Specialising in the study of nearby galaxies, with a PhD from Harvard, Michael Merrifield is a professor of astronomy at the University of Nottingham. His help in developing the Planetary Nebula Spectrograph is emblematic of a conviction that impersonal, expensive projects are not the only avenues to invaluable space exploration.
Was there a moment in childhood when you realised astronomy would be your lifelong passion?
I wish there were – my life would sound far better planned – but the reality is more of a random walk. I studied astronomy as a final year undergraduate option because I thought it would be easier than more advanced physics, and found I really liked it. I went on to study in the US as much because I wanted to see the world as to pursue a career in astronomy, but again found that I enjoyed learning about the universe.
“Astronomy has a slightly easier time than some subjects – I can always slip some beautiful pictures in-between the equations”
What is the secret to teaching astronomy effectively?
The main things I have learned are the importance of keeping your audience engaged (astronomy has a slightly easier time than some subjects – I can always slip some beautiful pictures in-between the equations) and putting yourself in the place of the person hearing what you are talking about for the first time, so that you don’t slip into jargon or assumptions.
Tell us a little about the Planetary Nebula Spectrograph and your role in its development.
This is probably the most fulfilling project I have been associated with. We were playing around with ideas as to how to use planetary nebulae [the glowing shell of hot gas cast off near the end of a star’s life] to study the motions of stars in galaxies, and had the idea of building a relatively cheap, specialised instrument to do just this one job. I had the pleasure of being involved from early designs on the back of a beer mat through blueprints and fundraising to building, then commissioning the instrument. We have taken a load of data with it now, learning things about the internal workings of galaxies that would be inaccessible to any other instrument, even those costing 50 times as much. With so much big expensive science in astronomy now, it is sadly rare to be able to see a project like this all the way through, from the germ of an idea to final scientific publications.
If you could transport yourself back to any key moment in the development of astronomy, where/when would you choose?
Early in the 17th century, when Galileo first started pointing a telescope upwards rather than using it to spy on his neighbours. We have learned in astronomy that technology and science go hand in hand, and since Galileo had the cutting-edge technology of his day he was able to learn things about the universe that had never been accessible before: discovering that the moon has mountains and craters, that not everything goes around the Earth, that the Milky Way is made of myriad stars. It would have been great to be part of those groundbreaking observations.
Space missions are frequently first in the firing line when it comes to reductive ‘That money would be better spent on ’ arguments. What do we gain from increasing our understanding of the universe?
There are plenty of practical answers – the wifi over which I am typing relies on technology developed by radio astronomers, for example – and the less quantifiable benefit of inspiring the next generation about science. But fundamentally what we gain is cultural – just as we should commission great art to enrich people’s lives, so we should invest in our comprehension of the universe to better understand this glorious and amazing place in which we find ourselves.
Follow Michael on Twitter: @AstroMikeMerri
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