Listening Topic: Astronomy – Interview about amateur astronomers

A. Listen to the interview. As you listen, note the answers to these questions.

1   What does Robert Evans search for?

2   What is his special ability?

B. Listen to the interview again. Choose the correct answer for each item.

 According to Sharon Lee, amateur astronomers have made important discoveries related to ____.

      a   the moon and supernovas

      b   comets and supernovas

 A supernova is a giant dying star that is ____.

      a   bigger than our sun

      b   the same size as our sun

 Robert Evans has found ____.

      a   35 or more supernovas

      b   less than 35 supernovas

4   Evans observes the stars from ____.

      a   a special observatory

      b   his house

 What example does a writer use to describe Evans’ ability to memorize patterns of stars?

      a   1500 handfuls of salt on one table.

      b   a handful of salt on each of 1500 tables

 Compared to professional astronomers observing stars, Evans could ____.

      a   change to different telescopes faster

      b   move his telescope faster

 Because of new technology that takes thousands of photos of the sky ____.

      a   astronomers have learned more about each supernova

      b   astronomers have found more supernovas

 Robert Evans ____.

      a   doesn’t want to use this technology

      b   wants to use this technology



Answers will vary.

1   Robert Evans searches for supernovas and dying stars.

2   He can memorize patterns of stars very well.


1 b   2 a   3 a   4 b   5 b   6 b   7 b   8 a


A = Host, B = Sharon Lee

A:   OK, now we have Sharon Lee here to talk about people in astronomy. Hello Sharon.

B:   Hi Nicky.

A:   What, or should I say, who, are you doing to tell us about today?

B:   We’re going to look at amateur astronomers today. Many people don’t realize that some amateurs have been pretty important in astronomy. Some significant discoveries have been made by amateurs.

A:   Really?

B:   Yes. The two main areas of discovery are identifying new comets and hunting for supernovas.

A:   What are supernovas?

B:   If you’ll let me come back to that in a second, I want to add that astronomy is really one of the few fields where amateurs actually make a lot of discoveries … Think about biology or physics, there just aren’t as many examples of someone, who is not a professional or expert, making some kind of significant discovery in those fields.

A:   Hmm, I see what you mean.

B:   Now, back to supernovas. A supernova is a giant dying star – and when I say “giant,” I mean larger than our sun – and this dying star explodes and produces an enormous amount of energy.

A:   And, amateurs can see, or find these?

B:   Yes, but they are extremely rare. Something like eighty have been recorded since they were discovered in the 1930s. And it’s not an easy task to see them.

A:   Why is that?

B:   Well, let me tell you about the person who is probably the most successful amateur looking for supernovas, and that will give you a better idea.

A:   OK.

B:   Robert Evans is a retired minister who lives in Australia. He began looking for supernovas in 1980, and he’s found at least 35 of them.

A:   Thirty-five out of the total of about 80? That seems impressive.

A:   It definitely is. He doesn’t use particularly fancy equipment, and he observes from the back deck of his home. Now the most amazing part of this is his memory. He has an extraordinary ability to memorize patterns of stars, and this is what has enabled him to find so many supernovas.

B:   What do you mean when you say “extraordinary”?

A:   Well, the writer Bill Bryson included a chapter on Evans in a recent book called A Short History of Nearly Everything.

B:   That’s an intriguing title!

A:   Yes, isn’t it? Anyway, he explains Evans’s ability to memorize this way: he says to imagine a standard dining room table with a black cloth on it, then throw a handful of salt across it. The handful of salt would be like a galaxy. A galaxy is a large group of stars, and there are a lot of them.

A:   OK, so a table with a handful of salt represents a galaxy.

B:   Right. Bryson then says to imagine 1,500 tables, each with a handful of salt across them.

A:   And, each handful of salt on the 1,500 tables would be a galaxy?

B:   Exactly. Now Bryson says to imagine one grain of salt – that’s one grain – put anywhere on one of the tables. Then have Robert Evans walk among the tables, and he would be able to find the one new grain of salt.

A:   Wow. That really something. So he basically memorizes the patterns of stars in all those different galaxies?

B:   Yes, and then he can notice something new and that’s how he’s been able to identify supernovas.

A:   That really is extraordinary! He must spend a lot of time searching for these things.

B:   Yes, but remember he’s an amateur. This isn’t his job, so he does this in addition to his daily life.

A:   I can’t imagine how many hours he’s spent at night looking at the sky.

B:   I know. It truly is a passion for these amateurs …. Now, in addition to his amazing ability to memorize star patterns, Robert Evans has had two other advantages. First, he lives in Australia, and for quite a while he was pretty much the only amateur astronomer looking in the Southern Hemisphere. All the other amateurs were in the Northern Hemisphere.

A:   And what was the other advantage?

B:   It was actually that he had a smaller telescope than the professionals use. That, combines with his memory, meant that he could move his telescope a lot faster than other people’s and observe more galaxies in one night, which made it more likely that he might see one of these rare dying stars. Things have changed though … professionals – and now even amateurs – now use something like a digital camera on the telescope that can take thousands of pictures. Then, they use a computer to analyze the photos. They’ve been able to find a lot more supernovas as a result of this technology.

A:   And what about Robert Evans … does he use this technology now?

B:   No, apparently he says he doesn’t want to use it. He says he wants to continue using his method. I’m sure he realizes that he may have fewer finds, but I guess he must still find it satisfying.

A:   Hmm. Well, that was fascinating, Sharon. Thank you very much for coming in today.

B:   You’re welcome.

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