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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.



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