Popular Astronomy

Introducing Chief Stargazer Lucie Green

We are delighted to say that Lucie Green, a regular presenter in the BBC's The Sky at Night team, is our new Chief Stargazer. Lucie, who works at University College London's Mullard Space Science Laboratory, is already an SPA member. She has always been keen to promote astronomy among young people, and we know she will give the Young Stargazers section of the society a huge boost. Paul Sutherland chatted to Lucie about her own life in astronomy.

Lucie Green
Chief Stargazer Lucie Green. Photo by Max Alexander

How did you become interested in astronomy?

I developed a general interest in nature and wildlife when I was very young. I loved to see what was in the garden, and the animals around me. It was like being a young scientist looking at the world around them, the world on one's doorstep. That led to an appreciation of the outdoors, and then, when I did nature walks late in the evening, when I was 10 or 11, I started to get an interest in the night sky. But it didn't really become something serious until I left school and went to university.

What do you find so fascinating about the Universe?

Physics has been a passion for me for a long, long time. And astronomy allows me to do the physics of an extreme place, with the Universe being like one huge natural laboratory! You start looking up and wondering what is happening above your head. I found it all so interesting and so extreme, with things going on that you can't recreate in a laboratory on Earth. That was really engaging. And the more you know, the more curious the Universe becomes, which means that your wish to find out more about it only grows over time and is never quenched.

Your special interest is the Sun. Why is that?

I find the Sun absolutely fascinating. Early on, when I started studying astronomy, no one talked about the Sun. It was all black holes, dark matter, and the shape of the Universe, all the big questions. The astronomers who were teaching me at university never talked about the Sun, so I got the impression that the Sun couldn't be that interesting. But then I was given my first view of it through a H-alpha telescope, specially designed for solar observing, and it was a "Wow" moment! From then on I was hooked, and wanted to understand what the Sun was, what it got up to and how it functions.

People often think that if you study the Sun, that is an easy life for an astronomer because you can do it in the daytime. But when I was part of the team working with the Japanese Hinode space telescope, my day would start with an online meeting at 11 o'clock at night, which was mid-morning in Japan, and then I'd work through making plans for observing with our instrument on the satellite, writing programs and so on, and so my day would end at five o'clock in the morning!

What is it like being a professional astronomer?

Every day is different! It is all built around problem-solving and that is why I enjoy it so much. Trying to build up a complete picture of the Sun involves looking for the gaps in our knowledge and trying to fill them. My day to day work is trying to solve the questions. I could be working with students, or with international teams of scientists, or thinking about future missions to study the Sun. I'm involved in various projects. Solar Orbiter is the European Space Agency's big new mission, due to launch in 2017, and that is being built at the moment. We're involved in building two of the instruments that will be on board, plus we're working out how we're going to carry out our observations.

You're a regular presenter on The Sky at Night. What's that like?

It's great fun and always really interesting. It feels a privilege to be part of such an iconic programme and one that is loved so much by the country. I find it exciting that a programme I grew up watching is one that I now take part in. But what I really, really love is that through the programme I get to speak to all these really interesting people who are doing fascinating things. I love the connections you can make, which then allow us to show viewers all the very interesting things that are happening in astronomy.

What advice would you give to a Young Stargazer who wants to take up a career in astronomy?

First of all, you have to find it enjoyable, something that makes you get out of bed in the morning and really want to do it. But if I were to be really logical, I would say that you will need to study mathematics and physics, and perhaps chemistry and biology now as well, because modern astronomers are dealing with astrobiology and geology too. Astronomy involves all the sciences and mathematics so it doesn't really matter which you study as long as you enjoy it. There will be an avenue for you to get into research. I also think the underlying skills of problem-solving, meeting a challenge, stretching yourself, are really important. But ultimately, it is about doing something that you enjoy. And if you enjoy astronomy then that is where you'll end up.

This interview originally appeared in the July/August issue of Popular Astronomy.