Heather Couper and Nigel Henbest will present three events at the Hebridean Dark Skies Festival – Cosmic Quest, an introduction to the history of astronomy, Stars Over the Stones at Calanais Visitor Centre, and Virgin Spaceman, in which Nigel will talk about training to be an astronaut with Virgin Galactic.
Prof Heather Couper is a broadcaster, astronomer and science populariser who has hosted two major series on Channel 4 and a 30-part series for Radio 4, as well as writing numerous books. Asteroid 3922 Heather was named in her honour.
Prof Nigel Henbest is also a broadcaster, astronomer and science populariser who has written more than 40 books, and over 1,000 articles on astronomy and space which have been translated into 27 languages. He also has an asteroid – Astroid 3795 Nigel – named after him.
Hi Heather, hi Nigel. We’re looking forward to seeing you at the Hebridean Dark Skies Festival. What can we expect from your Saturday evening event, Cosmic Quest?
An overview of 40,000 years of the history of astronomy – highly illustrated – presented in just one hour! As well as the usual suspects, we’ll be highlighting the mavericks who’ve rocked astronomy.
You’ve known each other since the early 1970s. How did you meet and why did you decide to work together?
We met at Leicester University, and then moved on to Oxbridge to do research. But we both found academia boring! The media beckoned, we wanted to communicate astronomy to the public, and we’ve never looked back.
Between you, you’ve written dozens of books, delivered talks all over the world, and made countless TV appearances. Is there one experience or achievement that stands out as a highlight of each of your careers?
Heather: It was being the astronomer on Concorde in 1986 to show Halley’s Comet to the passengers on a flight to New Zealand.
Nigel: Travelling to the South Pole in 2016 – with Buzz Aldrin!
Heather, when you wrote to Patrick Moore as a teenager to ask if he thought you could have a career in astronomy, his advice was that ‘being a girl is no problem at all’. You later became the first female President of the British Astronomical Association and the first female Professor of Astronomy at Gresham College. Do you feel like a pioneer?
Heather: No. I’m not a feminist, and I believe everyone who is dedicated to their subject should have an equal chance to fly to the top.
Nigel, can you tell us a bit about training to be an astronaut with Virgin Galactic? What have you learned from the experience?
Nigel: I’ve trained in the centrifuge, which simulated the 6g-force we experience on re-entering the atmosphere: it was like having a baby elephant sitting on my chest! At the other extreme, I’ve floated in zero-gravity conditions on board the specially adapted plane nicknamed the Vomit Comet. It’s shown me how the human body can adapt surprisingly readily even to the extreme conditions of space travel.
Finally, you’re going to be staying on Lewis for a few days. What are you most looking forward to?
Callanish. We’ve been intrigued by the “Stonehenge of the North” since we were students. And – based on our previous experiences on Skye and Orkney – the wonderful warm Scottish welcome!