The JKU Science Holidays Program: The Search for Aliens

Building a rocket car, gazing into space, and much more: The JKU Science Holidays program contains exciting classes and workshops for kids and teens.

[Translate to Englisch:] Science Slam Sieger und Workshop-Leiter Günter Auzinger

Sign up by June 27 and spend a week as a junior researcher exploring the world, space, and the JKU campus. Workshop leader Günter Auzinger talks with us what kids can expect during his workshop.

Mr. Auzinger, you are once again leading a workshop for the JKU Science Holidays program - what is your workshop called?

Günter Auzinger: "How Telescopes Bend Light so we Can Find Aliens".

That’s an exciting title – what can kids expect?
Günter Auzinger: IAfter talking with the kids for a bit about my research, I will show will show them how a very special, giant telescope works.

I am referring to the "Extremely large telescope" (ELT), which is the largest telescope ever built. It will be used for the first time in 2025 (in technical jargon this is referred to as the "first light"). Experts expect it will be the first telescope large and powerful enough to directly image exoplanets (rightn now, we are only familiar with indirect detection). Therefore, if present, it may be the first time we detect extraterrestrial life.

Equipped with an adaptive optics system, the ELT can compensate for air turbulence. Many people are familiar with this kind of air turbulence and know it is air flickering above hot objects (i.e., a radiator or fireplace, or road asphalt on a hot summer day) which makes the background appear blurry. The system uses elastic mirrors to compensate and they can change their shape quickly and dynamically, much like the surface of water. This way, the "bent" light waves are "straightened out" again.

As a visual aid to help kids better understand, I demonstrate using a clothes-drying stand that I have "pimped up" with various pulley systems. It shows light waves passing through the atmosphere until air turbulence appears suddenly, causing the light waves bend. I then hold out a flexible mirror and demonstrate the compensation. This allows me to explain what light actually is, how our eyes work even without a telescope, and why you can see much more using a telescope.

What is so special about the Science Holidays program for you?
Günter Auzinger: I really enjoy working with kids! It can be a challenge for a scientist to explain his/her field of research to non-experts in the field and in this case, these are children and/or teens. But I enjoy "breaking my research down" - not only as part of the JKU Science Holidays program, but also during the time I took part in the Science Slam competition. Besides, children seem to be more curious than adults and ask more questions, which is fun and different!

What was a particular highlight for you from last year’s program?
Günter Auzinger: I was very impressed when a girl asked me about career options for those interested in astronomy – but not becoming an astronaut (laughs)! That’s when I realized my workshop had sparked interest and the children had begun to think a bit more about the subject.