Understanding something as simple as the Sun

We at the Science Basement had the great pleasure to interview Prof. Lucie Green, who is a solar physicist based at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory, UCL’s Department of Space and Climate Physics. Besides being a great scientist, Lucie Green is also an inspiring science communicator and is very active in public engagement with science. She gives public talks regularly and is a television and radio host. In 2016, she published her first book 15 Million Degrees: A journey to the centre of the Sun, which discusses the history of solar physics until the current research and the “hot topics” of the field.

 
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You are a great science communicator: for example, you are often on BBC and on several podcasts, you gave a TEDx talk, and you wrote a book!

LG: Oh yes, I think that the book was definitely the highlight! It took a very long time to write it, but it was really rewarding to be able to see the end product when it was ready! What I liked the most was that I was able to tell lots of stories. Normally, when giving a talk during an event, I can only tell shorter stories. The book was a great opportunity to discuss more broadly the history of science and current science. While writing, I had time to think about the style, layout, and cover, which made it feel like a scientific and artistic project at the same time.

Speaking of art, what is your relationship with it?

LG: Initially, I was planning to major in Art and studied it for a year, but then I decided to come back to physics. When I left school, I wanted to become an art therapist. I have always been into physics, but as a teenager I could not imagine myself doing academic bookwork for my career, so I decided to study art. However, during that year, I realised that what I wanted to do was physics, so I changed university and majored in Physics with Astrophysics.

Do you think that that one year in Art school has somehow influenced your career as a scientist?

LG: I think it has been important in ending up doing solar physics. I think that the Sun is the ultimate interesting object from both a physical and an aesthetic point of view. I mean, the Sun is visually stunning, it is like a work of art! At the same time, it is also a great scientific laboratory. I think that this is the reason why I got interested in studying the Sun. I believe that it is very artificial to tell young people that they should be an artist or a scientist. The educational system often forces students into choosing a niche, by narrowing the subjects a student can take and by taking away the opportunity to have a broader spectrum. Space science and astronomy are very natural areas that can bring scientists and artists together, since they are so inspiring and artists are often interested in them. We have actually had many artists coming to our department over the years to work with us. I am very interested in science-art projects where discussion between scientists and artists is held at an equal level, which is an aspect that removes the framework of experts versus non-experts that normally exists in science communication. One project I really liked brought students from the Slade School of Art in to create sculptures at our research lab: the artists took over the lab for one day and installed sculptures around the grounds that are inspired by space research. All these art pieces were completely transient, meaning that either they were removed at the end of the day or they had to naturally biodegrade. Seeing all these sculptures that popped up starts a dialogue among everybody: among scientists, among artists, and between scientists and artists.     

Let’s go back to the process of writing your book: you are a science communicator but you also do science. Did you do both things simultaneously while you were writing the book? How did you manage?

LG: Yes, I did both at the same time, but I learnt a lot from it. When I got the contract to write the book, I initially thought about taking some time off to write, but academic work carries on, so I ended up writing mostly during evenings, weekends, and holidays. It was a very intense period, and at the same time my husband was writing a book, too. We were both absorbed in book writing and doing our normal jobs at the same time. When doing science and science communication there is little free time anyways, since a lot of science communication happens during out-of-office hours, which is when the public can come along. I enjoy doing it very much, and it has become a lifestyle by now, but I still need a little holiday from time to time!

How did the idea of writing the book come up?

LG: I got approached by a publisher who was interested in adding a book about the Sun in their science collection. At that time I was not really thinking about writing a book, but shortly after I got introduced to a literary agent and that is how the idea of the book crystallised. The agent was very helpful throughout the process of making the book a reality. When you are working with a publisher, you have an editor who plays a huge role. My editors helped me understand what the public find interesting, for example. I would recommend that anyone who is planning to write a popular science book should work closely with an editor. It took four years from the book contract to the published product. The structure of the book itself changed very much during the process: initially, the idea was to follow a photon (that is a light particle), from its creation in the centre of the Sun all the way out into the Universe. While writing, however, I thought about all the many stories that I wanted to tell about the history of science and the scientists themselves, so the shape of the book completely changed. Understanding the Sun through the centuries was not just about solar physics, but about physics, engineering, and much more. I always like to think about what sir Arthur Eddington (famous mathematician and astronomer) said in his book in 1926: “The Sun is a simple star, it is reasonable to hope that in the not too distant future we shall be competent to understand so simple a thing as a star”. In reality, understanding something as simple as the Sun has taken, and it is still taking, hundreds of years of telescope observations and modern scientific research.

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Is the fact that the Sun looks like something so simple but is in reality something very complicated what got you into solar physics?

LG: So, after leaving Art school and going to study Physics with Astrophysics, I studied many general courses, mostly about stellar and galactic physics and cosmology. One of our lecturers organised a work-experience trip for the students to the Crimean Astrophysical Observatory, and that is where I had the chance to look for the first time through a solar telescope. Exactly in that moment, I realised that I did not want to study stars that appear as point-like sources in the night sky, but I wanted to study our star, the Sun. In my final year at university I started to look for a PhD position in solar physics. After that, it was actually while doing my PhD that I got involved with science communication.

So, you basically have always been doing both science and science communication!

LG: Not exactly! After graduating as a PhD, I started my first post-doc. It was a different era, and science communication was not so well supported. It was made clear to me that I had to publish scientific papers at a high pace whereas I wanted to work in an environment where I could tell people publicly about the research I was doing. So I decided to leave research for a few years and work in school science education instead. When I came back to research, I decided to try to and help change the culture within research, allowing researchers to do both science and science communication. I started to organise events and initiatives within the Department and the University, in order to change the role of scientists for future generations. Now we have a lot of people involved in science communication in our department. I feel like we have reached a situation where nobody stops anybody from speaking publicly about their work and that these activities are seen as beneficial for all involved.

What would you suggest to a young PhD student that is very excited about communicating science to the public but is also struggling with publishing deadlines and with the fact that graduation is waiting behind the corner?

LG: Life for PhD students has become really tough, there are so many requirements now, like courses and publications. I think that the best way forward is to think about what areas of science communication you enjoy doing, but also what benefits you. There is a huge variety of things one can do, for example talks, articles, videos, activities with schools. There is definitely something for everybody. Find something that you can do in the time you have, that you find rewarding, and that helps your communication skills. Science communication experience is very good for your CV and it really teaches you to “sell your research”. The public will ask you why what you are doing is important, and they will help you frame the answer to that question! And having a team is definitely a good thing, since a team can share ideas, come up with plans and strategies, and share tasks.

Now one question about solar physics: do you think we will ever be able to “look inside the Sun” or, in other words, do you think we will understand completely how our star works and solve the mysteries of solar physics?

LG: I have great hope for what we will learn from helioseismology. Helioseismology is the way that we can “see inside the Sun”, looking at motions on the surface of the Sun caused by sound waves that come from the inner layers of the Sun and transport information from the inside to the surface. I think that helioseismology is one of the most important areas in solar physics, because what happens inside the Sun is key for the magnetic cycle (the 11-year sunspot cycle) that drives solar magnetic activity. The Sun has different layers: an inner core (where sunlight is born), a radiative zone (where energy is transported by moving photons), and a convective zone (where energy is transported by convection). Between the radiative zone and the convective zone there are flows that are responsible for evolving the magnetic field inside the Sun, where magnetic fields are amplified and then manage to rise up and burst through the solar surface. My area of research is to understand solar eruptions, which are formed in these regions of emerged magnetic field.

One last question: if you got to choose, what would you pick between writing a book, hosting a BBC show, giving a public lecture, getting involved in Art&Science projects, or doing research?

LG: This is a very difficult question! I really do love sitting and looking at data to analyse, but then I also like to show people what I find. Therefore, I would say that I can pick my top two: getting absorbed in data analysis and giving a public talk where I tell about what I found through my research.  

If you got intrigued by this interview and want to know more about Lucie Green’s research and see how enthusiastic she is when giving a public talk, check out her recent lecture held at the Royal Institution in London, UK.