Paul Sutherland explains how the Society for Popular Astronomy has helped students to hone their outreach skills – and you could benefit too. If you are an astronomy student wishing to develop skills in communicating science to the public, then getting involved with the Society for Popular Astronomy could help. The legendary broadcaster Sir Patrick Moore was one of the founders of this national organization when it was set up 65 years ago to help beginners to learn about astronomy and the night sky. The society produces a magazine, podcasts and videos of meetings and events as part of its role to promote space science to the general public. There are many ways in which you could help to produce these, honing some technical or creative skills that will boost your CV as well as helping a worthy cause. The SPA has published a journal, originally called Hermes, since its beginning as the Junior Astronomical Society in 1953. Renamed Popular Astronomy in 1981, the magazine is a friendly, accessible publication that blends topics to help beginners observe for themselves with updates on developments in astronomical research and space science. View largeDownload slide View largeDownload slide The SPA aims to help beginners of all ages, but one section of the magazine is squarely aimed at the “Young Stargazers” – children and members in their early teens, some of whom might become interested enough to pursue their own careers in astronomy. If you think you could contribute simply written but informative articles about particular areas of astronomy, the SPA would be delighted to hear from you. Meetings and podcasts Another way to polish up your popular science skills could be to present your work at some of the SPA's meetings, bearing in mind that you would be presenting to a lay audience that is interested but has limited scientific knowledge. There are regular meetings in London, plus occasional events at Jodrell Bank, Cambridge and elsewhere. The SPA's relaunched podcasts – first issued in 1966, on magnetic tape – could be another vehicle to help tell the world about your fascinating field. Or perhaps you are adept at using social media? If so, the SPA could help you polish your tweets. Careers Over the years, several people who started out by helping the society have gone on to successful careers in various fields of communication. Ian Ridpath was an early editor of the journal who is now a well known broadcaster and author of numerous books from popular guides to dictionaries and encyclopaedias. Robin Scagell, the current president, benefited from his hard work with the society newsletter and magazine by gaining an editing role with a major publisher of magazine partworks, and has subsequently written many authoritative guides to amateur astronomy, telescopes and binoculars. Paul Sutherland was already a news journalist but, after lengthy spells editing the society publications, he carved out a niche as a space reporter for newspapers and magazines and runs his own website, https://Skymania.com. In more recent times, some scientists have gone on to fabulous jobs communicating space science after achieving their PhDs. Emily Baldwin is now a space science editor at the European Space Agency (figure 1), having been website editor and deputy editor at Astronomy Now magazine. One of her first forays into science communication was with the SPA, where she contributed to the youth section, then called Prime Space. This later evolved into Young Stargazers; she was Chief Stargazer for several years. 1 View largeDownload slide Emily Baldwin (seated left) at work at ESA in January 2014 when the first signal was acquired from Rosetta before its encounter with comet 67P Churyumov–Gerasimenko. (ESA/J Mai) 1 View largeDownload slide Emily Baldwin (seated left) at work at ESA in January 2014 when the first signal was acquired from Rosetta before its encounter with comet 67P Churyumov–Gerasimenko. (ESA/J Mai) 2 View largeDownload slide Attendees at the SPA's Cambridge Convention in 2017 observed Mercury in daylight using the historic Northumberland Telescope. (P Sutherland) 2 View largeDownload slide Attendees at the SPA's Cambridge Convention in 2017 observed Mercury in daylight using the historic Northumberland Telescope. (P Sutherland) Emily says: “Writing for the SPA and other societies while I completed my PhD, and receiving guidance from the editors of the time, was a valuable experience that allowed me to widen my range of writing skills, paving the way for the dream jobs I would have later.” Elizabeth Pearson joined one of the UK's major astronomy magazines following her stint with the SPA. She says: “I took over as Chief Stargazer after Emily, along with a colleague of mine, George Ford, also while doing my PhD. I now work as news editor for BBC Sky at Night Magazine. In the last five years I have done nearly 100 interviews on national and regional radio talking on all matters space, as well as a handful of TV interviews (including one on my knees in the middle of a rattlesnake-infested field in Nebraska … that was interesting) and even a Channel 4 documentary on the Chel-yabinsk meteor. “With my work for SPA, I not only honed my writing but learned loads of other skills along the way – from how to work with another writer to create the best copy, to wrangling unruly contributors. I don't think I would be where I am today if I hadn't had the SPA to help me take those first steps.” Science writer Amanda Doyle was recently editor of Popular Astronomy and is now a staff reporter for The Chemical Engineer, the magazine for the Institution of Chemical Engineers. Amanda wrote freelance astronomy articles throughout her PhD and postdoc; this, combined with her experience as assistant editor and then editor of Popular Astronomy, helped her to move into a full-time science-writing job. Stephen Serjeant of the Open University is the current vice-president of the SPA and will take over as president next year. “It's always a pleasure to see a new copy of Popular Astronomy. There have been so many talented voices in public engagement that have honed their craft in this magazine,” he says. “I think it plays an important role as a springboard for people with a flair for science communication. Picking up the magazine, I often wonder if I might be seeing the astronomy outreach equivalent of The Beatles at the Cavern Club.” If you can help in any way, please email the current president Robin Scagell (email@example.com). And don't forget that the SPA is also seeking another kind of support: the professional community can help the SPA to promote astronomy to the public simply by joining. Membership in the UK costs £22 a year, with discounts for those who pay by direct debit. To find out more, visit the SPA's website at https://www.popastro.com. © 2018 Royal Astronomical Society
Astronomy & Geophysics – Oxford University Press
Published: Jun 1, 2018
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