Last updated July 23, 2018 at 10:03 am
She might study the gases that forms stars, but she is a bright young star in her own right.
Maths isn’t everyone’s favourite subject, yet it was a love of the subject that led Karlie Noon towards astronomy. And now, the Gamileroi woman and astronomy masters student says she is paving her own path to be the “best astronomer that I can be”.
Growing up in Tamworth, NSW, Noon fell in love with maths at a young age. She later moved to Newcastle where she eventually became the first Indigenous person on the east coast of Australia to obtain a double degree in maths and science. She majored in physics.
Now, her life is full of numbers and equations as she looks for gases in our Milky Way galaxy and the way in which they continue to form stars.
She is also doing research into Indigenous astronomy, looking for hidden Aboriginal traditional knowledge within dreamtime stories. Not only is it part of her heritage, she finds different perspectives there that add to our knowledge base.
“I’m taken aback by how much knowledge there actually is,” says Karlie. “The connection between the moon and the tides, for example. This is something we’ve only known about for 400 years, whereas Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders knew about it thousands of years ago.”
Indigenous science in a modern world
Often, she finds, that Indigenous knowledge is discounted by Western science through ignorance and for cultural reasons. Western science, of course, is built upon written records, whereas Indigenous culture is in the oral tradition and so not given the same status. It has also meant that much has been lost.
“A lot of horrible things happened with colonisation and we’ve lost a lot of knowledge, a lot of culture, a lot of language, and, you know, we’re at this point where we can actually say ‘oh no, let’s stop doing that, let’s actually preserve this culture and protect it’,” says Karlie.
But this is not non-Western science against Western science. They are complementary. “The first thing, is just to know that it exists and to acknowledge it,” says Karlie.
Not everybody always sees it that way.
“It can be quite abrasive at times,” says Karlie. “Not everybody wants to view Indigenous astronomy on the same level as Western astronomy and people can be a little bit taken aback by it.
“They can get protective of the knowledge that they were taught and grew up with.”
She likens it to Pluto. “When we demoted Pluto, people were so sad about it. I think it’s kind of like that. That’s … the reaction I get. Not all the time, just sometimes.”
But her approach to astronomy is to make use all of the knowledge systems that exist.
“I want to be the best astronomer that I can be and I don’t think one knowledge system gives me that. I think to be the best astronomer I need to look at all knowledge systems.”
Traditional weather predictions
Her current interests are in using knowledge from several Indigenous nations as an approach to weather predictions as a weather predictor. Many different Indigenous nations, for example, say if there is a moon halo visible, a storm will come.
For now, she’s looking for dreamings that relate to the moon. With a dreaming, or story, she approaches it “with my astronomer eyes on”, trying to decode and release the astrophysical knowledge.
Through her “physicist eyes”, a moon halo physically represents – a ring around the Moon caused by moonlight refracting from ice crystals in the atmosphere – and she tries to interpret whether it makes sense that moon halos represent storms.
But her research methodology for Indigenous astronomy is entirely different from the Western system. She relies on using early settler records to find out information, while keeping in contact with modern Indigenous communities.
Whilst she has connections to her own Gamilaroi nation, she connects with other people in the Indigenous astronomy field who have their own connections to other mobs around the country.
But that Indigenous astronomy work is a far stretch from the data, programming, and maths she uses in her postgraduate research with CSIRO and ANU.
The toolkit of an astronomer
Having been drawn to maths at an early age, Karlie loves experiencing the progression and accomplishment of solving a problem, which lead her to programming and coding. While she knew nothing of it for most of her maths degree, when she started learning her first langauge, Python, she realised that her degree could’ve been so much easier.
“If you learn the language, the computer does the maths for you. I’m so much more efficient in all the work that I do now, just because I have this language to help me out.”
In her current postgraduate studies, she uses data from the Parkes telescope – one of the biggest single dish radio telescopes in the world. And despite its age, it’s still being used for cutting-edge science.
“Looking at the dynamics of molecules of gas, that’s not something you can do with pen and paper. You need complex tools to be able to deal with these problems, and it all comes with programming,” Karlie says
Diversity in STEM education
She is passionate about help inspire young people, particular those who come from poor families and Indigenous kids, to try a career in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).
“A lot of the population, at least in Australia, is kind of systemically locked out of those [STEM] opportunities, and so having having STEM given to you, delivered from different perspectives includes more people, [especially those] wanting to get involved in this.”
That goes for girls, too. “Girls can absolutely do it and they can smash it just as well as any other person can.”
As society moves towards an ever-increasing technology-driven world, “we need to keep up with this new knowledge coming out,” says Karlie. “The more up-to-date skills you have, the less likely you’re going to be left unemployed or doing something you don’t really enjoy.”
In particular with Australia, it’s an exciting time to be interested in astronomy and space with the recent announcements of an Australian space agency. There’s already lots of action happening, like the the biggest radio telescopes in the world currently being built in Western Australia.
“We have some amazing facilities, some amazing scientists and researchers, and I think […] we’re a bit of a hub for astronomy at the moment.”
The future is looking bright for science and the next generation.