Helping more girls complete basic education in Kenya

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Photo credit: Dr Ann Njeri

Dr Ann Njeri’s recent press release article discusses the issue of keeping Kenyan girls in education and what can and is being done to help address it. Statistics shared by Dr Njeri in her article paint a clear motivation behind the importance of tackling this problem, such as the fact that only 18% of Kenyan women aged over 25 have completed secondary education. Fortunately, the Elimisha Msichana, Elimisha Jamii (EMEJA) foundation, founded by Dr Njeri, is working to solve this issue, by tackling contributing problems such as misconceptions about STEM among young schoolgirls, through the hosting of Astro-STEM workshops and mentorship programmes, as well as much more. However, as Dr Njeri points out, more help and deeper institutional change is needed to fully solve this problem. To find out more about what is causing low academic retention among Kenyan schoolgirls, the work of EMEJA, and what more can be done to help, see her full article linked below.

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.


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:




Special Sonification Edition in Nature Astronomy and Panellist for UN webinar

November 2022: This month Nature Astronomy published a special issue of their journal, featuring four articles on sonification of astronomical data, co-ordinated by the Audio Universe team, led by Dr. Chris Harrison. Furthermore, Chris Harrison will be one of five expert panellists in a webinar on sonification in space sciences run by the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA).

The Nature Astronomy special issue is introduced by the editor with a commentary entitled “Hearing is Believing“. The special issue is a result of the Audible Workshop, that was organised and chaired by the Audio Universe team (including Chris Harrison, Anita Zanella and Nic Bonne), that took place in the Lorentz Centre (Leiden) last year. This workshop brought together 50 researchers from a variety of backgrounds including astronomy, sound perception, sound design and education. The workshop discussed the current status of astronomy sonification projects as well as the current challenges facing progress in this area and ideas for future plans. Nature Astronomy took this opportunity to allow sonification to be included as a figure for the first time. Hopefully opening up the door for many more published sonifications in this journal and others. Some of the outcomes of the workshop are summarised in the articles below:

(1) A meeting report led by Chris Harrison. Link to main article: Link to a preprint version on arxiv:

(2) A review of almost 100 sonification projects in astronomy, led by Anita Zanella and Chris Harrison. Link to main article: Link to a preprint version on arxiv:

Partly due to this work, and due to the wider Audio Universe project, UNOOSA contacted Chris Harrison to act as a consultant on a policy recommendation document they are working on the topic of sonification and accessibility in space sciences. As part of this UNSOOA Space for Persons with Disabilities project they are running a public webinar on the 17th of November, and Chris is one of the five expert panellists taking part.

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.


Audio Universe named winner of the Early Career Academic Award at the Newcastle University Engagement and Place Awards 2022

Earlier this year, Dr. Chris Harrison and Audio Universe were presented the Early Career Academic Award at the Newcastle University Engagement and Place Awards, a showcase celebrating innovative collaborations between the University and the public that demonstrate research excellence and work for the public good. The Early Career Academic Award recognises these qualities in engagement projects led by an early career academic from across all of the university faculties. At the time of consideration, the planetarium show had been downloaded by 31 planetariums internationally and has received over 1,300 combined views in English, Spanish and Italian.

For more information on the Audio Universe project, which seeks to make astronomy more accessible for the visually impaired and enable us to interpret astronomical measurements using senses other than sight, can be found at

Paper: Making (dark matter) waves – how wave interference can help model cold dark matter

Alex’s first first-author paper is now available on arXiv! An art piece Alex made related to this work also placed 2nd in the Art of Science competition hosted by the SAgE faculty at Newcastle. You can see more images and descriptions in Alex’s twitter thread on the paper (and the associated art piece).

This paper models the dark matter field as a single wavefunction, rather than traditional fluid variables or collisionless particles. We show explicitly how the complex phenomenology of multi-streaming (caused by collisionless particles flowing through each other) is encoded in the interference and oscillations of the wavefunction in a simple toy model. This wave model avoids the infinite density spikes which occur when evolving classical cold dark matter collapse.

Evolution of the position and density of a set of cold dark matter particles under the Zel’dovich approximation.

This paper demonstrates how the oscillations in the wavefunction can be “unwoven” to recover a set of wavefunctions corresponding to the set of classical streams in the Zel’dovich approximation. In the multi-stream region, where the dark matter cannot be described by a perfect fluid, we demonstrate how to separate the wavefunction into an “average part”, which describes the classical fluid behaviour, and an oscillatory “hidden part” which is responsible for producing beyond perfect fluid quantities such as velocity dispersion.

Comparison between the Zel’dovich approximation for cold dark matter and evolution of a wavefunction under the free Schrödinger equation. The wavefunction avoids the infinite density spikes (caustics) seen in classical cold dark matter, and introduces small scale interference to decorate the classical density.
Splitting of the wavefunction into three parts, each corresponding to classical dark matter trajectories.

The dense caustics formed by cold dark matter are replaced with diffraction caustics in the simple wave model, which provide classification of these caustics, and certain universal features related to the wave nature of the model. Such features are akin to those found in truly wavelike models of dark matter, such as fuzzy dark matter and ultralight axions.

The wave field corresponding to a cusp caustic. The scaling of the peak height and fringe widths are universal features, classified by catastrophe theory.

David Rosario featured in PBS/Nova documentary series

From late October into December, a five-part Nova documentary series called “Universe Revealed” is airing on the US Public Broadcasting Service (PBS; link below). With ground-breaking graphics and visuals, the series explores modern themes in astrophysics, like the fate of our Galaxy, and the origin of life on planets around other stars.

David Rosario, a senior lecturer in our Astronomy group, is one of the featured scientists on the series, as well as a contributor to its scientific storyline.

“Universe Revealed” is a joint production of the BBC Science Unit and PBS/Nova. Most of David’s work for the series was done with the BBC over late 2020 and early 2021, after he was contacted by a BBC producer who had came across his short film for the Newcastle Centre for Life on YouTube ( While the global pandemic placed major restrictions on travel, David managed to film sequences on the Isle of Skye in Western Scotland (Episode 2 on the Milky Way), and at High Force waterfall in the North-East of England (Episode 4 on Black Holes), as well as a studio interview in London.

A parallel series, called “Universe”, is also airing on BBC Two, presented by Prof Brian Cox. David features in a vignette on the GAIA mission towards the end of Episode 3.

David will continue his relationship with the BBC Science Unit as an expert on science with the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). You are encouraged to get in touch with him to collaborate on science outreach and engagement ideas.

PBS/Nova: Universe revealed:
David’s webpage:

Outreach: 2 articles in Astrobites

Alex has published two more articles for the Astrobites collaboration.

The first article is an interview with the organisers of the Cosmology from Home 2021 conference (which includes fellow Newcastle PGR Niko Sarcevic) about what makes a successful online conference. This includes a discussion about the aims of online conferences and how they may differ from in-person conferences, as well as some practical tips, tricks, and tools for building a conference online from the start.

The second article is a daily paper summary looking at recent work done by Dan Thomas Sankarshana Srinivasan, Francesco Pace, and Richard Battye in a series of two papers about how to build cosmological simulations for modified gravity in a model independent way. Paper I sets up a mathematical framework for extending standard techniques to work in both the large and small scale limit, even through an intermediate regime where both cosmic perturbation theory and Newtonian theory don’t apply. Paper II sets up modified gravity simulations using this framework and through some simple test cases demonstrates the importance of these sorts of techniques for exploring modifications to gravity in the era of next generation surveys.