In Their Element Science Podcast: Space Science & Astrophysics

The sky’s the limit

Using supercomputers to forecast // On being happy not to travel to space // Using gamma ray telescopes in Namibia // How astrophysicists are helping with COVID-19 // Studying space science and astrophysics

Phoebe De Wilt

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“We are all scientists. We are all walking through this life looking at things around us, observing what’s going on, and that’s what science is.”Phoebe De Wilt - Aviation Meteorologist, Bureau of Meteorology

 

Phoebe De Wilt - Aviation Meteorologist, Bureau of Meteorology in action

The sky’s the limit: Phoebe De Wilt

About our guest

We all do it, but to Phoebe De Wilt discussing the weather is more than just a way to pass time with a stranger.

As an aviation forecaster, her take on the weather guides thousands of travellers and pilots to a safe landing. 

After finishing high school with a keen interest in space and physical sciences, Phoebe studied the Bachelor of Science (Space Science and Astrophysics) and saw it as an opportunity to learn it all. 

She now provides meteorological forecasts for airports and areas all over NSW and the ACT, and has daily conversations with pilots and air traffic controllers about the impact of weather on flights. 

Join us for her conversation with presenter Sarah Davidson as she talks about her love of science; why she is happy to have let go of her childhood dream to travel to space; and the study pathway that has led her to be in her element.

Listen now

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  • Bonus content

    Phoebe De Wilt - Aviation Meteorologist, Bureau of Meteorology
  • Show notes

    Sarah:
    Welcome to In Their Element, a fascinating new podcast series offering a revealing glimpse into the unfolding careers of passionate science grads from South Australia's number one uni for science, the University of Adelaide.

    Sarah:
    In this episode, we're chatting with Phoebe De Wilt, who is now absolutely smashing it out there in the workforce as an aviation meteorologist at the Melbourne Bureau of Meteorology. Without even knowing what that involves, it's right up there with the coolest job titles I've ever heard.

    Sarah:
    Phoebe completed a Bachelor of Science, Space Science and Astrophysics at the University of Adelaide, which is right next door to the Australian Space Agency. I'd love to say it's not rocket science, but in this case it might just be.

    Sarah:
    Phoebe, welcome to the show.

    Phoebe:
    Hi Sarah, how are you?

    Sarah:
    Good, thank you. Thank you so much for joining us today. We start every episode on this show by asking each guest a little icebreaker, and the question is, what is the coolest scientific fact or discovery you know of, that you think needs a moment of appreciation? I feel like you're going to have a good one.

    Phoebe:
    Well, this fact actually ties my studies in astrophysics to my job now in meteorology. Some of the charged particles from space, when they hit the top of our atmosphere, are traveling faster than the local speed of light in the atmosphere, so they let out the equivalent, as they travel through the atmosphere, the electromagnetic equivalent of a sonic boom. That's a flash of light called Cherenkov light, and we can image that with telescopes and track where those charged particles originated.

    Sarah:
    Oh, my gosh. So interesting. It's like the big bang theory, but a real-life person who actually understands all the terminology.

    Phoebe:
    I think science is exciting, so I'm happy to talk about it.

    Sarah:
    I love it so much because this show has reminded me just how fascinating and exciting it actually can be. I think we all get this image of scientists, all in a lab, doing things that are beyond our understanding. But, really, when you sit down and talk to people, there's so many real world applications all around us every day.

    Phoebe:
    Yeah, and a lot of people forget that science is around us all the time. It's a way of describing what's happening in the world. That's my passion, is communicating that and sharing that with people that might not have the scientific learning.

    Sarah:
    Well, that's something you've been able to do, in such a cool way, with your degree and turn it into the job you do every day. So I visit the BOM website every single day, that's the Bureau of Meteorology, to check the weather, and look at the forecast, and sort of try and plan my life in Melbourne with its four seasons every day. But I've never really thought much about what it actually takes. I obviously have just forgotten that people behind the scenes actually have to make that information available. So tell us about your job now. What does an aviation meteorologist actually do, and how do you contribute to the information that we get every day on the site?

    Phoebe:
    So, obviously, airplanes are flying through the atmosphere every day, although a few less at the moment than usual. But these aeroplanes need to know what's happening in the atmosphere, so the height of clouds, the wind speeds, whether the rain or showers are going to affect the visibility of the aircraft. So in aviation meteorology, we use some of the world's most powerful supercomputers that crunch the numbers, take observations, and use physics modelling to estimate what's going to happen in the atmosphere. But we also need people with the skills to interpret that information, because if we have a few different models, run by different supercomputers that have different estimations, we need to make an educated estimate of what's actually going to happen.

    Sarah:
    Gosh, it's fascinating. So you've been there for a year, or since last year?

    Phoebe:
    Yeah. I started my training here at the Bureau of Meteorology in February 2019, and I've been actually on the desk, forecasting, about six months now. So it's been, yeah, another big learning curve in my career.

    Sarah:
    And you've been able to complete further study there, haven't you, a Graduate Diploma of Meteorology, in your job, which is really cool.

    Phoebe:
    Yes. Yeah. So getting the job here at the Bureau of Meteorology, they provided that training to just give that specialized knowledge about the atmosphere.

    Sarah:
    Oh, my gosh. It's so cool. I mean, one of the things, just when you were talking before, I think in our day-to-day lives, we forget that our sky isn't just this beautiful surface in a bubble that's painted blue. At some point it hits what becomes space, and there are people out there who look at the interaction between those two areas, where they come together, and that's weather the things happen. It's just fascinating to think that people like you actually understand what's going on up there.

    Sarah:
    So what other parts of your job ... Most of the people we've had on the podcast, it's sort of the other way around to you. We might understand what they do, but not day-to-day understand the practical application of their job. Whereas for you, I think we all know how useful your work is practically, but what are some of the things we might not understand in terms of the science behind communicating weather? You talked about supercomputers. How do you actually forecast, and how many days out are you working, and how is the information packaged to air traffic controllers that might change ... What does it all look like behind the scenes?

    Phoebe:
    So it's a little bit different in different areas of meteorology. In aviation meteorology, we do fairly short-term forecasts and we're constantly updating them. So, obviously, if the cloud is a different height to what we expect, we need to amend that forecast and let the planes know as soon as possible. In other areas of meteorology, we can forecast up to five days or a week with some certainty, but in aviation meteorology, we operate just over the next 30 hours or so.

    Phoebe:
    We package the forecasts according to International Aviation Operations rules. So we give terminal aerodrome forecasts, and that's for an airport and within a certain area around the airport and up to a certain height in the sky. We also do area forecasts. So, for example, each of the states in Australia have one or two area forecasts, depending on how it's split. I myself focused for New South Wales and that's split into the east and west, which is pretty much east of the Great Dividing Range and west of the Great Dividing Range, because we tend to get different weather phenomenon in those places.

    Sarah:
    It's so cool to hear about how it all actually happens behind the scenes, because I think we take for granted that we just Google from wherever we are and the information comes up, but someone's actually figuring all of that out for us. You mentioned that your work goes up to a particular height in the sky, and I know that your original interest in science was around space, so how far into space does your work now take you? How far do you actually have to look, height-wise?

    Phoebe:
    Most of the weather happens in the troposphere, which is the lowest layer of the atmosphere. That goes up to about 20,000 feet or so. We operate in feet because that's generally what pilots use. My forecasts go up to 10,000 feet in the job I'm in at the moment, but things above that affect our weather, as well. So we get jets, which are stronger areas of wind strength, and those jets can happen higher up than that, and that can affect the weather that's going on underneath. With my work with space, I was looking outside of the Earth's atmosphere, but also within the Earth's atmosphere, right down to the surface.

    Sarah:
    So let's go back to that, to your work in space. That's sort of where it all began, and you had such a strong interest in space, which is kind of what drew you to the degree in the beginning. You studied a Bachelor of Science and it was in space science and astrophysics at the University of Adelaide, which I think is maybe the coolest name for a degree, ever, and I think we all hear these words bandied around. I watch Big Bang Theory religiously, and I love it, but I've never actually understood what astrophysics is, what that even involves. How did you choose to go into space science, and what did you actually study, and explain to the lay person what astrophysics actually means.

    Phoebe:
    So astrophysics is understanding the physical interactions in space, and for this, we do need quite a bit of mathematics to do that, and the physics and understanding of physical interactions of particles, so electromagnetic interactions, but also gravitational interactions. Astrophysics tends to have two separate fields, but they're not entirely separate. So there's observational astrophysics, where you're taking observations, and looking at what's going on in space, and trying to interpret that. And there's theoretical astrophysics, which often is seen as the more quirky side of astrophysics, but it's trying to understand the theory of what's going on. So we might not have that many observations for some theory we're trying to work out, the observations might be sparse, but we can still use our knowledge of physical interactions to work out what is going on in those places in space.

    Sarah:
    Were you one of those kids who always had your head in space? Is that how the interest kind of developed? Because I feel like it's one of those areas of science, at school you might get very, very basic level, but all the other sciences are kind of very physical, ground science. Where did that interest in space in particular come from?

    Phoebe:
    Funnily enough, no, I wasn't. I mean, space fascinated me, but I was more ... had an interest in how things work and how everything around me works. So then when I was opened up to space, that becomes even more fascinating because it's sort of this unknown. Whereas, here on Earth, we can see the things that we're looking at much more easily, but in space it's this whole wider universe, and when you learn about how big the universe is, it's amazing to think of those crazy, fascinating interactions that are going on up there.

    Sarah:
    Yeah. I was reading some of the ... I think there was an article that you wrote recently, just explaining the very, very basics around the big bang theory and how many galaxies and universes there are out there. It just blew my mind. I can totally understand why it would be so fascinating. To whet people's appetite, what are some of the basic facts that you probably take for granted, but that we might not know?

    Phoebe:
    So, I think, just the vast extent of space. So we think of light as something that moves instantaneously, here on Earth, and that's because it's really, really fast. So when we switch a light on, it comes on straight away. But because space is so big, it takes light a long time to travel across, say for instance, our galaxy, and there's not only our galaxy, but hundreds of billions of galaxies out there. So, but just thinking of how long light takes to travel, that's why we measure distance in light years. People think of light years as a time, but light years is actually a distance, and it's the distance that light takes to travel in a year.

    Sarah:
    That is so fascinating.

    Phoebe:
    And our sun is eight light minutes away. It's this great, big, hot ball of gas, and it's eight light minutes away, which is a long way away, but when we're talking about light years, it blows your mind just to think how much further a light year is compared to eight light minutes.

    Sarah:
    Yeah. So does that mean ... I read that ... So if the sun burnt out, it would take eight minutes for that light to stop hitting us?

    Phoebe:
    So, that's because the light that's being emitted from the sun right now takes eight minutes, won't actually get to Earth for eight minutes.

    Sarah:
    That's so fascinating. I think also because space is so expansive, that's where that whole blur between distance and time starts to ... My brain just can't hold it all in there, but I think it's fascinating that you actually got to study it. So coming back to the degree, and particularly with you studying at the University of Adelaide, where you have access to world-class academics, since 2020 there's been a space agency right next door, the uni was involved in Nobel Prize-winning discoveries. What was your experience like at uni and on campus, and why did you choose Adelaide Uni in particular?

    Phoebe:
    I chose Adelaide for the research that was going on there and the reputation, as well. It's got world-class academics there, and it has for a very long time, and the research projects that are happening there really interested me. So my experience of studying there was opening my mind to this whole scientific way of looking at the world, learning how to look at things in an analytic way, understanding probabilities of things going on, so how do we make the decision between different theories that we might have, and I think the mentorship of the academics that run the course of space science and astrophysics really stands up to universities all around the world.

    Sarah:
    That's so cool. It also seems like there's a really strong community in astronomy and astrophysics, and that Adelaide is, and Adelaide graduates are, really well-recognized for that in that community, for the knowledge that they have, which is amazing. I also read that you got to travel a lot, attend conferences, and use telescope facilities in other countries. Tell us about that.

    Phoebe:
    Yeah. So, earlier, I talked about Cherenkov lights, when we get a gamma ray hitting the top of the atmosphere, and it sends down a shower of charged particles through the atmosphere because of its interactions with our atmosphere. Now, these gamma ray telescopes, I travelled to Namibia in Africa to operate a gamma ray telescope, and that was a great experience. Yeah, so ...

    Sarah:
    One of the things, I think, that's so cool about the world of science is how much global collaboration there is between, you know, there's so many meetings of the mind and sharing of knowledge. I think it's something that has really appealed to me in this whole world of science since discovering it. I'm like, I want to be a scientist and share knowledge with people all around the world.

    Sarah:
    What about the actual structure of the degree? So it's three years and you start with, I think you mentioned there's a lot of maths and physics, so you start with the basics, but was this trip part of the electives that you got to do, because I also read there are, you know, study tours and internships are actually part of your elective subjects.

    Phoebe:
    So the travel I did was after my bachelor degree, so in my graduate studies. Within the bachelor degree, I did summer internships based at the University of Adelaide, and that involved communication with international academics. So while I didn't travel overseas during my bachelor degree, I did work with academics from Germany and France.

    Sarah:
    That's so cool. Are there any particular research projects you worked on while you were at uni, or any subjects that you loved doing? How much was hands-on and how much was theoretical? What did you enjoy the most?

    Phoebe:
    For me, I enjoyed the hands-on stuff a lot. I love being able to actually see the stuff that's going on, and the theory stuff took a bit more work for me, but I enjoyed that too. So it just wasn't ... it didn't come as easy to me as pointing a telescope up in the sky, albeit sometimes very large telescopes that you have to do a lot of computer programming to get the data from, but that stuff came more naturally to me then the complex mathematical theory.

    Sarah:
    When did meteorology as an application of your skills come onto your radar, so to speak?

    Phoebe:
    So I was doing a lot of observations with radio telescopes, and we have some of the best radio telescopes in the world here in Australia. I was observing gas clouds in our galaxy, so in the Milky Way. If you've ever looked up into the sky and seen the Milky Way across the sky, which you often can't see in the city, it has these dark patches in it, and those dark patches are gas clouds. So they're not where there's no stars, it's just that the gas is too thick to let the light from the stars through.

    Phoebe:
    We can actually image those with radio telescopes. Those gas clouds, we can look at the molecules that are in those gas clouds through radio telescopes. My interest in meteorology started, doing that radio astronomy, because we're affected by what we can see in space, because we have to look through the Earth's atmosphere to see that stuff in space. So when the weather wasn't as good, we couldn't see our stuff in space. So we basically were just looking at the atmosphere and this got me interested more about ... in the weather. I think lots of people are interested in the weather, but it got me interested in more the physics of what's going on.

    Sarah:
    It's so fascinating. It's not necessarily an application I would have thought of straight away when I heard about the degree, but I think it's so cool how many different ways science can appear all around you in life. What did some of your colleagues end up going into? I was reading that there are so many different career pathways, looking at star formation, or a planetarium director. There's so many cool places you could end up, so where did some of your colleagues end up?

    Phoebe:
    Yeah, so I think a degree like this just opens up a whole world of possibilities, or a whole universe of possibilities, I should say. Not only things to do with space or the atmosphere, but even things like computer programming, data analysis. Many businesses are wanting people with good analytical skills. There's even some astrophysicists currently working on data analysis for COVID-19 on the side.

    Sarah:
    Wow.

    Phoebe:
    I think that it just shows what solid analysis skills that you learn in a degree like this. It allows you to interrogate data and make decisions on what that data is actually telling you.

    Sarah:
    Yeah. Gosh, that's fascinating about ... Actually being able to use those skills for something like COVID-19 is something you wouldn't necessarily expect would be an opportunity in your career. But it's so interesting, I think a lot of people think science is quite narrow, but really, the skills you learn appear, you know, I'm learning more and more, are so transferable across lots of different disciplines and methods.

    Sarah:
    What would you say would be your ultimate astrophysics dream? So, if there's a problem you'd love to be able to solve or a research question that you'd love to be able to answer. Are there any big picture things, like black holes, or something that you would love to be able to ... Imagine there was no money or physical limitations and you could solve any problem in astrophysics, what would it be?

    Phoebe:
    That's a hard one.

    Sarah:
    They can be several. I guess they can be even problems ... I think even listing them from your perspective would be informative for us to know what big questions the community out there is working on.

    Phoebe:
    One of the key things for me is finding out the answer to which things are accelerating particles in space up to the energies that we see them. So we know that there's the world's largest ... that the universe's largest particle accelerators are in space, and our atmosphere here on Earth protects us from those charged particles because they would do us, as humans, some serious damage. But we don't have a good understanding of all of the things that can accelerate these particles.

    Phoebe:
    So we can look at things like supernova remnants, which are the shock waves that go out after a star has died and exploded. But one thing that I was looking at in my studies was colliding wind binary. So two really, really big stars, so a hundred times the size of our sun, and that means they have really strong stellar winds that go out from the star. And if you have two of these close together, which they tend to be because they form close together, when those winds sort of hit each other, they create a lot of turbulence, and can that interaction accelerate particles up to really high energies that we see, and does it last long enough to accelerate particles up to there?

    Sarah:
    In terms of actually figuring that out, are there simulations or ways that you can reproduce that on a tiny scale here? Is that how you would figure it out, or would you have to actually be out in space, working that out in real time? Because I imagine that's one of the biggest barriers to space-based experimentation, is you can't actually be there. It's so large.

    Phoebe:
    Yeah. I think resolution is one of the biggest things. So in these areas where we have lots of these really big stars, there's also stars exploding, because these big stars are the ones that don't [inaudible 00:21:25] for very long. We call them the rock stars of the sky because they sort of live fast, die young, and so they're exploding all the time and sending out these shock waves. So sometimes it's hard to resolve, when you're looking up there with a telescope, whether it's the death of the star, or a new star that's forming and colliding with another star, that's actually accelerating these particles. So it's about coming up with great new technology to be able to pinpoint exactly where something's coming from.

    Sarah:
    Wow.

    Phoebe:
    I think that's why astrophysics comes up with all these great inventions that are also of use in other areas, like Wi-Fi, to just solve those problems in space, because it's an area where we need to problem solve a lot.

    Sarah:
    Yeah. Actually, tell us more about, like you just mentioned Wi-Fi, what are some of the other areas of our life that ... I had no idea that was ... I mean, I guess I probably could have figured it out, but I didn't realize that was so connected to space and that the solutions for that kind of technology are in space. What are some of the other day-to-day things in our life that are heavily reliant on astrophysics research, that we wouldn't have realized?

    Phoebe:
    So, yeah, Wi-Fi was, I don't know the exact details of it, but it was invented to get the radio telescopes communicating with each other, without interfering with the signals coming from space. Because as you can imagine, the signals coming from space are so tiny that any communication, specifically radio communications in between telescopes, are going to drown out the signals coming from the space, because we're detecting tiny, tiny signals because they have to travel so far.

    Phoebe:
    As far as other inventions, I think something like radar, which we use to observe the weather, has a really ... connection into space. But also, just understanding our ... going back hundreds of years, understanding about how our Earth fits into the universe. So understanding the seasons, understanding the evolution of our atmosphere, understanding how our planet is different to other planets. We need to look into space to understand more about own Earth here.

    Sarah:
    Yeah. Do you have any desire to see us live on Mars, or now that space travel is becoming a commercial possibility, is that something that you would love to do?

    Phoebe:
    Me, personally, when I was a child, I wanted to be an astronaut and I wanted to travel to space. I've changed my mind about that.

    Sarah:
    Really?

    Phoebe:
    Yeah. After studying the charged particles in space that are flying around, I think our atmosphere really protects us from a lot of the stuff that's going on up there. I understand the desire to go into space, but I'm happy to stay down here, protected by our wonderful atmosphere at the moment.

    Sarah:
    Well, that sounds like very sound reasoning. What would you say to people who don't think science is for them? Because I think there's a lot of demystifying to be done for a lot of us, but the more I've learned, the more I've thought, I used to think I wasn't a science person, but now I think maybe I am.

    Phoebe:
    I understand when people say, "Oh, science isn't for me," because they may not have been taught that analytical way of thinking, and they may not be the type of person that questions, well, why is that happening? What's going on there? But I think we're all scientists, really. We're all walking through this life, looking at things around us, observing what's going on around us, and that's what science is. Learning about science and being taught those scientific tools just allows you to be a bit more decisive in, why is that happening, and make some better guesses, and also be driven to learn a bit more and know where to look or Google to find out those answers. So I think everybody's really a scientist.

    Sarah:
    I love that. That's such a refreshing point of view, and I think that's true. The more I learn about it, the more I realize it's problem solving. It's just, it gets more complicated, obviously, as the problems get more complicated, but at its base, scientists are just solving problems. Well, thank you so much, Phoebe, for joining. I feel like I learned so much about space in that short amount of time.

    Phoebe:
    I was glad to join you, Sarah.

    Sarah:
    Thanks for listening to In Their Element. It's been an absolute pleasure bringing it to you. If you enjoyed what you heard, be sure to subscribe to the series and we'll send you an alert the moment our next episode drops. And more importantly, if the career path you've heard about here appeals to you, jump on the Uni of Adelaide website today to learn all about the science degrees that can get you there. Until next time, bye bye.

Banner image: Davis Station by Nick Chang