Science & Astronomy
16. September 2018

This weekend, Astronomy Cast celebrates its 500th episode, which will be recorded later today in Edwardsville in front of a live audience! Five hundred half-hour podcasts, more than half of them also streamed live with video during the recording, make up an immeasurable trove of sciencetific and astronomical knowlegde that has always been and always will be available for free.

It all started back in 2006, almost exactly twelve years ago, when podcasts were still a new thing and everything was an experiment. Late summer that year, Astronomer Dr. Pamela Gay, who had already been podcasting before anyone knew what it was and space and science journalist Fraser Cain, the editor of Universe Today, joined forces for the first time to record the inagural episode of Astronomy Cast, which was released on September 10, 2006. Almost exactly twelve years later, the 500th episode is about to be recorded – and there will be many more.

So, how did I get involved with Astronomy Cast? Back in 2013, I wrote a long post for the Hangoutathon fundraiser to chronicle my journey to CosmoQuest, the citizen science project tightly linked to the podcast. This article is a rewriting of this original post with some additional thoughts.

I’ve been always curious about science and astronomy and while I did not grow up to be a scientist, which had mostly to do with the fact that my science education in school was absolutely terrible, I never lost my curiosity – what I learned about science, I learned at home with the aid of many, many books. The path to being a curious internet user was probably paved with my first own computer in 1989 and less than ten years later I had arrived in the web, which even in the early days became an invaluable source of knowledge. The first time the internet became really useful regarding space exploration was when the first Mars lander Pathfinder and its rover Sojourner landed in 1997. We still had to watch the landing on CNN because NASA TV was not yet streaming on the web, but we were able to see the first pictures coming in on the NASA website almost live as it happened.

Around that time, when Netscape was state-of-the-art and the go-to search machine was AltaVista, I was building a giant link library. While poking around the web searching around for more sources about spaceflight and exploration, I found a lot of good stuff, but also a lot of conspiracy theorists, cranks and other entertaining diversions. But there was someone combating all the nonsense: Phil Plait, an astronomer running a website called Bad Astronomy, debunking all the crazy conspiracy stuff out there. Back then, Phil did not even have a proper blog, but as far as I can remember it was through him that I found the space and astronomy news website Universe Today sometime around early 2000.

In these days, Universe Today had become on of my main news sources for everything about science and astronomy, especially after the reporting in the mainstream media had started to slack off in the mid-2000s. The low point was probably in 2008, when CNN had fired its entire science, environment and technology unit including the space reporting veteran Miles O’Brien. And it would have gotten steadily worse if it wasn’t for a few other journalists like Alan Boyle from NBC and, in a completely independent way, Fraser Cain with Universe Today and Phil Plait, who had already started to transform his Bad Astronomy website into a blog in 2005.

At some point I had vaguely become aware of a podcast called Astronomy Cast through Universe Today, but back then I had no real interest in podcasts, because I did not own a portable mp3 player yet. That changed in late 2009 when I managed to acquire an old, used Palm Tungsten T3, which was my first portable device capable of playing mp3s. When I finally got the first real mp3 player in the following spring, the audiobook and podcast fever had broken out completely for me. There was so much amazing stuff to listen out there – giant podcast archives everywhere and especially Astronomy Cast with episodes in the triple digits proved to be a brilliant source of knowledge and even entertainment. Listening to podcasts while doing other mindless tasks was and is wonderful, and I’m not even driving a car like a friend of mine who has to do a lot of traveling, relying on podcasts and audiobooks to combat boredom.

And then, in late 2011, something even more amazing happened, which took me more than half a year to become aware of: Pamela Gay and Fraser Cain had started to record Astronomy Cast as a live video broadcast and there was also something called the Virtual Star Party and a Weekly Science Hangout, the latter also appearing in the audio feed of Astronomy Cast. At first, we in Germany were not even allowed to watch the live broadcasts, which I noticed first when Universe Today and CosmoQuest announced a live Hangout on Air during the Venus transiting the Sun. Apparently we have some obscure laws which say that all kind of broadcasters which have an audience of more than a couple of hundred viewers have to get a state license. For this reason Google had not included Germany in the initial batch of countries allowed to watch the Hangouts on Air. Strangely enough, we were allowed to watch the recorded versions! I was really mad about the situation and not the only one – there had been a lot of protests, but at that point there was nothing to do except be grumpy and wait.

In mid-August 2012 Google had finally resolved the situation and quietly added Germany to the countries being able to watch live. I can’t remember which hangout I watched first, but it was probably Astronomy Cast. Watching live, only with a delay of at worst a couple of seconds, had one huge advantage: suddenly it was possible to ask questions and comment in real-time! I must admit I was at first a bit hesitant to ask anything and thinking of coherent questions in the first place is not easy either, especially if the theme of a show is not exactly one’s speciality. But there are no dumb questions and especially Fraser Cain and Pamela Gay are aware that their viewers are not scientists and are only happy to explain (almost) everything.

At that time, I had also overcome my aversion against social networks and finally joined Facebook, Twitter and later Google+ in late summer 2012. Social media seemed just a toy back then, but Astronomy Cast, Universe Today and CosmoQuest were proving that using the networks as a communication tool in both directions, not only providing content but also actively engaging their readers, was the most important part of science outreach.

Before the live broadcasts had started, the interaction between the podcasters and their audience was limited, but thanks to Google+ and their Hangouts On Air broadcasting system, the viewers were able to directly interact with the broadcasters for the first time. While Astronomy Cast and Universe Today always had a joint web forum, this live interaction was something completely new and ultimately proved to be the genesis of a whole new community. While we nowadays have branched out from just Google+ and are now using Youtube Livestreams, Twitch and even Slack for communication, the platforms really don’t matter – but the community does.

In a couple of hours, Pamela and Fraser are going to record episode 500 in front of an audience that is made up out of members of this community, all of which have become good friends over the course of the last couple of years. Thanks to the wonders of the internet and a hopefully stable connection from the venue, even those like me who were not able to travel all the way to Edwardsville will be able to watch live and be a part of the celebrations. Happy 12th birthday and 500th episode, Astronomy Cast!

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