Transcript 004 Fred Watson

FEMALE: Direct from the astronomy capital of Australia comes the Astro Podcast. An irregular series of interviews with interesting astro people about projects and passions that keep their eyes to the sky.

ALLISON: Hi! Allison here from Astro Podcast. This week we interview Dr. Fred Watson. But before then I just want to remind you that if you hear anything in the podcast that’s interesting, there’s probably a link in the show links on the Asto Podcast site. So if you go over to, look for podcast number 4, Fred Watson, and check out the links. Anyway, I’ll be back to have a chat after the podcast.

[Podcast Intro Sounds]

ALLISON: Hi! Allison here from Astro Podcast and I am talking to the esteemed—yes, I’m going to talk you up—Dr. Fred Watson!

FRED: Thank you! Nice to be here, Allison.

ALLISON: Thank you! Thank you!

FRED: Nice to be esteemed as well.

ALLISON: I hold you in high regard. Don’t shake your head! (laughs)

FRED: There’s no need to at all.

ALLISON: But I have seen you play the guitar and I will be attaching a video of you from the Science in the Pub from last year.

FRED: Oh really!

ALLISON: I actually took a video of you, yeah! Just a little snippet of it.

FRED: Good!

ALLISON: So Fred, we usually talk about, we start out talking about what your history is, but we try and place you for people who don’t know you, and I can’t believe anyone doesn’t know you, your official title is astronomer-in-charge?

FRED: It is, yeah! I’m still the astronomer-in-charge in the Australian Astronomic Observatory. Nearly, nearly! Been in that job too long!

ALLISON: I just go AAO and—

FRED: Yes, which I’ve been since 1995.


FRED: Right. It’s actually quite a while.

ALLISON: So what does that job involve? Just a quick—

FRED: Well, it’s metamorphosed a number of times, and now I have to say it’s really the fun end of the job. So what I do is I have a small group that I manage at the AAO which—actually, who are—telescope observers. So half my job, or maybe a bit less than half, is project manager for the RAVE Survey, RAVE being the Radio Velocity Experiment, to try and dig up some of the hidden relics of our own galaxy, in other words to try to understand our galaxy. So that’s basically a significant fraction of the job. But there’s also a sort of corporate side which revolves around things like Sight Protection, so I chair a small working group that endeavors to keep sight—

ALLISON: You said you dig trenches—

FRED: No, no, no, not trenches. Not with a cannon or rifles or anything.

ALLISON: That’s right. Or moat!

FRED: It’s about keeping the skies dark. Because one of the big threats to an institution like—not just the Australian Astronomical Observatory, but Siding Springs Observatory generally is the encroachment of light pollution in our skies, bearing in mind that often the objects that we’re looking at are only 1 percent brighter than the natural night sky background. So you can imagine the sky background is artificially enhanced by whatever light pollution there is, then it just swamps the signal out completely and you basically become unviable. That’s the worst case scenario. But what we have tried to do in the 12 years or so that this committee has been operational is to maintain a watching brief on developments around.

We have legal framework in place, there’s various legal instruments that control what you can and can’t do and I have to say Coonabarabran is our biggest ally in that regard because by and large lighting in Coonabarabran is very good, we’ve got the Warrumbungles Shire Council as one of our greater supporters. And I think people generally recognize that there’s a good reason for keeping lights under control. We don’t want everybody to go around in the dark, we don’t want the place to look dim and gloomy, but we do want light to go downwards rather than upwards. So that’s part of the job. And the other part, I guess the biggest part, is science outreach, of which I do quite a lot. That essentially spills over into my own time. In fact, I often do it when I’m asleep (laughs) because it seems to take up so much of my time.

ALLISON: Sure, sure!

FRED: So that’s what the astronomer-in-charge does.

ALLISON: Wow! That’s a lot there!

FRED: It’s not really, no. I keep worrying somebody’s going to find out that I should be doing more or…(laughs) but nobody will listen to this, will they?

ALLISON: Yeah, that’s right! No! So let’s jump in the way back machine and take it to a very young Fred.

FRED: Yeah! (laughs)

ALLISON: Tell me—it’s getting like sitting you on the couch. Now tell me Fred—a little bit of—

FRED: When did it all happen?

ALLISON: Yeah, where did it all come from?

FRED: I’m very, very old, so for you listeners, you have to understand that. And I was born in the north of England, in the outskirts of a city called Bradford. In fact, the street where I was, the road where I was born, until the end of the 19th century, was called Thief’s Scare Lane, because you were scared of thieves, that’s where all the thieves hung out. And then when the place became more corporate and a city in the late 19th century, the local authority decided to improve the name so they upgraded it and it then became Cemetery Road. So I was actually born in Cemetery Road. And to add insult to injury, my parents called me Fred—there was actually a good reason for that, which I won’t go into—but so I arrived, actually, well, quite ugly things were still happening in Europe.

There was a guy called Adolf Hitler and his cronies were still running amok in Europe, but that all came to an end. So basically, when I was growing up, it was very much in the post-war era. And at that time, science was kind of in the ascendency. Everybody thought there was going to be another world war that would be fought, a very highly technological ground, so science education in schools was very much the imperative. But also the fact that the previous world war had been for very much in a technological way that also meant that things like the Space Age could actually kick off. So the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, launched 4th of October 1957. That was the period when I was at school; I was just starting high school then. And all my peers and colleagues were absolutely mad on space travel and space flight and all very [clue-y] about science.

There was a comic that we all read called the Eagle which had a guy called Dan Dare, pilot of the future, and we were all just captivated with the whole thing. The Scientist started in 1957, Patrick Moore’s TV program, Sky at Night, started in 1957, and he’s still going!

ALLISON: Great eyebrows! (laughs)

FRED: Yeah, he’s got the eyebrows to die for. So all this was happening and I guess everybody was at least aware of science and the possibility of space exploration. We all expected that we’d be wandering around on the planets well before the 1980’s. And I suppose what happened is my peers and colleagues kind of got sensible and grew up and did reasonably productive things like becoming doctors and lawyers and engineers, but I just never grew up, so I was hooked on it from a very young age. And it was when I was about 16 that I decided that I wanted to pursue astronomy as a career.

ALLISON: Sure, sure! So you went the physics route or—

FRED: Yeah. I mean, physics was what I was good at at school. I was not actually very good at math, so that, later, when I got to university let me down because despite the fact that my degree is in Mathematics and Physics, it was a very much a scrape through on the mathematics.

ALLISON: It doesn’t say anything on the paper that does—

FRED: It doesn’t say that. Nobody knows that it was the 6th attempt that I finally passed that. You can only do that in Scotland. It was a Scottish university. In fact, Scotland’s oldest university, which is celebrating its 600th birthday this year, the University of St. Andrews. Scottish universities had a system that actually allowed you to find your own level and to kind of fail if you need be, but still—

ALLISON: Oh wow! That’s very progressive—

FRED: It was indeed and still is. But so yes, when I was in school—just going back—astronomy was my interest. I used to have one of the members of the staff, he was a history teacher actually, but he had a three and a half inch cook refracting telescope which he used to lend me to observe with. So I used to have this thing in the front garden at home. And one night when I was observing with this telescope, a large policeman called by and said, “We’ve heard from your neighbors that you’ve got a bazooka in the garden.” He wasn’t interested in looking through people’s windows. He thought it was a weapon. Because it was the post-war period, people thought things like that. And I told him it wasn’t loaded and that it’s all okay.

So yes, it was a very much an interest. So I went to university to do astronomy, and in fact that’s why I went to Scotland because apart from the University College London, only the three, then, Scottish universities did astronomy as a first degree, yeah. So I wound up in St. Andrews but changed to Math and Physics because I kind of figured Astronomy, if I turned out not to be very good at it, it might limit my career possibilities. As it happened I turned out not to be very good at mathematics either, but the physics kind of helped me through. And in the end I actually have forgotten about it, but I got the class medal for first year Astronomy, by a sleight of hand I’m sure.

ALLISON: Despite the math. (laughs)

FRED: Despite the math, yeah. So that essentially changed the paradigm slightly because it meant I wasn’t going to go through a standard process of a good honest degree, which I didn’t have—I did have a degree, but it wasn’t a good honest degree—then to a PhD and then to a post doc, which is still really the normal mode of education in Astronomy and in most of the scientists. So I went into industry. I actually worked for a couple of years for a very long established and venerable optical company called Sir Howard Grubb Parsons & Co. Ltd. And they were in Newcastle-on-Tyne and they actually dated back 150 years. Howard Grubb was, well, one of their early products was the Great Melbourne Telescope, which you may know is currently being restored. It was burned at Mount Stromlo but is now back in Melbourne being restored.

So a company with a huge history and my specialty was optics, so I kind of figured that I knew a bit about optics, which I have to say is also a product of the second World War because if you wanted to build a telescope in those days or if you wanted to do astronomy, you couldn’t go and buy a telescope, you had to build one. But the company had been at this World War which means that there were government surplus shops full of all the optical bits and pieces that you needed to do that. So that was great because it gave me a bit of familiarity with hands on optics. And then when I worked at Grubb Parsons making large telescope mirrors, I was responsible for testing them. Then that sort of cemented that. The mirror that I worked on most closely is still operational. It’s in a telescope, this 1.8 meter telescope at Asiago in Italy and I was reunited with it about 3 years ago, after 40 years nearly.

ALLISON: Wow! (laughs)

FRED: And I was responsible for it. Grubb Parsons, by the way, made the Anglo-Australian Telescope optics and the UK Schmidt Telescope optics.

ALLISON: Well, there you go!

FRED: So comes around in big circles.

ALLISON: Are they still in existence?

FRED: No. They closed in 1987. The last two big telescopes they made were the 3.8 meter UK Infrared Telescope, which is still operational in Hawaii, and then the 4.2 meter William Herschel Telescope in La Palma.


FRED: But after that, because they relied on all this from governments with big ticket items, there were no more telescopes that they could see on the horizon and so essentially they closed down. In a way it was inevitable because their working practices were firmly entrenched in the 19th century. I still used machines and instruments that Howard Grubb had used in the 1860’s, spherometers and things like that.

So it was very traditional. And actually they had trouble moving into the modern era when I was in Grubb Parsons—this was in the late 60’s. They were the prime contractor for a space craft called—actually, no. It was for an instrument to be carried on board a space craft. The space craft was called TD 1, which was an acronym for Thor Delta, which was going to be the launch vehicle. They didn’t have a very imaginative [inaudible – 14:28]. And the experiment was it was an ultraviolet telescope to do astronomical observation in ultraviolet above the atmosphere. It’s called S68—don’t ask me why it was called S68 but it was—but Grubb Parsons had to build this thing and they weren’t used to build anything that didn’t weight 20 tons. And this was all space grade titanium and aluminum. In fact, the optics were made of aluminum and they really didn’t come to terms with that. In the end, they lost the contract. In fact, it went to [inaudible – 15:04]. Just because it was such a different technology from what they’ve been doing for the last 100 years, so.

ALLISON: Sure, sure! So into stuff, you know, research astronomy or observational astronomy, or—

FRED: Yeah. What actually happened was so I worked for two years at Grubb Parsons in Newcastle-on-Tyne. And then I always had the feeling that I hadn’t really covered myself in glory at university and thought I should try and have another stab at it. So I went back to St. Andrews to do a masters degree, which was in Asteroid Orbit. So I was actually doing research on orbital dynamics. But the tricky bit was I didn’t have any visible means of support for that. So that’s when I became an out-of-work musician because—

ALLISON: Ah, yes, I was going to ask when this came up!

FRED: Yes, that was the height of the folk boom in the late 60’s. And you didn’t have to be able to sing, but if you could play a guitar and make the right kind of noises, then you are very much in. And I couldn’t sing, but I actually could handle a guitar reasonably well. And so I used to do a lot of stuff in the folk clubs in Scotland and in the north of England. And I was actually half of a band called The Bradford and East Five Ready Mix Concrete Company, which seemed like a good idea at the time, but we were always getting pushed out. The gigs always went to another band called The Humble Bums, and we thought it’s because their name is shorter. But The Humble Bums were Gerry Rafferty—

ALLISON: Oh! They’re actually good! (laughs)

FRED: Yeah. And a guy called Billy Connolly. I don’t know what happened to him!

ALLISON: [inaudible – 16:50]

FRED: Yeah, no, yes, I mean Gerry, right? He was magical on the guitar. Billy was never a great musician, but he had the patter. Anyway, so I supported myself actually by teaching, but also by doing these gigs and things, and then wound up eventually with an MSC in Astronomy and a good background in Orbital Dynamics. And so that’s when I went and joined the Royal Observatories. I moved to Sussex in the south of England and got a job at the Royal Greenwich Observatory, which was then not in Greenwich but in Sussex, working in an institution called Her Majesty’s Nautical Almanac Office, working on planetary orbits. It was interesting stuff but a bit routine. People kind of exhausted out the solar system a hundred years before. And so there wasn’t much whizz bang researching it. Well, there is now because everybody’s interested in the evolution of planetary orbits and how the solar system got to be like it is and what it’s going to look like in the future. Anyway, I was there, again, for actually about three and a half years and then transferred within—because by then I was a public servant—within government service up to the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh where I started working on the dynamics of our own galaxy, the way stars actually orbit. So that was a lot more interesting, galaxy being this huge aggregation of 400 billion stars or so with lovely spiral arms and all the rest of it, and I worked on just how the spiral arms were behaving and how the galaxy itself—

ALLISON: Yeah. You could tell from the last podcast I had no idea about that! (laughs)

FRED: Well, yes, well, there you go. So that was working with a guy called Victor Clube, who was a bit of a heretic. He had some wild ideas about galactic structure and galactic motions that most of the community didn’t share. And in the event it turns out he was partly right and they were partly right, now we know that the galaxy is much more complex than we even thought it was. But Victor Clube actually is very noteworthy. He never got the credit he deserved for what was probably his piece of work, which he did with a man called Bill Napier, who is also at Royal Observatory of Edinburgh. And that was to put together what they called a Theory of Terrestrial Catastrophism, which was—this is in 1979—the wild idea that the Earth’s history had been modified by bombardments from asteroids, including the possibility that there’d been mass extinctions because of that, which nobody had suggested before. But in fact, their work was essentially, it wasn’t quite stolen, but they were dumbed down by an American group who basically stole the thunder from what should have been very much a sort of Scottish space adventure. They were working at the Royal Observatory of Edinburgh at the time as I was too. I was working with them largely on that.


FRED: So we’ve got now to 1931! It’s going terribly slowly here!

ALLISON: Oh my goodness! (laughs) No, no! No, it’s incredibly interesting, especially when talking about stuff that you don’t hear these days, the evolution of astronomy. Not that you’re old, but you’ve seen a lot. You’ve seemed to go from photo to CCD and all that stuff.

FRED: But that’s in a sense what actually I’ve got any reputation at all in astronomy. It’s actually along those lines. Because in 1982, at that time the Royal Observatory of Edinburgh was operating the UK Schmidt Telescope here in Australia and everybody who was an astronomer on the staff was expected to basically spend some time working at the colonial outstation. There was one in Hawaii, one in Australia, and the Hawaiian guys all did infrared astronomy, which I didn’t know a thing about at the time, whereas it was photographic wide field astronomy here in Australia, which was fairly closely allied to what I’ve done.

So I came to Australia in 1982 on a 3-year tour of duty, but we just worked out that a really good, neat use for this Schmidt Telescope might be to fit it with optical fibers, which was very much a new technique then, the first what we call the multi-fiber observations on telescopes were only made in December 1979. So the idea of being what you can do is use the fibers to take light from your target stars or galaxies and line it up on the slit of the spectrograph into a neat straight line so you get this beautiful bar code of information on these objects, not just one at a time, but you get them hundreds at once, and that’s actually what the AAO has become known for, that particular work.

ALLISON: Yeah, it’s just gone through an upgrade, hasn’t it?

FRED: It’s doing that actually as we speak, yes. Something called Hermes is the next big thing. The upgrade a couple of years ago was to something called AAO [inaudible – 22:16] Anyway, a guy called John Dawe and myself—John lived in Coonabarabran, he was the former astronomer in charge of the Schmidt telescope, now sadly no longer with us—but he and I had this mad idea of putting fiber optics on the Schmidt telescope. Everybody said why do you want to do that, it’s a perfectly good telescope doing perfectly good photography, lovely pictures! And so anyway, we persevered with that. And it turned out that we were really at the start of a revolution. Not necessarily because of us, although we played a small part in it, but the revolution is in the way that astronomical data are collected.

So it literally used to be one spectrum at a time in those days. And then along came fiber optics, suddenly you could do it and in fact the first system I build, I think, are 39 fibers, but we now run a system that’s got more than a hundred. And on the AAT, there is the, as we’ve just been saying, the upgraded system which is 400 fibers. So you can look at 400 objects at once and that means you can now amass vast quantities of data and build up a big picture of what’s going on. It’s exactly like population centers where you go and knock on people’s doors and write down their religion and ethnic background and all that sort of thing, only we do it for galaxies and stars but we don’t knock on doors. We use the barcode of information. And it’s totally transformed the way astronomy is done. So that’s been I guess the biggest change that I’ve seen in [inaudible – 23:48].

ALLISON: You are known for something, Fred. (laughs)

FRED: Yeah, probably.

ALLISON: Well, moving away from that side of things, let’s chat about the tours that you run and go on. On your website you have quite a few. There’s one that really interest me and I saw the talk that you did last year about the auroras. And one of my bucket list things is to see both in one year if I can. (laughs)

FRED: Both the aurora borealis and the aurora australis, yeah.

ALLISON: Yeah, somewhere on the list.

FRED: Yeah, sure, it’s possible. The easiest way is to get on the international space station.

ALLISON: Well, that would be my next choice. (laughs)

FRED: But you need about 35 million dollars to do that.

ALLISON: Yeah, I do have to lost about 20 kilos too! (laughs)

FRED: Doubt it. I doubt it. Anyway.

ALLISON: Yeah, tell us about the tours again.

FRED: Well, the tours, they’ve sort of emerged partly because I’ve got a big interest in the history of astronomy. And about 8 years ago now, I wrote a book called Stargazer: The Life and Times of the Telescope. It’s a history of the telescope. And it turns out, if you look at this, the telescope, the way it evolved, the way it arose back in the 17th century and the way its evolved over the decades and centuries since then, is it involves some really interesting places. Like the telescope first emerged from the woodwork in 1608 in Holland; that’s where it first appeared in the historical record. There might have been ones before that, but it’s only at that time that the telescope appears. And that was in the Hague in Holland, which is actually quite a nice place.

There’s that building called the Binnenhof, which is the seat of Netherlands’ Parliament and it’s a beautiful old building. And when I was writing this I thought it would be fantastic to go to some of these places and to actually take groups of people to them. And so that was a thought that stayed and kind of germinating in my mind. But then meanwhile, I had this phone call from somebody who basically was a tour guide to a manager and somebody whose background was in travel. And she said there’s an eclipse coming up in 2012—this is years ago, you know. 2012? Probably won’t make it that far. Would you like to lead an eclipse tour? And I said I’d be delighted to because my diary is empty at the moment. But I said I’d really like to take a tour around Europe to look at some of the places that were important to the history of the telescope. She said that’s fine, we’ll do that. Oh, by the way, she said, “Would you like to have a practice run with a tour to Peru?” So in 2007, we went and did the first tour I was involved with, which was around historical astronomical archeology, archeo-astronomy sites, in Peru, of which one was particularly important, the 13 towers of Chankillo, which has been recognized as being probably a solar observatory at the time.

ALLISON: Really?

FRED: It’s an extraordinary place. I mean, we could spend 2 hours talking about this—

ALLISON: Yeah! I would hold myself back, but that’s really interesting—another time.

FRED: Another time. So that sort of developed and we did the telescope tour, we did something called Star Gazer, that went so well. We did something called Star Gazer 2 and then I’ve always had an interest in the aurora borealis, because we used to see them occasionally from Scotland, from Edinburgh, especially when you came out the pub, you could see really good aurory, flashing all over the sky. But I thought it would be great to take a tour group to see the aurora borealis. So we advertised a tour, which sold out very quickly, so what we did at the beginning of this year was to put two tours back to back around most Scandinavian—in fact, I think all Scandinavian countries. We started off in far northern Norway where we got the most wonderful aurora sightings, because you’re right inside the Arctic circle, it’s the middle of winter, there’s not much daylight, but the aurora is fantastic. Went through Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Estonia, to take in not just aurora but some of the historical telescopes as well because there are all sorts of very interesting places there that people are interested in seeing.

ALLISON: Sure! So I mean, for the rest of the year what tours do you’ve got coming up? You’ve got the eclipse?

FRED: Yeah, the eclipse tour, that’s right. We kind of branched out a bit now because we’ve got some other scientists involved. Paul Willis, who you might know, he’s a former catalyst presenter, now director of the Royal Australian Institution in Adelaide. He’s a paleontologist, so we’ve tagged on a dinosaur tour, dinosaur fossil tour, into the eclipse tour, which I won’t be on, actually, but I’ll be doing the eclipse.

We did something similar actually with the aurora tour because we took in Iceland and we had a special guest there, a man called Nick Petford, who’s actually a volcanologist, a very well-known volcanologist. He made a movie called The Volcano That Stopped the World. And I was quite interested in this because it stopped me as well when Eyjafjallajökull–that’s how he pronounced it, that’s the one! (laughs) That basically shut down European airspace and grounded me in Greenwich back in 2010. So I wanted to see this volcano and we had a volcanologist telling us all about it, which was great. So it’s become very much a part of what I do and I’m delighted to say that the management of the observatory sees this as beneficial because it brings the observatory’s name to a wider public, it’s part of Science Outreach, it’s an unusual part, but it actually seems to work very well.

ALLISON: Yeah, I think on a personal level, science tour is probably one of the ways to go because you get people intere—especially combining science crossover because people that are generally interested in that are interested in—or maybe it’s just me (laughs)—to dinosaurs, the stars.

FRED: No, you’re right. You’re quite right. And the kind of people who come on these tours are people interested in everything. It’s not just the history of astronomy, they’re interested in the wider picture which you need to see to be able to put everything in context. So, yes. You should come to one of our tours, Allison. Do you have a special deal? (laughs)

ALLISON: Gesticulating at my partner who’s sitting over there.

FRED: Looking the other way!

ALLISON: [inaudible – 30:36] (laughs) He’s giving me the eyebrows! So lastly, I think, what we can talk about is apart from—well, it might be science outreach—what is the thing that drives you at the moment? You passion, is it music, is it some message you want to get out there [inaudible – 31:04]?

FRED: Yes and no. I mean, look, I’m excited about pretty well everything at the moment. The music, my involvement now is I still do a bit of folk singing when the time arises, but we now live in an era where you’ve actually got to have quite a good voice to make your way—

ALLISON: For the internet—

FRED: No, I don’t. So that’s all right. So I just do it for a bit of fun. But I’m also involved—my first love has always been classical music and I don’t know, you may not know, but there’s a very well-known Australian composer called Ross Edwards. And a few years ago, in fact, over a decade ago, we collaborated on his Fourth Symphony, which is a choral work. It has about 90 people in the choir and a full symphony orchestra. And it’s a kind of musical tour through the sky. And so I wrote the words for that. But that’s kind of taken off in a funny way as well, because this weekend actually, I’m touring with the Griffyn Ensemble, which is a smaller ensemble, and we’re playing music by a man called Urmas Sisask, who is one of Estonia’s leading composers who is also an astronomer.

So he’s written a long piece called The Southern Sky, which is what we’re touring with this weekend. So there’s that side of it is still ongoing, the kind of the art/scientist crossover which I’ve always been very keen on. But in science itself, I feel very lucky to be involved with science outreach because at the moment science is just going through a golden age, particularly astronomy and space science. We’re seeing all this wonderful exploration of the solar system. We’ve got Curiosity about to land on Mars—well, in August—and who knows what’s going to come from that. We’ve got new horizons on the way to Pluto. There’s still great stuff coming from Cassini in orbit around Saturn. That’s just sort of really providing so much excitement in our understanding of the solar system, and it is compounded by what’s happening in our studies of the wider universe. We’re just on the brink of a new generation of large telescopes, the so-called ELT’s, extremely large telescopes!

ALLISON: I love the naming, the invention with these!

FRED: Yeah. I’m very sorry that the ESO’s project of OWL got renamed. OWL was the Overwhelmingly Large Telescope, but they decided to—

ALLISON: Mind-blowing invention! (laughs)

FRED: So that’s all. Within the next decade, maybe 15 years, we’ll start seeing results from those. And one of the biggest discoveries, perhaps, that might come from all this, both the solar system exploration and the new telescopes, is the possibility of finding life beyond the Earth. At the moment, as you know, life is not known anywhere beyond Earth. And I think we’re just starting to get to the stage where the technology will allow us to find it, it’s there.

ALLISON: So even though you’re a scientist, do you have an opinion? (laughs)

FRED: Well, it’s not an opinion. It’s a kind of guess, really. The visible universe, the observable universe, contains about 10th of power 22 stars, it’s 10 times more than all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the Earth. Carl Sagan was right.

ALLISON: Absolutely!

FRED: 10th of power 22 is a very large number of stars and we now know that most stars have planets. Perhaps you could qualify that and say most stars, like the sun, have planets. But we know that it’s not an unusual thing. So the chances seem to be very good. We still don’t know what triggers life to star, so that’s the big unknown, but I think we might know the answer to that certainly within a generation. I’m kind of hoping that I’ll live long enough to see these discoveries because I’m sort of on the wrong end of my career now.

ALLISON: I was going to say what do you hope they do discover [inaudible – 35:26]?

FRED: Yeah, well that’s going to be one of them, but I think there’s more than that, and this is something else that excites me. And I have to say none of these are things that I’m working on. The science I work on is very much to do with our understanding of the history of our own galaxy, it’s the right project, trying to measure the speeds and chemical compositions of half a million stars, which we more or less—

ALLISON: [inaudible – 35:50]

FRED: So that’s exciting in itself. But I think there’s so much else that’s interesting that’s going on. One of the really fun place is that I’ve been to a couple of time on the tours is the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva. And there’s so much exciting work going on there. Not just about finding the Higgs Boson, the particle that gives everything else it’s mass—

ALLISON: No one quite really [inaudible – 36:18]

FRED: Well, I think by the end of the year we’ll know. But they are probing physics at its most basic level. So the whole possibility of completely new physics coming from experiments like that, and new physics is really interesting because it takes you in directions that we hadn’t really thought of before.

ALLISON: Yeah, or worry about that it might undo things that we—well, be at a level that we don’t know.

FRED: Yeah. I mean, if you think about it, perhaps if you look back to 1905 when Einstein formulated the Special Theory of Relativity—

ALLISON: So easy! (laughs)

FRED: But that was new physics then and it doesn’t contradict Newtonian Dynamics, it just tells you that things change when you get under extreme circumstances. And there might be well similar things now. I mean, relativity is very much the foundation on which astronomy is built actually. And without it we couldn’t make the steps that we do. But it still might have holes in it. And we know it has at some level because it’s incompatible with quantum physics, which we know is the way the world works on very small scales and in fact not all that small scale.

ALLISON: No. I was going to say there’s the strings with quotes below that and what’s all the way down there.

FRED: One of the things, I mean, we’re not going off into flights of fantasy, but one of the things that excites me is there’s a whole new science called Quantum Biology, which you may not have come across. But it turns out that quantum processes actually play a part in—only a few are known so far but there are probably more—in biological processes. For example, in some of the navigation used by migrating birds, the magnetic field sensing, which seems to be able to send both the direction and the depth, the angle of the magnetic field, that seems to have quantum processes to actually taking place behind the bird’s beak. And photosynthesis might well have quantum effects being important and perhaps I think most provocative of all, because I think this leads very much into the human regime, our sense of smell actually be a quantum phenomenon.

Now, quantum physics is really interesting because it lets things be in two places at the same time. It lets things talk to each other at faster than the speed of light and it suggests that at the very deep level, space and time don’t actually exist, that space and time, as we see them, are something that emerge from the quantum processes, but in reality they’re not there. And that means that we could be sitting here in 2,500 B.C. or in 3 billion A.D., it just means that we’re part of something very much bigger than current science is able to describe. And you might call it deep physics. It’s something perhaps that’s underlying what physics we understand. And of course it’s not incompatible with that. But that, to me, is one of the most exciting things that science is exploring and we’ll do over the next 50 years. What is time, how does time work, you know, things like that are really, really interesting questions.

ALLISON: Absolutely!

FRED: And I think that’s the kind of thing I hope I live long enough to see. (laughs)

ALLISON: Yeah! Well, you could hope but it just seems like, what is it, the Chinese dolls or whatever, when you open one there’s another one inside.

FRED: Well, that’s absolutely right! You know, one of the questions I get asked on the radio is can we ever know everything. And the answer is probably not because there’s always a new layer of knowledge hidden below what we discovered already.

ALLISON: Yes. And that was the hypothetical question I asked my guy the other day. What percentage of knowledge do you think we actually—

FRED: Yeah, well I think we’re just scratching the surface, to be honest.

ALLISON: We’re single digits. We both agreed that it’s

FRED: Yeah. Isn’t that extraordinary? I mean, considering how much we know now compared with what people knew a hundred years ago, we’ve got a pretty good idea how the universe came into being. We’ve got a pretty good idea how it’s developed, how the planets, the stars have originated, and probably how living organisms have originated. And yet we’re still probably only scratching the surface.

ALLISON: That’s right! Well, I think that’s a great, great place to stop.

FRED: It’s a good place to stop!

ALLISON: I feel comfortable with that. Fred, your website is…?

FRED: It is

ALLISON: There you go! And do you have anything else? Do you have a Twitter account? Facebook?

FRED: I’m sure I do somewhere but I never look at that. Somebody else looks after that (laughs).

ALLISON: Yeah, well thank you for that! Thank you so much! It’s been an absolute pleasure!

FRED: Great to come talk to you! Thank you, Allison.

[Podcast End Sound]

ALLISON: Wasn’t that a lot of fun? Fred’s a great guy and very, very knowledgeable and I’m sure we’ll have him back another day to talk about his RAVE project. Just while I’ve got you there, we’ve got some exciting news coming up in Astro Podcast so keep your eyes and ears peeled for announcements on Twitter, Facebook, and the web page. And of course make sure that you subscribe to the newsletter because those people will find out first. So yes, some fairly exciting news. As always, here’s a big begging plug to ask you to rate us on iTunes. It really does help interested people finding the podcast on iTunes, and subscribing. I’ll talk to you next week!


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