“An unnatural interest in astronomy”

Don Pollacco, a research astronomer at Queens University Belfast, came to Armagh Planetarium to give a fascinating talk on exoplanets in January 2011. Afterwards Dr Pollaco kindly chatted to me about his experiences.

CJ: Thanks for a really interesting talk. So why did you get into astronomy?

DP: I was always obsessed. At the age of seven I had to do a school project on stars and I had a Ladybird book on the night sky. I rewrote all 88 pages of it! On my next school report the teacher wrote that I had “an unnatural interest in astronomy”. I’ve never forgotten that!

CJ:So after that was it a smooth course to where you are now?

DP: Not really. I dropped out of University College London and worked in a plastics factory. But I went on to study at St. Andrews. It wasn’t easy, I had no money and fixed cars to get by. But then I went on to Liverpool and spent from 1995 to 2000 at the Liverpool Telescope at La Palma. In June 2000 I arrived at Queens to work on variable stars. But I became obssessed with exoplanets.

CJ: This was the beginning of SuperWASP?

DP: Yes, it’s a fantastic project. SuperWASP has set records. It’s found the biggest exoplanets and WASP-12b with an atmosphere of funny elements. WASP has won awards. This is high impact research but WASP’s biggest legacy is creating an exoplanet community in the UK, our students are being snapped up by the US.

CJ: You talked about using the Drake Equation to estimate how common alien civilisations are. Has your research help make that more accurate?

DP: We’re still in “discovery mode” but we’re exploring the parameters. How many stars have planets, how many planets per star , that kind of thing.

CJ: Thanks for taking the time to chat with me.

DP: No problem. Every scientist who is publically funded has a duty to talk about their research.