Astrobiology, SciComm, Space

5 level SciComm Challenge

The amazing Soph Talks Science (read my interview with her here, or find her blog here!) started up a challenge on Instagram: explain your research/field of science in 5 levels of explanation: A child, a Teen, an Undergraduate, a Post-grad, and an Expert… I’m not an expert, nor do I have my own research yet, but I thought I would give it a shot (albeit with a little tweak to the categories!

My first attempt was inspired by the Lyrid meteor shower (which I stayed up a while to watch but didn’t see any properly unfortunately!), and I explained it to 4 levels of understanding. I loved writing it so much that I had to give it another shot- this time with a topic I’m more familiar with… astrobiology! I tried to do this one in more depth, let me know what you think once you’ve read it! First up though..

Last week there was a meteor shower… what is a meteor shower?

Level 1: To an 8 year old

A meteor is a bit of space rock. Sometimes, they get in the way of the Earth’s path around the sun and start falling through the sky. Luckily, they are moving fast enough that when they hit particles that make up the sky, they burn up! Anything that heats up lets out light, so we can see meteors as streaks of lights at night time! A shower of meteors happens when the earth passes through lots of chunks of space rock at once. 

Level 2: To a 12 year old 

A meteor is a chunk of rock that has come loose from an asteroid or comet. Sometimes, their orbit crosses Earth’s orbit, and they enter the atmosphere. Luckily, the meteor collides with the molecules that make up the sky, and this collision exerts a force on the meteor, and it heats up. Things that are hot let out light, which is why we see streaks of light when meteors fly over. A meteor shower occurs when the earth crosses through a cloud of these chunks at once. 

Level 3: To a 16 year old

A meteor is a chunk of rock that has come loose from a comet or asteroid. In space, these are known as meteoroids and are found in the orbit of comets. When the Earth’s orbit and the orbit of the meteoroids intersect, we get a meteor shower as lots of them enter the atmosphere at once. When they enter the atmosphere, they have to push through the molecules of air. As they are going so fast, the air doesn’t easily flow around the meteor but compresses. Compressing a gas increases the temperature as there are more frequent collisions, so the air heats up, and starts to glow, creating the streaks of light characteristic of a meteor shower! 

Level 4: To an adult

A meteoroid is a chunk of rock in space that has come loose from a comet or asteroid- these are made from the leftovers of failed planets back from the formation of the solar system. As they are released from comets/asteroids, they tend to be found in clusters around the orbits of them. When the earth’s orbit intersects with the orbit of an asteroid or comet, we pass through this cloud of meteoroids. Once the enter the atmosphere, they are called meteors- They enter at high speed, but are slowed by the molecules of gas in the atmosphere. Due to its high speed (and the fact chunks of rock aren’t the most aerodynamic), it can’t push air out of the way quickly enough. This means that the air in front of the meteor compresses. Volume is inversely proportional to temperature, so the air heats up. It gets hot enough that it not only emits infrared radiation but has enough energy to release visible light too, which is how we can see meteors shooting across our night sky. Most meteors are very small, so the heat makes them disintegrate and/or vaporise, only the largest hit the surface- these are known as meteorites and due to their origin in asteroids (which don’t really change over billions of years), can reveal information about the early solar system!

Astrobiology is one of my favourite topics to write about… but what is astrobiology?

Level 1: To an 8 year old

Astrobiology is the topic in science that tries to figure out if aliens exist! Scientists look at what animals and plants on Earth need to live, and then look at other planets to see if anything could live there too! 

Level 2: To a 12 year old

Astrobiology is the study of aliens! More specifically, the study of the possibility of life on other planets. Astrobiologists try to figure out how life on earth began, what it needs to survive. They then compare it to conditions on other planets to figure out if life could have begun elsewhere too! Some astrobiologists also try to figure out the probability of intelligent life (like us) could have evolved- they research by ‘listening’ to the night sky through huge telescopes, watching for any messages that could have been sent!

Level 3: To a 16 year old

Astrobiology is the study of the possibility of life on other planets. Some astrobiologists look for signs of intelligent life, by scanning the sky for radio waves or other communication. Others study the solar system, researching things like: how did the earth form? How did Earth get its water? How did Mars, Venus and earth become so different? How will the ageing sun affect life on Earth? And some try to understand life itself by studying it here on earth- how it evolved from chemistry to biology, or investigating extreme organisms in habitats similar to those in space!

Level 4: To an adult

Astrobiology is the study of the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe. Astrobiologists might research how the solar system interacted to create our habitable earth and look for evidence of life (past or present) on our neighbouring planets, by writing programs or visiting them with rovers or spacecraft. By understanding what life on Earth needed to evolve, scientists can narrow down their search! The search for aliens consists of two main fields, looking for indirect evidence of life (biosignatures), or scanning the sky for radio waves carrying interstellar communication (much like the inverse of the Voyager probe). But a lot of the time it involves research into our own history, or into extremophiles living in habitats with conditions similar to those found in space! 

Level 5: To an expert?

Astrobiology is the study of the possibility of extra-terrestrial life. There are multiple fields. SETI involves scanning the sky for radio (or alternative) communications with earth-based telescope arrays. Some astrobiologists look for biosignatures on both our neighbouring worlds and exoplanets, identifying where life could (or could have) lived, or model the solar system to understand how life on earth came to be, its future, and what this means when looking at our surrounding ‘local bubble’ of stellar systems and beyond. Other research is earth-focused: studying abiogenesis or extremophiles living in analogue sites, to figure out what to look for when visiting potential alien habitats, by first understanding our evolutionary history!

So… how did I do? Comment what level you understood to!


2 thoughts on “5 level SciComm Challenge”

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