Ada Lovelace Day 2023

On 10th October, Astro-Obs researchers Carola Zanoletti, Houda Haidar, Beth Gould, and Melissa Ewing organised a watch party for the Royal Institution’s Ada Lovelace Day Live ‘science cabaret’! The annual event celebrates the contributions of women in science, and aims to inspire and empower the next generation of women in STEM.

Students and staff alike gathered in the evening for pizza, before sitting down together to watch the live stream.

As Newcastle’s local committee for Piscopia – an initiative founded to foster participation from women and other under-represented genders in maths and physics – Carola, Houda, Beth, and Melissa aim to put on more EDI events throughout the year, and build a community in the school of Maths, Statistics and Physics!

Astro-Obs PhD student organises black hole science demonstration for refugee children

Last week, PhD student Houda Haidar and Native Scientist coordinator Hania Tayara, partnered to organise an astronomy demonstration for Arabic-speaking refugee and asylum-seeking children. The demo was part of a broader scientific workshop that was held at Newman Catholic College in London. Houda’s demo focused on black hole physics and included three main activities.

The first activity helped the children understand the concept of density. This was demonstrated using a golf ball and a larger foam ball, to show that the biggest objects are not always the ones with the most mass.

Houda participates in these three activities with the children, to teach them important concepts for black hole physics.

The second activity involved understanding space-time curvature. The golf ball and the foam ball were dropped on a scarf, which represented the “fabric” of space-time. The children could then observe which object led to deeper curvatures in the scarf.

The third activity involved understanding how accreting black holes obscured by dusty materials can be detected using a mid-infrared camera. Houda used a black bag to represent the dusty torus of accretion material, which can obscure accreting black holes. Despite the black bag preventing Houda from being seen by human eyes (or a camera in the optical wavelengths), with an infrared camera, Houda could be seen behind the black bag.

A fun and simple model Houda made to help teach the children about active galactic nuclei. It includes a dusty torus, an accretion disc, and even jets!

Other scientists from different disciplines (e.g., medicine, biology) also presented engaging demonstrations and tutorials. These ranged from extracting DNA from a strawberry to recording signals from the brain. 

Celebrating the History of Astronomy and Telescopes in North East England

In January 2023, Dr Vicky Fawcett and Dr Chris Harrison won a ~£14K STFC Spark Award [1] to put towards a project celebrating the history of astronomy and telescopes in the North East of England. The award, along with contributions from both Newcastle University and the Great North Museum: Hancock (GNM), will be primarily used to develop a six month exhibition, hosted by the GNM in 2024.

The museum exhibition will showcase the rich history of astronomy in the North East, from the 1800’s when Gateshead was home to the largest telescope in the world (the Newall Telescope) to the 20th century, when Grubb Parsons of Newcastle manufactured many important telescopes that continue to perform cutting edge science today. The exhibition will also highlight the ongoing state-of-the-art astronomical research carried out in the region, such as the projects involving the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and Extremely Large Telescope (ELT). Despite the strong link between astronomy and the local area, the extent of impact that the North East of England has had on the progression of astronomy is relatively unknown. The exhibition will therefore aim to raise awareness of astronomy and telescope engineering in the North East and instil a sense of pride in the STEM successes of the region. The exhibition will also be designed to ensure that a large portion of objects and artefacts will be transportable, with the aim to host similar smaller-scale exhibitions at other venues across the region.

Via Photographs of Newcastle: “Construction of the Stockholm 40″ Reflector, some time in the early 1920’s for the Stockholm Observatory.
Photograph courtesy of Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums.

One key objective of the project is to inspire young people in the region to engage more with STEM and raise awareness of STEM-related careers (with a particular emphasis on schools based in areas of low socio-economic background). This is especially important in the North East, which has the lowest percentage of young people in the UK who say a career in science would interest them [2]. The project aims to address this issue by running a series of educational workshops alongside the museum exhibition, that will deliver the Key Stage 2 & 3 science curriculum in a more relatable and engaging way. These workshops will be delivered by Newcastle University and project partners: the GNM, Kielder Observatory and Durham University. Finally, a key aspect of the project will involve teacher training sessions, in order to equip teachers with the confidence and knowledge needed to deliver the astronomy workshops at school beyond the end date of the project.


International Women’s Day 2023

Happy International Women’s Day! On this special day, Astro-Obs/Cosmo women organised a fun yet relaxed gathering, where MSP students & staff came together to recognise the outstanding achievements of women, and how they continue to carve out a place for them in science.

The event was held in the Herschel Penthouse, where attendees were welcomed with tea & cake.

Astro-Obs students colouring together while enjoying tea and coffee.

Colouring sheets featuring various female scientists (e.g., Ada Lovelace, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Mae Jemison, Florence Nightingale) and space (e.g., astronauts, exoplanets, galaxies) were provided, creating an outlet for people to express themselves and unleash their inner artists. Some were lost in their thoughts as they coloured, while others shared stories about their lives and the women that inspired them. The atmosphere was very friendly and engaging, with everyone praising each other’s colouring skills. 

Exoplanet travel poster colouring sheet.

It was amazing to see how a simple activity like colouring can bring a sense of togetherness and solidarity. 

Lots of MSP students and staff sat together taking some time to relax and celebrate International Women’s Day together!

Fan fact: When asked to name a female role model, the most common answer was ‘’Mum’’. Who’s your female role model?

People sharing the names of the women who are an inspiration to them.

DEX-XIX: Astro-Obs members present their research at Durham-Edinburgh eXtragalactic workshop

Last week, several members of the Astro-Obs group travelled to the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh for the annual Durham-Edinburgh eXtragalactic workshop. The workshop, which has a strong focus on research into active galactic nuclei and observational cosmology, began as an annual meeting between academics at Durham and Edinburgh. It has since grown to include, Newcastle University, Lancaster University, and the University of St. Andrews.

The workshop provides a great opportunity for early career researchers to present their work, and this year Newcastle had their strongest showing yet, with 10 members of Astro-Obs attending, 4 of whom presented. First year PhD student Houda Haidar gave a 15 minute talk on the black hole population in low-mass galaxies in large scale cosmological simulations (her paper can be found here) and Charlie MacMahon, another first year PhD student, gave a short 3 minute flash talk on a novel method for probing the intrinsic alignment of galaxies.

Astro-Obs members brave the wind for a photo overlooking Edinburgh from the top of the Royal Observatory

Postdoc Vicky Fawcett, who joined us this year following the completion of her PhD at Durham (her thesis can be found here), gave a talk on extremely red quasars in DESI. Vicky also helped in the organisation of the whole event.

Finally, as the penultimate talk of the two day workshop, third year PhD student Alex Gough spoke about their recent paper on dark matter multi-streaming (see here for more details). Many other PhD students also attended, further showcasing the development of Astro-Obs and Newcastle as a place for the study of extragalactic physics. Danielle Leonard also played an important role, chairing one of the sessions to ensure everything ran smoothly and to time!

North East STEM Awards

On November 11th, the North East STEM Awards were held in Newcastle. This event celebrates and recognises North East STEM Ambassadors and STEM organisations who, through their interaction, have inspired, engaged and enthused many young people and their teachers in STEM over the past year. Award categories included most inspirational employer, highest number of hours recorded by a STEM Ambassador, and special recognition awards.

Dr Vicky Fawcett attended the award ceremony and won a special recognition award for outstanding contribution to STEM education in the North East. She received this award based on her outreach work within the STEM Ambassador program1. This included presenting at STEMFest in Space 2020, 20212, running various astronomy school seminars, winning the ‘I’m a Scientist, get me out of here!’ outreach event3, and organising a space activity day at the Great North Museum: Hancock during World Space Week.

To read more, see:




Inspiring the next generation: Astro-Obs members organise space day outreach event

To celebrate World Space Week 2022 the astronomy group at Newcastle University ran a “space day” at the Great North Museum: Hancock [1,2]. During the day we had a number of engaging multi-sensory astronomy related activities.

Throughout the day there were 10 minute flash talks, presented by Vicky Fawcett (PDRA), Danny Dixon (PhD), and Dr David Rosario (Senior Lecturer). The flash talks explored the topics: ‘Alien Worlds’, ‘Do Galaxies Dance?’, and ‘Space Junk: Taking out the Trash’, the latter of which is linked to the theme of this year’s World Space Week: Space Sustainability.

Other activities included a James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) demonstration. This was delivered predominantly by Dr David Rosario, who is leading one of the first science projects with JWST. Visitors could use iPads connected to IR cameras to explore how JWST sees the Universe. Various demonstrations included one person hiding behind a bin bag, which is opaque to our eyes. However, when the IR camera is used, we can see straight through. This is similar to how JWST views galaxies – we can now “see” behind obscuring dust, finding details that we could not see previously (e.g., with the Hubble Space Telescope). An additional demonstration is shown below; using IR to compare temperatures.

One of the blue cups holds warm water, but which one? Using visible light, we cannot tell the difference. However, looking with an infrared camera we can see a bright glow of the heat from the water in the left cup.

We also ran a craft activity in which you could make your own planet surface (see images below). Visitors could choose whether to create the surface of Earth, Mars, Mercury, Venus, or to imagine a completely new planet.

(Left) Melissa Ewing (Astronomy PhD) demonstrating the planet surface making activity. (Right) some examples of planet surfaces created by attendees.

One of the highlights of the activities was our astronomy sonification, where visitors could use the motion of their hands to explore astronomical images using sound (example shown below). This activity used code by Michele Ginolfi (for more details, see [3]) and was also inspired by Audio Universe, an outreach project led by Dr Chris Harrison, that aims to make Astronomy more accessible to vision impaired children (for more details, see [4]). Throughout the day visitors could also watch the ‘Audio Universe: Tour of the Solar System’ planetarium show, which explores the solar system with sound (developed by Dr Chris Harrison, see [5]).

Hearing the difference between Earth and Mars: using a webcam, children could explore astronomical objects through motion detection and sound.

Another multi-sensory activity we ran was a tactile treasure hunt, inspired by Tactile Universe, an outreach project led by Dr Nicolas Bonne at the University of Portsmouth, which is another project that aims to make Astronomy more accessible (for more details, see [6]). Visitors followed clues spread around the museum to find 3D printed tactile models and educational facts for a variety of astronomical objects.

Overall the museum had ~650 visitors on the day and we received very positive feedback. We will continue to work with the Great North Museum on future outreach projects with the aim to inspire more school pupils based in North East England to pursue a STEM career.
None of this would have been possible without the Great North Museum staff, astronomy staff, outreach team, and PhD students who helped organise and run the event; in particular, Dr Chris Harrison and Dr Vicky Fawcett.


Astro-Obs Members attend specialised AGN conference in Reykjavik

Several members of the Astro-Obs group at Newcastle University flew to Iceland to attend the conference ‘What Drives the Growth of Black Holes? A Decade of Reflection’ at the end of September. This week-long specialist conference was held in the beautiful Harpa Centre in Reykjavik. Researchers there aimed to address fundamental questions around active galactic nuclei (AGN) and their black holes, such as:

  • How does gas accrete onto black holes from the kpc to sub-pc scales?
  • How do the properties of host galaxies and the larger scale environment affect black hole growth?
  • What fuels the rapid growth of the oldest and most massive black holes?
  • What impact do AGN winds, outflows, and jets have on fuelling the black hole and star formation in the galaxy?
PhD student Sean Dougherty gave a talk on his research into AGN activity in galaxy mergers.

During the week, our group members not only attended, but played a key role in the events taking place. Second year PhD student Sean Dougherty gave a talk on his work in finding enhanced AGN activity in high-redshift galaxy mergers. Final-year PhD student Aishwarya Girdhar presented her work on the impact of multi-phase outflows and low power radio jets on the host galaxies of quasars.

Our new postdoctoral researcher, Dr Vicky Fawcett, spoke on the fundamental differences between red and blue quasars. Dr Tiago Costa, who will be joining us as a NUAcT fellow in August, also gave an excellent overview talk.

Finally, Dr Chris Harrison rounded out the week by leading a discussion on the progress made in understanding AGN feedback over the past decade.

Previously, the event had been cancelled due to the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in 2010 and then when the next decade came round in 2020, the covid pandemic once again prevented these researchers from meeting. But finally in 2022 it was worth the wait, and the Newcastle Astro-Obs group were able to attend with an even bigger contingent than would have been present in 2020!

Event: LGBTQ+ in STEM day

Wednesday November 18th is LBGTQ+ in STEM day, a day to celebrate the diversity of people who contribute to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The date represents American astronomer and gay activist Frank Kameny’s Supreme Court fight against workplace discrimination. For more information see .

LGBTQ+STEM Day on social media

Here at Newcastle, this falls in our undergraduate “buffer week”, a short breather between classes. We would therefore like to invite students (PGR and undergraduate, LGBTQ+ and allies) to an online social get-together at 12:00; the zoom details were sent by email, contact us if you’d like to be included. We will suggest a few topics for discussion and/or a few social games, but please feel free to have lunch or a snack handy, and we will break into smaller groups for conversation.

A few topics I’d be happy to hear discussion on:

  • What can Newcastle and our School do to better support LGBTQ+ people?
  • How is the pandemic difficult for LGBTQ+ people in particular?
  • How can we build supportive communities under these conditions?

I would also like to draw your attention to a few resources that may be of interest:

I know that this list is somewhat US-centric, and also centred around physics and astronomy; I welcome suggestions to broaden its scope.

Anne Archibald (she/her) and Danielle Leonard (she/her)