Looking up with Kirsten Banks, astrophysicist

Have you ever tried to count the stars in the night sky? How many could you see?

Kirsten Banks is an astronomy pro who has counted a lot of stars. She’s been obsessed with the skies since she shocked her kindy teacher by telling her class she was going to be ‘a meteorologist’ (weather forecaster) when she grew up. That’s a very big word for a five-year-old!

With her love of the skies still burning brightly, Kirsten studied physics and astrophysics at uni and is now in her honours year looking at how the biggest and brightest galaxies in the local universe are changing and evolving. She also works part-time as a tour guide at the Sydney Observatory where she loves to get visitors excited about looking up and learning about the night sky.

“In my opinion, it’s integral to our lives,” she says. “Looking at the night sky and looking out and beyond gives us our place in the universe. It can sometimes make you feel insignificant, and that’s OK, but no matter where you come from, our ancestors have been looking up to the stars for thousands of years.”

Through her research at the Sydney Observatory, Kirsten discovered she is of Wiradjuri descent and takes particular interest in how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have used the stars for 65,000 years. “Over that time, the stars haven’t changed that much,” she says. “So they’re always there to be read. With the Dreamtime, the night sky is the story book that you read the stories from.”

The stars also provide very practical and essential uses. “All Indigenous nations around Australia have used the stars for navigation,” she says. One example is the Kamilaroi people of northern NSW who use points on the constellation known in Western astronomy as ‘the Scorpion’ as way points (or markers) when they’re travelling long distances, to make sure they don’t get lost and can always find their way home.

Stars can even be used to predict the weather, depending on their ‘twinkliness’. “For people in the Torres Strait, if the stars have a really intense twinkling, that lets the Meriam people know that storms are quickly approaching,” says Kirsten.

Amazingly, the Wiradjuri people can use the night sky as a seasonal menu. Kirsten’s favourite constellation is the ‘Celestial Emu’ or ‘Gugurmin’ in the Wiradjuri language. This constellation, which you can see sitting in the Milky Way, varies its position throughout the year and lets you know the best time to look for emu eggs.

“When the emu’s feet are touching the horizon, it looks like it’s running along the ground which indicates the emus are running around looking for a mate,” she explains.

Later in the year, as the Earth moves around the sun, the emu’s body moves up higher in the sky, and when it’s directly above you after sunset, it looks like an emu egg in a nest. “That’s our indication that it’s the right time to go looking for emu eggs and they’ll be plentiful,” says Kirsten. Time to make a giant emu egg omelette! Yum!

“One of the biggest concepts in Aboriginal astronomy is that ‘what’s in the sky is matched and mirrored on the ground’,” says Kirsten. Gugurmin is a great example of this.

Kirsten encourages everyone to go out at night and see the skies, although you’ll get a better view if you’re far away from the cities. “There are actually over 2,500 stars visible from Earth,” Kirsten says. “But from our major cities, you can only see around 125 at best.” This is because of ‘light pollution’ or excess light from street lights and buildings which blocks our view of the stars and planets. Perfect excuse for a road trip!

Kirsten is still early in her career but has already been asked to share her knowledge in a TEDx talk which has been viewed almost 50,000 times on YouTube. “My plan after this year is to go straight into a PhD and become ‘Dr Kirsten Banks’,” she says.

I look forward to watching Kirsten’s career taking off and in the meantime, I’ll be looking up at the stars with a totally different perspective.

Thanks Kirsten.

My advice to all the kids out there is:
• Follow your dreams, because if you put your mind to it, you can do anything.
• Try everything. If you don’t know what your passion is, that’s OK. Give everything a go. You’ll eventually find something you like.