As a scientist, it is not the “not knowing” that bothers me

Jillian Scudder

Dr Jillian Scudder, a research fellow in Physics and Astronomy, is working on an analysis of past galaxies.  In her spare time she runs Astroquizzical  that serves as a space for anyone to submit questions about the Universe.

My dad indulged my “why” questions when I was growing up. He would wake the whole family in the middle of the night to see lunar eclipses and meteor showers, and I ended up never outgrowing asking questions.

 I grew up in Florida during the era of the Space Shuttle, so NASA’s crewed space explorations were a physical presence; if we ran outside 30 seconds after launch, we could watch the shuttle go up.

Society would be in a better place if we were less fearful of looking ignorant in the face of knowledge. Whenever people hear I am an astrophysicist, they love to ask me about space and the Universe. I get the distinct impression there is a thirst for knowledge about science.

I encourage people to send their questions to my website Astroquizzical, which I started in 2013 as an experiment to see if there was a demand for accessible answers out there. I get a steady stream of questions now. I also write for Forbes and willingly go on the radio and write for the media. I also do as much outreach in schools and the community as I can.

As a scientist, it is not the “not knowing” that bothers me. It is the “not wanting to fix that lack of knowledge” that bothers me. I don’t know the answers to many things – but if I meet someone who might know the answer, I will certainly ask.

“Do aliens exist?” That’s a regular question, to which I would say “probably” as there are hundreds of billions of galaxies. Whatever forms of life exist out there will be as uniquely suited to their home planet and home star as we are to our own, and will assuredly look nothing like Hollywood’s “little green men”.

My day job involves studying how galaxies interact with each other. I’m working with a team at Sussex that uses the European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Observatory to pull together a large sample of galaxies from the past and make comparisons.

Astrophysics doesn’t just tell us about the universe, it can be useful in other spheres too. We can use the same types of statistical analysis on finance and health care applications. Its use of optics is used in remote sensing and its high performance computing turns up in 3D imaging and in security and power systems.

A population that cares about science is more likely to support science funding. Britain has a large population of top-quality scientists and students of science, but all this is threatened if science ceases to be a national priority.

Sussex offered me the chance to expand my research from looking at the nearest galaxies to our Earth.  I now study galaxies which are very distant from Earth, living in a universe about half as old as it is today. 

As well as writing for Astroquizzical, I am also studying Japanese, and enjoy baking strange breads, doing logic puzzles and colouring books, and Pokémon.

By: Jacqui Bealing
Last updated: Friday, 4 March 2016