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Dr Matt Taylor

Dr Matt Taylor is an astrophysicist who, with the European Space Agency, is the Project Scientist of the Rosetta mission, which became the first successful mission in human history to land a space probe on a comet.  He received a PhD in space physics from Imperial College London and has been an author on over 70 publications.  He has also made numerous appearances on shows such as The Sky at Night.

I think it’s the wonderment you have to tap into

On first memories of science

Right, this is always a different question for me; people say what inspired you to go into science?  To be honest with you, it was a practical inspiration: my parents were pushing me into education, basically, they wanted me to go into further education so I’d say that was an inspiration in that direction to go to university etc.  Science was always considered within my household and the interaction between my father and his brother in law, they would always talk over coffee on a Sunday - or tea actually, because we’re English - about just general day-to-day stuff and it was always considered when they were chatting that physics was the science of everyday life so, you know, that was something I picked up on, that sounds interesting, you know, working out what light is doing and what heat is doing. So that drew me I guess into that direction, science was the path I was going to follow.

From the point of view of space, I guess inspiration turns into or comes from Star Wars; I just remember running around with a Han Solo blaster when you could get them and being jealous of the guy down the street who had one of the storm trooper laser rifles, so we used to run around in the street playing Star Wars, and that’s it.  I’ve got that locked in my mind from when I was yay high and then continued through to playing computer games and stuff like that, that matching of science fiction and then thinking about actually the reality behind it all the time, I guess that’s the whole connection: parents and Star Wars.  Yeah, I mean, I wouldn’t say, it’s like when you’re firing a Han Solo blaster and going, yeah, I’m definitely going to do space plasma physics when I’m 21, it’s just that connection with it.  I’d say also Lego was another thing, I just used to sit there playing with a big bucket of Lego, where you have these big pots of paint and just DIY material in these buckets, we used to have a couple of them left over from DIY projects at my mum and dad’s house and they were full of Lego. But there’d be different things, construction sets for building, or Lego City as it used to be, and I had a rocket set, but then everything turned into space, everything was always…the classic Lego, not the Lego with all the bricks that are the same colour, I mean you’re taking pieces from all the sets that you have so you have this brightly coloured, multi coloured space craft, or many of them, so that was it as well, building space craft from Lego.

On science in schools

I think that it’s a really important thing to have teachers that instil some kind of motivation in you, not just, you’ve got to be here for 45 minutes, so sit down, shut up and you have to learn this for an exam.  Of course I’ve always run into that over the course of my career from, well, high school through to further education and university etc. but there were a couple of teachers along the way who were there…we had a physics teacher, Mrs Moore, when I was doing A levels, she was a teacher but she’d gone to different countries to teach and had instilled the kind of wonderment in…wow, you can go to further education and that would be something to do, so don’t just stop at A levels, go on to do a degree.  So, yeah, you have those teachers along the way.  The same with maths, I had a maths teacher who was persistent in me getting things, you know, not just giving up on me, and, yeah, I was doing Applied Maths as an A level and I was a bit rubbish at it at the beginning and then it was just a whole, you know, knuckle down, it’ll come to you, and there was patience and there was an ability there in terms of having patience because there were only about four people in the class but, yeah, that helps.  But, yeah, that’s an important factor to have those teachers there that instil that motivation, and I’ve been giving talks recently to schools and, you see, you’re invited by those teachers that do want to do that, do want to inspire and want to draw from all parts of society to show that it is interesting, and I made this comment the other day in a talk, that there is a wonderment in this but we shouldn’t be scared of doing maths and science, we shouldn’t be scared.  There is this automatic, oh it’s too hard.  I’ve said it before, it is hard but I say, it’s not hard, you shouldn’t go into something thinking you can’t do it, there’s probably a Yoda quote in there somewhere. It is go in there, have a go basically, it’s that thing, persist, try again.  That’s how I got where I was, because I wasn’t an A student.

On studying space plasma

My undergraduate degree was a new degree, a Master of Physics, a four year physics degree that I did in Liverpool University and I went on to do a post-doctoral degree, a PhD in space plasma physics.  Space plasma physics is basically what intertwines the entire universe, it’s the bit in between the stars, it’s the stuff that makes stars up, it’s the fourth state of matter, it’s when you have a very, very hot gas, the constituents start to break apart, the electrons and the ions so it’s that, that’s basically what I study, or what I was studying for a long time, I haven’t been doing it as much recently but that’s what plasma is, it’s the fourth state of matter, its basically what the sun is made of and what we sit in on our planet and it pervades all of the universe.

On the colours of space

Space is very empty but there are places where it isn’t empty and you have these fantastic structures; I’ll always go back to the sun, it’s our nearest star and it’s a fantastic entity, you know, you shouldn’t be looking at it directly when you go out and today you cant see it at all even if you tried, but it has this fantastic colour and there are dynamics there you can see. If you talk about other interactions from a plasma physics point of view, the Northern Lights and Southern Lights, that is pure plasma physics, that is the interaction of the outer atmosphere of the sun whacking into our earth’s magnetic field and all of this interaction being channelled down the magnetic field lines and whacking into our atmosphere and you have these chemical reactions that cause these fantastic light shows and that occurs all over the universe, these kind of auroral displays, but also just general interactions of plasmas and plasmas and dust and gas whacking into each other and glowing and causing all these fantastic displays that we see on the images that we get from all the space agencies.

On the public’s disconnect with science

I think there is, or there has been, a disconnect in the public’s perception of what science is, what you see up in the sky and then just that has no repercussion or impact on me.  But I think that’s changed a little bit in recent years, certainly there has been a better approach at pushing public understanding of science in general.  So from the media perspective, there is a role there to, again, not say science is hard, you can’t do it, only people in special white coats can do it, there has to be a connection to every day life and you can get that from different science disciplines.  Space plasma physics or just general space exploration has this connection, again you can connect to science fiction, you have those kinds of connections using the same words and there’s just general wonderment at how large the universe is outside of our boundaries that we can’t see.  But you can connect to it in terms of the interactions with the sun, with us on the earth, space weather is one of the things that we’re starting to be interested about, the fact that sometimes your GPS isn’t working properly and the fact that that could be induced by an explosion on the sun perturbing the system of the earth, its magnetic field, causing problems in the atmosphere, so there’s a little bit of an interaction there.

I gave a presentation recently on space, on the Rosetta mission, at a biomedical meeting and I was talking to people afterwards and they were saying, you know, you’ve got it really easy, you have this connection with people, with space, when you talk to people and when you give your presentation, it’s inspiring because people can understand a connection to space.  And I thought, and I pointed this out directly to them, so your science is difficult to sell to humanity?  And these people were studying how to cure cancer!  So it’s about how you sell something, and I think the cure for cancer is a good hook in terms of the man on the street, but I think it’s the wonderment you have to tap into, to some of the more blue sky phenomena that we talk about from a scientific perspective.

Check out the Special Features section for a huge, two part, in-depth discussion about the Rosetta and Philae mission

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