ill Gater is one of the current generation of ‘rock star’ science popularisers. He is currently touring with his show, The story of the Solar System. However, he was able to take some time out to talk to Scarlett and Finn about his love for his subject and recent exciting developments in space exploration.
Since science communication is about converting a lot of complicated information into a more digestible and engaging form, how did you go about condensing 4.6 billion years of history into a couple of hours for your show?
This was the big challenge I faced in 2016 to see how I would go about doing this. My day to day job was looking at the minutiae of science news which is really exciting, but you need to apply a sense of context. I used my experience as a journalist and asked myself how I could structure all this information into a narrative which did justice to the 4.6 billion years, and also correctly represented our current understanding. It is an evolving field and every year there is something new. For example, the New Horizons mission (which I talk about at the end of the show) has just sent back some extraordinary new information. So, while the beginning of the show had to be about the birth of the Solar System, I then had to address each section of the Solar System in turn.
Paradoxically, with this kind of knowledge, each question you answer generates more questions.
That’s true, however I didn’t want to lose sight of the objective of the show which was to entertain. I didn’t want to reel off an encyclopaedic history, I wanted to make sure that the audience was going to really connect with the little stories which in my life have caused spine tingling moments of revelation. I wanted to communicate the feeling of first seeing these images from primordial objects untouched for billions of years. Those are the stories I wanted to tell. It was about making it entertaining.
Science and theatre are a curious marriage and it was amazing to see them coming together in your show.
I think I am educating and informing people by stealth. My audience is already receptive to the idea of mystery and fun, so then I hit them with the science. Some of it sticks with them when they leave. If 300 people each take away 2 or 3 facts, then that makes a difference.
You’ve had a varied career in both publishing and radio broadcasting. What is the most important lesson you would pass on to a budding science communicator?
It’s about always bringing it back to the human stories, the people that are involved. I have a degree in this and have been a professional science journalist for 12 years now and I am dealing with objects millions of kilometres and billions of light years away, even I don’t have an intuitive feeling for how far those things are. What I do understand and always resonates with me are those stories of discovery: when an astronomer sees something for the first time, or a mission returns information which suddenly validates a theory. These are the stories I try to focus on. If you are a budding journalist or communicator, look for the human stories in these amazing events. That is where you’ll get the drama and the connection with your reader, and that will have a tremendous impact on any reporting you do.
A lot of science is sometimes serendipity, so it really helps to be curious and also to take those opportunities that come along.
There are a few moments in the show when I talk about those serendipitous moments and it is really in many ways the most exciting element of this very broad field. It’s sometimes called the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns and the things that just completely come out of the blue.
In terms of astrophotography, I know that you were on the judging panel of Greenwich Observatory’s Photographer of the Year competition; what kind of technical prowess goes into getting a great celestial shot?
Technical skill is only part of being an astrophotographer, it’s the eye for the composition. There are ways you can frame and compose an image which will draw the viewer’s eye in. That will get them to focus on something, even if it is subconsciously, that will convey a message. When I was judging the competition, it was always those images which made you step back in contemplation you hadn’t anticipated, that stayed with you. Those are the compositions that speak to people. In astrophotography, there is the temptation to record something scientifically at the centre of the field of view and not think of the composition. If you spend a little more time and think about the object and what you are trying to say with the image, that will set you on the right road to a great shot.
It’s an art form and people can come away with different messages.
Absolutely and on the judging panel there were not just astrophotographers: there were art historians, Turner Prize-winning photographers, people with tremendous artistic credentials. In the 10 years I sat on the panel I found myself continually learning from these people, not just about techniques, but the way one appreciates an image and the way one goes about digesting it visually. That, to me, improved my own photography skills.
Many of us like to ponder the question of whether or not extra-terrestrial life exists? Some time ago on Sky News you suggested we keep our heads low instead of trying to contact other life forms. What are the potential consequences or risks associated with this endeavour?
There is a lot of debate in terms of what we should do about the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI) and communicating to other civilisations if they are out there in the Galaxy. I always think back to the history of our own planet and that it’s never really a good idea. The flip side is how likely is it that these civilisations are out there in the Galaxy. The thing about astronomy is there are millions of ‘Earth like’ planets out there and what we don’t know is if any of them have the conditions in which life, as we understand it, could arise. That is the big question mark over the whole field of SETI and astrobiology. Are these people even out there? Is there anyone to talk to? Maybe it will be a moot point. Maybe, as time goes on, we will realise, especially in our little corner of the Cosmos, we are relatively isolated.
It’s fascinating to think, is it just us? Is someone else trying to reach us on another planet?
It’s an open question. You can look at it semi-unscientifically; consider the numbers. The number of stars in just our Galaxy is somewhere between 200 and 400 billion, and then, to use a Carl Sagan-esque phrase, literally billions and billions of Galaxies in the known Universe. The chances we are alone in the Cosmos are probably pretty low.
I recently read a book called How to build a Universe from Robin Ince and Brian Cox’s Infinite Monkey Cage radio 4 programme, and it describes the early Universe as a primordial soup. What were the ingredients and conditions necessary for life on Earth? A nice hefty question.
This is going even further back in time. I only deal with 4.6 billion years of history, but you are talking here about 13.7 billion years, which is the age of the Universe. The amazing thing is that we are only here because of the processes that have gone on in that 13.7 billion years. After the Big Bang and the creation of the lighter elements, the most important process is the way in which stars live, converting their hydrogen and helium gas into heavier elements: what astronomers call metals, but that is just because astronomers are strange and unconventional. They are not metals as you and I understand them, just heavier elements. The iron in our blood and the carbon and oxygen in our cells all were synthesised in stars. It is in some of these most massive stars, at the point of death as Supernovae, that the really heavy elements are made. They explode and seed space with this material. We believe that the material our own Sun formed from and us around it was seeded by these Supernovae exploding which lived in the billions of years before our Solar System. We are here in a very real sense because of the stars.
It’s really quite miraculous.
It has a sort of poetry to it. We are looking out on a Cosmos we have come from. We are a product of this Universe. When you look into a starry sky you are looking at where you came from.
With the recent flight of NASA’s New Horizons probe, there is so much to celebrate in astronomy and aeronautics. How important do you think collaboration is astronomy compared to other scientific fields?
Absolutely vital, and absolutely central. New Horizon is a great example of a mission which was built and launched by NASA, but they were able to find their most recent target by a collaboration of various different international organisations. Obviously, we knew where the dwarf planet, Pluto, was which was the original target of the mission, but the most recent target 2014 MU69 (Ultima Thule) was not known about when the mission launched. Astronomers looked out in the direction that New Horizons was headed in and in the Kuiper belt they found this tiny little object. Then, international work by astronomers refined its position. It´s a great example of how collaboration across borders can help us peel back and understand the most fundamental questions we have in planetary science.
Who have you most enjoyed working with in your career?
Where to begin? I’ve been lucky enough to work at the European Space Agency Hubble Telescope press office. I worked at various magazines with great teams. Now, as a freelancer, I get to work with a huge variety of people: television presenters, scientists. That is one of the things I most enjoy about being a journalist. I get to pick up the phone or send an email to leaders in their field, the world’s most respected and knowledgeable scientists and say “will you talk to me for my article?”. It’s such a privilege to talk to these unfailingly fascinating people. That is what I love the most about my job.
What inspired you to present your science in the form of theatre, as opposed to other media?
I had been doing public lectures for over 20 years, and around 2016 I started incorporating more entertainment and demonstrations, and I wondered if this would work in a theatre format. I contacted my local theatre in Somerset. I had a chat with their technical director who was absolutely superb, and it blossomed from that. I outlined a show about the Solar System and they said “right, we’ll book it in”, and it just went from there. It pretty much sold out a 245-seat theatre on the first go. I couldn’t believe it. What I was most pleased about was people’s reaction; there was a tremendous reaction just to the idea of the show. I followed up in Bristol and Exeter and both those shows sold out. People are exited about the content. It’s not any thing that I’m doing. It’s the wonder of astronomy and understanding these big fundamental questions.
People are fascinated and there aren’t many theatre shows out there that meet that need.
These things are relatively rare. I think Brian Cox is doing something similar. I would say to other science communicators investigate this because there is an untapped audience. I was amazed at the range of people who turned up; people with no previous interest in science who are now sitting through and enjoying an almost 2 hour show on the subject.
You recently produced a feature called A Year of Celestial Wonders. Could you give our readers some tips on the spectacular sights to look out for over the next 12 months?
I’m originally from Devon and you are in Exeter, where you’re not far from Dartmoor which has some wonderful dark skies. In the Winter months at the moment some of the constellations are really prominent: you have the beautiful constellation of Orion which in its sword has a beautiful nebula; essentially a glowing gas cloud where stars are being born. You can see this with binoculars, and if you go onto Dartmoor you can see it, as what looks like a misty star to the naked eye. With binoculars you can see some beautiful star clusters: the most famous one is the Pleiades, which is in Taurus, also things like Gemini and Messier 35. There is so much information online and apps which can guide you around the sky. As you move into Spring and Summer it changes. On Dartmoor in late August when the sky is beginning to get dark again you see the centre, the bright band, of the Milky Way stretching up above the southern horizon. Dartmoor is where I fell in love with the night sky; seeing that Milky Way stretching overhead. Everyone should see that.
Did you get to see the Red Blood Moon recently?
Yes, I did. I stayed up pretty much all night. I felt a bit rough the next day, but it was worth it. I got a brief, few-second glimpse of the total phase. Just after that, the clouds broke and I managed to get a few nice pictures of what is known as the umbral shadow, the core of the Earth’s shadow slipping of the lunar disk. As it moves away, you see the bright moon beams. The next really good one is not until 2021.
Our last two questions are a bit more fun. Would you rather go back in time or forward in time, and why?
That’s a really good question. I think, on balance, I would rather go forward in time. This is like one of those psychological tests. I would want to see where we get in a million years. I’d hope that Earth wouldn’t be a baked crust, a remnant of a planet. I love to see humans properly, as a commonplace, exploring in crude vehicles throughout the Solar System. That would be something I would love to see, whenever that happens. That for me is where the realms of science fiction are at the moment. Today you have companies like SpaceX which are doing things that were science fiction when I was a kid. Seeing the rockets from SpaceX landing back on their pad, that for me was Thunderbirds. Forward in time to when we are exploring the planets up close, that would be something.
Then you have artificial intelligence to contend with.
Yes. The progression of space technology is all well and good; however, it is how society and technology advance as a whole which may influence it. We just have to hope that cool heads prevail. There is always a risk of us bringing about our own demise.
You don’t have to participate in the next part of our interview if you feel uncomfortable with it. Do you know the game show Just a Minute on Radio 4?
Well, we were wondering, if we gave you a topic could you try and talk about it for a minute? There should be no hesitation, deviation or repetition.
I can try. There will be plenty of hesitation. As long as it is an astronomy topic.
Don’t worry it will be. So can you tell us about the Hubble telescope?
The Hubble space telescope is perhaps the most…Oh God, I´ve failed already.
I’ll start again. You can’t really do that on Just a Minute. I’ll just imagine Paul Merton is waxing lyrically next to me.
The Hubble space telescope is perhaps the most incredible instrument of discovery. It was launched in the 1990s by the space shuttle, which was the orbiter NASA used to take vast numbers of instruments up to the international space station, and Hubble itself has been one of those things which has opened up the Universe to us. It’s shown us images of Galaxies far, far away, almost back to the Big Bang. When we look back at it’s legacy, it is going to be one of those missions that we put in the pantheon of the great scientific endeavours of our time. When you look at things like The Pillars of Creation, that stunning image of a nebula that Hubble took that really captured the public’s imagination, it’s one of those things which transcends not just science but art as well. The images of star clusters, galaxies and nebulae interacting….
…and that’s a minute! That was quite the performance! Well on the behalf of Exeposé, we would like to thank you, Will, for agreeing to do this interview. We have both thoroughly enjoyed this privilege and have gained so much insight into your work as an astronomer.
Thanks for inviting me.