‘Call me chief priestess for the moon goddess’: space scientist Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock

Call me chief priestess for the moon goddess,” says Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock when I ask whether she prefers to be known as an astronomer, physicist or space scientist. She is, after all, entitled to all of them because before presenting The Sky at Night on the BBC she trained as a physicist, then an engineer and is now the nation’s go-to woman for all things space. But it seems that she really has her eye on the job of a 4,300-year-old Sumerian religious leader.

“I was giving a talk in the Scottish parliament,” she explains when we meet at a photographer’s studio hidden in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it alleyway in east London, “and I mentioned En Hedu’anna, the first female scientist who was known as chief priestess for the moon goddess of the city of Ur [in ancient Mesopotamia].” After the talk, the chair suggested they vote to bestow on Aderin-Pocock the title of chief priestess for the moon goddess of the city of Edinburgh. “That’s what I would like on my business card,” she says with a delighted clap of the hands and the kind of irresistible enthusiasm that viewers of The Sky at Night will be familiar with.

Forgotten or uncredited scientists, such as En Hedu’anna, feature prominently in Aderin-Pocock’s new book, The Art of Stargazing, a practical guide to identifying and understanding the 88 constellations. She is also keen for us to look at these familiar formations through non- western eyes. We are accustomed to a version of the celestial map that was charted and tagged, she says, “by white men in togas”, but many people in cultures and civilisations outside Ancient Greece and Rome have done this thing of looking up and saying, “Doesn’t that patch of stars look a bit like our dog?”

‘Astronomy is a science, but it’s a science that anyone can do’: Maggie Aderin-Pocock. Photograph: Felicity McCabe/The Observer

But these days, when the James Webb Space Telescope is peering back in time to the birth of entire galaxies and we can photograph black holes, why are we still fascinated by something so low-tech as drawing pictures in the night sky? “People take the sky for granted, they don’t look up enough,” she says, “and the thing is, astronomy is a science, but it’s a science that anyone can do: anyone can look up and think, what’s that? It’s something we should get back to.”

Looking up was something Aderin-Pocock, 55, did a lot with her husband and 14-year-old daughter at their Surrey home during the first lockdown. Each would do their own thing during the day, but at night they would get together and look up at the stars. “It put things into perspective and made everything feel less oppressive.”

And so the idea of getting back to astronomy basics was born, and she was soon researching the history of the constellations and the forgotten science of ancient cultures – something that wasn’t as hard as you’d think. “There’s actually a whole area of study called archaeoastronomy. All these cultures have been looking at the stars and trying to understand them for thousands of years – and that mustn’t be forgotten.”

But why is outdated ancient science from long-dead civilisations still important? “When I grew up, there were many kids who looked at science and thought: ‘Well, someone like me doesn’t do that because it’s not my culture, it’s not for me – I don’t have a history of this.’ Diversity is about bringing different ideas and people into science because if it’s all just done by the European white guys, we get a very blinkered view of the world. That’s why access to the history of astronomy is important for everyone.”

The nebula around a star.
Night vision: the nebula around a star. Photograph: Science Photo Library

Is the world of science getting better at diversity? “I think it is, but things need to move faster. There are still the dinosaurs who are all, ‘Women don’t do science! What are you talking about?’ But I also think those dinosaurs are dying out and there is opportunity – and that’s where I’ve been quite lucky being black and female – with the timing.”

And also qualified, I point out: “Yes! I love the subject and I’ve worked hard at it so I don’t think I’ve been given anything I didn’t deserve, but I think my voice has been louder because of the demographic I come from.”

Aderin-Pocock, who is dyslexic, grew up in a block of council flats in Camden, north London. Her parents divorced when she was a child – her mum was a youth worker and magistrate, and her dad had been a teacher in Nigeria and ran an import/export business in the UK. Young Maggie’s interest in the stars was sparked in childhood by TV shows such as The Clangers and Doctor Who. She was also a fan of The Sky at Night with Sir Patrick Moore, the grandfather of astronomy popularisation, and her route into science began when she bought a not-very-good telescope because, “I wanted to be able to see the things that Patrick was talking about on television.”

But the telescope didn’t work. It was then that she saw an ad for a make-your-own-telescope evening class at a local school. She went along, but there was a surprise waiting for her. “I remember opening the door and walking in and the average age was 50, and they were all white guys!”

The Gemini South Telescope on Cerro Pachon in Chile.
Clear view: the Gemini South Telescope on Cerro Pachon in Chile. Photograph: Stephane Guisard/Bridgeman Images

Did she feel intimidated? “No, I wasn’t unwelcome at all, because we all had a common goal. It was just an ‘I-am-not-like-the-other-guys-in-this-room moment.’ For me, making a telescope was a means to an end. I just wanted to get closer to what was out there – I actually wanted to go out to space myself, but that wasn’t possible, so the next best thing was to build instruments that could get me closer.”

Aderin-Pocock says she owes a lot to that homemade telescope. “I still have it. When I went to university, I used it for my undergraduate project. Working on that telescope got me into optics, which got me into instrumentation and gave me my career.”

It’s a career that saw her graduate from Imperial College London with a PhD in 1994 and includes work on satellite surveys of ship movements in Singapore and studies of climate change (“70% of the work I’ve done has been ground-based with satellites looking at Earth to help us down here”). In 1996, she began work with a branch of the Ministry of Defence on landmine detection and missile warning systems. She returned to Imperial in 1999 to join a project that was developing a spectrograph for the Gemini South telescope in Chile, and that was her launchpad into space science. But it is her work on The Sky at Night that she is best known for.

The show had been presented by Patrick Moore for 56 years until his death in 2012 and he was part of the national fabric, so when Aderin-Pocock was approached to join the presenting team after he died, she was a little apprehensive. “I was so keen, because that’s part of my childhood. But I was also nervous, because he was such an icon.” (Although she had been on the programme a couple of times before joining in 2014, she never met him.)

The offer to co-present alongside Chris Lintott, Pete Lawrence and Lucie Green – the team at the time – also brought out those harrumphing dinosaurs of science. “Some people were a bit, ‘Oh, it’s the BBC being politically correct,’ but by then I’d gone out speaking to thousands of kids and done lots of science communication so I was well qualified, but they saw a Black woman doing a job and thought, ‘Well, yeah, it’s PC.’”

Nine years on, the programme, one of the longest-running TV shows in the world, is still going strong – even if the number of episodes in each series keeps being reduced (yes, we notice, BBC). “And it’s so much fun. Sometimes when I interview someone, I go, ‘Really? You can do that now?’ because there’s so much astronomy going on that’s pushing the science of the impossible. Some of the things that when I was at university we’d only dream of, we’re doing them now.”

But such enthusiasm for astronomy isn’t always universal: the criticism sometimes levelled is that it’s all a little esoteric. What’s the use of knowing there’s a black hole at the centre of our galaxy? It’s an attitude she is familiar with. “When I told my dad I wanted to do physics he was a little perturbed. He thought I should go into medicine, because that was what minority kids did – law, medicine, the set goals. But with physics you can’t see a set path for it. And then later, when I’d appear on Newsnight, Jeremy Paxman would be all, ‘So you’re doing this – but what’s the point?’

“The thing is, people don’t say that about poetry and art. They enhance the soul. I think that’s hard to argue with, but on top of that astronomy does so much more. It pushes the limits of our technology. When you develop something for a space telescope, you can use it on the ground. So it’s not a standalone thing that has no impact on human beings. It enhances our knowledge and tells us our place in the universe. But also develops so much of our tech, too.”

Patrick Moore with his telescope.
Leading light: Sir Patrick Moore with his telescope at home. Photograph: Tim Graham/Getty Images

When I ask if she ever gets bored with all the wonder, she tells me about leading the team that installed the spectrograph she helped develop at Imperial College on the Gemini telescope in the Chilean Andes. “It’s on top of a mountain and I was out there for six months, and every night I’d sit and have a glass of the local Chilean wine and I’d toast the moon and look at the sky. And I thought that, after a while, I might get bored of it. But I couldn’t help it, I was out there every night, because it was just so glorious and I think it draws us to it, we wonder what lies beyond. And I wonder, if we lived on a planet with a thick atmosphere like Venus that obscures the stars all the time, would we be different?”

Yet at the same time as she was heading up prestigious projects such as the Gemini telescope, she was facing a constant battle to fill scientific posts: “I wasn’t getting enough applications for jobs I was advertising.”

It was something she had seen the signs of for a while. “I called it the dinner party test: you’re sitting next to someone at a dinner party and they say what do you do? And you say ‘scientist’ and then watch the horror on their face. But when I started to tell them exactly what I do, they were fascinated, almost as if they didn’t think science could be fascinating.”

Faced with a challenge, she decided to do something about it and set up a company, Science Innovation, with the aim of reaching out to convert the public to the joys of science. “I thought, I have to go out and sell Stem [science, technology, engineering and maths] to people, especially to the kids, and show them it makes a difference to our lives.”

The Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex, the closest star-forming region to Earth.
A star is born: the Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex, the closest star-forming region to Earth. Photograph: NASA/PA

Aderin-Pocock’s now been going into schools and speaking at conferences for 19 years and estimates she has spoken to 500,000 people – mainly schoolchildren. “I do see the enthusiasm in kids’ eyes. They see things differently, they don’t have the limitations of adults. They’ll say ‘Why?’ to everything. To me, that’s what it means to be a scientist: asking, why?”

One of the questions she likes to ask children is, would you be terrified or excited if we found aliens? (She always puts her hand up for both options.) “I do believe there is life out there, because it’s a numbers game. There are billions of stars in our galaxy and there are 200bn galaxies so why would life just be here? But what form that life would take, I don’t know.”

Talk of alien life leads inevitably to UFOs and conspiracy theories – so does she think governments are keeping things from us? “I’m less inclined to believe in alien abduction and things like that because of the distances involved. Also, one of the major factors is, do civilisations overlap? I say to kids, imagine the aliens landing and stepping out on Earth to find… dinosaurs, because our civilisations don’t overlap. There’s lots of things that would work against us in terms of finding aliens, but I still believe they’re out there.”

The Sky at Night has been going for 66 years and during that time so much has happened in the world of astronomy. What would she like to see happen in the next 66 years? She claps her hands and the enthusiasm ramps up another notch. (If you’re a Sky at Night fan, be assured, her joy for the subject is boundless. I once interviewed Patrick Moore and had a sense of standing before a fire hose of knowledge and enthusiasm – there was no need to utter a single question. Aderin-Pocock has a similar touch and fervour.) “One of my fond memories of looking through the archive, is Patrick saying things like, ‘When we meet the Martians’, because at the time we thought there would be Martians. So, the evolution of ideas since then is fantastic, and what excites me the most right now are exoplanets, planets around other stars.”

Maggie Aderin-Pocock on A Sky at Night Christmas special, 2015
‘We all wonder what lies beyond’: Aderin-Pocock on A Sky at Night Christmas special, 2015 Photograph: Michael Lachmann/BBC

I could talk space with Aderin-Pocock all day, and she is only just getting started – drilling down into the prospects of sending probes to those exoplanets that so engage her, or how we might communicate with aliens if we discover them – but more down-to-Earth concerns interrupt as her daughter is in need of picking up.

One final question: building satellites and telescopes, educating the nation on the complexities of the universe, and taking Stem to thousands of school kids – she seems to do it all with such ease, is there anything that the chief priestess for the moon goddess finds hard?

“Writing a book with dyslexia!” she shoots back immediately. Then, almost as if she feels bad for dissing her dyslexia, she adds: “It has steered my career to places where I can excel better – but my worst-case scenario is to be given a speech and have to read it out. Just talking about things I know is no problem, I love that. Shutting me up is the key.”

The Art of Stargazing, My Essential Guide to Navigating the Night Sky by Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock is published by BBC Books on 2 November at £16.99. Buy it for £14.95 at guardianbookshop.com

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