Simon Steel received his Ph.D. in astrophysics from UCD, studying the star formation histories of blue compact dwarf galaxies. He is currently Deputy Director of the Carl Sagan Center for Research at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute located in Mountain View, California, and heads the Institute’s education and public engagement programmes. Originally from London and a lifelong supporter of Tottenham Hotspur FC, Simon came to Ireland in 1991 and divided his work life between Belfield and the Canary Islands, and spent leisure time in Marlay Park with his two Dublin-born children, Conor and Aisling.
1. What made UCD stand out as the place you wanted to pursue your studies?
I came to UCD rather fortuitously, having started my graduate studies in the United States (at Brandeis University in Boston). My wife’s research lab moved from Boston to Trinity College Dublin, so I got in contact with the physics department at UCD. Brian McBreen’s Optical and Infrared Astronomy lab was studying quasars – my favourite astronomical objects. Brian and everyone in the department was wonderful in helping me transfer to Dublin, and I have never regretted the relocation. What was special about UCD was having the environment of a small, dynamic research group with the resources of broader connections to the UK and Europe. Best of both worlds!
2. What was your UCD experience like?
Arriving at a university as a grad student is a very different experience than as an undergrad. No classes for me, but I did teach some introductory physics labs and ultimately some physics courses. As a newcomer to Ireland I remember struggling with the pronunciation of names and got plenty of stick for that! I joined the rowing club and experienced some very cold but exhilarating mornings on the Liffey. Those early starts (at least, those spent on the river) ended when our son Conor came into the world!
3. If you could give your younger self one piece of advice when you began studying at UCD, what would it be?
Don’t worry – the weather will improve. It didn’t of course (in Ireland at least), but I would tell myself to just enjoy the experience of studying. Dive into your work and it will all fall into place. PhDs, especially experimental ones, have a lot of inherent uncertainty. In astronomy you are reliant on many things that are out of your control, not least of all the weather. This takes me back to my first piece of advice, during my first research observations in the Canary Islands, we had enough clear nights to obtain a Ph.D.’s worth of data!
4. How has your degree benefited your career?
Although my degree is in observational astrophysics, my career path has taken me into science education and communication, which is really just an excuse to talk about the wonders of the universe! Teaching several courses at UCD led to teaching appointments at Harvard University, University College London, and ultimately the SETI Institute as head of education and outreach. I was also privileged to be invited back to Ireland in 2005 to be the Tyndall Lecturer for Schools, giving a set of talks around Ireland on how Einstein’s ideas have shaped our understanding of the universe. The most daunting engagement was an audience of about 800 schoolkids in Cork!
5. Have you always wanted to be an astronomer?
There was stiff competition early on between dinosaurs and black holes, but black holes won. The 1970s were an incredible time of space exploration. We had the moon landings of course, but more amazing were the Voyager missions to the outer solar system. I was hooked. I do confess that I blew a school prize book token (I think the heady sum of £3) on two “non-fiction” UFO books. Perhaps an early sign that the world of SETI was in my future.
6. How has your career impacted the way in which you see the world or indeed the universe?
There are many ways to answer this! Studying the universe gives you a new perspective on humanity, life and the Earth. The Universe is beautiful, but it’s also quite deadly to the organisms (such as humans) who are protected by the cocoon of their home world. Exploration is a natural instinct and space exploration is the most amazing endeavour, showing humanity at its most creative, but it makes you realise that there is no planet B, nowhere else in the galaxy for humans to go if we irrevocably damage our Earth. Mars may look good in the movies, but it makes the harshest desert on Earth look like a lush paradise. There are many crises facing us as a species (and by extension, all the other species we touch), but one looms large over pandemics and war and that’s climate change.
7. What have been the most challenging aspects of your career?
Balancing my life goals with my work goals. I have made many international moves that have mainly been driven by family commitment rather than career progression, and that has meant “reinventing” myself in a work sense several times, which has been a challenge and sometimes frustrating. However, I have no regrets, and it has been an amazing journey that has allowed me to call many cities (including Dublin) home!
8. Does the vastness of the universe ever overwhelm you?
It certainly should! But weirdly, the more I discover about the universe, the less overwhelming it becomes. We can think of ourselves as an insignificant speck in the vastness of it all, or we can think of ourselves as a beautiful manifestation of a rich and ever-changing cosmos. And I don’t just mean humans, I mean the whole diversity of life on an amazing planet orbiting an amazing star. I think we get overwhelmed when we try to divorce humanity from our environment. This all sounds very Carl Sagan-y, but his quote “we are made of starstuff” is profound. This is our Universe, and we should feel proud to be a part of it.
9. You work at the Carl Sagan Center for Research. Was Sagan a personal inspiration to you?
He was indeed a personal inspiration, and that’s probably true for any astronomer around my age. The TV series Cosmos was game-changing in how it made the universe comprehensible, and the search for alien life scientifically respectable. He also managed to convey the beauty of the universe in an artistic as well as a scientific sense. I never met Sagan in person alas, although I do now work with several of his former colleagues and students.
10. What is life outside work like? Do you get to enjoy the California lifestyle?
I certainly like the weather! Silicon Valley itself is a bit suburban, but a short drive takes you into the Santa Cruz mountains with dozens of hiking trails, and the incredible California coastal highway for the views of the Pacific Ocean. San Francisco is an amazing city with art galleries and many music venues as well as the nerve-wracking hills that are terrifying to drive up, especially when you drive a manual transmission car as I do! There are also the hummingbirds, whose beauty and aerobatic grace (although they always seem to be fairly grumpy) kept me sane during the pandemic. California is a long way from home though, and decent pubs and sources of Cadbury’s chocolate are few and far between.
11. What is your favourite film or book about space? Or more precisely – which movie do you think represents the magic of space the best? AND/OR Which sci-fi movie is the truest to science?
Contact, starring Jodie Foster is, of course, a favourite, as it is based on the real work of the SETI Institute, with Foster’s character based on a real Institute scientist, Jill Tarter. The original book was of course written by Carl Sagan. Then there’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is still visually incredible but needs to be watched on a BIG screen. 2001 gets you as close as a movie can to the vastness and mystery of outer space. And HAL is still the best screen rendition (if not the best role model) of artificial intelligence. For books, choosing one is impossible. I love sweeping space operas, so pick up Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky, which is an interesting spin (pun intended) on first contact.
12. Finally – could you share three cool facts about the Universe?
- Every star in the night sky has its own planetary system, in other words, there are hundreds of billions of planets in our Milky Way galaxy. It also means there could be literally millions of Earth-like planets capable of supporting life.
- If an alien civilisation not much more advanced than us sent a message to Earth from the other side of the galaxy, we could detect it. And we are looking!
- Ours is the first generation of humanity that can see all the universe that can be seen. The universe is simply not old enough to let us see any further!