Dr Chris Lintott
Chris Lintott is an astrophysicist working as a researcher in the physics department at the University of Oxford. His work focuses primarily on the chemistry associated with star formation and citizen projects relating to galaxies. Chris is perhaps most well known around the world as the host of ‘The Sky at Night’, which also co-hosted for many years with the late Sir Patrick Moore.
I was a kid who looked up at the stars.
On becoming interested in the stars
I was a kid who looked up at the stars. It’s quite unusual for a professional astronomer, but I was a kid with a small telescope, and there was a particular bright meteor in about 1990 that I remember seeing. I was out for the Geminids meteor shower in December, it was cloudy, and this beautiful blue streak went across the sky and so that got me started looking at the stars, and then I wanted to understand them and that led to trying to be an astronomer.
On The Sky at Night and Sir Patrick Moore
‘The Sky at Night’ is probably the most random programme! It’s always been rooted in the astronomical community, so I was thrown in front of the camera when I was about 18 because I’d been visiting Patrick Moore and he said, ‘We should do a programme together’. So we did, in the corner of the big studio in TV Centre, and it was terrifying but it was fun. And I gradually got to do more and more and here I am, what, 15 years later, something like that.
Patrick was in person exactly as you’d imagine him from watching him on television, really. He was larger than life, he would usually have a drink in one hand and a Hawaiian shirt on, so that’s a nice visual image, but he was just passionately interested in everything and everyone. He was the first to run to the telescope if something had happened, the first to not believe anything that a professional astronomer said. But he also had this training from live television. He used to do the Apollo shows live and ‘Sky at Night’ live and so you could say to Patrick, ‘Patrick, we need, um, two minutes 37 seconds’ and he would just start talking and it would be beautiful, and it would come to a natural close and you’d look at your watch and he’d be within a second. These are skills that none of the rest of us have.
On new discoveries in astronomy
I think the most exciting thing happening in astronomy right now is the discovery of planets around other stars. It’s hard to pick one of them out, but back in 1995 we didn’t have any but now we’re in a situation where we have about 3,000 stars where we know there are planets. And we’ve found planets of all types and shapes. We’ve seen giant Jupiters close to their parent stars, we’ve seen Earth like planets, we’ve seen planets that wander between the stars, they turned out to be common. We’ve seen planets close to the centre of the galaxy and planets close to where we are, out here in our obscure spiral arm.
And so this discovery that planets are a very common part of the universe I think is absolutely stunning, and we haven’t quite worked out what it means for life in the galaxy but that will come too.
On Galaxy Zoo
So I’m a very lazy scientist, in that I do my work by asking other people and in fact asking anybody to help out. So we set up a website in 2007 called Galaxy Zoo. And Galaxy Zoo will show you a picture of a galaxy, probably one that has never been seen by anybody ever. We ask you a set of questions, we’re asking really about the shape of a galaxy. Can you see spiral arms, is there a bulge at the centre? And we ask these questions because the shape of a galaxy tells you about its history. It tells you whether it’s interacted with another galaxy, it tells you whether it’s absorbed material from its surroundings and when are where it’s formed stars.
But that task of giving a shape to an image of a galaxy is something that computers are terrible at but people are very good at, and so we’ve had hundreds of thousands of people help us and that has an interesting side effect, because as well as doing the task, you look at enough galaxies, you find the unusual stuff. And it turns out as humans we’re very good at being distracted, and so a lot of the research that’s come from Galaxy Zoo hasn’t come from the routine classification but from people doing that very naturally human thing of going, ‘Hang on, there’s something odd in this image’ and that’s led us in all sorts of directions.
On key changes in astronomy
I think the biggest change in astronomy, really, in the last 20 years is all the data, all the images, are now available to everyone. So we’ve always had amateur astronomers who look at things for fun, as I do, but who also do serious work monitoring Jupiter or trying to discover supernovae or things like this, but these days if you log on to the right website at the right time you could be the first person to get data from one of the Mars rovers. Or you could see the latest Hubble images just as professionals can. Or you can download the entire survey of a million galaxies that I work with! And that data being available to everyone is creating all sorts of new and interesting ways to be an astronomer, I think, some of my favourite examples come from…there’s a website called Unmanned Spaceflight where people reprocess the data from unmanned missions. And this group of amateurs have been talking to the Cassini team – Cassini’s in orbit around Saturn – and they’ve been saying, ‘Actually, if you take this picture then we make this mosaic and we can get this beautiful view’. And so there’s this real collaboration between professionals and amateurs in astronomy that goes back hundreds of years but now has this digital twist to it.