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Dr Francisco Diego


Dr Francisco Diego is a Senior Research Fellow with a PhD in astrophysics in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University College London.  He is the producer of ‘The Mind of the Universe’, a collection of lectures and workshops on astronomy and astrophysics for schools, and has also appeared in a variety of television shows including ‘Wonders of the Universe’ with Professor Brian Cox and ‘Stephen Hawking’s Universe’.


There are plenty of Nobel prizes there to be won, you may be one of them.

On getting interested in science

I got a PhD in Astrophysics here at UCL and I started working in high resolution optical spectroscopy in astronomy, then I developed a very strong interest in…because I was very involved in planetariums in Mexico, which is my country of origin, so I have a very strong passion about public and school outreach, which is what I am doing at the moment, a lot of lectures and a lot of programmes for education for primary and secondary school, about not only astronomy but science in general.

On spectroscopy

Spectroscopy…I have a lecture called ‘The Magic of the Rainbow’ because in the rainbow we can see colours and when you see those colours with proper instruments you can tell things like, what is the chemical composition of the universe, which stars have planets around them and, most importantly, what is the age of the universe, by just looking into the rainbow.  So, um, it’s all about spectroscopy; the name spectrum comes from Newton who…he projected a spectrum on a piece of paper from the window with a prism and he called that image…in Latin it’s “spectrum”.  So we use that, spectroscopy, spectrography, spectrometer, all these roots from spectrum which means a dispersion of light, white light, into its colours by different techniques.

On the excitement of children

When I go to schools, preferably I go to year 5 and 6 – which is 10 and 11 year olds – and they want to know everything and sometimes…I mean, I have prepared my lectures with demonstrations, but all I see is a forest of arms and hands up asking questions of what they have already prepared before, regardless of what I’m talking about, they would come with questions about black holes and alien life and all kinds of stuff.  And there is a question which is fundamental that nobody has an appropriate answer and little kids come with that question which is, is there an edge to space?  Is there a limit?  How far can you go until you reach the end?  And this is a philosophical problem as well, because philosophy wants to know the limits and the limits and the limits, how far can you go, and [when] you get there, can you go any further?  And that is a, kind of…the idea of infinity that is already seeded in these little minds, and that is one of the most relevant questions.  

Let alone the fundamental forces of the universe like gravity, electromagnetism etc. because we still don’t know if I release an object here it will fall and nobody on this planet will tell me why, nobody.  They say we can explain sound in the wave pressure, waves that transmit through air or a medium; this force that makes this object fall, gravity, we know how it works, we know we can calculate…we can send rockets everywhere in the solar system using even the laws of Newton, very simple, but we still don’t have a proper explanation.  I mean, Newton came with an explanation, a beautiful mathematical explanation of how it works, and Einstein came with the distortion of the space time continuum which is a kind of explanation that the space time continuum is distorted and therefore you are trapped in this kind of trampoline thing, you see, it’s an analogy but it’s not a proper explanation of what gravity is, and, well, the kids come with that.  

My son, he was five years old, six years old, we were walking to the South Bank to a concert or something at the big Royal Festival Hallthere and he said…I was talking about gravity and he said, “Do you mean that big things attract?” and I said yes, and he said, “For example, that building” – and he with his body language is doing this [as if moving towards something] – “Is that building attracting me?”  And I said yes.  And there was an experiment in Scotland…Maskelyne did this experiment of pendulum that goes around this mountainside measuring the deviation of the pendulum, the vertical, because of the presence of the mountain and so that is another mystery about how these things attract that how these things attract…well, magnets, you know, you play with magnets and you have two magnets in your hands and you feel that force, especially when the magnets start trying to pull apart, somebody explain to me that, please.  Yes, it’s the spin of the particles…and why does it happen with aluminium or copper, it has to be, why?  Explain to me properly.  Yes, you can come to the father of electromagnetic induction and the rest of it, but the proper explanation of what has happened, these are the fundamental forces of nature and we still don’t know a proper, proper explanation, they all come from the Big Bang, all these unified forces and all these things, gravity, the couples and the electromagnetic and the strong and weak etc…we still don’t know, and they are part of the Standard Model, they are part of…except gravity which is not there yet but…fascinating.  

And the kids know, they know that there is a problem there and I say, well, nobody knows: there are plenty of Nobel prizes there to be won, you may be one of them, if you scratch the answer to this or give a proper explanation of it, of this topic.  It is fascinating, to find out that already it’s there, that needs to be fostered, that needs to be encouraged and the teachers have to be aware that that is there and they have to help the kids to keep asking questions, because that is what we are trying to do now.  I mean, tomorrow I’m going to a school in north London, we have a project with the Royal Societywhere what I’m trying to do is a project that I’ve had develop in the past few years about the entire history of the universe from the Big Bang to today with milestones along a timeline and how the universe comes from simplicity to complexity and how everything that we see around us including ourselves comes down to fundamental particles, put together by these mysterious forces along a long, enormous period of time but it comes to essentially…what we see essentially comes to two particles, everything: stars, planets, galaxies, trees, dinosaurs, people, quarks and electrons, so everything boils down to that.  If we had a microscope powerful enough to go everywhere here, all we find is quarks and electrons put together in different ways.  That is fascinating and that is a message we’re trying to put in the primary schools, that the universe goes from simplicity to complexity and we are using microscopes, we are using analogies…the one we had was with building blocks, the concept building blocks that go from simplicity to complexity.  The most common analogy is grains of sand or clay that you can put together in bricks, that you assemble together the bricks to make walls, then make rooms, make castles and palaces or stairs or pyramids or whatever, you develop a diversity of structures, but all comes down to grains of sand, and the same with the universe.

So we were using sugar cubes in this analogy in the classroom, it was a bit messy but we’re using brown sugar actually because it looks like proper bricks…so, sugar grains become sugar cubes and then the kids were assembling…because that’s the concept of the universe.  Another thing I say …sorry, there’s a lot of side tracking here, but the universe develops by assembly, it’s not creation, it is assembly of these fundamental particles and that assembly goes along the history of the universe.  Nothing is created in that process, it’s just assembly from whatever came from the Big Bang…that was the creation, that was the only creation, and we still don’t know…well we won’t go into that but, anyway, after that creation, fundamental energy became fundamental particles, everything else is the assembly.

So you take your grains of sugar, you put sugar cubes, you put them to make bricks and the kids were making pyramids and all kinds of structures and we’re going to make a drawing of how this complexity tree, if you like, the tree starts to ramify and starts to develop new structures, all coming down to grains of sand.

On the lack of certainty in science

We as humans want to be certain, we don’t want the difficulty of not knowing, of not having a proper answer, and that shows a long history, a long history. We have the development because of course we imagine these incipient human communities thousands of years ago in the Stone Age and then they have forces of nature and movements in the sky and volcanic eruptions and hurricanes and fires and the rest of it, and you have to come with answers to that, especially very destructive forces that kill your family, kill your communities.  How do you do that?  And we start developing this kind of blackmail with nature, this kind of superstition that if you don’t do this, that will happen.  Then you start developing these beliefs that the kind of interaction…or you can, kind of control or have a say in your destiny if you participate in this blackmail, even today, you go to the Kilaueavolcano in Hawaii and you walk around…and I was walking around the rim of the volcano there and there are…I said there’s a lot of rubbish here and there were bottles, bottles of vodka, bottles of whisky, they were not empty, they were full: they were offerings to the goddess Pele so the volcano will not erupt and kill, keep pacified, even today, that kind of thing.  So that superstition develops into, into religion eventually, into a plurality of gods and goddesses, which is interesting because in every single…almost every single community on this planet, in different parts of the planet, Africa, America, Europe, Asia, all of these communities develop a polytheistic interrelationship between nature and the supernatural, between us and the supernatural.  

Which is interesting that gods and goddesses appear everywhere doing different things, participating in the origin, creation of the universe and different things and the ruling of different things and how you can…I mean, the Aztecs, they had to sacrifice people in order to offer the hearts to the gods in order to, to pacify them and all these things.  The Maya used to throw maids they painted in blue into the cenotes, all decorated with gold, to the delight of modern archaeologists and people that are sacking all these places with so precious things.  

All these things, we have to have an answer, this…astrology is another thing, astrology, the relation to the stars; we want to be important, we want to be somehow in control of the things that appear completely out of control.  So that’s how religion and superstition have developed, I think, historically, now and, well, does that give certainty?  I don’t know.  Are we certain that if we do this and we go with whatever the priest or the church or whatever tell us to do, are we certain that we go to Heaven?  Are we certain that we go to Hell otherwise?  Is that certainty?  We are told that since we are little, we are indoctrinated with that, we believe that to be true.  I don’t think there is any certainty there, but people believe that and they are completely convinced, and this is an internal thing that they can get rid of this uncertainty, incertitude and then just carry on with their lives with that kind of, I would call, placebo or I don’t know what.  And that comes first in history and that comes first in our education ‘cause that’s the first thing we learn when we are born, that was the first thing we learn when we are a human species.  And science comes later, science comes only 400 years ago.