Dr Chris Lintott – “This is the golden age of Astronomy and Astrophysics”

When I found out that Dr Chris Lintott, researcher and citizen science project leader at the University of Oxford, would be coming the the Physics & Astronomy Department here at St Andrews to give a lecture as part of the department’s Colloquia, I rushed to see if I could nail him down for a quick chat. With the help of the secretaries in charge of his itinerary, a spare 15 minutes were found.

Actually finding him when the time came proved a challenge though, resulting in the Head of the Department having to help me track him down. Once discovered, Chris needed to finish an email and suggested meeting me in the room I’d booked, but I pointed out he’d never find his way there alone. As he was led along an ever more confusing route through the department building, he had to agree with that.

And we don’t want to lose visiting scientists, never to be found again.

Chris Lintott

Helen: Did you know that in Swedish Lintott actually means fair-headed child?

Chris: Yes, I did know that. People keep telling me. Especially when I go to Sweden, and I’ve never met Lintotts in this country, so I dunno, maybe it’s just me.

Helen: I just mentioned it because my Mum said “did you know it means fair-headed toddler in Swedish?”.

Chris: Someone told me it’s the equivalent of being called a ginger in this country… (Chris laughs).

Helen: Do you have a favourite galaxy or nebula or planet?

Chris: Favourite object without fail is the Orion Nebula, because I grew up as an amateur astronomer with a small telescope and it’s one of the few things you can see 3D. You can see the trapezium in the centre and it looks like the gas clouds are wrapped around it. So definitely the Orion Nebula. Which is why I think I started my career looking at star formation. I mean who wouldn’t want to do that? Of course, all galaxies are special and especially the ones we study in Galaxy Zoo, but the Orion Nebula has got a special place.

Helen: What made you interested in Astronomy?

Chris: Being that kid with the telescope. So both with my own telescope, and then when I got to Torquay Boys’ Grammar School, my secondary school, and it turned out that they had a very large telescope. They had a half metre reflector which the Head of Physics had spent a lot of time fundraising. They ran teenage discos which is something no one should have to endure (we laugh), to raise the money for the telescope. And then even more stupidly they gave us the keys to it, so at the age of twelve we were hanging out in a mostly cloudy Devon, but still enjoying it, and from there I got hooked.

Helen: Wow! If you weren’t an astrophysicist, what would you be instead?

Chris: (laughs) Broke, probably. I dunno, plan b had always been to be a theatre director, which is even well less paid  and less secure, but yeah, that’s what… I nearly did English and History for A level, so would probably be writing obscure articles on 18th century flugelhorn development or something.

Helen: What was it like working with Sir Patrick Moore on the Sky at Night?

Chris: Oh, that could easily fill the next three hours… Perhaps the first thing to say is that Patrick was exactly how you would imagine him to be. How he appeared on television was pretty much how he was. On camera he didn’t really change personality, which meant he was great fun to be around, and generous and witty and sharp as a tack. So you didn’t get much past Patrick.

In terms of actually working with him, he was generous with the programme. He let the rest of us play around with it. He was probably one of the last people around who trained in live television and so he had all these skills that don’t exist any more. You could say to Patrick “I want you to interview this person and I need you to last four minutes and 37 seconds,” and he’d start a conversation and then wrap it up and you’d look at your watch and he’d be within a couple of seconds.

Helen: Wow!

Chris: He was also very intolerant of having to do retakes. Back when he started, editing didn’t happen, or was expensive, so you got it right first time, and you moved on. These days you might run the interview lots of times, for different angles, to try different things, and I think that transition was quite weird for Patrick. It meant the rest of us were able to look palatable on camera, (he laughs) because not all of us could get it right first time like Patrick.

Helen: Do you know what the future of the show is at the moment?

Chris: Yeah, we’re continuing to make the show with myself and Lucy Green from UCL presenting, and we’re having a lot of fun, and so far the viewing figures have been good. There is no certainty in television, but for now I think we’re just going to keep going, and it should be an exciting year.

Helen: Are you famous enough to be recognised in the street?

Chris: Very rarely in the street, but about once a week somebody will come up to me in the pub and say something. And I’m convinced that this is either because I spend a lot more time in pubs than on the street, but I don’t think that’s true. I think people recognise the voice. I have quite a loud, booming voice, and I’m more likely to be talking in a pub. Which is great, because television is such a surreal thing.

Lucy and I were running around the Natural History Museum last Monday, which was great fun. We got to hold a bit of Mars, which was just… Well, Lucy got to hold a bit of the Moon which is not quite as… But we were running around and chatting to Caroline Smith who is the curator of meteorites there, and having a conversation and it’s actually really hard to remember that about a million people are going to watch that. So it’s quite nice to go the other way and have somebody say that they enjoyed it, or that they didn’t.

Helen: OK, so the sciences are growing in popularity, especially Physics and Astronomy, and that’s been linked to people like Brian Cox, Patrick Moore, and yourself. How does it feel to be part of this?

Chris: The first thing you need to do is, as a scientist, you have to think about the evidence for that. We all know that correlation isn’t causation, so it’s true that science is having it’s moment in culture. You see more science in the newspapers, more on TV and that’s Brian Cox and friends, and the rest of us have been swept up by this, which is great.

And I think that’s really exciting, and what’s particularly exciting, is that the kind of discussion about science that’s happening is very different. There’s more acknowledgment that the exciting stuff is the only interesting stuff, and the unknown stuff that is much more exciting is sort of “we don’t know why this works!” when it used to say “scientists have discovered that this stuff…” and that’s new. The Cox effect people talk about is that we are seeing many more applications for PhDs and undergrad Physics, which is good. My guess is that it’s got more to do with the economic circumstances, and people taking degrees that are seen as more useful. If we can inspire a couple of people, to do sciences, then that’s pretty good going.

Helen: I know you talked about it today in your lecture, but for those who weren’t there; how did you come up with the idea for Zooniverse?

Chris: Well, I was in the pub – I’m not coming out well at this – and a student called Kevin Schawinski in Oxford had been looking at 50,000 galaxies to try and determine their trends, and we realised from Kevin’s work that we needed to look at another 950,000 and Kevin frankly had no intention of doing this. But he knew that he was much better than a computer at this task and we knew that there was a project called Stardust@Home where NASA and a group of scientists at Berkeley had got people looking at dust grains that had come back from the Stardust spacecraft that had flown past Comet Wild 2. And he thought if people want to look at dust grains, then surely they will look at galaxies, and it turns out we were right, and once that took off, we started getting all these other projects which led to what we call the Zooniverse; this marvellous collection of places where people can make a real contribution just by sitting in front of a computer.

Helen: How much time do you actually spend on your academic work? You seem to spend all your time on Zooniverse.

Chris: Well, Zooniverse is my academic work, and all of my research is done through it. I’ve written papers for Galaxy Zoo data and Planet Hunter data. The Planet Hunter side is mostly because the 13-year-old me would have been really impressed if I discovered a planet, so that had to be done. And I work with the other science teams in the projects to share our expertise, so there is no distinction between Zooniverse and my academic work. It’s what I get paid to do. If you’re asking how much time do I get to sit down and think and write papers; if I get a day a week I’m lucky.

Helen: What’s a typical day at the office?

Chris: (laughs) There is no typical day at the office (laughs again). Probably the most typical thing I do is answer a lot of emails, because Zooniverse is a very large distributive collaboration, and I’m about a week and a half behind. So if I owe any of your readers an email, then I’m really sorry (we laugh).

Lots of emails. Things get busy late afternoon when the Americans wake up, so at three o’clock, there’s a standing meeting where everyone involved with the Zooniverse dials into the same conversation and we all say quickly what we’ve been doing, to try and keep as many people together. The rest of my day might involve writing an observing proposal, meeting with postdocs or students to talk about data analysis, try and find out what’s new, but there isn’t… I think the great joy of any academic job is that there isn’t a typical day, and that we all bounce from all sorts of things.

Helen: So far, what’s been the highlight of your career?

Chris: This is like asking someone to pick their favourite child, but I think there’s a couple. One was definitely the launch of Galaxy Zoo, because we thought it was going to be this side project, which would sit at the back of a conference hall. But the site went down under the pressure of 15,000 emails about the site going down, with loads of people trying to access it. So that’s a high point.

The first Hubble space telescope observations that we got from a project called Hanny’s Voorwerp, which was my first time in a project that involved Hubble data. I grew up on Hubble. One of my first astronomical memories was of reading about the repair ship that fixed Hubble’s eyesight, and so to get data from Hubble, to be one of the first three or four people to see that was cool.

And observing trips. I get to go to some amazing places. I remember the first time on Mauna Kea, observing with a telescope on the JMCT, going out just before dawn to a little hillock just behind the telescope and watching the sun come up over Mauna Kea. In a howling wind, so I was lying down on the floor (Chris demonstrates by leaning sideways), but nonetheless, watching the sun come up while this amazing machine took data, that I was going to use, that was pretty cool too.

Helen: That just sounds incredible. There have been so many advances in astrophysics, so is there actually anything left to discover?

Chris: Oh yeah, this is a really exciting time in astrophysics, because we’ve got several areas in astrophysics; we’ve got a basic model that we don’t understand at all, and so the kind  of canonical example is looking at cosmology…

Helen: Yeah.

Chris: We’ve got a model of the universe that basically fits, that if you run a computer simulation, it produces something that looks like our universe, but 95% of it is in a form that we don’t understand at all, dark matter and dark energy. And take planets, we’re in this incredibly exciting time where we’re discovering planets are common within the universe. That any combination of planets you can think of exists around pretty much any star. I’m exaggerating, but we’re not far off.

If you want planets around double stars, they’re pretty common. We’ve found a planet – if you’ve heard of planet hunters 1b – it’s in a four star system. Planets exist towards the galactic centre, they exist around sun-like stars, around smaller stars, but we don’t know the details of how they form. And in fact, that’s a place where we’re guilty of giving an impression that we know what we’re doing, because I suspect you’ve seen these models of protoplanetary disk formation where you have this nice movie and the dust grains stick together and they build up to form bigger and bigger things, until you get a planet.

But there’s this gap, that we don’t understand how to go from quite a big dust grain, say a few millimetres, to something the size of this table, something the size of a boulder. We just don’t’ know how planets form, but we’re getting the data that will hopefully help us find out. Astronomy is awash with data, and a lot of it is open and available on the web to everyone, and we will solve these problems. We’re going to solve them in the next five, ten, twenty years, so it’s a really good time to be around.

Helen: So still something left for me to do for my PhD…

Chris: Oh yeah, definitely. Basically what I’m saying, is you’ve got the difficult problems left…

Helen: Yay!

Chris: I missed the Apollo missions. I’m not old enough to remember that. And I remember growing up thinking I’d missed the golden age and it took me forever to realise what I’d missed was maybe the golden age of manned space flight, but this is the golden age of Astronomy and Astrophysics and that is a very exciting time to be playing around with these things.

Helen: What advice would you give to someone who wants to study Astrophysics?

Chris: Don’t do it unless you’re really interested.

Helen: Yeah, I think I would agree with that.

Chris:  It’s true. If you’re going to study anything, make sure you’re interested. Maths is important. These days it’s your mathematical ability that matters, but unless you’re planning to be a research mathematician, where you need to be creative, Maths is muscle work. If you do enough problems, then things begin to become clear, so work at maths.

I think Astronomy is joyful as a scientific pursuit, partly because it’s space, and that’s awesome when you’re a 13-year-old kid with a telescope. But also because it’s a place where a lot of Physics happens, where lots of different types of Physics happen at once, where you treat the Universe as a laboratory. If that idea appeals to you, then you’re on the right track. If you want something that’s nice and clean that you can control, then you’re probably better off in a laboratory.


Chris would love you read more about what he says and does, and you can do it here.

Photo © UK Space Agency


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