PASSED/FAILED: Heather Couper

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The Independent Online
Heather Couper, 47, is a former president of the British Astronomical Association. She is creative director of Pioneer Productions, whose recent C4 programmes include 'Electric Skies', 'On Jupiter' and 'Avalanche'. 'Black Holes' is scheduled for later in the year. This week as Hale-Bopp continued its fantastic journey across our skies, the National Astronomical Association was meeting in Southampton to hear new research that has found the Milky Way to be spherical rather than flat.

Starry-eyed? One night when I was seven or eight I was looking up at the planes - my father was a pilot - and I suddenly saw a bright green shooting star. My parents said there was no such thing; in the paper next day there was a small headline saying, "Green Shooting Star". My father bought me a series of little telescopes and I used to go out into the garden. The sheets my mother had washed were frozen stiff, but being plump and well-padded I didn't notice the cold.

Lone star? I was not a model pupil at Whiteheath primary school in Ruislip, north-west London. I was top of the class but disruptive. I hated the girls and I always went around with the boys; I still do. In my final year we had Mr Ashley, who would stand no nonsense but would really encourage you. For my Nature Diary I put down all my astronomical observations.

Expanding universe? I passed the 11-plus to St Mary's, an all-girls school in Northwood. It was next to a boys' school; they called me "hippo" or "fatso". At about 13 I gave up astronomy, which I thought was for old men, and my interest in science, which at school was all about levers and pulleys, evaporated too. I used to follow rock groups and said I knew The Searchers to impress my friends. I got nine O-levels; I think it was a D in physics and an O in chemistry, the lowest pass-mark.

Black hole? The sixth form was a ghastly time. I started doing four A- levels but ended up with just geography and physics. The careers mistress said, "You can't be an astronomer unless you make a discovery." I wrote to Patrick Moore about it, adding, "PS I'm a girl." He wrote back by return, saying that was no handicap but you did need maths. I got a Grade A in geography and E, the lowest pass, in physics.

Back in orbit? At 19 I rediscovered astronomy and joined the local society. I decided I wanted to go professional and heard there was a lowly one- year post analysing data at the Cambridge Observatories. They really encouraged me there and I managed to get maths A-level at the lowest grade after one night's work a week for six months.

Rocket scientist? With the lowest grades in the two subjects you needed, I read astrophysics - the physics of the stars - at Leicester, one of the best universities for the subject. I was not a model student. I was president of the University Astronomical Society, which was an excuse to have amazing parties. The vice-president was Nigel Henbest; later we set up Pioneer Productions. My final degree was an Upper Second. I'm very pleased that later this year I'm to be made an Honorary DSc at my old university.

Star wars? I went to Oxford for a DPhil (PhD) but I realised that to do research you have to be obsessive about the subject. I lasted a year and a half. My old tutor at Leicester asked me back to do some research on vulcanology. Nigel did the driving down to Mount Etna and I navigated by Hugh Johnson's Atlas of Winen

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