‘My approach to science is to make it entertaining’: Maggie Aderin-Pocock
Image credit: Nick Smith
Space scientist, science communicator and presenter of the BBC astronomy TV programme ‘The Sky at Night’, Maggie Aderin-Pocock is a passionate advocate for getting more people into engineering.
“My approach to science is to make it entertaining,” says Maggie Aderin-Pocock, tireless champion for the public understanding of science. At one end of the spectrum, she promotes applied technology on mass broadcast television; at the other she’s passionate about grass roots communication in schools. An engineer with decades of experience in designing instrumentation for space and terrestrial telescopes, she’s well-known in academia, industry and the media.
“If you want a snappy caption for what I do,” says Aderin-Pocock, “it’s probably best to say I’m a space scientist and science communicator.” Today, she’s best known as one half of the presenting duo on ‘The Sky at Night’, a long-standing staple of the British science media first broadcast in 1954. “I’m very proud to be a co-presenter with Chris Lintott. I think it’s the longest-running TV show in the world.” In fact, it’s the longest-running programme with the same presenter, with Patrick Moore anchoring ‘The Sky at Night’ from 1954 to 2013 (Moore died in 2012, but his final episodes were transmitted posthumously).
Aderin-Pocock goes into some of the background: “It was commissioned to be a series of only six programmes, talking about astronomy and space. Yet it was saved by Sputnik, when the BBC realised that it needed a home to talk about the new era of space exploration. Today, the programme helps us to explore what’s out there, with the latest technology, and of course as presenters we’re there to help people get excited about space and astronomy.”
Her route to filling Patrick Moore’s shoes is a straight line from being a space scientist. “Before doing this, my job was making instrumentation to go into space,” much of which was Earth observation technology that could be applied to monitoring shipping, effects of climate change or disaster areas. “For example, after Hurricane Katrina, images were taken from space and passed on to relief agencies to assist with getting resources to the disaster area. With that global view you can do the sort of planning that is much harder to achieve than with images taken from Earth.
“I’ve also built instrumentation that looks the other way, out into space, in order to help us understand what’s out there.” Aderin-Pocock has worked on Nasa’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) that will launch early in the next decade, doing development work on MIRI (mid-infrared instrument) and NIRSPec (near-infrared spectrograph). “People think that it’s Hubble’s replacement but, in fact, it’s better described as the next generation. Hubble was a visible light space telescope, whereas Webb is infrared. There are clouds of dust in our galaxy through which visible light won’t penetrate. Yet with infrared, we’ll be able to see things we couldn’t see before. It’s going to be a long, long way away from Earth and will be at Legrange Point 2 [1.5 million km or 0.01 astronomical units from Earth] so that it is shielded from the Sun’s radiation.”
Born in London to Nigerian parents in the late 1960s, “I appeared in the middle of the Apollo space exploration programme.” As a result, space is in her blood and she firmly believes “space is our destiny”. She recalls watching ‘The Clangers’ as a child, a stop-motion animation for children revolving around a family of small rodent-like creatures living on a Moon-like planet. “This was space. It was real for me, and my career path was to go to the Moon to visit them.”
Aderin-Pocock believes early experiences fuel longer-term choices, and her new book, ‘The Sky at Night’s Book of the Moon’, is aimed at the young adult market. It’s written in a conversational style, its main message being to communicate that the Moon is fun. Much of this sense of mission comes from the fact that many of her generation “were space nuts. I wanted to then, and still want to, be an astronaut. My heartfelt desire is to get out into space.” Given that fewer than 600 people have managed this to date, “my stop-gap was to become a space scientist, to build things that would give me a better understanding of how to get there. It’s good to have a backstop in life.”
Being British-Nigerian, an undiagnosed dyslexic and female, she found little encouragement for her dream from her teachers. “They said being an astronaut was quite an aspiration. Why didn’t I go into nursing instead? That was disheartening to a kid fascinated by ‘Star Trek’. To give up on that dream didn’t seem right.” She goes on to say she sees the world as divided into two types of people when confronted by discouragement: those that accept it and those that don’t. “I didn’t accept it.”
However, there seemed to be no way of getting onto the dream track. Shunted into remedial classes and rotated through 13 different schools meant “education was a shaky ground”. Her opportunity came when she found she was able to answer a question in her science class that had defeated all of the other pupils. “One thing about dyslexia is that you have strong logic skills and good 3D spatial awareness. Although my written work was poor, my maths was good. Being good at science dragged up my other grades.” She left school with A-levels in maths, physics, chemistry and biology. “I was saved by science.”
Aderin-Pocock read her undergraduate degree (physics) and PhD (mechanical engineering) at Imperial College London, which led to her career in space engineering. She says she’s living proof that with ambition, nurturing and determination, you can create opportunities and establish a future for yourself. “When I go into schools and talk about what I do, I like to instill in kids a ‘desire to aspire’. That’s a phrase I’ve coined. You’ve got to have a dream – even if it’s a crazy one – to get over the hurdles. The more far-fetched the dream the better. That’s because you’ll jump over higher hurdles to get to that goal.”
After leaving Imperial, Aderin-Pocock felt indestructible: “I was Doctor Maggie, ready to take on the world.” What she hadn’t banked on was that her emergence onto the job market would coincide with a ‘credit crunch’, meaning there were no jobs for fledgling space scientists on offer. Taking what she could, Aderin-Pocock took a job at the MoD working on missile guidance systems and land-mine detection. Yet the call of space was too strong, and after transferring to University College London, she worked on instrumentation for “a very large telescope in Chile. I got the job because I told them I’d ground my own telescope lens as a kid. They must have believed that I had telescopes in my blood.”
Managing this ground-based astronomy project opened the door to space science projects both in industry and academia. With space booming in the UK, Aderin-Pocock was dismayed to find that when she advertised for staff to join projects, there were few respondents, and none from the UK. “I thought that was crazy. I mean, being a space scientist is a pretty cool job. Yet the problem was that nobody really knew what space science was. I applied for funding to go out into schools to tell them.”
Over a period of 12 years, she has addressed a third of a million children, talking about how she became a scientist and debunking myths about race, gender and class. For part of this time, she was supported by a Science in Society fellowship funded by Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). Importantly, “I was occasionally invited to go on the news to talk about science. On one occasion, I’d been asked to explain what was happening when Stephen Hawking did a parabolic flight. I did this by throwing an apple into the air. I went on ‘Newsnight’ and explained to Jeremy Paxman why during a lunar eclipse the Moon goes red.” These first tentative steps into the world of TV science led to a documentary called ‘Do We Really Need the Moon?’, which led to ‘The Sky at Night’. “It was quite convoluted, really.”
‘We want to recruit anyone who’s willing and able to join a career in engineering’.
“I work with many projects that aim to promote STEM to kids. Recently I came across a BBC Learning statistic that said less than 15 per cent of 10-14-year-olds are looking to go into a career in this field,” says Aderin-Pocock, whose source is the Terrific Scientific (curriculum-linked primary science resources from BBC Learning) initiative. “It’s a global problem. Yet here in the UK we’re really feeling it. We have a space industry that’s booming, but we can’t recruit the next generation into that industry.”
Aderin-Pocock reckons the ratio of men to women in engineering is approximately 80:20, which implies “the way to address the overall shortfall should be to go after more women. But, basically,” she says, “we want to recruit anyone who’s willing and able to join a career in engineering. When I first started going into schools, at first I thought what was needed was to go to girls’ schools to speak to them and to try to inspire. Yet I realised it’s bigger than that.” Her policy shifted to visiting “any school that would have me”.
“It’s also a bit of a public relations exercise. My biggest fear is that, after I’ve gone into a school, kids will go home and say to their parents they have been inspired by ‘this crazy black woman who says we must all go into engineering’, only for the parents to say: ‘oh no, we don’t do engineering.’ That makes me worry that people don’t know what engineering is. I’ve found they tend to think I’ll arrive covered in grease and carrying a spanner. Even at that age, the term needs to be qualified. Children need to know what engineering is, and that there are different forms, and it has such a huge scope.”
To bring these points across, Aderin-Pocock employs a couple of tactics. “First, I talk about role models, especially for girls. You go into schools and there will be lists of scientists on the walls. Which is great, but they’re all men. That’s the first thing: it’s not just men. It’s men and women. It’s diverse. It’s engineers from all over the world, from different backgrounds. And it changes lives.” Second is the idea of relevance: “You still hear that if you study physics, the only career option open to you is to become a physics teacher. Their only encounter with physics is to be taught it by a physics teacher. So, I tell them about what I’ve done in my career with a degree in physics... and that’s been really diverse.”
For Aderin-Pocock, the suggestion that, when it comes to promoting science to school children there are ‘hard-to-reach’ groups is moot. “I think the entire generation is hard to reach, which makes me pleased that I’ve spoken to 350,000 of them. Yet that’s just a drop in the ocean. Yes, this is a PR campaign: and part of that is to rebrand engineering – one way to do that is to go into schools and say: ‘I’m an engineer. This is what I do.’ We take what we do for granted, and yet it is amazing. The thing to do is to repackage this in a way that is accessible to kids.” One fundamental barrier is that the education system “places too much emphasis on ticking boxes, and not enough on problem-solving or working in teams. This is very much part and parcel of engineering and it would be nice to incorporate more of that.”
Aderin-Pocock is optimistic the goal will eventually be reached. This faith is based on that “today we are doing wonderous things technologically. We’re doing things in astronomy we once thought were impossible. I made my own telescope when I was 13 and went on to work on an 80-metre telescope. Now we have the VLT, or Very Large Telescope, out in the Atacama Desert. We’re building the ELT – the Extremely Large Telescope. There are plans for the OWL, the Overwhelmingly Large telescope – that’s a telescope the size of a football pitch. We have aspirations to achieve greater things in engineering, and when we look out into space that desire gets greater.”
Whether we attract more women, ethnic groups, differently-abled people or those from minority sexual orientations, “what is fundamental is we get more people into engineering”. It’s easy to be sidetracked by examining shortfalls in various sectors, she says, but the inescapable truth is, “we simply need more people, whoever they are.”
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