Nick Howes, known in social media circles as “Nick Astronomer,” is an astronomy consultant, science writer, visiting lecturer, research associate, and Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, as well as a former professional musician. I met with him recently at Spacefest V in Tucson, Arizona, where he was a featured guest speaker and panelist.
Among his many notable achievements, Howes was a member of the team that set a Guinness World Record in 2009 by creating the largest-ever ground based mosaic image of the Moon. It was Nick himself who came up with the original plan for the record attempt.
Q. Tell me about what you do for a living. What is your job title?
A. My official day job is that I test software for the government in the United Kingdom. But, by night, as I say, I get my red cape on and the ‘S’ shirt (smiles). The key things I do are, I work with a group called the Square Kilometre Array, which is one of the largest telescope projects on the planet at the moment – it’s just been kind of ratified and approved.
They’re building 3,200 radio telescopes in South Africa and Australia and I’m working on the science communication side for them. Prior to that, I was two years with the European Space Agency as a science and communications writer for them, and I worked on the Mars Express spacecraft and the Herschel spacecraft and various other things for them.
Principally what I had to do was research great science papers and disseminate that into something that the public could understand. So, those are a few of the things I do. I also work as a research associate at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, looking for deep space objects and Kuiper belt objects – what they are is kind of remnants of the formation of the solar system.
I also work for a group called the Faulkes Telescope that was set up by a British entrepreneur by the name of Dill Faulkes about 10 years ago. What he did was, he basically decided that education in the United Kingdom for science was a real problem. In schools, lots of young people, schoolchildren, were being put off science by either the complexity of it or the boredom factor.
He looked at what drove excitement in science and astronomy and he basically put down £10 million, or about $16-18 million, and said, “I want to build some big telescopes.” So, we now have two Hubble Space Telescope-sized telescopes – these are two meters, huge instruments – one in Hawaii on an island called Haleakalā, and another one at the Anglo-Australian Observatory in Siding Spring. The idea of that is that we have one in the Northern Hemisphere and one in the Southern Hemisphere. And these are completely free for schools in the United Kingdom and across Europe and in Hawaii to use.
It’s great to see the kids faces, the inspiration, when they’ve taken an image that’s as good as – it’s not quite the same level of quality as the Hubble, but these are the same kind of caliber of images as Hubble images. It’s just amazing. I manage what’s called the Pro-Am collaboration side. I’m looking for ways of engaging professional astronomers with students and young people and trying to basically show them how fun science can be as a career option. Looking at it from, okay, astronomy is really exciting, a lot of kids like that, but how can we show them that the science side of that is not daunting, it’s not scary, and it’s something that’s fun.
Q. You talked about your day job and then you talked about all the other things you do. Is that because you need the day job to pay the bills?
A. The day job pays the mortgage.
Q. So, for scientists and astronomers and people in that line of work, is it hard to make a living doing the things you really like to do?
A. I studied astrophysics 22 years ago at university, and, after that, my other passion in life is music – music and astronomy were the two things – like Geoff Notkin, for example, of Aerolite and Meteorite Men fame – they were the two things. After my astrophysics degree, I was offered a gig working with a pop group called Ultravox. They were huge – they played Live Aid and enormous festivals – and I did that for three years. It was extremely well paid and a very nice gig.
When I came back from that, I still had all the astrophysics knowledge, and then I was approached by Yamaha Research and Development. They were working on quite complex mathematical models of musical instruments and they said, “Well, you understand the music side and you understand the physics side, so would you like to come work for us?” That was a 16-year career at Yamaha designing musical instruments and testing. It was great. It was really good fun. Then, about two years ago, due to the economic situation, they shut the whole division down, and it was nice, because it gave me more time to do astronomy, working much closer to where I live. Now I live near Stonehenge in the U.K, so way out from London, and my job is only five minutes away from work, which is nice, and I’m testing software for the government. My boss is passionate about astronomy as well, so she kind of encourages me to do other things as well and that’s why I’m here at Spacefest.
But, my biggest regret – I would say, to any young person, if you’re going to do it – is follow your heart. You’ve really got to. My problem was my heart was split in two directions – it was music and astronomy. If I’d have carried on in astronomy, I’d have been working as a research astronomer now. With salaries, they’re probably not as high as in other fields. Now, if you want to earn a ton of money, then being a lawyer or whatever is great. But if you’ve got a passion for space and astronomy, don’t do what I did. I had a load of fun and I did something I was very passionate about in the music industry as well, but astronomy was something that kept pulling me back. Now, I’m 43 years old. I’ve still got a huge passion for astronomy and it’s now turning more and more into a career. So, the two lesions are, if you want to do it, do it initially. Do it from the outset. But, also, if you don’t do it from the outset, don’t think you can’t get into it again. There’s always a route. If you’ve got heart and passion, you can get into any field.
Q. Following up a little bit on the topic of education, you mentioned that kids are often bored with science in school and that’s a big problem in the U.S. as well. What would you say needs to be fixed?
A. NASA cutting their EPO [Education and Public Outreach] budget was, quite possibly, one of the most catastrophic news items I saw this year. To cut the budget where it’s focused on the education and the inspiration for the next generation – I mean, we’re here at Spacefest, surrounded by Apollo astronauts. That was my inspiration. The reason I love space is that, when I was three years old, I was banging on the TV – a black and white TV – for Apollo 17. I watched the Viking landers, I watched Voyager, the Giotto missions, all of that. That’s what inspired me. It was amazing. For people slightly older than me, Apollo was just a huge thing and you only have to look at the amount of science graduates and people that were inspired by that.
What we’ve got now is a difficult time. The Mars lander last year, Curiosity, was amazing and it created such a spark of passion and enthusiasm, and the guy who put the thing on Mars, Adam Steltzner – his story, if you want a great story in life – he kind of turned himself into a bit of a bad character, really, and he woke up one morning, saw the stars overhead, and just transformed his life, at a later stage in his life. There’s a quote on his website, or somewhere I’ve seen, that his father said to him, “Oh, you’re only good enough to dig ditches,” and now his response is, “Yeah, dad, I’m doing it on Mars.”
If you’ve got support from your family, if you’ve to support from your teachers, great. But, what can be done to fix it? Passion. Passion from the outreach community, passion in yourself. Never let anybody tell you that you can’t do something. My physics teacher at school said, “You’ll never be an astronomer. You’ll never do anything in astronomy.” And, you know, I’m now working with NASA, with the European Space Agency, with Square Kilometre Array. I’m a speaker at Spacefest, So, don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do something.
Q. Did those negative comments from your teacher drive you to succeed?
A. Hugely, hugely. Sometimes it’s reverse psychology – sometimes teachers do it for that reason. But, for good or bad reason, it’s bad, because you don’t want to be put off. And girls in particular. I’ve got two young daughters – I’ve got a two-year-old and a seven-year-old – and I’m incredibly passionate about getting girls involved in science. My daughter came home from school and said, “Oh, I can’t be a scientist, can I? I can only study biology,” and I pointed to people like Carolyn Porco and Jani Radebaugh and the people that are here – just amazing women in science.
Nick Howes is a freelance writer. He is now working with several different organizations. His articles/images have been published on many high authority sites including NASA. If you search his name in Google, you are going to find numerous articles where he is mentioned in some way. You will find hundreds of articles in which the author has included images of stars, comets, solar systems, etc. that Nick Howes took. There is an abundance of online articles that use his astronomy citations. He has worked with European Space Agency (ESA) and he was the deputy director at Kielder Observatory. We also worked at The Liverpool Telescope. Some of his skills are comet & meteorites observation/research, photometry, and solar system & space exploration.
Nick studied astrophysics in University. Music and astronomy are the two things Nick is most passionate about. After he got his degree in astrophysics, he worked with a music band called Ultravox. This band was hugely successful in the 70’s and 80’s. He worked with the band for 3 years; he was making good money from this work. His second job was a mix of music and astronomy, a job he loved. Research & Development department of Yamaha corp. offered him this job. He was designing, testing, and doing research on musical instruments for them. Nick spent more than fifteen years doing this job; he stayed with them for a long time, may be because his job involved the two things he loves the most. He didn’t leave this job; financial issues forced Yamaha corp. to shut down the research department where Nick was working too. If this company was still operating, then perhaps Nick would still be working there.
Nick talked about his passion for music and astronomy, and he wish he could do work in both fields. He encourages young people to do what they love; he said that you can always change your career paths. If you ever get an opportunity to do what you are passionate about, you should take it. Astronomy is not a career too many Americans choose even though lots of them have a passion for it. One of the reasons for this is that astronomers make less money compared to lawyers, doctors, and other popular careers. There is also a lack of motivational programs about astronomy for kids. The younger generation is losing interest in space exploration and this is what Nick finds disheartening. He wants everybody to follow his or her dreams and never give up. Don’t listen to the negative remarks anyone makes about your career decision. Do what you love!