IN A LIGHTER VEIN: “I think they (the aliens) are out there but I don’t think we will ever meet them,” quips the space scientist.
By Anand Holla
Standing against overwhelming odds, the story of leading space scientist Maggie Aderin-Pocock rings with such staggering success that one would be tempted to brush it off as merely fortuitous.
However, even the greatest cynic can’t knock down her dedication and focus.
Knowing how the spirited 40-something is completely at ease donning the roles of a space scientist, TV presenter of the popular BBC series The Sky at Night, and a science educator, her talk to an audience of 120 at the Georgetown University in Qatar, on Monday, as part of the British Festival’s Café Scientifique series, was bound to be both insightful and intriguing.
The British space science wiz began her talk titled Shedding Light on the Universe by explaining what light is and went on take the audience through an exciting trip “through time and space to see how our ideas of the universe have evolved.”
Aderin-Pocock has braved seemingly insurmountable obstacles to realise her dream of exploring the cosmos. Her Nigerian parents divorced when she was four, and she moved between 13 schools during her childhood while she battled with dyslexia.
Spurred by the lure of meeting characters of an animated TV series who reside on a small, moon-like planet, Maggie stepped up. After obtaining her degree in Physics and her PhD in Mechanical Engineering from Imperial College London, she spent years creating novel, bespoke instrumentation — everything from hand-held land mine detectors to optical subsystems for the James Webb Space Telescope.
Her love of sharing her fascination with the universe has seen her embark on an endless series of school visits. She has given her presentations to more than 170,000 people around the world. Here, Maggie talked to Community at length about everything that fascinates her.
This is the International Year of Light. What does it mean to you?
I think we very much take light for granted. When I was putting this talk together, I was thinking about how much we understand what’s out there through light because we had no other means of interacting with the universe. By looking at the light in our galaxy, we come up with ideas of how big we think our universe is.
What about light interests you so much? How did the fascination begin?
When I was about three years old, I used to watch a cartoon programme on BBC, back home. It was called The Clangers; a stop-motion animated TV series about these little mouse-like creatures that live on a planet in space. I wanted to meet them. Then, I decided I wanted to get out there and become an astronaut. Also, I heard about people like Yuri Gagarin and Neil Armstrong.
You have been vocal about triumphing dyslexia. How tough was it to overcome that?
School is very much about reading and writing, and for a dyslexic, that becomes much more challenging. My teachers thought I wouldn’t achieve much, but I was very much saved by science. I went into a science class and answered questions that no-one else in the class could. I would so often think of myself as this dumb one at the back of the classroom, and suddenly, I was able to participate in classes. As I did well in science, I got better at my other subjects as well. It transformed my life.
Were you naturally inclined towards science?
Many dyslexics give into science. I think there are two reasons for this. With History or English, it’s all about reading and writing — lots of words. But with sciences, the language is mathematics. Also, I think many dyslexics have good 3D spatial awareness. Dyslexia makes your reading and writing bad, but it gives you the added advantage of 3D spatial awareness.
Please share with us your first interaction with the tools, like telescopes?
I was always fascinated by space and wanted to have a telescope. In my teens, as we didn’t have much money, I bought a cheap one from a shop back in the UK. But it had plastic lenses and suffered from chromatic aberration. I was very disappointed. I then joined a telescope-making class in Camden, North London, where I was then living. You get two pieces of glasses, and you grind them and make a mirror which needs to be a parabola, so as to get sharp focus. It took me probably six months or a year but I made my first telescope. That was wonderful. I became an instrumentationalist.
What sort of joys did this breakthrough lead you on to?
One lovely thing was that I was able to look up at the moon, because in London, we have a lot of light pollution and the stars are quite hard to see. But if you get the moon, when it’s not full, aah, it looks beautiful. When I looked at it through the telescope, the craters jumped out at me. And I could see them in detail. Not only could I look at the moon, but I could do so using something which I had made with my own hands. It was very rewarding.
What fascination did you nurture within, which carried you forward? Was it that the more you learned, the more you wanted to know?
I think it’s that strong desire to get out there. I always knew that it was scientists that got people into space. You would hear about rockets and space, and it sounded like a pretty cool job (smiles). When I started my career, I wasn’t actually working in space. But I was looking for such opportunities. After taking up a number of different jobs, I was actually able to work as a space scientist. I worked on ground-based telescopes at first; the beautiful Gemini telescope in South America, which is an 80-metre telescope having a mirror bigger than this room, and James Webb space telescope. It was a dream come true.
What sort of personal target or goal had you set for yourself?
Right from my childhood, my father was very encouraging. He came from Nigeria to the UK. He wanted to study medicine and later, he wanted me to do it. It was an interesting day when I told him I didn’t want to do medicine and that I wanted to do physics because I found it fascinating. The real goal for me was to know. I didn’t think I was good at necessarily making lots of money. It was just the desire for knowledge, finding out what’s out there. Kids ask why all the time. That to me is what it is to be a scientist.
People usually lose that approach as they grow up. What happened with you?
I didn’t lose it. I still want to know why but I want other people to ask why. That’s why I like to go and speak to school kids. If you look at the education system in the UK, you see them asking why when they are going in. But as they go through it, they stop asking. To me, that seems terrible, because every one of us has a scientist inside asking why. Somehow we shut them down, saying, Shhhh… quiet!
So you feel responsible to keep that why alive?
Yes, in everybody. So I started off talking to school kids, now I speak to everybody, like even the Women’s Institute back in the UK where I spoke to 5,000 of them about space. Also, there are people who write off science, who say they don’t understand science. But there’s a way to talk to people about science that’s very understandable and gets them excited.
Do you think we are alone in the universe?
As a space scientist, I’ll say no. If we had that many stars, there’s bound to be life out there. But I don’t believe in aliens or little green men visiting the Earth because travelling from our star to the neighbouring star will take 76,000 years using current technology. So if the aliens are out there, how will they find us? So I think they are out there but I don’t think we will ever meet them (laughs).
Have you watched films such as Interstellar or Gravity? What are your views on the practicality of the science they have portrayed?
I haven’t seen Interstellar yet (laughs). I found Gravity very entertaining. There were only two points where the science was a bit dodgy otherwise it was cool. The probability of her getting back to Earth was actually slimmer than they made out. But as a film, I am glad she got there!
Finally, do you see humans settling in space in future?
Definitely. To me, there have been three eras of space. The first was confrontation. The space age came out to World War II, lobbing missiles at different countries. The second era has been collaboration, where everything from the International Space Station to the European Space Agency and several great people have been working together. Now, we are entering the third era, which is commercialisation. That’s where you, me and others say we want to get out there. When the Wright Brothers first built an aeroplane, no-one anticipated low-cost flying. The first flights were incredibly expensive, in the reach of only the rich. But because of supply and demand, it came down in price. I think space could go the same way because many people want to get out into space. Although space is far more challenging than aeroplanes, I think these challenges will eventually be overcome because people will be ready to pay for it.
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