The stars (should be) our destination

In an exclusive interview, TEODOR RELJIC speaks to popular Dutch astronomy writer Govert Schilling – who can boast of an asteroid in his name – ahead of his participation at this year’s Science in the City festival 

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic
23 September 2015, 8:03am
Schilling: 'The cosmos is an exciting place, and we need to learn more about it because, in the end, it is both our cradle and our home – the universe is where we come from and where we live'
Schilling: 'The cosmos is an exciting place, and we need to learn more about it because, in the end, it is both our cradle and our home – the universe is where we come from and where we live'
An appreciation of astronomy is crucial to the development of small countries like Malta, according to famous Dutch science writer Govert Schilling. 

Schilling, who will be speaking at this year’s edition of Science in the City, told MaltaToday that “astronomy can be seen as an ‘ambassador’ for science”.

“Almost everyone has some sort of latent, lingering interest in the universe. Increased awareness of astronomy will automatically lead to an increased awareness of science in general. Young children in particular should be given the opportunity to connect to a wide variety of scientific topics,” the astronomy writer with 50 books to his name, said. 

He added that this kind of educational focus would “certainly lead to Malta playing an ever more important role in big international collaborations”.

“The signing of a cooperation agreement with the European Space Agency (ESA) in 2012 is a good example. Eventually, becoming part of big collaborations like ESA or CERN will also lead to economic growth, through industrial contracts, and so on.”   

Schilling is internationally acclaimed, having published in New Scientist, Science, Sky & Telescope and BBC’s Sky at Night magazine, and he has over 50 books (several bestsellers in English) under his belt. He even has an asteroid named after him, as in 2007, the International Astronomical Union named the asteroid 10986 Govert in recognition of his work to popularise science. In 2014, he was the first non-English writer to win the David N. Schramm Award for high-energy astrophysics science journalism. 

Schilling will be speaking at St George’s Square, Valletta this Friday during this year’s edition of Science in the City. His talk, ‘Beauty Comes in Small Packages’, will take the public on an imaginative journey to explore comets, asteroids and dwarf planets. These space bodies are key to unlocking the secrets of the solar system and the history of the Earth. 

“During my talk, I hope to get one important message across: the cosmos is an exciting place, and we need to learn more about it because, in the end, it is both our cradle and our home – the universe is where we come from and where we live,” Schilling said. 

Schilling’s participation at Science in the City further accentuates the importance of astronomy in the educational curriculum, and its research benefits for infrastructure. The organisers of Science in the City hope that the talk will put into focus the work currently being done by Malta’s Institute of Space Sciences and Astronomy (ISSA).

Set up in 2013 at the University of Malta with members from the Faculty of Science, Engineering and ICT in order to foster interdisciplinary research, ISSA works in a number of collaborations which cross the globe, while also building in-house infrastructure for a broad range of disciplines such as supercomputing facilities and low-cost, low-power antennas. They have also recently set up an Ultra Wide Band Laboratory, in collaboration with the Department of Physics, where cutting edge equipment is being used to create prototypes for several hardware and software systems being developed at the institute.

ISSA is heavily involved with the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), which will be the largest radio telescope in the world, consisting of thousands of antennas and dishes spread across Australia and South Africa.

“ISSA’s focus in this project is twofold: to create better and cheaper antennas which can be easily manufactured and replaced, and to create the required software infrastructure to control the telescope and its operation,” a representative of the Institute told MaltaToday. 

Euclid is another project in which ISSA is involved – an ESA space mission currently under development, which aims to accurately measure the acceleration of the universe, which will lead to a better understanding of dark matter and dark energy.

Of course, all efforts at research and development risk going unnoticed without an effective communication strategy – particularly within the realm of science, where ultimate findings may be spectacular in various ways but whose inner mechanisms tend to remain arcane to the ‘lay’ observer.

It is here that Schilling’s skills come into focus once again. Asked what some of the key elements of effective science communication are, he said that while content itself is important – the awe and wonder that comes with high-quality and appropriately contextualized photographs, for example – “story telling” is also key. 

“Luckily, science is a very human endeavour, with lots of prejudices, disappointments, success stories, pitfalls, competition and perseverance,” he said, adding that “some topics in astronomy (notably the Big Bang, black holes and extraterrestrial life) never fail to generate interest and curiosity among the general public.”

According to Schilling, this should come as no surprise.

“These topics are mysterious to professional astronomers, too.”

Govert Schilling will be speaking at St George’s Square, Valletta on Friday, 25 September at 8pm

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...