Reaching for the stars with Maggie Aderin-Pocock

Charley Rogers speaks to the famed space scientist at WIRED Next Generation about how to inspire future scientists, and why their galaxy needs them

Dreaming of the stars as a child, Maggie Aderin-Pocock never thought she’d be able to live out her dream. But overcoming dyslexia and early confidence problems, she is now doing just that, and inspiring the next generation of scientists while she’s at it… 

Maggie, how can we teach kids in school today that space travel is possible, and that the future is up to them, as well as assuring them not to be put off by how hard it is? 

The theme of my talk here at WIRED was Reaching for the Stars, and I think it’s literal and metaphorical; because we do have the technology to reach for the stars, and for educators there’s so much out there. NASA and the European Space Agency have really cool animations showing people on Mars, and moon bases [for example]. So you can bring that into the classroom. In some ways, it’s OK talking about it, but we live in a very visual age, so if the kids can see it as well, I think it brings [the subject matter] to life. 

What we need is the next generation of kids coming up with new ideas. We’ve got ion propulsion, we’ve got the new Star Shot which was proposed by Stephen Hawking and a team of scientists and engineers – so there are ideas out there – but I think what we need to do is inspire the kids, so they can start working on these problems for us, because we get a bit stumped as the older generation!

Do you think we can propose a way that children from more disadvantaged backgrounds can get inspiration?

One of the things I do is go out and speak to school kids. I think in the last 10 years I’ve seen around 250,000 school kids, but now I’ve got a child of my own I don’t get out so much. But, the thing is, there are lots of scientists and universities doing fantastic research, and what we’re doing now is training them to go out to schools, to work with the media, and get their stories out there. Because when I meet these scientists, they’re doing fantastic stuff, mind-boggling stuff, the stuff of science fiction, but it’s happening now. So, I think schools across the country can apply to their local university and get interesting people coming out and telling kids about science. You don’t need to make a trip somewhere, you can get a scientist in your classroom, which can bring it home.

What do you think are the most important skills for the scientists of tomorrow to have?

Some people think that to be a scientist you need to have a brain the size of a small planet. That’s so not true, and I haven’t got one of those! I suffer from dyslexia, so there are various limitations. But I think to be a scientist, the fundamental thing is to be inquisitive. It’s about asking questions, and you can see it in kids all over the world; young kids ask questions all the time. And most of the time as adults we’re shutting them up, but that’s what we should nurture, that inquisitive mind, because that’s what leads to being a good scientist. And also, be an opportunist. Because as scientists we sit in the lab, and we do experiments, and sometimes things don’t work, so we’ve got to think about it in a different way. So, think outside the box, think in a different way, and question. We say that the universe is like this, but is it? We might have gotten it wrong, and they might be the ones that get it right. That’s what I want to encourage; kids out there, being inquisitive, asking questions, and reaching for the stars. 

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