NEWS14 March 2018

Maggie Aderin-Pocock on detangling the mysteries of space

Impact 2018 Innovations News UK

UK – Space scientist and communicator Maggie Aderin-Pocock is motivated by understanding the vast gap in knowledge of space.

Maggie Aderin-Pocock 3_crop

Scientists only know what 6% of the universe is made of, and Aderin-Pocock would like to know the answer to the remaining 94%, she said during a keynote interview with Richard Young at the Impact conference.

“At the moment, we only know what 6% of the universe is made of – the other 94%, we have no idea – it’s embarrassing. We build these huge telescopes and we send things up into space, we’re looking out there and we only know what 6% of the universe is made of. We come up with handy phrases like ‘it’s dark matter’ but we have no idea what dark matter is.”

“We can detect matter that reflects light, but dark energy and dark matter is not interacting with light, and that’s our main way of viewing the universe. We know it’s there because we can see how galaxies hold together – when galaxies spin, if there wasn’t enough matter in the galaxy it would all just fly out – but we know that’s not happening. So there must be something in those galaxies keeping them together but we have absolutely no idea what it is.”

This issue is just one of the many that inspires and drives Aderin-Pocock, and one of the questions she raises in her work with schoolchildren as a science communicator, to highlight how much there is still to learn. She explains complex scientific information to children using relatable exercises such as getting them to start counting to one billion – this would take 32 years, helping to communicate the vastness of space.

Achieving broader understanding and enthusiasm for science is not necessarily an easy task. Asked for her view of Stephen Hawking, following his death, she said: “He was so much a part of our lives. Not everyone can achieve that. My seven-year-old knew who he was because he had been on The Simpsons. He was a pioneer and we’re following behind not quite getting it but he was trying to communicate his knowledge as best as he could.”

As a child, Aderin-Pocock always had aspirations – “a pipe dream” – to go into space, but when she got to school, things initially didn’t go to plan. She is dyslexic, and found herself at the back of the classroom, feeling that her aspirations to go to university might not pan out.

“I watched Star Trek and The Clangers and when I went to school, effectively it all went wrong. I was dreaming about the stars and I was hearing about people like Neil Armstrong going to space and I wanted to join them.”

The pivotal moment was when the teacher in a science lesson asked the question ‘if a litre of water weighs one kilogram, how much does one cubic centimetre of water weigh?’ and she put her hand up to answer. “Suddenly I thought ‘I’m not as dumb as I think and more importantly, I’m not as dumb as other people think I am'. Also, it was science, and science is what puts people into space. I thought ‘maybe I could do this’, and the nod from the teacher helped. So, I say to kids: ‘put your hands up and see what happens'.”

There is so much to be excited about in science, she said – not least the recent detection of gravitational waves, first predicted by Einstein 100 years previously. “We’re having a bit of a heyday in science. We’re also looking at exoplanets – planets going around stars and we’re able to measure their atmospheres to see if there’s life. I believe there is life in the universe.”

She has made it to the top of a field that’s dominated by white men. Asked how comfortable she feels with the idea of being a role model, she is happy to be viewed in those terms as long as people see her as a real person too.  

“When someone first suggested I was a role model I thought ‘you’ve got it wrong’. I’m pathologically late and I am chronically untidy. I thought I just couldn’t possibly be a role model but I think I got that wrong – to be a role model, you shouldn’t be perfect, you should show your flaws. Every one of us could be a role model because we have something to share.”

She doesn’t feel under pressure in this position. “I always wanted to be a scientist, so to be given the opportunity to do that feels like a pleasure and not a burden at all. And to be given the opportunity to share that is also a pleasure. So, I don’t mind being a role model as long as people see me as a real person as well.”

Not knowing all the answers is a joy for Aderin-Pocock. She said: "The thing I find most enjoyable is when my daughter asks me a question and I don’t know the answer. We go away and research it on the internet so we learn together. That’s what I used to do with my father, and it just brought the science to life."