Tuesday 17 June 2014

Chris Lintott on 'The Life Scientific'

The Sky at Night's Dr Chris Lintott was Jim Al Khalili's guest on The Life Scientific this morning.
I remember his first appearances on The Sky at Night. He struck me as being very young but highly knowledgeable. I've liked him ever since. 
He was very much in the right place at the right time as regards the school he was sent to - namely Torquay Boys' Grammar School. Two members of staff there had already "put themselves through the hell of running teenage discos in the school hall" to raise enough money to build an observatory at the school - a full-blown observatory with a rotating, opening dome and a 19.2-inch reflecting telescope which was "swung across the sky by a BBC micro-computer, which worked brilliantly," said Chris [bloody BBC!], "except for the number 4. So you couldn't go to anywhere with 4 in the coordinates". Then they gave 12 year-old Chris the keys. As a result he was "nocturnal for most of that summer holiday", practising being a scientific, learning that science is an ongoing pursuit.
The school, of course, had an astronomy club. And it gets even better...The school had an occasional visitor while Chris Lintott was a pupil there - one Patrick Moore. 
One of the things Sir Patrick told the astronomy club was that there was still much that wasn't known about the outer planets of our solar system and that, hopefully, ten years hence we might actually know more. That inspired Chris with the idea that there's a lot still to discover in astronomy. "I remember sitting there thinking very clearly, 'I want to do that'", he recalled. 
Chris, still aged 12, then began writing to Patrick Moore and Sir Patrick eventually replied to each and every one of them. Chris still has some of his postcards, including one addressed to "Chris Damn Can't Remember Your Surname Esq" and one that simply read "Chris. Yes. Haste. Patrick." (He couldn't remember what that was about!)
During his time in the sixth form he spend some time doing research (running computer programmes to study how light moves through the dust around young stars) and on the back of it won a competition to go to America, aged 17. He then went to Cambridge University to study Natural Science, working mainly in the area of theoretical physics, before doing his PhD in Astronomy at University College, London.
It was in his undergraduate days that he made his first appearance on The Sky at Night discussing the the basics of astronomy with Patrick Moore. He'd got to know Sir Patrick even better through the British Astronomical Association, sometimes going to his house to use his telescopes. Eventually, after "a gin or tonic or two", Patrick Moore suggested that he might appear on The Sky at Night. So appear on The Sky at Night he did - as did lots of other "confused-looking eighteen or nineteen year olds" over the years when Patrick Moore was in full charge of the show. Soon he became a regular feature, in time co-presenting the programme with Sir Patrick. They also wrote books today with Queen guitarist Brian May. 
In the meantime he's been working as a peer-reviewed astrochemist, and helped 'crowdsource' hundreds of thousands of amateur astronomers to help curate a 'Galaxy zoo'. 
All of which provoked the thought: I wish I'd gone to Torquay Boys' Grammar School.

1 comment:

  1. We've been waiting for boy-genius to answer a simple question for months. Anyone care to provide hints ?

    Remember, we are trying to get 2 trillion galaxies into perspective and Herr Lintott doesn't know that.

    Help replace the archaic metaphor “merger” (and its aliases “collision”, “flyby”, “struck” and “debris”) with “emergent” as expressed logically merger : metaphor :: emergent : fission. Please,
    vote your scientific preference.


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