Scotland’s first female astronomer royal looks to open the universe to all

“I’m always shocked that it’s 2021 and we’re still having ‘first female’ stories,” says Prof Catherine Heymans. Nevertheless, it is an unavoidable fact that, after her appointment two weeks ago, the renowned astrophysicist is not only the first female astronomer royal for Scotland but the only woman to have held any of the astronomer royal positions in the UK.

“It’s very hard to aspire to be something if you can’t see someone who looks like you in that job,” she says, recalling that she did not encounter her first female physics lecturer, her mentor Katherine Blundell, until she began her PhD.

This matters beyond gender equality, she adds, given what a white-dominated field she works in. “The fun thing we do in science is ask questions that nobody knows the answer to, and they’re big questions like, why are we here, where did we come from, where are we going? You need to hear lots of different voices. You’re never going to get the answer if the only people who are looking at it have come from exactly the same culture and the same privileged backgrounds.”

Albert Einstein, she points out, wasn’t a first-class Oxford graduate but a patent officer “and yet he completely turned our theories of physics on their head”.

Appropriately for the woman who did not look through a telescope until she was paying her way through her first degree working as a tour guide at Edinburgh’s Royal Observatory, Heymans’s first initiative is to give every child access to the universe. She hopes to install telescopes at Scotland’s residential outdoor learning centres, where children traditionally spend a week in their final year of primary school.

She says she got the idea after her own children returned from their school trip. “The centres are all in these fantastically remote locations so the skies are really dark. It’s a perfect place to do astronomy and all of our kids, no matter what background they come from, will pass through one of these centres, so what a way to reach everyone.”

The majority of Scots – 85% of the population live in the urban belt – may not get to appreciate the “amazingly dark skies” farther north, “but that shouldn’t stop people”, says Heymans, whose laugh is a big as her enthusiasm for her subject. “The planets – Saturn, Jupiter – are the brightest things in the sky, and you can look at them from Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh.”

Prof Catherine Heymans in Edinburgh
Prof Catherine Heymans: ‘The planets – Saturn, Jupiter – are the brightest things in the sky, and you can look at them from Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh.’ Photograph: Katherine Anne Rose/The Observer

As honorary president of the Astronomical Society of Edinburgh, she notes their membership increased by 30% during lockdown. “If you have to stay local – and I certainly felt very restricted in my own life – there is something about looking up and going: ‘ ‘Hey, it’s all right. I might not be able to explore down here but I can explore up there’.”

The pandemic has inevitably had a significant impact on her field, which relies on international collaboration and massive kit, with the big observatories in Chile and Hawaii shut down over lockdown and only now operating on a skeleton staff.

“Obviously we would love our telescopes all working, but it’s been an amazing time where people have been able to start thinking a little bit more out of the box. So even though the data’s stopped coming, there’s always a new question.”

The impact of Brexit offers less scope for optimism, though she expresses huge relief that UK scientists still have access to the European Research Council funding scheme.

Heymans, who is best known for producing the first large-scale map of dark matter, managed to secure a joint appointment at Edinburgh and Ruhr-University Bochum in Germany while the transition period was ongoing. “My whole career has been funded by the European Union. So it was really, really important for me to keep access to my European networks. The best science is always done internationally.”

An experienced Ted Talker, Heymans has an enviable capacity for making science accessible, whether it is describing quantum physics – “which is just magic, basically” – or the massive gaps in our knowledge: “We don’t understand what makes up 95% of our universe. I mean that’s an epic fail as far as science is concerned.”

One upcoming project with the Vera Rubin Observatory in Chile is to map out all of the asteroids in our solar system. “Just in case one of them turns out to be a killer asteroid that is on a direct collision course to Earth.” She hoots: “Then we mobilise Bruce Willis!”


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