As I sit down to talk to Fred Watson, a man who has dedicated his life to the study of the solar system, I cannot help but be a little in awe. ‘You sound like you are calling me from the other side of Mars!’ he laughs; I am actually calling from the other side of the world sat in our London boardroom, Fred living and working in Sydney. It’s 8.30pm where he is, but Fred is more than happy to spend forty minutes talking telescopes and answering two of the biggest questions of the universe. Whether you are thinking of taking up a new hobby, or want to spend your days studying the stars, Fred is one man who proves that with passion,perseverance and a persistent want to discover more, the sky really isn’t the limit.
Now we’ve sorted the connection issues, let me begin by asking how did you get to where you are today – was astronomy always a passion?
I’m afraid I’ve been an astronomy tragic since childhood and that was a very long time ago! I grew up in the aftermath of the Second World War, so I was at school in the late 50s and early 60s, when science and technology were very much part of everyday life; everybody thought there would be another world war and that it would be fought on the grounds of science and technology. So at the school I went to in Yorkshire everybody was into science and the space age was just starting – everybody that I was at school with was in the same boat, we were all mad on space and astronomy. But whereas they gradually matured and became sensible things like dentists and doctors and engineers and civil servants, I never got over astronomy!
Listening to your accent I’ve got to ask – how did you end up in Australia?
I went to university in Scotland to study my first degree, which is actually in maths and physics because I chickened out when it came to choosing my course and I figured I’d have more chance getting a job with a broader background. My first job was working for a company in the North of England that actually built our telescopes here in Australia, so that’s what kicked me off. Then I went back to St Andrews and did a masters degree and by a long drawn out circuit, I ended up in the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh. I did my PhD at the University of Edinburgh and finally came to Australia in 1982 for a three year tour of duty because the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh ran one of the telescopes here. I was here for a decade and then went back and was in Edinburgh for a year, before going down to Cambridge. Then in 1995 I then applied for the job I have now which is Astronomer in charge of the Australian Astronomical Observatory and that’s what brought me back here to Australia.
That’s quite an adventure! So do you think qualifications are important if you want to get into astronomy professionally?
It’s true that there is a standard career path which is pretty much the same as in any scientific research field, which involves a good first degree, then with a bit of luck you might get a job which is more or less permanent (although those are a rarity these days). That would be what you may call the mainstream route into being a professional astronomer, but there’s all kind of other ways of getting into it and I’m living proof of that. My favourite example is back in the 1920s, when a big telescope was being built in California, one of the guys who was actually a mule driver eventually ended up working with Edwin Hubble. I always advise people to never give up – if you think things are not looking very promising you never know what’s round the corner.
I like that advice a lot! So your job is so varied, what’s the best part?
Actually it’s the variation – you might know that one of the things I’ve done quite a lot of in the last ten or maybe 20 years is science outreach here in Australia. I’ve done a lot of writing and broadcasting, trying to put astronomy out there. One of the reasons I can do that is I’ve done nearly every job in astronomy and that’s what I mean by the variation has been perhaps the highlight.
On the other side then, what is the most challenging part?
I think it’s probably true with every field of human endeavour, once you get to a certain level you wind up doing management. Suddenly not dealing with the science side of things, you are dealing with the people and people are infinitely more complex than anything the universe presents to us.
That leads on quite nicely to my next question – how do you think astronomy has changed?
You are asking the right person because I am so old now I’ve seen many changes! When I was at school and first getting hooked on astronomy, the universe seemed pretty neat and tidy and quite straight forward – there were nine planets that were terribly well behaved and we lived in a galaxy that was terribly well behaved. So what’s happened in the several decades since then is that our understanding has been transformed. Astronomy has moved from being the interest of a few slightly eccentric academics into the province of everyone.
What do you think is the most difficult thing for people to get their heads around?
There are some really uncomfortable questions that are not that easy to explain, like ‘where is the edge of the universe?’ or ‘what is the universe expanding into?’
And what are the answers to these?
Well everyone thinks of the universe as a balloon getting bigger, but the fact is the universe may not have any boundaries – it may not have an edge. And then what’s the universe expanding into, well not really anything as all of space is expanding, so there’s no space for it to expand into. These sound like glib answers, but they are based on science. Saying this, they are not that easy for people to get their heads around, partly because we are conditioned to think in terms of the things we see around us.
What would your advice be for someone who wants to follow in your footsteps and get into astronomy as a career?
Well I’d first of all say it depends what stage you are talking about – if it is somebody at school wondering what their career path might be, if they do want to make a contribution to astronomical research they will need pretty good skills in maths and physics, and possibly chemistry and biology as well now because those are now part of the province of astronomy. But as I said at the beginning there are many paths into astronomy and I think the most important thing to have is enthusiasm and a fairly consuming interest in the universe out there. You must be prepared to expect that the real rewards of the job will come from your passion about it, rather than physical rewards –your rewards are very much the science itself.
Finally then, what is the most amazing or breathtaking thing that you have seen?
There are a number of possible answers to that, but perhaps the one that I think stirs my soul most goes back to when I was just starting to work on the idea of using fibre optics. The first time I tried it I ended up with these fibres in my hand, which I knew were pulsing with the light of ancient stars in them, even though I couldn’t feel it. It was quite an astonishing experience, one that is probably easier for me to visualise than to describe, but it was one of those things that makes the hairs stand on the back of your neck and I’ll never forget it.
If Fred has inspired you to start stargazing, take a look at the astronomy courses listed on Hotcourses. With a whole universe out there, what are you waiting for?