Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith is an award-winning astronomer and Professor at the University of New South Wales. In 2018 she was appointed as the Australian Government’s Ambassador for Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). Her first book for children is called Under the Stars: Astrophysics for Bedtime, a book that will transport curious kids and inquisitive adults on an incredible journey through the night sky.
Today, Lisa’s on the blog to answer some questions about her book and about the fascinating field of astrophysics. Read on!
What was your motivation for writing Under the Stars: Astrophysics for Bedtime?
LHS: I have always had a fascination with the night sky, which blossomed into a wonderful career in astronomy. Aside from my research though, one of the most energising parts of my job has always been visiting schools and talking to kids about space. They are always so excited and enthusiastic and the questions they ask are so creative! I knew that I needed to create a book just for them.
When you were a kid, what interested you about space?
LHS: When I was a child, it was really the beauty of the stars that first captured my imagination. My Dad and I used to go out somewhere really dark and just take it all in. After a while though, I had questions running through my head like, “How many stars are there?”, “How big is the universe?”, “Is there other life out there?”… and the list goes on. So, I began reading books about astronomy and I was enthralled by this amazing new window on our universe.
What are five things about space that still make you go ‘Wow!’. Please feel free to elaborate 😊
- Astronauts age more slowly in space than they do on Earth, ever so slightly! That’s because the Earth’s gravity bends our universe and makes time pass more slowly. It’s called ‘time dilation’. Weird or what?!
- If you got too close to a black hole, your entire body would be stretched by the enormous gravitational forces and you’d become ‘human spaghetti’.
- Ever wondered why the sky is blue? It’s because the light from the Sun is made up of all the colours of the rainbow. As the sunlight hits our atmosphere, it is scattered across the sky by tiny particles of oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide that make up the air. These particles act as millions of tiny mirrors. Blue light is scattered from these particles more easily than red light, so that is why the sky appears blue.
- Shooting stars are not stars at all. They are actually tiny specks of space dust that crash through our atmosphere as we orbit the Sun. The bits of space dust rub against the air and heat up, reaching a temperature of 1000 degrees and burn up, creating bright streaks of light in the sky.
- Our Sun is a gigantic ball of gas. Tiny particles crash together in its middle, creating a nuclear furnace that burns at a temperature of 15 million degrees. Four million tonnes of the Sun’s gas is burned into heat and light EVERY SINGLE SECOND!
What has been the highlight of your career so far?
LHS: I would have to say that seeing the first pictures from the gigantic telescope I helped to build in remote Western Australia was a real highlight for me. It’s part of a global mega-science project involving more than 10 countries and I had worked on the project for seven years before we got any results. After all that time, seeing those first images of distant galaxies was a real highlight for me.
Also, on a personal note, touring Australia with Buzz Aldrin, the Apollo 11 astronaut who first set foot on the Moon with Neil Armstrong in 1969 was a real highlight for me. Talking with someone who has explored another world and sharing their experiences, it’s just such an incredible feeling.
If you could travel into space, where would you want to go and why?
LHS: Since I was about 15, I have dreamed of being the first woman to go to the Moon. It won’t be me, but I’m very excited that NASA has pledged to send the first woman to the moon by 2024.
What do you think still needs to be discovered about space, the galaxies or the night sky?
LHS: The great thing about our universe is that there is so much still to discover! For example, we only understand what 4% of space is made from. The other 96% is completely out of our grasp. We don’t know how the universe will end, or if it will ever end at all. We are yet to learn how life began on Earth and whether we are alone in the universe. So many mysteries are yet to be explored.
Can you describe a day in the life of an astrophysicist for us?
LHS: Astrophysics is a wonderful pursuit. On a typical day I might work with a team of scientists on a scientific problem or make pictures of the sky from information I have gathered from telescopes. I’d read the latest astronomy research and see what other people are discovering, to get new ideas. I might travel to a conference or a telescope in a far-flung region of the world or share my results by writing a scientific report or speaking to fellow scientists about my latest discovery. Then I might work with students and help the next generation of scientists learn and grow in their discoveries.
What do you think kids will get out of reading your new book?
LHS: Under the Stars: Astrophysics for Bedtime is all about cultivating a sense of wonder and exploration in young children. The illustrations are designed so that every child can see a role model who looks like them. It is so important for girls and boys to engage enthusiastically in science, technology, engineering and maths subjects so that we can build a future designed by everyone that serves the needs of society.
What do you think parents will get out of reading your new book?
LHS: Parents get an opportunity to read fascinating stories about space to their children and help stimulate their curiosity at the same time. As kids get older, they will get a bit of peace and quiet as children get engrossed in reading the book themselves! Older primary-aged kids will love reading the stories again and again, each time learning something new. And don’t tell the kids – but this book is also for the grown-ups too! You can have a sneaky read once the littlies have gone to sleep. Learning is a life-long joy after all.
Please feel free to share any amazing stories or anecdotes about writing the book, if you have any!
LHS: Writing Under the Stars was a labour of love. Since I work full-time, I did my writing at night, dreaming up stories and crafting the book from my bed. I think that writing at night helped create the dreamy ‘astrophysics for bedtime’ vibe of the book.
Find out more about Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith and her work here!
Under the Stars
Astrophysics for Bedtime
Under the Stars- Bedtime Astrophysics transports curious kids and inquisitive adults on an incredible journey through the night sky.
Explore our solar system from the comfort of your cosy bedroom. Find out why the sky is blue. Fly around a black hole and peer inside! Learn why Jupiter has stripes. When astrophysicist Lisa Harvey-Smith isn't looking skyward, she is answering the smart questions of school kids...