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Heather Couper – Four Way Interview

Heather Couper studied Astrophysics at Oxford University. She ran the Greenwich Planetarium, and later became President of the British Astronomical Association and Gresham Professor of Astronomy. She wrote and presented BBC Radio 4’s epic 30-part series Cosmic Quest, a ground-breaking overview of the history of astronomy. Her latest book, with Nigel Henbest, is The Story of Astronomy.
Why Science?
Because I’ve always been fascinated by the closest I can get to the truth. I’m amused by superstition, but can’t take it seriously – otherwise, we’d still all be going around maintaining that lightning was caused by Thor hurling thunderbolts about. Ditto astrology. I feel that a rational approach to science gives us the clearest picture of the Universe: one that isn’t sullied by religious beliefs, mysticism, or a penchant for UFOs. That’s not to say I’m an atheist rationalist. I don’t think a scientist can say that they are an atheist (much as I admire Richard Dawkins). But religion is a belief system, not a measurable entity – and we haven’t got measureable evidence that a god DOESN’T exist. So I have to say that I’m a sceptical agnostic.
I like the purity of science: It’s clean and spare, and cuts waffling to the core. Although this may sound controversial, I feel the way to get the true spirit of science across is to link it to human stories, culture, and the romantic spirit of discovery – which brings me on to the next question …
Why this book?
Essentially. the story of astronomy has been the story of our culture – or, indeed, cultures. Think of early astronomy: and we’re going back to the aboriginal tribes of 40,000 years ago. It started off as a purely practical endeavour: timekeeping, calendar-making, navigation …. then later cultures, such as the Babylonians, the Greeks and the Persians, started to ask the question ‘why?’ Why was the shadow on the Moon during a lunar eclipse curved? – the Greeks instantly realised that the Earth was round. The length of the year? Look no further than Persian astronomer-poet Omar Khayyam, who calculated the length of the year to an accuracy unprecedented until today. The story of astronomy is peppered with characters and personalities who pushed back the boundaries of knowledge, and often got into deep trouble with the established authorities.
But the giants of astronomy laid the foundations for later generations of astrophysicists – men and women who would push the boundaries of space to the very edge of the Universe. ‘The Story of Astronomy’ is a celebration of these inspiring people.
What’s next?
Our ‘Philip’s Stargazing 2013′ guide (by Heather Couper and Nigel Henbest) is being written now – it’ll be published in October 2012. It’s a month-by-month guide to next year’s night sky, suitable for stargazers from complete beginners to the advanced amateur astronomer. Afterwards – well, we’d like to do books on the history of constellations, black holes, the Milky Way and the Violent Universe. Otherwise, my co-author, Nigel Henbest, is preparing to go into space as an astronaut on Virgin Galactic. And I’d like to do more TV/radio programmes about my other passions: the English countryside, and classical music with astronomical connections.
What’s exciting you at the moment?
The enthusiasm of people for astronomy. We’ve gone through an abominable era of light pollution but – thanks to creative engineers, who have pioneered better lighting designs – it’s getting better. Don’t forget that the sky is a landscape: it has as much to offer as the beautiful vistas beneath our feet. These starscapes are being celebrated in dark-sky locations around the UK (Google Dark Sky Sites). I think that Brian Cox has – through his Stargazing initiative – highlighted the heavens in a major way. He’s also made astrophysics cool, and I’m so proud to be an astrophysicist myself. There’s nothing I love more than getting people out into the pub car park – in the darkness of the countryside – and seeing them connect with the stars and planets.

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