Becky Smethurst: “My hobby is my job, with a bit of extra stress”

by | Aug 19, 2021

Your "friendly neighborhood astrophysicist" Becky Smethurst is enthusiastically exploring the universe and educating us along the way.

Image credit: Angel Li

Astrophysicist, author, and Youtuber Becky Smethurst has dedicated her life to exploring the mysteries of space. As a Junior Research Fellow at the University of Oxford, she studies the evolution of galaxies and the influence of supermassive black holes on the formation of stars. Her passion for her work is immediately apparent and has spilled over to an impressive and award winning side hustle as a science communicator, where through her Youtube channel, Dr. Becky, she posts easy-to-digest videos about astronomy for a diverse and general audience.

Tell us about your background. Where did you grow up and when did you decide to become an astrophysicist?

I grew up in Lancashire in the northwest of England, a tiny town, nothing overly special but a comfortable place to grow up. I would call myself a “why” child because I was constantly asking questions. There was no moment of peace for my parents or teachers. I think that was the curiosity that drove me to become a scientist.

At 10 years old, I wanted to be a marine biologist because I wanted to work with dolphins, but when I was older, I realized my favorite subject was physics and space came under the remit of astrophysics and astronomy. I could go to a university and learn more about space than I ever could devouring every book my parents bought me. I just sort of followed my heart, really.

Besides becoming an astrophysicist, were there other subjects or career paths that interested you?

It always revolved around science. It was marine biology at the beginning of middle school and then at the beginning of high school I wanted to be a pediatric surgeon because I found the human body fascinating. I think it’s similar in a way to astrophysics because you have this huge system that’s very complex and everything is interlinked.

I think most people understand what you mean when you say you want to be a doctor or you’re going to university to study medicine. I turned around suddenly to my parents and said I’m going to study astrophysics. They didn’t understand what that entailed because it’s not like there’s a definite job at the end of your studies. I think I was stubborn enough to say, “This is what I’m going to do” to my parents and teachers, and nothing they could say would change my mind.

Did you have any early role models or mentors who shaped your research and career?

I had a wonderful physics teacher named Mrs. McCann. She was so passionate about physics, especially materials physics. I remember having a friendly discussion about material physics versus astrophysics and she would try and convince everyone that materials physics was better because that’s what she did at university. She was fantastic, and I saw myself in her a little bit. She was just a very strong-willed woman who knew what she wanted and knew what she liked. She was a great role model in that respect.

Funny enough, there was nobody in astrophysics whom I [looked up to]. A lot of the books I read would just tell me the facts. They would never tell the history of the scientists figuring out what was going on and why. I never had a person where I was like, “Wow, Einstein did this and Feynman did this.” I was aware of them, but I didn’t really make that connection. I just wanted to learn everything about space. I wasn’t necessarily thinking I wanted to do what a specific person was doing. I just had this massive thirst for knowledge and I needed to quench it somehow.

How did you get started in this challenging field?

When I came to university, I was aware that space fell under the realm of physics, but I had to be sure to stack my degree with as much astrophysics as possible. So, I did a degree in physics and astronomy. Every time I was given a choice I would just do astronomy — all my research projects and lab projects were strongly involved with astronomy.

When I did my research project in my final year, which was half of my grade, I was doing research into galaxies. I was thinking this subject was really cool, but in that way, you stumbled through things as an undergraduate, not necessarily knowing why you’re doing something but doing it because you were told to do it. At the end of the six-month research project, I was writing it out and it all fell into place and I thought, “This is why I did this, and I’ve actually managed to figure this thing out that we didn’t know before.” That sort of amazed me, but it didn’t really hit until a month or two before graduating.

By that point I had already made up my mind that I wanted to try something different. I had been in education for about 18 years and I wanted to go and see what was out there. I started applying to a lot of engineering graduate programs because that seemed to be the thing scientists did for a defined job at the end of university studies. I got there and I realized I missed talking about space every day. I missed doing the research and I missed that feeling of everything falling into place and realizing you figured something out. It wasn’t necessarily office life and desk life and meeting life I hated. I just I hated that we were talking about something that wasn’t space or galaxies or black holes or stars. That was when I realized I wanted to go back and do a Ph.D. so that I could do research for the rest of my life essentially.

What does a day in the life of an astrophysicist look like?

I like to think most of my time is spent looking through telescopes but looking back that’s maybe once or twice a year. If I’m lucky, I’ll get to go on a week-long trip and the rest of the time I will be analyzing the data I’ve taken and figuring out what it’s telling me and then the writing up a scientific paper. That includes a lot of coding and a lot of image analysis and image processing. Astronomy is the science of images after all. We’ve driven forward a lot of the imaging techniques that feed into medicine and other fields. It’s a lot of image analysis and a lot of data science as well as a lot of writing, such as telescope-use proposals and scientific articles.

I’m an observational astrophysicist, as opposed to a lot of my colleagues who simulate things on their computers, so that would probably be less data and more coding. I very much want to get my hands on data to figure out what it’s telling me and do some statistical analyses.

Sometimes you have to pinch yourself when you’re on top of Mauna Kea in Hawaii and you just took an image of a galaxy that has a growing black hole in the center that you’re about to work out the mass for. You think, “How am I being paid for this?” You can’t quite believe this isn’t just something you get to do for fun. My hobby is my job, with a bit of extra stress.

What are supermassive black holes and what role do they play in our universe?

A supermassive black hole is a black hole that is a million or a billion times bigger than the Sun. It’s huge in terms of mass, but it’s tiny in terms of size, maybe smaller than our solar system. We find them at the centers of galaxies, sort of the gravitational driving seat of galaxies of hundreds of billions of stars. What I find fascinating about them is that this tiny thing in the very center of a galaxy that’s hundreds of thousands of light years across can influence the whole galaxy.

If you grow a black hole by sending material tumbling towards the center of the galaxy so the black hole can accrete it (the scientific term), or eat it, you can throw material back out from the region around the black. Nothing can escape the black hole itself, but the region around the black hole is extremely turbulent. It would be like unplugging the plug from your bath and water splashing back up at you as it spirals down because the pressure is so great that everything is jostling to try to get down. The pressure in that material before it reaches the black hole sometimes must be released, sort of like a burp as you feed the black hole. The energy in that burp can essentially either pick up hydrogen gas and expel it from a whole galaxy or it can heat hydrogen gas in the galaxy. Either way, you’re removing the fuel that the galaxy needs to make new stars. If you can’t make new stars, the stars you currently have slowly die off and you end up with a dying galaxy.

By feeding something so tiny in the middle, it somehow influences this huge system that surrounds it. I think that’s absolutely fascinating because everyone thinks about black holes as vacuums that everything gets sucked into and yet at the same time, they have an effect on something hundreds of thousands of light years away and that is actually pretty cool.

Do you have a favorite?

I have a favorite hypothetical black hole. For a very long-time, people who study the solar system have been searching for a planet beyond the orbit of Neptune that would be big enough to disturb [its orbit]. When they discovered Pluto, they thought they found it, but it was too small to have that effect. They’ve been looking for this massive planet beyond the orbit of Neptune for hundreds of years, and for decades we’ve had the tools to be able to do this and they still haven’t found anything.

There is one hypothesis that says it might be a black hole the size of a tennis ball out in the far edges of the solar system and that’s why we haven’t seen it. This would also explain why all the orbits of objects are weird out there because this tiny black hole is shepherding everything. I so desperately want the solar system to have a little pet black hole ten times the mass of the Earth but the size of a tennis ball just hanging out at the edge.

What is the closest black hole to Earth?

There is one that has been confirmed that we’ve seen growing around the [system’s] star — it’s getting greedy and pulling material off the star so the material is glowing. I think that is a few hundred light years away called V618 Mon [V618 Monocerotis].

A couple years ago, just after Stephen Hawking died, the European Space Agency sent a radio signal in the direction of that black hole that was a recording of Stephen Hawking’s voice, which was a very nice tribute to him.  

How exactly do you study them? What does a typical “experiment” look like for an astrophysicist?

Obviously, it’s not an experiment. I guess our entire experiment is the universe and we just observe it at different times and stages. What you would do — because you can’t observe the black hole because you can’t get light from it — is observe the material around the black hole. It’s spiraling and orbiting around it and you can take a spectrum of that light.

Most of it is hydrogen gas and it will be emitting at the very specific wavelength that hydrogen emits. Hydrogen outputs at a very specific color of light, and if we take a spectrum of that light, we’d expect to see a very sharp peak of hydrogen giving off that color.

Then we take the light and sift it through a prism, and you get some of the rainbow and it’s split up into its component colors. When we do that with the materials around a black hole, it’s not just one sharp peak but it’s broadened and smeared out because some of the material is moving towards you and some of it is moving away from you. If you can measure how broadened it is, you know how fast material is moving, and if you know how fast the materials moving, you know how big the thing is that it’s moving around. If you could measure the broadening of the spectrum, you can measure the mass of the supermassive black hole.

The fact that we can do that still blows my mind. Think about all the things in chemistry and quantum physics and instrumentation and engineering that had to come together to make that possible. I quite often measure the mass of a black hole because with the mass worked out, you can know how much influence it will have on the galaxy and then you can compare that to the galaxy properties and see if it correlates with anything. I remember going to La Palma in the Canary Islands to use the telescope set up the mountains there to take the spectra to do just that a couple of years ago.

What other astronomical phenomena do you explore? Why is this area of research important?

It’s not just black holes, it’s the galaxies they inhabit as well — they’re so intrinsically tied together. I care about the shape of the galaxy, for example, and I get those from a project from the web called Galaxy Zoo, which is a collection of scientific projects with far too much data to classify and so they asked the public to help classify it. I’m involved in a project where you’re literally just shown an image of a galaxy and asked if it is a blob or a nice beautiful spiral shape, and that is helpful for my research.

I also look at the different colors of galaxies and how big those galaxies are and what kind of stars they contain, newer stars or older stars. Black holes and galaxies are so closely connected we call it co-evolution — the two grow and evolve together. For a while, we thought we had all that figured out and so that was all fed into our models of the entire universe and how that has evolved. You can’t model the entire universe without modeling how galaxies — which are the main component — have also changed and evolved. However, a lot of my research has shown that many black holes don’t grow how we thought they used to, and perhaps that might change the mechanism by which they burp out material and how much energy gets burped out. That will feed back into these models and simulations and into cosmology — our understanding of the entire universe. How old is the universe and what is going to happen in the future, at the end of the universe?

What do you consider to be exciting developments in your field within the last 5 years?

I think the major development is gravitational wave discovery in 2017. I also think the first image of a black hole was incredible, we just took a method that we had been using for decades and pushed it to its extreme. That was a remarkable feat of engineering, data science, and astronomy coming together.

However, with gravitational wave discovery they detected two black holes merging by detecting ripples through space itself instead of light. It was the shockwave of this merger of two black holes, which had been predicted by Einstein back in the 1920s. We knew that it had to happen, but the ripples are so small it’s like detecting an atom moving around. It was a massive engineering feat to even be able to do that and it was the first time we had ever observed the universe in something other than light. It was a whole new way of observing that we’ve never had before, and I think that will have bigger ripples into the future then necessarily the first image of a black hole, as amazing as that was.

When you’re a kid reading books about space, every time you go to the black hole page it was always an artist impression and I had resigning myself to believe we would never have an image, so that image being created was so momentous.

I think, though, that the biggest shift in how we do astronomy and what we can get from astronomy came more from gravitational wave discovery and I’m very excited for [the launch of] a gravitational wave detector in space rather than on the ground. This will be a huge L-shaped structure used to detect these waves at different frequencies of gravitational ripples. The one that we currently have is only sensitive to two small black holes merging and the one we are launching into space will be sensitive to supermassive black holes merging, so I’m very excited.

What future discovery or achievement would you most like to see in your field?

If particle physics announced they figured out the composition of dark matter, I would spring out of bed and take the week off from work and just celebrate.

Astrophysicist, author, and YouTuber is quite impressive. When did you get into science communication? What was the driver?

I don’t think I can pinpoint it because I didn’t realize I was actively doing it for a long time. I didn’t know anyone who was a scientist growing up, so as soon as I my stubbornness came through and I committed to becoming an astrophysicist, I realized people were asking me questions and I knew the answers. I was explaining things to my mom in a way I knew my mom would understand, so I think I was doing it as a teenager without realizing it. People are fascinated by space. It’s this incredible otherworldly thing that we learn about. I think people are naturally curious and I found myself at a bar in college various nights explaining different aspects of astronomy to people.

When I started my Ph.D., the group I did my it with were very involved in science communication already and they encouraged me to do more and pushed me out of my comfort zone. I did FameLab UK, an international competition where you have three minutes to explain something in science with no slides on stage. I got to the UK final for that and had a great time. I also did Bright Club, stand-up comedy for scientists, which is terrifying but again pushed me out of my comfort zone and was fun.

When I was finishing my Ph.D., the first job opportunity came from Nottingham for a research fellowship where they wanted me to do research but also to make YouTube videos for their channel. The job application was so strange because it was a two-page research proposal, a CV, a publications list, and a two-minute video explaining something in physics. I got the job and spent two years at Nottingham doing research and making videos about topics like, “Could Thor in the Avengers actually use a neutron star to forge a new hammer?” I had a lot of fun thinking about various video ideas and I didn’t have to do any of the actual video production. I just thought of the idea, and someone would film me and the video would appear in a couple of months.

It was a really fun introduction to the world of science communication, specifically online and on social media. I found I loved that creativity so much and the idea of producing a fun video every week. You can pat yourself on the back that you’ve done something productive with your week while you also played the long game with your data analysis and research.

When I move from Nottingham to Oxford, to my next postdoc and my next research fellowship, I thought I would keep doing the same thing and pick up video editing and lighting and sound as I go. I have had really good fun ever since.

How do you approach explaining complex topics to people with no prior knowledge of your field?

I always have my mom in mind first. My mom is interested and intelligent but not necessarily educated, as she left school at 16 to go out into the world and work because that’s what she had to do. I always have her in mind as someone who wants to know more but doesn’t necessarily have the background.

I always think, if I was to repeat a sentence to my mum that I had said to my colleagues about a scientific paper, how many things would I have to qualify in that sentence. I just break it down and think I’m going to have to explain this about Y and this about X and then in the process of that, you know what analogies you could make to help people understand. By the time you get to the actual full statement that you would say to a colleague, they’ve still got those analogies in their head and they still remember those important pieces of information. It’s just trying to break it down, and it’s funny because I have such huge respect for people who do TikTok videos that are a minute long. It is so much harder to do that in a minute then to do it in a YouTube video that’s 10 minutes.

I really enjoy the challenge of trying to break it down for people, and I think if I haven’t been able to break it down, then I don’t understand it. I need to do more reading so I can figure out what’s going on here. The whole point of the channel was always to be your friendly neighborhood astrophysicist because if you google a question about space, you’re often going to get a lot of research articles that are written for colleagues and not for the public. You need someone to translate that. I’m just there to translate, to go from astrophysics speak to pub speak.

Can you tell us a bit about your YouTube channel?

My target audience is everybody who is interested. The YouTube algorithm makes that a little bit difficult because you will be recommended videos based on your location, age, and gender. Science communication, especially physics communication, is a little bit circular in that respect. There are also many studies showing that male YouTube channels will be watched by more males and female led channels will be watched by more females, and so there is this vicious cycle. I try breaking through this by using YouTube crossover trends like, “A day in the life”, which is watched by a lot of students who are deciding on a career.

Meme reviews are a huge thing on YouTube and they get so many views that I thought I’d make a meme review about space. There are so many comments on those videos saying someone learned more in this 10-minute meme review than they did in their entire high school physics class. You almost reel people in with the format they are used to and then just hit them with the science, and that’s what I’ve been trying to do with the more pop culture side of things on my channel. Then once you’re on the channel, maybe you want to learn about whether black holes could be made of dark matter.

I’ve tried to provide a mix of videos for different interest levels and different expertise levels. If someone is really invested in space, they go straight to the crisis in cosmology video. Whereas someone who really likes space but doesn’t really know much about it will probably watch a meme review or my reaction to a Star Trek episode.

You must be very aware of the YouTube algorithm and how it’s going to bias you and what you can do to combat that. It’s described in a scientific journal article about the neural network that the YouTube machine learning algorithm uses, so I’ve read that and thought about how to optimize my videos to help reach the people who wouldn’t normally be reached with this kind of content.

You have written critically acclaimed books about space. What was the inspiration there? What does your writing process look like?

I was contacted by a publisher when my YouTube channel was growing because they were aware that it could be a marketing platform that perhaps hadn’t been used before for a book about space.

The concept was 10 short essays because that’s the kind of format you get with a YouTube channel. It was a fairly easy book to write because it almost felt like researching and prepping for a video. I don’t tend to write a script but instead plan to hit specific points, so it feels more casual. For the book though, it felt like I was writing a script, thinking what I would say in this video, and it was really fun. They gave me so much free reign to simply talk about what’s cool in space and so I wrote the book that I would have wanted to have been gifted when I was about 15 or 16 years old. The book talks about planets, black holes, galaxies, and something about aliens for fun, but also about the people and the history behind why we think these things and here’s how we figured out the facts.

I never thought that I would ever write a book — my English teacher told me I wasn’t a good writer because I write the way that I speak. The publishers, though, thought this was great because it sounded like I was actually talking to them To anybody who didn’t enjoy the humanities in school or were ever told you weren’t a good writer, just pass that off because it will hold back your science writing without you realizing.

Are there trends in science communication which enthuse or concern you?

I love the empowerment that a lot of science communicators are putting out, especially in social media like Instagram and TikTok, where you’re empowering women or minorities in STEM and just pushing back boundaries and getting rid of every stereotype you’ve ever thought of for a scientist. I absolutely love that side of science communication and I think there’s a lot of people doing some wonderful stuff like Emily Calandrelli who filmed a Netflix science show for kids while she was nine months pregnant.

What concerns me is the public who are engaging with content online and would possibly think it is science communication. These would mean alternative hypotheses, like the flat earth hypothesis, the thunderbolts project, or the electric universe — ones that come up in physics, especially where they look very similar to a lecture you would expect from someone who’s working in the field but they are so full of false narratives or just incorrect information. The public doesn’t necessarily know because they don’t have the expertise to know which is right and which is not, and so I find it very concerning that people might be engaging with content that they’re not aware is not from a reputable source.

What also concerns me is people getting into science communication for click bait reasons. There was a TikTok video that went viral saying that on a certain day, a broom will stand on its end because the Earth is in some position around the sun — and it was this huge thing. Everyone thought that was amazing and the science is so cool, and in reality, it would balance any day of the year. It has nothing to do with the position of the Earth or anything like that. This concerns me, but I think it comes from misunderstanding not from necessarily science communication trying to do that. It’s from someone who learned a tiny bit of science and then put it with something else, and we as science communicators have to jump in and correct this when it happens.

If you look at verification on social media for scientists or research or anything academic, they are not included in the list of the notable fields you can click on. I think it’s so important when people engage with science communication online to know this person actually does have a Ph.D. from Harvard in this topic they’re talking about as opposed to some source that perhaps isn’t as reliable.

I think social media companies could do a little bit more. I know YouTube has the little banners below videos involving the flat earth theory saying this is a falsified theory and then linking for more information, but I think people on Twitter and TikTok, for example, need some sort of verification telling you this person is a scientist and you can trust what they say.

What is your favorite (good or bad) movie about space/space exploration?

The Martian is probably my favorite movie about space exploration because it is a wonderful representation of what would happen at NASA in that situation. I remember absolutely loving Deep Impact and Armageddon as a child. I know now that the science in those movies is not good, but I don’t care because they are still so enjoyable for me. The one movie people are really surprised I didn’t enjoy was Interstellar. Yes, the modeling of the black hole looks amazing, but the rest of the science was bad. I also didn’t enjoy Gravity because they destroyed the Hubble Space Telescope in the first five minutes and, as an astronomer, I think that was too traumatic and I never recovered from the beginning of that movie.

When watching these types of movies, do you catch yourself debunking inaccurate science?

I normally just turn off these types of movies because I know I would be the biggest annoyance to my friends and family. Then I realized that would be something people would enjoy hearing about if they weren’t necessarily watching TV with me. That’s why I started doing those reaction videos like watching Contact with Jodie Foster, which worked out well. I thought there were obviously some inaccuracies that were done for the visuals of the film and the enjoyment. For example, she literally listens to incoming signals with a radio telescope. The telescope is collecting light you can turn into sound, but there would be so much noise that your human brain would not be able to pick stuff out to hear in the signal.

Sci-fi films at some point have to stray away from science and go into fiction for the plot. It’s at that point you have to just sit back and enjoy it. I really love sci-fi and it’s one of my favorite genres of films, so I’ve obviously not ruined it too much by doing an astrophysics Ph.D.

What’s the funniest or best “bad science” from a space movie?

One that comes to mind is Star Wars, when they go through the asteroid field and they have to dodge and weave all these asteroids. Everyone then pictures, when I talk about the asteroid belt in the solar system between Mars and Jupiter, loads of these little rocks so close together but they are actually massively spread out. They would be nowhere near each other and if you were to travel through the asteroid belt, you probably wouldn’t even notice you went through it. Another one that comes to mind is Interstellar. When they leave the Earth, they leave on a Saturn 5 rocket to get out of the Earth’s gravity and reach escape velocity, but when they go down to another planet near this black hole, they just go down in the spaceship and then they just simply leave the planet. You need another rocket to get off the planet!

There’s always been a lot of talk about the possibility of extraterrestrial life on planets or moons with promising conditions. How likely do you think this is and why?

I think life elsewhere in the universe is incredibly likely, even in our own solar system. I think we could find some common microbial life and the hypothesis that intrigues me the most is called Panspermia. It says comets and asteroids that impacted with Earth brought all of the ingredients you would need for life; so, amino acids, proteins and other things you need for DNA, but also water as well. If they impacted earth, they probably impacted lots of other places in the solar system and brought all those ingredients, and if the conditions were just right, you might get some life that could have developed.

That makes you feel like the solar system is not special and you could have life around planets around other stars. In my book, I went through the statistics where if you say one planet around however many stars is inhabitable, there are probably still 10,000 habitable planets in the universe out there somewhere. I firmly believe that we are not the only life in the universe, however, the distances are so huge that I sincerely doubt we will ever communicate with said life. We will be able to find a planet around another star in our own galaxy that is maybe 10s or hundreds of light years away that has maybe the exact same atmosphere as earth. We can figure out that it has oxygen, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, water, and methane, which might suggest life there, but proving that when it’s hundreds of light years away is something completely beyond what we would be capable of now. In our lifetimes, I think we might find microbial life somewhere in the solar system if it exists and I think we might find a planet that looks incredibly promising and habitable, but I don’t think it will ever be handshaking another life form in the universe, or at least for a very long time, if ever.

What form do you think these life forms will take?

I think it would be very presumptuous of us to assume that, even if they were microbial, that they would be carbon-based life. Carbon and water make up humans in the majority. You could have a life form that relied on methane to sustain itself. You could also have a life form that would be silicon-based, so the building block isn’t carbon, it’s silicon, which is a very similar element in the bonds it can create.

As we’ve seen on earth, a life form adapts to its environment. What does it mean to survive in that specific environment where there’s various predators and prey? I don’t know that you could even predict what it might look like because we probably can’t predict the environments that these things have evolved in. I think whatever it might be, it would be very different to anything we’ve ever seen here on Earth, and it really will be alien to us.

How do astronomers search for life from Earth? What instruments/tools do they use?

In the solar system, it’s usually sending probes and missions to various planets. For example, on Mars there is quite a lot currently looking at soil samples and looking for different molecules and whether there’s life there. Around Saturn, the Cassini probe, that was there for a decade or so, flew through some water vapor plumes that came off one of its main accelerators. You can work out what elements and molecules are present within that and if that aligns with life being there.

For more distance planets orbiting other stars, you have to rely on taking the light of the star that passed through the planet’s atmosphere on its way to you. You can look at how this starlight is different from the rest of the starlight, and this tells you what’s in the atmosphere and what has been absorbed on its way to Earth. Water absorbs a certain color and carbon dioxide absorbs a certain color, for example. That’s how we figure out what’s in a planet’s atmosphere.

We can [then] work out how big it is and how far away it is from the star. Then from the temperature of the star, we can work out the temperature on the planet. We might be able to say the temperature on this planet probably ranges from somewhere around minus 50 to 100 degrees Celsius and there’s water in the atmosphere and there’s carbon dioxide and oxygen, so that would probably be habitable. Those are the kind of statements we can make currently about planets around other stars in the Milky Way.

How long will it take until humans are able to travel beyond the borders of our own solar system?

I like to remind people that the Voyager probes were launched in 1979 and in 2020 they left the solar system. Those are probes, so robots with no humans on board and they were very small crafts that didn’t need any life support and could therefore travel a bit faster. Yes, it was 70s technology, but still the missions that are being launched to Jupiter are probably going to take 10 years get there, even with current technology.

The bounds of the solar system are half a human lifetime away, but even at the edge of the solar system, you have another four light years to go before you get to another star. I worked out the math once that at the Voyager’s current speed, it would take 75,000 years before the Sun was not its closest star. With current propulsion systems, I don’t think we’ll ever be an interstellar traveling species. There are some really interesting ideas of how to travel at speeds that could perhaps make those journeys at 10% the speed of light that would take you 40 years to get to the nearest star. Some of those ideas include radiation pressure from the Sun or solar sails that light would pass through and give you energy and momentum. I don’t think we will see the fruits of that research in our lifetimes, but I would be very excited to be proven wrong.

If you had the chance to go to space, would you do it?

I would 100% go as a space tourist because I think flying in an airplane in the window seat is possibly one of the best things you can do. Staring out the window at the Earth is amazing. A four-minute flight looping around the world knowing that you would be back on Earth in a couple of minutes and that it would be safe would be incredible. Even a trip to the International Space Station, like Helen Sharman experienced for eight days, would be incredible.

I would never be the person that signs up for a mission to Mars or going to the Moon or anything like that. People are always surprised because I study space and it’s my passion. I love working out details about black holes, but I would never want to go anywhere near a black hole. Also, space doesn’t give me an advantage over doing what I love on the ground. I could probably do my work in both places, but it’s a lot harder to do it in outer space. I’m very much content with observing what I see and then figuring out from there.

There has been excitement around putting humans on Mars, but I personally think probes and robots can do a better job than humans could for less cost and for less danger and less risk.

Do you have any advice for aspiring astronomers?

I always say to stay curious. You have to go into science with a completely open mind and you have to be prepared to be proven wrong because that’s how science advances. We don’t advance by sticking to our guns in the face of overwhelming evidence. I got into science because there was always a right answer, but when you get into research, no one knows the right answer and you have to be prepared to spend ten years figuring something out.

For those starting school who are considering a career in science, the best piece of advice I can give would be to learn how to code. So much of statistics in science, like data analysis, image processing, and image analysis, is done with code and the models we run and the simulations we create are all done in code. The computer language, Python, is the most common computer language in the sciences and a good place to start learning. If you’ve worked with one language you can jump to another. It’s a skill that would give you a head start and most careers would massively value you being able to do some sort of code. It’s probably the most valuable thing you can do as a student who wants to become either an astrophysicist or scientist in general.

What is …

Your favorite travel destination?


Your favorite dish?


A book you can highly recommend?

Red Rising by Pierce Brown

A song you like a lot?

All Too Well by Taylor Swift

A show to binge watch?

Sex Education

Which actress would play you in a biopic?

Kirsten Dunst

A famous person you would like to have dinner with?

Lin Manuel-Miranda

Follow Becky on Twitter @drbecky_ and Youtube

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