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Hi! We're paleoanthropologist John Hawks and astronomer Eric Wilcots at UW--Madison and we're trying to uncover the origins of humankind and galaxies by partnering with our South African colleagues. Ask Us Anything!
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Edit: Thanks everyone! We’re stepping away for now but might check back for new questions later. This was a blast, thanks for the great questions! -Eric and John Hi! I’m John Hawks and I’m a paleoanthropologist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. I study the fossil and genetic evidence for human origins. I’ve done fieldwork around the world, most recently in South Africa with Lee Berger, where our team has uncovered the fossils of Homo naledi in the Rising Star cave system. Our origins are a big topic, and I’m here to share some of the new perspectives on human origins coming from fossil and genetic discoveries. Many old ideas have changed in the face of new evidence, and it’s an exciting field that changes every day. Where did we come from, and how did we get here? That’s what we’re studying. I’m on Twitter @johnhawks. And I’m Eric Wilcots and I’m a professor of astronomy at UW–Madison. I study how galaxies acquire the gas they need to form stars, and what role the environments of galaxies play in the process. My work involves a number of telescopes around the world, including the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) in Sutherland, South Africa. UW–Madison is the second-largest partner outside the South African government in maintaining and running the telescope, which became operational in 2005. I have been involved since 2000 and I am currently a member of SALT’s board. At SALT and other telescopes around the globe (including radio telescopes, too), my team and I ask questions that are helping us understand the ecology of galaxy groups, which is the most common environment in which galaxies reside. It’s a bit different from the observing I did with my first telescope as an 8-year-old kid in Philadelphia, but it’s been rewarding all the same. I’m especially passionate about working with students and sharing astronomy with people who don’t necessarily study it. In fact, one of my favorite public outreach events is Universe in the Park, a free, weekly “star party” in state parks all over Wisconsin. It attracts more than 4,000 people each summer! I also help steer the annual Wisconsin Science Festival, which brings science into communities all over the state. I suppose I would be remiss if I did not also mention that I once made an appearance as a “Way Cool Scientist” in an early episode of Bill Nye the Science Guy. Along with my graduate student, Julie Davis, John, our colleague Clark Johnson in geoscience and tons of other partners in Wisconsin and South Africa, I’ve been part of UW–Madison’s Origins storytelling project for the last year. We’re really excited to share this project with you by answering questions today about some of the biggest mysteries in nature, like where everything we see around us comes from. You can check out more at origins.wisc.edu.