Stars in their eyes: How to get children excited about space

Getting children excited about space doesn't have to be rocket science. It's about being engaging and enthusiastic, TV physicist Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock tells Nick Duerden
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The Independent Online

Like many children of her era, the four-year-old Maggie Aderin-Pocock was much taken with The Clangers, a dreamlike animation series on children's television about a family of mouse-like creatures who lived on a small blue planet somewhere in space.

"Oh!" she says now, 37 years later, hand clutched earnestly to her chest, "it had me completely hooked. I loved it. But then, I was born in 1968, the year of the moon landing. Space fascinated everybody."

Unlike other children, Dr Aderin-Pocock never grew out of her obsession, and, in time, became a space scientist. This was unusual for a young British woman then, and – as recent university graduate figures show – it still is.

"The biological sciences are still popular," she clarifies, "but, yes, the more physical sciences have taken a major nosedive of late." As a result, chemistry departments in universities countrywide have been forced to close down, largely because they cannot find the staff. "It's pretty grim," she confirms, "and suggests that science really has become very unpopular.

"When I tell people I am a scientist, their eyes glaze over, at least initially. But it surprises me, this reaction, because science is amazing, it's fantastic. As scientists, we get to travel the world. We get to save people's lives. We do all manner of wonderful things. And it's my mission to make more people realise this."

Over the past five years, as a science communicator, Aderin-Pocock has given talks to more than 50,000 schoolchildren across the country. Her aim is to open young people's eyes to what is in fact an endlessly fascinating world, and an entirely viable career. Last year, her efforts were recognised in the form of an MBE.

"When people think of scientists – if they think of us at all, that is – they think of rather aloof people, people with dicky bows and large foreheads," she says, giggling. "But we're not all geeks, and it really can be the most amazing profession. I could talk about it all day." Her giggle becomes broad laughter. "In fact, I mostly do."

At a time when the only regular manifestation of astronomy on television is 87-year-old Patrick Moore, still presenting The Sky at Night on BBC2 frequently in the dead of night, Aderin-Pocock is his polar opposite – Mercury to his Pluto, if you like. She brings to the subject an ebullient fizz more redolent of children's TV, and manages to make even the most convoluted of scientific equations seem somehow graspable to a mainstream audience. She has appeared a score of times on BBC Breakfast, discussing anything to do with stars and the solar system. "I believe that as scientists we have a responsibility to engage people," she says, "Science doesn't have to be any more complicated than any other subject. It really doesn't. Believe me."

She was born in London to Nigerian parents who divorced when she was four. Her late father had aspirations to go into medicine, which he never fulfilled. Instead, he managed a branch of Pizza Express while raising Maggie and her three sisters, while her mother worked as a counsellor and also had a brief stint as co-host of House Party, a forerunner to Loose Women.

Though she would go on to excel academic- ally, school was initially an endurance test for the future astronomer. "I was dyslexic, and they never knew what to do with children who had dyslexia back then." A key moment in her early education, she says, came during a maths lesson. "The teacher asked, 'If you have a litre of water and that litre of water contains 1,000 cubic millilitres, then how much does one cubic centimetre of water weigh?'" A classroom full of confused expressions greeted the question, but Aderin-Pocock was the only one with her hand up. "The answer was obvious to me," she says. "One gram, of course. Getting it right suddenly gave me confidence."

She went on to study at physics at Imperial College, London, and later gained a PhD in mechanical engineering. After a brief stint working in landmine detection, she specialised in space, and now works for the aerospace company Astrium, a division of EADS. There she helps build satellites and space telescopes, while for two days each week, courtesy of the Science and Technology Facilities Council, she tours British schools with her talks. The feedback she has had to date has been roundly positive, she says, suggesting that she might just be succeeding in sparking the interest of a new generation of scientists.

"I don't lecture the children, but rather try to engage with them at their level." To halls of up to 2,500 students a time, she explains that she was never very good at school, and that her dyslexia was a hindrance, but that she nevertheless went on to become a scientist, travel the world, receive an MBE, and also appear frequently on TV.

"That's what impresses them most," she smiles, "the fact I've been on TV. All young children these days seem to want to be on television."

Though her core audience are 15-year-olds, she has addressed everyone from the very young to the very elderly. And how, precisely, does she engage four-year-olds in the complicated wonders of our solar system? "Well, 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star' is a good place to start," she says. "And I take it from there. We live in a fantastic universe. There is so much to discuss."

One of the most often recurring questions she faces is that of life on other planets. "Scientifically speaking, I absolutely believe there is life out there somewhere," she posits. "And not just traces of bacterial life, either, but some form of intelligent life." The universe, after all, has been around for approximately 13.4bn years. Life could well have evolved on other planets at any point during this time, and could even have tried to contact us during, say, the time of the dinosaurs. "We were in no position to do anything about it then, of course. But we are now."

And yet there remain obstacles, enormous ones, that prevent us from making any such tantalising discovery. Specifically, geography. In a layperson's terms: we are miles from any negligible action. "At the moment, the fastest we can travel through space is ten-and-a-half miles per second," she says, "which is pretty fast. But even at that speed it would still take us about 76,000 years to reach our next-door star. Not our next-door galaxy, but our next-door star."

Which means, surely, that it's an entirely futile pursuit, and that all money spent on seeking other life is money wasted? This indefatigably enthusiastic woman, optimistic as astronomers invariably are, shakes her head. "Not necessarily," she says, an index finger held aloft. "Wormholes. We haven't actually discovered any wormholes yet – wormholes being conduits through time and space – but we believe they are out there. Mathematically, their existence is highly probable. And if we do find one – well, then who knows?"

Though she continues to focus on her work as a space scientist and science communicator, Aderin-Pocock, who became a mother for the first time four months ago, wants more than anything else to go into space herself. Not merely as a tourist, but in a far more proactive manner.

"I applied to become an astronaut recently, but didn't quite make the grade," she smiles sagely. "The competition was fierce, as you can imagine. But I still want to get up there one day, somehow." She laughs again. "And I'll take any opportunity that comes my way."

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