Stargazing With Ryan Macdonald And Sarah E.i. Bosman Interviewed By Adrienne Elliott & Illustrated by Chloe Fisher
On February 12th myself and Editor Sam Holden boarded the 9 o’clock train to interview Ryan MacDonald and Sarah E.I. Bosman, two PhD Students in the astronomy department of Cambridge University. After wandering around the grounds, peering into the secret library – and the 200 year old telescopes – we heard a little about what they were doing:
Sarah: I can give a vague feel. When you study space, you can get larger and larger scales. First there’s our solar system. That’s part of something bigger, a whole galaxy. And there’s other galaxies, and if you look at it you realise that these galaxies line up in patterns and are moving away from each other very fast. You trace it back in time and say they were much closer in the past, and you reach one point which is the big bang. But there are a lot of things happening between the big bang and these things appearing.
The elements you can make at the very start are very simple but the way that things are actually formed out of them are quite complicated. So there’s a lot of scientists who just focus on the first five seconds. I work, on the formation of structure after the start – so how this pure gas became something as complicated as people, and all the steps in between.
Ryan: I’m a new PHD student here at the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge. I’m working on the burgeoning science of exoplanet atmospheres. I’m trying to find what the atmospheres of planets orbiting other stars are made of, so that hopefully, in the not too distant future, we can find evidence of life elsewhere in the universe. That’s what really drives me, and we’re so close now, so it’s exhilarating.
And what was it that lead you to this?
Sarah: So I think I’m quite unusual in the respect that I was actually always into astronomy. I was the annoying kid that would tell everyone facts about Mars, like ‘Mars is this many kilometres away, did you know it’s red because there’s iron on it!’. I came from a poor family near Brussels. There was this cereal brand I always ate, and one of them had a CD that was facts about the solar system. I must have watched that CD about a thousand billion times, it completely amazed me.
Ryan: I remember when I was growing up there was two things I was interested in: space and dinosaurs – half of me just never grew up! I chose to study physics in school for instance, because that was the subject with the most space in it. Even before my undergraduate in Physics over in Oxford I already knew I wanted to do exoplanets, because the Kepler Space Telescope had just in launched in 2009. So, I just said yes and I’ve kept following that path ever since!
I believe I’m right in thinking you both work with children, how important is this work to you?
Ryan: Not just to children, outreach to everyone! When you have this childlike curiosity, it’s easy to speak to children and show them how science is exciting, and you can do amazing things with science. A generation of children who want to become scientists when they grow up, a world with a populous that is scientifically literate, and genuinely loves what they do – that’s a world that I would love to live in. I think society as a whole will make better choices if the electorate as a whole understood science more. But there’s also the fact that when I was growing up, I didn’t really have any big positive role models to encourage me to go into science, I just kind of discovered it myself . There are so many people who could have had that but didn’t get the same opportunities. So every time I do an outreach event I’m thinking that if even a single one of these young people has an epiphany, then that more the justifies it for me.
Sarah: I got into astronomy very early. I remember at some point looking at the sky and just thinking, ‘wow, it’s actually there!’, I couldn’t believe it was actually so big! Children make me remember the actual getting excited about space part. Some parts of my work are boring. It can make you upset that you are not actually doing science, you’re just curled up in all the things besides it. Kids are the complete opposite! I can just tell them about the first black hole merger, and they are like, ‘Wait, black holes can merge?!’ I don’t really care about getting public coverage of it, it’s more the groups that come here, I set up the telescope and I show them our neighbour galaxy and they are amazed, and then I can go home and feel really happy about it.
What else are you working on?
Sarah: In three weeks I’m going to go on my first trip to Hawaii to use their telescope. It’s on the top of the mountain 4000 kilometres high. I am ridiculously excited about it. I’m going for two working nights with two nights to rest – you work at night when the sky is dark. It will just be me and my supervisor. He managed to convince some people to let him use it – but he’s having me there to do the actual hard work while he just sits back and watches the outcome. I’m there for manual labour. In Hawaii – it could be worse!
I also do a lot of teaching, since I’ve started as a post graduate; supervising undergrads, and teaching them about whatever course they want to do. They are all so different. When I first started I was amazed at, what they find easy, what they don’t, why they are doing it. There’s all this complexity in how you reach to them, how you help them understand stuff. I like it.
Ryan, we should talk about Mars One!
Ryan: I’ve been wanting to go into space for my entire life. I think as a scientist the impact I would leave being one of only the first four scientists on Mars, is much greater than that I’d be likely to leave as one of millions here on the Earth. We are still feeling the effects of the generation that was inspired by the moon landings. Just in the United States, the number of people studying Science and Engineering doubled in the space of ten years, because those few landings took place. And the impact of humans going to Mars would be substantially greater than that, so if I could contribute to that in any way then I see almost a moral obligation to do that, because of how much it would improve people’s lives.
You’re very busy! Any other projects?
Ryan: Over the past few years I’ve written a near future hard science fiction novel, which is about a family that gets separated as society goes through an immense period of social, political and technological upheaval. So that’s the short blurb! I have endeavoured to make it the best vision of the future that I can imagine as being realistic. The story is told from the perspective of two different characters that go down radically different routes, on one of them I toy with the idea of the descent into madness, which was very fun to write. After my PhD I’m going to sit down and make a second draft and hopefully then go and publish it as an e-book on amazon.
Sarah, how important is it for you to be at Cambridge University?
Sarah: For me it is like a dream come true, I can’t believe every day when I wake up here. When I was young, ‘Cambridge’ was just this kind of word that we heard. No one we knew had ever gone abroad to study. From my perspective it was like suddenly I can do the things I actually wanted to do – I’m obviously good enough to do them. So, it was really really amazing that I was able to come here after all this time. I never want to leave – it is my home now, I’ve been here for 7 years.
What impact will your studies have on matters here on Earth?
Sarah: None whatsoever. We should just look for new stuff because it hasn’t been found yet – that’s the only reason you need! It will affect society in the same way that art does. Like, if I tell you that all the carbon you are made of was made in a star billions and billions of years ago, and it made its way here through such an amazing sequence of processes, such complexity to reach where it is now, then maybe that can inspire people. Our whole universe was decided in the first minute or two, and everything after just follows the same rules that we know, and leads to where we are today – that’s amazing. When you look back into the past you can build this history of the universe, all the stages: the first star appearing, the first planets forming, you know – when did that happen? What were they made of? What colour were they? This is all interesting stuff!
Ryan: For me, there are two possibilities: that we find evidence of life, in which case we learn that we are not unique and that could have profound implications for religion, politics, and how we view ourselves. What science has done consistently is knocked us off pedestals; it’s made us more humble. Alternatively, if we don’t find evidence of life, then that could have an even more profound impact. It suggests that life on Earth might actually be special, and we should actively do something to protect it.
As scientists ultimately we go where the evidence takes us, but there is often a sharp transition when there’s resistance to a radically new idea. Science consistently takes us closer and closer to the truth, and ultimately the better we understand the universe the more that we have control over the universe: we can build planes because we understand the concept of fluid mechanics. So, that’s what’s exciting: when science works, we learn to do stuff we couldn’t even imagine before.
In one of your videos, Ryan, you mention the idea of leaving a legacy. How important is this to the both of you?
Ryan: As far as I see it at the end of life what matters is the impact you leave behind for those who follow. After I’m gone I want people to have a better quality of life because of my own existence and I don’t understand why anyone wouldn’t think that way.
Sarah: I don’t know, I don’t really think about these things, I just do what I do because I find it fun. Learning new things has always been what I enjoyed doing the most. At school I did all the things I could possibly learn about. I think, ultimately, I’m into science because I want to discover new information. If you just keep learning more things, at one point you reach the edge, and beyond that you are the first one to know something. But there’s so much information there! Like, there’s the information that is accessible through history, social sciences; science that we can do here on Earth. But then there’s a universe out there with so much more information in it which we have no idea about, so I just go where there is the most things to learn about.
Ryan: See, it’s interesting because I feel the sense of childlike excitement that you definitely have, like I love just loosing myself to my research and trying to understand new things but then what I’m left thinking awake at night is, when I come up with this new knowledge, what will be the impact that it has on society as well. It’s almost a double edged de-localisation, but not many people seem to think in that way.
And quickly before we finish: favourite sci fi book or film?
Ryan: Well, film, for me, would have to be The Martian, most recently. The science is pretty good in the film – not all correct, but it’s one of the best Hollywood films I’ve seen with trying to get the science right. And it’s also fun, I love that film.
Sarah: It has to be The Hitchhiker’s Guide! It’s not even a hard competition. That’s what I want to be, I want to be a space explorer. I want to build my own spaceship and just go and see planets.