Aussie astronomy: interview with Australia’s Astronomer At Large

We caught up with Australia's Astronomer at Large Fred Watson to find out more about the Aussie astronomy and his new book Exploding Stars.

Fred Watson is Australia’s first ever Astronomer At Large, a position that gives him what most of us might consider the ideal job: observing the night sky and conveying its wonder to the general public. His fifth book Exploding Stars does just this.

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It tackles some of the biggest questions in astronomy and cosmology, including black holes, gravitational waves, the origins of the Solar System, the elusive nature of dark matter and dark energy.

We spoke to Fred to find out more about his career thus far and the inspiration behind his new book.

Exploding stars Fred Watson

How did you first become interested in astronomy and what brought you to Australia?

I grew up in post-war Britain, and was at school in the 1950s and 60s. Space science and astronomy were the hot topics in pop culture as well as education, and I was just as starstruck as everyone else.

Unlike most of my peers, however, I remained starstruck for the rest of my life.

After university, I worked at both of Britain’s Royal Observatories before coming to Australia in 1982 on a three-year deployment to the UK Schmidt Telescope. I’m still here.

How does it feel to be the first Australian Astronomer-at-Large? What does the position involve?

It’s a great honour to hold this position. For 20 years, I was Astronomer-in-Charge of the Australian Astronomical Observatory, managing its scientific output and helping to protect its night skies from light pollution.

When the Observatory transitioned to the university sector in 2018, I stayed with its parent government department as the nation’s first Astronomer-at-Large.

It’s an outreach and advocacy role, and honestly, it’s my dream job. It lets me talk astronomy, space and STEM to anyone who’ll listen – in person and via radio, TV and social media.

Is Australian astronomy still in good shape?

Australian astronomy is in very good shape. Back in 2017, the government entered a 10-year strategic partnership with the European Southern Observatory to give Australian astronomers access to the world’s best optical telescopes in northern Chile.

The arrangement also allows our engineers to build advanced instruments for these facilities.

And Australia is one of the two nations that will host the Square Kilometre Array, a radioastronomy facility that will be the world’s biggest telescope when it’s completed in the late 2020s. The other host is South Africa.

In Exploding Stars you tackle a wealth of subjects. Were you ever worried about spreading yourself too thin by not focussing on one subject?

In Australia, the book is called Cosmic Chronicles – a user’s guide to the Universe, which gives a better idea of what it contains: the cosmos from a decidedly human perspective.

I wanted to make it an up-to-date and fun account of what we know, as well as including some intriguing stuff you won’t find elsewhere.

If you regard the book as a collection of in-depth articles ranging from the magic of twilight to our unrequited love affair with aliens, it looks a bit less thinly spread.

An artist's impression of the low frequency antennas that will form part of the Australian component of the Square Kilometre Array. Australia will initially host more than 130,000 SKA antennas, with the goal of expanding to a million. Credit: SKA Organisation
An artist’s impression of the low frequency antennas that will form part of the Australian component of the Square Kilometre Array. Australia will initially host more than 130,000 SKA antennas, with the goal of expanding to a million. Credit: SKA Organisation

What do you think are the biggest challenges that lie ahead for astronomers?

Funding is always a challenge, even though astronomy is not a particularly expensive science.

Light pollution and radio frequency interference remain threats – and the forthcoming roll-out of huge satellite constellations is hardly helpful.

An extremely delicate issue is that the best optical observing sites are often sacred to their traditional owners, highlighted in the case of Hawaii’s Mauna Kea.

But a ‘good’ challenge is that today’s technology has resulted in astronomers being swamped by data with fantastic discovery potential.

What was the ultimate inspiration behind Exploding Stars?

By human standards, the Universe is an absurd place. Size, temperature, density, pressure, complexity, radiation, speed: you name it. Compared with our everyday experience, such cosmic statistics present us with staggering and sometimes frightening numbers.

And the reality is that we humans are children of the stars, as is all life on Earth. Without the distant nuclear furnaces twinkling silently above us, the atoms that make up our bodies and our environment could never have come into being, and the raw materials of life would not exist.

This connection forms the underlying theme of Exploding Stars. The book explores the Universe from a decidedly human vantage-point. It’s liberally sprinkled with stories of the generations of scientists who paved the way to our current understanding.

The book also takes a look at the burgeoning space economy before embarking on a trip to our marvellous Moon in search of its origins.

Coming right up to date, we find that planetary studies are being conducted with more than half an eye on the prospects of discovering life elsewhere in the Sun’s family.

We explore several branches of that trail before winding up with the latest on the hunt for a mysterious invisible planet on the outer fringes of the Solar System.

It’s when the book confronts the wider Universe that it tackles some of the biggest topics in contemporary astrophysics and cosmology.

Light echoing around the cosmos, uncanny radio signals from deep space, and the mechanics of black holes – among other things.

And not one, but two varieties of mysterious stuff permeating the Universe and freaking astronomers out because we don’t know what they are.

It also takes a romantic look at unrequited love. Our passion for the idea of intelligent aliens has been around since the era of Galileo.

But the pain of unrequited love comes from a growing pessimism among astrobiologists about the evolution of advanced lifeforms like ourselves.

Such beings might be so rare that we are effectively alone. A vast and complex Universe with only one intelligent species able to contemplate it? Now that really would be absurd.

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Fred Watson is Australia’s Astronomer at Large. His book Exploding Stars is published by Columbia Press.