Chatting With: Dr. Chong Hon Yew, Co-Director of Malaysian Astronomy Olympiad (MyAO)

Associate Professor Dr Chong Hon Yew is a retired lecturer in Physics at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM). He founded Kelab Astronomi USM in 1986; Penang Astronomical Society in 2016. His enthusiasm for astronomy is nothing short of infectious. Despite being in his 60s, Dr Chong continuously seeks to inspire people to stargaze not only the wonders of astronomy but also the positive impact it has on our lives. 

To this end, Dr Chong devotes most of his time today to outreach activities, explaining the basics of astronomy to the general public, bringing down the mysteries of our Universe down to Earth for everyoneof all ages to understand. Dr Chong has trained many students in the field of astronomy and conducted many astronomy programs across Malaysia for various age groups. 

At present, Dr Chong works as a science communicator teaching Introductory Astronomy at Tech Dome Penang. Besides, Dr Chong is also the co-director of Malaysian Astronomy Olympiad (MyAO); an annual national level competition designed to promote interest in astronomy and astrophysics among secondary school students. 

Can you tell us a little about your background and what is your role at MyAO?

I am Dr. Chong Hon Yew, the president of the Astronomical Society of Penang. I was a physics lecturer in Universiti Sains Malaysia and also taught astronomy classes there. I am currently the main trainer and the leader of the Malaysian team in the International Astronomy Olympiad.

For our readers out there who might not be familiar with MyAO, explain to us what’s MyAO and what does it do

MyAO is the Malaysian Astronomy Olympiad. It is a national Olympiad competition, open to students aged 13 to 18 years old. The competition is “exam style” with the theme of astronomy. The best students of the final round of MyAO will represent Malaysia in the International Astronomy Olympiad (IAO) the following year. For your information, the five best students from last year’s MyAO (2018) is going to Romania for IAO this year in October (2019).

How long has MyAO been established and what inspired you to start/join MyAO?

MyAO was established in 2018. Before that, I organized the first ever Malaysian Astronomy Olympiad in 2013 in USM which opens to Penang students. Even Though the questions were following the international standard and very tough for them, the responds were excellent, and it actually inspires them to learn more about astronomy. I have always been passionate to promote astronomy and I think astronomy olympiad is one of the best ways to inspire the kids to explore astronomy. On top of that, being an Olympian is a prestigious achievement and it will open many doors for the kids, if they’re interested to further their studies.

What gives you the most satisfaction in the work you are doing?

The most satisfying moment is when the kids are so eager to study mathematics and physics behind astronomy, and you can see their effort in finding relevant books and websites. On top of that, introducing an international-standard competition to the students also in my opinion will raise the bar higher in the astronomy understanding among the Malaysian students.

What learning outcomes do you prioritise at MyAO

In MyAO, we train the students to answer questions for the three categories in IAO- theoretical, practical and observational. While preparing for the competition, more than just learning interesting facts about the universe, they also learn the mathematical and physical scientific skills like algebra, trigonometry, celestial mechanics, classical mechanics and many more. Even though they might not pursue a career in astronomy, these skills will help them in other scientific field.

How did you get interested in astrophysics and astronomy? What’s the difference between astronomy and astrophysics?

I became very interested in astronomy when I was in high school, many years ago. I remember entering the KL library and got interested after reading science fiction book series written by Isaac Asimov. From there I learn that there is a lot of crazy ideas and phenomena happening in the universe, waiting for us to explore! Astronomy is a very wide subject which usually involves general principle and concept. However, astrophysics goes deeper into the subjects, involving physical and mathematical understanding, involving subjects such as celestial mechanics, relativity and quantum mechanics.

If I want to be an astrophysicist or astronomer, what should I study in university?

I would like to advise the aspiring young astronomer to enroll in a bachelor of science (physics) course in university. To get there, make sure you never give up in learning mathematics and science in school. There is a significant number of Malaysian astronomers working locally and abroad that are involved in big projects. For example, Dr. Kevin Koay, involved in the research the famous first ever image of black hole, Dr Adlyka who’s discovered a new black hole, Dr Wan Amani who worked with important mission in NASA, and many more! It could be your child in the future.

How are physicists related to astronomers?

In fact, many astronomers are practicing physicists. However, astronomers apply physics beyond the phenomena on Earth, but also to those occurring outside the Earth and to the entire universe!

What will happen if an astronomer discovers something new?

Depending on what type of astounding discovery they opportune to make. They can become famous. If you discover new objects like asteroids or comets, the object will be named after you, and everyone around the world will talk about you.

What’s the most amazing and little known space discoveries in recent years that the masses should be aware of?

The most amazing discovery that still excites me but little known by the general public is the confirmation by the Planck satellite is that the universe is made up of only 5% of normal matter, and the rest are 68% of dark energy, and 27% of dark matter which we still don’t fully understand. This discovery tells us everything about our universe in terms of the past, present and the ultimate fate of the universe.

Last question, a parent myself, I have a 3-year-old son, can you suggest a few children’s astronomy books I can buy for him?

Science fiction like the ones written by Isaac Asimov. But to me, a very effective way to learn astronomy is to join the amateur astronomy club. Join their stargazing, let them use telescopes, see through telescope the craters of the Moon, rings of Saturn, Jupiter’s moons, galaxies, nebulae, and much more! The child should also experience solar and lunar eclipses, meteor showers. I’m sure they will get excited to experience them and hopefully it will spark their curiosity to understand how the universe works because the best way to learn is by following your curiosity.

Get In Touch With MyAOFacebook & Website

MyAO profile at Listing at emakayah.com

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