Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock: ‘I have no doubt that aliens are out there’

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t fascinated by space. I was born in 1968, a year before the moon landings. It’s hard now to comprehend just how exciting that was for my generation. It really was moon madness. But it was also because of The Clangers, the children’s TV show. I was obsessed with it. They’ve rebooted the series now and it recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. They included a little Maggie model in it. I was about the happiest I’ve ever been!

I don’t think I’m especially clever. I was very disillusioned at school. I was put in the remedial class, stuck at the back of the room playing with the safety scissors and the glue. I don’t think my teachers had any expectations for me and I ended up being the class clown, always mucking about and trying to make people laugh.


This interview appears in the 15 December 2019 Observer Magazine edited by Stormzy

My interest in space saved me because it drew me to science. I was diagnosed with dyslexia after university. I didn’t even hear the word until then and it took a long time for anyone to explain it. At school they just thought I was slow. In lots of ways I think it helps make me who I am, though I absolutely hate doing paperwork. That’s still a nightmare. My brain is wired differently. It’s interesting to note that many people with dyslexia go on to achieve amazing things in adult life; they become entrepreneurs or whatever. They just, like me, have a really difficult time at school.

My parents were Nigerian immigrants. I was born in the UK, but my heritage is really important to me. I’ve only had the chance to visit the country once. A couple of years ago I was making a radio documentary for the BBC World Service about the African space industry. I always wanted to go there with my father. He often talked of the Nigeria of his youth and it sounded so wonderful. Sadly he passed away 17 years ago, so that opportunity is gone now. I’ve decided I’m going to take my daughter at some point. I’d like her to understand her heritage and where she comes from.

I like to think I’ve done work that has made the world better. I’m just trying to do my little bit. As a scientist I’ve had the opportunity to work with some incredible people, especially the work I did on landmine detection and in measuring the rate of climate change. The thing I’m most proud of, though, is the work I’ve done going into schools and trying to get kids interested in science. I’ve spoken to more than 1,500 children in the past 13 years. It’s been thrilling.

This generation is amazing. I don’t know whether I inspire them when I talk in schools, but they certainly inspire me. I think my generation were… I don’t want to say apathetic… but it wasn’t like the one before protesting against wars and the like. This one is like that. They’re powered up. They can see the mistakes those before them have made and they want to fix the world. That is why I hope they embrace science. I still believe that in science we can find answers to our problems.

I sometimes wonder where the aliens are, but I have little doubt that they’re out there. It’s the numbers game. There are just too many planets, galaxies, solar systems, moons and stars to think there can’t be more life. I think though that there’s a great many variables that would need to happen to result in us making contact. Maybe they came in the age of the dinosaurs and left because they had no one to communicate with. I actually think that aliens arriving would be brilliant for us. Us putting aside our differences and getting our act together to face invading aliens might finally unite humanity.

I often wonder if, had the moon landings happened today, there would be the same response. We’re bombarded with CGI. I think when someone walks on Mars it’ll be interesting to see how the public respond to it. I bet you’ll still get conspiracy theorists saying it was all done in a studio in Hackney.

Dr Maggie’s Grand Tour of the Solar System is published by Buster Books at £12.99. Buy it for £11.43 from guardianbookshop.com


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