Breaking barriers within education

Next month the University of Salamanca will host the TESOL-SPAIN 43rd Annual National Convention.

The theme of the convention — Breaking barriers: make it happen, make it matter! — “invites us to reflect on the powerful forces that contribute to modern life, including the emergence of Artificial Intelligence with its unforeseeable impact on our lives. Students must be prepared for the demands of this ‘brave new world’ by learning useful and relevant knowledge, skills, character qualities and learning strategies. However, we face many challenges as educators and the barriers to education are still many and varied and the perceived vulnerability of certain social groups requires timely solutions.”

The keynote speakers are Daniel Xerri (University of Malta), Judit Kormos (Lancaster University), Lindsay Clandfield and Sarah Mercer (University of Graz). I’ll be there, too, to share some findings from our research at the University of Shiga Prefecture into the CEFR language framework, and how it can help personal goal-setting.

Phnom Penh. Image: Chanrasmey Miech/Wikimedia Commons.

This weekend, meanwhile, my research partner Dr Maki Taniguchi will be at the 16th Annual CamTESOL Conference, at the Institute of Technology Cambodia in Phnom Penh. Maki’s talk is also based on our work in Japan: she will be discussing the benefits of ‘team teaching’ (ie, having two teachers for one class).

Our research is supported by a grant from the Japanese government, reference number 18K00874.

Eclipse waiting: a project for the 2020s

Worldwide, the 2020s will bring us 22 solar eclipses: seven total, seven annular and eight partial. (An annular eclipse occurs when the moon is too far away to cover the sun completely — the sun becomes a ‘ring of fire’ surrounding the black disk of the moon.)

Solar eclipseImage: Jordan Lye

The most high-profile spectacles include total eclipses across North America on 8 April 2024; Spain on 12 August 2026; Spain (again), North Africa and the Middle East on 2 August 2027; and Australia and New Zealand on 22 July 2028. (Click below for my guide to the total solar eclipses of the 2020s for Physics World.)

The moon’s shadow becomes somewhat besotted with Spain over the next few years. In addition to the total eclipses of 2026 and 2027 — both of which have good weather prospects — there will be an annular eclipse across central and eastern Spain in 2028, as well as a partial eclipse across the whole of the Iberian peninsula in 2025.

All in all, Spain provides a unique environment for a long-term project I’m running called “Eclipse waiting”. The objective is to chronicle the exponential build-up of public expectation as the 2026/27 eclipses approach.

Spain total eclipse

We know that the growth of total-eclipse-awareness within local communities is exponential in nature. For a very long period, very little happens. Then, as totality gets ever closer, anticipation levels start to go off the chart. What are the key events and/or milestones that drive and shape the growth of public awareness? “Eclipse waiting” aims to find out…

NEVER look at the sun with the naked eye. Even if the sun is 99% covered by the moon, the remaining sunlight is extremely bright and can cause permanent damage to the eye. (The only time it is safe to view a solar eclipse with the naked eye is during the few short minutes or seconds of totality during a total eclipse.)

Helping African children become radio astronomers, and other stories

City Lights of Africa, Europe, and the Middle EastImage: NASA/EOS/GSFC

I’ve written a piece for EarthSky about last month’s International Astronomical Union Symposium on Astronomy for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion:

EarthSky logo

The article focusses on two stories from two continents.

Ikechukwu Anthony Obi — from the Center for Basic Space Science at Nigeria’s National Space Research and Development Agency — is finding clever ways to help African children become radio astronomers.

And Nurul Fatini Jaafar, at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, is working to build bridges between western science and indigenous knowledge.

The top ten ephemeral moments in the sky

As part of the build-up to next week’s Mercury transit, I’ve put together a list for Sky & Telescope on the top ten fleeting phenomena in astronomy…

At Number 10: An Overhead Pass of the International Space Station.
Image: Bob King.

Coming soon: there will be a lovely ‘ephemeral moment’ at the end of this month… Shortly after sunset on 28 and 29 November, a crescent moon will hang above the horizon next to three planets.

Image: Sky & Telescope.


Physics at the movies

The November 2019 Physics World is a special issue on “Physics at the movies – the science behind the scenes”.

Among the highlights: Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe talks to friend and physicist Jess Wade about what it’s like as an actor to work with visual effects (VFX), from 3D body mapping to green screens and tennis balls. And Benedict Cumberbatch, who once starred as Stephen Hawking, explains the challenges of portraying scientists in film.

My contribution was an interview with Douglas Trumbull, the legendary VFX pioneer who has worked on classic films including 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner:

Fun fact: we are in Blade Runner month… A caption at the beginning of the 1982 film announces the story’s setting — LOS ANGELES / NOVEMBER, 2019.


Astronomy for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

Japan, along with most of the Asia-Pacific region, will miss out on next week’s transit of Mercury. The country will, however, be hosting an International Astronomical Union (IAU) symposium on “Astronomy for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion — a roadmap to action within the framework of the IAU 100th Anniversary”.

The event will be held over four days at the Mitaka campus of the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan in Tokyo. The keynote speakers are:

  • Jarita Holbrook (University of the Western Cape, South Africa) — “Using Cultural Astronomy to Create a More Inclusive Astronomy”
  • Santiago Vargas (National University of Colombia) — “The need for reinforcing the implementation of inclusion and diversity strategies as ordinary actions towards the social and scientific development of our society”
  • Jeff Cooke (Swinburne University of Technology, Australia) — “The Deeper, Wider, Faster program: A platform for collaborative science, inclusion advancement, and STEM promotion to the general public”
  • Yuko Motizuki (Saitama University, Japan) — “Women in Astronomy: A view from a gender-imbalanced country”

I’ll be reporting on the conference, including the Inspiring Stars Exhibition on day 2, which will feature works from around the world that address the concept of “inclusion”.

Image: IAU.

How ‘the little stuff’ helps language learners

Later this month the Japanese publisher CosmoPier is bringing out a special magazine on foreign TV dramas that can help people learn English. I was asked to write a piece about the BBC comedy The Office.

How can The Office help learners improve their English skills? I quoted the show’s creators, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant.

SM: The difference between our show and other sitcoms that are in an office is that they always seem to be too full of incident. There’s people doing one-liners and being zany, which is not what the experience of being in an office is like at all. It is just about monotony, occasionally interspersed with someone making a joke. So we wanted lots of sequences of people just working.

RG: Drama is life with the boring bits taken out. But we left some of them in. Because they can be the funniest bits.

The boring bits can also be the most useful bits for English learners. Many students say that the most challenging part of learning a foreign language is not ‘the big stuff’, like giving a presentation. Instead, it is ‘the little stuff’: things like small talk, chit-chat and banter.

Gracias a San José de Jáchal

Our livestream concluded with an eclipsed sun setting behind the Andes.

Thank you to everyone in San José de Jáchal, Argentina, who helped us deliver a fabulous livestream of last week’s total solar eclipse. The support we received from the Municipalidad de Jáchal was simply incredible; we’re especially grateful to Domingo Martinez and Matías Torres. Thank you also to Anibal Heredia for the following photos.

The team in Jáchal: Steffen Thorsen …

… Anne Buckle …

… Adalbert Michelic (centre) and me, alongside the mayor of Jáchal, Miguel Vega (left).

Setting up on the roof of the town hall …

… and talking to local media.

Wish you were here? 7 chances to experience totality in the 2020s

My latest piece for Physics World is a travel guide to the seven total solar eclipses of the 2020s.

Physics World logo

Luxor, on the banks of the River Nile in Egypt, will enjoy 6 minutes 22 seconds of totality on 2 August 2027. (Image: Mahmoud Algazzar)

The return of the Moondance

In the 22 months since the ‘Great American’ total solar eclipse swept across the USA, we’ve had three total lunar eclipses and four partial solar eclipses. Now, the big Moondance is back…

On 2 July a total solar eclipse will take place over the South Pacific Ocean and a narrow strip of Chile and Argentina. I’ll be joining the team from in San José de Jáchal — in the Argentinian province of San Juan — for a live broadcast of totality.

The path of totality for next week — where the sun is completely covered by the moon — is the (very narrow) dark red strip. The lighter regions indicate areas where a partial solar eclipse is visible.

An enormous thank you to Luis Domingo Martinez and Matías Torres at the Municipalidad de Jáchal for all their support.