a ‘false vacuum’, which may disintegrate instantly at any time. Fun!

Frankly, it’s not something I’m worrying about. If it happens, I won’t know anything about it, instantly.

5:00pm – BREAK

And as the sun set, we wended our way back to Lismore to see the end of the Lantern Parade.

Duck Pond at Elements of Byron


6:45pm – Doors Open for VIP Gala Dinner [We missed the dinner and Karl’s speech.]

8:00pm – Dr Karl Kruszelnicki Presents “Great Moments in Space Science – Why do stars have points? Why are asteroids God’s way of enquiring gently about our space program? What colour is the universe? Gravitational Waves and much more.”

9:00pm – Celestron Evolution 6 Giveaway

10am – 6pm : Solar Astronomy (weather permitting) and Vendor Displays in the Belongil Pavilion [I peeked down a telescope and was able to make out a sunspot.]

8pm until Late : Night Sky Tours and Star Gazing / Telescopes from “The Heart of the Bay” Lookout (weather permitting)

Sunday June 25th

9:30am – Jade Rushwood (Byron Bay High School) – “Jupiter and its moons’ orbits – A High School Student’s perspective” – “A look into how a high school student like myself researches the more complicated sides of astrophysical mathematics.”



Jade’s science teacher set a project where the students could choose and complete their own piece of research to investigate a scientific theory. She chose to check Kepler’s equation for the positions of Jupiter’s moons, taking photos of those moons with very basic equipment. At the end of her talk, Dylan gave her a real telescope to make future observations easier.

10:00am Dylan O’Donnell (Byron Bay Observatory) – “Taking Photos of Space That Matter” – “An astrophotographer primer with tips for the beginner and the experienced astrophotographer.” Dylan was the organiser of this event and a fine job he did. His observatory is basically the backyard of his townhouse, and yet in 3 years he has produced some excellent images, which he generously makes available for free.

The photo below went viral on the net and brought him to the attention of NASA (like NASA, he makes his photos available for free).

International Space Station over Australia (public domain 1 July 2015 by Dylan O’Donnell)

If it’s good enough for Chris Hadfield (right, on the International Space Station) …

He’s a self-deprecating young man who has achieved a lot (for a biography, go here). He didn’t technically get excommunicated from the Catholic Church – for the story, go here – but it produced a solid amount of claps from the audience. This James Joyce quote may apply to him (and all of us): “Errors are the portals of discovery”.

11:15am – Mark Gee – “The Art of Astrophotography” – “Join me for a introductory session on how to take wide field astrophotography images. I will cover all of the camera setting and techniques required to get the most out of your DSLR camera, and also demonstrate my processing techniques in Adobe Lightroom.” Mark went into depth about how he takes images and turns them into art via software.

12:00 Noon – LUNCHBREAK

1:00pm – Professor Alan Duffy – “Life, the Universe and Everything (We Can’t See)” – “Our universe is teeming with planets but not, seemingly, aliens. We’re stretched and strained by titanic eruptions that none of us can feel and swept in a galactic wind that none of us notice. I will explore how Australia is leading the charge in understanding the mysteries and close to finally answering the big questions … are we alone, where did we come from and does Einstein always have to be right?”

Alan is a computational astrophysicist at Swinburne University of Technology (Melbourne): “I use supercomputers [creating model universes] to uncover the nature of dark matter (a new type of particle that binds galaxies together) and the key physical laws that govern the formation of galaxies. I focus on two extremes of distance, the very close and the very far from us in the Milky Way. The first is understanding cold gas motions and distributions across the sky in millions of galaxies close to us. The second is in the early universe during the epoch of reionisation, a time when the first galaxies lit up the universe.”


Artist impression of some of the exoplanets discovered so far (over 1,000 confirmed)



After discussing dark matter and energy, black holes, exoplanet detection and detection of life thereon, and gravitational waves, he played us the sound of a gravitational wave – most impressive that we are able to hear this.

And if you want to contribute to serious science about gravitational waves, there’s a citizen science project at https://www.ligo.caltech.edu/news/ligo20161018. It involves sorting through the data of the LIGO project:

As a “Gravity Spy” participant, you will look at real LIGO data in search of ‘glitches’, unwanted hiccups in the signal that can sometimes be confused for or mask out gravitational waves. Glitches make finding the real thing even more difficult than it already is! Nevertheless, they are an unfortunate fact of life for LIGO, so identifying the different kinds of glitches that appear in the interferometer data is crucial for LIGO scientists to be able to distinguish between annoying blips and signals from space!

And, Alan, when is the “Cosmic Vertigo” podcast coming back?

1:45pm – BREAK

2:15pm – Dr Karl Kruszelnicki– “Ask Dr Karl” – “All attendees are invited for a real life interactive session where the audience can ask questions of the man himself!”

Dr Karl


Science educator, multiple PhD-holder and all-round smart guy, Dr Karl gave his usual meandering yet fascinating answers to audience questions. I was impressed that he answered young kids’ questions just as seriously as those of adults, even though the adults sometimes (rudely, I felt) tittered at some questions.

3:00pm – BREAK

3:15pm – Jamie Anderson – “Developing Low Cost Access to Space” – “There’s no lack of innovation and entrepreneurship in the space industry, but what is severely lacking is the means of getting these technologies and ideas to space. For a true revolution to occur, similar to what we’ve seen with personal computing and the Internet on Earth, the cost of getting to orbit needs to be drastically reduced. Gilmour Space Technologies is one of a new breed of space ventures taking on the challenge of building rockets, using breakthrough technologies in safe propulsion and 3D printing, among others, to provide truly low cost access to space.”

Jamie is Head of Propulsion at Singapore and Australia’s answer to SpaceX and spoke enthusiastically about Gilmour’s projects.

4:00pm – Michaela Jeffery – “Overview of ESA’s Operations in Australia” – “Discussing how facilities located in Australia have supported some of ESA’s most important missions, and the ongoing relationship between ESA and Australia.”

Michaela is a mechanical engineer at Boeing and spoke about the European Space Agency projects (Rosetta, Mars Express, Gaia). It is a shame Australia is not a partner and seems to be missing out on lots of useful results of projects.

4:30pm – Giveaway & Closing Ceremony [We left after this.]


7:30pm – MOVIE SCREENING – “Hidden Figures” (2016) – “Three brilliant African-American women at NASA — Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) — serve as the brains behind one of the greatest operations in history: the launch of astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell) into orbit, a stunning achievement that restored the nation’s confidence, turned around the Space Race and galvanized the world.”

10am – 6pm : Solar Astronomy (Weather permitting) & Vendor Displays in the Belongil Pavilion

8pm until Late : Night Sky Tours and Star Gazing / Telescopes from “The Heart of the Bay” Lookout (Weather Permitting)

If anyone is interested in a local event, the North Coast Astronomy group is holding a star-gazing night at the Corndale Hall Corndale event on 19th August – see the North Coast Astronomy FB page.

I have to say it was a bit depressing coming home after a weekend of such fantastic intellectual stimulation, but at least at our home we still have – overhead, shining in all their winter glory in the streetlight-free sky – the stars, the wonderful stars.

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6 Responses to “We’re made of star stuff”

  1. janebeau says:

    Love the Emu constellation and its meanings! We have similar stuff from the early san peoples, also folk knowledge that helped with climate recognition, rain patterns and so on. Must have been a wonderful event!

    X j

  2. Prue Gargano says:

    Interesting reports, Joy. (Dr Karl Kruszelnicki’s rubix cube buckle: a sort of male chastity belt?!)

  3. That sounds like a great couple of days with lots of interesting presentations. By the way I heartily recommend the movie “Hidden Figures” and It’s probably not going to lose anything by seeing it on a small screen.

    This seems like an appropriate place to recommend people watch the imagery coming from the Juno Probe presently in Jupiter Space. In particular the following video is absolutely mind blowing in my opinion. https://vimeo.com/219993811
    I posted this on my Facebook page last week and I never tire of looking at it. There’s going to be more images heading our way from this little spaceship. The video in the above link is from Jupiter’s South Pole region.

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