BBC Sky at Night presenter Maggie Aderin-Pocock on space, science and Guildford life
- Credit: Michael Lachmann
BBC Sky at Night presenter Maggie Aderin-Pocock reveals how, as a space-obsessed schoolgirl, she battled the odds to become a top scientist – and why she has made Guildford her home
With its brightly-lit streets, Guildford might not be the obvious place from which to view the mysteries of the heavens, but that doesn’t deter Maggie Aderin-Pocock. On a warm evening, she lies on her lawn in the shadow of her Guildford home (because from that point she can’t see many street lamps) and contemplates the universe. “If there’s a meteor shower, I lie back with a glass of wine and it’s pretty blissful,” she says, breaking into the first of many laughs.
Not that Maggie, 47, has much time for contemplation. Since taking over from the late Sir Patrick Moore as co-presenter of the BBC flagship astronomy programme, The Sky at Night, in 2014, she has been filming up and down the country, quizzing top space scientists about their latest theories. She’s been relishing every minute, though she was well aware that she had large shoes to fill.
“I never met Sir Patrick, but I think we would have had lots in common,” she says fondly. “I watched The Sky at Night as a child and one of the reasons I went into astronomy was because Patrick gave a guide to the night’s sky. It was usually on quite late, but I was allowed to stay up to see it.
“When Patrick died in 2013, there was a rumour that the BBC was thinking of scrapping the programme because he was so inextricably linked to it, but 40,000 viewers wrote in saying, ‘We want you to keep our Sky at Night!’ A year later, I got a call asking whether I’d be interested in taking over – and I immediately said, ‘Oh, yes... yes!’”
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Her infectious enthusiasm for science has made her a big hit with viewers, though she admits her first appearances on the show were daunting. “I did feel like a rabbit in the headlights for the first few programmes, but the team were really engaging and encouraging. And my co-presenter, Chris Lintott, who worked with Patrick on the series for many years, provided valuable continuity.”
Away from the TV cameras, Maggie shares her Surrey home with her engineer husband, Martin, and their five-year-old daughter Lauren. “We’ve been living in Guildford for about 15 years,” she says. “It’s a nice town with good shops and very good schools, which are a priority because our daughter is in Year One of infant school.
“We live in Onslow Village, near the cathedral, and we are very lucky because we’re within ten minutes’ walking distance of the most beautiful countryside. Guildford is also ideally situated for London, where I’m often working a lot, and close to the M25 and A3, so I can reach virtually anywhere in the country pretty quickly.”
Written in the stars
Born in 1968 to Nigerian parents and raised in Camden, north London, Maggie has often said she looked to the moon because life on earth was so hard. Her parents divorced when she was four and the ensuing custody battles meant she attended 13 different schools between the ages of four and 18. She also suffered from dyslexia and was placed in remedial classes where, she says, she was “expected to do little more than play with safety scissors and glue”.
When she expressed an interest in becoming a scientist, teachers pointed to her warm nature and encouraged her to become a nurse instead. “Fortunately, I had a father who nurtured my hopes and fed my appetite for information, which, in the days before the internet, meant many long trips to the library,” she continues. “With his support, it seemed entirely reasonable to me that, with hard work, a black girl with learning difficulties would soon be travelling from inner London to outer space.”
Maggie went on to excel at school, studied physics at London’s Imperial College and gained a doctorate in mechanical engineering, where she met her future husband. She has since had a varied career: she worked for the Ministry of Defence on projects ranging from missile warning systems to landmine detectors, before returning to her first love – building instruments to explore the wonders of space. In 2009, she was appointed an MBE for her services to science and education.
Her most recent big project has been working on the James Webb space telescope, the planned successor to the Hubble telescope, a joint European Space Agency/Nasa venture that is scheduled to launch in 2018. “I was working on one of the instruments called the Near-Infrared Spectograph (NIRSpec), which takes light and stretches it out into different colours,” she says, her voice abuzz with her trademark fervour. “The Hubble was only a visible light telescope, but the James Webb works from infra-red energy, so it can pierce through clouds of dust where light doesn’t penetrate. It should help to fill some of the gaps in our understanding.”
Since becoming a mother, Maggie divides her time presenting BBC television programmes and running her own company, Science Innovation, through which she offers scientific consultancy and educates children about space. “Show kids some rockets powered by vinegar and balloon-propulsion buggies, as I do on school visits, and you’ll soon have a queue of potential young scientists and engineers eagerly asking how, what and why?” she says. “We don’t encourage kids to aim high in case they fall over. I say to them, go for it. I talk about the power of dreams.”
Head in the clouds
Maggie has lost none of her own child-like wonder and enthuses about the upcoming Sky at Night programmes. “For our Christmas special, I’ll be co-presenting an hour-long show exploring what the star of Bethlehem might have been,” she says. “And then in 2016, we’ll be covering the Juno Mission, in which the Juno spacecraft will be orbiting Jupiter – the largest planet in our solar system – seeking to explore the secrets of its origin, as well as the origin of the entire solar system.”
In March, she’ll also be making an appearance on BBC Two’s Stargazing Live series and has just finished filming the third series of CBeebies Stargazing. She is even busy putting a cartoon together – Cosmology for Tots – that will be aimed at four to seven-year-olds.
It seems that for the girl with the sun, moon and stars at her fingertips, the sky is most definitely not the limit.
My favourite Surrey...
Restaurant: I have a dairy allergy, which limits where I can eat out, but I find most Asian food is dairy-free. My favourite restaurant is Sir & Madam in Jeffries Passage in Guildford, which serves Thai food. It’s delightful, and having been to Thailand myself, I can vouch for its authenticity.
Shop: Squires Kitchen Shop in Farnham, which sells cake decorating products. One of the upshots of my dairy allergy is that I’ve become a domestic goddess and do a lot of home baking because I can’t buy things off the shelf. I came across Squires while searching online for an unusual decorating product for my daughter’s fifth birthday cake. When I realised they were local, I raced to their shop and came out with far more than I’d intended! Shopping there is such fun.
View: We often walk through Guildford town centre, up Mount Road, past Mount Cemetery where Lewis Carroll is buried, and reach a saddle between two valleys. On one side of the ridge, you can see the whole of Guildford and, on the other, miles of beautiful Surrey countryside, which always makes my heart sing.
Place to relax: The Watts Chapel at Compton. I find it particularly therapeutic in winter when I sit inside, out of the wind, taking in the amazing wall decorations. There’s also a bench at the far end of the cemetery, overlooking a stud farm, where my daughter and I often watch galloping horses and occasionally deer. It’s incredibly peaceful.
Place to visit: I also love the neighbouring Watts Gallery, which has a little tea shop that serves delicious cakes. Last summer, I took my daughter to a fairy fair there, staged to coincide with an exhibition of the work of Victorian fairy painter, Richard Dadd. She loved making a fairy wand and little fairy house, and was very excited to meet King Oberon and Queen Titania, who were appearing in a play, because I’d been reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream to her.