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Moments in Time


21 May 2020

Week 4 ‘Connect’ open now

Moments in Time

Journals have long been valued for capturing insight into a person's experiences during a moment in time. They can paint a picture of the past and help us to learn lessons for the future.

COVID-19 is having a significant impact on the way we live our lives. The ‘Moments in Time’ initiative gives students an opportunity to capture their experience during this pivotal stage in history and provide insight for students of the future.

Submissions for Week 4 writing prompt ‘Connect’ open today. Find out more here

As part of Week 4 ‘Connect’, we had two famous scientists – Dr Alan Finkel and Dr Brad Tucker - make submissions this week. You can read their submissions below:

Dr Alan Finkel

In recent weeks I have had to change how I work. It has been unavoidable.

The spread of COVID-19 in our community has meant that I, too, have been working from home, remaining isolated from all but my wife.

Normally, I would be out in the world, meeting with people and making connections wherever I go. Visiting schools and businesses, talking with researchers, and sharing experiences about the work of Australian scientists and engineers.

But instead, I am now meeting on various digital platforms and keeping connected as Australia’s Chief Scientist.

At first, it was difficult. I found it hard to adjust. Everything was new.

The experience was not natural and free-flowing like a normal conversation. Sometimes, the Wi-Fi dropped out, or I needed to find a password, and most importantly I had to remember that it wasn’t a phone call. People could see me. Was my hair neat? But gradually, I have become used to it and have been grateful for this new way of being connected. I particularly like the mute button.

It has led me to recall my first exposure to video conferencing, back in 1974 when I was a PhD student in Melbourne. One of my lecturers had just returned from a year working abroad to develop a video conferencing system for Bell Labs, the US telecommunications giant. It was early days, and I was not impressed by the progress.

Even as recently as a year ago I still wasn’t impressed by video conferencing. But today, almost fifty years after I first saw the prototype, through initiative, innovation and investment, huge advances have been made in these technologies. The combination of vastly improved video conferencing software, broadband networks and high resolution cameras have meant that when we needed it to work, it did. And that investment in research and development over many years has helped us to adjust to the required change in our circumstances.

My sense is that the adoption of video conferencing and virtual meetings will be a permanent change to keep our society better connected. And that’s a good thing.

Yet I do look forward to the chance to roam again, in the wild, more freely.

Dr Brad Tucker

Space both makes us feel connected to something bigger, and yet far from it. I look for stars exploding in distant galaxies, millions to billions of light years away. And yet, when I see them, it is actually looking into the past, millions to billions of years ago. I can never truly connect with what is in space, just what was in space. Even when we (safely) look at the Sun, it takes 8 minutes for the light to reach us - we see it as it was 8 minutes ago.

We are lucky to be able to connect during this time. We can use the great Australian invention, wi-fi, to connect to people, places, and information, all around the world (and even other worlds) nearly instantaneously.

In fact, we live in the most connected time in the 4.5-billion-year history of the Earth, and it offers us amazing opportunities. We can connect to maps and browse distant locations, like we are there in person. We can connect to online libraries and read books written both last year and last century. We can connect to online TV and watch our favourite shows and movies.

I connect to cameras on the International Space Station and see Earth from above. I regularly connect to large telescopes, all around the world using the internet, to view distant exploding stars and black holes. I connect to meetings at 6am, 10pm, and in between, to talk to fellow astrophysicists all around the world and discuss the latest results.

And yet, I really just want to go outside and play soccer with my friends.

In Astronomy, over the past 5 to 10 years, we have been making telescopes remote or robotic, so that we don’t have to travel to use them. I can log onto telescopes in Chile from my office, or telescopes at Siding Spring Observatory which is in northern New South Wales, from the comfort of my couch.

We naturally cannot go up and look through telescopes in space. Big radio telescopes, like at the NASA Tidbinbilla Deep Space Tracking Station outside Canberra connect to them, and transfer the data and images to big computers we log into and use. We have also been moving our images to websites were anyone can access and browse. This has allowed people from all over the world, from students younger than you, to your grandparents, to help us look find new things in the Universe.

In a way, Astronomy has been preparing itself to connect with the Universe during this time. It has meant that while the Earth seemingly has slowed down, we can keep up with the Universe which keeps going.

I hope we can use this time, and this philosophy, to find a way to make sure we can connect more of the world, so no-one is left unconnected.