It seems to be the done thing to blog about how you got into astronomy. A lot of astronomers/astrophysicists that I talk to have a wonderful and touching story about looking through a telescope when they were young and their world changing forever. Lecturers may have been inspired by watching the Moon landings as a child. My story is not quite as moving and I have some confessions to share with you…
This is the big one: I didn’t look at the night sky through a telescope until I was 23. Those of you reading this who know me will realise that this means I was in my second year of my PhD at this point. By this time I had used radio telescopes to take data and looked at hundreds of optical images from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey but I didn’t put my eye to the eyepiece and look up until October 2009. I have memories of owning a really bad children’s toy telescope when I was young but all I can remember is that it was completely out of focus and I couldn’t see anything!
I didn’t really know about Jodrell Bank until I applied for University. In fact, I’m pretty sure I didn’t know about the observatory until I came to Manchester for my interview. The only reason I even applied for The University of Manchester in the first place was because I could put 6 choices down on my UCAS application and it seemed silly not to. Manchester was then the first good university on the UCAS list that did Astrophysics so it became my 6th choice. The fact that I knew some cool people who were in bands and lived in Manchester, of course, had nothing to do with it! Once I visited Manchester and found out about Jodrell Bank, it then became my first choice of university and the rest (as they apparently say) is history.
I didn’t decided that I actually wanted to study Physics (let alone Astrophysics) until I had to apply for university. When I was in school, I wanted to do everything (except Art and Biology). I definitely wanted to study volcanos at one point in my life. Then I decided that I wanted to go to Imperial so I could do either Chemistry or Physics but also apply for a scholarship to have flute lessons at the Royal College of Music. The flute dream died when I was too slack at practising to go for Grade 8 but the choice between Chemistry and Physics remained. I eventually chose Physics when I realised that organic Chemistry sucks and then picked Physics with Astrophysics because it sounds cool!
Of course, there are moments in my life that, looking back, placed me on the path that brought me here today. A visit to the Kennedy Space Centre aged 14 made me want to become an astronaut (I kind of still do). As NASA astronauts tend to either be military or postdoc researchers, I figured it would be easier to become a researcher than enter into a career where I would potentially have to kill someone. When we did work experience in school, I wanted to apply to the Royal Observatory Greenwich but was beaten to it by a friend (I ended up working at the local vets for 2 weeks and watched them neuter my dog). In college I gave a presentation on star formation and wrote an essay on evidence for and against the Big Bang. But it wasn’t until university that I realised that I wanted to spend my life working in astronomy.
My final confession is that I’m a bit nervous about posting this entry. I’m more than a little scared that people will realise that I’m a fraud and that I’ll be kicked out of astronomy! Seriously though, I think that it’s important for people to realise that not every professional astronomer/astrophysicist has always known they wanted to do this. It’s just that those people tend to be vocal about it and people like me hide away and hope they’re never found out. Also, I wrote this a couple of weeks ago but waited until I was out of the country to post it so that I could avoid any backlash!