The past couple of weeks have been very exciting. Free from the shackles of academia, I have officially started my six-month internship with the ‘Education and Public Outreach Department’ (ePOD… bit like iPOD with its media capabilities but without the money-grabbing bandits behind the scenes), here at ESO-Chile. And what an exciting time it has been! But before I get too carried away with daydreams of becoming the next Brian Cox (in terms of visibility, certainly not dreaming of having that ridiculous floppy hair or irritating narrative saying such groundbreaking statements as “space is big.”), I shall explain what ePOD actually does.
ePOD, as with all things ESO related, finds it HQ at ESO-Garching in Germany. The majority of the team are also based there, and it’s only when you look at the staff list that you realise what a major operation it actually is behind the scenes. Yes, ePOD are the group responsible for the nice news releases on the ESO webpage, but there are many stages that take it from A to B (we have a weekly teleconference with the ePOD team in Garching in order to make sure we are all up to date with what everyone’s role is in a project. And Google Docs. Sooooooooo many Google Docs…): you need a writer, you need a translator, you need a graphics designer, you need a web administrator, you need someone to promote it via email and the social networks… And that’s just for one paragraph of text with one pretty picture. Imagine now what else is involved when they produce one of their ESOcasts (ESO’s video podcast). You have the above, plus a narrator, a producer, video and sound technicians, and an editor. Think a VIP visit to one of the sites is organised the day before? Guess again. You need to think about the logistics of transport and accommodation, not just for the VIP but any accompanying entourage, media, family… You need people from ESO to serve as the host or hostess, you need to think about feeding them, who they can talk to, what to give them as memorabilia of their visit. Now multiply that by 150 people for a major event, such as the recent inauguration of the ALMA observatory, and you can imagine how much work goes into just a few hours of exposure.
Without ePOD, there would be no promotion, no PR. If ESO is not shown in the correct light to the correct people, funding will dwindle down to nothing. And as money is sadly what makes the world go round, without funding there’s no telescopes, no astronomy, no advancement. Nothing for me to write about in this blog. Sad face. So as you can see, this department, albeit tiny with just 5-and-a-half people in Chile (a part time worker, Mylene, counts as the half), is a very important part of ESO.
As the team was only 4-and-a-half people previously, they were very excited when they heard that I wanted to volunteer to work with them for six months (as most people are when they discover that you don’t have to pay anybody). They like the fact that I am now a qualified astronomer as many of them have journalistic experience rather than scientific, and they like that I am linked to the other astronomers who work here and at Paranal so that it makes communication and organisation a little easier (i.e. I can bat my baby blues at them when I need a favour). My current role is a varied one, as they are more than willing to get me involved in all aspects of ePOD life. Within three days of starting, I was already replying via email to a journalist from a Chilean newspaper called ‘El Mundo’ about one of the latest ESO press releases on a particular galaxy (in Spanish, with a little help from my most trusted friend in Chile – Google Translate). A couple of days after that the article was printed online for public viewing. And I was quoted! I wasn’t expecting that, especially as it’s not my area of astronomy and ‘la experta’ here had to go ask one of the grown ups if what I was writing was actually correct! But that was a nice surprise, and not a bad achievement for my first week on the job.
So dealing with random journalists’ questions is one part of the job. The other is dealing with visitors. I don’t mean ‘ordinary’ visitors like my family (they were easy – stuck my sister Laura in the ESO garden with a book and a coffee, and my Dad in a seminar. Happy as Larry, the both of them), but rather those with special requests. A lot of the time it is media-related – journalists for magazines or newspapers wanting interviews with the staff, photographers wanting night shots of the telescopes, sometimes a film crew wanting to create special recordings (ranging from local science programmes in France to Hollywood blockbusters like ‘James Bond: Quantum of Solace’), and this all comes with varying degrees of complexity in terms of organisation: who can journalist X interview without the risk of falling asleep? Just where DO you put 100 crew and actors in the middle of the desert, where astronomers still have to work day and night and there’s only 108 bedrooms to go round? Where can photographer Z put his camera without it being run over by an auxiliary telescope? Do I offer to share my chocolate supply with them or do I go eat it in the privacy of bathroom? ePOD to the rescue!
So for example, I was recently sent to Paranal for two nights with one of my new colleagues, Laura, who has been doing this now for eight years. On the first night, we had two workers from a science centre in France called Le PLUS (Palais de l’Univers et des Sciences), who wanted to take images and video to create a new planetarium show. It just so happened that it coincided with the recent total lunar eclipse, and so it was an exciting moment for all of us! After a standard tour of the Paranal residencia and environs, the visitors (as with visiting astronomers) are then taken up to the VLT platform to watch the telescopes open up for the night (see earlier post “Try not to break anything” for more details) followed by what is usually a very beautiful sunset. The photographers then set up their gear into the desired position to get ready to snap the night away.
It was a similar scenario for our visitors the next day; two freelance journalists writing an article for “Sterne und Weltraum” magazine in Germany, but who also run their own independent mobile planetarium and observatory – talk about multitasking! I consider waking up in the morning and staying that way multitasking enough… So as well as taking lots of images and video (both day and night, inside and outside of the telescope and around Paranal as a whole), they set out to interview one of our German astronomers, Steffen Mieske, about the new ESO instrument MUSE (Multi-Unit Spectroscopic Explorer… don’t worry, I haven’t a clue what that does either), and also interviewed a French optical engineer, Guillaume Blanchard, in order to gain an overall view of observatory life. ePOD’s role in all this is to arrange all aspects of the visit, from accommodation in the residencia to who the interviewees are going to be and when it will take place. These two nights I’ve just had now were my training for having to do it on my own in May… *Gulp!*
Away from the desert and back in the leafy suburbs of Vitacura, we recently hosted another type of regular visitor to ESO… A celebrity! Well, sort of. His biggest hit came out when I was just one year old, yet it persists across the globe. A couple of weeks ago, ESO got Rickrolled. Yep, Rick Astley of “Never Gonna Give You Up” fame came to visit the office with his wife and crew! Just in case you have forgotten the song, here’s 10 hours of it (YouTube is a beautiful thing). So we showed them around the office and the ALMA building also on campus, followed by a presentation on astronomy and ESO by our Garching colleague, Oli. And they were genuinely impressed at the scale of it all. After chatting to me in between explanations, I was then invited out for something to eat with them in a bar not too far away. Sadly I did not get to watch Mr. Astley get tiddly on Kunstmann lager as he sensibly decided to go somewhere else with his missus, but I still had a great evening with the rest of his gang – never realised how much I miss having people to share the British sense of humour with, even if it was under slightly bizarre circumstances!
As you can see, my time here with ePOD is bound to be full of new experiences – meeting people from all walks of life, dealing with different projects, getting to travel often to the observatories. All good blog fodder, if not for the CV! For the first time in a long time, I am ending the day feeling relaxed, happy, and as though this is something I can actually SUCCEED in! ! And in my opinion, that makes these experiences worth sharing with the world. 🙂
Never gonna give you uuuuup, never gonna let you dowwwwn, never gonna.... ARGH, that damn song….
Hasta la proxima,