Interview: Professor John Brown - Astronomer Royal for Scotland

THE tiny wooden village hall in Lower Breakish, on the Isle of Skye, started to fill up and the babble of excited voices grew louder in expectation of the evening's entertainment.

• Professor John Brown – who is also a member of the Scottish Conjurers' Association – tours schools with his Planetarium Show, inset, to build interest in astronomy. Picture: Robert Perry

Waiting in the wings was a nervous Professor John Brown, the 10th Astronomer Royal for Scotland, due to give a public talk entitled "Black Holes and White Rabbits", which he would illustrate with an array of magic tricks. Being a member of the Scottish Conjurers' Association, he would be well able to pull them off.

"Posters had been put up around the village but I was wondering how many people would turn up. It's a tiny wee hall usually used for things like the Hogmanay ceilidh and as it only holds 50-60 at most, I wasn't too hopeful," Prof Brown said. "But it ended up being standing room only with questions from the audience being fired right, left and centre.

"I love the challenging questions which come out during these tours of little places in Scotland. It is not uncommon to get questions which just about throw me. One wee boy in Inverness sounded very shy, but he said, 'I'm not a famous astrophysicist like you, yet, but you said the stars lost lots of their energy out in space, but I read a book that said energy is conserved and never lost'. I almost didn't know what to say. It's not ego-tripping, but you think, 'all this, just to hear about science'. It really gives you a buzz."

Fast forward a few months and Prof Brown, 63, who holds the Regius chair of astronomy at the University of Glasgow, is helping to organise a very different scientific event – next week's Royal Astronomical Society's National Astronomy Meeting (Rasnam 2010). This is the UK's largest professional astronomy conference which will see a galaxy of 500 astronomers and space scientists descend on the university for a week of debate and the unveiling of research. The conference coincides with the 250th anniversary of the founding of the university's Regius chair of astronomy, first held by the astronomer and meteorologist Alexander Wilson in 1760.

Once again, Prof Brown – who has been head of the university's astronomy department for 25 years – is at the forefront. The celebrations he's responsible for include the Buchan Prize poetry competition, a poster display of Scotland's astronomy and astronomers in the Hunterian museum and putting on a public magic show called The Magic of the Sun and Stars, where he will attempt to "behead" a brave assistant with a power-saw to further his cause.

When appointed by the Queen to the honorary post of Astronomer Royal for Scotland in 1995, Prof Brown received an official letter informing him "there are no official duties or remuneration but it is expected you will be willing from time to time to promote your subject across Scotland". In other words, like all previous incumbents, he was being given carte blanche to do with it as he wished.

"I found the whole idea very liberating. I love to travel and meet people – ultimately it's the punters who matter to me. I'm also a bit of a street fighter and hate to see injustice. This was a chance to do some good."

He has been very active on that front. This has ranged from fighting a host of high-profile campaigns, including those to save the A-listed Royal Observatory on Calton Hill in Edinburgh and the Scottish Science Library, to a crusade to reclaim the night sky from city light pollution obliterating the stars.

He's made special efforts to ensure children in Scotland's poorest communities get a chance to experience the wonders of the universe, via the mobile Planetarium Show run by Edinburgh, Glasgow and St Andrews universities. The shows cost around 200 a time to put on.

"There have been so many requests for the Planetarium shows that I felt there was a need to be socialistic, charging the few private schools I've gone to hefty fees, so that, in a way, it would balance the costs for poorer schools in places like the east end of Glasgow. There was one school which didn't have the money and girls were so desperate they organised a fund-raising 'space day' and raised 200. That feels fantastic; it gives you great hope. It's all too easy to be down about the problems the country has, and the state of youth, but there are lots of wonderful kids out there."

Unexpectedly, Prof Brown has also found himself in a "peace-keeping" role, travelling to a remote community to bang together the heads of members of an astronomy society who, until his intervention, certainly weren't "starry-eyed" about each other. "I flew all the way up to the Shetland Astronomical Society, which was being torn apart by the committee. I asked them, 'What's more important, the club or your ego?' If that's what it take then that's what I'll do. In fact, the greatest pleasure is to startle people. You can only do that by stepping out of the mould. In some ways there is a need to be quite ruthlessly logical about it."

Startling people and pulling the rug out from under their feet can take many forms, all of which blow away the image of astronomer as geek, and allowing a cross-pollination across some unlikely genres. A chance remark by a passionate woman that "men are from Mars, women are from Venus", as prescribed by John Gray's self-help relationship book, once brought a gentle rebuke and an astronomy lesson.

"I told her that in terms of Venus and Mars, it is interesting that the real planets are just about the opposites of the poetic, literary, and musical perceptions. They are blinding hot and aggressively lethal versus cool and tranquil. I also get irascible and there is a point when I get agitated about people thinking inside the box like that, as if it's the way men have to be."

Despite the criticism, he soon hijacked the catchy lexicon, adapting the book's title to describe a picture of Saturn and the rings round it for a talk he called "Cyclists are from Saturn".

When asked politely for more information about his ongoing university research – which includes finding the formula for comets hitting the Sun – one is directed to a YouTube clip of The Moment of Conception, by David Byrne, who hails from Prof Brown's hometown of Dumbarton.

And as the clock counts down to the Rasnam 2010 conference, it's a good time to blow our own trumpet about Scotland's achievements in astronomy. Prof Brown says, "I don't know what it is, perhaps it's the cloudy climate, the weather, which makes Scots more contemplative. We are certainly punching well above our weight and have done so in the past. Thomas Henderson, the first Astronomer Royal for Scotland, was the first person on the planet to measure how far away the stars were. It was a very, very different world then.

"I read a report recently which was put out by some scientific, well-accepted body which had looked at the statistics and citations on scientific research. It said that Scotland came top in the number of times astronomy and space science papers were cited in research. Israel came second, which is interesting. We're both quite small countries, with similar strong-willed temperaments.

"But in the here and now, there is definitely not enough investment in astronomy. Budgets are being slashed and we at the university are likely to lose a third of our research staff. Despite being a world leader in areas such as solar physics and gravitational wave research, we are about to cease being a competitor in the world scene. The bankers have shafted the planet."

Despite the dire warnings, Prof Brown says that the employment record for Scotland's astronomy graduates is very good, including the increasing number of female astronomy students, which is on the rise. "Astronomers take physics and maths and apply it to the real world. Many get science-related jobs while a few have gone into fields where the maths is extremely useful – including banking."

"The sky is bloody magic," he concludes. So is Professor John Brown.

&#149 For more information on Prof Brown and his work, and the post of Astronomer Royal for Scotland, visit