“Refer to me as the chief priestess of the moon goddess”: scientist Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock specializing in space.
“I am designated as the chief priestess of the moon goddess,” declares Dr. Maggie Aderin-Pocock in response to my question about her preferred title as an astronomer, physicist, or space scientist. She has the qualifications for all three, having trained as a physicist and engineer before becoming the go-to expert on space for the nation through her role as presenter on The Sky at Night for the BBC. However, it appears that her true aspiration is to hold the position of a Sumerian religious leader from 4,300 years ago.
During our meeting at a photographer’s studio in a hidden alley in east London, she recalls speaking at the Scottish parliament. She mentioned En Hedu’anna, the first known female scientist and chief priestess for the moon goddess in the ancient Mesopotamian city of Ur. After her talk, the chair proposed a vote to designate Aderin-Pocock as chief priestess for the moon goddess in the city of Edinburgh. She exclaimed with joy and clapped her hands, expressing her desire to have this title on her business card. This infectious enthusiasm is something that viewers of The Sky at Night are accustomed to.
The author of The Art of Stargazing, Maggie Aderin-Pocock, highlights the contributions of forgotten or unrecognized scientists, like En Hedu’anna, in her book. It serves as a practical guide for identifying and comprehending the 88 constellations. Aderin-Pocock also encourages readers to view these well-known formations from a non-Western perspective. While we are used to a version of the celestial map created and labeled by white men in togas, she points out that numerous other cultures and civilizations, aside from Ancient Greece and Rome, have observed the stars and recognized familiar shapes, such as a dog, in the night sky.
In the current era, with the James Webb Space Telescope observing the origins of galaxies and capturing images of black holes, it begs the question why we are still captivated by the simple act of drawing pictures in the night sky. According to her, many people overlook the sky and fail to appreciate its wonders. However, astronomy is a science that anyone can engage in, simply by looking up and pondering about what they see. It is something that we should prioritize and reconnect with.
During the initial lockdown, Aderin-Pocock, 55, frequently spent time with her husband and 14-year-old daughter at their residence in Surrey by observing the night sky. While they each pursued their own activities during the day, they would come together at night to gaze at the stars. This helped them gain a sense of perspective and alleviate the weight of the situation.
The concept of returning to the fundamentals of astronomy was conceived, leading her to delve into the origins of constellations and the overlooked scientific knowledge of ancient societies – a task that was surprisingly manageable. “There is a specific field of study known as archaeoastronomy, where various cultures have been observing and seeking to comprehend the stars for centuries. It is important not to overlook this aspect.”
Why is it significant that we still look at old science from extinct civilizations? When I was young, many children believed that science wasn’t for them because it wasn’t part of their culture and they had no history with it. Diversity in science means incorporating different perspectives and individuals, rather than just relying on the views of European white men. This is why having access to the history of astronomy is valuable for everyone.
Is the scientific community making progress in terms of diversity? “I believe so, but there is still a need for quicker change. There are still individuals who hold outdated views, saying things like ‘Women can’t do science!’ However, I do think that those individuals are becoming less prevalent and there is room for progress – which is where I have been fortunate as a black woman – due to timing.”
Additionally, I would like to emphasize that I am qualified. I am passionate about this topic and have put in a lot of effort, so I believe that I have earned everything that I have been given. However, I also acknowledge that my voice may have been amplified due to the demographic that I belong to.
Maggie Aderin-Pocock, who has dyslexia, was raised in a council housing complex in Camden, located in north London. Her parents went through a divorce during her childhood – her mother worked as a youth worker and magistrate while her father was a teacher in Nigeria and ran a business importing and exporting goods in the UK. As a child, Maggie’s fascination with the stars was ignited by television programs like The Clangers and Doctor Who. She was also an avid viewer of The Sky at Night with Sir Patrick Moore, a well-known figure in promoting astronomy. Her interest in science began when she purchased a subpar telescope to be able to witness the astronomical phenomena discussed by Patrick on TV.
The telescope was not functional. This prompted her to come across an advertisement for a telescope-making class at a nearby school. She attended the class, but was met with an unexpected sight when she arrived. “I recall entering the room and seeing that the majority of participants were white males in their 50s!”
Was she intimidated? “No, I did not feel unwelcome because we all shared the same goal. It was more of a realization that I was different from the other guys in the room. Making a telescope was just a means to an end for me. I wanted to explore what was out there – my ultimate goal was to go to space myself, but since that wasn’t feasible, building instruments was the next best option to get closer.”
Aderin-Pocock credits her homemade telescope for much of her success. She still possesses it and utilized it for her undergraduate project in university. Her experience with the telescope sparked her interest in optics and led to her career in instrumentation.
Her career started with her graduating from Imperial College London in 1994 with a PhD. She has focused on various projects, including using satellites to monitor ship movements in Singapore and researching climate change. The majority of her work has been based on ground observations with satellite data to aid in understanding Earth. In 1996, she joined a division of the Ministry of Defence to work on landmine detection and missile warning systems. She then returned to Imperial in 1999 to contribute to the development of a spectrograph for the Gemini South telescope in Chile, which sparked her interest in space science. However, it is her contributions to The Sky at Night that have made her most well-known.
Patrick Moore had hosted the show for 56 years until his passing in 2012. He was a beloved figure in the country, so when Aderin-Pocock was asked to join the presenting team after his death, she felt some hesitation. While she was excited to be a part of something that was a big part of her childhood, she also felt nervous because Moore was such an iconic figure. Although she had made a few appearances on the show prior to officially joining in 2014, she never had the opportunity to meet 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.’”
After nine years, the show is still running successfully, despite the BBC’s decision to decrease the number of episodes in each series. The host finds it enjoyable and is often amazed by the advancements in astronomy that were once considered impossible. These advancements were only dreamt of during the host’s university days, but now they are a reality.
Not everyone shares the same level of excitement for astronomy, as some criticize it for being too specialized. They question the practicality of knowing about a black hole in our galaxy. The author is familiar with this perspective, as their dad initially wanted them to pursue medicine instead of physics, which was seen as a more conventional career path for minority individuals. Physics does not have a clear and defined path, making it difficult for some to understand its purpose. The author also faced similar questioning from journalist Jeremy Paxman during a Newsnight appearance about the significance of their work in physics.
“People often do not make the same statement about poetry and art. These forms of expression enrich the soul. This argument is difficult to dispute, but astronomy goes even further. It continually pushes the boundaries of our technological capabilities. Any advancements made for space telescopes can also be applied on Earth. Therefore, astronomy is not an isolated field with no impact on humanity. It expands our understanding and reveals our position in the vast universe. Additionally, it plays a significant role in the development of our technology.”
When I inquire about her potential boredom with the endless marvels, she shares the experience of leading a team in installing the spectrograph, which she helped create, on the Gemini telescope located in the Chilean Andes. She spent six months on top of a mountain, where every evening she would sit and enjoy a glass of the local Chilean wine while toasting the moon and admiring the sky. Despite initial thoughts of getting bored, she found herself consistently drawn to the beauty and wonder of the night sky. She ponders if living on a planet with a dense atmosphere like Venus, which obscures the stars, would alter our curiosity about what lies beyond.
While simultaneously leading significant initiatives like the Gemini telescope, she also struggled to find enough qualified candidates for scientific positions: “I was not receiving an adequate number of job applications for the positions I advertised.”
She had noticed the signs for a while. She referred to it as the “dinner party test”: when someone asks what you do at a dinner party and you say “scientist,” and then watch their horrified reaction. But when she began explaining her work in detail, they were intrigued, as if they never thought science could be interesting.
When presented with a difficulty, she took action and established Science Innovation, a company with the goal of promoting an appreciation for science to the general public. “I realized I needed to actively promote STEM subjects to people, particularly children, and demonstrate how they impact our daily lives.”
Aderin-Pocock has been visiting schools and giving talks at conferences for 19 years. She believes she has reached approximately 500,000 individuals, mostly students. She notices the excitement in the eyes of children who see things from a unique perspective without the constraints of adulthood. They constantly question everything, which, to Aderin-Pocock, embodies the essence of being a scientist.
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.”
When discussing the possibility of extraterrestrial life, the conversation often turns to UFOs and conspiracy theories. Does she believe that governments are hiding information from us? She is skeptical about the idea of alien abductions and similar events due to the vast distances involved. Additionally, she questions whether civilizations would even coexist. For example, she asks children to imagine aliens arriving on Earth only to encounter dinosaurs, as our civilizations do not overlap. While there are many obstacles that would hinder our ability to find aliens, she still holds the belief that they exist.
The popular television show, The Sky at Night, has been on air for 66 years and in that time, there have been significant advancements in the field of astronomy. When asked about her hopes for the next 66 years, the host expresses her excitement through enthusiastic clapping. As a devoted fan of the show, it is evident that her passion for the subject knows no bounds. In fact, during an interview with the late Patrick Moore, his vast knowledge and enthusiasm were comparable to a fire hose. Similarly, Aderin-Pocock possesses a similar charm and fervor. Reflecting on past episodes, one of her favorite memories is when Moore would discuss the possibility of meeting Martians, as it was believed they existed at the time. However, the evolution of ideas since then has been remarkable. Currently, what captivates her the most are exoplanets, planets found orbiting other stars.
I could discuss outer space with Aderin-Pocock for hours, and she has only scratched the surface – delving into the possibilities of sending probes to exoplanets that captivate her, or how we could communicate with extraterrestrial beings if we come across them. However, more practical matters arise as her daughter needs to be picked up.
Can you rephrase the following:
Is there anything that the high priestess of the moon goddess finds challenging, given her ability to effortlessly handle tasks such as constructing satellites and telescopes, promoting knowledge about the intricacies of the universe, and bringing STEM education to numerous school children?
“Creating a book while living with dyslexia!” she responds quickly. Then, almost as if she regrets criticizing her dyslexia, she continues: “It has guided me towards opportunities where I can thrive – but my biggest fear is having to give a speech and read it aloud. Talking about topics I am knowledgeable about is effortless, I enjoy that. The challenge lies in getting me to stop talking.”
Dr. Maggie Aderin-Pocock’s “The Art of Stargazing: My Essential Guide to Navigating the Night Sky” will be released on November 2nd by BBC Books for a price of £16.99. It can be purchased for £14.95 on guardianbookshop.com.