Country Living interview Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock MBE. From dyslexic schoolgirl to award-winning space scientist, The Sky at Night presenter is inspiring a new generation to reach for the stars.
1. Has space always been on your radar?
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in it. I was born the year before the moon landings and grew up in that hubbub of excitement. I must have been taking my first small steps just as Neil Armstrong was taking his giant leap. My dad influenced me, too: he grew up in Africa, where the moon was his friend because it made cycling to school in the dark easier. I see the moon as an heirloom that I can now pass on to my daughter. I was also obsessed with the children’s TV show The Clangers. I used to dream of going into space to meet them.
2. Were you much of a stargazer as a child?
We lived in a council flat in London and didn’t have much access to open spaces, but I was still fascinated by the night sky. I saved up my pocket money to buy a telescope, but it wasn’t very good. Soon afterwards, I heard about a telescope-making evening class at a nearby school and went along. It was all men and the average age was 50 but we all had this passion for the night sky. I made quite a complex design, which I was really proud of. It set me up on my career path because I’d made something with my own hands that got me closer to the thing I loved.
3. We’re guessing astronomy wasn’t on the school timetable…
I went to 13 different schools because I was living between my parents, who had separated. I struggled in class because I’m dyslexic and only paid attention in science because that’s how people got into space. Once I focused on that, my grades went up. I went on to study physics and mechanical engineering, before working at the Ministry of Defence and building scientific equipment. I dreamt of presenting The Sky at Night but I never imagined I’d do it. When I started co-presenting it in 2014, I was like a rabbit in the headlights. Patrick Moore had presented it for 57 years – I’d watched him as a child.
4. Does your daughter Lauren share your passion?
Sometimes we howl at the moon together or we lie on the trampoline in the back garden, looking up at the sky. She loves it, but she’s also very artistic. She’s now ten, but a few years ago, she said, ‘Mummy, we will go into space. You’ll cover the science and I’ll be a space artist.’ I still think that will happen.
5. And you’ve now appeared on TV together…
Last year, we made a series called Out of This World for CBBC, covering stars, rockets and space travel. It was so much fun working together. I love getting people of all ages into science. When I was a space scientist, I couldn’t find enough people to employ. Less than 15 per cent of ten- to 14-year-olds in the UK are considering careers in science, technology, engineering or mathematics. I want to encourage children to explore those areas and realise that there’s an amazing universe out there. I’ve given talks to about 350,000 people so far.
6. Including Her Majesty The Queen…
I took a Zoom call with the Queen earlier this year during British Science Week. We talked about the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who I share a birthday with. The Queen once met him, so I asked her what he was like. She said, ‘Russian!’ It felt especially odd speaking to her because I took the call in my slippers.
7. Any other pinch-me moments?
A couple of years ago, I had another amazing experience when The Clangers got a reboot. They included a little Maggie model in it. It was a dream come true.
8. What’s coming up in our skies over the summer?
On 10 June at 10.08am, there will be a partial solar eclipse, when the moon will pass between the earth and the sun. Don’t look directly at the sun because it can damage your eyes – wear eclipse glasses. August will be a busy month: around 11th or 12th August, we’ll pass through the Perseid meteor shower and, then, on 22nd August, there’s a blue moon, the second of two full moons in a month. Finally, in September, Venus will come into view as the sun sets. It looks like a diamond in the sky. We’ll be able to see it for the rest of the year.
9. Any star-spotting tips for beginners?
Free apps like SkyView are great for identifying constellations. Or try ‘star-hopping’ – using a constellation you’re familiar with, like Orion. If you want to look a little closer, I’d recommend astronomical binoculars. They’re cheaper than a telescope and more user-friendly.
10. Still dream of going into space?
It’s easy to see Mars from earth and I’d like to spend my retirement there! It would be very cold, like living in Antarctica, and I’d have to live in a controlled habitat because no one can breathe the atmosphere, but it shouldn’t be too alien. I think we’re destined to get to Mars soon – and I hope to be on that rocket.
See Maggie presenting The Sky at Night on BBC Four.
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