365daysDate: August 1, 2009

Title: How I Got Into Astronomy


Podcaster: Robert Simpson of Orbiting Frog

Organization: Orbiting Frog

Description: Astronomy is often like a bug that a person catches at some point in their life. Many of us remember the first time we saw Saturn’s rings or the moons of Jupiter. In this podcast we’ll hear from various astronomers and astrophysicists when they are asked “How do you get into astronomy?”

Bio: Robert Simpson is a PhD student studying star formation at Cardiff University. He has been running the Orbiting Frog website since 2006. He organised the first .Astronomy conference on astronomy and the Internet in 2008. Robert is the producer of the Channelzine website, and participates in the Science or Fiction and Web Quiz podcasts.

Today’s sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by the American Association of Variable Star Observers, the world’s leader in variable star data and information, bringing professional and amateur astronomers together to observe and analyze variable stars, and promoting research and education using variable star data. Visit the AAVSO on the web at


Robert Simpson: Hello, my name’s Robert Simpson and I run the website I’ve been asking people the question, “How did you get into astronomy?” With the help of volunteers and from Nick Rackrogby at the job cast, here are some people answering the question, “How did you get into astronomy?”

Aaron Slack: I have a lot of childhood memories relating to astronomy, though, one in particular I think sparked my lifelong interest in astronomy.

Robert Simpson: Aaron Slack from Fort Myers, Florida.

Aaron Slack: Late one night when I was about five years old living in Indiana, my dad took me outside and showed me a total lunar eclipse. This was the most amazing thing I had ever seen in my young life. I could barely believe such a thing was possible, that the moon could be swallowed up by the shadow of the very planet I was standing on was an amazing thought. I had been interested in science before this but that event opened up a whole new world for me and I thank my parents for this. I am currently heavily involved in amateur astronomy and own three telescopes but without my parents’ support for my interests, I don’t think that would be the case. Thanks Mom and Dad.

Nick Kaiser: Well, I wanted to be a high-energy physicist and I did…


Robert Simpson: Professor, Nick Kaiser from the University of Hawaii.

Nick Kaiser: … Degree at Cambridge but wasn’t quite smart enough to get picked up by Stephen Hawking’s group, but they said to me, “Why don’t you go up the street and talk to this guy, Martin Reese? He might have a place for you.” And he took me on and that was a very good time to get into astronomy because it was the start of all the new theories about dark matter dominating the Universe and inflation and stuff. Everything was just starting to happen, so I really got in on the ground floor of that.

Robert Simpson: Fantastic. So presumably, before that, you wanted to be a high-energy physicist. What drew you towards physics as a study?

Nick Kaiser: Well, I don’t know. I’m sure it had something to do with the fact that my dad was a physicist. Though before I sort of got serious about it, I wanted to be an artist, but after going to art school for a year, I discovered I had zero talent and…

Robert Simpson: Oh, they couldn’t teach you that at art school?

Nick Kaiser: It took me a while to figure it out. I was slow on the uptake. But I’ll tell you something. The thing that really turned me on is a good friend of mine, his brother dropped out of college. He had these physics books and he gave one to me and it was Volume One of Feynman’s Lectures on Physics and I started reading this book, and I thought, “Hey, this is kinda interesting.”

Robert Simpson: It’s fantastic.

Nick Kaiser: And I’ve been in love with physics since that day.

Robert Simpson: It’s an amazing book, isn’t it? There’s a series of three books if you know those famous Feynman lectures on physics. And I’ve seen people read that on holidays. It’s quite a strange reading material to see someone reading on holiday but however, it’s one of those books that you pick up and for some reason, it’s compelling obviously.

Nick Kaiser: That’s right. It starts at such a low level that anyone can understand it and you can take it as far as you want. It goes into some of the deepest mysteries in physics and it’s all at the undergraduate level and I wasn’t even an undergraduate and could understand maybe half of it.

Robert Simpson: Professor Richard Alex from the University of Oxford.

Richard Alex: Okay. So I was brought up in Wales and there was a public library and I went into the public library and I picked up a little book called Into Outer Space by Patrick Moore. It’s a little blue book. It was a story about two children who went to visit their uncle who was an astronomer, a fictional story. And I read this book and it was really quite inspirational. I was six at the time and I decided at that point, I wanted to devour every book on astronomy in the public library.

And years later, maybe 45 years later, I went on Patrick Moore’s Sky at Night program and I told him this story about this little book and, low and behold, he found an old copy. I think it was his personal copy and he signed it and sent it to me. So I have this book and I read it 45 years later and I remembered the chapters. Yeah, so it had a happy ending.

Robert Simpson: James Vast from Scotland.

James Vast: I first became interested in astronomy after reading books from Mosspark Library when I was about 11 years old. The library is now closed. My first telescope was a 3’ long cardboard tube purchased really cheaply from Charles Stripe in Glasgow. And with this telescope, I could see the many craters. I could see Jupiter and its moons and I could see Saturn and Saturn’s rings. It was magnificent. Astronomy is now a small part of my life but I still very much enjoy to get out and looking at the same things all the time, especially the moon’s craters during its different phases.

Brian Smith: I always enjoyed astronomy as a child. My parents bought me a very cheap telescope when I was about 10 and I remember seeing Jupiter for the first time when I was about 10.

Robert Simpson: Professor Brian Smith from the Australian National Observatory.

Brian Smith: And so I continued to be interested in astronomy, but I never though I would do it until my last year of school before university and I had to figure out what I was gonna do. And I just couldn’t think of what I was gonna do so I said, “Well, I’ll do astronomy because I do it for free.” Now I never figured I’d actually remain an astronomer. I figured I’d do it to learn about something and then I would become something else when the time was right. Well, that time never happened and I remained an astronomer. So it was sort of by accident but I certainly don’t regret it.

Robert Simpson: Professor Don Palico from Queen’s University Belfast.


Don Palico: It all stemmed from when I was at junior school and we had to do projects and I was 7 and my project was to take the Collins Fieldglass Guide to the Constellations and copy out every word in that book –


Don Palico: And I can remember the report at the end of the year. It said, “Seems to have an unnatural interest in astronomy.”

Robert Simpson: An unhealthy interest.

Don Palico: Unnatural, it said.

Robert Simpson: Unnatural interest.

Don Palico: It didn’t say unhealthy.

Robert Simpson: Oh, good. Unnatural.

Don Palico: Because I think interest in astronomy is a very healthy thing but this was basically implying I had an obsessive interest. And it’s been part of my life ever since. I was an amateur astronomer so I know the constellations really well actually…

Robert Simpson: Which is quite rare for professional astronomers…

Don Palico: It is.

Robert Simpson: And we tend to sit in front of a computer a lot of the time.

Don Palico: We type in coordinates and that’s how we work. But I really do like being under the stars. I think it’s fantastic and so…

Robert Simpson: Inspirational too actually going and seeing the stars that we’re talking about and the Universe that we’re discovering.

Don Palico: Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah.

Megan Argov: I was pretty lucky, I guess. I always knew what I wanted to do from quite a young age.

Robert Simpson: Meghan Argov from the Curtin Institute for Radio Astronomy in Perth, Australia.

Megan Argov: My first memories of astronomy are observing trips to the hills near where we used to live with my mom and my 2.5” Newtonian telescope. I remember one particular observing trip where we went up to the National Trust Car Park to watch a lunar eclipse and a comet on the same night but unfortunately, for us, there were a lot of other people up there and the BBC actually turned up with a film crew and flood lights. So as the moon went dark, these flood lights came on and we actually struggled to see the comet at all.

When I was 12 years old, I joined my local astronomical society and spent many, many years listening to some talks by some really interesting speaker. Rather worrying to me though, was that ten years later, I was actually being asked to give the lectures as well. I didn’t feel anywhere near qualified to do it. Sadly, I’m not entirely sure what started this all. I remember being interested from a very, very young age but growing up 15 miles from Jodrell Bank might have had something to do with it.

Elias Brings: I’m one of those people who never were really a committed amateur astronomer. I always had an interest in astronomy of course. Anything that had to do with science had my interest. At school…

Robert Simpson: Professor Elias Brings from the University of Hertfordshire.

Elias Brings: I liked physics. I liked math, but I also liked biology. I also liked chemistry and at a certain moment, I had to choose what to do and you know as a student when you’re 18-year-old, you have to really decide what are you doing to do with your life. It’s tremendously difficult because you don’t know what you’re getting into.

So when I went to open days at universities and started talking to people, the university where I actually then did my studies told me that, “Well, when you do astronomy, then you get more math than the physicists, you get more physics than the mathematicians, so it means you don’t really have to choose between math and physics. You can do a bit of both and astronomy’s kind of the vehicle with which you then apply that knowledge,” and well, I thought, “That’s interesting. I don’t have to choose yet.” And I started with astronomy and liked it and well, from one thing came the other and I’m still doing it and I still like it.

Michael Ronerock: That’s an interesting question.

Robert Simpson: Professor Michael Ronerock.

Michael Ronerock: See. I didn’t really do astronomy when I was at school. I didn’t have a telescope or anything like that. I was really into mathematics and I did a mathematics degree but when I was doing that, I read a wonderful book by Fred Hoyle called “Frontiers of Astronomy,” which he laid out all the unsolved questions of astrophysics and cosmology all the way from the solar system to larger scale. And I think that was what hooked me really, that book. And so I decided that’s what I wanted to do.

I started off as a sort of theorist but I gradually got interested in actually trying to get data to test theories. And so, I have worked with lots of ground based telescopes around the world and in different wavelength spans and also space machine. So I feel I’ve done a bit of everything. Really enjoyed it.

Robert Simpson: Thank you very, very much indeed for you time.

Michael Ronerock: Thank you.

Robert Simpson: You can read more tales from how people got into astronomy by visiting I’m Robert Simpson from Thanks for listening and please continue listening to 365 Days of Astronomy podcast.

End of podcast:

365 Days of Astronomy
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