Maggie Aderin-Pocock: how a space-obsessed schoolgirl battled the odds to become a top scientist
Nicola Davis: Her childhood was divided between 13 schools, and she has dyslexia. But Maggie Aderin-Pocock has since designed a host of space instruments, and now presents the Sky at Night
“Standing on a large tripod and lurking conspicuously in the window of Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock’s dining room is an enormous telescope. At face value, it is hardly surprising. As a leading space scientist and Sky at Nightpresenter, it would have seemed curious if she didn’t own such a socking great instrument. But as we talk in advance of her gig at the Observer Ideas Festival, I realise this telescope is no passing nod to a day job. Aderin-Pocock grew up with telescopes, and the telescopes have grown up with her.
“When I was young we were living in a council flat. We didn’t have much money [so] I saved up some money and I got a telescope,” she says as I glance enviously at the tripod. “But it was really not very good. It suffered from something called ‘chromatic aberration’ which means that as you look through it, the light coming through gets split up into different colours.” It was a disappointment to a youngster desperate to look beyond the glare of the capital and gaze into the depths of the night sky. But then she spotted an advert for telescope-making classes in Camden, north London. Turning up to investigate, she encountered a curious scene. “There were lots of middle-aged blokes – they had large slabs of glass and they were just grinding away,” she laughs. Bizarre or not, the following week she joined their ranks.
What followed was yet more tinkering – motors, some software, a sprinkling of electronics – and before long the telescope could not only gather light from distant stars, but track them, too. It was the start of a career that has led Aderin-Pocock to work on a host of big-budget projects that veritably groan under the weight of their auspicious capitals; the James Webb space telescope, the Gemini Observatory and the European satellite ADM-Aeolus among them.
In an era of vague ambitions and chop-change plans, it’s not very often you meet someone who has always known what they wanted to do and is, pretty much, doing it. I say ‘pretty much’ because, to be fair, Aderin-Pocock isn’t quite living the dream of her youth which was, ambitiously, “to go and visit the Clangers”.
But, in shooting for their extraterrestrial abode, she landed among the stars: the instrument she built for the Gemini telescope in Chile, a spectrograph carefully constructed in the bowels of University College London, allowed scientists to analyse the light from these fiery bodies and gain insights into numerous properties, including the chemical reactions taking place deep inside. Getting up close to far-flung celestial bodies might be her jackpot, but as she tells me, peering at them from terra firma comes a close second. And while visiting pink mice on a far-away planet might conceivably have had its perks, there’s no doubt Aderin-Pocock’s world is an exciting alternative………..”