DIALOGUES: Astronomy - November 2018

On Tuesday, November 27, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) monthly DIALOGUES series celebrated its one-year anniversary. A discussion on astronomy at the Eugenides Foundation’s New Digital Planetarium took the audience on a magical journey around the universe and across the stars, with the help of scientists and amateur astronomers.

This 12th installment of the DIALOGUES series marked the beginning of a new era in which DIALOGUES will travel near and far, within Greece and abroad, embracing new cities and new venues. During the event, we connected live with the Visitors Center of the National Observatory of Athens in Thissio and the Municipal Library of Prespa, where amateur astronomers and lovers of the stars watched a livestream of the event and actively participated in the discussion.

 In their first “journey,” the DIALOGUES reached other neighborhoods around Athens, as well as Thessaloniki, with live broadcasts that took place in schools participating in the “Open Schools” program of the Municipality of Athens and the “Open Schools in the Neighborhood” program of the Municipality of Thessaloniki.

The challenge of making science accessible to the public provided the springboard for the discussion that took place. In his remarks at the event, Dionysis Simopoulos, Director Emeritus of the New Digital Planetarium of the Eugenides Foundation, said that “it is the responsibility of every scientist to deliver science to society in a meaningful way, so that it becomes part of everyday life.” 

Vasiliki Pavlidou, coordinator of the PHAESTOS (Probing High-Energy Astrophysics Environments and Systems Through Optopolarimetric Surveys) project and Associate Professor in the Department of Physics at the University of Crete, focused on scientific extroversion, the social need for scientific information, and concerns regarding scientific developments. Ms. Pavlidou stressed that “science is and must be for all,” saying that “the world in which we live has become so over-technological that, without basic scientific literacy, we cannot discuss and make decisions as a society intelligently, […] we cannot understand the world enough to get it to work for us.”

The role of amateur astronomers, represented in yesterday’s discussion by Konstantinos Emmanouilidis, is very important to the accessibility of scientific concepts and the dissemination of knowledge about astronomy. Mr. Emmanouilidis is an amateur astronomer and supernova hunter. He talked about the idea of “citizen astronomers” who, through their own means and, most importantly, their love for astronomy, collect and analyze data. Their observations provide stimuli for further research, often leading to new discoveries. “The universe is both around us and within us,” said Mr. Emmanouilidis. 

Ms. Pavlidou mentioned the “symbiotic” relationship between amateur astronomers and the scientific community. “We share the same enthusiasm for the stars, but we have a slightly different perspective: scientists are excited about their new observations in physics, whereas amateurs are terribly excited about the observations themselves […] we interact with each other with this mutual enthusiasm,” said Ms. Pavlidou.

The event included a presentation of the PASIPHAE (Polar-Area Stellar-Imaging in Polarization High-Accuracy Experiment) project, implemented with the support of the SNF at the University of Crete and the Hellenic Foundation for Research and Technology. PASIPHAE aims to provide answers regarding the first moments of the universe, and the SNF grant supports the construction of an innovative polarimeter that will be used by the Skinakas Observatory in Crete and the Observatory of South Africa. 

The PASIPHAE experiment team is led by Konstantinos Tassis, Associate Professor of Astrophysics in the Department of Physics at the University of Crete, and Ms. Pavlidou, who spoke during the debate about the program’s specifics, prospects, and importance for the international scientific community. Mr. Tassis stressed that this is an international cooperation between five institutions on four continents, with Greece taking the lead. Referring to the SNF grant, he said that “it allowed us to overcome our competition […] some of our partners started out as competitors but now that we have the means to do it, we are on the same side, and we’re on this journey together.”

Joining live from the National Observatory of Athens, Panos Papoulias, Deputy Group Director of Programs & Strategic Initiatives at SNF, explained the rationale for the Foundation’s grant for the project, which supports rising Greek scientists and promotes scientific excellence, but goes far beyond through the collaboration it encourages. 

Aiming to support research and young researchers in Greece, the SNF, as part of its Recharging the Youth initiative, has provided support for the National Observatory of Athens’s National Center for Acquisition, Analysis, and Dissemination of Satellite Data for dynamic observation of the Earth, atmosphere, and oceans. Some of the equipment acquired through the SNF grant has been transferred to the newly established Geophysical Observatory of Antikythera. In addition, the SNF has supported the First Light Project in connection with the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics of the University of Manchester. The program aims to inspire the scientists of the future by engaging them in the scientific research carried out in the Astronomy field in general and specifically of Jodrell Bank. 

From the research of the PASIPHAE experiment and its cutting-edge astronomical technology, the DIALOGUES moved to the oldest complicated astronomical instrument and first known “computer,” the Athikythera Mechanism. Xenofon Moussas, Professor of Space Physics at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens and a member of the team tasked with the scientific study of the Antikythera Mechanism, emphasized the importance of observation and the laws of physics and mathematics as a starting point for understanding and analyzing natural phenomena and the eventual anticipation of future phenomena. 

Lastly, Fiori-Anastasia Metallinou, Astrophysicist at the National Observatory and classical singer, talked about connecting music and astronomy and about sound as a means of teaching astronomy and understanding natural phenomena. At the end of the event, she delighted the audience with a performance in which music interacted with the sounds of space, accompanied by Tilemachos Moussas on guitar. 

The discussion between the speakers and the audience was coordinated by journalist Anna-Kynthia Bousdoukou.

Listen to the extracted audio below: