One regret, one hope with Catherine Heymans

Reading time: 4 minutes
In this series, Professor Mona Siddiqui, Assistant Principal Religion and Society, chats to members of our community to find out more about them. Each fortnight she’ll be asking, what is the one regret that has shaped their past, and what is their one hope for the future.

This week Mona’s guest is Professor Catherine Heymans, Professor of Astrophysics and the first woman to be appointed as Astronomer Royal for Scotland.

Mona Siddiqui: First of all, what is astrophysics and what is the main focus of your own research?

Catherine Heymans: Astrophysics is a very cool job title. We answer the biggest questions that there are, like how did the Universe begin, how is it going to end, are we alone in the Universe – really big questions. To do that we build some of the biggest telescopes in the world to collect light from the birth of time. I always find it quite staggering, what I do.

MS: In different ways, we are all asking the big questions. Where have astrophysicists got in the search for answers to these questions?

CH: In some ways we are doing incredibly well. We know what our Universe is exactly made up of – its components. We have a really good idea about how old it is. When we look at stars outside our own solar system, we’re finding planets going around them so our discovery space is growing and growing but the more you learn the more questions come. My work is on what we call the dark side of our Universe, trying to understand this mysterious dark matter and dark energy in the Universe. I can tell you precisely how much there is. I can tell you where it is. I have no idea what it is.

MS: So, you can see the materiality of the Universe but you’re still wondering, what is it for?

CH: Yes. The fundamental physics that we understand on Earth and that can explain things in our own locality don’t seem to explain what we see out there in the Universe. It’s like we’re missing a big piece. We teach fundamental physics at the University yet it doesn’t explain what we believe makes up 95 per cent of the Universe. I do worry it is a little bit like the ether of our generation. To explain these amazing observations that we’re making with these fantastic new technologies, we’re having to invent some additional particles, additional energy in our Universe that we can’t explain yet. But that’s the fun of it. That’s why I get excited, because when you don’t understand something it means there’s something new to discover.

MS: Do you find that the more physicists collectively are finding new things, the more confusing it is getting or that the more they find is now leading us in another direction, one we hadn’t thought about before?

CH: When you look back at the history of science there are always seismic changes. Newton to Einstein – that change in how we thought about gravity completely revolutionised physics. I think now it could be we need another huge revolution in our understanding to explain the Universe. The reason why there is always a big change in science is because of new observations, new data. We are now mapping the Universe out to the birth of time itself, to the first new stars and galaxies with the new James Webb telescope that has just been launched. All this new data, all these new observations, allow us to rethink fundamental physics, rethink the way that we think the Universe works and learn more about it. It’s really exciting times.

MS: Your other title, which is Astronomer Royal for Scotland is just as funky. What is your role there?

CH: It’s a great honour to be the first female Astronomer Royal in the history of Astronomers Royal. My role is really to share the amazing science that we are doing in Scotland with everyone. I think that’s so important. I’m so excited about it and I just want to share that with everyone.

MS: Do you think that there is a growing interest among female scholars in physics and astrophysics?

CH: I genuinely think that everyone is interested in science at an early age. In my role, even before I became Astronomer Royal, I spent a lot of time going to schools. Kids are just brilliant at asking questions and I have yet to find a child under 10 who doesn’t think that space is utterly awesome but then something happens. Something happens that they change their view of science and suddenly it becomes to them a job that isn’t for girls and that really concerns me and that’s one of the things that I really want to change by just getting out there and showing people that anyone can do science.

MS: That’s a really good message – really encouraging. I’d like to ask if there is any one regret in your recent or distant past that you can share with us?

CH: In my field there have been some recent high profile cases concerning harassment and bullying in the workplace. Unfortunately, this bad behaviour is not isolated to astronomy, it’s something that pervades academia to some degree, but what’s new in astronomy is we have this amazing group of really strong, brave and courageous early career researchers who are finally standing up and saying ‘this is not acceptable, this has to change’. My regret is that I haven’t been brave and I haven’t been courageous. I look back at all the times when I should have stood up and I should have said ‘this is not acceptable’ because if I had done that then I could have accelerated the really important conversations that we are now having as a community about how we can better safeguard and how we can bring policies into our research collaborations to make the working environment much better for everyone.

MS: Thank you for sharing that. I have to say you are not the first female academic to have said this, so I am sure it will resonate. Catherine, what’s your one hope that you carry forward?

CH: My one hope is that by the time I retire the cultural misconceptions about science will be obliterated. Right now, scientists are typically portrayed as white male boffins working alone and that’s simply not how science is done. Science is wonderful big teams, international, multicultural. It’s creative, exciting and I really hope that in the future I don’t ever hear the phrases that science is boring or too difficult for me, or, my pet hate, that science is not for girls, because it absolutely is.

Photography: Maverick Photo Agency