Open Book Interview

Jacqueline Mitton | Astronomer & Writer

DK recently caught up with Jacqueline Mitton to talk turbo-telescopes, alien encounters, and the breakneck pace of astronomic discovery. Jacqueline is an acclaimed astronomer and writer and was the scientific consultant on Space!



Your favorite outrageous space fact?

The fact that mysterious stuff called “dark matter” and “dark energy” makes up more than 95% of the universe. We use those names because we have no real idea what either of them is in spite of all our efforts to find out. We know dark matter has gravity and that dark energy is tending to push the universe apart – but not much more.

The best part of your day?

Dinner time. Unless I’m away, I always have a proper sit-down dinner with my husband (also an astronomer and writer) and we spend ages chattering about everything under the Sun.

Three objects you couldn’t do without?

I have a lovely silver pendent necklace of a crescent ‘Man in the Moon’. My husband gave it to me many years ago and it’s one of my most treasured possessions. I wear it whenever I can and would feel completely lost without it.

Then I think I’d go for my piano. I’ve always played the piano since I was 5 years old and, although I don’t practice very often these days, I couldn’t imagine not having one and not being able to go and play the piano when I do want to.

And for number 3? It may sound unimaginative, but I’m going for my smart phone. I always think it’s funny that we call it a phone when it does so much more than make phone calls. The power of this mini-computer just opens up so many possibilities for learning, communicating, and being productive and creative. It’s a little miracle.

The most difficult thing about your work?

That’s easy to answer. Keeping up with the pace of discovery. Every day I get dozens of press notices on all the latest news in astronomy. I have to skim through looking for the really big discoveries, stories I personally find particularly interesting, and the things I am sure I’m going to need to know when I’m working on books.

The strangest experience you’ve had on the job?

When I was doing a lot of media work, I would often be involved in debates about UFOs and aliens. There was one TV programme I took part in when I found myself beforehand as the only scientist in a room full of people claiming to have been abducted by aliens and swearing they’d seen alien spaceships. That was really weird!

The achievement you’re most proud of?

Getting my PhD degree. I’d always wanted to do astronomy but I didn’t find it easy sticking at the research degree. There were a lot of challenges for me. Not many women did physics at that time, and even fewer did astronomy.

Something you never expected you would learn?

How to swim. I didn’t learn until I was in my 50s. I’m still not a strong swimmer, but I love the fact that I’m no longer afraid of the water and can enjoy going in the pool when I’m on holiday.

What you’re reading right now?

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro.

The thing you’re excited most about for the future of astronomy?

The launch of the James Webb Space Telescope in 2018, the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. This huge aparatus has been designed to collect only infrared radiation, but this will enable it to see many more stars and galaxies, and further back in space and time than any other telescope. It’s impossible to predict what fantastic discoveries it might make.

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