Meet the first woman appointed as astronomer royal for Scotland

24 Nov 2021

Catherine Heymans. Image: BBVA Foundation

As the first woman in the role, Catherine Heymans wants to bring astronomy and science to the masses.

Earlier this year, astrophysicist Catherine Heymans became the first woman to be appointed astronomer royal for Scotland since the position was created almost 200 years ago.

She is the 11th person to hold the role after it became vacant in 2019 following the death of John Campbell Brown, who held the position since 1995.

However, while the title lasts a lifetime, Heymans doesn’t plan on holding onto it for all that time.

“I think this title gives me immense opportunity to go out there and tell people about astronomy and what we do, but at some point, I’ll run out of energy.”

She said while there can sometimes be an elitist idea of holding onto prestigious titles, she’s more focused on using it to do the work she wants to do and then letting the title go to the next person.

“There are so many big questions I want to answer [and] I’ve got a big project that I want to do to get telescopes installed in all our outdoor centres. Once I’ve got that done, then I will pass this very sparkly tiara onto someone else.”

Originally, the position was linked to the royal observatories in the UK. Up until 1995, the astronomer royal for Scotland was the title of the director of the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh. Since then, it has become an honorary title which, in Heymans words, means she gets to decide what exactly the role is.

“It’s a really great opportunity to be able to share with everyone just how much astronomy we’re doing in Scotland, both professional astronomy and amateur astronomy,” she said.

“My local amateur astronomy group, their membership has grown by 30pc during lockdown.”

Science is for everyone

Not only is Heymans the first woman in the role for Scotland, she is also the first woman to be appointed as astronomer royal in the whole of the UK.

Coming from an all girls’ school as a child, she had no idea about the stereotype that ‘science wasn’t for girls’ because she was taught by women and surrounded by other young girls.

However, when she got to university, she didn’t have a single woman lecturer and there were only six women in a class of 60. “It wasn’t until I started my PhD that I actually met a female physicist, which is crazy.”

Now, Heymans is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Edinburgh and said she has seen the gender balance improve, with between 25pc and 33pc women coming into science courses.

“I don’t see us ever getting to 50pc at the current rate that we’re going. There’s something that we’re doing wrong and there’s no single answer. If there was a single answer, we would have fixed it by now. But I think part of the problem is it’s really culturally ingrained in us that science is for boffins and science is really difficult and that maybe it’s not a job for girls,” she said.

For this reason, Heymans wants to use her astronomer royal title to show that “science is for everyone, no matter who you are and that it’s also for girls”.

She said even now, she sees the cultural assumptions people make about what a senior STEM professional might look like.

Having been invited to be in the audience for the Richard Osman’s House of Games quiz show, contestants were asked to find someone in the audience who could answer an astronomy question.

“They were told the astronomer royal for Scotland was in the audience. So they went around trying [to find] an old man with a white beard, young man, then an old woman with white hair, progress!

“Eventually it did narrow down to me but it just showed that your standard idea of ‘what is an astronomer?’ is an old man with a white beard.”

Heymans said another common misconception about astronomy is that it’s a solitary job, with images of people on their own with a single telescope coming to mind.

“I think people think that science is often working away on your own and it’s absolutely not at all, it’s all big teams now. There’s such big questions that you can’t answer them on your own.”

The beauty of astronomy

It was clear from speaking to Heymans that she’s incredibly passionate about every aspect of her career, from bringing science to the wider public to encouraging young woman into STEM.

But nothing made her light up more than when she was talking about astronomy. “I think astronomy is one of the easiest ways get people into science because it’s so immediate, you just go out at night and it’s up there,” she said. “[Things like] black holes, can really capture your imagination, this idea of this infinite mass consuming everything that comes close to it.

“What I love about it is you can take these crazy, awesome things that are happening out in the universe and then use fundamental physics and maths to explain it.”

In terms of what most excites her in particular, she said she loves watching the seeds from big questions she and others have been trying to answer for years, such as what dark matter is, start to blossom 20 years later with advances in technology and major international projects.

“I love that whole chain of going from a big question to an idea of how to solve it, building the technology, the engineering to put the equipment together that you need to conduct that experiment, and then the massive data analysis that follows,” she said.

“One of the fun things I do is I question Einstein’s theory of gravity itself. So one way you can explain what’s going on out in the universe is that maybe Einstein’s theory of gravity is wrong.

“I haven’t proved him wrong yet,” she said. “But that’s just a fun thing to do, to skip up the hill to the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh just thinking: ‘Will we prove Einstein wrong today? Probably not.’”

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Jenny Darmody is the editor of Silicon Republic