When most Americans think of popular stargazing scientists, they think of Carl Sagan, who popularized astronomy through his 1980 television series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. Or Neil deGrasse Tyson, the astrophysicist who rebooted the series in 2014 as Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. But over on the other side of the Atlantic, Brits have their own scientific superstars.
One of their most popular stargazers is astronomer Mark Thompson, a presenter on the BBC’s Stargazing Live, a series that combines science and comedy to help amateur astronomers learn more about the night sky. Known for his warmth and knack for making difficult concepts easy to understand, Mark, whom The Telegraph has called the “people’s astronomer,” has become one of the most famous scientists in England.
This week, Mark’s fourth book, A Space Traveler’s Guide to the Solar System, hits shelves. Smart and accessible, the book takes readers on a virtual tour of Earth’s nearest neighbors—the sun, moon, and planets in the Solar System—to explore some of their most fascinating features.
In the following interview, Mark discusses the possibility of alien life, the importance of Star Trek-style food replicators in space travel, and what he considers to be our Solar System’s most beautiful planet.
Amy Brady: You’ve created a long an admirable career out of making the cosmos accessible to non-scientists like myself. Why is it so important for us laypeople to learn about space?
Mark Thompson: To learn about space and the universe is to learn about our place in it. Every atom inside our bodies—indeed, almost every atom that makes up planet Earth—has been synthesized inside a star. Our Sun is the third generation of stars to have evolved since the Big Bang, the creation of the Universe, so our very existence is intrinsically linked to the evolution of the Universe. It is also important to understand how the future evolution of the Universe, the Sun and planets might impact our very existence…pretty big stuff. But it is also important to humans to simply explore—not just the habitats we live in on Earth, but also what is above our heads.
Amy Brady: Your research interests seem to focus largely on deep space. Why did you decide to write about our own Solar System instead?
Mark Thompson: The Solar System is something that is more accessible to people. If you know where to look, you can easily spot four planets in the sky without a telescope, as well as the Moon, and with precaution, the Sun. My interest also stems from a boyhood dream of travelling around the Solar System, and I wanted to share that.
Amy Brady: I loved learning about the features of the Solar System in your latest book, but one of my favorite passages was actually about the necessity—and problem—of feeding astronauts on long journeys through space. What kinds of leaps forward has science made in this area? Will be we growing farms in space any time soon? Will we ever have food replicators, like on the starship Enterprise?
Mark Thompson: Hmmmm food replicators. Certainly we have 3D printers now, and we have the ability to manipulate atoms using a variety of different technology, but to whip up a “cup of tea, Earl Grey, hot…,” that is a little way off yet. For now and in the foreseeable future we will have to rely on more conventional means of cultivation. Interestingly, research from current space exploration has shown that eating is not just about getting the necessary vitamins but also about the social interaction of a meal, about the tastes and smells. So, for us to be gastronomically satisfied, we need more than just tablets to give us our 5-a-day.
Amy Brady: Your book talks briefly about the possibility of life in the sub-oceans of Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. How likely is it that we’ll find alien life there?
Mark Thompson: If I knew that I would be a millionaire. But if we are going to find any form of life elsewhere in our Solar System, then I would certainly place my bet on Europa. We have seen how life can thrive around thermal vents at the bottom of the oceans here on Earth—they receive no energy from the Sun whatsoever. So, it is very plausible that life may have evolved in the oceans of Europa too.
Amy Brady: What discoveries about the Solar System—or deep space—do you think will surprise us in our own lifetimes?
Mark Thompson: I think the discoveries that will be significant will be focused on alien life. Already we have found well over 3,000 planets around other star systems and are starting to see that the conditions for life in the Universe are far from unique to Earth. The search for ET is definitely the one to watch.
Amy Brady: Tell me about your charity project Reach for a Star.
Mark Thompson: Reach for a Star is a charity whose head office is local to me and of which I am honored to be a patron. They raise funds to help purchase equipment for children suffering with terminal conditions and donate telescopes to terminally-ill children at hospitals around the UK. It is heartbreaking yet such a humbling experience to meet the brave kids and their families, and we have such a fantastic response to the telescope donations. It is popular because it gives them a bit of a break from the suffering and treatment that they are experiencing and helps them to spend some quality time with their loved ones studying something quite beautiful.
Amy Brady: My favorite planet (after Earth, of course) is Neptune. What’s yours?
Mark Thompson: Ha! If only I had a penny for every time I was asked that question. It would have to be Saturn. I saw it for the first time when I was ten years old. It was utterly amazing and set me on the journey I have been enjoying for the last thirty (or so) years. It is a beautiful planet to look at, and I have been lucky enough to show thousands of people what it looks like over the years, hopefully inspiring them to look up and wonder at the night sky.
A Space Traveler’s Guide to the Solar System by Mark Thompson
Published November 8, 2016
As a presenter on BBC Stargazing Live, Mark Thompson has helped inspire 4 million viewers to get out and enjoy the night sky. A specialist presenter on ITV’s This Morning and Radio Five Live, Mark has also been a key contributor to the BBC’s The Sky at Night.
Amy Brady is the Editor-in-Chief of the Chicago Review of Books and Deputy Publisher of Guernica Magazine. Her writing has appeared in Oprah, The Village Voice, Pacific Standard, The New Republic, McSweeney's, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.