An interview with Prof. Christopher Lintott

Prof. Christopher Lintott of Oxford University, winner of this years Kelvin Medal and Prize from the Institute of Physics and regular on the BBC’s Sky at Night agreed to answer a few questions.

Science and Popularisation

1. What first got you involved in science, and in particular astronomy?

I was a small kid who loved looking through telescopes – first of all a neighbour’s small reflector, then a larger telescope at school. I loved the idea that we could understand what’s happening in space despite being stuck on the surface of a small insignificant planet – and that there was lots left for us still to find out.

2. What was your first telescope?

The same one I have now, a 6” reflector. It’s nothing fancy – it doesn’t even have a motor – but it allows me to explore the sky. I’m a great fan of astrophotography, but I spend too much time looking at my computer as it is. When I’m observing I want the photons to be hitting my eyeballs!

3. How did you get involved in the BBC’s Sky at Night?

I’d been doing some science writing and got invited to be a guest on the show. From there, I was lucky enough to be part of the team and I gradually did more and more. I think Sky at Night’s a wonderful show, with the chance to explore so many fascinating aspects of our relationship with the Universe.

4. What is ‘Citizen Science’?

It’s a modern term for an old idea, which is that anyone can participate in the scientific process. These days, we use the term to cover the kind of projects we build on – projects which allows professional astronomers and volunteers together to comb through the vast stores of data which modern surveys produce.

5. Which medium do you think is the most effective at popularising science?

It depends what you’re trying to do, but one of the things that I think we need to remember is that we can’t rely on people choosing to seek out scientific content. A large proportion of the public have been put off science through experiences at school, or through a lack of confidence, and we need to find ways to reach them. In the old days, that meant big budget TV shows, but now that audience is fragmenting we need to find new ways for people to stumble across science. As an example, the Adler Planetarium in Chicago runs a Telescopes in the City program in which they take scopes (and astronomers) to random locations, surprising people with the sky. I think that kind of experience can be life-changing.

6. What, in your opinion, should be the ultimate goal of science popularisation?

I’m not sure it’s an ultimate goal, but there are lots of people who I believe would enjoy following science as it happens, and maybe even participating. I want that crowd to feel like they’re part of the journey, rather than just consumers of pre-packaged scientific results. We just reported on the New Horizons encounter with Pluto, which threw up all sorts of wonderful surprises. Someone said to me that they hadn’t realised that scientists smile when they say they don’t know something – I’d like more people to participate in the joy of not knowing.


1. Can you say a few words about your research?

These days I’m interested in galaxies – in particular, we’re trying to find out why some galaxies form stars and why some appear to have shut down. Most of this work is done with the wonderful data provided by Galaxy Zoo volunteers.

2. Which one of your papers are you most proud of, and why?

The discovery paper for the Voorwerp – I had to learn a lot to write it, and we had the most tremendous battles with the referee, but it came out well in the end. Plus it’s about a wonderful object, and consisted of what I thought astronomers did when I was a kid. Find an interesting object, and point telescopes at it until you know what it is…

Chris Lintott’s homepage at Oxford
BBC Sky at Night

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