Space Women: Maggie Aderin Pocock
We spoke to Maggie Aderin Pocock - presenter of The Sky at Night, about her experience in the world of space science.
Maggie tells us all about her career, from the Moon gazing of her youth, to promoting space to young people to finally becoming the presenter of The Sky at Night.
Ezzy Hello, listeners. And today I'm speaking to Maggie Aderin Peacock, who is a space scientist and educator, president of the British Science Association and managing director of Science Innovation Limited. But for most of our listeners, she's probably best known as the presenter of the Sky at Night TV show along with Chris Lintott. So Maggie, you have had an incredibly wide and varied career over the years. Can you tell me a bit more about your career and how you got into that line of work?
Maggie Yes, I think you're right. My career has been wide and varied, and all my life, I've been fascinated by space. And that started well. It was a combination of things. I don't remember the moon landings, but I remember hearing about getting very excited about them. And that, combined with the Clangers seemed to be the magic spots that got me hooked on space. And so going to school, I went to 13 different schools, so my education was a bit checkered. And I also have a condition called dyslexia. I used to say I suffer from it, but I can see some of the benefits of it now. And so all this weight of the idea of a career in space seemed like almost like a distant dream. But I think having a crazy dream can really help. And a convoluted route involving going via the MOD, working within universities, eventually getting a job in ground-based astronomy and working in space based astronomy for a while, I was able to offer a a career and get me where I wanted to be.
Ezzy And so you talked about there about your passions starting with, you know, people talking about the Moon landings and the Clangers. Is the moon a particularly fond place in the universe for you?
Maggie Haha. !ell, I do define myself as a self-certified lunatic. Because I think it started from my father because he told me about the Moon in Africa, and he used to say how beautiful it was and how he used to sort of cycle over metal roads with no streetlights. And when the Moon was up and full, it guided his way. So it was definitly a friend of my father. And then I was brought up, mainly in London. And you don't see that many stars because of the light pollution and things like that. Sometimes you do get a glorious view of the Moon over the Old City, so that definitely endeared me. And now a passed on my lunacy... So I got it from my father and passed on my lunacy to my daughter. And sometimes we live out in Guildford now and sometimes we step outside in the garden and look right, look left and howl at the moon. So lunacy is definitely strong in our family.
Ezzy And how are you feeling about this? Because this year we've got a whole run of... We being the world have there's a whole run of of spacecraft going towards the Moon. Some of them leading up to the Artemis mission, some of them just, you know, other nations are heading that way. Are you particularly excited about those missions coming up?
Maggie Yes, a) because it's the Moon and I did actually write a book about the Moon. I'm mentioned I'm dyslexic, and so writing about things is always a challenge for me. But I did write a book about the Moon because I love the Moon so much, it just made it a lot easier because I could write what I was passionate about. And so the idea of people sort of going back to the Moon, I mean, I think the last humans on the Moon was back in 1972, so I waited a long time. And there's been this ongoing discussion of Do we go to the Moon? Do we go to Mars? And that has always been a hiatus in terms of stopping us going anywhere. And so the fact that people say, "yes, OK, we're going to go back to the Moon", I find incredibly exciting. Especially optimistic because they have promised it probably put a woman on the Moon because so far it's only been 12 men and I think someone from an ethnic minority and and possibly someone with a disability. And I can sign up for all three. So I keep on putting my hand up, but they haven't contacted me yet.
Ezzy I do know that the European Space Agency definitely is doing some work with trying to get more disabled astronauts, particularly people with physical disabilities. So hopefully maybe you'll get your chance in the future. And obviously, as you said, Artemis is going to be sending the first woman to the surface of the Moon. You yourself have done quite a lot of work with encouraging both women and girls, as well as young people in general into the space field. How is this and why is this important to you?
Maggie So I think it's this is breaking down the stereotypes. I call it sort of the taxi scenario because sometimes I hop into a cab and I'm sitting in. Back then, the taxi driver suddenly said, What do you do? I'm a space scientist, so you walk on a double take. I don't look like a quintessential space scientist. I think they self a guy, a white guy with a beard, you know, sort of. And so it's trying to break those stereotypes down. And because of this, it means that there are some girls out there who aren't considering careers in STEM and space in general. And so we're missing out. It shows that when you have diverse teams and companies do so much better. And so in trying to get this diversity into science across the board, but especially in terms of computing, engineering or physics, these subjects where there is a deficit of girls and we have a deficit of people coming into these subjects. So it's a win-win situation, really.
Ezzy And how do you go about trying to encourage these groups of people to get more involved in space?
Maggie Yes. Well, as you mentioned, I do try and encourage everybody because we just need more scientists, full stop. Use of a try and target. Sort of a specific messages and say a few years ago we had the International Year of Astronomy and we were looking at female astronomers and we could go back, I think it was six thousand years the first female astronomer and the host was the first female name to be missing in the history books. Now I can never pronounce her name because I'm dyslexic, but I think it was Enheduanna, and this was the first name writen in the history. But first female name written in the history books, and she wrote poetry about sort of measuring arcs across the sky and looking at the stars. And so we have a long history of women in astronomy. And it's just trying to show them. I think I always feel that astronomy was dominated by white guys and togas, that seems to be the font of all information. But I'm working on a book at the moment for the BBC books at the moment, looking at Constellations and the stars. And it's very interesting to see we've got the standard of a recognised constellations that be recognised by International Astronomical Union. But there are many more constellations which other cultures came up with. And it's like, if you've got... if you take something like Orion, different cultures or different pictures without solving a particular set of stars. So the stars are the history of everyone. So for male and female and across the world. And so it's just trying to sell that to people and show them that it wasn't just white guys in togas.
Ezzy And as you said, diversity across the board has been shown to help pretty much every industry that people go into. Yes, but what do you think that learning about space benefits people as individuals as well?
Maggie I very much think so. And so that's why sometimes I go to a school and they say, "Oh, well, as you should only speak to the gifted and talented," or something like that. And when I go to school, I want to speak to everyone because I think space and understanding of the universe is just something fundamental in all of us. And it was quite interesting during lockdown because many people were stuck at home they couldn't get out. And I was invited to do quite a few television interviews and also radio interviews talking about looking up at the night sky. Because sometimes if you're feeling enclosed and it's hemmed in and you had a busy day and you haven't been out, getting a view of the night sky can really transform someone's mood. And I think it's philosophical. It's like music and art and all those wonderful things. Understanding our place in the universe and how that understanding has evolved over the years, I think it's also very critical for all of us. So another factor as well is that jobs in tech pay well. We were talking about some of the things I've done in my career. My career has enabled me to work on climate change and travel around the world speaking to people. And it seems a shame that quite a bit of the population is missing out on these opportunities. So diversity is good for everybody. But people working in STEM generally have sort of a more fruitful career.
Ezzy I will definitely say that by working and talking to people about space is taken me all over the place as well. Anybody listening is thinking about it. The travel is quite good.
Maggie And also, it's good to remember that space... One of the things that people often think is, "Oh, well, to work in space. I have to be a scientist or engineer into STEM." It plays a vital role in space. But we also have lawyers, you know, PR people. There's a whole... The space industry... sorry this is gradually turning into a sales pitch space. But this industry is also growing, especially in the UK. So I think anyone who's got an interest in the subject should come along because we need everybody.
Ezzy Absolutely. I can't agree more. There's dozens of different things that people can get involved with. And of course, one of the things that most of our listeners are going to know you best for is your work as one of the co-presenters of Sky at night. Did you watch the show when you were younger?
Maggie Very much so. And it's funny because I was mentioned I grew up in London. Patrick used to give me sort of an insight into what I might be able to see. And so I'd sort of sit down and I'd get special permission to stay up late and watch the programme. And then I would go outside. And I was living in sort of our Belside(?) Park, which is quite close to Hampstead Heath and on the way back from school. Sometimes it will be dark. I'll be able to have the clear view of the night sky because you didn't have too many, both things in front of me. I don't think, Oh my goodness! Patrick mentioned. I can see it. So he brought the night sky a life to me. And so that was just a wonderful legacy for me. But yes, I did use of I used to watch the programme as a child and love it as well.
Ezzy Does it feel good to be bringing this night sky life for other people now as well?
Maggie Yes, but slightly daunting when I got the job to do the presenting, I think especially in the first episode, I was very much like a rabbit in the headlights because I is the iconic Sky at night television programme, and here little Maggie presenting the programme. So there was a little girl in me that was very excited. But also it's that moment of terror, oh my goodnessme. Those were very big boots to fill.
Ezzy And I should imagine carrying a show with that's been running for. I think at the moment at 65 years is quite a lot of responsibility,
Maggie But also it was nice to be welcomed into the family because Chris Lintott has been doing it. And also, Peter Lawrence had been doing it for many years, so that was the new kid on the block. I was a welcome to the family.
Ezzy Oh, that's great. And how did you come to to be standing there like a deer in headlights? How did you come to present the show?
Maggie So I think that it was quite interesting because Patrick had done the programme for 57 years - the longest running, longest serving TV presenter in the world and also the longest running television programme in the world. I did mention that I would love to do it, but I didn't think anything would come of it. At that time I'd done quite a bit of work with the BBC. I'd made a documentary about the Moon and about satellites, and also over the years I've done lots of science communication. I think the... actually it's probably higher than that now. I've probably seen about 370,000 kids in the last 12 to 14 years.
Ezzy Wow, that's a big number.
Maggie Well, I'm quite lucky because I do something called GCSE science like so you start with maybe 50 kids in a of a primary school classroom, but now I do lots of big events like GCSE Science Live and you get two thousand fifteen year olds in an auditorium. And so the numbers can back up quite quickly. So yes, I've been doing all these different sorts of science communication, music, science festivals, going into schools. And so I was hoping that my credentials would be good enough. And then I remember I was filming a television programme for CBeebies called and Stargazing and CBeebies Stargazing, and the call came through me saying, Hey, would you like to do the programme and I went "woooo!" because of a moment of great excitement for me.
Ezzy And with the show, you've been because the sky at night has always been at the forefront of some of the most incredible aspects of space exploration and space science. Are there any particular like historic moments that you've been part of that particularly stand out for you?
Maggie Very much so. And oh yes, I can think of three spring to mind automatically. The first one was being at the European Space Agency. And I remember I think it was Armistice Day, I can't remember the year, but it's when the Philae lander landed on... Oh what is it? Churyumov-Gerasimenko? I could never say it at the time, but I said it so much its stuck in my mind.
Ezzy 67P Churyumov-Gerasimenko. I still know how to spell it to this day. Which is quite a challenge.
Maggie Yes. That will be stuck in my mind forever.
Ezzy Yes, that was in 2014 for our listeners at home.
Maggie Yes, yes. And so it was still relatively new on the programme. It was just wonderful to be a part of the press team. And so go out there and we were in Darmstadt for a while. Then I think we went to Cologne and we were getting all the latest information. Also, we have been in the UK speaking to some of the people who are making the instrumentation. As my history is in making instrumentation for space, but also for ground based telescopes, so to be able to speak to the instrument engineers at the UK then go out and also see that was a rollercoaster ride of a journey. It's landed. Oh no, the harpoons! So to be there and see the unfolding right before our eyes was brilliant. Another one that springs to mind. So we did a television programme looking at over space and astronomy, the Vatican and saying this we will actually inside Vatican City and we were speaking to this, these priest astronomers. Who were showing us various artefacts. And so just being in Italy with the glorious weather, but being in Italy so is behind the velvet ropes and going into places where people don't usually get to go. And just looking at that sort of juxtaposition between sort of religion and science and again talking about Galileo and all sorts of those historical moments. So that was a very, very iconic for me. And then the third one, I think, was a New Horizon. Sort of approach Pluto. We went to NASA headquarters and were there as as New Horizon of approach of Pluto started, started getting these images in. So again, it's over amazing moments of sort of scientific discovery.