Listening to Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock’s enthusiasm for space bubbling up and spilling down the phone, I realise why a new generation of star gazers have taken to this subject with such eagerness.
Her own passion for space was awakened at a very early age, she tells me. ‘I’ve been interested in space for as far back as I can remember. There were three main instigators, the first was the moon landings. I was too young to remember it, but I was brought up in a sort of hubbub of excitement because people had landed on the moon, so I was aware of this and was very excited by it. I think there was ‘moon fever’ in the air and I was growing up in that.
‘On top of that, there were wonderful things like The Clangers, which I still love dearly, that were talking about space and everything beyond, so my idea was to go out there, look at the moon and then go and visit the Clangers. That was my goal when I was three years old. I became a space scientist because of watching The Clangers.
A special episode has been created to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the moon landings, and also 50 years of Clangers, whose commission was inspired by the space race. 'The Visitor’, airing on 20th July, will see an astronaut, inspired by Maggie, touch down on the Little Blue Planet and meet the loveable pink mouse-like creatures who communicate in whistles and eat green soup.
‘The third thing was Star Trek, it was everything I loved. I already had a love of space, and with Star Trek I was able to go on amazing journeys with fantastic people. I always loved Spock, but my favourite was definitely Lieutenant Uhura. I got to meet her about two years ago. Dreams can come true.’
Many of Dr Maggie’s childhood dreams have since come true, but they were backed up with extraordinary determination and tenacity.
As a primary school student, Maggie suffered severely from dyslexia, that was undiagnosed, and put in the school’s remedial class. As she writes in her new The Sky at Night Book of the Moon ‘There I sat with my desire to travel into space feeling like a pipe dream.’ However, with her parents’ encouragement to work hard at whatever interested her, science fiction was the spark that kindled a life-long passion for space.
Later, as a teenager with little money to spend on stargazing equipment, the 15-year-old Maggie joined a telescope-making evening class, where the rest of the students were men aged over 50. Shaping the mirror for her Cassegrain system telescope took many months (Dr Maggie used to grind her mirror while watching Star Trek).
Being the only female in the class is something that happened many more times during her career, although as she acknowledges, there are more women going into science nowadays, there is still a gender disparity in certain subjects. As she says, ‘If you look at the numbers, in some areas girls are dominating. In areas like biology and medicine, there are more girls going into these subjects than boys. But as you go down the list, as you start getting to subjects like physics, computing and engineering, you’re going down to 20%. There are some areas within STEM where there is a horrible under-representation of women and girls.’
‘It’s interesting, because I’ve got an eight-year-old daughter, and I think the stereotype is given from an early age. In shops there are girls’ toys and boys’ toys, I think they’re trying to do it less, but you still see it. The boys’ toys are engineering and computing, and the girls’ toys are nurturing and caring. Why not have both?
‘We are almost dictating this, we buy cars for boys and dolls for girls, I think that’s where it starts. There was a video made, a number of years ago, where they were asking girls why they don’t study physics, and the girls were saying, well, one, if you do physics you can only become a physics teacher, two, no women have done well enough in physics to become famous. The problem is, they panned across the wall of the school, and they had all these famous scientists, Stephen Hawking, Newton, they actually had Professor Bunsen from The Muppets, but they didn’t have one female scientist. The girls were indoctrinated with the idea that it’s only the guys who do physics. Also, they felt that if they did physics, they wouldn’t be able to get on because girls don’t do this subject, so no one would take them seriously.’
I asked Dr Maggie if she felt she had faced any hurdles in being taken seriously as a space scientist.
‘It’s interesting, actually, because in the space industry I was working as a project manager, or as a programme manager, managing lots of different projects. What I found is, when I initially turned up, people would look at me, as if to say ‘who’s she, and what is she doing here?’ And they would say, ‘This is your new project manager,’ and it was like ‘really?’, because they were not used to seeing a black woman in that role. But when we got working on the project and they realised that I was just as competent as everybody else on the team, and just as hardworking, then the barriers just disappeared.
‘Especially early on in my career, there were a few incidents that were a bit unfortunate. I’d be sitting in a meeting and someone would come up and say, ‘Yeah, two sugars in my coffee, love’ They would just assume I was administration staff. And it’s quite interesting what you do in a situation like that, do you go ‘How dare you!’ But what’s wrong with being administration staff? What I’d like to do is use the element of surprise, and maybe even get them the coffee, but then say, ‘OK let’s bring this meeting to a head’. It’s like re-education about stereotypes.
‘I remember one time, a contractor who was doing some work for me, I turned up at their offices for a meeting, and one of the guys said, ‘Oh here are the keys love, can you start cleaning the offices at the back?’ Just assumed I was the cleaner. In his mind black woman = cleaner. That’s all he could equate. The fact that I was a scientist, had just got my PhD and was using their company on one of my contracts, just couldn’t compute.
‘I think these stereotypes that persist, and that’s why it’s really nice, wherever possible, to knock them down. I get to go out to schools, I get the opportunity to say ‘I’m black, I’m female, I’m a scientist and I love my work. This is what I do, and yeah, you can do it too. Or whatever else you love.’
‘I wanted to do physics no matter what, it was my dream to get me to my goal of getting out into space, so whether it was male dominated, whether there were no black people, I didn’t care. I just wanted to do it.’
‘Over the years, I’ve spoken to 300,000 schoolkids, and my main message is ‘have a crazy dream’, my crazy dream is reaching for the stars, because by having a crazy dream, you overcome hurdles. I may never get out into space, but I’m so glad that I had the dream of getting into space. I haven’t given up, but it’s more of a retirement plan now!’
So, if you’ve got a young stargazer in your family, how do you encourage him or her? Do you have to spend a fortune on equipment? Where can you go? Reassuringly, Dr Maggie says that ‘just to start off with, one of the best things you can do, on a clear, crisp night, is just to step outside and check out what you can see.
‘At the moment, I think we can see four or five planets, we can see Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Virtually all the planets you can see with the naked eye are visible at the moment. They appear at different times of the night, so you can go online and see what’s due to appear and when. The idea that you can look at Mars, and light from the Sun has been beamed out and reflected by Mars to land in your eye gives, me shivers thinking about it.
‘And there are some great apps as well that you can get on your smartphone now, you point them up at the night sky and they can tell you what you’re seeing, they make stargazing really easy. For cloudy nights there’s books, television programmes, and lots of stuff on the Internet. The European Space Agency and NASA have a wealth of cartoons and things like that, that are really accessible to kids. They can find out about comets, planets, all sorts. I think if you see something in the night sky then go and find out about it, that’s a wonderful voyage of discovery at any age.
‘The wonderful thing about astronomy is that if you look at many other areas of science, like biology or things like the large Hadron Collider, the public can’t get involved that much. But the nature of astronomy means that amateurs can look at a planet like Jupiter and detect something, and tell the professional astronomers, ‘hey, check this out’. So they have been a trigger, in many situations, of us looking at something they’ve spotted because there are many eyes, all looking out there.
‘There are also often great citizen science projects. I do the Sky at Night every month, and my co-presenter Chris Lintott is a professor at Oxford and he specialises in citizen science projects. One of the things about space at the moment is, we’ve got space telescopes, we’re gathering a huge amount of data but sometimes we can’t process it, because there’s just so much. We can train computers, but they’re not as good as the human eye, so we’ve got many people of all ages, who actually log on to these projects. One of them is GalaxyZoo, which is detecting different types of galaxies. In some cases, the citizen scientists have written papers with the scientists, publishing the new results that have been found. That’s what I love about astronomy, it really is for everybody, and anybody can make a difference and improve human knowledge.
‘I love the idea that it’s not just scientists in their ivory towers, pondering the universe. We can all do it!’
Great places to explore space with the family, chosen by Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock
Great places to visit with the grandchildren, chosen by Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock
- The National Space Centre, Leicester
- Royal Observatory, Greenwich
- Science Museum, London
- The Observatory Science Centre, Herstmonceux, Sussex
- Winchester Science Centre
- We The Curious, Planetarium Bristol
- Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre
- Thinktank Birmingham Science Museum
- Glasgow Science Centre
- Techniquest Cardiff
- Armagh Observatory and Planetarium
As well as days out there are some great places to do stargazing. The website www.nightblight.cpre.org.uk highlights some of the best locations.
Buy The Sky at Night Book of the Moon by Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock from the Saga Bookshop