Disseminating science can be a difficult undertaking. Journalists with little to no scientific background may find they know how to frame a story, but lack the ability to appreciate or see nuance in their subject matter. Likewise, scientists may find it difficult to translate their years of training into a digestible story. As a student embarking on his own attempts at this process, I wanted to find out more.
Dark Sky Consultant and Head of Glasgow Science Centre’s state of the art Planetarium, Steve’s quite a well-known figure North of the Wall and in Astronomical circles. A seasoned science communicator, he kindly agreed to sit down for a chat in which we cover his work in and out of the Science Centre, the Rosetta mission (which ended just three hours before the interview), how light pollution relates to street crime, the possibility of life elsewhere in the Universe and much more besides. Enjoy!
C&Q: Starting with a tricky one. How’re things?
SO: Yeah, very well! We’ve just finished the first year of the new planetarium refit. There’s been a planetarium here since we opened in 2001, but we just fitted a new digital planetarium and it’s been the most successful year we’ve ever had here. We’re all pretty exhausted because it’s been so busy, we’ve been doing so many evening events – screening sci-fi films, doing planetarium shows, evening lectures, music gigs, that kind of thing. It’s been really fun, but everyone’s needing a bit of a rest I think.
C&Q: Yeah, I can imagine. I’ve been to quite a few shows myself and it’s been really successful. It’s basically sold out every time.
SO: Yeah, everything we’ve done since January has been completely sold out.
C&Q: That’s brilliant! So as head of the planetarium, what does your job involve?
SO: Well, I’m head of the planetarium team, so I’m in charge of the staffing of the planetarium. There’re five of us altogether, all astronomers. Three of us have astronomy degrees, the other two are amateur astronomers, so different backgrounds. I manage the staff and the writing of the shows. I don’t write many of them, my colleague Nina (the planetarium officer) writes most of our content and I oversee that. Then there’s staff training. My main job is organizing the events beyond the daytime public and school shows that we do, everything else. So, organizing events, arranging speakers in, arranging things to happen in the planetarium. I’ve been been doing that for about a year and a quarter. I’d previously worked at the Science Centre as part of the first intake of science communicators, so I started on day 1 in 2001, worked here for seven years, worked elsewhere as a science communicator, went freelance for a few years then got invited back in June of last year to look after the planetarium. It’s lovely to be back, especially being freelance for so long. Freelance is fun, but there are no paid holidays, no breaks, no friends to speak to, so this is a combination of a really fun job, and a great environment to work in.
C&Q: Absolutely. So, science can often be an incredibly dense and esoteric undertaking. How do you feel your job helps to communicate science, make it more accessible, and do you feel science is important for ordinary people?
SO: You’re absolutely right, science can be very densely esoteric, especially the kind of things we talk about in astronomy which are not the sort of things you can grasp and grapple with in day-to-day life. It’s quite abstract. We’re lucky though in Astronomy in that people are really fascinated by it. There’s the old adage where what kids are especially interested in is dinosaurs or space, but even adults are interested in Astronomy.
C&Q: I suppose there’s an element of ‘direct contact’. You can look up at the sky and see the stars. They’re right there.
SO: Absolutely, and what the planetarium does is allow people to experience that as it should be seen, not as they see it in the city. So most people when they come to the planetarium in Glasgow, the sky’s awful, it’s orange, you can’t see many stars. You can still do a bit of stargazing but not much, and then they come to the planetarium and hopefully get inspired to go further afield, head somewhere dark to see the sky.
Being able to address abstract concepts with people, it works well in the planetarium in two ways where it doesn’t elsewhere – one is that the visual representation of the Universe in the planetarium is second to none. We can fly people to anywhere in the Universe. We inhabit effectively a 3D model of the cosmos. We can fly from the surface of the earth to anywhere in space, into Saturn’s rings, land on Mars, fly out of our solar system, out of our galaxy. We can show people a visual representation of what the Universe is like. It’s all very well explaining how many galaxies there are. You can say it in numbers, you can tell people there are 100 billion galaxies, but until you fly out and see 100 billion galaxies, you don’t get a real sense of that. It creates an impact. It’s really something that sticks with people.
The other thing that works very well here (and not many planetariums in the world do this) is that our team do almost exclusively presenter-led shows. If you go to almost any other planetarium in the world, you’ll see a film. You’ll go in, it’ll be a brilliant film, narrated by Tom Cruise, or Tom Hanks, or Harrison Ford, really big budget spectacular films. We do show some of those here, they are great, but that’s not what people want from a planetarium I think. The movement in the planetarium community is away from these pre-made films, which cost a fortune, to presenter-led shows, which are much cheaper. Staffing costs are higher, but production costs are much lower.
Crucially though, you get this immediacy. In topical science for example, just today [30th September] we talked about the Rosetta spacecraft flying into the comet. It crashed into the comet about twenty past 1, we did a show at 3, so we talked about that. You don’t get that if you’ve got a film. That takes time to make. So being able to be quick and reactive like this is useful, but more so, what people respond to is that there’s a live person there in front that they can come and ask questions of. You don’t get that with a film. Films are beautiful, spectacular things, but people want presenter-led shows. That’s what all of our evaluation shows and that’s what we value here. It would’ve been much easier to run and with fewer staff if we just did films, but the directors at the Science Centre and I as the head of the planetarium were very keen to make sure we were at the cutting edge of what a planetarium can do. You’ll find now that the big planetariums like in New York, the Adler Planetarium in Chicago and California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, are all realizing that presenter-led shows are the way forward. We can talk about abstract concepts, but we’re not doing it in a robotic, parroted fashion. We can actually interact with the audience and answer questions.
C&Q: I’m sure working from a program makes it more adaptable as well.
SO: Absolutely, we control the Universe using a tablet. We can push a button that says fly here, fly there, spin round this way, spin round that way, and we can ask the audience what planet they want to visit that day. ‘Shall we look at Jupiter? Some cool stuff’s been happening in Jupiter today, let’s go visit Jupiter’. We can react to the audience and see what they want.
C&Q: I’ve experienced that first-hand, it works incredibly well. And for that percentage of the population who do come to these shows and are inspired to go away and investigate science further, maybe even really learn the science for themselves, what are some of the key skills they ought to learn? What’s central to the mindset of a scientist?
SO: That’s a very good question. We get a lot of kids coming in, with schools, or families with kids and so on, and we hope that some of those kids will be inspired to study science and work in science. But of course, if everyone wanted to work in science, the world wouldn’t work. You need people who are scientists and people who do other things too. What we want to really inspire here is a scientific mindset, and we want not necessarily for people to go and work in science (although that is great and a small percentage of our audience will do that), but we really want to get this mindset across. That’s one of the key things we try to do here.
C&Q: I think one of the reasons STEM qualifications can be so valuable is that the skills learned are so easily transferable to a range of pursuits.
SO: Very true, so you might go to University and study Astrophysics, but you might end up working in all sorts of different fields. There are very few jobs in Astrophysics at that narrow end of the pyramid. You’ve got to spread out into other things.
As for scientific skills, the things that you need to become a scientist or to develop the scientific mindset, I think there are two main ones for me. One is just an innate curiosity, wanting to ask questions about things all the time. That’s why kids are such natural scientists. They’re learning about how the Universe works, forming this model in their brains about how the world around them behaves. That’s why they ask all these ‘why?’ questions all the time.
Something that I think is overlooked in terms of the scientific mindset, is that science thrives on criticism. If you’re a research scientist and you have a theory, you publish your theory in a peer review journal, and what you actively want to happen, is for all the people who’ve studied the same field as you, to criticize your theory, try and prove it wrong, tear it apart, pick holes in it, and anything that survives that process has got a nugget of truth that you can build on. That’s how science advances, by putting forward your ideas, being attacked positively, and encouragingly, but being attacked and criticized, whittling it down to what is incontrovertible, or almost, and expanding on that.
That’s a really difficult mindset for people, especially in this almost post-factual internet age, where you can find information to back up any theory you want. With any conspiracy you believe, you can find “evidence” [to recorder – I’m doing bunny ears here] to back it up. What sets the scientific community apart from the credulous community who believe anything they read on the internet, is that science advances by criticism. As soon as you criticize a conspiracy theory, people tend to get their backs up. You don’t really get that with a scientist. Scientists thrive on that kind of thing.
C&Q: Speaking of the internet, which is a place often based around likes and shares, it seems the scientific mindset would help to bring people down to Earth. A healthy thing.
SO: Yeah, absolutely right, and there are places you can find that have this ethos, but even in places that should have it, you can find comments and threads on social media that do contribute to this sort of post-factual world that we’re entering into where people can claim anything is true because they read it on the internet.
C&Q: Turning to your work outside the Science Centre, in 2013 you were described by one journalist as ‘the world’s only Dark Sky Consultant’, going to places like Galloway Park and the Island of St Helena to test for Dark Sky Status. Can you briefly describe that process and are there any more of you now?
SO: (laughs) Yeah, I still have a business card that says on it, ‘World’s Only Dark Sky Consultant’. I don’t think there are any more Dark Sky Consultants, which is what I did while freelancing between my stints at the Science Centre. What that involved was travelling around the world, advising usually protected areas like national parks and wildlife reserves on how they can protect their night skies, because if you look at the remit of most national parks in the world, it’ll say something like, ‘to protect and preserve the natural environment’. If you don’t apply that to the night sky, you’re missing out on one half of the natural environment. It’s an easy argument to make to national parks. It’s one that I made, and many people agreed that it’s something they should be doing.
C&Q: Sounds like an easy argument to win.
SO: Yeah, so you can get in that way, but it took a long time to get this concept across, because ultimately what it means is that the parks have got to spend money and resources in improving their lighting and mitigating future bad lighting. Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park was the first one I set up. That was established in 2009 and at the time it was the 5th Dark Sky Place in the world and the first outside North America. The project’s called The International Dark Skies Program and at that time it was only international in the same way that the World Series in Baseball was a World Series (which only America and Canada are really playing), but we managed to internationalize it in 2009, the International Year of Astronomy, a program for which I was the UK manager. Galloway Forest Park was established to big fanfare. We got the front page of The Times, The Telegraph, The Guardian, BBC News front page and we had BBC weather crews coming up and doing lots of reports on Galloway Forest Park that November. It really spread the word and we found afterwards that many other parks and areas were interested.
So in the five years I was doing it I helped establish six dark sky places in the UK, but now there are I think twelve or thirteen, so it’s gotten away from me, which is great because other people are doing this now, not necessarily freelance or as a full time job as I was, but the message is out there and national parks are now thinking about it. My goal at the time always was to get enough of the UK national parks to have the status that for the others it became almost embarrassing that they didn’t have it, because it should be part of what they do, and now in Wales we’ve got Brecon Beacons, then Exmoor and Northumberland in England, so we have four of the UK’s national parks. It’s only a matter of time before the others come along.
C&Q: It occurs to me it might not be obvious why we need darker skies at night. Could you go a little bit into that?
SO: Yeah, it’s a good point. I got into it because I’m an Astronomer, from the ‘light pollution spoiling our view of the sky’ point of view, but now that I’ve been working as a consultant for years I think that’s the least important reason to protect the night skies. It is important: Astronomy can inspire people as we talked about earlier in this interview, that getting, especially kids, hooked on science early can help them to become scientifically-minded adults, and a good way of doing that is space. Space is a good way to inspire kids and adults alike, so getting people out there to see a proper night sky is important. It’s hard to become inspired by the Universe when you live in Glasgow (C&Q – laughs) because the sky’s either always cloudy or always orange and you can’t see very much. Out in Galloway Forest or elsewhere in Scotland, you get beautiful views, but I think that’s the least relevant reason to do it now.
The reason a lot of local councils and national parks are doing it, is that it’s economical. It’s much more efficient to light your park and your community with better lighting. If you look at old-fashioned sodium lights, they spill out everywhere. They’re incredibly energy-intensive and incredibly inefficient. If you refit those with LED lights, yes it costs you money to do the refit, but it’s more localized, and it saves you money in the long run. Northumberland county council and Dumfries and Galloway county council are just finishing spending, between them, over £30m refitting every streetlight in those areas, and they’re not doing it for stargazers like me, they’re doing it because they reckon that within 6-8 years it’ll pay itself back in the energy saved from those lights. So that’s one reason. In this age of austerity we need to not waste money by lighting the sky up, but also, if you light the sky up, it’s burning carbon that we can ill afford to burn, so it’s environmentally ruinous as well.
Thirdly, it’s really negatively impactful for wildlife. If you have areas with bright lights at night, you’ll find that bat, bug and bird behaviour changes dramatically in those areas. The bugs will congregate in those areas and the bats and birds will predate on those bugs, but because those bugs are out all night when they wouldn’t normally be, the birds and bats feed longer than they have to and they spend more energy than they otherwise would. If you build a line or street of lights where there are bats nesting, the bats will avoid those lights for their route out but might predate back in on them, so their routes change and they use more energy.
So, waste of money, waste of carbon, bad for wildlife. There’s good evidence that it’s bad for human health as well, and coincidentally it spoils our view of the sky. There’s not a single good reason not to do it. The reason sometimes put forward is, ‘you’re just trying to make all of our skies pitch black’, but we’re not. We’re trying to get the lighting to be as efficient and as non-impactful as possible. We’re not saying turn all the lights off (if they’re not needed, then by all means). People are often worried that crime will go up if the nights get darker, but there’s evidence from America that the opposite is true. In Chicago in the ’80s it was decided to try to reduce crime in the alleyways by lighting the alleyways up. Crime rose, because most crime is opportunistic – walk past a car, see a handbag, smash it open and take the handbag. If you can’t see, you can’t commit those sorts of opportunistic crimes. They turned the lights off, crime dropped again, so it’s not a simple story between crime and lighting. There are no good arguments I’ve heard not to do it.
C&Q: Going a wee bit further afield, the subject of aliens has been in the news a lot recently, in more or less realistic ways. What’re your thoughts on the chances for life in places like Proxima Centauri b, Breakthrough Starshot and any/all possible ‘alien megastructures’?
SO: Good questions! So, I am a scientist and I have to base my opinions on evidence. At the moment, there’s simply no evidence for life elsewhere in the Universe. That’s the first thing I should say. However, if you ask my opinion as a person rather than as a scientist, I think it would be impossible for there not to be life elsewhere. Everything we’ve ever discovered about the Universe since the invention of the telescope has served to demote us from central importance. Before Galileo saw Jupiter’s moons going round Jupiter, he thought everything went round the Earth. That observation showed that it wasn’t true and we changed to a Sun-centred model. Very soon after that, we realized that the stars we see at night are suns, of which our Sun is one of many. A hundred or so years ago we discovered that our galaxy, which contains 200 billion suns, is one of about 200 billion galaxies in the Universe, so everything we’ve discovered has placed us less in the centre of things.
C&Q: Which if anything I feel is more romantic.
SO: I think so, but I think it’s very easy to visualize us being in the centre. When we see the stars overhead it feels as though we’re in the middle of things, the ground is fixed, solid, and everything overhead is ethereal and moving around you, but a quick understanding of the Universe shows that that’s not the case.
One of the most amazing discoveries of the past decade has been that planets outnumber stars in the Universe. Almost every star you see at night has planets going around it, and based on our current statistical view of the galaxy (and these numbers will almost certainly change) we reckon there’s something like 40 billion Earth-like planets in our galaxy. Not just planets, but Earth-like planets, orbiting their star in a habitable zone where liquid water can exist. That’s what we’re looking for – places that could have liquid water. Now, it’s not necessarily the case that life out in space needs liquid water, but every single life-form on Earth needs it, so it’s not outrageous to think that the same environments might pertain elsewhere.
I personally think that in the next few decades we’ll probably find evidence of life within our solar system. There are almost certainly three oceans out there in our solar system beyond the Earth, possibly more. We know that Jupiter’s moons, one definitely, but possibly another two, have got oceans, certainly one of Saturn’s moons, maybe more again. We think Pluto may well have an ocean that far away from the sun, in fact it may have two. So, it seems that the Universe is much soggier than we used to think it was, and the more water sloshing about, the more places we think life could exist. If we are the only place where life got a hold, I think it’s an incredible waste of space. All you need for life is a few chemicals to make it out of. If you look through a telescope, you’ll find those chemicals are abundant throughout the cosmos.
C&Q: Bringing it back to the Rosetta mission that ended today, I read that complex carbon was found. I hear this is a good sign.
SO: Yeah, so one of the ideas about how life might’ve got here is that it was possibly brought here on comets, that they might’ve brought these amino acids, proteins and complex hydrocarbons to earth. They might’ve brought the water that came here in the first place. We don’t think comets like the one Rosetta was around [67P] brought the right kind of water, because it has a different kind, what we call heavy water, a much higher ratio of this deuterium than we’d find here on Earth, but who knows? Comets certainly could’ve been integral to bringing life to Earth and if that’s the case then they could seed life in lots of places in the Universe. So, I don’t think we’re alone, but there’s no evidence that we aren’t… yet. The Holy Grail would be intelligent life. You mentioned the story of the megastructure that was around earlier this year. Not many astronomers would take that idea seriously. In Science there’s this philosophy we have of Occam’s razor, where you always try to think of the least unlikely solution, which is that it’s a debris cloud of comets and things like that rather than a structure.
C&Q: I found it strange the way that story progressed even in the span of a day on, say, Facebook for example, where it started off as, ‘some strange behaviour has been found around a star – could there be some interesting debris activity around it?’, to, ‘Dyson Swarm all but confirmed’.
SO: It goes back to what we were talking about earlier, with the internet being a great tool for information, but also misinformation. As soon as a little thing catches on in social media, it just goes.
C&Q: I think some of it also has to do with a lot of the science press not being trained in science themselves, so they’re coming at it from the story rather than treating it skeptically.
SO: Yeah, I think they’re not really treating it in the way that it would be treated in a science journal, in that, both TV and written press, often try to get a balance on the story. Sometimes there isn’t a balance. The Earth simply isn’t flat, and you couldn’t write a balanced newspaper article about Flat Earthers because what they’re saying simply isn’t true. In that way, you could have an astronomer coming on and saying it’s definitely a megastructure and another saying it definitely isn’t, but that’s not a balance. It almost certainly isn’t (laughs).
C&Q: Often I notice there’ll be an interesting headline and then any nuance is explained in the article, but particularly on social media, I sense people are just scrolling through, reading the headlines and getting the wrong impression a lot of the time.
SO: Yeah, so all these things help to advance interest in science, and I feel quite bad that we’re often the ones who have to pooh-pooh these sorts of amazing and exciting ideas. Could there be an alien megastructure there? Could we spend a spacecraft to Alpha Centauri? We could, it’s theoretically possible, but space is big. Even if there were aliens with a megastructure around that star (I forget how many lightyears away it is), even if there were intelligent aliens there with technology, we’d never be able to communicate with them in a human lifetime, because it would take 10s of years, 100s of years for our signal to get there and back.
That’s true of any aliens we find, unless we find an alien right next door like in Proxima Centauri, intelligent aliens, and although the Universe is probably teeming with life, the chances of finding intelligent life in our galaxy are really small. The reason I think that is not only is space really big, and therefore there’s lots of it for life to take hold, time is also big, and there’s been lots of time in which civilizations could extinguish themselves. How long are we going to be here? Optimistically let’s say 10,000 years. There could’ve been a million civilizations like us in the Milky Way, in its history, each lasting 10,000 years, and not one of them would’ve overlapped with another in time. That’s the problem. Not only would we have to find a needle in a haystack, we’ve got to find it at just the right instant, when their technology level is similar to our own for us to communicate effectively. If there are aliens out there, and they’re going to get to our technology level in a million years, that’s no use to us, we can’t detect them or communicate with them. If they got there a million years ago, it would be impossible. I think it’s almost certain we’ll find life out there, possibly next door, but the chances of intelligent life are pretty unlikely. I’d love to be proven wrong (laughs).
C&Q: Incredible. Steve, thanks for chatting with me.
SO: You’re very welcome!
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