Reach for the stars - and make 'em laugh

Professor Kathy Romer

Astrophysicist, stand-up comedian, playwright’s muse, Dr Kathy Romer also recently  headed up the University of Sussex’s Physics and Astronomy Department’s Athena SWAN initiative to advance the careers of female scientists.

I love the notion of taking science to the community. A lot of science outreach is one-way. We, the scientists do the talking – often to a captive audience. That’s why I tried Soapbox Science, where I had to stand on a box in Newcastle UponTyne city centre on a Saturday morning, delivering soundbites about physics.

I used a six-foot stack of different-sized boxes to represent the 14 billion years of the history of the universe to shoppers. It was a bit chaotic, but fun. I knew that if I did not keep the Soap Box audience interested, they would just walk off and I would be talking to myself.

Astronomy, as the oldest profession, is obviously the most glamorous. I am lucky to be working as a professional in this field. Physics was always my favourite subject at school, and then astronomy became my favourite part of physics.

The hallelujah moment for me is when images of the night sky match up to what you have learned in your physics text books. But there is so much in astrophysics that we have seen and measured and yet don’t understand.

New instrumentation means that we can see what the universe was like 10 billion years ago. My specialism is to look for dense pockets of galaxies and to see how they have changed over time. This will help us to figure out more about the Big Bang and the future of the Universe.

We want to know if Einstein was right, wrong, or a bit of both. He devised a mathematical concept, which was that as the universe stretches, the gravitational pull holding it together will weaken.

Dark Energy seems to be behind the expansion of the universe – although we still don’t yet know what it is. We need more bright brains to help us solve these mysteries.

If the universe carries on stretching at its current rate, our bodies will eventually be pulled apart atom by atom. We don’t need to worry too much though, because the Sun will most likely swallow the Earth before we disintegrate.

My mum likes to remind me that I am all brains and no common sense.  I am probably useless in the real world, but I do quite like being out there. I’ve done stand-up for about nine years in Brighton at the fringe festival and for charity events. It’s mostly self-mocking material – not all about science.

I’m thrilled that one of my projects about hot dwarf stars is mentioned in a West End and Broadway hit.  Playwright Nick Payne came to talk to me about my life as an astrophysicist with the actor Sally Hawkins. They saw a poster about my work on the wall and found it hilariously nerdy. They folded that into the play, “Constellations”, which ended up being a West End hit and then transferred to Broadway.

By: Jacqui Bealing
Last updated: Wednesday, 2 March 2016