Skip to main content

Andrew May -- Five Way Interview

Andrew May obtained his PhD in astrophysics from the University of Manchester in 1982. After a 30-year career spanning academia, the civil service and private industry he now works as a freelance writer and science consultant. He has written on subjects as diverse as the physical sciences, military technology, British history and the paranormal. He lives in Somerset and his latest title is Eyes in the Sky.

Why astronomy?

I was obsessively interested in space as a child. The first 'real world' events I was aware of were the Gemini missions of the mid-60s, and like everyone else I was glued to the Moon landings a little later. By the time of the last one, Apollo 17, I was interested in cutting-edge astronomy too - black holes and quasars and such like - so (to me at least) it seemed inevitable that I'd go on to do a PhD in astrophysics. After an exciting few years doing postdoctoral research I eventually had to get a 'proper' job, but since I became semi-retired I've been able to indulge my fascination with all things space-related through writing. 

Why this book?

The subject of space telescopes has a particular appeal for me, in that it combines both astronomy - the study of objects in distant parts of the universe - with the practicalities of space travel, getting hardware up into near-Earth space. But there's another reason too. Popular writing about astronomy tends to focus on certain aspects at the expense of others, and this book gave me the opportunity to talk about one of the less well known sides of the subject. Many people will have read about galaxies, exoplanets, black holes and the Big Bang, without perhaps having a very clear idea of how astronomers happen to know about such things in the first place. That's where telescopes come in - they're so much more than the glorified cameras taking pretty pictures that many people imagine. So that was the main message I wanted to get across.

What’s the next big thing for space telescopes?

If you mean the next big discovery they're going to make, then by definition it will be something we don't know yet! That's the great attraction of the subject, probing the very frontiers of knowledge. Personally, though, I'd like to think we'll have clear evidence of extraterrestrial life before very long. There's a good chance NASA's giant James Webb telescope will come up with something there. As regards new space telescope hardware - there are several new instruments in the pipeline, but I don't think we'll see anything as big or powerful as Webb for a long time.

What’s next?

The writing I most enjoy doing is at short length, for magazines or websites. For the last few years I've been lucky enough to have at least one commission a month for space-related articles, and I'm hoping this continues as long as possible. That kind of writing comes easily to me, but I find books much harder, if only from the effort of keeping it all clear in my head for the weeks or months it takes to write. On the other hand, nothing beats the pleasure of having written a book once it's finished! The big question for me is whether I've got something to say that another author might not say in the same way. That was the case with Space Telescopes and the other books I've done so far, and I've got a few other ideas that I'll probably do at some point. But nothing I'm going to commit myself to yet!

What’s exciting you at the moment?

As I said a moment ago, I think there's a fair chance the discovery of alien life will be the next big thing in astronomy. That's always been an exciting if distant prospect, but it's only recently that the available hardware has swung the probabilities in its favour. Of course, I'd love the first discovery to be a message from an intelligent civilisation, but realistically we're probably talking about chemical signatures from much more primitive forms of life.


 

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Stephen Hawking: Genius at Work - Roger Highfield ****

It is easy to suspect that a biographical book from highly-illustrated publisher Dorling Kindersley would be mostly high level fluff, so I was pleasantly surprised at the depth Roger Highfield has worked into this large-format title. Yes, we get some of the ephemera so beloved of such books, such as a whole page dedicated to Hawking's coxing blazer - but there is plenty on Hawking's scientific life and particularly on his many scientific ideas. I've read a couple of biographies of Hawking, but I still came across aspects of his lesser fields here that I didn't remember, as well as the inevitable topics, ranging from Hawking radiation to his attempts to quell the out-of-control nature of the possible string theory universes. We also get plenty of coverage of what could be classified as Hawking the celebrity, whether it be a photograph with the Obamas in the White House, his appearances on Star Trek TNG and The Big Bang Theory or representations of him in the Simpsons. Ha

Space Oddities - Harry Cliff *****

In this delightfully readable book, Harry Cliff takes us into the anomalies that are starting to make areas of physics seems to be nearing a paradigm shift, just as occurred in the past with relativity and quantum theory. We start with, we are introduced to some past anomalies linked to changes in viewpoint, such as the precession of Mercury (explained by general relativity, though originally blamed on an undiscovered planet near the Sun), and then move on to a few examples of apparent discoveries being wrong: the BICEP2 evidence for inflation (where the result was caused by dust, not the polarisation being studied),  the disappearance of an interesting blip in LHC results, and an apparent mistake in the manipulation of numbers that resulted in alleged discovery of dark matter particles. These are used to explain how statistics plays a part, and the significance of sigmas . We go on to explore a range of anomalies in particle physics and cosmology that may indicate either a breakdown i

Roger Highfield - Stephen Hawking: genius at work interview

Roger Highfield OBE is the Science Director of the Science Museum Group. Roger has visiting professorships at the Department of Chemistry, UCL, and at the Dunn School, University of Oxford, is a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences, and a member of the Medical Research Council and Longitude Committee. He has written or co-authored ten popular science books, including two bestsellers. His latest title is Stephen Hawking: genius at work . Why science? There are three answers to this question, depending on context: Apollo; Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, along with the world’s worst nuclear accident at Chernobyl; and, finally, Nullius in verba . Growing up I enjoyed the sciencey side of TV programmes like Thunderbirds and The Avengers but became completely besotted when, in short trousers, I gazed up at the moon knowing that two astronauts had paid it a visit. As the Apollo programme unfolded, I became utterly obsessed. Today, more than half a century later, the moon landings are