A Journey to the Planets: Europlanet Funding Scheme 2022 Winner

A Journey to the Planets: how to make children fall in love with space

Making children curious about space and planetary sciences through play and puppet theatre is the idea conceived and developed by Katia Pinheiro and the team of “Journey to the Planets“, the winning proposal of this year’s Europlanet Funding scheme for public engagement.

The project will start by producing a series of short movies with stories about the planets told by Bimbim’s team, an original and funny puppet theatre. The videos will come with illustrations and animations to better express the scientific content which, for now, will focus on a general overview of all Solar System planets, the Earth and Mars.

The promise is that more will come, thanks to the support and work of many researchers from Germany, Macedonia, India, Argentina, UK, and the producer and the theatre companies from Brazil. Reflecting the international nature of the project, the videos will be translated into several languages (initially Portuguese, English and French), in hopes of reaching an international scale. 

Federica Duras interviewed the project leader Katia Pinheiro, who nurtures a passion for science outreach, especially directed to children. This project is an opportunity to pursue her dream to combine the two.

Katia, where does “Journey to the Planets” come from? What’s the trigger behind it?
I want to transmit science to children. Initiating children into scientific subjects is not a trivial task. I thought about a way to attract their attention and a way to encourage their critical thinking and active participation. Puppet theatre seemed to be a good idea since puppets have the power to fascinate children. Charismatic characters as interlocutors may talk about science in an unconventional and fun way. The strategy to combine science and art may be a powerful way to awaken children’s
curiosity about planetary sciences.

Katia Pinheiro and her dog Jobim

Why Bimbim? What is that?
Bimbim is the nickname for Jobim, who was a famous composer of Brazilian music. I gave his name to a smart and funny small dog some years ago. This little dog was very charismatic and liked to “talk” to everybody around him, especially children. He is the inspiration for the protagonist of the stories: courageous, curious and fun!

How many people are involved in the creation and subsequent implementation of
the project?

There are 15 people involved in the different parts of the project: story writing, production, filming, puppet manipulation, dubbing and animation. This project brings together artists and scientists from different parts of the world working on various research areas. All the co-applicants of this project are female professionals of arts and science. The scientific co-applicants will participate with ideas and scientific content for the stories. The theatre company “Papa Vento” is involved in the artistic part and they will manipulate the puppets. An audiovisual director and producer will capture the images in the best way to tell the stories.

What is the near future of the project?
We will produce short movies with three stories about the planets: a general overview of all solar system planets, Earth and Mars. The release of the movies will be in January, 2023. We expect that these stories will also call the attention of schools and parents to bring science closer to their children. Another project outcome is the large involvement of female scientists and thus the possibility of attracting children from under-represented groups to become scientists. Our target audience is primarily school students between the ages of 2 and 8 years old but it also involves the audience of educators. The plan is to share the videos with many schools and social media channels across Europe and other countries worldwide.

An example of visual from the story “Journey to the center of the Earth”

What do you expect from Europlanet as a link for the project?
Europlanet is a very important link for starting the first science story of “Bimbim’s team”. The support of Europlanet for outreach and education projects promotes new initiatives and, in the case of this project, tackles the challenge of reaching as many children as possible and awakening their curiosity for planetary sciences. The dissemination of the puppet videos by Europlanet will encourage more scientists and organisations to take the step of creating something similar and spreading the word. In addition, the commitment of Europlanet to equality, diversity and inclusivity perfectly matches the intentions of this project.

And what about the distant future of “Journey to the planets”? 
We plan to extend these stories to other planets and science topics in the near future. We expect that after these videos are ready, schools and companies may become interested and request presentations in place or other online videos with science stories. New stories coming in the future will be about the deep Earth, ocean, space and others. We believe that once we start this project, new ideas will emerge that will be the seed for next larger projects.

Fingers crossed, we look forward to following the first steps of Bimbim and its friends!
Thanks Katia.

James O’Donoghue and his animated Universe

Is it possible to make good scientific communication in a simple and intriguing way? The answer is yes, and Dr James O’Donoghue, winner of this year’s Europlanet Prize for Public Engagement, is proof of that.

James, ground-based infrared astronomer of Jupiter, Saturn and Uranus at JAXA, Japan, has a simple goal in mind: to paint an accurate picture of the Solar System in people’s minds, at the same time highlighting its most relevant features in an intuitive way. Its trademark are short and content-rich animations, now with more than 200 million views on his social networks and used by teachers, in outreach events, for press releases and space missions descriptions.

“I’m lucky because the Universe is a cool topic,” he says. We, on the other hand, think that his idea of making science simply using images and animations is incredible, and so we decided to find out more.

Federica Duras and Livia Giacomini interviewed James about his outreach activity, how it started and what it means for him.

James, what is your scientific area and background? Which is your favourite planet and mission, i.e. the one you never get tired of talking about?
My area of expertise is in observing the uppermost parts of the atmospheres of Jupiter and Saturn. After Earth, I’d have to say my favourite planet lately is either one of the Ice Giants Uranus or Neptune! It used to be Saturn, but I changed my mind recently as these freezing cold giants have so many unknowns. That’s mostly because they’ve only ever had 1 fly-by of a spacecraft ever, in the 1980s, so you could say that I’m getting somewhat obsessed by their mysteriousness! The Cassini spacecraft is my favourite mission, it was a real tank of a spacecraft that orbited Saturn for 13 years and made countless discoveries.

Is it easy to combine your scientific and your communicator activity? What does making and sharing scientific animations represent for you?
I would say that my communication is mainly through the medium of animations or images, I think it’s the fastest way to get the information across and the most fun! I enjoy making animations, I feel that it’s finally a way for me to have a creative outlet, especially as I was never good at more traditional forms of art. Making these animations allows me to blend science with design and share my personal view of space with people directly. In other words, I often have some picture about how some space phenomenon works in my head, and while I could explain that to someone with words, I much prefer to show them that picture. When some of my first videos went viral, it was a bit of a psychological shock to my system as an introvert, actually, as it felt like millions of people were getting a direct line into my thoughts that I had displayed in the animation! After getting over that, however, I have since started to really enjoy that connection with people and made almost 100 new videos since then. My motivations began and continue with the feedback received from the public and educators out there who have continued to be fascinated and surprised by how the universe works, without them I might have stopped or slowed down early on.

What is your best animation, the one you are never tired of looking at and are very proud of having made?
My favourite animation is the light speed one, as it is something I have wanted to get across for a long time. Since I was a teenager I realised the vast distances in space take a long time to cross, even at light speed, and honestly it fills me with horror to think about how distant we are from even the nearest planets. It would take at least several thousand years to get to the nearest star with our fastest spacecraft, and that’s just over 4 light years away! The entire galaxy is 100,000 light years across and the nearest large galaxy is 2.5 million light years away. These distances are unthinkably vast even at light speed, and it’s been my pleasure to share this nightmare with tens of millions of people.

James in a Japanese documentary. Credits: James O’Donoghue

Which scientific fact or idea you would like to explain and never managed to explain with an animation (yet)?
I would like to explain general and special relativity, but I need time to investigate how best to teach it visually.

You once were in NASA and now are at Jaxa, in Japan. How would you describe the life of a space scientist to a young student deciding for his/her future?
The main thing I would say is that space science will keep you busy by growing dozens of different skills simultaneously. It’s not just about observing with a telescope or receiving data from a distant spacecraft, the job entails a large amount of computer programming and writing. You will not get bored at all and will never run out of things to do. You can certainly find the things you are best at and become the world’s expert in it quite quickly, since there are usually very few people working in each area. There are only 10,000s of astronomers and space scientists out there and we have an entire universe to cover. To speak frankly and honestly, it is a tough job in terms of job security because most of the time you will be operating on an approximately 3 year contract until getting a permanent job. 

Coming back to you, what are your plans and dreams for your future working life? 
My dream job is certainly one which combines research and outreach with a bit of teaching. Right now my outreach efforts are mostly done in my free time, and as my free time is getting smaller every year, I would like to do it as part of my job in a more serious way.

And given the results, we cross our fingers!
Thanks James.