Dutch profiles: Govert Schilling

Govert Schilling (© Flickr/Partij van der Arbeid)

Govert Schilling is a familiar name on Dutch talk shows and best-selling books about astronomy. He has written dozens of books on space and the stars and has received several awards for popularising these subjects. There are a lot of science writers in the world, but few can boast that their work has warranted naming a heavenly body after them: the asteroid “10986 Govert” was named after the guest in this radio programme.

Presenter: Anne Blair Gould

Broadcast: November 25, 2005


ABG: This evening I have come to a wonderful place, called Amersfoort. It’s in the middle of the Netherlands and I am sitting on the roof. Why am I sitting on the roof? We’re gonna talk about stars, we’re going to talk about the heavens because I am with Govert Schilling, who is a very well-known astronomy. I was going to say, astronomical journalist, but that would make you sound enormous, if you’d say that. How would you describe yourself?

I would say I am a science journalist or a science writer. What I do for a living is writing stories, writing books and they are all about science, but in fact I am just doing the science which is beyond earth, so I am doing astronomy and space science, so you could say astronomy writer or astronomy journalist.

ABG: There have…this is what we want to hear about. How did you come to be so specialised and how did it all begin and when did the heavens start calling to you?

Oh wow. Well, actually a lot of people think that I have a university degree in astronomy, which I haven’t, I did something like mechanical engineering a long time ago, but astronomy became really a passion of my life, it was a hobby. I was 15 years old and I started to look at the sky and look at the stars and the planets and the moon and I got so captivated by it and the other thing was that I always have loved to write from a very young age on, I did stories, I did comic strips, I did poems, whatever. So the two things just naturally came together, my fondness of writing and my passion for everything in the sky and beyond earth, so that’s how it all started.

ABG: You said you started with, what, about 15 or 16, so this is we’re talking the end of the 60’s may be. Where were you living and how did,  and you know, did you find yourself lying on your back in the middle of the field, all the time, or how did that work?

No, this is a very funny story, I remember when I was just like 8 or 9 or 10 years old that I sometimes got a book from the library about  the universe which I was interested in, but not particularly, so this week it was the stars, another week it could be birds or dinosaurs or whatever. But then came this momentous day and I remember it as the day of yesterday, it was March 13 in 1972 and there was a public sky event in the place where I lived, which was a small place called Maarssen, close to Utrecht, and there were people living there, who had an amateur telescope in their backyard and they invited the population to come  along and to have a look through their telescope. So I was keen to do that. I remember that I was a little bit afraid, like oh My God, there will be a row of hundreds of people and I won’t have time enough to enjoy the view, but there were just a few other persons, so within 10 or 15 minutes, I got a chance to have a look through this really interesting-looking telescope, and I got my first telescopic view of the planet Saturn, and you know Saturn is the planet with rings around it right? I knew it from pictures, but here it was in reality, I was seeing the planet itself floating in space and this sent shivers down my spine. This was like lightning striking, I really knew this is it.

ABG: You were hooked.

I was hooked from the first moment on, absolutely. Yeah.

ABG: Fantastic. What happened then?

Well this person, who was just a couple of years older than I was, back then, I went back to him every week. I got a crash course in astronomy from him, so I asked him hundreds of questions. I got to the library, I borrowed books. I got a subscription to a magazine, I became a member of a Youth Association of Astronomy here in the Netherlands, I bought a second-hand telescope with money I borrowed from my father, I had to find a Saturday job in the local supermarket to pay him back. Every clear night I was outside with my telescope looking at craters on the moon, dark spots on Mars, at the satellites of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn. So it was really, yeah, a new passion.

ABG: You mentioned something there, which made me think, every clear night, and now we’re sitting here in the Netherlands, which isn’t renowned for many clear nights throughout the year and yet, as we’ve said before, when we’ve met on previous occasions, the Netherlands churns out an awful lot and has over the centuries, people are interested in the skies above, so you know how do you bring those two together, the fact that you don’t have so many clear nights.

It’s funny isn’t it, there was this American astronomer Harlow Shapley, who once said, the Dutch have three articles of export: it’s tulips, wooden shoes and astronomers. And it’s sort of right because we produced a lot of very world-known astronomers and I have this bad theory of mine that it’s just because of the weather. Because if you live in a place, where you can see the sky every night, it becomes so, so normal, so you get used to it and it’s not very special anymore. But if it just opens up a few nights per year, well maybe, you got more interested by it. You know the only part in the world, we’re relative to the amount of people living there, where there is a larger number of amateur astronomers in Scotland. But the weather is worse in Scotland than it is in the Netherlands and so there seems to be some relation, more clouds means more astronomers. Well they’re curious people obviously.

ABG: Because just let’s name a few men, that ought to belt out there somewhere, there’s all these meteorites and bits of stone now whirling around somewhere, sorry not very technical terms and other, other Dutch….

Gerard Kuiper, Bart Bok, Kees de Jager, very famous people all over the world, and well I think Jan Oort is one of the largest names in astronomy of the 20th century. He did a lot of interesting things on comets, on the solar system on the dark matter in the universe, on cosmology, hardly any topic in Astronomy that he didn’t touch upon.

ABG: And Huygens of course…

And of course Christiaan Huygens. Now the funny thing is, we have produced so many great astronomers in our small country, Huygens maybe one of the largest in all the history of science in the Netherlands and hardly anyone in the Netherlands knows about him. They know his father Constantijn Huygens, who was a statesman and a writer, but not many people know Christiaan Huygens. Not many people do know that the telescope was a Dutch invention. It was used on the sky by an Italian astronomer for the first time, by Galileo, but it was invented by Dutch spectacle manufacturers in Zeeland. So, we’ve produced quite a number of interesting things in Astronomy. Yeah.

ABG: Despite the cloudy skies. Anyway, so meanwhile back in the 15 year old faith, what was going on, because we’re talking about speaking, I guess beginning of the 70’s, what was going on, what do we know and what do we not know of that time? What were the big discoveries that we were having at the time?

It was actually an interesting time, obviously a lot of interesting astronomy back then, was due to the fact that a couple of years earlier, the Americans had put the first man on the moon in 1969, so I’d seen that on television, I had read about it in the papers and so there was a big interest in astronomy in general, but also in the course of the 60’s there were a number of very exciting discoveries. First of all there was this discovery in – this maybe a bit technical – but there was the  discovery of what they’re calling the cosmic background variation, which you cannot see, but measure of its sensitive equipment, it is really the leftover of the big bang. So in the mid 1960’s people got their first clue that the universe really started with a big explosion billions of years ago. Then also in the 1960’s there was the discovery of quasars, and of pulsars, very weird astronomical objects that have nothing to do with the things we know in daily life, but these are the things that make astronomy so exciting. So this was really a time in which space research, using space probes to visit the moon and the other planets. It was just coming off and using big observatories in space, satellites  that could see other wavelengths, so a completely new future being opened up, so it was really an exiting time for astronomy back then too. Then there’s another thing, which I always like to think about is, that the environmental idea, trying to save the planet, see how fragile it is, really started off around the late 60’s and the early 70’s, and this was the time that we first had our outside view of our planet. Only with astronauts circling the planet, going to the moon, seeing this tiny blue marble in the blackness of space with a very, very thin atmosphere around it, very, very fragile and, I think this is helped people to see and to realise how vulnerable our own home planet is.

ABG: Yes, so a lot was happening, but you know space science if you like has, has really, really diversified so much in the time that you’ve been studying. Give me a sort of whistle stop tour of some of the high points if you like, of what’s happened in that time.

Oooh, ooh, maybe that’s my personal high points, I think there’s two basic developments which are very important and I like them very much, they’re really interesting to me. One is the discovery of our own solar system. Back in the early 70’s, there have some flybys of Venus and Mars and two space probes had just been launched to the outer planets, which we didn’t know any better than by looking through a telescope, there’s been cameras and measuring devices circling around Jupiter and Saturn, they can close up photographs of the satellites of the clouds of the rings we’ve really made a new era of discovery, it was like a couple of centuries ago that we discovered new continents and countries here on our own home planet and now we’re doing the same with the solar system and it’s, it’s at least as impressive and spectacular as it was back then. So that’s one thing close to home, which we can easily relate to because it’s planets like our own in the sands and you can see them and you have photographs. But the other thing is quite the opposite and that’s the discovery of the history of the universe. As I said in the mid-1960’s the idea of the big bang, became a little bit more serious because this discovery of the background radiation. But no one had any clue how long ago this had happened, could have been 8 billion years or 25 billion years. No one knew it. Not much was known about development of galaxies, the formation and the evolution of our own systems, like our own Milky Way and with all the space probes and space telescopes orbits between the earth, the Hubble space telescope programme, is one of them of course. We’ve learned so much about the history of the universe that it’s really like we can write up the biography of our own cosmos and this has become sort of a precision science where all kinds of measurements on the sky together with computer simulations, together with a lot of thinking by very bright theorists, gives us this picture of what the universe is made of and how it came into existence and how it has evolved ever since.

ABG: Take us back to the beginning of the 90’s right when Hubble went up shall we say. I mean just remind us what Hubble actually is and why it was so fantastic and new and then what it has taught us.

Well, the idea for a telescope in orbit around the earth dates from the early 1960’s, I believe. Then people realised if we have space craft, if we can fly in orbit around the earth, then we shall put up a telescope there, because then you can have no clouds, no turbulence in the atmosphere, no lights from the surroundings hampering you. 24 hours per night, you can watch the stars, but obviously it is very hard to build a space telescope to launch, so it took most of the 70’s and the 80’s to work out the idea and only in the early 90’s, as you said, Hubble was launched. By the way, it is named after the famous American astronomer Edwin Hubble, and Edwin Hubble was the person who discovered the expansion of the universe, the fact that all the galaxies are moving away from each other. Now the main task of the Hubble space telescope was to measure very precisely measure this expansion and to learn more about the expansion history of the universe. So the main goal of Hubble was to find out more about cosmology, about the universe as a whole. So, here’s the funny thing: when Hubble was launched, it was the most expensive scientific instrument ever built in human history – 2 billion dollars back then – extremely expensive and a lot of astronomers, they said it’s a waste of money, because cosmologists are the only people who are interested in this space telescope, because it will study the big bang and the evolution of the universe and we are studying stars or galaxies or planets, so where are we? Why do the others get so much money. But as it turns out Hubble has revolutionised the whole of astronomy, planetary science, stellar astrophysics, galactic studies, Interstellar Matters, everything, there’s no single topic in astronomy that has not been touched and revolutionised by the Hubble space telescope, so it’s really the biggest success story of 20th Century astronomy.

ABG: It’s sadly sort of coming up to its cell bite days, so it’s now 2005, so it has been going on for 15 years – 16 years something like that.

Now, everybody hopes that its lifetime will be extended to 20 years, so to 2010 or something like that, and there might be a slight chance, because when the space shuttle is flying again this summer, the new Chief of NASA has announced that he will reconsider the future of Hubble, so maybe there will be a final service in mission, new cameras, new equipment and Hubble can produce beautiful results for another 5 years or so.

ABG: Hubble of course is a Telescope and it has brought us a lot, but in the meantime we’ve got something very different up there, the International Space Station, now, is it finished yet or are there still bits going to be build.

Oh no, it’s not finished and I am not so sure, if it will ever be finished, because the International Space Station has to be built by pieces of material that has to be carried up by the space shuttle, so after the Columbia accident in February 2003, the shuttle programme was down for almost 2 1/2 years and there was no progress in the construction of this space station. And now they have to finish it with another 28 shuttle missions, and it all has to be completed before the year 2010, because that’s when the space shuttle is going to be phased out and I am not so sure that it will manage to do that because it is such a big task. So already the space station is over budget and overtime, and right now it’s just 3 astronauts working there instead of the planned 8 astronauts. And the idea has always been to do scientific research on board of the international space station and not very much of this comes out of it and with new budget cuts, research facilities are going to be cancelled. So in the end, this may be the biggest mistake in space flight actually.

ABG: Yeah, as far as I remember, you have quite strong opinions on manned flights and unmanned flights, so maybe we can just talk of about sort of, you know, uh, what should be manned and why maybe unmanned is the way to go.

Well you know, it depends on what you want, space flight is being paid by the taxpayer. So governments have to explain, why they do it and it’s very expensive. Now the reason for space flights to occur has always been, this is the story that all governments have always been telling their taxpayers, is scientific research. So you have to question yourself is a manned space mission the best way to do science? Well obviously when you want to do geology on the moon, it is great to have a geologist walking around there, so that’s really nice. But it’s at least ten times more expensive than sending an unmanned space probe to it and maybe you should say, well, do we really need to spend 10 times as much money for 10 percent more science?

ABG: Well, why is it, well, not very obvious, things you have to build more onto your rocket for life support systems and things, I suppose.

Life support systems is just the volume that the human being takes up, you can not miniaturise things when there’s people on board. You have to have food, atmosphere, oxygen, water, you have to get back, very important, you can not leave the astronauts on the moon or on Mars, they have to get back. So you have to have fuel, everything has too be much, much more safe than with an unmanned flight, so in the end it’s incredibly expensive. There have been a number of ideas for a future manned flight to the planet Mars and well right now, people think it will be a project of about 100 billion US dollars and it’s so incredibly expensive,. So I really think is this necessary for our scientific understanding of the planet or should we build more intelligent, and smaller unmanned probes and rovers, give them some virtual reality and the geologist can sit on earth and put on his virtual reality goggles and his funny gloves and he can drive on Mars and do his field work from a laboratory here on earth, I think, that’s the way to proceed.

ABG: Mentioning expense, of course, which you know everybody, whether you’re astronomers or broadcasters or whatever have to think about, what about expense, because space exploration and research is very expensive and you know what I’m gonna ask before I’ve even asked it, of course you must have been asked this a hundred million times, you know, all about the poor people in Africa? What about the poor people in the developing countries, who with a little bit of money will go a long way, why are we doing this, how do you answer that?

I’ll tell you this, astronomy is one of the basic sciences we’re not doing this science to have better cars or better standards of living tomorrow. It’s just doing science to know more about the universe we’re living in, so it’s a rightful question You can ask, why spend money on this kind of research, when there’s so much poverty in the world, but I think if the western societies would never have done any investment in basic science, we would probably not even know that there’s poverty in the world, and we would certainly not be able to fight it. So without doing basic research and basic science you cannot solve the problems here on our own planet. So it’s not like we’re doing science instead of, it’s we’re doing science to support the evolution of a culture and a society, that is willing and able to help make our own planet a better place.

ABG: Now, I just have to say that as we’re sitting here, you can hear the swifts in the background going over, the sun is going down and hopefully we might get to see a star or two as the light fades, although we are in the middle of the town and that’s always such a problem, isn’t it?

At least there’s the moon….

ABG: Oh I’m turning round and in fact there’s half a moon…

Half a moon…

ABG: Yes, always sharing the same face towards us, right, so we live in hope, because then of course for so many people live in towns these days, that is a gigantic problem, there is so much light pollution that it is very difficult now to see sometimes, what’s going on up there.

Yeah, and I think that’s really a pity because at least to me personally, being able to have this relationship with the sky and to know you’re on this small planet circling this average run-of-the-mill star that we call our sun in the outskirts of one of the billions of galaxies in the universe, it gives me a nice feeling of being part of this big wondrous universe and if you do not see the universe that you’re part of, I think you miss something. I think everybody should know more about our place in the cosmos and maybe it could help us to take a little bit distance from our daily routine and our daily problems and to relativise everything that’s happening here on earth.

ABG: Yeah, and I think, also not just spaciously, but temporarily as well, because I sometimes think, it is lovely to look up at the sky and think well you know for thousands of years all over the planet people have looked up the skies, the Phoenicians and the Egyptians and the Chinese, you know, and it’s the same old stars more or less up there and we’re seeing it with the same eyes, but you know, it’s fascinating.

It is fascinating because for instance, when you look at the Big Dipper or the Plough, as they call it in England, it looks the same to us as it did to the ancient Chinese and the Greeks. But the constellations are changing very slowly and our human civilisation is so very brief in cosmic terms, that it is just like this and you have to go back for hundreds of thousands of years to see any noticeable change in the heavens and this just reminds you of the insignificant place we occupy in space and in time. People very often ask me, doesn’t it frighten you to know that you’re so insignificant in this vast cosmos and it is just the other way around I feel great about it, it’s just like being part of this vast wonder and knowing more about the evolution of the universe. How the elements, like oxygen and carbon came into existence, how the stars formed, how our solar system came into being, this gives me the idea that we’re really as astronomers have said for many years, we’re really made of star stuff, the atoms in our body have been produced another stars. We’re part of the great cosmic recycling process and we’re here because of this natural evolution of the universe. And I feel, well I feel very happy to be part of that and to know more about it.

ABG: Let’s go back to a little bit of more hard science and another passion of yours within astronomy and that’s exoplanets as I’d like to call them or what you call them, outside the sun or extra solar planets.

Exoplanet is a very good label, everybody is using that, people have been thinking about other, solar systems, planets circling other stars for ages, ever since the time of the ancient Greeks, people have been thinking about the possibility of other solar systems, and now since 1995 we’ve found them for the first time. We know that the solar system is not unique, we’ve found planets like Jupiter and Saturn circling all the stars. The biggest, the largest ones are the easiest to find, so those are the ones you find first. But we’re confident that there must be smaller planets too, planets like earth, planets with oceans, with mountains, with glaciers, with rainbows, everything and then maybe planets with life, who knows? That’s the exciting thing of this, when we know that planets are so common in the universe, that we’re not unique, then it becomes very, very hard to believe that this planet earth is the only living planet in the universe. So basically what astronomers are after is the question, is there life beyond earth? And this might be a question that we have the answer to within 20 years or so. Think about it, when you look up and you see these stars, they’re tens of light years away and then the planet circling one of these stars doesn’t produce its own light, it’s reflecting the light from the star, a very tiny amount, you cannot see it , and it’s so fantastic that people have been able to deduce the existence of a planet from the small wobble of the star. You see the star moving to and fro and this is, because the gravitational tug of the planet, that’s circling around it and that’s how these things are being discovered. But there’s no question about it, that they really exist, and the new space telescopes that will be able to image these planets and to make measurements of their atmospheres and their composition, they’re on the drawing boards. They will be built within 15 years or so. So it’s really something that we will find out about.

ABG: As you say, that the exciting thing is of course, we want to find out whether we’re alone or whether there are ET’s out there or whatever. We want to know whether there is life elsewhere. What do you think?

It’s hard to say, but let me put it this way, we know there are billions of stars out there, at least 5 percent of these stars have planets circling around them, we’ve found those planets, so there are billions of planets out there. There must be a large number of earth-like planets, no doubt about it, what has happened here, will have happened some place else too. Now the big question of course is, what about life, well, we don’t know how life formed here on earth, nobody was there to witness it. But we know that the building box of life like organic molecules and hydrocarbons and even, amino acids, they’re all around there in outer space. So most likely the process of the origin of life, that happened here on earth, must have occurred on many other places too, why would some natural process happen only in one place in a big and big and vast and vast universe? So it’s just like the universe is so extended both in space and in time that something that can happen will always happen more than once. So I am pretty much convinced that there is extraterrestrial life. Now the other question is, will it be like us, will it be intelligent beings, will it be scientists using radio telescopes? I am not so sure about that. Because when you look back at the evolution of life here on earth, we are just like nothing right. We have seen bacteria for a couple of billions of years, and then we’ve seen plants and simple animals for a few hundred million years and the things that we value so much, like consciousness and language and intelligence, it’s just something that came up, an eye blink ago and it will be gone within another eye blink, cosmetically speaking probably. So it is not so certain, that this will happen everywhere that we have life, so I think it is a little bit anthropocentric to think, that we can look for ET’s and for the aliens from science fiction movies. Most likely life on other worlds is so completely different from what we know that we may even have problems in recognising it. So think about it. We know of 9 planets in our own solar system and we now know about 150 planets circling other stars. It’s a big zoo out there and it’s an interesting zoo too, because there’s all crazy beasts among these planets, like Jupiter, like giant planets circling very close to their mother star, planets that are evaporating, because of the heat of the stars. It’s fascinating.

ABG: And there’s another thing, another change you must have also witnessed, like we all have, over the last 20 – 30 years, is of course the advent of computers, 30 years ago they occupied entire rooms, you know. Now, we know so much, because of computers and that has changed the face of your whole profession as well.

Very, very much so, because it’s not just that you need computers to send the space probe to Mars or to analyse the data from your observatory, but whole new fields of astronomy have come into existence because of the computer revolution. For instance when you want to discover very tiny changes that happen very infrequently among millions of stars you have to keep watch of all those stars constantly, now only, thanks to computer power this can be done. So robotic telescopes are watching the skies every clear night from desert observatories and all the measurements are being automatically analysed by big computer programmes and they sift out all the new discoveries and we’ve been finding new super Novi, variable stars, strange events that we never could have predicted 10 years ago thanks to these new ways of observing. But while we were talking, I was looking toward the moon, that we mentioned earlier, the half moon, and take a look there, just to the right of the moon, a little bit, do you see this tiny point of light there? A little bit further to the right.

ABG: Yeah, oh, yes, so what’s that…

Well it’s the planet Jupiter.

ABG: Really?

There, you’re having a look at the largest planet in our solar system, a giant that we have visited with spacecraft, that we know is like a lot of the extra solar planets that are circling all the stars and it’s just there for everyone to see.

ABG: Well, that’s fascinating, I mean, I would never have noticed it. But now I see it, I think how could I have missed that, because it is not light any more, but it is not quite dark, it is that sort of middle twilight, if you like.

Half an hour from now, it will be very conspicuous.

ABG: What I was going to ask you, was apart from astronomy, are there other things in your life, that are important? I know you have a family, you have children, you have your wife, you have three cats, but do you have time for sport or culture or music?

Well a couple of weeks ago, we saw “Live Aid” in Hyde Park and the old grand dads of Pink Floyd were playing together and that was an almost emotional moment for me. Pink Floyd is the band, that has shaped the musical part of my life for the past 25 or 30 years or so. So it was great to see them play together again, and it’s the best rock band there’s been ever.

ABG: Thank you very much Govert for talking to us.

OK, you’re welcome.